11 February 2014

Breaking the Frames

When I was a college undergraduate, I studied the theoretical underpinnings of Freudian psychoanalysis with J. Giles Milhaven, a former Jesuit priest and professor of religious studies at Brown University. One of the central concepts that I took away from my studies with Dr. Milhaven was the therapeutic necessity of what he called "breaking the frame." His belief was that problems in human relationships come mainly from the way that we frame those relationships; the belief structures that we build around our relationships to make sense out of them and align them with our own needs and desires. Not all of our frames are dysfunctional. But when our framing stories are too far out of alignment with reality, we expend useless energy trying to force the world back into our frame, instead of allowing our frame to adjust to reality. This is the source of much of our distress: our framing of reality is out of step with reality itself yet we remain committed to our frame.

Our frames are intimately intertwined with our sense of who we are.  To dissolve one of our essential frames is to lose our sense of self. We are so committed to our mental frameworks, that we usually fight like hell in defense of the frame, even as it diverges further and further from the truth. In those cases where our commitment to our frame is absolute, the only solution is for something outside of us, some person, some situation, some unexpected force, to break the frame. Something has to happen that exposes the false frame, allows it to be seen at last for what it is. Not reality; merely a way of interpreting reality. Not the self; merely a story about the self. Not the other; merely an image of the other.

This is not an easy thing to go through. We pin our sense of security, our sense of identity, on our mental frameworks. When the frame is broken, we feel truly lost for a time.  This is well known to everyone who has lost anything that helped define our life: losing our health, losing a job around which we organized our life, losing someone we love, discovering that someone we trusted has been deceiving us; discovering that the system that supports us abuses others. The loss is hard enough, but the disorientation that comes with the breaking of the frame can be completely debilitating. We resist this disorientation, so we can carry on for years beyond the point at which we receive the first clues that our framing story is out of alignment with the truth. We resist and resist and resist the loss of the frame, because along with the frame goes a solid sense of identity. The frame is the boundary of the self. Without the familiar frame, who am I?

My work with Giles Milhaven was very influential. A lot of my frames have broken over the years, and it has never been easy. But I also have seen that ultimately it is healthier to stay in touch with reality than it is to carry on in conflict. It is easier to have a fluid and adaptable sense of self, than it is to have a rigid and fixed identity that is in conflict with the living world.

And I have seen that the framing of reality is not only something that happens in the individual; it happens to entire cultures, especially now when so much information is channeled through mass media and shared by millions of people almost simultaneously. When a distorted frame is shared, it becomes more and more possible for us to participate in mass delusion. It is hard enough to break the individual frame. It is even harder to break the societal frame, because we seem to be wired to conform to societal norms. We prefer to do what our peers are doing, to think the way our peers are thinking, to care about the things that we perceive our peers to care about, to look like the images that claim to convey what our peers look like. The risk of not conforming is isolation, being ostracized, kicked out of the community. If we rebel at all, we usually rebel within a subcultural to which we continue to conform.

The planetary ecological crisis requires the breaking of frames at many levels: individual, societal, economic and political. A truly daunting prospect. I find myself frustrated with most attempts at change because they end up being the sort of change that tries to massage reality into the existing frame. Very rarely does anyone dare to break the frame. The consequences are too frightening. We react violently when someone tries to break our frame before we are ready. The frame is "me" until it is broken, so I will fight to the death to preserve it.

This is a great conundrum. Fundamental change is required of us at this time but most of us are not ready for the change. We are committed to our worldview, not to the world. We are willing to tweak the system, but not to turn the system on its head. We want our life to go on in its familiar track, not to change everything. We want security, not uncertainty. We want more, not less. We want to keep the frame intact and just change the picture. If someone tries to break the frame, or the Earth breaks the frame, we will resist. But the frame has to break nonetheless. Life depends on it now.

An example of changing the picture without breaking the frame would be our hope that technology will solve all of our ecological problems. The techno-optimists believe that we can solve all of our problems with solar panels, wind turbines, smart grids and electric cars. The only change required is a change of means, not a change of self or society. It won't work. As long as we have a sense of self - or an economic system - that endlessly demands more and more, the technology won't help. We'll keep needing more of it, and the planet is already groaning under the weight of our perceived needs. Emphasis on the word "perceived." These are not real, biological needs. They are needs arising from how we frame reality, including our sense of identity. The frames need to be broken. How do we do that without creating a backlash? How do we get around our resistance to essential change? That is the conundrum.

There is no easy solution to this. We are not yet ready to break the frames that define us in relation to the natural world. All I can say right now is that the longer we postpone the reckoning with reality, the harder the reckoning will be. The farther we push the physical limits of the planet, the harder the crash will be.

Take one example: Imagine a world without fossil fuels. Not 100 years from now when some unlimited fantasy fuel has magically appeared or the beleaguered Earth has somehow supplied us with the raw materials and the land to build millions of solar panels and wind turbines and hydro dams. Now. Imagine your life right now without fossil fuels. The blasting and drilling and fracking and pumping have stopped. Coal and oil and natural gas are gone. How does the limiting of your mobility, your autonomy, your employment options, your material security - all of which are presently tied to the availability of fossil fuels -  affect your sense of who you are, of how your community is structured, of what you can do?

Which of your frames - your fundamental assumptions about who you are and what the world is and what you expect the world to give you - are dependent on fossil fuels? Are you willing and able to abandon those frames for the sake of life on Earth?

19 November 2013

Jane and Roger

Here is a video available online, Dr. Jane Goodall and Dr. Roger Payne Historic First Meeting, that is worth taking the time to watch, although that time is 2 hours  and it is in both English and Spanish,  so it takes a bit of a commitment. Roger Payne and Jane Goodall are among the best known wildlife biologists alive today. Both now in their eighties, they have accumulated a wealth of experience and wisdom regarding the wild world. Here they meet for the first time and talk about their work and the human-induced crises facing the planet.

The introduction begins at about 30 minutes into the video, and the conversation begins about 45 minutes in. I do not know why they did not trim the first 30 minutes, it is nothing but crowd noise. The introduction includes clips from two films, one about Jane and one about Roger. Jane's movie, called Jane's Journey, is readily available, including on Netflix. My only disappointment with Jane's Journey is that it emphasizes how busy she is and underemphasizes her great wisdom. This is a woman who is not only a keen observer of both chimpanzee and human behavior and a tenacious and spirited activist, but also one who has been formed and deepened by all she has experienced.

Roger's film, A Life Among Whales, is not so easy to find. It was available on Netflix at one time but currently it is not. The film has a website where it can be purchased, or downloaded as a pay-per-view for $1.99. Be aware that A Life Among Whales is more about Roger and the history of his work than about whales as such, although about half of the movie is about current whaling by Japan, and includes some very gruesome images. It is also fairly short, just under an hour. Most of what I know about whales, I learned from Roger.


For my neighbors, I have a copy of A Life Among Whales if you would like to borrow it.

Topics covered in Jane and Roger include global warming, happiness, greed, intelligence, wisdom, square tomatoes, communication, passion, hope, letting go of security, and of course whales and chimps.

Apparently a documentary film called Jane and Payne: The Sea and the Jungle, Water and Earth, Man and Woman is forthcoming.

Dr. Jane Goodall and Dr. Roger Payne Historic First Meeting


20 March 2013

The Whole World is Sacred

I think the following four paragraphs summarize most of what I have tried to communicate in this weblog 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.

03 March 2013

The Great Animal Orchestra

A Book Review

The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World's Wild Places
By Bernie Krause
Little, Brown and Company

Bernie Krause is one of the preeminent recorders and collectors of natural sound and one of the pioneers of the field of soundscape ecology. His most recent book, The Great Animal Orchestra, is indispensable reading and listening for anyone interested in natural soundscapes and soundscape recording, but it is even more essential for everyone else, providing an engaging introduction to the vital role that sound plays in our lives and the lives of all animals, and the rapid deterioration of natural soundscapes around the world due to the impacts of resource extraction and ever-present human noise. We might think that the degradation of natural soundscapes is merely an aesthetic loss for those few humans who prefer quiet to noise, but Krause demonstrates very clearly that increasing noise is unravelling the very fabric of natural communities. The creatures that live in those communities depend heavily on sound for communication, navigation, and locating sources of food. Understanding soundscapes is therefore essential for fully appreciating what is happening in natural communities, and recording natural soundscapes is a unique and powerful way of monitoring and assessing overall ecosystem health and integrity.

The Great Animal Orchestra was published in a somewhat confusing variety of formats, all with slightly different content. The hardcover print edition, for instance, does not come with a CD, nor are there any links to online sound files, but it does contain all of the sonograms, visual representations of audio recordings, which illustrate many of Krause's points. It is a shame that the print edition does not include the sounds, because Krause has one of the largest and most diverse private collections of natural sound recordings in the world, and the book is, after all, about sound.

(Note: after writing this review I learned that the paperback print edition will be released March 12, 2013 and will include icons in the text that point to relevant online audio examples.)

According to Krause, the audio book edition includes the largest selection of audio recordings of any of the editions, but of course it lacks the sonograms. Read by the author, the audio book includes many recordings that illustrate the text, but most of these are played under the narration, which means one does not always hear the depth and detail of the recordings. On those few occasions when the recordings stand alone without narration, we get a glimpse into the richness of what Bernie Krause has collected over the past four and a half decades. The audio book would have been rather long if all the recordings had been separated from the narration, but I still would have preferred that.

The other two options are a standard eBook, which like the print version is text without any sound, and an Enhanced eBook which includes the natural sound recordings. Because I do not own a device that will play the Enhanced eBook, I do not know how the text and audio are integrated, nor how the Enhanced eBook audio compares to the audio book, but it appears that the Enhanced eBook is the only way to get both the audio and the sonograms in one format. The other alternative is to purchase both the print edition and the audio book. This was the route I took, and I am glad I did. I like having the print edition for reference, and I really appreciate hearing Bernie read his own words. His passion and his deep concern come through more forcefully in his voice than they can on the page.

Chapter One, Sound as My Mentor, is largely autobiographical, detailing how his career moved almost by accident from studio musician to nature sound recordist and soundscape ecologist. In this chapter Krause also introduces and explains some of the essential parameters of sound waves, such as amplitude and the often misunderstood decibel that measures it; frequency, wavelength and pitch; harmonics; and acoustic envelopes. Every chapter, including this one, is peppered with Krause's personal experiences recording in diverse environments around the world, and these experiences enliven even the most technical explanations of acoustic theory.

Chapter Two, Voices from the Land, opens with one of the most important stories in the book, the moment that Krause discovered viscerally the origins of human music in the voice of the Earth. He learned this through the guidance of a Nez Perce elder named Angus Wilson on the shores of Lake Wallowa in northeastern Oregon. He goes on in this chapter to describe this most fundamental aspect of natural sound: geophony, literally "speech of the Earth," the sounds produced by wind, water, ice, ocean and land.

Chapter Three, The Organized Sound of Life Itself, moves from geophony to biophony, the sounds made by all living organisms from viruses to whales. This chapter introduces an important and intriguing concept: soundscape recording as a means of monitoring ecosystem health and integrity. Krause describes his experience performing before and after recordings in an area that was selectively logged at Lincoln Meadow, Yuba Pass, CA. Although visually similar before and after the logging operation, the soundscape recordings demonstrated a deep loss of species diversity and density. It looked much the same, but the animals were gone. There is a very important point here. We humans are very visually oriented and sometimes quite oblivious to the soundscape. But most animals are deeply dependent on sound for their survival. In many situations, recording the soundscape is a better indicator of ecosystem health than taking pictures or other measures. Sound reveals so much that is hidden from the eye.

Chapter Three also introduces another fascinating and important concept, which is explored more fully in Chapter Four; Biophony, The Proto-Orchestra. This is Krause's niche hypothesis. Briefly, the niche hypothesis states that in "in older, healthy habitats" animal vocalizations partition into separate frequency and/or temporal bands. Furthermore, in these healthy habitats, most acoustic niches tend to be filed, with few gaps. In disturbed habitats, those sounds are more likely to overlap in competing frequency or temporal space, and to show large gaps of unoccupied acoustic territory. In other words, in healthy, undisturbed habitats, the animals are not vocalizing over each, they are organized like an orchestra where "some sing low and some sing higher," in order to leave a clear channel of communication for every organism. This is not just a fascinating concept, it ushers in an entirely new way (at least for us urbanized, industrialized humans) to listen to the natural world, not as separate organisms in sonic competition, but as a whole system, an orchestra, vocalizing in harmony. Listening to the whole, and recording the whole, yields insights into the functioning of ecosystems, and our own role in those systems, that simply do not occur when we are trying to listen to this or that organism in isolation from its context.

In recent years the highly controversial "Gaia Hypothesis" - the notion that the Earth functions like a single, self-regulating organisim - has found some mainstream credibility as the more prosaic "earth systems science." Krause's niche hypothesis is also controversial, but he makes a strong case for it. It should not be hard to confirm, except that it is getting increasingly difficult to find undisturbed habitat. My own recordings made here in rural Vermont show this acoustic partitioning most clearly in my recordings of late summer insects. Until I looked at the sonograms and could see the distinct frequency bands for each different type of grasshopper or cricket, I never realized how much insect diversity we had living in our back yard.

Chapter Five, First Notes, moves from biophony to anthrophony. It describes how humans learned our music from the combination of geophony and biophony. Although we have strayed rather far from our origins, our music is not something that arrived fully formed in modern humans. We learned it from the Earth, and many of our fellow creatures are great musicians. This perhaps explains why music is so deeply moving for us. It speaks to our origins and our connection to the Earth like nothing else. In my experience, that is most clearly obvious from listening to humpback whales and gray seals and of course the song birds. My own discovery of the deep similarity between human vocalization and bird song came thirty years ago when I wrote a college term paper comparing the development of speech in humans and the development of song in songbirds. The similarities were so striking that it changed how I viewed human origins and human exceptionalism. What once seemed a unique human achievement found its place in the larger symphony (literally "sounding or speaking together") of life on Earth. That is Krause's aim here, to point the way to the origins of human music in the geo-biophony. I would have loved more detail in this chapter. The range of melodic voices of the Earth goes well beyond what is described here, as do the musics of cultures that have not lost their connection to the land. Here we find a tantalizing glimpse that perhaps will lead us to explore further the fascinating world of animal vocalization and human music that is closely tied to the geo-biosphere.

Chapter Six, Different Croaks for Different Folks, explores the ways in which human music has become divorced from the larger matrix of natural sound that gave birth to it. Of most interest to me here is the portrayal of early Christian attitudes toward all things "natural." Krause argues that "those who wished to live in harmony with the natural world were considered primitive, unenlightened, wicked, pagan, or all of the above... Different types of music were banned outright." Those bans extended to indigenous people being "converted" by Christian missionaries. We almost lost many of the clearest examples of human music that is deeply embedded in the natural sonic world. And now we are losing the soundscapes.

Chapter Seven, The Fog of Noise, is about what you would expect: a detailed discussion of all the ways that humans create noise, which is sound without meaning. Chapter Eight, Noise and Biophony/ Oil and Water, extends that discussion into the many ways that human noise is diminishing and destroying natural soundscapes. Krause concludes this chapter by writing, "biophonies contain the acoustic compass we need to guide us along the route of an ever-challeneged planet." We drown out these sensitive biophonies every day with our airplanes, our internal combustion engines, and our ubiquitous presence in nearly every corner of the Earth. We do so to our own peril, and the even greater peril of the natural world we can now barely hear.

The final chapter, The Coda of Hope, is somewhat strangely named. There is hope, but it is muted at best. The hope springs from the fact that, with plenty of time, severely disturbed habitats can recover, if we leave them utterly alone. Human noise is destructive to the fabric of life in ways most of us have never imagined. The only good thing about noise pollution is that, in most cases, once it stops, there is no lingering effect, unlike, for instance, pumping carbon into the atmosphere or toxic substances into the ocean. In those cases, even if we stop today, the effects will linger for centuries at least. But as soon as we stop the noise, the damage can start to repair itself. Krause tells the story of how wildlife, and a vibrant soundscape, returned to the Chernobyl exclusion zone within three years of that catastrophic accident. The Earth can heal. It is amazingly resilient. But it needs a break from us in order to do its healing work. He concludes the book with these words:

"I am invariably asked what we can do to help preserve our remaining natural environments. It's easy: leave them alone and stop the inveterate consumption of useless products that none of us need."

"Inveterate" means "habit that is long established and unlikely to change." Another word for that might be "addiction," and nobody ever said that breaking an addiction is easy. It's possible, it's necessary, but it's never easy.

This is a rich and intricate book. The themes, the sounds, the information and the personal reflections weave in and out of each other throughout, not unlike the natural symphony that is the book's subject. There were many points where I felt that there were layers to the story I was comprehending only because I have been exploring these themes in my own life for more than thirty years. And there were layers I definitely missed on first reading, and more that I probably still missed on listening to the audio book. I shall return for more.

There is a kind of magic to listening in the natural world. There are feelings and sensations in that act that are impossible to describe. They reach back deep into our animal origins. They reach even deeper into the mystery of our conscious present as members of a living, singing planet. Past and present; human, animal and Earth weave a symphony that is the truth of our life together. Bernie Krause weaves his own symphony into that larger one and communicates much more than the words convey, at least to this reader/listener.

For me the coda of hope is that even as we drown out the Earth's symphony with our own meaningless noise, and begin to unravel the integrity of the life system, we are, after all, voices in that same orchestra. The discord can't go on forever. Somehow, somewhen, the natural harmony of the great animal orchestra will reassert itself, probably without us, but possibly with us, if, and only if, we take the time to listen.

05 February 2013

What Will It Take?

Just some thoughts, summing up the things I have been thinking and writing about recently.

The natural world, the plants and animals, rivers and seas and mountains and forests, 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.

Along with the other animals and the plants, the human is a product of Earth, and therefore part of a complex system of lives and feedback loops and relationships. The whole is more real than the part. Nothing can be understood, nor does anything exist, including the human person, outside of the system of relationships that constitutes the whole universe. There is no "self" or "soul" that is somehow separate from the intertwining of the whole. "Self" or "soul" or "spirit" is the dynamic intertwining of the whole.

Because we and all the plants and animals are aspects of the same life system, we should expect to find the qualities we most revere in ourselves also in the rest of the natural world. Intelligence, ability to communicate, self-awareness, deep feeling, awareness of others as others, and basic consciousness, the ability to have experiences, are present in us because they are aspects of the universe as a whole. It is not that humans are uniquely conscious and intelligent, it is the universe that is conscious and intelligent, through us but also through other life forms and quite possibly through inanimate forms such as mountains and streams and forests.

We are least ourselves when we perceive ourselves as separate from everything else, and therefore give ourselves license to destroy, to manipulate, to use according to our desires. We come most into ourselves when we perceive that we belong to a larger whole, not only belong to it, but are expressions of it, in no way separate from it. Thus we most fully honor our own lives, and the other lives that share this life with us. The non-human world beckons to us, even now as we wrap ourselves in layers of electronic media that feed us only our own thoughts. What we need is not more of ourselves. We need to be free of ourselves. The non-human world offers us this, but we have to take the time to listen, to observe, to learn, to be present. A simple encounter with a non-human life can change us completely.

The full realization of this non-separation is impossible to talk about because our language is inherently divisive. Language creates meaning by creating distinction. The experience of wholeness (which is slightly but significantly different from the realization of wholeness) is inevitably lost when we try to describe it.

The realization of wholeness or non-separation is simply recognizing that wholeness is the essential state of reality, regardless of whether it is being experienced that way. The experience of wholeness is temporary and fleeting, as is all experience. But wholeness remains even though the experience passes. One retains awareness of the truth of it even when it is not being experienced. The real can not be known. As long as we remain absolutely devoted to what we can know and experience, we remain out of touch with reality.

After several millennia of devotion to the thought world, and debasement of the real world, it is very hard for the individual human to break free of the grip that the mind-made world has on our sense of reality. There are ways, but there is no formula. Formulas are products of a mind that insists on reducing reality to that which it can predict and control.

The whole world is more alive and more conscious and more intentional and more communicative and more interesting and more integrated than humans have believed for a long, long time. Reawakening our sense of belonging to that rich world, which we must do if we are to survive the coming few decades and stop the slide into unrestrained destruction which is the current human trajectory, at some point requires an encounter with our essential no-thingness, what I variously have called our essential emptiness, stillness, or silence.

Emptiness, stillness and silence are words I have used to suggest this central realization, that our sense of existing as a separate entity is illusory. The only reality is the whole of everything together, and therefore any idea or image we have of ourselves is essentially "empty." When this is seen fully, what follows is often a sudden, unexpected, unsought quieting of the mind. Silence. Stillness. Acute listening. I speak of silence and stillness, but emptiness and no-thingness and wholeness are probably more appropriate words.

The encounter with emptiness, with no-thingness, with wholeness, never comes predictably. But it does come when we are open to it. To be open to it, we must prefer reality to anything our minds can conceive. And since we are quite deeply devoted to the mind's version of reality, we resist and resist and resist the arrival of the real, and we resist accepting our place within that reality. We insist on carrying on the sham of self-serving control and manipulation, and thus we ensure the destruction of the world.

The discovery of non-separation is life altering. One's life can fall apart after its discovery, because one's life and identity have been built on a shaky foundation of separation. One of the ways it alters life, or at least has altered my life, is that I feel an immense responsibility in the world. Every thought and action is shaping the world even as we are shaped by the world. My inner violence is the violence of the world. The violence of the world is made of our inner violence. The rapacious machine that is modern society is the manifestation of our inner state. It is a mirror held up to us. God help us.

There is no "them." There is only us. All of us. Everything together. It is therefore no small thing for any one of us to clean up our own house, to find a way, any way, to stop judging and criticizing and hating and marginalizing and destroying. Everything we do in our own lives to be examples of wholeness, to live out the implications of non-separation, however imperfectly we do it, however badly we fail to do it; every little thing we can do to manifest wholeness in thought, word and deed, which requires deeply acknowledging our inner fragmentation, our stubborn belief in separateness; whatever we can do on behalf of wholeness robs the destructive machine of some of its fuel. For it is fueled by the division in each and every one of us. It is fueled by everything in us that has split off from wholeness and believes itself to be separate, superior, the master, the controller, the victim, the sufferer.

Death is part of life, natural, inevitable and not to be feared. Annihilation is something else, the death of life itself. We are bent on annihilation. Most of the lives we destroy do not sustain life. Most of it is not necessary for biological survival. Much of it is wanton, cruel destruction; self destruction. Most of the destruction only serves the phantom self, the self image, while it destroys the real. If we could get to a point where the only lives we take are for food, warmth and biological survival, that in itself would be an improvement. But I think we are beyond that now.  We need a psychological revolution, the realization of emptiness.

It would be a worthy goal of natural science, and of all of our human cleverness, to find all of the ways that we can give back to life, to enhance and encourage life in all its diversity. Our reason for being could be to increase diversity, to increase vitality, to support and affirm the beauty and the value of all of life, animal, vegetable, mineral, water and sunlight. We could serve the whole, which includes us, rather than serving ourselves, which excludes everything else.

Words and ideas are inadequate. We have run out of time. The Kingdom of God is right at hand, but we refuse to be embraced by it. What will it take? What will it take for us to allow ourselves to be embraced by reality? Not tomorrow. Not next year. Now. What will it take?

19 January 2013

Just Stop

I've been thinking about the end of the world. The world that had a stable climate, vast intact terrestrial and oceanic ecosystems, silent places, and an abundance of complex life forms is ending. A new world of climate chaos, disintegrating ecosystems and mass extinctions is taking its place.

And then there is the world that needs to end because it is so destructive and is making every one and everything so miserable: the world of buying and burning and drilling and fracking and blowing up and otherwise destroying and exploiting and acquiring and hoarding without any consideration of consequences. That world needs to end, in which we believe we are separate from Earth and are therefore immune from whatever we do to it.

Reverend Billy (Billy Talen) put it like this in his new book The End of the World (2012, OR Books):

"To save our own life we have to save the tree's life. That means: we must remember that this tree is a life. Then we might get back on track saving our own lives."

We must remember that this tree is a life. It is a life and it has a life. It has a reason for being. It feels the air moving through its leaves or needles. It communicates continuously with the other trees around it. And, if we feel a need to justify it in human terms, it is another part of our lungs. It is just as much a part of our body as the tissue in our chests. And we are part of it.

Because the car is my greatest contribution to the destruction of Earth, I am trying to leave it parked at home as much as possible. Which means there is a lot of entertainment that I do not take part in. There are a lot of experiences I am missing that require travel.

Instead I lie on the bench I have placed in the back yard under a huge old pine tree. I love gazing into the upper branches of the tree and listening to the whisper of the thousands of needles in the wind, and feeling the slow swaying of the trunk, and maybe even the subtle lifting and relaxing of the ground beneath me, or am I just imagining that? It's a magnificent tree. I lie there exchanging the gifts of oxygen and carbon dioxide with it. I could not live without something like it and it could not live without something like me. Does it know this? Does it feel my presence like I feel its presence? Does it feel the additional weight on its roots? Can it acknowledge the gift of CO2 and be grateful for it? I think it can. Tree consciousness is not like animal consciousness, but it must have its own ways of experiencing the world.

The realization of non-separation re-enchants the world. Earth is full of ways of seeing and hearing and smelling and feeling and touching and other senses that we do not have and for which we have no words. The human is but one of the many ways Earth knows itself. What could be more delightful?

Earth has been doing interesting things for a lot longer than humans have been adding to the repertoire, and Earth will go on doing interesting things long after we humans have disappeared into the deep night. So for me the delights of the non-human world, the dancing of trees for instance, are more deeply satisfying than anything humans can create. Earth experience is everywhere, in everything. One need not go anywhere to find it.

But one must be willing to lose something. One must be willing to die at least a little before physical death comes to force the issue. Every one of us will face physical death. All of our plans and hopes and dreams and projects and relationships, all the ways we have defined ourselves, will come to an end, ready or not. We will be called upon to leave the projects unfinished, say goodbye to all the possessions and all the loved ones, lose everything, let the world carry on without us, transition into emptiness.

One must be willing to give up some of those projects, give up a sense of finding fulfillment in doing more, or having more or being more, in order to slow down enough to listen, to look, to experience what we already are, without need for improvement or amendment. To discover what Earth is now, without need for augmentation. To discover the magic that life is now, already, without anything being added to it, without even adding a thought.

Earth is alive. It's a miracle. Our most clever invention is not any more amazing than Earth’s invention of the plant-animal-atmosphere-ocean-soil respiration system. Nothing we can do can make it more miraculous than it already is.

But we can make it less. I'm afraid that many of our plans and projects reduce its possibilities, can even annihilate the whole gorgeous thing. We must be willing to die at least a little to the mind-made sense of self, die to separation, to prevent annihilation.

It seems to me that this is the reality of our situation: we must come to terms with death before we die, which means we are required to do and to be less than what we had hoped and dreamed. We must accept the physical limits to our Earthly existence. Mother Earth is telling us "No!" and we are throwing several tantrums because we do not like to be told "No." We think our freedom and our essence is to be found in satisfaction of infinite desires. Our sense of self is bound up with "more." Getting comfortable with "No!" requires a more mature sense of self, one that does not require constant expansion and gratification. One that is content with what is.

Can a species like ours grow up fast enough? I doubt it. But there is this tantalizing possibility: stopping takes no time at all. Doing takes time. Progress takes time. If there is much more we have to do, we are doomed, because we have run out of time.

Lacking time, all that is left to us is to stop everything. Just stop, inwardly and outwardly, mentally and physically. Not forever, but long enough to be unmade. Then to rediscover the abundance of Earth, the beauty and wonder of the non-human, the unfathomable depths of silence.

The crazy rush to the cliff can stop in an instant. It is possible. Just stop.

21 August 2012

Everything Must Change

I wrote the following essay a year ago, but I never published it. The news is so grim, the goal seemingly so impossible, that I thought it was probably not helpful to talk about it because it would discourage people rather than motivate them. Certainly that is the effect it has had on me. I've been living with this for over a year now, and I have been sick and depressed. But I think we have to face the reality of our situation. The truth is our only hope even if at first we do not see any way forward. If we are not honest about the situation, we can not even begin to address it rightly and completely.

I think this helps explain my previous post on metanoia. Our situation is urgent, and we are not doing what we need to do, and we are not stopping all that we need to stop (e.g. burning fossil fuels). The whole system must change. For me, "the system" exists both as external social, economic and political circumstances; and as an internal mindset -- beliefs and unconscious thought patterns that govern our behavior. The inner and the outer aspects of "the system" or what I sometimes call "the exploitation system" are intertwined, mutually reinforcing, and extremely difficult to unravel. For "the system" to change we have to be absolutely honest with ourselves about both the internal and the external aspects, or else it continues unabated. That's what metanoia means to me: stepping aside absolutely from the exploitation system, both internally and externally. Stepping aside to where? That's what is so hard to describe, because for most of us, what I am calling "the system" is simply "reality" or "life as we know it." Stepping aside from that ends up sounding like moving into a fourth spatial dimension. Where the heck is it?

I'll have more to say about this if I can find some clarity myself beyond what I have already described in this blog and in my essays. This is what I have been writing about for more than twenty-five years, and I still don't think I have quite succeeded in explaining what metanoia means to me.

Everything Must Change
21 June 2011

An unusual meeting of ocean scientists (International Programme on the State of the Ocean) just released a summary report (note: the meeting was in April 2011 and the full report still isn't available) concluding that unless there is a wholesale transformation of human society,

"... the world's ocean is at high risk of entering a phase of extinction of marine species unprecedented in human history."

The oceans will undergo a major extinction event that will cause ecosystem reorganization never seen within human history, on a level with past major extinction events (which have occurred a few times over the past 600 million years). All the known problems are accelerating much faster than anyone predicted, and the reason is that the problems are interacting to amplify their effects. So, for instance, acidification is having a greater impact than expected because the oceans are already stressed by the presence of toxic chemicals. Because of the way science is done, the effect of all of these stressors on each other has not been studied.

The interlocking problems are climate change (warming, acidification and oxygen deficiency), pollution (heavy metals, plastics, nitrogen from agriculture, and a variety of toxic compounds from industry and agriculture), overfishing, and habitat loss (which they list separately but which is often a result of the others, although seafloor trawling, which is destroying habitat directly is a stressor in itself, not just a consequence of overfishing). They don't mention sound pollution. That might fall under habitat loss, but I think it should have been listed as a factor in its own right (note: as was clearly demonstrated for the North Atlantic right whale in 2012).

It's a very grim picture. The solutions these scientists offer amount to this: everything must change. The whole structure of human society must change. They don't come out and say that directly, but they come close. For instance, one of their solutions is to

"avoid, reduce or at minimum, universally and stringently regulate oil, gas, aggregate and mineral extraction."

Wow. That one alone requires a complete transformation of our politics, our economy and our way of life. And so do all the other solutions they offer.

They make it clear that this is not a hundred-year project. We are perilously close to not being able to stop this thing. We may have already crossed that line and made total collapse and mass extinction unavoidable. In the summary conclusion they state,

"Technical means to achieve the solutions to many of the problems the workshop identified already exist, but current societal values prevent humankind from addressing them effectively. Overcoming these barriers is core to the fundamental changes needed to achieve a sustainable and equitable future."

That's as close as they come to stating outright that everything must change. These changes are not  adjustments within the system. They require a total transformation of the system. Current societal values must change. We must change. And fast. Not over several generations, which is the normal timeframe for deep changes in societal values.

Everything must change. Now.