31 January 2016

The Self Is a Mask

The self is a mask without a face,
a beguiling movie set built in the middle of nowhere.

We spend every waking minute and many of the sleeping ones
repairing the cracks and shoring up the supports in the fa├žade.
The self is that fragile. It requires constant maintenance.

When the self loses its power to enchant, the whole of reality reveals its power.
Touched by infinity, nothing is ever the same.
The mask is seen as a mask.
The empty lot behind the false front is revealed.

Only reality is real. The mind game of self-existence is a fake.

No longer living in devotion to the Magic Kingdom of the mind,
now what?

Suddenly a raven announces its presence, calling its way across the sky.

The Hermit

Solitude has a critical role to play in societal transformation.

Our sense of self and our sense of the world are profoundly influenced by the social norms that surround us. We tend to believe what our peers believe and see the world the way our peers see the world. Our worldview is heavily influenced by the messages we absorb every day from our friends, from our co-workers, from cable and internet news, Facebook and Twitter. The devilish part is that we do not even realize how much our sense of self is created by those around us. We merge with the group, while claiming that we are autonomous selves and independent thinkers.

Separating our perception from the filters of our culture is extremely difficult. This makes it nearly impossible to solve problems that are at least in part problems of perception and worldview. Such as the ecological crisis. Even for those of us who realize that the root of the problem lies in how we see ourselves and the world, it remains very challenging to see the world in any way other than the way our society frames it. Our society is constantly reminding us of who it thinks we are and what it thinks the world is, and we absorb and adopt that view, or risk isolation from our community.

Along comes someone who has chosen isolation voluntarily: the hermit. She saw the danger of social harmony. She stepped away from those influences in order to see more clearly. She carried those norms with her into her solitude, and wrestled with them as they continued to maintain dominance. She repeated in her own mind, over and over, the messages she had unconsciously absorbed from her earliest childhood. But without reinforcement from society, they began to unravel.

She stepped into a world most of us never see, a world alive with the non-human, the animal, the plant, the wind, the water, the stone, the soil, the sun and star light. She encountered her essential emptiness. Fell into it, quite unexpectedly. She discovered that apart from these others, she has no existence at all. She is these others. Her sense of being a separate self was a mental fabrication, aided by all of those messages from the society about who and what she should be; what matters and what does not matter; who is precious and who is expendable; what lies at the center of concern and what is outside the wall; what is a life, and what is a commodity. Without those messages filling her sense of self, she fell into the embrace of the real.

She discovered what life is.

She may decide never to return to society. Society is thoroughly distorted by the beliefs it promotes. It is delusional at its core. Who would want to return after getting free of it? If she does return, and speaks, will anyone listen? Her message is strange, almost incomprehensible. It challenges the entire edifice of human civilization, confronts it with its lies and distortions and self-aggrandizing rationalizations.

She speaks in contradictions. The real world is alive with beauty and power. The human mind belongs to that world but it is lost in its own illusions.  Everything is sacred, and nothing lasts forever. Imagination and lack of awareness are our greatest dangers. Our senses are our window on the world and a veil that obscures it. Most of our attempts to understand the real world reduce our understanding. We are these limited little organisms that move around and carry private thoughts, and we are the whole universe. We are emptiness and we are everything. The "self" is a fiction. The "other" is a fiction. Everything that supports civilization is essentially hollow: endless growth, personal success, entertainment, power, wealth, perpetual conflict. Civilization serves the self. Without self, civilization collapses. Civilization cannot be made less selfish. It is built on the illusion of the separate self. You can withdraw, or remove your consent, but you cannot reform civilization. Art was once an exuberant expression of being alive; now it is mostly self-referential, serving only its own perpetuation. Civilization has become the adversary of life.

The hermit is advocating the collapse of civilization. She is crazy. We won't listen.

The hermit is not advocating anything. She is just telling it like it is. Civilization is going to collapse whether we want it to or not. The only question is how and when. The hermit is telling us what hermits and other contemplatives have been telling us all along. This thing we cling to, this human civilization which provides a measure of safety and security for some and endless misery for others, is blinding us to reality. By insisting on living by its rules, we are cheating ourselves of the truth. We mouth our allegiance to our respective religions, but we never, ever want to go where they are pointing us. Divine reality, which we pretend to seek, demolishes our sense of self and undermines the foundation of society. We would rather pretend that reality belongs to us, and is captured by what we believe, and will do our bidding. We can manage it and shape it to our liking. No problem.

The hermit's message, like the sacred stories we like to ignore, is that God is a fire. God is a hurricane. God is an earthquake. God unmasks our illusions and unmakes our sense of self. The truth is not cozy and self-affirming. It is a disaster for our sense of self and a radical challenge to human civilization. Reality is terrifying to the illusory self. So we resist it like mad while paying lip service to it. Somewhere in our minds we know we cannot escape reality. But maybe we can distract it, buy it off with words of devotion.

The hermit offers an alternative. Lose yourself to find yourself. Lose your devotion to separation and find wholeness. Which, oddly, means finding oneself in opposition to the communal as well as the individual. The Group always has a circle that defines who is in and who is out. Wholeness includes everyone and everything and therefore stands in sharp contrast to The Group. The Self is like A Group of One. It also draws a circle that defines what is "me" and what is "not me." Reality therefore stands in sharp contrast to The Self. Reality demolishes all that includes and excludes and leaves nothing but itself, the whole of everything. Talking about it is easy. Encountering it is something else entirely. Total undoing. Reality is vast and incomprehensible. Very few dare to look it in the face.

The hermit has been there and come back to tell us about it. The Kingdom of God is right at hand. Ungraspable, it is nevertheless at our fingertips. Only the self stands in the way.

Will we listen, or will we turn away from her, settling back into the unreal world we think we know and think we can manage, a world no larger than the mental frame that encloses it?

04 July 2015

Another Loss for the Quiet

As anyone who listens often to the natural soundscape knows, airplane noise is becoming almost unavoidable. Even in remote areas. The effect on wildlife who depend on a clear audio channel for communication remains largely unknown. My opinion, shared by almost no one I know, is that the only solution is for us all to fly a lot less, to stay put, and to localize our economies so we are not shipping stuff every which way. Care to join me in that?

From the Acoustic Ecology Institute Blog:

A new Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) effort to modernize air traffic flow around major cities is ignoring the chance to do slight re-routing that would minimize air traffic over dwindling areas of natural quiet.

Read more...


Timeless Thrush

The very first thing this mind wants to do when it wakes up in the morning is to know what day it is. Why does it not linger in the timeless state of awareness for a little while, before insisting on remembering when and who it is?

This morning it was awakened by the song of a wood thrush. The song was made up of five phrases repeated regularly, the only variation being the entry point, sometimes the second phrase, sometimes the third, usually the first. Toward the end of the song session, the order began to fall apart, become more random. But before the mind became aware of all of that, it was simply listening to the song without analysis, in a half sleep.

The very first thought was, "What day is it?"

A pause.

Then, "I don't know what day it is. Do I have to get up? Do I have something I have to do?" No "I" in the first thought, but already in the second thought "I" have come into it and become a bit panicky.

Pause. The mind is waking up. The thrush is still singing, not heard so well now that "I" am engaged in figuring out what day it is.

It comes: Saturday, July 4. I could lie in bed continuing to listen to the thrush, but it is too late. The mind is awake. It is picking up things it was thinking about as it fell asleep. It is thinking about what needs to be done. It is generating anxiety about some of those things. It is recreating its sense of self, as it does every morning, sometimes in a moment, sometimes a bit more slowly.

Why not just lie in bed for a while, listening to the thrush without thought, analysis, comment or question? Why do I need, so urgently, to know what day it is, to know what needs to be done, to know who I am? But the deed is done, the quiet listening is over, the thrush is singing, the song is analyzed, but no longer is it well heard. Is the mind now awake, or did being awake last only a few moments before it fell into the trance of itself? Meanwhile, the thrush is still singing.

05 May 2015

Right Whales in Cape Cod Bay

Large numbers of north Atlantic right whales, more than 60, have been seen in Cape Cod Bay in recent days. They normally appear in large numbers in mid April, so like everything else in New England this spring they are running a couple weeks late. But in this case late is definitely better than never. It's a sign that the population is probably faring okay despite the lack of food in their traditional summer grounds in the Bay of Fundy, and a sure sign that spring has finally come to New England.

Articles:

http://wellfleet.wickedlocal.com/article/20150502/NEWS/150509592

http://www.capecodtoday.com/article/2015/05/05/224342-Numbers-grow-whales-continue-feast-Cape-Cod-Bay

An almost-real-time map of right whale sightings:

http://www.nefsc.noaa.gov/psb/surveys/

15 September 2014

Right Whales Return and Disappear Again

It was with a great sense of relief that I read in early August that right whales had returned in large numbers to the Bay of Fundy. During the last week in July, whale watch boats out of Grand Manan counted 50 right whales. Comments ran along the lines of "just like the old days." Researchers from the New England Aquarium, who have been studying right whales in the Bay of Fundy for 34 years, documented 45 whales on Thursday of that week and another 30 or so on Friday.

This was good news, because last year, the NEAq team found five whales in the Bay, the lowest in all the years they have been going there. It was very worrying. The Bay of Fundy normally hosts the largest number of right whales of any place we know. I have seen as many as 75 on a single trip. That's quite a large number, about 15% of the entire population.

Right whales come to the Bay of Fundy in search of food. Summer is the time when plankton blooms in northern waters and many species of whale come to the Bay of Fundy looking for food. For many of them, this is the only food they will have all year. They survive winter on the fat they store during the summer. So in general, the whales go where the food is, and last year there was no food in the waters of the Bay of Fundy, at least not the kind of food that right whales eat.

Right whales consume a species of copepod, a very tiny, almost microscopic shrimp-like animal, named Calanus finmarchicus. Calanus is a cold water species. Increases in water temperature affect how early in the year they reproduce, how long they remain at the surface (right whales are surface feeders) and ultimately whether they reproduce at all. It is not much of a leap to speculate that the absence of Calanus in the Bay of Fundy in August of 2013 was due to higher-than-normal surface water temperatures.

Looking at data from NOAA weather buoys in the northern Gulf of Maine, near the mouth of the Bay of Fundy, I have found that the surface water temperature has been rising over the past decade, with 2012 and 2013 being the warmest on record. That might account for the absence of food and the absence of right whales.

This year is different. The water temperature is closer to what it was a decade ago. At first I thought that might account for the abundance of right whales, for the comment that it feels "like the old days." Surface water temperature tends to follow air temperature. So with global warming we expect to find warming of ocean surface temperatures as well, with obvious consequences for cold-water species. At first there was reason to celebrate the return of right whales to the Bay of Fundy this year, but there is now reason to remain concerned, because in spite of year-to-year variations that can be quite dramatic, the long-term trend is toward warming. And the right whales have disappeared again. That early optimism has been replaced with concern once again. Surveys in the Bay of Fundy, and in the Roseway Basin off the Coast of Nova Scotia have turned up very few whales. Five or six have been spotted off the coast of Cape Breton, farther north. Given what happened last year, I am not optimistic that the Bay of Fundy will remain a gathering place for right whales.

The question of the moment, at least for me, is what effect two years of poor food resource in the Bay of Fundy is having on the health of the population. It costs a lot of energy to go looking for food, not knowing where it will be found. The energy in the food that is found has to be higher than the energy spent to find it, or it is of no use. If the energy spent looking is higher than the energy in the food found, then right whale health will be decreasing and mortality from starvation could be high.

I have no evidence that right whales are starving to death, but I think it is a concern. What does the second year of absence of whales in the Bay of Fundy mean? Does it mean they got the word and are avoiding the Bay? Or does it mean last year's lack of food significantly diminished the population? A large number of whales appeared in Cape Cod Bay in April, suggesting that the population is okay, but their food is moving. But a lower-than-normal number of calves was born in the winter, suggesting the population is experiencing some difficulties.

Researchers have depended on the predictability of right whales' presence in the Bay of Fundy to monitor and study them and estimate their total numbers. They photograph them, count them, identify individuals, collect DNA and poop, and thus have gathered a very complete picture of the size and structure of the right whale population. If right whales have abandoned the Bay of Fundy, it will take significant human effort to figure out where they are going to find food, in order to continue to monitor their health and well-being.

If they drop off of our radar, we will have little idea how they are faring, except to continue to observe how many females appear off the coast of Florida in the winter to give birth, and perhaps to monitor them more closely in Cape Cod Bay in the winter and spring. Right whales have survived being hunted to near extinction. They have surely survived other changes in their food supply. We can hope and believe they are adaptable enough to survive this one. But it would be nice to know. Whale researchers don't seem to be very good at remaining dispassionate. It's not an easy job. You have to care a lot to go out every day in a tiny boat and spend long days searching for and documenting whales. The blog posts from the New England Aquarium convey real concern and a sense of loss.

Seeing the right whales each year is one sign that this precious Earth is still holding things together, despite all the stress it is experiencing at our hands. Not seeing them is very worrying, and for me feels like a sign that we are pushing the Earth beyond its limits and will be facing many more losses in the years to come.

20 July 2014

The Whole World Is Sacred

The following paragraphs summarize most of what I have tried to communicate in this blog and in my essays. I have arrived at this perspective by living among homeless people, being in a war zone, hanging out with whales and seals and birds and trees and rivers, and living a contemplative, listening life.


The Whole World is Sacred:

The plants and animals, rivers and seas and mountains and forests, the stars and planets, are sacred, of value in and of and for themselves. For humans to use them, manipulate them, harvest them, harm them, abuse them, without any regard for their own value for themselves leads to grievous harm for us all. I seek the sanctification of the whole universe and all of its members. I resist commodification and exploitation in all its forms. Nothing, absolutely nothing, exists only for another’s use.


Beliefs Distort Reality:

No matter what we believe (about the world, or about ourselves), no matter what we think we know, if we prefer our beliefs to reality, our relationship with reality gets distorted. To stay in touch with reality, we must be active listeners, open to the whole range of experience, inward and outward, comfortable and uncomfortable. To be attentive to reality is to be here and now, listening deeply, observing sensitively; acting as necessary, taking into our awareness our limited experience and our vast ignorance.


When I See That I Am No Thing, I See That I Am Everything:

To be attentive to reality is to encounter our limits, to see that we do not really know anything at all. Reality is essentially hidden from us, even though we live it and breathe it and it is right at hand. From this awareness of our ignorance comes the love of everything that is. How is that? Our sense of self is created by the stories we tell about the world and our relationship to it. When we realize that we do not really know who we are, and we do not really know what the world is, our ability to derive an enduring sense of self from these stories evaporates, and what is left is the whole of everything, its dynamic interrelatedness, and this organism as part of that whole movement of life. The stories don’t necessarily stop, but they are no longer definitive. The living “self” is not in the stories I tell, but in the whole movement of life. This is a powerful shift of perspective.

We tend to have this backward. We elevate the stories we tell to the status of Self, and we denigrate the reality in which we move to the status of “other;” not important, inherently evil, of value only if useful to me, an illusion, to be feared, to be hated, to be escaped, to be conquered, to be manipulated, used, abused, destroyed. We create a “me,” and then the “not-me” is either useful to me, or it is a threat to me and treated accordingly. The love of everything is not the love of one separate thing for another separate thing, but the inherent love of the wholeness of life reveling in its wholeness, in which there is no division, no “me,” no “not-me,” no conflict, no distortion, no exploitation.


Everything Must Change:

The human presence on Earth has become so dysfunctional; our ways of living and working, of growing and catching food, of making things, of gathering the resources to make things, and our ways of disposing of those things are so fundamentally out of harmony with natural, life-giving processes, and so destructive to the basis of life, that we must be utterly changed, inwardly and outwardly, in our sense of identity and in the structures of our societies. New technology and a few policy changes are insufficient (though probably necessary).

We need a complete change of heart and mind, a reorientation at the deepest levels of psyche and society. The nature of the change is what I have articulated above: look and see that beliefs distort reality; see that I am no thing, and therefore everything; see that everything is sacred.

Contrast those with what I think characterize our dominant perspective: my beliefs form the core of my identity - I'll kill to defend them if I have to; I am an individual, autonomous self, and that self reigns supreme; My life and the lives of those related to me or close to me are of great value, but everything else is of value only if it is useful to me and my kin or my nation or wherever I happen to draw the boundary of my "self" (and it is a very flexible boundary, although we fail to recognize that).

A complete reversal of orientation has become a matter of survival. I have tried to describe where I think that reorientation comes from, and to make clear that it is possible, but it remains elusive at best.


One final word: Because beliefs distort reality, I do not ask anyone to believe anything that I am saying. This reorientation goes way beyond a change in beliefs. It is available to anyone and everyone who stops and looks and listens and is willing to be utterly changed in the process.