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 lust 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. But lo and behold, here's the new boss, same as the old boss. But their words were so fine! We were so moved by them, so excited! Surely this time they must mean what they are saying!

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 reacting. 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.

I'm not saying there is any magic here. I'm just saying 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. 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, and becoming 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 we do not have to change, that everything is just fine the way it is. 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:


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!

My father, Larry, and I are planning a day-long workshop-retreat that we are calling

We Need A Spiritual Revolution! 

A Father-Son Dialogue on Old and New Ways of Understanding 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:


Here is our 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 dialogue and conversation informed by John's work in contemplative ecology - a perspective rooted in attention to the natural world - and Larry's grounding in biblical faith traditions. What do these perspectives say about the ecological crisis? Where are they compatible, where do they diverge, and how do they help us respond to the challenges we face?"

Larry and I have been talking about these issues for a long time, and we have decided to invite others into our conversation. This is an opportunity to explore the issues I cover in this blog and my essays, as well as my father's perspective as a pastor, teacher and biblical scholar.

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

09 April 2016

Introduction to Contemplative Ecology

I just posted an essay called Introduction to Contemplative Ecology on my website. It seemed a little long for a blog post. The other thing I want to say about it is that I am beginning to think about moving away from the terminology of "contemplative ecology." It feels like that language is more confusing than clarifying. It requires too much explanation of things that are not essential. I first started using that term 5 or 6 years ago, simply to make the connection between the inner and the outer, which we normally hold in separate realms. But the words "ecology" and "contemplation" mean too many things to too many people, and do not always point in the direction I want them to point, so I am trying to find some other way of referring to this thing. I have no doubt about what it is, but I am not sure what to call it. In that way, this essay is more a mark of where I have been than where I am going.

Meanwhile, here is an excerpt from the essay, or read the whole piece at the link above or this short link that you can share with others who might be interested.



"Humans have unleashed a destructive force that is consuming the planet, destabilizing life systems at the deepest levels. That force is both internal and external. It is a psycho-social system…

If we exclude the internal and focus only on the external, we ignore half of the picture. If we exclude the external and focus only on the internal, we exclude the other half. If we bring them together into one interactive system, we shake the foundations of many of our most cherished beliefs and behaviors.

"The boundary of inclusion and exclusion, what we consider internal and what we consider external, is the boundary of the self. The boundary of acceptance and rejection is who we think we are. Total acceptance and total inclusion mark the end of the sense of being a separate self. Will I ever take care of something or someone if I believe I am essentially separate from them? Will I care for the Earth if I am separate from it, if I believe I will continue in a non-physical realm after the body dies? Will I care for the other animals if I think I am above them, better than them, more important than them, essentially different from them, essentially separate from them?

"Contemplative ecology, then, reunites these two domains, which are really one domain in the first place: the inner and the outer, the psychological and the social, the spirit and the body, the human and the natural, the self and the world, desire and economics, cognitive bias and politics, the way the mind works and the way all natural systems work. The ways in which mind and society and the natural world are interrelated and mutually dependent. It's an explosive mix. Contemplative ecology includes everything, and therefore has a chance of addressing a crisis that also includes everything, but it is a threat to our sense of who we are and what we think the world is and how power operates in society. It is a threat to our belief in the true nature of our selves. Contemplative ecology therefore poses a challenge to the status quo."

05 March 2016

Emptiness and Everything: In Wildness Is Our Salvation

The human exploitation system is swallowing up everything wild and innocent. Yet what can we do? We are products of that system and we live in that system and getting out of it requires profound changes in human thinking and behavior. The changes required in the human psyche and human society run so deep that even those few who want to change, who see the necessity for change, find real change very difficult. We tinker at the edges and hope we are doing something profound.

We need a spiritual revolution. For me "spirituality" means our most fundamental understanding of who we are and what the world is. And that is where the change needs to happen, at the root of what we think we are. Are we oriented toward reality, or do we live in thrall to our own delusions? The human species, perhaps no species, has ever faced anything like this. At the heart of this is a seemingly unsolvable puzzle: we are the problem and we cannot therefore solve the problem. If we try to solve it using the mind that is creating it, we only sow more trouble. Something from outside of the human psycho-social system needs to step in.

I see two ways this can happen, two forces that can take us out of ourselves in the way that is needed. The first is living in greater communion with the non-human world. The wild animals and plants are free of us. I think that is part of why being around them is so lovely. They are free of us, and therefore set us free from ourselves when we pay attention to them. The tragedy of this time is that very little of the wild world remains. It is being swallowed, extinguished or tamed at exponentially increasing rates. What chance do wild animals and plants have against the machinery of human industry? Meanwhile, most people are more attached to their iPhones than they are to the wild world. They can't be alone. They can't be quiet. They can't be away from their text messages. They never step out of the human mindscape. They hardly know that the wild world exists.

To step out of the human mindscape is to be vulnerable in a way most people are unable or unwilling to experience. Life is beautiful and wonderful and delightful, but it is also fragile, harsh and deadly. Aging and sickness and death are part of the package, part of how life works, how it regenerates, how it creates more of itself within the limits of the planet. Knowing this has always been part of the contemplative life. We must accept our mortality to be fully alive, because life and death are intertwined aspects of the movement of life. Life includes death, and with it, new life. The denial of decay and death brings annihilation, which is a very different matter.

As Aldo Leopold said (misquoting Thoreau) "In wildness is the salvation of the world." For Leopold, it was the dying light in the eyes of a wolf he had shot that showed him a world larger and deeper than the one he held in his head, a living world that was much richer than his worldview. But how do we give wildness a toe-hold in our lives anymore? Wildness - that which is free of the human mind - is being destroyed everywhere. And we need it more than ever.

Fundamental transformation of the human techno-psycho-social system has become a matter of survival, for us and for most of the species of life currently living on Earth. Most of us may not be active exploiters but we support or passively accept the system that does the exploiting for us. So what on Earth is going to bring about that transformation? What is going to stop us in our tracks? What can put a stick in the spokes of the industrial juggernaut? What reality can pierce the armor of our beliefs? What wolf will look us in the eye and tell us how very wrong we are, about everything? We must all be changed. But what can possibly bring about such a deep change? All of us are in the system. We are the system. It makes us what we are, and we in turn make it what it is, in an endless cycle. Like an addict who can't face his addiction, or an abuser who cannot stop manipulating everything around him, we need an intervention. Something from outside of the system needs to interrupt the system, but who or what is going to intervene?

With wild nature rapidly disappearing, we are left with one other thing that can stop us in our tracks: silence; emptiness. We fear it. We avoid it. We are unlikely to embrace it and be embraced by it, because silence is also wild. We can't control it. We can't understand it. We can't even identify with it. It eludes capture completely. Yet it is with us all the time. We only have to notice it, and allow it to be a presence in our lives. Silence, emptiness, undoes everything we have tried to do. It ruins all of our plans and hopes and schemes. It is everywhere, yet when it reveals itself, it comes like a thief saying, "Nothing is permanent. Nothing you believe is real. Nothing belongs to you, not even your self." And civilization crumbles, founded as it is on the belief that treasures can be stored up and kept safe, for me, for the immortal "I." Silence is a direct and immediate affront to the feeling that "I" exist. And so we push it away like we push away our mortality. We fill every second with noise and activity. Even meditation has become an app, to be dispensed with quickly, its aim to make us more efficient workers, better able to manage our busyness, better slaves.

Silence could save us, and wildness could save us, but that is like saying that saving us could save us. This is the conundrum. Salvation is right at hand. It is as close as breathing. And we run from it with all our strength. To stop the onslaught of destruction, we only have to stop running. Just stop. Only our fear of stopping and the emptiness that awaits prevents us from stopping. But that is enough to keep the machine going perpetually despite the fact that we are driving over the cliff. We are driving over the cliff and we are afraid to stop. And all we have to do to stop, is stop.

In emptiness is our salvation. The thing we search and long for. The ultimate sense of belonging. We belong to everything. Separation is not possible. The whole cosmic order is right at hand. But we can't really know that unless we come to a full stop. So the thing we fear is the thing we most desire and need. By fearing emptiness, we fear life. And the consequence of that is the violence and destruction that perpetuates itself down through the ages.

More wind farms will not save us. More solar panels will not save us. More nuke plants and oil wells will not save us. More rules and laws will not save us. More studies and research will not save us. We don't need to figure anything out. We don't need anything, except the abundance of life and the mystery of silence. To find them, we need only stop and discover what we already have and what we already are: emptiness and everything; silence and the whole movement of life.