I just posted an essay called Introduction to Contemplative Ecology on my website. It seemed a little long for a blog post. The other thing I want to say about it is that I am beginning to think about moving away from the terminology of "contemplative ecology." It feels like that language is more confusing than clarifying. It requires too much explanation of things that are not essential. I first started using that term 5 or 6 years ago, simply to make the connection between the inner and the outer, which we normally hold in separate realms. But the words "ecology" and "contemplation" mean too many things to too many people, and do not always point in the direction I want them to point, so I am trying to find some other way of referring to this thing. I have no doubt about what it is, but I am not sure what to call it. In that way, this essay is more a mark of where I have been than where I am going.
Meanwhile, here is an excerpt from the essay, or read the whole piece at the link above or this short link that you can share with others who might be interested.
"Humans have unleashed a destructive force that is consuming
the planet, destabilizing life systems at the deepest levels. That force is
both internal and external. It is a psycho-social system…
If we exclude the
internal and focus only on the external, we ignore half of the picture. If we
exclude the external and focus only on the internal, we exclude the other half.
If we bring them together into one interactive system, we shake the foundations
of many of our most cherished beliefs and behaviors.
"The boundary of inclusion and exclusion, what we consider
internal and what we consider external, is the boundary of the self. The
boundary of acceptance and rejection is who we think we are. Total acceptance
and total inclusion mark the end of the sense of being a separate self. Will I
ever take care of something or someone if I believe I am essentially separate
from them? Will I care for the Earth if I am separate from it, if I believe I
will continue in a non-physical realm after the body dies? Will I care for the
other animals if I think I am above them, better than them, more important than
them, essentially different from them, essentially separate from them?
ecology, then, reunites these two domains, which are really one domain in the
first place: the inner and the outer, the psychological and the
social, the spirit and the body, the human and the natural, the self and the
world, desire and economics, cognitive bias and politics, the way the mind
works and the way all natural systems work. The ways in which mind
and society and the natural world are interrelated and mutually dependent. It's
an explosive mix. Contemplative ecology includes everything, and therefore has
a chance of addressing a crisis that also includes everything, but it is a threat
to our sense of who we are and what we think the world is and how power
operates in society. It is a threat to our belief in the true nature of our selves. Contemplative ecology therefore poses a challenge to the status
The human exploitation system is swallowing up everything wild and innocent. Yet what can we do? We are products of that system and we live in that system and getting out of it requires profound changes in human thinking and behavior. The changes required in the human psyche and human society run so deep that even those few who want to change, who see the necessity for change, find real change very difficult. We tinker at the edges and hope we are doing something profound.
We need a spiritual revolution. For me "spirituality" means our most fundamental understanding of who we are and what the world is. And that is where the change needs to happen, at the root of what we think we are. Are we oriented toward reality, or do we live in thrall to our own delusions? The human species, perhaps no species, has ever faced anything like this. At the heart of this is a seemingly unsolvable puzzle: we are the problem and we cannot therefore solve the problem. If we try to solve it using the mind that is creating it, we only sow more trouble. Something from outside of the human psycho-social system needs to step in.
I see two ways this can happen, two forces that can take us out of ourselves in the way that is needed. The first is living in greater communion with the non-human world. The wild animals and plants are free of us. I think that is part of why being around them is so lovely. They are free of us, and therefore set us free from ourselves when we pay attention to them. The tragedy of this time is that very little of the wild world remains. It is being swallowed, extinguished or tamed at exponentially increasing rates. What chance do wild animals and plants have against the machinery of human industry? Meanwhile, most people are more attached to their iPhones than they are to the wild world. They can't be alone. They can't be quiet. They can't be away from their text messages. They never step out of the human mindscape. They hardly know that the wild world exists.
To step out of the human mindscape is to be vulnerable in a way most people are unable or unwilling to experience. Life is beautiful and wonderful and delightful, but it is also fragile, harsh and deadly. Aging and sickness and death are part of the package, part of how life works, how it regenerates, how it creates more of itself within the limits of the planet. Knowing this has always been part of the contemplative life. We must accept our mortality to be fully alive, because life and death are intertwined aspects of the movement of life. Life includes death, and with it, new life. The denial of decay and death brings annihilation, which is a very different matter.
As Aldo Leopold said (misquoting Thoreau) "In wildness is the salvation of the world." For Leopold, it was the dying light in the eyes of a wolf he had shot that showed him a world larger and deeper than the one he held in his head, a living world that was much richer than his worldview. But how do we give wildness a toe-hold in our lives anymore? Wildness - that which is free of the human mind - is being destroyed everywhere. And we need it more than ever.
Fundamental transformation of the human techno-psycho-social system has become a matter of survival, for us and for most of the species of life currently living on Earth. Most of us may not be active exploiters but we support or passively accept the system that does the exploiting for us. So what on Earth is going to bring about that transformation? What is going to stop us in our tracks? What can put a stick in the spokes of the industrial juggernaut? What reality can pierce the armor of our beliefs? What wolf will look us in the eye and tell us how very wrong we are, about everything? We must all be changed. But what can possibly bring about such a deep change? All of us are in the system. We are the system. It makes us what we are, and we in turn make it what it is, in an endless cycle. Like an addict who can't face his addiction, or an abuser who cannot stop manipulating everything around him, we need an intervention. Something from outside of the system needs to interrupt the system, but who or what is going to intervene?
With wild nature rapidly disappearing, we are left with one other thing that can stop us in our tracks: silence; emptiness. We fear it. We avoid it. We are unlikely to embrace it and be embraced by it, because silence is also wild. We can't control it. We can't understand it. We can't even identify with it. It eludes capture completely. Yet it is with us all the time. We only have to notice it, and allow it to be a presence in our lives. Silence, emptiness, undoes everything we have tried to do. It ruins all of our plans and hopes and schemes. It is everywhere, yet when it reveals itself, it comes like a thief saying, "Nothing is permanent. Nothing you believe is real. Nothing belongs to you, not even your self." And civilization crumbles, founded as it is on the belief that treasures can be stored up and kept safe, for me, for the immortal "I." Silence is a direct and immediate affront to the feeling that "I" exist. And so we push it away like we push away our mortality. We fill every second with noise and activity. Even meditation has become an app, to be dispensed with quickly, its aim to make us more efficient workers, better able to manage our busyness, better slaves.
Silence could save us, and wildness could save us, but that is like saying that saving us could save us. This is the conundrum. Salvation is right at hand. It is as close as breathing. And we run from it with all our strength. To stop the onslaught of destruction, we only have to stop running. Just stop. Only our fear of stopping and the emptiness that awaits prevents us from stopping. But that is enough to keep the machine going perpetually despite the fact that we are driving over the cliff. We are driving over the cliff and we are afraid to stop. And all we have to do to stop, is stop.
In emptiness is our salvation. The thing we search and long for. The ultimate sense of belonging. We belong to everything. Separation is not possible. The whole cosmic order is right at hand. But we can't really know that unless we come to a full stop. So the thing we fear is the thing we most desire and need. By fearing emptiness, we fear life. And the consequence of that is the violence and destruction that perpetuates itself down through the ages.
More wind farms will not save us. More solar panels will not save us. More nuke plants and oil wells will not save us. More rules and laws will not save us. More studies and research will not save us. We don't need to figure anything out. We don't need anything, except the abundance of life and the mystery of silence. To find them, we need only stop and discover what we already have and what we already are: emptiness and everything; silence and the whole movement of life.
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 façade. 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,
Suddenly a raven announces its presence, calling its way across the sky.
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?
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
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?"
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.
I have spent my life asking questions about our place on Earth; working for peace, social justice and environmental conservation; living a contemplative, listening life; and sharing my experiences through writing and education. I have studied the vocal behavior of marine mammals and songbirds. I now devote much of my time to recording natural soundscapes and composing and performing music that is inspired by those soundscapes.
The environmental situation is critical, and solutions are urgently needed that touch the deepest levels of who we think we are, how we view the world, and how our actions mirror those beliefs.