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Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth: An Introduction to Spiritual Ecology

Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth: An Introduction to Spiritual Ecology

by John Michael Greer

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The authentic teachings of the mystery schools offer a profoundly different way of making sense of the universe and our place in it. In Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth, ecologist and Druid initiate John Michael Greer offers an introduction to the core teachings of the mysteries through the mirror of the natural world.

Using examples from nature


The authentic teachings of the mystery schools offer a profoundly different way of making sense of the universe and our place in it. In Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth, ecologist and Druid initiate John Michael Greer offers an introduction to the core teachings of the mysteries through the mirror of the natural world.

Using examples from nature as a touchstone, Greer takes readers on a
journey into the seven laws of the mystery traditions:

  • the Law of Wholeness
  • the Law of Flow
  • the Law of Balance
  • the Law of Limits
  • the Law of Cause and Effect
  • the Law of Planes
  • the Law of Evolution

Greer explains each law, offering meditation, an affirmation, and a theme for reflection, to show how the seven laws can bring meaning and power into our everyday lives.

Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth reveals one of the great secrets of the mysteries-that the laws of nature are also the laws of spirit.

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an introduction to spiritual ecology


Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC

Copyright © 2012 John Michael Greer
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60925-599-2



In the language of ecology, the core teachings of the mysteries can be summarized in the following seven laws or fundamental principles:

The Law of Wholeness
The Law of Flow
The Law of Balance
The Law of Limits
The Law of Cause and Effect
The Law of the Planes
The Law of Evolution

In the pages that follow, we will consider these laws one at a time, using examples from nature as our touchstone. Following each commentary is a meditation, an affirmation, and a theme for reflection, to help bring the seven laws of spiritual ecology from the plane of abstract ideas into the realm of everyday life, where they become keys to meaning, wholeness, and power.

The First Law: The Law of Wholeness

Walk out into a grassy meadow, and you will find yourself surrounded by many different living things. Grasses and herbs of many kinds raise their leaves to the sunlight. Here a cricket crouches on a stem; there a bee visits a flower; a sudden flurry of motion shakes the grass as a field mouse falls victim to a snake; in the air overhead, a hawk circles lazily. Take a trowel and dig into the soil, and you will find earthworms, centipedes, and many other creatures going about their lives. Take out a hand lens, and a new world of life opens and becomes visible, populated by countless living things too small for the naked eye to see; view a sample from any part of the meadow through a microscope, and another dimension of the meadow's life, full of strange and wondrous living things, opens out before your eyes.

Each of the creatures you encounter, large or small, experiences its world in much the same way that you experience yours: as a background to its own actions—a background containing some things that are desirable, others that are dangerous, and still others that mean nothing to it and to which it pays little attention. To the field mouse, the important parts of the meadow are a burrow in which to hide, trails along which to scurry, other mice with which to interact according to the customs of mousekind, seeds and other edible things to eat, and snakes and hawks to avoid. To the snake that eats the mouse, the meadow consists likewise of homes and routes, creatures of the same kind, and creatures of different kinds, all against a background pattern of many other things that are not of interest to snakes.

The science of ecology, however, teaches that there is a different way to observe the meadow, one that reveals patterns that cannot be seen from a mouse-centered or snake-centered view—or, for that matter, a view that focuses on any other single species, such as humanity. From this ecological perspective, the meadow is a whole system, and all the living and nonliving things that exist there are parts of that whole system rather than wholly independent existences. The ecologist sees sunlight falling on the leaves of plants and recognizes that part of the energy in that sunlight passes from leaves to seed, from seed to mouse, from mouse to snake, and from snake to hawk in a single process. Thus, the meadow is more than the sum of its parts; it is a unity with its own rules, relationships, and patterns that are distinct from those of the individual beings that are part of that unity.

The meadow is a whole system, and all the living and nonliving things that exist there are parts of that system rather than wholly independent existences.

To observe the meadow as a whole system is to realize that each living thing in the meadow depends on all the other parts of the whole system for its survival. The field mouse, for example, does not get the food it eats, the water it drinks, or the oxygen it breathes out of nowhere; it gets them from the whole system of the meadow, or from one of the larger systems of which the meadow itself is only a part. Everything that the mouse gives back to the meadow, from its breath to its wastes to its body, is taken up by some other part of the whole system and put to some other use. Every part of the whole system is connected to every other part and can only be understood in its relation to the whole system of the meadow.

Look more closely at the field mouse, and the same perception can be applied to a new level. The mouse itself is a whole system composed of other, smaller entities—the cells that make up its body. Each of these cells is a little life of its own, which is born, lives for its own short lifespan, and dies. Each cell receives what it needs from the whole system we call the mouse, and it gives back its wastes and, eventually, itself to the whole system, to be put to some other use. Just as the field mouse is linked to every other living thing in the meadow, the cells that compose the mouse are linked to every other cell, and they can only be understood in their relation to the whole system of the mouse.

The dependence of the cells on the mouse and the mouse on the meadow is no abstract matter. If some of the cells in the mouse's body stop fulfilling their proper function in the whole system, the mouse becomes sick, and if the cells do not return to their function, the mouse may die. If the mouse dies, however, the cells die too; their life depends on the life of the whole system in which they are a small part.

The same is equally true on the scale of the meadow. If the field mice in a meadow stop fulfilling their proper function, the whole system of the meadow is damaged, and the mice suffer as a result; if the damage they inflict on the meadow is severe enough, they may all die. No part of a whole system can ignore the needs of that system with impunity.

As a principle of the mystery teachings, these same insights can be summed up in the language of ecology as the Law of Wholeness:

Everything that exists is part of a whole system and depends on the health of the whole system for its own existence. It thrives only if the whole system thrives, and it cannot harm the whole system without harming itself.

* * *

This principle applies to human beings just as fully as it applies to mice and meadows. Every human being participates in whole systems at many different levels, which nest within each other like the layers of an onion or the orbits of planets in a solar system. Some of these systems are local, some regional, and some planetary; some are made up of other human beings and their creations, and some are made up of other, nonhuman living things and the things that they produce. Our participation in these whole systems is not optional. Everything that makes our lives possible, joyful, and meaningful comes to us from them.

If we ignore our responsibility to the whole systems around us, the results are predictable—and unwelcome. What is the rising spiral of environmental crisis that now threatens to undo all the gains of the last three hundred years of industrial society, after all, but the inevitable result of our collective abuse and neglect of the living Earth over the course of those same three hundred years? The self-centered decisions that have put temporary profit and comfort ahead of the survival of whole species and ecosystems have had their inevitable effect. They have given us, and all other living things, a more impoverished and unstable world, and that impoverishment and instability has been reflected, in turn, in our own societies and our individual lives. The only way to undo the damage that has resulted from these shortsighted actions is to replace the habits that caused them with a recognition that, in all our actions, we need to put the enduring needs of the biosphere ahead of our immediate cravings for material comforts and pleasures.

This is why the sages and initiates of humanity have always taught that the way to happiness is found in living our lives in ways that benefit whole systems, rather than simply trying to benefit ourselves alone. All ethical teachings come down to this one point. It has become fashionable nowadays to laugh at such teachings, but we have seen what happens when individuals pursue their own benefit at the expense of the whole systems to which they belong. No matter how lofty the rhetoric used to justify them, actions that harm whole systems harm everyone and everything that is part of those systems, including those unwise individuals who think that they benefit from those actions.

If we try to get some benefit from the universe in a way that harms other beings, that harm will circle back to us through the whole system in which we all participate.

This is why it is a mistake to think that we have the exclusive power to create our own reality. We participate in the creation of our own reality, but we also help create the reality of every other being that has a place in the whole systems that surround us, and their attitudes and actions also help shape the reality we experience. Our attitudes and actions, in turn, can have effects we do not intend or expect. If we try to get some benefit from the universe in a way that harms other beings, that harm will circle back to us through the whole system in which we all participate, and whatever benefit we get will be balanced or outweighed by the harm that comes to us as participants in that system.

* * *

Putting this principle to work in our daily lives is a simple thing, though it is always worth remembering that "simple" is not the same thing as "easy." Nothing is so easy, or so self-defeating, as the habit of thought that claims that a decision affects nobody but the person who makes it, but this claim is never true. Even the most intensely personal of your decisions, made in the silence of your own heart and never expressed in any intentional action, radiates outward through voice, gesture, posture, and mood, as well as subtler expressions of consciousness, to affect the whole system around you. Choose to hate, even if you never act on your hatred, and you make the world around you a more hateful place, for you as well as for all other beings. Choose to love, and the reverse is equally true.

In making any decision, it is thus always important to think about how that decision will affect the whole system in which that decision takes place. That whole system may be a family, a workplace, a community, or a nation; it may include a local ecosystem, a bioregion, or the entire planet. However large or small those systems may be, they will gain or lose by your decision, and that reality needs to be taken into account, for whatever gain or loss your decision brings to the whole system will circle around to affect your life as well.

The same principle can be put to use in a more deliberate way. If you wish to make your life better and happier, consider what actions you can do that will benefit the whole systems to which you belong, and do them. Those benefits will circle back to you through the connections that link you to the whole systems that support your existence. The relationships between the benefits you provide to the whole system and the benefits that return to you from the whole system are often subtle and complex, and they form the basis for many of the secrets of magic.

The essential lesson of this principle is that what benefits the whole system ultimately benefits the individual and what harms the whole system ultimately harms the individual. Thinking that an individual can pursue his or her own benefit at the whole system's expense is a folly that causes much of human suffering. The initiates of the mysteries recognize this; they seek first to understand how their choices influence the whole system and then take those influences into account when making decisions and acting on them.

Meditation on the First Law

The art of meditation is one of the fundamental practices of the mysteries, but mystery schools approach it in different ways. The most important of the differences is between those forms of meditation that empty the mind, practiced primarily in the mystery schools of the East, and those forms that guide and direct the mind, which are practiced primarily in the mystery schools of the West. The latter approach is the one that will be used here.

Each mystery school has its own recommendations for posture, breathing, and other aspects of meditative practice, but these are patterned with an eye toward the higher reaches of meditative experience, with which we are not concerned here. For the present purpose, you may use any reasonably comfortable position in which you can relax and remain still for a time. Settle yourself in your position, and then pay attention to your breathing. Breathe a little more slowly and deeply than you usually do, and as you breathe out, let go of some of the tension in your body, relaxing a little further with each outbreath. When you feel ready, turn your attention to the theme of the meditation, as follows.

Choose any material object that has a place in your life, and explore the ways that it connects with the world outside itself. Whatever it is, the matter of which it is made came from somewhere else and will go somewhere else; energies from some other source—whether those were the forces of nature, the skilled hands of a craftsperson, or something else—made it what it is now, and other energies will unmake it in due time; things that are not part of it provide the space in which it functions, the raw materials for its effects, and the meaning of whatever it does. All these are parts of the whole system of which that object is one small part.

As you work through this meditation, your thoughts will doubtless try to wander off onto different subjects. Bring them gently back to the theme of the meditation, and continue from where you began to wander. If any part of the meditation upsets you or makes your thoughts unusually eager to find something else to think about, make a note of that, and pay close and detailed attention to exactly that part of the process.

Repeat this meditation several times, choosing a different subject for each session of meditation. Thereafter, shift the focus of your meditations from strictly material objects to subtler realities, such as relationships and beliefs. Finally, do the same meditation with yourself as the subject at the center of the web of relationships and connections. Begin to become aware of the many whole systems of which you are one small part.


"In all that I am and all that I do, I am part of a greater whole."


How does the way you live affect the whole systems that support your life?

The Second Law: The Law of Flow

Walk out into the meadow again and look around yourself with eyes attuned to the Law of Wholeness, and you will be prepared to see another dimension of the whole system: a dimension of flow. The ray of sunlight that falls on a leaf sets in motion a flow of energy that passes from leaf to seed, to mouse, to snake, to hawk, shedding some of itself back into the environment at every step of the way. A drop of water that falls out of the sky as rain is picked up by the roots of a plant, rises through the stem to a leaf, transpires out of the leaf into the air, and rises up to the clouds to fall again as rain on some other meadow. Nitrogen gas from the air percolates down into the pores of the soil and then is taken up by nitrogen-fixing microbes clustered around the roots of a clover plant, turned to nitrates, absorbed by other plants that need nitrates to grow, and passed on from one living thing to another through many different changes of form until it finally rises again into the air.

To the ecologist, these flows are at least as real and important as the individual living and nonliving things that participate in them. Individual things come and go; the cricket on the stem will have been replaced by another in a year and by a different species of cricket in ten thousand years. Still, the flows that pass from the sun, the distant sea, the soil, and many other sources through the cricket that perches on the grass stem today will continue to flow through those crickets of the far future, just as they flowed through the crickets that came before it. In a deep and important sense, the cricket is simply a shape that is temporarily taken by flows of matter, energy, and information through one part of the whole system of the meadow.

Just as the relationship of parts to whole systems can be observed on many different scales of size, the relationships of flow can be observed on many different scales of time. Some flows are fast; for example, it may take only a few minutes for oxygen drawn into the lungs of a field mouse, transformed by its metabolism, and breathed out again as carbon dioxide to be absorbed by the pores of a nearby leaf, cycled through the plant's metabolism, and sent back out as oxygen again. Some flows are slow; for example, minerals absorbed by the roots of a clump of grass may find their way into its leaves, linger there through an entire growing season, then fall to the ground as the grass dies back at the beginning of winter and return to the soil with the reawakening of life in the spring. Some flows move at a pace so slow that human senses cannot perceive them at all; for example, the boulder left by a glacier on one corner of the meadow during the last ice age fifteen thousand years ago is slowly being weathered away by rain, wind, and the slow action of lichens, and fifteen thousand years from now, it will be a fraction of its present size. Solid as it seems, the stone is also flowing.

Excerpted from MYSTERY TEACHINGS from the LIVING EARTH by JOHN MICHAEL GREER. Copyright © 2012 John Michael Greer. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

John Michael Greer is the current Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA). He has studied the Western Mystery Traditions for decades and is the author of numerous articles and eighteen books, including The Druidry Handbook. He lives in Maryland with his wife Sara. Visit him at: http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/

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