Spiritual bliss resides between hearth and Earth
High grass and wild bushes, surround a small and peaceful pond. Elan Shapiro, Ithaca College Environmental Studies lecturer and resident of Ecovillage at Ithaca, casually strolls through the brush that reaches past his upper thigh. There is no path. He walks until he reaches a small clearing by the water. Shapiro peels off his shoes and socks and empties his pockets. Fully clothed, he enters the pond up to his chest, collecting lotus pods for home decorations. By submerging himself into the peaceful pond, Shapiro said he created a spiritual relationship with the nature around him.
“Spirituality is reconnecting with the ways in which we are an integral part of the universe. And the most sane way to get connected to that is right where it is, right where we are,” said Shapiro.
The 175-acre Ecovillage is made up of three cohousing neighborhoods, an organic vegetable farm, an organic berry farm, office spaces for personal business and rentals, a neighborhood root cellar, community gardens and varied natural areas. The village is designed to combat standard housing waste such as heating, ventilating and air conditioning systems that account for 40 to 60 percent of total energy use in the commercial sector.
Ecovillage also embraces a sustainable community mindset. Village residents have the opportunity to share community dinners several times per week in the two Common Houses and volunteer about two to three hours per week on various work teams. There are community teams for cooking, dishes, outdoors, maintenance, finance, community life and more.
“A lot of spirituality is about attention. Just being attentive to what’s going on in the present and attentive to where you are and attentive to whom you are with. It is much easier to do that in a community that is devoted to living at harmony with the earth,” said Shapiro.
By making the commitment to live at Ecovillage one is supporting the Earth, which is seen as a type of spirituality. This honors the individuals’ ‘connectedness’ or wholeness, according to Shapiro. They even have different festivals and parties for the entire community, the most recent being their annual apple pressing party. This is another act Shapiro considered to be spiritually connecting with nature.
“You see through these seasonal celebrations we were talking about, you see through these cycles that sustain you. Whether it’s the apples that you are making the apple cider from . . . or the blackberries that you are making the pies from that make summer so special. When you become part of that repetitive process in celebrating it as a community you come back to that part of you that for so many years was a tribal animal living on the earth,” said Shapiro.
There is no official organized religion present in Ecovillage. Members of the village commonly participate in meditation, yoga and other spiritual practices. Any type of spirituality, whether involving the natural world or not, recognizes of something greater than oneself. There are no concrete parameters to define spirituality. Spirituality is different than organized religion in the sense that it is hyper personalized to the individual seeking this deeper connection.
“Spiritualities tell us who we are in relationship to the world around us and the proper way of living within it and as a member of it,” said Nancy Menning, Ithaca College Philosophy and Religious Studies professor.
Organized religions are often rejected because people, Menning said, especially in today’s society, do not want to be constrained or guided by a tradition they feel is out of sync with their own sense of the world. Society stresses the importance of having a unique identity and this coincides with people wanting individuality within the spiritual world.
“[People] who are religious, who go to church, what they are doing is to go there to connect with something larger than themselves and to reorient and structure their lives, the rest of the week, around that kind of focal experience.,” Menning said. “Somebody can go to nature religiously in that same mode. To go there with the intent of being transformed by it, to encounter something larger than them, that will then orient and structure the rest of their lives. Or you can go to nature with a chainsaw.”
Ecovillage at Ithaca, and other ecovillages around the world have developed an alternative model for suburban living. Ecovillage provides a sustainable community lifestyle, focusing on minimizing ecological impacts — choosing to embrace nature rather than “go at it with a chainsaw.”
“I don’t know if it is any more religious than some people who choose to live downtown because that manifests the type of way they see the world and what their ethical commitments are to it. That may also come out of spiritual groundings,” said Menning.
Shapiro did acknowledge the cost of living in Ecovillage. The residents are busy people who still must play a part in the global economy, keeping up with the fast-paced world. This struggle seems even more prominent within college life.
The Cornell University and Ithaca College Catholic Communities recently participated in a “Green Retreat” at a local organic dairy farm in Lansing, NY. The retreat’s goal is to create a balance among learning, service and individual reflection.
The farm’s owner, Andra Benson, taught the retreat participants about the milking process, even allowing the participants to feed the calves. They also helped to harvest vegetables for lunch and dinner.
Cornell student and retreat participant Cindy Marinaro felt the individual meditation was the most effective way she was able to spiritually connect with nature.
“Hopefully, the people on the retreat began to realize where their food comes from, how much work it takes to care for and harvest the food and how God intended for us to use the Earth for our purposes but to take care of it as well rather than not take advantage of it,” said Marinaro.
The retreat leaders invited everyone to tour the farm grounds and find God within nature. The idea is that one will let go of the stress, prevalent in college students’ lives especially, and focus entirely on nature.
Menning said we must recognize the seasons changing and the Earth turning. She suggests walking as a way to slow down from getting from one place to the next, hopefully allowing time for reflection and appreciation of the natural world.
“Religion offers hope somehow, not always naïvely. It offers hope out of real commitment and a willingness to believe that the universe is on our side in the long run,” said Menning.
Whether it is done spiritually or through a more organized form of religion, meditation is vital to self-discovery, personal growth and inner peace.
“By connecting with nature we can connect with God. By listening to nature and clearing your mind, it is easier to hear God and feel him in your heart,” said Marinaro.
Shapiro also stresses the importance of meditation, even suggesting students take time to sit quietly in a beautiful place like the pond by the chapel to meditate and eat lunch. By slowing down, one can connect to the natural system and local food system, reclaiming his or her wholeness.
“We are nature. We get diluted into thinking we are something separate,” said Shapiro. “So once we enter into the actual experience of nature, like immersing ourselves in a pond, it becomes a lot easier to feel connected to a larger purpose, a larger force, a larger energy. Something everyone craves at some level.”
EcoVillages of the World
Ecovillage at Ithaca is one of many ecovillages around the world focused on community and environmentally-conscious living.
According to its website, the Global Ecovillage Network is an organization that “offers inspiring examples of how people and communities can live healthy, cooperative, genuinely happy and meaningful lifestyles — beacons of hope that help in transition to a more sustainable future on Earth.”
GEN encourages sustainable settlements across the globe with website information sharing, networking forms and promotion of partner programs.
GEN’s focus on community building through sustainable mindsets incorporates many humanistic values as well. These values include relating to others, respecting differences and providing meaning to work. Whether these values are considered “spiritual” is up to the individual.
GEN members range from large networks like Sarvodaya, which includes 2,000 active sustainable villages in Sri Lanka, to smaller urban rejuvenation projects like Los Angeles Ecovillage. Other members include: the Federation of Damanhur in Italy; Nimbin in Australia; educational centers such as Findhorn in Scotland, Earthlands in Massachusetts and others.
Ecovillage at Ithaca is a part of this network and its promotional video, “Back to Basics,” is highlighted on the GEN website.
For more information visit: gen.ecovillage.org
Meagan McGinnes is a sophomore journalism major who lives with nature via the plastic plant in her dorm room. Email her at email@example.com.