Introducing Stephen Wollaston, also known as Santoshan to Mind Body and Spirit Magazine readers. Please tell us something about yourself please:
Santoshan: During the 70s I played electric bass guitar in 'Lady June's Elysium’ (the singer, Lady June, was quite known at the time) and I also played in the Wasps, who were one of London’s first punk groups. I stopped playing to concentrate on graphics work to make a living. My creativity surfaced with the ability to write, particularly after becoming close friends with the ex-Benedictine monk and medium Glyn Edwards, who asked me to co-author a book with him. Around that time, I took a degree in religious studies and a post-grad certificate in education, and interest in English language and transpersonal psychology. I began teaching humanities subjects as well as English language. Yet I have continued to enjoy graphics work and have written on various interrelated spiritual topics. I have released eight books to date. I regularly give my time freely to the UK-based charity GreenSpirit, of which I am a Council member, and I am actively involved in work for its Editorial and Publishing Committee. The different areas of my life I mentioned – writing, knowledge of English language, typographic design various religious and spiritual traditions – all come in useful for the work I and do for GreenSpirit. And some music I recorded with a friend has been used for a couple of projects.
Wendy: How did you get involved with eco-spirituality?Santoshan: I shared a house in my younger years with my parents and siblings and numerous pets, and in the 60s and 70s, I spent a lot of time outdoors playing in local woodland and grassland areas. I recall times lying with my back on cool soft grass, being mesmerized by the fascinating activity of clouds as they morphed from one wonderful shape to another, or silently contemplating awesome creatures such as bees and butterflies hopping from flower to flower. Bird song has also been something that I love to hear. Such experiences speak to me in ways that are hard to express.
I often feel a profound need to reaffirm an interconnectedness with Nature, and I have encountered numerous experiences in places of natural beauty that have helped me through many troubled times and widened my awareness of what it means to be a member of an authentic Earth- centred community. Finding a progressive organisation such as GreenSpirit with its eco-spiritual focus happened at a key point and demonstrated an element of synchronicity. I was pulling away from some fellow travellers who were reacting badly to wider directions my path was taking. I was beginning to feel as though I had no support network of genuine friends. Around this time I had started to read books by visionary writers such as Matthew Fox, Thomas Berry and Sri Aurobindo, and was taking an interest in Tantric Yogic wisdom, which affirms the physical world instead of denying it or seeing Earth-life as negative in some way. Things just fell into place when I came across GreenSpirit, who share the same Earth-centred affirmation - life as original goodness - of Fox, Berry, Aurobindo, and Tantra.Wendy: What do you feel are the most important aspects of an Earth-centred spirituality for people today? Santoshan: To my understanding, we all possess deep spiritual connections with Nature, although there are people who are not fully aware of this, as they have been side-tracked by addictive consumerist behaviour and a belief that material goods and money can bring lasting happiness; they don’t of course.
Yet on an everyday level, we can see how many people have cats, dogs and other pets as companions which they care for, and are passionate gardeners. On weekends and holidays they invariably seek to escape their conctrete and brick homes in order to venture out amongst places of natural beauty where they find healing, rest and upliftment, and experience transforming feelings of awe and wonder that give their lives meaning. We like our towns and cities to be filled with majestic trees and tranquil parks, and our homes to have an array of wonderful plants. It is clear that we have a natural love of Nature, which in return nourishes us. Ultimately, Earth has given birth to our physical existence and sustains us in numerous ways, not only with food, water and air but spiritually and creatively.
Many facets of the world’s great religious traditions have teachings about the natural world and how ‘all life’, not just ‘human life’, is sacred, how we are inseparably interconnected with Nature and have a collective responsibility to care for her. Early indigenous people fully understood this and sought to live in harmony with the plant, tree, river and animal queendoms and kingdoms. Creation stories surfaced, which gave people meaning and purpose and a sense of place in the world. But with the development of these stories, instead of an interconnected unity, beliefs in a separation from the natural world and a God that was transcendent and somewhere else arose. I’m not just talking about Abrahamic religions here, which often teach about a masculine God instead of a feminine one with compassionate and nurturing qualities. Instead of being Nature-centred, there was a shift to human-centredness in both this life and an after-life. Instead of being ‘a part’ of Nature, humans were seen as ‘apart’ from her. Ideas about physical life being sinful or an illusion were also promoted in some traditions.
This is not to say that an Earth-centred spirituality was ever completely forgotten. Many religions still hold strong beliefs in holy mountains, rivers, lakes, wells, trees, and so on. Early pagan beliefs and practices that cherished Nature and understood her importance were intertwined with traditions such as Christianity. But, as mentioned, there was a subtle change in focus in how physical life was considered. Some teachers and writers have argued that that change is partly responsible for how we now treat non-human life, how we have objectified Nature and started to look upon her as a bottomless treasure chest that can be plundered, without any consideration about the harm done to other lifeforms, though ultimately there is no ‘other’ as we are all parts of one interconnected Earth-community and family.What eco-spirituality highlights are the roots we share with various Nature mystics, such as Hildegard of Bingen, and early indigenous beliefs, as well as indigenous people today who may be fighting for eco-justice against large corporations taking over and damaging their lands. Earth-based spirituality recognises how stories about our world were once important to our ancestors but understands that many of those stories no longer fit contemporary knowledge of how stars, galaxies and organic life came into being. For this reason, evolutionary cosmologist Brian Swimme and geo-theologian Thomas Berry have promoted ‘New Universe Story’ that we have today about creation from the very first flaring-forth of the big bang to our current life on Earth. When we once again understand our place and relationship with the universe and the natural world, we will, hopefully, once again care for what is ultimately part of our own nature.
With this understanding comes a recognition that we are all incredible products of creation and the universe, and when we create in wholesome ways, we take an active role in the creativity of the universe – we become co-creators with the universe. Thomas Berry pithily pointed out that, “An immersion into the deep creative powers of the universe is the most direct contact a human can have of the divine”. We are, of course, living on the brink of an important moment in our history where we can either put our differences aside and work together to preserve more-than-human life and Earth’s delicate ecosystems, or continue to rape the natural world and commit mass genocide of numerous species. We have been living as though we have more than one planet to live on and are not responsible for our actions. This is why Earth-centred spirituality is so important right now. It doesn’t seek to make a new religion but aims to highlight what is already there in various spiritual, religious and wisdom traditions and build bridges between people. It can be seen as ‘a Yoga’, ‘a Way’ or ‘a Path’ that not only honours and lovingly cares for Nature at its core but also joyously celebrates Earth life.
Shifts in consciousness are happening. Thomas Berry termed this new era of spirituality the ‘Ecozoic era’, an era where humans live in mutually enhancing relationships with Earth and the Earth community. We’ve already seen Pope Francis encouraging green conscious wisdom and pointing out that when we harm Nature we harm ourselves. Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has for many years been actively involved in promoting ‘Engaged Buddhism’, which embraces the promotion of both human justice as well as eco-justice. In Istanbul in August 2015, Islamic scholars, experts and teachers from 20 countries launched a new declaration on climate change, calling for Muslims around the world to work towards phasing out greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.Wendy: Could you tell us about your two recent books and the series they belong to please? Santoshan: My most recent book is ‘Pathways of Green Wisdom: Discovering Earth Centred Teachings in Spiritual and Religious Traditions’, which I compiled and edited. It came out last year and brings together numerous reflective, insightful and informative pieces by various contributors to GreenSpirit Magazine spanning a period of 11 years, along with especially written new material. It has a companion book, ‘Rivers of Green Wisdom: Exploring Christian and Yogic Earth Centred Spirituality’, which was written by me and came out in 2014. This one’s slightly confessional in its style, with some semi-autobiographical parts, and draws upon material I touched upon in two of my previous books. Up to now the ‘Rivers’ and ‘Pathways’ books have only been available in GreenSpirit’s ebook series, which is a low-cost series (via Smashwords and Kindle) and free for members. Other titles in the series have outlined the New Universe Story and covered numerous essential aspects of green spirituality. But I should mention that work has already begun for bringing all the titles in the ebook series out as printed editions this year, which will be sold at cost-price. Anyone interested in the
books should visit GreenSpirit’s website (www.greenspirit.org.uk). There are lots of things on the site that people might find useful such as a resources section, book reviews, and information about events. To read an extract of 'Rivers of Green Wisdom', click on this link: