Dekila Chungyalpa is the Program Director for the World Wildlife Fund’s Sacred Earth Program. Recognizing that many of the world’s most important conservation areas are also sacred sites, the program works with religious leaders and faith communities to protect local natural resources. She is also the ecological advisor to His Holiness the 17th Karmapa. Recently Dekila joined fellow BioCon presenter and Alaskan Native elder Ilarion Merculieff to discuss growing up in a culture that revered Mother Earth, bringing the sacred into modern environmentalism and what it means to be a real human being.
Dekila: I'm honestly really happy to be speaking with you. There are very few leaders I know, especially male leaders, who are talking about feminine energy being powerful, and who actually prize it as oppose to devaluing it. So I 'm very happy to speak with you.
Illarion: Me too. Why don’t you tell me a bit about your background?
Dekila: I grew up in the Himalayas, and I came to the US when I was about 15, and I've off and on stayed in the US, studied here, worked here, but tried my best to keep my connections to my home region.
Ilarion: I'm from St. Paul Island in the middle of the Bering Sea off of Alaska. My people have been out in the Bering Sea for about 10,000 years. When I was a child, I had a traditional upbringing where I learned about being a real human being, as we call it. And a real human being is a person who is connected to the infinite present moment and is also able to suspend thought and be in the heart. So, I had a very good, privileged upbringing that way.
Dekila: I think one of the biggest difficulties for me coming here was the emphasis on individualism. On one hand it was incredibly empowering, but it was also at the same time very isolating, and it's something I've really struggled with for a long time. Over the years as I was getting more involved in managing programs, I started to realize that the isolation is so much bigger than the personal. Actually we're experiencing it at a societal level.
Illarion: I still deal with that issue of individualism compared to a group orientation, but I retain that baseline of a group orientation. I believe that many indigenous groups around the world have that same thing, which is care and consideration of the whole group, and its relationship to each other and Mother Earth.
Dekila: I've been starting to delve into the academic field of eco-psychology, and part of it is very obvious because it's so embedded, I think, in indigenous knowledge and cultures, and also in a lot of religions, which is this idea that our concept of self is actually much larger than our body. It's not contained in our body, and it encompasses nature and it encompasses the earth and the universe.
One of the things I'm trying to figure out is how do we bring this kind of thinking into our work while we are trying to save the planet, because we do emphasize the science so much. It means that we end up being disconnected ourselves to a certain extent, because it is difficult to talk about things like sacred energy, or to talk about things like sacred places.
Ilarion: Well, yes. Even the science that we depend on is disconnected, and the elders here, they say that when we disconnect from our hearts, it's easy then to disconnect from other people and all of creation.
What we need to do according to our elders is get to the root causes of the situation we find ourselves in, which is pushing the life support systems of Mother Earth right to the edge. And we're dealing with a consciousness that works with the symptoms and not the root cause, which I think is separation from the heart that is in connection with all-that-is. And so, the elders here would say we've reversed everything, we've reversed the laws for living. We used to teach how to live, and now we teach how to make a living. And we used to contemplate the mystery of death, and now we contemplate the mystery of life. It's all these reversals. The person from our culture who retains the original teachings is called a real human being, and a real human being is informed about how to act in a way that is in harmony with all-that-is.
Dekila: I did conservation in what I think of as the more traditional way. I worked on all these projects for communities, and all these projects on sustainability and large-scale sustainable development, all of these things, and just gradually I started to get quite discouraged and started to get extremely angry and feel helpless.
When we started this work with His Holiness the Karmapa, he called me and said he wanted his monks and nuns- over 200 monasteries have him as their leader- to be trained in some sort of environmental management. And I went into it very much thinking this was a personal project, that this was something I was doing as a Buddhist. It never occurred to me that this was actually the biggest part of the environmental work I could be doing. And by the time we finished developing environmental guidelines for all the monasteries, I was so transformed. I had hope and it had been such a long time since I had had hope. I felt this reconnection. I could stop pretending that I wasn't connected to the world, and I could stop pretending that what was happening to the world wasn't deeply affecting me. Because I entered it through the spiritual lens, it allowed me to be connected, to feel compassion, to feel gratitude, and all of these positive things that somehow I just bundled away in my professional world.
Ilarion: That's what we call the real human being. A person who is connected in that way is a real human being.
Dekila: I think I became a real human being maybe five years ago.
Ilarion: There are many aspects to the real human being, but I think it's something that everyone is, it's just covered up a lot and we don't know it. Einstein said that we can't solve the problems in the world with the same consciousness that created the problems. And when we look at the solutions that are being brought to bear on things like climate change and other environmental issues, we're using that old consciousness of separation, and that's why I think things are not improving, they're getting worse.
Dekila: The two things I often hear that I really struggle with a response to is, one, okay, so the earth is getting much worse, but the earth will survive. We may not survive, and this is part of evolution, so why should I care; why should I do anything because part of evolution is that we will either evolve or we will die off. It's such a passive-aggressive response, really, but I hear this quite often. And, of course, the other part is that simply what's happening to the earth is irrelevant because there's money to be made. Both of them are such different challenges. And really it comes down to a lot of fear.
Ilarion: From our perspective, we think about the beginning of time. When time began was when we slipped out of the present moment because of guilt and shame, remorse or anger, rage. That puts us in the past, or fear puts us in the future, but never here in the present moment where the point of power is.
I learned this when I was 6 years old. I used to go under the cliffs to watch the migratory sea birds because I was so fascinated with them. And then one day, in my child's mind I looked at them and was awed by the fact that not a single bird—there would be thousands of birds there in front of the cliffs flying around in every direction, in apparent chaos, and I would notice that the birds never even clipped a wing. They wouldn't even hit each other. And I wondered how they did that. I decided that birds don't think; they are just present in the moment. That's when I said I wanna be like a bird. I just want to be like a bird. And it came naturally as a child.
The hunters would take me up hunting, starting at 5 years old. We would hunt by sunrise at the edge of the island. The men would be soft spoken; they wouldn't talk that much. They were always totally present watching for the sea lions to come by. And then somebody might holler out “sea lion coming,” and without him pointing or anything, instantly the men would look at one spot in the water. And it's like 180 degrees of water around the island there where we were hunting, and they would look at one spot. And so I'd look at that spot and there would be no sea lion, but they still would watch that spot. And then about a few minutes later, the sea lion would pop up, and I thought, Wow, that's magical, just magical.
I made a connection between the sea birds and these hunters, and when I started getting good at being a bird, I used it with going out hunting. And by 6 years old, I could feel the sea lion before it came. And I used that for subsistence fishing where we'd fish for halibut, and I could sense the halibut before it hit the line.
The best hunters were people who had this connection, which is considered in a negative way as feminine, but absolutely the best hunters would have these feminine qualities of receptivity, of relationship, being connected to each other and all of creation.
Dekila: What you described sounds so similar to meditation, too, the state you're in where you're one with everything. One of the experiences I had that was really quite influential was I met a Christian scholar whose name is Sallie McFague, and she was talking about how in the Medieval times and during the Renaissance period, there were all these thinkers who talked about how the essence of experiencing God was to give up the self. This is a theme that's very strong in Buddhism, and it's something that my mother and grandmother both would make me do all the time—make me sit down and then say, "Okay, now give up yourself." And I would be struggling with sitting down and very annoyed I'm not out there playing.
My mother used to say all the time to me, "Move yourself out of the way, just put it on the side." It's been one of the most beautiful experiences in my life actually, when I've been lucky enough to be able to do that because then what's happened is I've suddenly found the pattern. You actually have to actively make that decision to say, “I'm parking my ego; I'm parking my identity; I'm parking all the things I want, I think, I have, all of that on one side." And then the world that really opens up for me is the world of patterns, and it's been the larger patterns about where we are as a species, where we are with the world, where our thinking is, whether our thinking has evolved or not. And the patterns that dominate the world, those are actually the least sustaining patterns. Those are patterns that have actually cut our relationships with each other, cut our relationships with the earth, all the things that actually give us resilience.
And finding community and trying to build community around the world, I think, is really why I learned about Bioneers, why I'm at Bioneers now. It seems to me that that's the only hope, really, is that we find people who are learning or looking at the patterns and protecting the patterns.
Ilarion: I believe, too, that that's true. And we need to find and be part of the thing that we know as community. I mean, I grew up in real community where the entire village raised me. I couldn't go out the door without encountering adults.
Dekila: The big danger I see is anger among my peers, among my friends, all of us who are actually working on protecting the earth. It's so easy to become negative and to be discouraged or to really feel the sense of rage on behalf of the earth or of the species you care about or of the river that you're working on. I find it very difficult to talk about climate change calmly. So there has to be a way we sustain our own selves while we're in this fight.
I think that's one of the reasons why indigenous knowledge is so important, and why native cultures are so important, because the anger that we have often isolates us even further from the people who we think of as the perpetrators, or who we think of as sort of the bad people, the people who are doing all the bad things, and we stop being able to see them as just part of our family [even though] we have to figure out how to knock some sense into them.
Ilarion: I think anger is just one of the factors of separation. They are frustrated because they don't know what to do.
The elders here say, "What are you choosing to focus on? Are you choosing to focus on that which you're trying to move away from? Or are you choosing to focus on what you're trying to move towards?" Because if you focus on what you're trying to move away from, that becomes the reality.
Dekila: Also what occurs to me after what you just said is, everything is so instant. The process of making a deliberate choice is very rare. And one of the things I asked when we created this program at WWF was, what is it that we deliberately want to contribute to the world? And when we sat down very clearly the strongest message was that we want everybody to recognize how sacred the earth is and just how amazing all of the ecological processes are, how giving the earth is, how everything that happens is happening on this earth. We act like we're actually completely existing on a different planet and the earth just happens to be there.
It took us almost three years before we decided we would launch a program at WWF. I was allowed to take that much time to figure out what this should look like and how honorable that should be. It really gave respect, I think, to the thought leaders as well who were involved in the program.
Ilarion: We always say when spirit and intent are in alignment, followed by vision, the rest is taken care of. It sounds like WWF, through hiring you, is engaged in the right direction.
Dekila: You know, where I come from in Sikkim, our mountain, the Kanchenjunga, it's actually a living deity. Growing up, we understood that actually the mountain is real and has a spirit, and that is our protective deity and our protective spirit.
When I moved away and started studying in the Western system, and I was really studying a lot of science at one point, I had this thought that, 'Oh, I see, that was a cultural belief. 'The disconnect was instant. It was instant disconnect, and I think I stopped being able to hear nature, and I stopped being able to see the patterns of all of the interconnectedness.
So many people have said that they thought the place that they were hiking in or where they grew up was sacred and was spiritually really healing and important. But somehow it's something that we bury, and we're, I think, ashamed of.
Ilarion: As soon as we slip into thought as the primary driving force, we separate. And when we go to school, we are trained to read books and listen to the teacher, but never given the room to experience thinking for yourself, and that's, I think, a key to that.
Dekila: When I was young we spent a lot of time in forest areas. And my grandmother, if I got very upset, she would send me to the nearby meadow and then say come back in a little while. Or go pick pumpkins, go look for chestnuts or something like that. Of course, I left extremely sulky and upset, thinking that this is a chore that I have to do, but what actually she did was train my mind. I learned that when you're upset, you find your peace in nature and you give yourself up. You observe your part in nature. And it really gives you perspective about whatever it is you're upset about, and then you can let that go without there also having to be a big process of: "I'm so sorry I did this," or "I was angry, now I'm not angry." None of that. You just let it go very naturally and it slips away, and then you come back, and it's as though it never was.
Ilarion: We always say that in order to tune into the environment or creation, we have to be at the pace of creation; that is, slow down. And we take little time to slow down in this society. We're just rapidly going faster and faster, and our technologies are faster, when the opposite paradigm needs to apply. I think when you slow down and you pay attention to your surroundings you start to settle into yourself and be closer to your heart, and then you just watch and listen and learn. Because creation is constantly teaching us about what we are. And we're the only species that doesn't know its niche, its natural place. We're the only species.
Dekila: It's true. We're so full of ourselves.
Ilarion: I think about when we slipped out of present moment. The pendulum had swung from feminine imbalance to masculine imbalance and back, and the last shift was 4,000 to 6,000 years ago when it slipped into the masculine imbalance. The world's spiritual leaders knew that this time was coming, and so they decided to hide the teachings, which are born of the feminine, because they knew that goddess cultures, women healers, women themselves, and Mother Earth-based cultures, and Mother Earth were going to be smashed, and we're still in that swing of the pendulum.
Originally, the teachings around the world were based on a common template, reflected differently only because of culture and language and the ground from which you come. So, there have been elders from all over the world that have gathered, and have gathered for the last 10, 15 years—I don't know how long—sharing their piece of the teachings. Eventually, it is said, that the hoop will become whole again.
Dekila: That's fantastic. That's really moving because that gives us hope.
Ilarion: I think we need to have more faith. And that faith is unquestioned trust in ourselves, our hearts, our connection to all that is, and faith especially in all-that-is, the higher consciousness, or God, if you will. That is a kind of faith that in the Christian religion Jesus was talking about.
Dekila: I wonder if it is when our religious leaders and our thought leaders come together that we find that all along we've been speaking the same language, we've just not used the same words.
And that's really interesting to me also because what I see is that there is such a commonality right now among different religions and faith communities on the issue of environment and the responsibility they feel. This is something that people are coming together on. So, I completely understand the idea of a hoop being completed again because I think for a long time it's been all these different pieces, and all of a sudden what we see is that this is a pattern and it's emerged.
Ilarion: We often think about what should we do now, and what we should do now, I think, is probably two-fold. One is first focus on getting into your heart, being present in the moment. And then secondly, do what your heart tells you to do. But in the ultimate way of being, letting go of yourself and your ego.
Dekila: This is why conferences like Bioneers make so much sense to me because we formally have to create these spaces. I'm just so grateful that there is this dialogue, and so happy that the conservation community is finally in dialogue with state leaders, with thought leaders, and traditional elders.
Ilarion: It's happening everywhere, and I think it's a silent revolution. It's not hit the radar yet of the mainstream, which is probably good because if they did find out now that this is happening, then there would be the detractors who would try to take it apart.
Have faith and be positive, and think present.
Dekila: It's been really nice talking with you. I really look forward to meeting you in October.
Ilarion: Okay. I'll look forward to meeting you.