The Gerson Institute of Ayurvedic Medicine

Scott Gerson, M.D., Ph.D. (Ayurveda) Medical Director, Jupiter Medical Center Dept. of Integrative Medicine Division of Education and Research

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Spirituality and Sustainability

The material below represents the abridged introductory remarks made by Dr. Gerson to The General Assembly of the United Nations, April 10, 1998 during the Seventh International WE Conference (Women and the Environment). This was the introduction to his main presentation: The Impact of Environmental Degradation On Women In India.

 

Despite the best efforts of the over 100 heads of state who attended the last World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Rio de Janeiro ten years ago, Planet Earth remains on the brink of disaster as we continue to drain our natural resources with no sign of relenting. Like that conference one decade ago, the latest World Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa sought to establish a balance between economic development and environmental protection of the planet. And like the Rio convention the discussions focused on an ambitious agenda of water, energy, agriculture, health, and biodiversity issues all aimed at improving lives at the least possible cost to the environment.

The irony is that this conference which is supposed to be about creating sustainable living, has consistently ignored the one fundamental aspect which could make this possible: spirituality. Forget the timetables, technologies, and transfers of money; living in a sustainable way is only possible if we and especially our leaders more deeply understand the very tapestry of Nature. Spirituality and sustainability go hand in hand; one cannot proceed without the other. Today, the word “spiritual” is used rather casually and applied somewhat arbitrarily. So what does it mean to live in a spiritual way, to be a spiritual person? A spiritual person cares deeply about people, animals, plants, the oceans and the entire planet. A spiritual person knows that, despite the illusion and disguise of individuality, we are all One. Living in a spiritual way means to consciously attempts to honor this Oneness with our thoughts and deeds. A spiritual person is has kindness as his or her guiding light and it naturally leads one to follow principles of sustainable living. Conversely, living in a conscious, sustainable manner promotes spiritual growth. Thus, spiritual evolution makes sustainable living an essential way of life. Spiritual practice soon reveals the truth that I am I plus my environment. If I fail to preserve the latter I fail to preserve myself. Many of us in the spiritual community were dismayed that at no point during the recent proceedings was there any discussion on the theme of spirituality and its impact on sustainability.

A spiritual person in the modern world is one who has attained a certain state of mind and who has a perspective larger than the personal ego. In Ayurvedic Medicine, the ancient Indian healing tradition, cultivation of this expanded awareness is in fact tantamount to achieving optimal health. Naturally there is a wide spectrum of spiritual evolution culminating in full enlightenment and liberation. However, even at the earliest stages of spirituality, one understands that the Truth lies beyond the boundaries of race, nationality, or geographical barriers. Truth is universal and shines upon us all equally. A truly great spiritual thought is a cause for worldwide celebration. Consider a passage from the Kaivalyopanishad, an ancient Indian scripture:

“The three states of consciousness are: the object of enjoyment, the enjoyer, and enjoyment itself. I am different from these. I am the witness, pure consciousness ever auspicious.”

Or any of the beautiful passages from Kahil Gibron’s The Prophet, for example:

"When love beckons to you follow him, Though his ways are hard and steep. And when his wings enfold you yield to him,Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.

And when he speaks to you believe in him,Though his voice may shatter your dreams as the north wind lays waste the garden. For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning. Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun, So shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth.

He threshes you to make you naked. He sifts you to free you from your husks. He grinds you to whiteness. He kneads you until you are pliant; And then he assigns you to his sacred fire, that you may become sacred bread for God's sacred feast."

Spirituality connects us to a greater degree to Universal Consciousness which endows us with an enlightened perspective on not only the meaning and purpose of our own lives, but also that of the human race and Nature as a whole. Sustainable development can only be realized when we use the available resources for our true needs and not our ego-driven greed. A spiritual outlook helps in reducing our desire for material goods; spirituality, authentically practiced, can reduce human greed and avarice. Also, one develops a genuine affinity with Nature and an understanding that we are not separate from her but rather are a part of her. We begin to see the truth—that every human being springs from Nature and remains connected to her in a very real sense. This compassionate view of Nature will certain help stop us from over-exploiting her resources. Furthermore, as we evolve spiritually we begin to experience deeper connections to all organic and inorganic life around us. We start to marvel at and enjoy Nature in all its manifestations like never before. A natural impulse arises to preserve as much of it as possible. This need not take the form of fanatical demonstrations or an over-zealous devotion to the cause; it is sufficient to gently experience the change in your consciousness and let the consequences of that change unfold.

As we progress on the path of spirituality our life priorities also begin to gradually transform. One’s focus shifts toward achieving personal happiness through mental peace and emotional balance rather than through the pursuit and satiation of material desires. It becomes less necessary to have the latest laptop or mobile phone; morning meditations, the family unit, and a healthy diet and lifestyle begin to become priorities and sources of joy. This usually happens slowly and incrementally. As one senses a change starting to take place, then, by cultivating a sense of vairagya, or detachment, we tend to become less interested in a materialistic-dominated life.

This marks the beginning of sustainable development. Not promises for financial assistance or multilateral trade agreements; not World Bank subsidies or even corporate accountability clauses. Rather, it is this shift in our consciousness which is of supreme importance. For then we will understand how less emphasis on material possessions and a somewhat simpler way of life can produce the highest quality of human experience, thought, and fulfillment. Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Albert Einstein are a few examples among many. The creation, from the tiniest grain of sand to the myriad galaxies, is inherently good. It is beautiful, in proper proportion, and perfectly adapted for the function it is here to perform. A famous Vedic prayer poignantly expresses this: “Purnamada purnamidam purnat purnamudachate purnasya purnamadaya purnamevavashishyate. Om. Shanti…Shanti…Shanti. That is perfect, this is perfect, perfect comes from perfect. Take perfect from perfect and the remainder is perfect. Peace, Peace, Peace.”

There is no inherent disorder or evil in the universe. Such evil and disorder comes into creation through the ego, or ahamkara, of mankind. Spiritual teachings are designed to show us how to turn our backs to the ego and bring our will into harmony with universal order. The ever-burgeoning technological revolution has indeed helped us perform many tasks more efficiently, often with less energy and materials. Unfortunately in too many instances these interventions have created severe global problems. In our quest for improving upon Nature we have proceeded without sufficient knowledge or forethought and damaged our precious flora and fauna, our environment, as well as ourselves. There may be time to take corrective actions if those actions are guided by wisdom. To understand from whence that wisdom must arise we need look no farther than that famous inscription which guided even the great mind of Plato who said: “To be curious about that which is not my immediate concern while I am still in ignorance of my own self would be ridiculous.”

Scott Gerson, M.D., Ph.D. (Ayurveda) is the only Western scholar to earn a Ph.D. in Ayurvedic Medicine (Pune University). He was also the recipient of the 2002 H.N. Phadnis Gold Medal for his research on the hepatic detoxification effects of panchakarma therapies. Dr. Gerson conducts clinical and basic research at the ayurveda.md in Brewster, NY where he also has had his private medical practice for thirty years. He is currently a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine, New York Medical College.