FINDING WONDER AT "THE NEXUS OF SPIRITUALITY AND SCIENCE":

A collection of thoughts on Awakening Leadership Training’s Ecological Dimension


Ilana, Canada

My name is Ilana Nyveen. I'm a queer Jew from Montreal and I just graduated from Rice University with a BSc in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology. 


The Thomas J. Watson Foundation has provided me with the opportunity to explore my existential interest in the intersection of humanity and apehood. I hope to gain a better understanding of why humans are the way they are through close interactions with our sister species, in addition to investigating ape conservation and research efforts. 


Besides the primatological approach, I'm also engaging with more anthropological methodologies by visiting different communities, from bustling cities to quiet farms, and comparing the way people living in them relate to each other and to the land they've settled on. 


In other words: I'm doing something, but it is actually a lot of different simultaneous somethings, and I'm not really sure what they all mean yet, but this is my way of trying to sort through them.

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December has been one of the busiest months. India took me down a path of understanding the localization movement and how people are reimagining the way they live with relation to the Earth. That brought me to looking at ecovillages, which then brought me to a program based near Chiang Mai called Awakening Leadership Training (henceforth ALT).


The program is an expanded version of an ecovillage design education course, which focuses on 5 main areas: social transformation, economy, worldview, ecological, and interpersonal skills. Given my interest in broadening my predominantly scientific perspective on ecology and learning more about alternative modes of society, I decided to join ALT for the ecology dimension which spanned three weeks. 

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The first week was Deep Ecology. The structure of the week was heavily inspired by a book by Joanna Macy called The Work that Reconnects. the basic outline can be seen in the poster on this picture next to our facilitator, Aom. Aom was the backbone of this week, guiding us through reconnection with the reasons we love being alive, making space for our climate change anxieties, and forming action plans on how to serve ourselves and the world. The week brought up a lot for me.


For one, I remembered why I started studying ecology in the first place. the sheer diversity of life is awe-inspiring and I find immense joy in trudging around barefoot through forests. In some (though importantly not all) ways, studying ecology has distanced me from those feelings. It's easy to get lost in the numbers and the scientific writing and the chaos of trying to quantify organisms that have no interest in being quantified. I still love science, but I adore climbing trees. These interests sometimes feel hard to resolve. I was taught not to stray from the path while hiking in order to preserve the environment around me. Should loving the forest mean not disturbing it? It reminded me of what I learned in Tanzania about fortress conservation, the practice of sectioning off areas for Nature and areas for US - spoiler alert: it is rarely that simple. I had a conversation with a wonderful environmental educator who was also participating in the course about this tension. She said she felt the same way, but told me I should be easier on myself. I am also part of the ecosystem and I’m not obligated to be a misanthrope just because I’m an environmentalist. It's okay to let myself enjoy things for what they are instead of piling so much baggage and guilt onto them that it becomes impossible to distinguish what is real and what is projection.


This is something that many people have told me (usually using much simpler phrasing - see "take it eeeeeeasy, Ilana", a catchphrase coined by another participant). It is hard for me to value my happiness without feeling selfish and oblivious to the world's problems. I am prone to moral crises and many of them can be boiled down to striking this balance (see: my stress in Sumatra with orangutan and in Bali with the tourism). But as I recently read in a book recommended to me by a dear friend: "things can be bad, and getting better" (Factfulness by Hans Roling). I can be concerned with the state of the world and be excited by the possibility of it being different. In the past, I have thought it better to err on the side of overprioritizing the ethical implications of my actions and underprioritizing my own wellbeing. But we are human and imperfect and the universe is chaotic and random and the more I fixate on morality the more guilty and anxious I feel. So, I can choose to hold myself to impossible standards and spiral into anxiety or I can just try my best and make choices based in compassion and love for myself and the world instead of fear of my negative impact. Easier to write than to do, but we're getting somewhere.

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The second week involved going into the forest and fasting alone for three days and three nights and it feels a little too close to my heart to write about in this medium, but if you ever have the chance to do a Vision Quest, it's worth doing.


The third week was a return to the familiar: Foundations in Ecology. This week's content focused on an introduction to ecological principles as well as tools for increasing environmental engagement in one's community. Some highlights included being a substitute teacher for a lecture on lichen and citizen science, a narrated 4.6(-ish) km walk that poetically described the 4.6(-ish) billion years that the earth has been around, and many fruitful conversations about the intersections of spirituality and science. the participants of these modules formed one of the most diverse groups I’ve ever had the privilege of being a part of. Not only did we come from different continents, but we all had unique reasons for being there. I was one of few who came from a scientific background; some were there because they were involved in nature education, others were taking a break from work, nearly everyone had a more serious spiritual practice than I do. but, as I heard in a podcast recommended to me by a second friend, "at the nexus of spirituality and science is wonder" (link below). This space is one of few that I have encountered that paid equal respect to both and helped people from all kinds of different backgrounds find commonality in awe. And I am so so grateful for that.


There are a hundred more things I could say, but many of them are still percolating. If this kinda thing is exciting to you, though, I would definitely recommend checking out ALT and Gaia Education. Note that I would not actively recommend almost anything I’ve done on my trip so far - not because they weren't valuable to me, but because I don't see them as being inherently valuable beyond my experience with them. But I really truly feel like there is inherent value in this program. What a lovely rabbit hole to fall down. 

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