The Secular Hermit: Cultivating Inner Peace, Personal Growth, and Eco-Centricity is the working title of one of my book projects. Here I want to define the term, “eco-centricity.” We will first need to discuss ego-centricity and allo-centricity, as eco-centricity is an extension of allo-. I am hyphenating these terms herein this first paragraph to emphasize their differences. Normally the terms are unhyphenated.
The short answer is that all three terms refer to to the Self and its frame of reference, which means we need to discuss a little about Self too. Ego– refers to using ourselves as the frame of reference; allo-, means “other” as the frame of reference; and eco– to use Nature or something in Nature as our frame of reference. I am capitalizing Nature here as an entity or archetype, as in Mother Nature.
Much of my discussion here comes from James H. Austin’s, M.D., Living Zen Remindfully (2016) and Zen and the Brain (1999). Born in 1925 and still kickin’ as of this writing apparently, Austin is a neurologist that has written five books on Zen and the brain. While his work is directed specifically to Zen practice, what he has to say would apply to any intensive meditative practice. He is the one who coined the term, ecocentricity.
As a long time Zen practitioner myself and as a evolutionary biologist, who, long ago taught human anatomy and physiology to nursing majors, and with a lot of neurobiology background, his writing have been particularly informative. Haven’t helped my experience kensho or satori (Zen enlightenment experiences), but I have a good understanding of the underlying neurobiology involved. This on top of my own kensho experiences helps me understand why Zen can be such a powerful transformer of our brains, stimulating neuroplastic brain growth toward enlightenment and ecocentricity.
Zen zazen (meditation) practice provides a pathway to move us from our Western bloated, highly egocentric Self to more balanced allocentric Self, and finally to eco-centricity. It moves us from being selfish towards selflessness: i.e., altruism, compassion, lovingkindness–and toward greater Nature-consciousness. Actually, many spiritual practices, when pursued with ardor, will help lead us toward these altruistic directions, but not necessarily the Nature part, which is where the ecocentricity comes in.
The Zen path is a difficult, challenging, exhausting path, requiring long hours and years of zazen practice. Zazen moves beyond mindfulness meditation, focusing on increasing our abilities in attention and diminution of our over conditioned, maladaptive egocentric Self to a more balanced, better adapted self.
Our culture of the West, especially with its emphasis on individualism, results in an overly developed ego-centric frame of reference. It is more like an Ego on steroids. The resulting ego-Self is bloated, greedy, maladapted, tending toward anxiety, selfishness, anger, loneliness, and often destructive of itself, others, and/or the environment–all sorts of maladaptive traits and behaviors result. Our brains devote a lot of neurons and energy to defining the Self. It has sections devoted just to that self’s perspective, aka, frame of reference. It also has other neurons devoted to looking at things from an allocentric point of view.
For example, let us say we are with a friend who is talking about some personal issue with which he is dealing. Inside our heads as we listen, our egocentric self would be looking at it from our personal point of view, maybe how the friend’s situation impacts us. That’s those muscle-bound egocentric neurons talking, the ones that in our Western culture are so overworked like they have been to the gym working out. Then, there is a switch and our allocentric neurons kick in, and we see things more from the friends perspective. This is where empathy kicks in–from this allocentric point of view. These neurons were critically important for our evolution as a eusocial species with all its altruistic traits.
Our brains take in the sensory information coming in from the outside world and use these two kinds of information (egocentric and allocentric) to make judgements and decisions about what is going on outside of us. They are how we navigate our way through the world, including spatial location and directions. They can create a 3-D map for us.
Freud’s conception of the Ego was as pragmatic executor; its many positive attributes, including logical reasoning and introspection, helped to direct our more primitive Id instincts in socially appropriate avenues and keep them within bounds. Meditative training, like Zen’s zazen, helps to restore that originally positive Ego to its rightful place to enhance the adaptive competence of the pragmatic Self, and to better balance out our egocentric and allocentric Selves.
Our ecocentric Self is an extension of our allocentric self to include Nature in the “other.” It has to be learned. There are no specialized neurons or parts of the brain that direct our attention there per se. However, when we look at indigenous cultures and societies who had to live very much attuned to their natural world, we see a deep spiritual respect, awe, and even fear of Nature.–You didn’t mess with Mother Nature! Of course, by modern, technologically highly advanced society, maybe sacrificing virgins to appease the gods went a little too far.
If we as a species, much less a society, are to survive climate change, overpopulation, pollution, pandemics, etc., we desperately need to cultivate our ecocentricity! To look at our actions and behaviors both as individuals and as a collective society in terms of how they affect Nature and her children . If we don’t, our species along with many others will disappear. Mother Nature bites back eventually, and she is doing that now.