The Right to Live

Practice of the Week
The Right to Live

Category: Ecospiritual. These practices are oriented toward developing our spirituality through our connection with our planet home and our responsibility to care for it.

Autumn: colors change, days grow shorter and cooler, light and shadow shift. Acorns and leaves fall. Various critters prepare for winter, or depart for warmer places. Some die, leaving behind the next generation ensconced in eggs until spring. The annual rhythm follows the script it has followed since time immemorial.

We humans examine that script -- seek to grab it from Nature's hands and make some edits. We alter the scenery, rewrite the dialogue, enlarge the significance of our own roles. Full of bluster, we declare that we have a right to live -- how, when, and where we choose. Property rights enshrined in law give land owners rights to bulldoze forest to build subdivisions or strip malls. And the rights of the forest creatures? Our legal system scarcely contemplates such a thing.

Describing a logger from the 1800s who has discovered a new frontier, Susan Griffin writes,
"He is like a man in a dream who has discovered a treasure. He has come upon a forest untrod by human beings for hundreds of years…. In a trance, he makes figures. The numbers of the trees. Their size. Three to four million board feet for every forty acres, he whispers to himself. Centuries of growth. Centuries of rainfall. The very moisture of the air is golden…. By autumn, trees falling, moving upstream." (Woman and Nature)
There has been some shift in outlook. Today we are more likely to consider creatures that might be endangered, and the value of forests for recreation and even as a carbon sink to sequester greenhouse gases. Few of us would assign the forest existential rights. Thomas Berry is one of those few.
"So too every being has rights to be recognized and revered. Trees have tree rights, insects have insect rights, rivers have river rights, mountains have mountain rights. So too with the entire range of beings throughout the universe." (The Great Work)
Taking the concept a step further, James Lovelock considers the Earth itself as a living organism.
"From a Gaian viewpoint, all attempts to rationalize a subjugated biosphere with man in charge are as doomed to failure as the similar concept of benevolent colonialism." (Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth)
Our "Images of Earth" practice (SEE HERE) considered the idea of Earth as Self, rather than Other. This is true in the most literal sense possible. The recognition of it resides deep in our collective psyche, though thousands of years of Western culture teaches us otherwise.

The forest itself, considered as a collective, living whole, has a right to live out the patterns of its natural existence, to enact the script nature has written for it. It has earned this right by surviving, evolving unique adaptations, and creating a complex dynamic equilibrium.
The chipmunks, maple trees, and barred owls in the forest, and the forest ecosystem overall, have rights – not more rights than humans, but rights that obligate us to be cautious, take no more than we need to live, and approach the forests with reverence and humility. The right to simply exist is not exclusively a human birthright.


1. “Namaste” Practice. Take a mindful walk, as described in "Begin the Ecospiritual Path" (SEE HERE), but this time walk in a natural area such as a park or nature trail. As you walk, pause now and then, and have a “Namaste moment”: stand still, focus on the tree, flower, bird, cloud, or whatever aspect of nature holds meaning for you, bow, and whisper, “the holy in me bows to the holy in you” (a loose translation of the Hindu greeting "namaste.") Reflect that you and the object are both ultimately made of the same stuff—dancing together in infinite and beautiful combinations.

2. Loving-kindness Prayer. Start with yourself -- for example, “May I be healed and restored and live abundantly.” Then repeat, successively replacing “I” with the name of a loved one, the name of a difficult or challenging person in your life, “my friends and family,” “my community,” “my bioregion,” “my continent,” “the Earth and all beings.”

3. Journaling: Giving Voice to the Forest. If the forest could speak, what would it say? Would it see humans as an aspect of itself? Use your imagination, and allow the forest to introduce itself to you. Spend at least a half hour on this exercise. Write your experiences in your journal.

Group Activities

Re-Imagining the Earth as Primary. Thomas Berry said that the Earth is primary and the human is derivative. We have acted as if the opposite were true. For this exercise, divide into groups of four to five people. Have each small group imagine what sort of society would exist if we structured our legal system to reflect the Earth as primary and the human as derivative. What would such a society look life? How would our government, courts, and legal system be different? How would our educational system be different? How would we earn a living? Would our monetary systems be different? How? Spend at 30-45 minutes in small groups, working out the answers to these and other questions that come up in the course of discussion. Gather again as a large group, and share thoughts and ideas. Finally, reflect as a large group on what members needed to unlearn and let go of in order to imagine this society.

Questions for Group Conversation:
  • What does it mean to have a right to live? Who has this right? Individual species or ecosystems? Human only or non-human?
  • When the needs of human and non-human life conflict, should the human automatically prevail? How should we decide?
  • Is there ever a time when we should give preference to the needs and rights of non-human life ahead of human life?
  • What sort of attitudes must we unlearn if we are to consider the possibility of non-human life having existential rights?
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Previous Ecospiritual Practice: Images of Earth

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