04 April 2018

We Must All Be Changed


Today marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. I met Dr. King on April 22nd, 1967, slightly less than one year before he was killed. I had just turned six. He was coming to Brown University to speak, and my father, who was a chaplain at the university, was given the job of meeting Dr. King at the airport. I went along for the ride and shook the great man's hand. I remember the total attention that he gave to me as he met me. Two weeks earlier, he had come out publicly and forcefully in opposition to the war in Vietnam, and an ocean of criticism had fallen on him for doing so. Here was a man carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, and yet, he had the time and attention for an unknown six-year-old white kid from Rhode Island.

In August of 1967, in what was to be his final address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he said,
…we must honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society... When I say question the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated. (Where Do We Go From Here? 16 August 1967.)
On April 4, 1967, in the speech at Riverside Church in New York City, where Dr. King declared his opposition to the war in Vietnam, he also began to articulate the nature of the transformation he envisioned:
The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit… Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken—the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investment.

I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a "thing-oriented" society to a "person-oriented" society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
1967 was also the year that the precursor organization to Greenpeace was founded and Lynn White's essay in Science, "The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis," laid blame for the crisis at the feet of Christianity. It was the year after the National Organization of Women was founded. I imagine that over time Dr. King would have seen that environmental destruction and sexual exploitation are also inextricably intertwined in our society and our psyches with racism, economic exploitation, and the hideous violence of war. The sickness is very deep.

Dr. King, in his final year, was calling us to a complete change of heart and mind and society. It is not unreasonable to ask whether the revolution that Dr. King envisioned is possible, or whether human nature is such that we will always have war and racism and exploitation. Social and economic inequity, the creation of underclasses and enemies, sexual abuse, and environmental destruction have been part of the human experience for millennia.

If we are going to face our situation honestly, we have to admit that our attempts at change often remain superficial. We talk about change, but we fail to change. We fail to acknowledge our deeply entrenched mental habits, fail to accept the physical limits of the planet, and engage in a false optimism that thinks our cleverness is so complete that it can overcome any obstacle with new technology, even when our technology is the source of the problem. We like to believe that we are free to do whatever we want, that there are no limits—no planetary limits and no psychological limits—constraining what we can do. It is our nature to modify our environment rather than to adapt to it and we carry on as if that ability to modify the world to suit ourselves extends infinitely. We like to believe that, with us, all things are possible. Earth, meanwhile, is groaning under the weight of those assumptions. This is the hard question: can we change at the depth required or are violence and exploitation the final word on human nature and civilization? Is this just the way we are?

The civil rights movement of the '50s and '60s is one of our best examples of positive, nonviolent resistance to entrenched social and psychological structures, but Dr. King, toward the end of his life, was beginning to realize that the sickness at the heart of the American individual/political/economic/military system is so deep that the tactics of the movement were inadequate. Something more like a religious conversion was needed, what the English Bible calls repentance.

I found a note in the MLK Archives in which Dr. King commented on the meaning of the word repentance. He wrote,
The true meaning of repentance (in the Old Testament) is expressed in the verb shub, which means to turn or return. Repentance is not the mere passive act of feeling sorry about sin. It is the active turning away from it to a new goal and direction.
What Jesus likely called tub in his native Aramaic (Hebrew shub) was translated into Greek as metanoia ("beyond mind") and then into English as repent. Shub means a change in direction, turning back or turning away. It also means "to vomit."

Shub is not just an idea or an intention. The Greek translation metanoia makes it sound like something that happens only in the mind, and repent makes it sound like we have done something wrong for which we must pay a penalty. I experience shub as a complete emptying, followed by a change of direction that encompasses mind, body and way of life, turning away from all of those interrelated evils of exploitation and division and turning toward the wholeness of life.

The civil rights movement was a powerful force for achieving political and social gains within the exploitation system, but apparently not for unraveling or transforming the system itself. We can see today that racism went underground; it did not go away. Social and economic inequity did not go away; it got worse. Militarism did not go away. Sexual abuse did not go away. Environmental destruction did not go away. Dr. King got into trouble when he started talking about the root sickness, because that sickness is in all of us. We need shub, a complete change of direction at the deepest levels, a complete rejection of the status quo, a change of mind, yes, but a deeper change that goes to the root.

In his final Christmas sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Dr. King pointed in the direction that this change represents. He said,
Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation... It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly… This is the way our universe is structured… We aren't going to have peace on earth until we recognize this basic fact of the interrelated structure of reality. (A Christmas Sermon On Peace. 24 December 1967.)
There is no such thing as a separate self. We all are tied together in "a single garment of destiny," and that "we all" includes the whole Earth. Because we all are in this together, the solution requires that we all come together, even while we continue to address the greatest violations of the integrity of life. I am not suggesting that we turn a blind eye to injustice. I am suggesting that we face it. We need to admit it. We need to address the roots of exploitation and abuse in society and in ourselves.

We need to get real here. The environmental destruction being wrought by humanity has no simple solution, no technological quick-fix, no natural evolution from where we are now to where we need to be, no solution within an economic system that is founded on infinite growth, no "new story" that can penetrate to the deep layers of the mind where our behaviors originate. We need to be stopped in our tracks. We need to be emptied. We all must be changed, deeply.

Real change will disrupt our lives at every level. It will be difficult. It will be painful. We will lose status. We will be profoundly inconvenienced. Willingly accepting those losses requires changes in deeply entrenched psychological structures: the desire for power, the desire for absolute safety, our deep attachment to the familiar, our almost infinite ability to deceive ourselves about our true motives. Changing those structures requires an unrelenting honesty that is foreign to our current way of functioning in this world.

This is the nature of shub: turning away from the course we are on, because we see it is a disaster, even if the way forward is unclear, even if our friends tell us we are crazy, even if society says it is impossible. If we do not know how to proceed, we can simply stop. Stop blaming others. Stop believing in fantastic scenarios of technological deliverance. Refuse to accept the bribes society hands us to buy our allegiance. Abandon the empty promises of civilized society and rediscover the beauty and profundity of the living world, the world not created by humans. Stop everything, and start paying attention. Be emptied of the poisonous beliefs we have absorbed, and become oriented toward life. Be still. Listen. Pay attention to the whole living world. Be changed by what we hear and see and feel.

Shub is not a fantasy. Deep change is possible. It holds the promise of a more satisfying life than industrial civilization offers, but we don't get there by bypassing the loss of our illusions, bypassing our loss of power, bypassing our mortality, bypassing our deep devotion to our selves. We have to face our demons, internal and external, and not be seduced by them, in order to enter into a healing relationship with the living world. Shub is not a choice we make, not in the way we normally think of making choices. Choice remains within the realm of what we know, our familiar worldview. In shub, reality grabs us and shakes us and removes our choices so we can move along the path of necessity, that necessity informed by the incontrovertible awareness that everything is interrelated, and Earth has its limits.

Aligning with reality requires us to face hard truths about ourselves and our society; it requires truly daunting changes in how we live, individually and collectively; it requires us to be emptied of much that we think we need and think we are. The only chance life has of surviving and thriving is if we reject our own self-serving lies and align ourselves with the whole living world. Fifty years have passed since Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated for trying to convert an entire nation away from systemic violence toward justice and peace. His call to repent, to shub, to a total change of heart, mind and society, is more relevant now than it ever was.

14 November 2017

Right Whales Slide Toward Extinction


The most recent issues of Right Whale News (Volume 25; Number 4) and the 2017 right whale status Report Card are sobering to say the least. The litany of bad news for North Atlantic right whales is relentless.

Right Whale News 25:4, November 2017

2017 NARWC Report Card

16 whales are known to have died, primarily from ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear. That represents 3% of the population in one year.

The birth of new whales was extremely low this year: only 5 births, compared to the average of 20.

There were no new mothers observed this year, and there are only 100 breeding females.

With the addition of this year's data, the average calving interval has also increased, from 4 years to 10 years.

The official estimate of the North Atlantic population dropped this year from 529 to 451, because the method of estimating had to be changed due to the fact that it is becoming harder to find and observe the population. Until a few years ago, a large portion of the population appeared every year in the Bay of Fundy, so the total population could be reliably estimated based on those observations. That is no longer true, and the newer method shows the total population has been declining since 2010.

This all adds up to very bad news for right whales. At current rates of mortality, right whales could be functionally extinct (no more breeding females) in twenty years. The biggest threat to right whales now is entanglement in fishing gear. Human demand for fish and lobster and crabs is running head-on into the survival of North Atlantic right whales. Over the years, many attempts have been made to introduce new gear that is less dangerous to whales, but that costs money. Fish abundance is declining, which means greater fishing effort is needed to catch the same number of fish.

But right whales are also threatened by ship strikes, by ocean pollution, by noise pollution and by global warming. There is no easy way to save the right whales. Doing so requires fundamental changes in human behavior. We have to care as much about them as we do about ourselves, and be willing to change how we live, in order that they may continue to live.

14 October 2017

More Dead Right Whales


As of October, the number of dead right whales found in the Gulf of St. Lawrence has risen to twelve, including four females. An additional three have been found in U.S. waters. At least six were hit by ships and at least one entangled in crab-fishing gear.

For those interested, the full Incident Report is available here:

Incident Report: North Atlantic Right Whale Mortality Event in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, 2017

See my previous posts on this:

At Least Three of Seven Dead Right Whales Due to Humans

'Unprecedented' Loss of Right Whales

09 July 2017

At Least 3 of 7 Dead Right Whales Due to Humans


Seven North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) have been found dead in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in the last month. Two probably from being hit by ships and one from entanglement in fishing gear. The cause of death in the other four is not known at this time.

North Atlantic right whales are already highly endangered, and the loss of even one, especially a female, increases the risk of extinction. It's very hard to do piecemeal protection for these animals. When ship strikes were rising in the Bay of Fundy, a lengthy regulatory process led to moving the shipping lanes through the Bay to avoid right whale areas. That was a success, but soon thereafter, the whales abandoned the Bay of Fundy due to lack of food there and seem to have moved north. Now we are seeing the same problem in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

We are not dealing with one isolated problem. Global shipping, increased fishing effort to secure a dwindling supply of fish, and global warming all contribute. Here's what I see as the bottom line: are we willing to radically alter our way of life (e.g. dramatically reduce global shipping, with all of the economic consequences of that) to allow creatures like right whales to survive? Or are we too committed to our own ways to allow these creatures to live?

Unfortunately, I think I know the answer to that question. We need a spiritual revolution, a radical change in our most fundamental beliefs and behaviors. But I don't know what it will take to bring that about.

https://t.co/fb6lwqKbeg


07 July 2017

Emptiness Is the Immeasurable


Contemplative ecology is founded upon an encounter with a realm that is difficult to talk about, the core realm of the contemplative life: the realm of emptiness or silence or stillness or nothingness.

Contemplation is a way of facing oneself at the deepest levels, and perhaps to see through all in the human mind that is illusory, destructive and life-defeating. Without society's distractions, we come face to face with ourselves in our actuality, including those unappealing aspects of ourselves and our culture that our busyness, our compulsiveness, our conformity to social norms, and our immersion in entertainment usually obscure. We face all of the ways in which we have unconsciously internalized our culture's norms of belief and behavior. Ultimately, we have to face our emptiness.

Emptiness is the essential nonexistence of the self that believes it is separate from everything else, but it is also much more than that. Emptiness is the immeasurable. Emptiness often comes as the encounter with something you cannot fully comprehend: a deep love, or a terrible loss; the arrival or departure of another life; or the inscrutable nature of your own mind. Emptiness is the visceral recognition that your existence is not separate from the existence of everything else, that everything exists in interrelationship and interdependence, and that reality cannot be controlled or managed or experienced or understood in its vital actuality. The mind can't grasp it. It's too big; it's too complex; it's too dynamic; it's too alive. Emptiness is the encounter with the unfathomable, living presence of everything.

Touched by the infinitely unknowable, nothing can ever be the same. Life is so much more than this petty little mind.

The power of the encounter with reality is not in the description. The attempt to describe it usually requires negative terms like silence, emptiness, nothingness, stillness. These are entirely inadequate words to describe the whole of unfathomable reality. What they point to is that we are filled with our beliefs and memories and worldviews, and usually need to be emptied of them in order to come into contact with the reality of the living world. That living world is always right at hand, but it remains eclipsed by the mind's ideas about it.

The encounter with emptiness reorients the organism. Much more needs to be said about emptiness - what it is, what it means, why encountering it turns our lives upside down and inside out, why we fear it - but there is little that can be said. How can emptiness be described? It can't. You have to go there. Talking about emptiness accomplishes nothing. Being touched by emptiness changes everything. Discovering the hollowness or emptiness of the self collapses the foundation of the exploitative psycho-social system and reorients life toward life itself, the whole movement of life.

What emptiness emphatically is not, is some kind of esoteric experience that comes as the result of years of spiritual training. Emptiness is not something we can obtain or lose. It is not having a quiet mind or being "in the flow." It is not spaciousness or openness. It is not a heightened state of awareness or consciousness. Emptiness is not a state of mind. It cannot be experienced.

It's really quite simple and straightforward. It's right at hand. Emptiness is what is, regardless of what we think about it or how we experience it. We can acknowledge it or we can try, and ultimately fail, to deny it. That is all. Emptiness—unfathomable reality—undoes everything we try to do. It ruins all of our plans and hopes and schemes. It is everywhere and everywhen and everything, yet when it reveals itself, it comes like a thief saying, "Nothing persists. Nothing you believe is true. Nothing you experience is real. Nothing belongs to you, not even your self, not even your life." And civilization crumbles, founded as it is on the belief that treasures can be stored up and kept safe for the immortal self. Emptiness is a direct and immediate affront to the feeling that I exist, that I can be protected, that I can be perfected. Emptiness contradicts all of the stories we tell about the self and the other. Emptiness takes everything away from us that we wish to possess, including our sense of identity. And so we push emptiness away. We avoid it with our noise and activity. Minute by minute we reinforce the feeling of being a separate self (the words "separate" and "self" come from the same root) through our mental and physical activity. When we stop and listen, and especially when we listen to the natural world, emptiness is right here. Emptiness is what remains when I stop. It is very simple, but because most of us never stop, it's revolutionary when we do.

Our current society does not serve life. It serves the separate self. Can we see that serving the self is delusional? The self does not deserve our devotion. It does not deserve the commitment of our life energy to its maintenance and enlargement. Nor does society deserve that devotion, nor any group, nor any belief system. Only reality, the whole of life, deserves that. The life devoted to the whole movement of life (which, make no mistake, includes every individual) is a rare and beautiful thing. Few of us seem able to go there. Devotion to self keeps reasserting itself. Those who do go there, even briefly, will also know about emptiness. Like the outer and the inner, wholeness and emptiness travel together. They are the yang and the yin of the way of existence. You can't have one without the other.

Many people find the idea of emptiness frightening or depressing. We are afraid to learn the truth about ourselves. We do not want to know that all of our striving is for nothing. Contemplation is bad news for the separate self, but good news for life. What one finds when stripped to the core is not evil, but a blessing: the communion of reality beyond words; easing at last the generations of fear and pain we have been inflicting on ourselves and the world.

--
An Introduction to Contemplative Ecology, of which this is an excerpt, can be read in its entirety here.

06 July 2017

We Need an Ecological Spiritual Revolution

The following is a modified version of the final part of the post The Whole World Is Sacred. I am reposting that part because it is a good summary of what I am trying to communicate.

--

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 technologies and a few policy changes are insufficient and often merely perpetuate the problem in a new form.

We need an ecological spiritual revolution: a complete change of heart and mind, a reorientation at the deepest levels of psyche and society. The nature of that revolution is what I have tried to articulate in this blog and my other writing and workshops: see that we are deeply out of touch with reality because our beliefs distort reality; see that I am no thing (empty), and therefore everything (whole); see that everything is sacred; listen to the animals; be devoted to the well being of the whole movement of life.

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 and 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. It is a reorientation in which nothing needs to change for everything to change. It is not something that comes as a result of anything we do; it comes when we stop all of our doing and see things as they are. The truth is right at hand waiting for us to recognize it and be changed by it.

03 July 2017

'Unprecedented' Loss of Right Whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence

This is tragic news for this extremely vulnerable and magnificent species. Right whales have abandoned the Bay of Fundy due to lack of food there and are apparently moving north. What is going on in the Gulf of St. Lawrence?

'Unprecedented event': 6 North Atlantic right whales found dead in June

'The loss of even one animal is huge with animals with a population this small,' says marine biologist.

Read the CBC Article...

Researchers from the Marine Animal Response Society examine one of the dead right whales. (Marine Animal Response Society)