It’s unusual to find someone who combines a deep, mystical love of the Divine with a stark realism about how we humans are bringing on a mass extinction of life on this planet. Andrew Harvey is one of that rare breed.
Born in India, he won a scholarship to Oxford University, where he was awarded the high honor of a fellowship to All Soul’s College. Later, he studied Hinduism, Buddhism and Sufism, which led him to translate some of the works of one of the great Sufi mystics, Rumi.
Today, he teaches what he calls Sacred Activism, a combination of spiritual discipline and practical grassroots action – particularly in relation to our fellow animals. This is the first part of our interview with him.
Michael Mountain: You’ve said that there’s a kind of missing piece in people’s consciousness these days when it comes to our fellow animals.
Andrew Harvey: One of the things that continues to surprise me is the gap that exists in so many people’s minds and hearts between their immense love for their pets and their lack of real concern about the devastation that is happening to wildlife all over the world.
There was a recent report that that in the last 40 years half of wildlife has been exterminated and that if this goes on we will be looking at a massive global genocide of wildlife. Tigers will be gone in five to ten years, the lions may be gone in ten to 15 years, and as everyone knows the elephants are being slaughtered for their ivory and may very well be gone in 15 to 20 years.
“We cannot go on pretending that we are the only important creatures on the planet and with the right to devastate and destroy anything we want to.”This is an insane, disgusting, obscene situation, but it is extremely hard to move people from their private love of their pets to a global concern for wildlife in general. If we continue to enact this genocide, we are preparing in the deepest spiritual sense a tsunami of black karma. We cannot go on pretending that we are the only important creatures on the planet and with the right to devastate and depredate and destroy anything we want to.
We are one creature in a whole web of creatures, and our entire survival depends upon that understanding. The serial killing of our psyche by this rubbishy, consumerist, insane celebrity culture begins by our callousness towards the whole animal race.
Awakening the human race to our interdependency with nature and to the responsibility that every human being has to live a life that embraces all animals and fights peaceably for the transformation of the systems that are killing them is an absolute necessity for our own survival.
M.M.: You’re not very optimistic that we’re going to get to that point.
A.H.: There are many signs that show us we’re at one minute to midnight and if we don’t undergo a very urgent, spiritual transformation and put that transformation into radical action on every front, we will die out. Some scientists are saying we have at most 15 years before the emission of methane gas creates a situation intolerable for human life and a great deal of natural life. The problem is that as soon as you open up the subject, people withdraw. They deny it or become paralyzed. But we all have to be galvanized by what we learn into putting love into action right now, whatever happens.
Even if we do go extinct, those of us who awake to the divinity of nature, the divinity of the creation, the secret divinity of the human race and the animal race have to put our love into practice.
M.M.: You were just in Australia and New Zealand, and you have upcoming trips to Africa and India. When you talk to people around the world about this, what kind of response do you get?
A.H.: There are fundamentally four kinds of reactions. There is a small group of people, very passionate and very focused, who know the truth of what I am saying and who are overjoyed to have somebody say it as clearly as I am trying to say it. They are remarkable people, and they are already putting their love into action. My job, I feel, is to inspire them and give them all the help I can from my own experience of sacred activism.
There’s a second group of people who are on the cusp of waking up to the crisis, and they are pushed over the cusp into real concern and real action by what I am saying.
The third group are people who absolutely don’t want to hear what I am saying and think that I am just a crazy pessimist. They say the human spirit will conquer, we will find a solution, technology will do it, politics will do it. And those are the most difficult people to deal with because they are unwilling to face the human shadow – the collective shadow and the personal shadow and the devastation that is really threatening our extinction and the extinction of a great deal of nature.
And the fourth group is one that is in such a coma of denial that nothing anybody says can reach them, and unfortunately they will only awaken when the crisis becomes so intolerable that even they will have to see that we are now in extreme danger.
M.M.: Let me quote to you something you said in discussions I saw online. You said, “A near term extinction looks very likely. It may be that God’s plan for the birth of the divine human is that it takes place in the ultimate death as in the final response of the divine in us as to the losing of everything. It is an amazing paradox and when you embrace it, it doesn’t lead to despair; it leads to liberation.”
A.H.: It is a very extreme quote, but the knowledge that it enshrines has helped me.
M.M.: In what way?
A.H.: I have found that turning away from fear of the situation to embracing even the most ghastly possibilities in the situation has immensely bitch-slapped me into on focusing profoundly and absolutely on own spiritual connection with the transcendent beloved and my own resolution to put that connection into action.
There are two lines by Rumi:
“Be grateful for The Friend’s tyranny, not his tenderness,
So the arrogant beauty in you can become a lover that weeps.”
M.M.: Who is Rumi?
A.H.: Rumi is a mystical poet who lived south of Turkey in the 13th Century and whose works are returning in a great avalanche of beauty at this moment to inspire the human race.
M.M.: You’ve actually translated his work yourself.
A.H.: Yes, and Rumi is very apposite to us because one of the things that he represents is an infinite love for animals. There is a wonderful story about when he was dying and his favorite cat was on his bed. And when he died the cat gave a huge yowl, went and hid and starved herself to death because she couldn’t bear to be in the world without him. And Rumi’s daughter insisted, against all Islamic precedent, that his cat should be buried with him.
So he lies in the most magnificent tomb in Konia, Turkey, with his hands folded over his heart and over his dead cat, holding her to his breasts. And asked why she had insisted on this, his daughter said, “Because my father was a friend to all creation.”
Given the possibility that we might go extinct, you have two possible responses. One, of course, is despair and paralysis and what is the use of doing anything? The other is that this is the ultimate challenge to the human heart and soul. Are we really capable of going on knowing that whatever we do may be fruitless and offering whatever we do as a prayer to The Beloved and as a way of representing the best of humanity at the very moment when the very worst of humanity is threatening everything.
M.M.: And when you refer to the Beloved …?
“He lies in the most magnificent tomb in Konia, Turkey, with his hands folded over his heart and over his dead cat, holding her to his breasts.”A.H.: Yes, I am a passionate admirer of the Sufi tradition, which is the mystical tradition of Islam. The Sufis call God the Beloved because for them and for me the experience of God, of the divine, is an experience of overwhelming love. The end of the Sufi path is to know yourself as the beloved of The Beloved, to know yourself infinitely loved in every part of you, in your mind, in your heart and all the cells of your body by the great love force that is created in the whole universe at all moments.
For me it is the most beautiful name for God and I experience God as my Beloved. And I experience myself, thank God, as the ragged, flawed beloved of The Beloved.
M.M.: You speak of “her” rather than “him”.
A.H.: My particular connection to the divine is through the motherhood of God. I believe the divine is One, the whole of reality is divine manifested by the One, but the One uses the opposite, dances with the opposites to create the creation, and those opposites are transcendence and immanence, masculine and feminine. “The loss of the feminine and the loss of this sense of the whole creation as being sacred is one of most profound reasons for why we are in the lonely disassociated, destructive state that we are in.”
My way into God has been very much through the motherhood of God because my experience of the divine has been of what I would call the Mother: the loving, cherishing, nourishing, creative side of the godhead, the side that lives in the creation, that blazes as the creation and lives in every animal, every stone, every flea.
This is an ancient vision of the divine. It is known through Mary in Christianity and known in the heart of Sufism, and a great deal of my work has been about restoring this vision of the motherhood of God so that human beings can be initiated by it to fall in love with life, to fall in love with the creation and the animals, and to fall in love with their own lives so as to be inspired by hope and strength and joy and purpose in this devastating time.
The loss of the feminine and the loss of this sense of the whole creation as being sacred is one of most profound reasons for why we are in the lonely disassociated, destructive state that we are in.
M.M.: You’ve also talked about our need to behave “with good manners toward all species. We should be decent.” And you asked:
“Are we going to go out in the savage unconscious way that we have done all of this, that has caused all of this? Or are we, in the final snapshot of our shadow, going to claim our light and then work from that with dignity, decency and compassion to make it as easy as possible for each other and especially for the animal race that we have so horribly abused? If you have any dignity left, if you have any authentic spirituality, what other position could you take?”
A.H.: Oh, God. That is what I believe. I am doing everything I can in the hope that we might be able to change fast enough to transform the situation through divine grace and through our own efforts cooperating with divine grace. But I know that it may very well be too late and also not enough people may turn up to make this possible. “This is our last sacred responsibility and we must rise to it, otherwise the whole human adventure will end in a demonic cackle of doom.”
If that turns out to be the case, it seems to me that we all still have a very powerful and profound responsibility to turn up in the extinction situation with all fires blazing, our heart on fire for love for the creation, because – my God! – we have created this horrific situation, we are in the business of killing and creating a worldwide global genocide of animals. Are we just going to be paralyzed by the situation? Are we just going to sit back and let the horror of extinction unfold?
Or are we, even in the middle of that extinction, going to be decent, going to be generous, going to be loving and try and make the transition, both of the human race and the animal race, which are going to die out through no guilt of their own as smooth and as tender as possible?
It seems to me that this is our last sacred responsibility and we must rise to it, otherwise the whole human adventure will end in a demonic cackle of doom. And that would be horrific.
The work I am calling people to do is not a work that will inevitably succeed; it is a work that needs to be done to be able to preserve our own humanity. It has to be done from love, and it has to be done in whatever circumstances arise.
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Next Week: In Part Two of this interview, Andrew Harvey talks about “sacred activism” and explains that “When you can locate your deepest heartbreak, you will be guided to your most profound mission. Your deepest mission is hidden in your deepest heartbreak.”