Meditation a catalyst for ecological conversion and action

Donna Mulhearn

Donna Mulhearn

In light of the ecological crisis the world faces, meditation is generally not rated high on the list of responses. But maybe it should be, writes Donna Mulhearn.

BY Donna Mulhearn*

In light of the ecological crisis the world faces, meditation is generally not rated high on the list of responses. But maybe it should be.

I remember distinctly, and fondly, experiencing a kind of awakening in the first days into my journey as a contemplative Christian. As a young backpacker, somehow, wonderfully, I ended up living and working as a volunteer at a Benedictine convent in a small town in the south of Ireland assisting eight elderly nuns. Needing help maintaining beautiful gardens on large grounds, my job was to tend to the flowers, cut the lavender, water, pull weeds. Free from having to achieve certain productivity levels, I took my time.

In silence I slowly handled each stalk of lavender, admired it, breathed its fragrance, felt the softness of its body; basked in a sense of wonder of its beauty and of the other flowers – each unique and exquisite. I did this for hours each day and, in the evening, sat on the balcony, took in a view which overlooked the harbour, watched the sun set into the ocean, and wept. It wasn’t just a sunset; somehow it was a message of love for me. I felt part of it.

I also felt as though, perhaps for the first time, I could see. As a busy Gen X-er I had finally slowed down enough to notice things; to experience awe, to pay attention.

Christian meditation is the work of paying attention, of presence. Also known as contemplative prayer, it is the prayer of stillness and silence; the prayer of the heart.

Benedictine monk Father John Main (1926-1982) recovered this ancient form of prayer from the early Christian monks, the desert fathers and mothers, who in turn were inspired by Jesus’ teachings on prayer in the Gospels. It is now practised by people from all walks of life all over the world, including young people and children in schools. Australia has a large and active Christian meditation community.

I, myself, and others who nourish a contemplative spirituality through a daily practice of meditation, testify to a shift in consciousness over time. This new consciousness includes a deeper awareness of who we really are and our connection to the whole earth community.

From this can flow a greater sensitivity to the needs of the other-than-human community, a desire to live in communion with nature, not dominate it, to live more simply, more sustainably and to take action against policies and practices that degrade the earth.

Through this sense of connection, and the work of paying attention, meditation can be the catalyst for ecological conversion and provide energy for ongoing, sustainable action for the environment.

Pope Francis, writing in Laudato Si, repeatedly makes the link between a contemplative consciousness and ecological conversion.

“Inner peace is closely related to care for ecology and for the common good because, lived out authentically, it is reflected in a balanced lifestyle together with a capacity for wonder which takes us to a deeper understanding of life. Nature is filled with words of love, but how can we listen to them amid constant noise, interminable and nerve-wracking distractions, or the cult of appearances?” (Laudato Si, 225)

Pope Francis and others say the environmental crisis is part of a wider spiritual crisis marked by over-consumption, waste, narcissism, disconnection from the natural world and each other and that a contemplation spirituality would be a helpful antidote.

More than 30 years ago, John Main, who went on to found the World Community for Christian Meditation, observed much the same: “I suppose none of us would meditate unless it had occurred to us that there was more to life than just being producers and consumers. All of us know that we cannot find any ultimate or enduring meaning in just producing and consuming. So we seek that ultimate meaning”.

A contemplative consciousness challenges the labels of ‘producer and consumer’ and leads to a deeper awareness of our true identity and inter-connection with all things. I believe the practice of silence, stillness and simplicity can transform the way we live as individuals and a whole society to a way that is more attentive, loving and sustainable.

It inspires my actions for the environment: a concerted effort to live more simply and reduce consumption to the ‘hardly anything new’ stage, investing in retro-fitting my house to ensure it’s more energy efficient, completing permaculture training to repair degraded soil and grow food ‘working with nature, not against it’.

Along with reducing my own footprint, I believe investing my time and energy in action and advocacy with others to challenge the big polluters, governments and corporations, is essential.

I recently found myself at a protest camp on the outskirts of the Leard State forest in north-west NSW. Ordinary people had travelled far and wide to try to stop Whitehaven Coal’s expansion into precious forest. Up against bulldozers ready to clear, it might have felt futile, but somehow it felt hopeful. Harnessing various non-violent strategies, people power all over the world has halted or minimised destruction of the environment at the hands of industry and will continue to do so.

I live as a contemplative activist in the Blue Mountains bush, and, just like admiring the lavender at the convent in Ireland, slowing down to experience a sense of wonder at the beauty here connects me, inspires me and sustains me to do more.

* Donna Mulhearn is an activist, writer and speaker who was a human shield during the war in Iraq. Inspired by the Prayer of St Francis of Assisi, she describes herself as a pilgrim and storyteller. Donna is available for talks about peacemaking, social action and contemplation. Her book, Ordinary Courage, a memoir about her experience as a human shield in Iraq, can be purchased from her via

On the weekend April 22-24, 2016, Donna will join many well-known speakers, including Laurence Freeman OSB, Emeritus Professor David Tacey, Anglican Bishop George Browning, Dr Susan Murphy, Associate Professor Mark Diesendorf and Catholic Earthcare Director Jacqui Remond, at a seminar on Meditation and the Environment in Sydney. Find out more here.

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The Good Oil, March 15, 2016. If you would like to republish this article, please contact the editor.

One Response to “Meditation a catalyst for ecological conversion and action”

  1. Marie Casamento says:

    Donna thank you for your reminder and inherent challenge to slow down, mindfully savour the richness and beauty of the environment and to live simply. I grew up in Victoria where nature displays the change of seasons so markedly. In the painful or tough times of my life I was assured that spring always followed winter. Marie

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