Widening Our Circle

Practice of the Week
Widening Our Circle

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

“Six degrees of separation.” You’ve probably heard the hypothesis that each person on Earth is connected by six steps or fewer to every other person on the planet. It appears to be not quite true – but close. In 2008, a study of billions of electronic messages found that any two strangers are, on average, distanced by 6.6 degrees of separation. In 2011, Facebook determined that 92 percent of its users were connected to each other through 5 or fewer “friend” links. Humans who don’t use Facebook or electronic messaging, especially those in isolated tribes, may well require more steps.

In any case, we are all interconnected more closely than we generally assume – and by much more than links of acquaintanceship. The Gaia hypothesis, developed in the 1970s by chemist James Lovelock and microbiologist Lynn Margulis, says that the entire Earth is one integrated, self-regulating, living organism. What we do to one part of the Earth, we do to the entire Earth. What we do to the Earth, we do to ourselves.
  • Drought in Africa churns up dust into the atmosphere. The dust travels across the Atlantic, and affects cloud formation over the Caribbean.
  • A man orders a burger. The burger, shipped from South America, came from a cow raised on land that was formerly part of the Amazon rainforest, now burned and cleared for grazing.
  • An empty plastic bag floats across a parking lot -- and ends up floating in the middle of the Pacific six months later.
There are also positive connections:
  • A woman purchases a bag of fair-trade coffee at her local co-op. Somewhere in Sumatra a father buys school books for his children with money earned from his small family coffee plantation.
  • A teenager, after learning of the crisis in the rainforest, decides to skip the trip to the burger place and packs a vegetarian lunch instead.
  • A couple serves locally grown food at their wedding reception, supporting the farmers of their foodshed in the process.
  • A retired man spends a Saturday morning cleaning up a stream with a conservation group, ensuring that hundreds of pieces of plastic will never make it to the ocean.
We are embedded within larger systems, upon which we depend for our very lives. Trees take in carbon dioxide and give off oxygen. Water evaporates, and then falls as rain. Cycles of ocean currents keep northern Europe warmer than latitudes alone would allow. Soil bacteria break down dead plant matter, making nutrients available for new growth. Fungi break down environmental toxins.

Not only are we a part of larger systems, we ourselves are a system. Our bodies function through symbiotic relationships with millions of helpful bacteria that digest our food and make our survival possible.

The choices we make ripple out from us and have implications far beyond our immediate community. The great challenge is figuring out those implications, and changing the way we relate to the world based on what we learn. Creating sustainable societies requires that we acknowledge and embrace our interconnection.


1. Degrees of Gratitude. Sit comfortably, and recall a meal you ate recently. Offer thanks for the people, animals, plants, and Earth systems that interacted to bring that meal to you. If you ate a cheese sandwich, give thanks for the person who made the sandwich, the cashier who sold you the bread and cheese, the dairy clerk, the baker, the workers at the cheese factory, the person who drove the milk truck from the farm, the farmer, the cow, the hay and the pasture that fed the cow, the sun for making the grass grow in the pasture, the flour mill, the wheat field, the soil in which the wheat grew, the rain that fell on the field – and the evolutionary process that brought into being cows, cheese-making bacteria, and the wild ancestor of cultivated wheat.

2. Mindful Choices. In your journal, describe one major area of your life as a consumer: food, clothing, holidays, travel, driving habits, or whatever. After describing your habits, interrogate them: Why do you do things the way you do? What obstacles stand in the way of making changes? Be honest and gentle with yourself -- change is hard. Brainstorm some do-able changes that could work for you. What are the spiritual implications of these changes?

3. How Wide Is Your Circle? Clear your altar space. Walk from room to room, and make a mental note of where the various objects in your home originated. Perhaps you have electronics from Japan, souvenirs from a Caribbean vacation, heirlooms from your family’s country of origin, a fair-trade knickknack from Africa, and some locally produced crafts. Choose several human-made items that originated from a variety of locales, and place these on your altar, thinking about the people who made these items and what life might have been like for them. What do you have in common? What is different? For several days, muse daily on the interconnectedness of it all.

Group Activities

Create Your Own Visualization. Discuss the idea of interconnectedness as it applies to people, animals, and Earth systems. Then allow group members about twenty minutes alone to reflect on the many connections that exist in our world. Have them write a brief meditation or visualization that explores this theme. After the alone time, gather again and have a few participants share their creations with the group. Discuss insights that emerge.

Questions for Group Conversation:
  • How is your life connected to the lives of those around you? What impact does your life have on theirs? What impact do they have on you?
  • What might the phrase widening our circle mean in different contexts? Can you widen your circle and simplify your life at the same time?
  • How are your connected both to people from your past and generations yet to come? How do choices and decisions ripple out over time?
  • Imagine a society where our interconnectedness with the Earth was honored and celebrated. What would such a society look like?
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