07 September 2016

What Is Consciousness?



I have avoided wading into the thicket of consciousness. We consider it such a central part of our identity, it is astonishing how little we understand it. As far as I can see, consciousness studies are a mess. We can't even seem to agree on a definition of the word, much less understand how it works or what it is for. But it comes up over and over whenever you want to try to understand why humans behave the way they do. So I am wading in, even though I do not understand consciousness any better than anyone else. So approach all of this skeptically. For that matter, approach everything skeptically, including your own beliefs and opinions. As we will see as we get into this, we don't really know much, not even about ourselves. Be very skeptical indeed of anyone who claims to have all of the answers.

The exact nature of consciousness is mysterious. No one has figured it out. Why does the brain create conscious experience at all, and how does it do it? Philosophers and neuroscientists have puzzled over that one for hundreds and thousands of years, and we still do not know. We can't even agree on a definition. Not all experience is conscious. Most mental activity is unconscious. Most of our true motivations are unconscious. That alone should give us pause, should be grounds for humility. This thing that is our most intimate experience remains beyond the grasp of our understanding. We have different definitions and different opinions and very little common understanding. We do not know ourselves at all. Perhaps we cannot know ourselves. But we act as if we do know. We act out of ignorance as if we have true understanding.

Is Consciousness the Knower or the Known?

I am not an expert on consciousness studies or philosophy, only on my own conscious experience. In other words, no expert at all. But as far as I can see, and from what I have read, confusion reigns over what consciousness is and what it means. Often the word "consciousness" refers to conscious experience, what is sometimes also called "the contents of consciousness" or "qualia." It refers to those experiences that are known, that are experienced consciously: sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touches, feelings, thoughts, dreams. Unconscious experiences also exist: things that happen, that go on around us, that we never experience consciously. The photons enter the eye, the brain processes the nerve impulses, but it never creates an image that is experienced consciously. Someone speaks, but we don't hear it. A filter in the brain prevents it from being formed as a conscious experience. Consciousness in this sense is a very limited thing, a small part of the whole operation of the brain. It never has access to the whole truth. Most of reality is unknown, unheard, unseen. Even that which is received by the brain through the sense organs, mostly remains unconscious.

Also mostly unconscious are the actual operations of the brain. Decisions are made based on past experience and past conditioning, the punishments and rewards of our youth, our earliest attempts to survive in a confusing and enigmatic world. The brain forms a simplified model of how the world works, and it moves through the world based on that simplified, often wildly inaccurate, model. This is unconscious action. We have no conscious access to these operations, even though they are the source of most of our behavior. We do not know, can not know, this aspect of ourselves.

Another use of the word "consciousness" refers to a presumed "experiencer" of all experience. This experiencer is mysterious, like the photographer behind a camera. The known lies in front of the lens. What is behind the lens? By this conception of consciousness, cameras without photographers, brains without experiencers, do not create conscious images.

Under this meaning of the word, some entity other than the brain sees every sight and hears every sound and feels every feeling while remaining forever out of view itself. This idea is central to much nondual philosophy. Experiences are bodily but the experiencer is disembodied. Sometimes this entity is supposed to be God. Sometimes it is thought to be a "higher" self. It is often referred to as "pure consciousness". However it is conceived (and it can only be a matter of speculation since it never reveals itself to itself), it is supernatural and omniscient. Pure consciousness is the only reality, and everything else is an illusion. Spiritual awakening is understood to be the realization of this: The world you apparently experience is a dream. Pure consciousness is who you really are.

So it appears to me that there are two camps on conscious experience: those who believe that consciousness is simply the contents of consciousness, that there is no "experiencer;" and those who believe that consciousness and the contents of consciousness are separate, that there is a non-corporeal experiencer who is experiencing every experience. This experiencer is supernatural, bigger than the self, bigger than the brain, bigger than the mind, bigger than the body, perhaps even as big as God. It remains always out of sight, never knowable, the knower of all that is known.

As far as I can see, and I am ready to be completely wrong about this, consciousness and the contents of consciousness are the same thing. No supernatural conscious entity exists behind everyday, fleeting consciousness. When a sound is heard, the compression of air is processed by an ear and a brain. No one is hearing the sound. When a raven flies by, an eye and a brain create an image of a very mysterious phenomenon. No one is seeing a raven. No one is seeing through these eyes or hearing through these ears. Seeing is happening. Hearing is happening. One particular instance, among the many billions of human and non-human instances, of the universe creating an image of itself. Consciousness is therefore a small thing. An amazing thing, but only a tiny, keyhole expression of reality, and more a veil than a window. Consciousness reveals limited aspects of the world, but it also massively filters most of it.

I can't locate my self in consciousness any more than I can locate myself in my left hand, which also gets only occasional use. Consciousness makes its claim on our essential identity, because most of us feel pretty strongly that we can lose our left hand with no loss of self (although if we are a professional violinist it will present a real challenge to our sense of identity as well as to our vocation), but we feel we can't lose consciousness without losing self. But is that so? We lose consciousness every night. Most of our sleeping hours are dreamless and utterly unconscious. But we wake up in the morning with no sense of having not existed. Conscious experience is not what gives us that feeling of existing as a separate and unique entity. I would argue that what does that is the story of the self.

The Story of the Self

There is a third way that "consciousness" is used, and this one lays special claim to our sense of self. It refers to the inner monologue, the stream of sub-vocalized words that we "hear" in our heads, but no one else hears. I often refer to this as "the commentator." It is like the commentator at a sporting event, constantly referring what is happening to what it knows from memory. It is often judgmental, it is very opinionated, sometimes entertaining, can be extremely annoying, is frequently wrong, and its presence takes attention away from what is happening in the world around us. Many people simultaneously identify with it and make futile attempts to drown it out. Some meditators see silencing the inner commentator as the ultimate goal of meditation. Yet we attach great importance to it. It tells us who we are. Through a series of thoughts, it separates "me" from whatever is being experienced. It locates "me" in memory of the past and in judgment of others. Our sense of self as derived from the commentator is actually quite flexible. It is constantly reinventing itself depending on the circumstances, while managing to give the impression of continuity.

The first few seconds of waking up from deep sleep are a good time to see this self-mechanism kick into gear. The mind starts rehearsing what it knows about who and where it is, and in mere seconds can rebuild its sense of self. But before it gears up, raw experience reigns, without commentary, without reference to self. Self is an activity of the mind. Self is a mind-constructed fiction. It is an activity that explains and makes connections and relies heavily on memory to build a fictional entity called "me." Our minds love to tell stories, to connect what they know, and explain away what they don't understand. Loss of "self" is the loss of the ability to tell a coherent story. It isn't loss of consciousness that kills the sense of self (unless that loss is permanent), it is the loss of episodic memory and the loss of the ability to weave a coherent narrative, to update and reinvent continuously the story of "me" in reference to memory. When the storytelling stops, so does the self.

For all of our great attachment to the story of the self, most of us also experience a kind of ecstasy when the self-story stops and we function with unconscious action, and conscious experience, but no commentator. This is often referred to as "being in the flow." Actions seem to just happen on their own, although those actions rely heavily on prior practice and muscle training. Musicians and athletes and artists know this state. The commentator shuts up and the basic, unconscious training of the brain kicks in. It feels great. Although we identify with the storyteller, what this tells us is that the storyteller is not running the show. It is not the decider. It is just the commentator. The action is going on out of sight in the unconscious brain. The commentator is merely trying to make sense out of that small portion that appears in conscious experience, and trying to relate it to what resides in memory.

I suppose there is nothing wrong with this, but it is not trivial. The human enterprise is built on a foundation of self-hood as the ultimate reality. Take away the self, and the whole edifice of human civilization collapses. Its reason for being ceases to be. The power and control and exploitation, the endless seeking for self-fulfillment, the fear of the unknown that expresses itself in rigid religious beliefs and unbeliefs of all stripes, all crumble to dust if there is no self. Self-help, self-denial, self-actualization, self-realization, success, status, power, control, all rendered meaningless if there is no self.

Self-Consciousness

There is a fourth use of the word "consciousness" as well. Some people use "consciousness" to refer to self-consciousness, to having a self-image or a self-concept, to being able to distinguish one's own body from everything else. I think self-consciousness in humans is related to the story of the self, the commentator, but other animals, like chimps and dolphins and whales and seals, also have self-images. They recognize themselves in mirrors. They have or can use names for themselves and for objects in their world. I do not have any idea what it is in the brain that creates that sense of self-existence as distinct from everything else. Memory might play a role. It might have something to do with lateralized brain function. I do not know whether marine mammals and non-human primates have self stories like we have. I tend to doubt it. I think they are self-conscious, and they have conscious experiences, but are they storytellers? I don't know.

Depending on which definition you are using, "consciousness" is limited to humans, shared by several mammals with complex brains (chimps, dolphins and porpoises, humans, elephants, whales), common to all animals with central nervous systems, or a basic feature of the entire universe. These different aspects of mental function are all referred to as "consciousness" but they are not necessarily linked. It is possible to have conscious experience, but not be self-conscious. It is possible to have conscious experience but not tell a self-story about it. No one can know with any certainty whether or not there is a supernatural experiencer of all experience. What we call "consciousness" is not one thing, but many things, and lumping them together is very confusing.

The Whole Body

We have invested so much of our sense of self in some aspect of consciousness that we balk at the idea that consciousness is a small and relatively unimportant function of the brain. Who am I if not my conscious self? Bodies with brains find satisfaction in a challenging task, in achieving what looked difficult or impossible. Meaning still resides in that. Meaning resides in friends, in good company, in fellowship with plants and animals, in healthy surroundings, in nourishing food, in everything that is full of the vitality of the whole movement of life. That's life stuff, not self stuff. That's deriving meaning from participation, not from separation or exclusion or domination. The self is insecure, seeing as how it doesn't actually exist. So it tends to be pretty territorial. It struggles endlessly to prove its existence through "more and better." Gotta have more. Gotta be better. Gotta live forever. That is the stuff of the self, trying to prove it exists, when in fact it does not exist.

The self we think we are is ephemeral, existing only as a complex of thought patterns in the mind. We think the real self is the self we imagine ourselves to be, the self that is a spirit housed in this body, but somehow separate from it. We think the body, the natural world, the physical universe, is "other." We imagine it to be inanimate, unconscious, unimportant. In many of our spiritual and religious traditions, we think the physical world is an illusion, or that it is "fallen" and that our ultimate goal is to escape it or at best redeem it.

We have it backward. Tragically, destructively backward.

We fully inhabit this world. There is no other. This is the only life we will ever have. Our goal is to make of our lives a harmonious counterpoint to the melody of the whole universe. The other animals don't have to work at this. They do it naturally because, it appears, they have not created self stories that separate them from the whole.

We create self images, and we act as if the image is the real, and the real is the image! Backward! We treat the "self" as if it is the most important thing of all, and the "world" as if it either doesn't matter or is to be despised or doesn't exist! We treat other animals as if they have no reality or only exist for our use. We can do whatever we want to them. They can't feel anything at all. They aren't even real. We are the only real things. Our disembodied consciousness, our spirit, our self is the only real thing!

Backward. "I" am the one who does not exist. The self image has no reality. The real is all that lives in actuality, beyond all images, beyond all consciousness. The real cannot be known. The known isn't real. The real cannot be imagined. The image is not real. The mind creates our experience and interpretation of reality, but it does not create reality. Far too often, the mind creates an experience or an interpretation of reality that is wildly out of touch with reality itself.

I think that consciousness has created real problems for us and for the world. Our identification with it to the exclusion of all that lives beyond our conscious experience has caused real problems.

If we could see this, really see the truth of reality's wholeness and the way the mind creates a fragmented image of it, that would turn our world upside down and inside out. Which is to say that it would reorient us toward reality, putting reality back on its feet. There is no way to see this and not be reconfigured by it, because this error lies at the very heart of our mistaken sense of reality and identity. We believe the unreal self image is separate and ultimately real. We believe the whole of reality is an illusion or at best an unfortunate burden, a temporary prison. Is it any wonder we are making such a mess of the world?

07 August 2016

Six Ways of Life and One Human Illusion

I wrote these down about a decade ago and thought I would dust them off and share them once again. They don't say everything about my perspective (leaving out especially my amazement and delight at the intelligence and creativity of the other animals and my insistence that they not be treated like commodities or "resources"). These "ways" came into view for me over the course of an extended period of solitude. A few will be familiar to Buddhists: impermanence and interdependence particularly. But I did not learn them from any religious or spiritual tradition. They are not matters of belief. You can test them against your own experience and verify their validity.

The Way of Not Knowing: Nothing is what it appears to be.

All experience consists of the sensory and mental apparatus of the experiencing organism, not of objective reality. Sensory illusion is relatively trivial compared to mental illusion, which is much more troublesome. Mental illusion filters and obscures our experience so that our ideas about reality can become deeply divided from reality itself. This is the state most of us are in most of the time. Everything known and experienced is at best an echo of reality, and at worst a delusional fiction. The real can't be known. The known isn't real. The best we can do is to pay attention to what is actually happening right now, and not get completely lost in thought, while realizing that even the most careful attention yields an imperfect view of reality.

The Way of Interdependence: There is no such thing as a separate thing.

Everything (including humans of course) is and belongs to and contributes to and derives its essential existence from, a system of interrelated systems. A thing cannot be understood outside of its context, outside of its relationships, outside of its interdependencies. This is true at all levels, organismic, ecological, and cosmic. In some sense, the universe is one organism, one being, made up of nested, interactive systems, just as the body is made up of many cells, and many systems that work together, and is host to many organisms on which it depends. Organisms are not really organisms. They are expressions of a system of relationships. The sense of separation that humans often feel is an illusion.

The Way of Impermanence: Nothing lasts forever.

Everything that is born, dies. Everything that arises, falls away or is transformed into something else. Thoughts. Breaths. Heartbeats. Bodies. Species. Suns. Galaxies. Reality is in constant (if sometimes very slow) motion, and always returning to emptiness. For anything to exist at all, it must have a beginning, it must go through multiple transformations, and it must have an end. But that does not give us the right to hasten everything to its demise. It makes existence precious.

The Way of Emptiness: Form is what we know and experience, but emptiness is everywhere.

Emptiness and form are two aspects of the same thing. We are surrounded by emptiness. It is vast. It is everywhere. It gives shape to all form, just as form gives shape to it. We get enchanted by form and become blind to the emptiness. The walls of the room define the space, but it is the space that we use, that we live in. Our blindness to emptiness is like clinging to the wall and never using the available space of the room. Solid objects are not really solid. They are mostly empty space. One of the practical expressions of recognizing the emptiness of life is allowing time to be alone, to be quiet, to be still and to listen. When we fear emptiness, we spend every waking moment trying to fill the world with our noisy selves.

The Way of the Present: Life only exists here and now.

If we live in constant resistance to what and where and when we are, we cannot live fully. If we derive our sense of self from anything other than who and what and where we are right now, we will never be happy. Living in the present is not a task to be achieved. Living in the present is what we do. Always. No matter what. The present is the only reality. It is impossible not to live in the present.

But it is also possible to live in the illusion that the present is not the only reality. Living in time's illusion means the mind is caught up in obsessing about an imagined past or future. It means investing all of life's energy in what we might become, or what might have been. It means never noticing what is right here in front of us, and being content with that. Having a good memory, and being able to plan for the future are still relevant and useful in a practical way. It's just that life is always here and now, not there and then, not maybe someday when everything is perfected.

In short: There is only the present. Whatever is happening, it is happening now. Realize that, and the mind's desperate attempt to resurrect the past and control the future will probably relax, and things will probably go more smoothly.

The Way of Love: The essential nature of reality is total acceptance of, and movement with, everything exactly as it is.

This is very difficult for most of us to accept. We tend to define ourselves by what we exclude or whom we exclude. Total acceptance of everything exactly as it is feels like an abdication of sensible judgment, if not a kind of annihilation of our sense of self.

Acceptance does not equal approval. There is a lot of bad stuff going on in the world, and most of it is born of our mental illusions. But we cannot come into alignment with reality by denying that things are the way they are or by creating sharp divisions between "us" and "them." Those divisions exist only in the mind, and obscure our vision.

The Illusion of the Separate Self: There is no separate "self!"

The illusion of the separate self is our attempt to violate the ways that life works. To believe in the fiction of the separate self is to avoid all of these ways, and since these are ways that cannot be avoided, the attempt to do so causes much suffering, for oneself, for others, and for the Earth. The illusion of separation, and it is truly only an illusion, a tale we tell ourselves about ourselves, comes from resisting some aspects of life and clinging to others. Imagine if the "in" breath tried to separate itself from the "out" breath and declare that it alone is eternally real. Death would not be far off.

Be empty, welcoming everything, possessing nothing. That is the way of life.

30 July 2016

Running From Evil to Evil

"They hate him who reproves in the gate, and they abhor him who speaks the truth." Amos 5: 10

"Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord! Why would you have the day of the Lord? It is darkness, and not light; as if a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him; or went into the house and leaned with his hand against the wall, and a serpent bit him." Amos 5: 18-19

"I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies… Take away from me the noise of your songs; to your melodies I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." Amos 5: 21-24

Watching a bit of the political party conventions reminded me powerfully of these epigraphs from the prophet Amos. First, the showiness of it all and the hollowness of the show. The words being uttered for public consumption are meaningless. They signify no real commitment to justice, no real compassion, no reality at all.

But what has struck me most forcefully is the bind that we place ourselves in, over, and over and over. Seeking salvation, we flee from one ill into the arms of another, or the same, ill in a different form. We accept the binary "choice" between candidates who will, in fact, not change anything for the better. The bombs continue to rain down. The elites continue to profit from the public treasury. We continue to allow our civil liberties to be eroded in the name of security. We continue to plunder the Earth for her riches. We flee from the lion only to be bitten by the serpent.

This is not only a problem in our politics. It is a problem in our psyches. We sense the destructive impulse, the uncaring desire for power and control, in ourselves, and we run from it with all our strength. We wrap it in lovely, deceptive verbiage. Running from it, and unwilling to face it, we find it repeated in new forms and new faces wherever we go. This sounds like pretty cheap armchair psychology, but there is a truth here. We have been running from evil to evil for millennia and we continue to do it. We fool ourselves over and over, that this time we won't get fooled. Their words were so fine! We were so moved by them, so excited! Surely this time they must mean what they are saying! Surely we are as good as they say we are! Surely all of our problems are someone else's fault.

This pattern of the evil that appears to be the savior, who eventually proves to be evil, thus sparking the search for a new savior, who turns out to be another evil, has been going on for such a long time (clearly at least since the time of Amos), that by now you would think we would get it! That we would see it! But no, off we run again from the present perceived evil into the arms of the new one. We are seduced by hope, and all we get is the endless destruction of life.

There has only ever been one solution to this. We have to stop running. We have to stop and take a good look at it all. We have to pay attention to the world and to ourselves. That means facing the false choice of the "lesser" evil, and it means facing our own demons that drive us in the first place. We have to have that inner revolution, or the outer revolution will be forever contaminated by the illusions we refuse to face in ourselves.

We can't resolve this binary problem by continuing to operate under its influence. We react out of fear, and run straight into the trap once again. See it. Just see that it is so. And then maybe don't react. Don't run. Bear it. Bear the almost unbearable weight of it. This running from evil to evil is fundamental to our human condition. We love our illusions and anything that reinforces them. This monstrous fact is alive and well in us, all of us. Take that in, and see if that doesn't change how you view the game being played in our politics. You can't even begin to talk about alternatives to the status quo until this has been seen: We want to be fooled! We want our illusions to be confirmed. We want to be shielded from inner and outer reality. We love the politicians and journalists and superstars who keep our illusions intact, and we hate the prophets who tell us the truth about ourselves and the hollow, destructive, self-centered world we have created.

The contemplative life has always been about seeing this very clearly. And in seeing it, reversing it. By paying careful attention to the whole movement of life, revealing our illusions, we become aligned with reality.

Bernie Sanders has been a prophetic voice in our world this last year – with his own blind spots, to be sure, but more able than most to speak the truth as he sees it. Now he has temporarily thrown in his lot with the Democratic Party, a party that does not at all live up to its name. I think that was a mistake. His campaign opened up an energy for a real non-violent revolution, and then he backed away from it, settling for the kind incremental non-change that he used to rail against. He may have been threatened, who knows. But somehow the Fear of Trump got into him, and he seems to have backed away from the more revolutionary aspects of the movement he encouraged.

There is never a safe time to shake up the system. There is always the very real possibility, the likelihood given our proclivities, that when the current system is challenged, something even worse will take its place. We have seen that over and over, in Egypt, in Libya, in Iraq, maybe now even in the UK. But at some point that risk has to be taken, or we remain caught in the endless exploitation system of the status quo.

There is never an easy or risk-free time to stand up for life, but at some point we have to stand our ground. We have to call out the liars – regardless of political party -  who continue to exploit us and destroy the planet. We have to face our own love of the deceivers who tell us that we do not have to change, that everything is just fine the way it is, or who shift the blame for everything onto some easily identifiable group of "others." We have to face the profound changes that we all must make to create room for life – all of life – to thrive.

Everything is not fine. In no way is it fine. We are destroying the tree of life at its roots. It can't continue. We need radical change.

But – and this is a very big problem - if we don't pay careful attention and understand our deep desire to be fooled again, we will be fooled again. We will end up with something worse. We will distort reality to fit our illusions, whether we come from the left end or we come from the right end or we think we reside in the middle of the political spectrum. We will run from one evil into the arms of another, and we will rejoice in our escape, until we finally realize we have built yet another trap and walked right into it.

19 July 2016

Aligning With Reality



I wish everyone everywhere could read and absorb the import of this blog post by Dave Cohen at Decline of the Empire:

http://www.declineoftheempire.com/2016/07/the-triumph-of-hope-over-experience.html

This seems to me the crux of the human problem. The human mind loves its own illusions and spends every waking minute of every day attempting to interfere with reality. Ignore it, improve it, completely twist it out of shape, but never face it. The mind is exceptionally good at making stuff up and running around in a fantasy world where its illusions are real and reality is the illusion.

The human mind incessantly spins webs of illusion and calls those illusions reality. It is not a "solution" to the human problem, and offers no hope whatsoever, but it seems to make some kind of difference to become aware that this is so. One moment of candor changes the landscape of illusion. The role of the prophet has always been to speak a resounding "No, We Can't!" when the entire culture is caught up in a delusional "Yes, We Can!" To say "Stop!" when everyone else is screaming "Go! Grow! Move ahead!"

The comment on the blog by "Jim" also deserves to be read. He is speaking about the problem of climate change, but the ecological crisis is about much more than climate. It is about the impact of industrial civilization on every aspect of the living system we call Earth:

"The only avenue for justifiable hope is by most people realizing that the problem is enormously difficult, that it actually requires radical changes, and that the pain of those changes is necessary to avoid greater future pain."

The environmental destruction being wrought by humanity has no simple solution. The changes required lie not only in societal structures but in deeply entrenched psychological structures. Changing those structures might be possible -- or might not be -- but if it is possible, it requires an unrelenting honesty that is foreign to our current way of functioning in this world. We are consummate liars, and our most "successful" individuals are the biggest liars of us all. We hate the truth because it requires us to change, to give up cherished comforts and beliefs. No one could speak the whole truth and get elected to public office or placed in charge of a large organization. So we all continue this dance of optimistic lies.

But which do you think is more likely to benefit life: living in thrall to the false optimism of the mind's illusions, or being aligned with reality? Telling ourselves unending stories about how clever we are, or facing our many layers of ignorance? Believing that salvation is just around the corner if we keep digging, or turning around and making the long slog back out of the hole we have dug?

In other words, the most life-affirming thing we can do at this point is stop telling happy stories of endless progress and look this beast in the face. And then realign our lives.

Aligning with reality is not easy, it requires facing hard truths about ourselves and our society, but it is the only chance life has of surviving and thriving. How can we hope to solve our problems if we are not willing to face the truth about them?

31 May 2016

We Need A Spiritual Revolution!

I am planning a day-long workshop-retreat that I am calling

We Need A Spiritual Revolution! 

Contemplative Spirituality and The Whole Movement of Life

Changing Our Relationship with the Natural World at a Time of Planetary Crisis

It is to be held at the beautiful Lower Farm retreat center at Hallelujah Farm in Chesterfield, NH on Saturday, November 19, 2016.

More information and registration details are available on my website at:

www.naturalcontemplative.com

Here is the description of the day:

"Humanity and the Earth are in a crisis. We have put at risk the systems that all of life depends on for survival. The solution to the crisis, if there is one, must include a profound reorientation of the human psyche, a spiritual revolution, a change of heart and mind. Join us for this day of conversation and inquiry into the internal and external roots of the ecological crisis. What does a contemplative perspective say about the ecological crisis and how does it help us respond to the challenges we face? How do we live when the familiar world we inhabit is profoundly out of balance with natural processes?"

All are welcome regardless of religious or spiritual background. We do recommend comfort with sitting in silence and with addressing challenging issues of ecological distress and personal change.

This is an opportunity to explore the issues I cover in this blog and my essays.

Through the generosity of Hallelujah Farm, we are able to offer this by donation. We are suggesting $45.00, lunch included, because that is a common amount for a day-long event and would help to cover the center's expenses, but I want any and all to participate who want to, so please do come if you are able.

21 May 2016

The Earth Is Speaking. Are You Listening?

The ecological mess we are in is a direct consequence of civilized humans being civilized humans. We have developed in such a way that our first impulse is not to adapt to our environment but to manipulate the environment to force it to adapt to us. We alter every landscape we enter to suit our needs and preferences, and indeed we are very good at this. Most of us see this as a good thing, a sign of our intelligence and general superiority. We like the feeling of being in control.

This attitude is prevalent even among those of us who know we are making a mess of the world and need to change. The change we envision is more manipulation, more geoengineering, more application of "renewable" energy technologies, the sudden discovery of unlimited fusion energy, more efficient cars, more carbon capture technologies, etc. Only a few of us talk about the need to have fewer children, to drastically reduce our material demands on the planet, to live with less, to fundamentally change how we live.

I think there is a reason for this. The reason is that such a change, at this point, requires a complete about-face in the human psyche, and that feels like a total change in human nature. It is not inaccurate to say that bringing about such a change is nearly impossible, or at least highly unlikely. One of the things I have realized as I have observed my own mind at work, is that we are much less free to make choices than most of us assume. We think we are making choices all the time, when, for the most part, we are playing out mental scripts laid down over millennia and written in our genes, and written in our cultural norms, and imprinted in infancy, and so fundamental to our sense of who we are, that they appear to be (but are not) immutable. The change required now to alter the trajectory that humanity is on is nothing less than a change in human nature, or at least a change in behavior that is so fundamentally different from the norm that it feels like an assault on our very identity.

I place no hope in technology and no hope in a sudden, cultural transformation. The kinds of changes in human society we have seen in the past, like the civil rights movements of the 60s, or the tearing down of the Berlin wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 90s, are often held up as exemplars of radical changes in human society. These were significant, but nothing on the order of what is required of us now. They did not fundamentally alter the basic orientation of civilization to exploit whatever resources and labor might be available to enrich the few (people) at the expense of the many (people, plants, animals, minerals). They have not come close to altering human orientation in such a way that we adapt to what is best for the whole biosphere in the long term, rather than altering the biosphere to suit us in the short term. Most people want change to be external to themselves, if they want it at all. They want someone else to change. They want the system to change. But they do not want to change themselves. They may be willing to put solar panels in the yard, or driving an electric car (if they can afford one), or use a cloth shopping bag, but not to change inwardly, not to be changed in their fundamental sense of what it means to be human.

The fact remains: we must change. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that we must be changed, for I do not believe that we are capable of changing ourselves at the depths where change is required. Something outside of us must change us. What is needed here is an inner/outer revolution. The whole thing must change, the psycho-social system that we call civilization and that we also call "me." The very foundation of the "self" has to change. I have to be changed, fundamentally. That is a change no one dares consider, or if they do consider it, can even begin to imagine how it might happen. We need an intervention. We are not going to do this on our own. And maybe that is the point. Intervention is required when we have so isolated ourselves from reality, that we can no longer see and hear and think clearly enough to act on our own behalf. Intervention brings us back into the community of the real.

This intervention is only going to come from the Earth. The loss of habitat. The silent springs and silent autumns we are already experiencing in diminished bird song and diminished insect song. The poisoned wells and disappearing fish. The deadly storms and fires. These are heart breaking. Maybe a broken heart will motivate deep change in us. Maybe the chaotic climate will force us to change. The Earth gets the final word. In the end we cannot live beyond the physical limits that Earth imposes.

From any perspective other than the contemplative, the change required of us now is impossible. Even the contemplatives, who bear witness to the fact that such transformation is possible (if rare), do it imperfectly. The early Christian monks were often aggressively in opposition to their bodies. They battled against every carnal impulse, and ushered in generations of misogyny and spiritual disembodiment in the process. You find it in contemporary versions of "spiritual awakening" in which your "true nature" is supposed to be a pure, disembodied consciousness. This notion of spiritual purity that can only be pure if it is disembodied has been around a long time and is killing any chance of re-entering the natural community in a healthy, balanced and fruitful way. We are inoculating ourselves with spiritual nonsense against the pleas of the Earth for essential change. Earth is speaking, but are we listening? Do we even remember how to listen to the voice of the Earth?

I do know that under the right circumstances, the human mind, the place where these problems originate, can change fundamentally. But it takes extraordinary circumstances, something akin to 'hitting bottom" for an addict, for such a deep change to occur. "Hitting bottom" is what the contemplative spiritual life has always been about. You throw out your illusions and get to the bottom of what is real. The Earth is real. Life is real. We are real when we are immersed in the Earth and Life. When we are immersed only in the products of our own manufacture and the virtual reality of our own minds, then we are not real. We are figments of our own imaginations.

Listen to the Earth. It's the only thing that can change us before change is forced on us. The Earth is speaking. Are you listening?

26 April 2016