31 December 2008

The One Needful Thing

At our family gathering last night we got talking about the need for a new, no-growth or selective-growth basis for our economy, one that can supply us with our needs without requiring the trashing of the planet, and we got talking about the Rev. Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping, and his movie What Would Jesus Buy? And that led to a discussion of the story of Judas and the woman with the oil.

John 12:1

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead, [and his sisters, Martha and Mary]. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus' feet and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot... said, "Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?"... And Jesus said, "Leave her alone... You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me."
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I woke up thinking about that story, and how similar the theme of that story is to Luke's story of Mary and Martha. I was amazed when I looked up the two stories and saw that they appear to be the same core story told differently by different authors.

Luke 10:38

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me." But Jesus answered her, "Martha, Martha you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part,
which will not be taken from her."
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Luke has Jesus staying with Martha and Mary, and Mary sits at Jesus' feet listening to him teaching, and Martha gets bent out of shape because she is doing the socially correct thing of serving a big meal for this honored guest, and she resents Mary just sitting there at the feet of the teacher.

John also has Jesus staying with Martha and Mary, but this time Mary anoints Jesus' feet with oil and rubs his feet with her hair (a lot sexier than just sitting at his feet receiving the teaching). And in this version it is Judas getting bent out of shape and complaining that Mary is not doing the socially correct thing. In both cases, Jesus defends Mary against Judas/Martha's social correctness. Same story, only slightly different characters.

I was also reminded of the story of the return of the prodigal son. The "good" son complains bitterly that he has "worked hard and played by the rules" yet it is the returning spendthrift who gets the big party.

Luke 15:29

Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing... Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, " Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came
back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!" Then the father said to him, "Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found."
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I love the line from the Martha and Mary story, "You are busy with many things, but only one thing is needful."

And what is the one needful thing? In each case the one needful thing appears to be a shocking abdication of social norms and social rules and social obligations. The one needful thing is delighting in the Divine Presence, which is right here, this very moment. The one needful thing is to be alert to and present in this sacred moment, right here, right now.

I see Martha and Judas and the "good" son trying to justify their existence through their adherence to the rules, through their fulfilling of established social roles. The one who enters into the divine presence, who isn't "doing" anything to justify his or her existence displays a shocking alternative to the entire social/economic order (which is exactly what we need right now). And Jesus seems to be telling his followers, choose that one needful thing. Your existence needs no justification. You do not have to prove yourself. No one is keeping score. The kingdom of heaven is right here, within and among you. If you can not recognize its presence right here, right now, how can you ever enter it? As the "prodigal father" says, in essence, "The party is in progress, set aside your distress and come join the party."


19 December 2008

Nothing and Everything

It isn't that often these days that I get to have a real honest-to-goodness experience of the nondual nature of reality, but for some reason it came in the middle of the night. In the wake of that timeless, spaceless "moment," the mind came roaring in for several hours with its attempts to describe, explain, return to, claim ownership of, categorize, and so on, this inexplicable "experience." This amazing thing shows up and the mind just desperately wants to understand it, and is utterly incapable of doing so, not for lack of trying!

The "experience" itself, which is more of a non-experience, is simply the two-fold sense that the self is an utter illusion, and that reality is absolutely undivided. There really is only one thing, one being, one entity, which encompasses everything. The strange thing about being the only thing in existence is that there is no "other." All-one-ness is absolute aloneness. The beauty of things appearing as separate is that they get to experience reunion. They get to experience love. In the all-one there can be no "experience" of anything, and certainly not of love.

So maybe love is what this whole thing is here for. Maybe everything, all these seemingly separate things, are here to fall in love. The one appears as two so there can be a me and a you and we can fall in love and revel in the mystery of our other-ness.

But underneath and within all of that, there really is only one. There is no other. So there is nothing to lose and nothing to gain, and all the conflict based on fear of loss and striving to gain is utterly unnecessary, born of the illusion of the "self," but still there is only one and even all of that illusion is an expression of the one.

Strange stuff. There really is no me and no you. Not really. But there is, of course the vivid appearance of a me and a you. And that is as it should be, because all-one-ness is pretty flat without the dance of "me" and "you" that takes place within it.

But without knowing that the me and the you are really illusions, love becomes struggle and conflict and fear. So it seems like the very nicest thing is to be fully involved in the dance of other-ness, without the fear that comes from believing that other-ness is the final and ultimate reality.

Knowing the essential unity of everything makes separateness a dance instead of a battle. Experiencing our other-ness makes unity a dance instead of a flat and featureless field of nothingness.

03 December 2008

The Insurrection of the Real

Here is my dilemma as a contemplative and a marine naturalist. On the one hand, my experience as a contemplative tells me that this world is essentially perfect. There is only one, perfect unity of being, appearing in a multitude of forms, animate and inanimate. This perfect unity of being is essentially generous and beautiful and loving. Heaven is right here, right now.

On the other hand, I have seen the horrors that humans perpetrate upon each other and other lives. The way that humans slaughter whales is so horrific, especially of course for the whale, but also for almost any person watching the act, that "heaven" is about the last word that would come to mind. Hell is more like it. We are destroying the world that supports us, that makes "us" possible! Destroying it! Destroying ourselves. Destroying the oceans. Destroying the whales. Destroying the forests. Destroying the fertility of the soil. Nothing that anyone has done or said has come close to changing this basic fact. Nothing. We are not moving anywhere near fast enough to avert catastrophe. The catastrophe is already being visited upon the world, and we wealthy humans -- anyone technically capable of reading this -- are just too insulated from it to see it yet.

I have also seen war at first hand. I have seen the slaughter of the innocents. It is Hell on Earth.

To try to puzzle this out logically leads to a kind of madness. Either I have to pretend that the horrors aren't really that horrible, which puts me in the position of trying to deny the undeniable; or I have to say that my contemplative insights are utter nonsense, which puts me in the position of discounting the most compelling and joyful experiences of my life. In other words, to get this to make sense in the logical mind, some part of my essential experience has to be denied. How can reality be both perfectly good and perfectly horrible?

The only way that I can understand this -- while recognizing that any attempt to understand and explain is going to diminish the lived truth in a way that is limiting and ultimately unsatisfying -- is that the real world is fundamentally good and generous and beautiful. Life is a miracle. That is not a belief, it is a reality I have seen and experienced. Hell is exclusively a human invention, the result of having a brain that creates very compelling images and stories, thoughts and beliefs. So compelling are these mental constructions that the whole organism starts acting as if the thoughts and dreams are real, and as if the living world is of peripheral importance at best, or only an obstacle to spiritual perfection, or merely a means to the end of financial gain.

--- Virtual Reality

From the moment we awake to the moment we fall asleep, our minds are busy worrying, planning, remembering, analyzing, criticizing, complaining, stating opinions, and most important of all, comparing what is new to what is already known. All this activity creates a sort of virtual reality of the mind: the world as we know it. We are mesmerized by this mindscape, and have been for millennia.

Words and ideas and dreams have tremendous power. To believe one's own thoughts and opinions, to repeat them over and over and act as if they are true, is to enter a world in which anything seems possible, at least within the self-referencing mindscape. We have become so captivated by the infinite possibilities of what thought can imagine, that thought has taken over. Thought has become our dominant reality, overtaking that which is actually, physically real. We feel more at home in our thought worlds than we do in the living world of forests and rivers and animals and oceans and earth, and pain and death. More and more we really do live in a virtual reality. All of us, not just those of us plugged into our iPods and Xboxes. The mind is its own virtual reality machine, constantly inventing its own reality.

This is how we live now, in our idea worlds - which often stand in violent opposition to the living world. It is shocking to see. We are absorbed in a mental fabrication, a mindscape that has very little to do with the reality of the living world. This has been true for a very long time, but it is getting more and more so as we inundate our two dominant senses, our eyes and ears, with the output of our electronic devices. Our horizon is narrowing. Our felt sense of living and breathing seems to be getting more and more remote. We have now deeply alienated ourselves from the physical, social and spiritual realities that we require to survive.

We have essentially been living within the nightmare of our own thought patterns. We have devoted more life energy to our thoughts and beliefs about the world, than to the living world itself. And although this has been going on for millennia, only in the last few decades, as we have run headlong into the limits of the Earth to sustain the damage, has it become obvious how our idea about the world is out of step with the living world itself.

We are more comfortable in the "virtual" world that exists only in the mind than in the real world that includes other people, other creatures, other life kinds -- mountains, rivers, oceans, soil communities, forests, prairies, airspaces -- and our own bodies. The living world, with all its magic and beauty and incomprehensible interconnectedness, is what remains when the mind becomes still. The living world shines with its own brilliant luminosity when it is no longer shrouded by the net of thought and concept and belief. It is perfectly magical.

--- Reality

What is the real world? Where is it to be found? It is everything, everywhere, and not any one thing alone. We experience it as the fullness of this that is right here, right now. It is the stuff of Life. It is silence-birth-death-life-love-whale-bird-snake-human-river-ocean-forest-rain-sun-heat-cold-soil-insect-rock... It is heaven/earth, spirit/body, energy/matter. It is what the Rev. Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping calls "The Great Unknowable." It is what actually is, beyond any idea or image that we can have of it. It is entirely out of reach of our concepts, but it is what we are. It is what everything is. Reality is the intricate, irreducible dance of all being.

This living world is profoundly intelligent, organized, self-sustaining, open, unified, spontaneous, creative, interdependent, fearless, and incomprehensibly beautiful.

By comparison, the mind-made world is confused (but awfully clever), confining, defensive, agitated, limited, self-absorbed, mortally afraid of the unknown, fragmented, and deeply unsatisfying. And yet we have devoted the bulk of our life energy to this mind-made world and have acted as if that is the real world.

Why life emerged in the form of an animal with a brain capable of getting lost in its own thought maze, I do not know. It seems that we have about one generation, maybe less, to find our way out of the maze.

--- The Insurrection of the Real

My solution, for what it is worth, is an Insurrection of the Real in two parts.

Part One is to stop believing in the exclusive dominion of the mindscape. Stop believing that the mind gives an accurate representation of reality. Stop being a slave to whatever thoughts and beliefs and opinions happen to appear in the mind. See how the mind creates illusion, see how destructive those illusions are, and stop believing in those illusions. Belief here means simply a thought or a complex of thoughts that is repeated over and over until the mind becomes committed to it. Committed to it means that it feels threatened if that thought complex is challenged in any way.

See this in yourself through direct observation of your own thoughts and your own behavior. See which ideas you hold that are easily threatened. If your immediate response is to defend your idea, rather than listen to what is being said, you are in the presence of one of your deeply-held thought patterns. It is very important to see this in yourself and not take anyone else's word for it. Taking someone else's word for it is merely adding another book to your library of ideas about the world. Either we each see this at work in ourselves, or it has no real meaning.

For the whole organism, including the brain, to withdraw its unquestioning devotion to the mind-made world is a radical shift in orientation, a non-violent revolution of the deepest order. This revolution happens in an instant, the moment the mind's illusions are seen and understood. No blood is shed. No lives lost. The mind simply stops believing in its own illusions.

That doesn't mean it is easy. Facing oneself in this way requires absolute honesty. It requires watching the mind at work as it spins its tales, trapping the actual in its web of opinions, excuses, justifications, hopes and dreams.

Part Two of the Insurrection of the Real is to re-inhabit the beauty, the mystery, the magic and the essential goodness of the living world. In practical terms this means opening all our senses to the world. What does it feel like to walk down the street? What does a thought feel like? Where in the body do doubt and anger and happiness reside? What does it feel like to be cold, or hot, or hungry, or full? Not to be able to describe it, but to know the feeling of it. The sound of the singing bird. The rustling of wind. The rushing of a brook after a rain. No labels, just the sense of it.

Do you know how life feels? How it sounds? Do you know how it feels to dig in living soil, or get entangled in blackberry bushes? Do you know what it feels like to be approached by another animal much larger than you are? Do you know how your life fits in with the natural community in which you live and move?

At times I suspect the whales of being instigators of this insurrection. Meeting a whale is a great way to have your ideas about whales blown to pieces. You are faced with an incomprehensible presence that simply has to be met on its own terms. And as you get to know whales, you realize that the more you think you know, the more likely you are to be wrong.

Whales are infinitely surprising, but this is simply the way Life is: endlessly creative. Only ideas become fixed. Reality continues to invent itself.

--- Dwelling In Silence

In my experience, the quickest, and perhaps the only way to come to a true understanding of this, since it can not be captured in an idea or a word, is to dwell in silence.

Silence has a way of forcing confrontation with what is real. In silence there is a heightened sense of being present to what ever is happening. Stepping aside from the mental voice that is constantly labeling, commenting, criticizing, demanding, or trying to understand, the senses open. Alertness dominates. Thoughts, images, and sensory experiences come and go, each one vivid, alive, and fleeting. The silent alertness endures. Thought becomes like a tool that is taken up and set aside as needed. Flexible, like Life itself.

Spend a little while in silent contemplation of all experience as it comes and goes, and the mindscape dissolves. For all its apparent ability to eclipse reality, the mind-made world is so fragile and insubstantial that it requires a strange combination of constant maintenance and deep inattention to keep its illusions intact. Silent alertness instantly unmakes those mind-made illusions, which is probably why we allow so little silence in our lives. We do not want to be reminded of what is real, and how devoted we are to our illusions.

It becomes obvious that our sense of who we are is derived almost entirely from the mental activity of the commentating voice, the voice that judges and criticizes and keeps score of rights and wrongs, and wishes for more, and sorts and categorizes and decides what it likes and what it doesn't like. Very little of our sense of who we are comes from our raw sensory experience of the world. Even less comes from our alertness to that experience. And hardly anything comes from a sense of being an expression of the actually real, all unseen and unknowable, that resides behind and within the living world, everything that is, and everything that we are.

Dwelling in silent alertness, being as fully present to the whole movement of life as possible, makes this apparent. The mindscape is a deeply inadequate representation of the real. And yet, when the mind is very still and alert, there is a feeling of the whole movement of life that is going on beyond the reach of sight and sound and thought. There is an echo of that in which we are moving, and which is moving through us, all out of sight and out of mind. That is the real world, unknowable though it may be in its wholeness.

If the exploration of silence is followed to the end, it leads back to the body, back into nature, back to Earth, with a subtle but significant difference. What changes is the locus of identity. The sense of "who I am" shifts from "me alone," to "everything together." Maybe for some people the shift is complete. For me it tends to flip back and forth. But once you have dwelt in silence for even a moment and felt who you are in the dance of everything, nothing ever looks the same.

Silence invites seeing the world in this way, in its order, beauty and goodness. Seeing the world this way invites living this way. No longer held in the trance of the mind's distorted image of the world, we can let the real world live and breathe, through us, through all things, through everything together.

Oh, to stop, to give up everything, all belief and all seeking and all understanding, for one moment, and be launched headlong into the dynamic, unpredictable wonder of being here, of being this, this particular unfathomable life.

Oh, to be this deep well of silence, and everything pouring out of it into the utter perplexity of being.

Oh, to be so perplexed, so undone, so tossed by the waves of being.

What will you do when your search for understanding eclipses the living of that which you can not understand? Which will win your heart? Hell or Heaven? The known or the unknowable? The noisy chatter of self-perpetuation, or deep silence? The predictable and rather shabby entertainments of the mind, or Life itself in all its wild, dancing, utterly mysterious actuality?

19 November 2008

Not to Destroy, But to Build

Reflections on a gospel passage "I come not to tear down the Law but to fulfill it." I first wrote this almost two years ago, but it is terribly relevant to me right now.

It seems to me that this gospel passage shows that Jesus was struggling with a challenge that is highly relevant to us today. For him to say something like "Do not say that I have come to tear down the Law" must mean that people were in fact accusing him of that very thing. Which means that his actions and his words were perceived as a challenge and a threat to traditional belief and practice.

But he replies to this criticism, "I have come to fulfill the Law," which sounds to me like this, "I am honoring the very foundation on which the Law is built, on which all religion is built. If the edifice of your beliefs and practices is falling it is because those beliefs are not true to the foundation, not because I am tearing them down."

Now, it seems to me that we face this same challenge today. The structures of our societies and our economies, our thought structures and many of our religious structures, are not true to the foundation of Life. They serve only themselves. And many are in full-frontal assault on the foundation of Life on Earth. So how do we, as people who wish to remain true to the foundation, which is the fundamental unity of all that is -- which expresses itself as love of oneself, love of neighbor, of enemy, of life forms alien and mysterious to us humans -- how do we stay true to that foundation of unity and at the same time deal effectively with the structures -- in which we ourselves are deeply enmeshed -- that perpetuate genocide and biocide?

People the world over identify deeply with the super-structures of belief and tradition that they hold dear. Yet so many of those structures must fall or be transformed if Life on Earth is to be reclaimed. People, all of us, will feel that what we hold most dear, our very sense of self, is under attack. How do we, with Jesus, say "I have not come to tear apart but to fulfill. Not to destroy, but to build. It may feel like an attack on the foundation, but it is not. There is a deeper foundation to be rediscovered. Let the false fall away and the truth return. Let the structures that are destroying Life fall away and let new life grow from the still-healthy root."

How do we do this? Can love transform the world? How does love approach those who feel threatened by the change, those who feel that all they hold dear is under attack, including their very sense of identity? How do we allow our devotion to belief and tradition and security to fall away, if that is the consequence of being true to the foundation of radical, inclusive love? How do we bear witness to the truth, knowing that there are many edifices of society and self that will not stand under the scrutiny?

If we are to survive the coming decades, and if we are to live on an Earth that is vitally alive with all manner of life forms, radical change must come. To welcome that change we will have to know what is true and what is false, and we will have to know how to let go of many of our most cherished possessions, those possessed in the mind, and embrace the living truth.

11 November 2008

Switching From Fear to Love

I just received a peculiar bit of spam email (maybe you did too) from someone calling himself or herself (not sure) "Tinker." The language is difficult, and I have questions about much of what is being said, but there is a core that I think I can put into my own words. Something like this, with apologies for any misrepresentation of the original intention. Tinker's own delightfully unique words can be found at www.bltr.org.

The essential problems of humanity all spring from a common source. There are many different ways to talk about this, but essentially the human mind is driven by fear of the unknown. We each have a gatekeeper in the mind that examines whatever is happening around us, and compares that to what is already known and familiar, and admits entrance only to what matches what is already known, and then figures out what to do with that which is unfamiliar. The gatekeeper has many strategies for dealing with the unfamiliar, depending on just how threatening the new is to what is already known. Those strategies include reinterpretation, outright denial, attacking the messenger, silent internal ridicule, automatic reassertion of the familiar, arguing and criticizing, and in extreme cases, physical or character assassination. The mind fears what it does not know. And it goes to great lengths to preserve the known in the face of the unfamiliar.

Lesser threats that can be incorporated into the gatekeeper's current paradigm are massaged into place. Greater threats to the familiar are resisted by whatever means. The more persistent the threat, the more violent the self-defense.

The primal fear driving this mechanism is social exclusion. The gatekeeper's rule is finely tuned to the behavior it sees around it. It has a pretty good idea what is socially acceptable and what is not. Rebellion of the individual is usually well within the bounds of an accepting subculture. There are very, very few who are willing to risk being rejected by everyone else in order to admit the truth and speak the truth and go where the truth leads.

Every single one of us has access to the truth. We don't need religions or gurus or politicians to tell us what is true, although they can sometimes be helpful. We know what is true. We are in no way separate from each other and in no way separate from God, so we know what is really true. It is simply that we shut off our trust in that truth because we fear the unknown. The truth does not come to us as dogma, or as beliefs that tell us in advance what to do and what not to do. The truth comes to us as a deep knowing in the moment of what is right and what is not right. We all know the feeling, that inner compass that points us in the right direction moment to moment. And we all know the feeling of denying that inner compass because it points us away from what is socially acceptable, away from what we think will win us approval from our peers or those in authority, away from what is safe and predictable.

This is such a strong mechanism in all humans that it is hard to see how it can be overcome. We can try to teach our children and we can try ourselves to be morally strong, which means to trust that inner compass when it points away from societal norms. And there have always been a very few who have been able to achieve this. They end up being revered as spiritual leaders or killed, or both.

But for most of us the fear is just too great. The fear of being thrown out of society, killed even. The mind that is conditioned to respond to what is socially acceptable is too strong.

Tinker is proposing that the solution to this problem, and it is an urgent problem -- our very survival as a species, and the survival of many other species is at stake -- is to change the social norm. To make it socially acceptable to listen to the inner compass. Then there will be no conflict. He has a plan for making this happen. I wish him luck. It may be possible. After all, every one of us knows what this is about. We know exactly what it feels like to deny our inner compass and go with what the crowd expects. We know what that fear of rejection feels like.

We also know what it feels like to be true to that still small voice within. We know that it is reliable. We know that it is a voice of love and peace and truth and integrity. But it never gives us the final answer so it leaves us moving constantly into the unknown. This is our true condition anyway, but that true condition is plastered over with the ongoing monologue of the gatekeeper who is constantly turning the new and surprising and frightening into the old and familiar and comfortable. But we know how horrible it feels to deny the truth we deeply know and go with what is merely socially acceptable.

My own feeling is that social acceptability is not the path to awakening individual conscience. Tinker seems to be assuming we are all separate and need to have some external force that will grant us approval to know what we already know. That's the same mistake religions have always made, I think. Individual conscience isn't really individual. It is the deepest knowing of life itself manifesting in an individual mind. It is God's own truth bubbling up in our own being. We have the freedom to ignore it, to trust the crowd instead, to trust the dogma, to trust the inherited belief system. And we have the freedom to listen to that deep knowing, to allow it to act through us, regardless of the fear it arouses. We all have that freedom. It is a given. Trusting the rule of society gives us all the catastrophes we see, the wars and the destruction of the earth. Trusting the inner compass is trusting the source. It is love. It always manifests as love. It never wants to do harm to anyone or anything. It never coerces or manipulates. It never wants to shut anyone out. It has no enemies, for it is the essential nature of everyone and everything.

In my own experience, the falling away of the fear comes when it is clearly seen just how this whole mechanism operates. When the mind sees very clearly how its own gate keeping is threatening its own survival. Then that deep survival instinct is harnessed in service to seeing the truth and reorienting to the deep truth. When the mind sees that its gatekeeper is the source of the danger, it loosens its grip and reorients toward reality. It prefers reality to the gatekeeper's story about reality. The gatekeeper may remain, but in a much diminished role. The gatekeeper is no longer the source of personal identity.

I have no plan. I have no advice. But I do know that the truth of love is within and around every one of us at all times. The change we need is as simple as flipping a switch. Switching from fear to love. From running with the crowd to trusting our inner compass. From drowning out reality with our monologue of explanation and rationalization and criticism, to listening deeply to reality, to loving reality in its incomprehensible splendor. This love does not need to be learned. It is our true condition. Fear is imposed on top of it. It takes no effort and no time to acknowledge the fear, to see through it, and to step into the love of reality, to fall into the embrace of the unknowable vitality of life itself, to acknowledge the feeling of the truth, to use Tinker's words.

And I think that because we are not in any way separate, when anyone does this, it happens in some measure to everyone. So I think maybe the edifice of fear is falling and the foundation of love is being revealed. That wall of fear can fall as quickly as the Berlin Wall. In fact, it is already happening. If it can happen to me and it can happen to a mechanic in the Netherland Antilles called "Tinker" it must be happening to all of us.

08 November 2008

Not To Be Missed

I have written surprisingly little in this blog about the natural world. When I first conceived of The Natural Contemplative I had a double purpose in mind. First, I would write about contemplation from the perspective of one who sees contemplation as a natural part of every life. I have read that only about 1% of the human population are "natural contemplatives." With this I wholeheartedly disagree. Whatever these others mean by "contemplative" it is not what I mean. We are all natural contemplatives. Most of us are merely unaware, perhaps even a little afraid, of our contemplative core. Unaware and perhaps a bit resistant to the truth of our own being. Or perhaps we know it, but call it by another name.

Second, I wanted to write about the natural world that is so dear to me, especially the whales and seals I have come to know in myriad ways over the past 13 years or so. I thought I would be writing about the intimate link between our contemplative nature, and the contemplation of nature. The link between our deepest nature and the deepest nature of all life. The inextricable bonds and intertwinings and interdependences. The song we share with whales and seals and birds. How meeting another wild animal can thrust you instantly into an understanding of your own true nature. The fallacies of independence, autonomy, mastery, domination, conflict, exploitation, self. The unutterable damage we are inflicting on ourselves through the damage we inflict on each other, on earth. The ultimate conclusion that there is no "other." All damage is ultimately self-inflicted. The harm we do to another is done to ourselves.

It turns out these are really hard things to write about.

There is no common language, no common frame of reference within which to discuss these things. The belief in separation is so profoundly written into our language and our ways of thinking that it is nearly impossible to talk about the perfect unity of being.

Both eastern and western spiritual traditions are usually caught in apparent dualities. I grew up in the Christian tradition, so I know quite well its dualities. Good vs. evil and all that. Its emphasis on achieving eternal life and rather peripheral concern for the life we are living right here, right now, especially the rich and beautiful lives of other animals, of rocks and rivers and trees and soil and sky. There is little if any love for these living entities. There is even a denial that we are animals. There is us, made in God's image, and then there is everything else, everything lesser than us. We are going to heaven, if we believe the right things. The dominant tradition hardly seems to care where everything else is going or about loving the richness of this life.

But I have also spent time among believers and practitioners of eastern traditions, especially Buddhism. And like the Christian longing for heaven, the eastern traditions have their preference for enlightenment, nirvana, transcending this illusory world and dwelling in some purely spiritual plane that is free of the hurt and illusion of this bodily, animal life. Even among self-proclaimed "non dualists" there is a not-too-subtle dualism that prefers "pure consciousness" or "being the observer" or "detachment" to the complexity of being matter-earth-animal-human.

Even the non dualist who proclaims "everything is consciousness" can't seem to escape from a subtle dualism. This goes back to the language problem. Immediately the mind wants to interpret this statement by countering, "so everything is not body." Consciousness=good. Body=bad.

I started this blog because I was tired of hearing two things: that spirituality is basically about personal salvation or personal enlightenment, and that the material world, the earth, the animals, our own bodily lives, don't have any spiritual significance. Bodies suck. Best get free of them. And the bodies of animals and rocks and rivers really suck. Best get free of all that. After all, those things die. What good can they possibly be?

I have spent some time recently reading the work of Adyashanti, who is a spiritual teacher, about my age, coming out of the Zen tradition. I initially enjoyed encountering his writing because his approach to meditation resonates with my own, and that is a very, very rare thing. Even among meditators I have always been a bit of an oddball. I still deeply appreciate what Adya is carrying into the world. His message is very straightforward, relatively free of spiritual jargon, and clearer than any I have heard for a long time. He goes to the root of the thing in a way many people can understand. I have never met him (I will next spring) but my impression is that he is carrying a loving presence with people that is quite rare. About 90% of what he says makes perfect sense to me. Read his book Emptiness Dancing if you are interested.

But I find myself increasingly frustrated with his lack of concern for the natural world and the body. In a recent interview he was asked, "Are the body and physical sensations illusory?" His reply was "Yes and no. Ultimately everything is a dream, and yet you still have to deal with the body... it's still going to hurt if you bump your head."

What a sadly impoverished sense of what it is to be a body! Good God! It's just a bloody inconvenience? Not a word as to the glory of the web of life. Not a word as to the incredible beauty and grandeur of mountains and whales and wolves. Not a word as to the joys of rain and sun and feeling the caress of wind on skin. Not a word about the intricate and intelligent web of life. How sad. And Adya is one of the better ones. He speaks of the danger of getting stuck at the place of "being pure awareness" and how important it is to carry that awareness back out into life. He speaks of the importance of not trying to hang out in a false bliss state. Yet he has little good to say about being a body and he doesn't seem to care if we trash the planet. Oh well, everything dies. That's the way it goes. It's all a dream anyway.

So as you can see I have a fair bit of anger about this. No one seems to be talking about the deepest insights of contemplation - the riches that flow out of silence and the understanding that the sense of being a "separate self" is a mind-created illusion - while at the same time really loving this animal life. I wanted to try to do that, to bring those two worlds together, to reunite heaven and earth, spirit and matter, but it is turning out to be a tricky business, which just goes to show how foreign it is to our ways of thinking about and seeing the world and our place in it. In trying to explain it I more often feel torn in half than successful at reunification.

If I am anything, and I resist all labels, I am probably some kind of non dualist. From what I have seen, there is only one thing. Spirit and body are the same thing. Distinctions exist only in the mind. They are a story, a convenience, a fiction, an illusion. Really, there is only one thing, one being, one energy matrix that forms and reforms into temporary nodes, including of a type (which we call a "nervous system") that is able to "read" itself after a fashion. Who knows what is really going on? No one! All we know is what a tiny portion of the brain says it thinks is going on, or what it invents to fill in the gaps in its knowledge.

My whole adult life, and maybe longer, I have wanted to understand the very root of the reason why we are here in this form, and the reason for all the apparent misery, personal and planetary. I have wanted to know why we are so unhappy, so destructive, so exploitative. And I have wanted to know what is possible for us. Is the peaceable kingdom a fantasy or a reality? Is it a description of an afterlife or a description of this life - a hint at the underlying reality of this life that we merely fail to see? Is this mess for real, or are we merely blind and ignorant and locked in our own limited perceptions and mental frameworks? What is really real?

I have had enough glimpses of a vibrant, beautiful, glorious, sacred, joyful, generous, loving, welcoming reality hiding in the cracks between all our misery that I have needed to understand deeply what the hell is going on here. I have needed to understand the workings of my own mind, with the understanding that my mind isn't essentially different from anyone else's. We are all working with the same basic mechanism. And it determines how we see the world and how we respond to the world, far more than most people want to admit.

But trying to understand the mind, even observing one's own mind at work, is a dense thicket. It's fascinating, but one can get rather tangled up in it.

I keep having to pull back to the basics. Yes, I want to understand the very root of suffering, the root of greed and violence and the feeling of separation. I want to understand the root cause of devotion to ideology. But I also want to recall what I do know and to embody it.

Explanations, theologies, philosophical frameworks aside, one thing is clear to me. The foundation is Love. This is not an idea I have, it is something I have seen very clearly, more clearly than I have seen anything else. Clearer than a clear blue sky. I can not for the life of me, for all my thinking and investigating, answer in a way that satisfies my mind or anyone else's, why deep love should take the form of war and rape and child abuse and flood and famine and children blown apart by land mines and drug addiction and exploitation of the planet and religious fanaticism and all the rest of it.

But I do know that all of that mad mess is also an expression of this one beautiful thing. Somehow maybe it just has to be this way, for no particularly good reason. I don't know. But given the choice between this world exactly as it is and some imagined bliss world, I would take this world any day (well, most days!), for the simple reason that I have been around long enough not to trust my fantasies of perfection. In the end those fantasies have caused me much more suffering than anything life has sent my way. And the things I love most in my life happened like accidents. I never saw them coming, and I would never want to have lived without them. Good things and "bad" things.

So which is more trustworthy here, life, or my idea of what life should be? I'll take life as it is, thank you very much. This life is so rich and mysterious and wild, can I really imagine anything that would be an improvement?

I am inclined these days to think that the source of our worst problems is the belief that there is something better than this life exactly as it is. Paradoxically, the way to make this life infinitely better is to embrace it and be embraced by it exactly as it is. Everything in this body/brain thing has been trained to resist this life as it is. This body/brain has been taught that there is always something better. A better job, a sexier mate, a perfect heaven or state of pure consciousness, a faster car, whatever. The list goes on. There is always some safer, disembodied, detached, airbrushed, virtual reality that is better than this messy bodily life. There is always some reason to despise this that is. To despise the world. To despise our own lives. To despise our bodies. To despise the animals and the plants. There is always something better than this, just around the corner. Human meaning derives from striving for that something better. This is what we have conditioned ourselves to believe. This is what we are taught from the very beginning.

What if... What if all that striving for something better, and the lack of love for this right here exactly as it is, is what is making everything appear so messed up? What happens if we stop striving and improving and really get to know this right here? What happens if we fall in love with reality?

Oh my. It's unbelievable. What riches we have been missing. What bliss! What joy! What wonders! What sorrows! What disappointments! What successes! What failures! What laughter! What tears!

There is no imagined, hoped for, or virtual substitute that can hold a candle to this life, exactly as it is. The "nothing" and the "everything." The tangible, lively world and the unknowable deep silence out of which it pours. The material known that is a wave on the surface of the deep unknown. Grasp at one or the other and we live a fragmented life. Allow both together and we have heaven on earth. Right here. Right now. This. Exactly as it is. The whole shebang. Not to be missed.

24 October 2008

Alan Greenspan Speaks the Truth

It isn't often that a former Chairman of the Federal Reserve says something really profound, but Alan Greenspan did yesterday, whether he knows it or not.

Here is the exchange between him and Rep. Henry Waxman:

ALAN GREENSPAN: Well, remember that what an ideology is, is a conceptual framework with the way people deal with reality. Everyone has one. You have to -- to exist, you need an ideology. The question is whether it is accurate or not.

And what I'm saying to you is, yes, I found a flaw. I don't know how significant or permanent it is, but I've been very distressed by that fact.

REP. HENRY WAXMAN: You found a flaw in the reality...

ALAN GREENSPAN: Flaw in the model that I perceived is the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works, so to speak.

REP. HENRY WAXMAN: In other words, you found that your view of the world, your ideology, was not right, it was not working?

ALAN GREENSPAN: That is -- precisely. No, that's precisely the reason I was shocked, because I had been going for 40 years or more with very considerable evidence that it was working exceptionally well.


He's right, of course. Everyone has a model, a conceptual framework, an ideology (more or less rigid) that they use to deal with reality. But the question is not whether the framework is accurate. That part Mr. Greenspan got wrong.

The framework is NEVER accurate. And that is the kicker. Because almost everyone believes their framework is accurate, that's why they believe in it. And if they have a hint that their way of interpreting reality is flawed, then they think they just have to tinker with the model, the framework, until it is accurate again. Most of us never realize that our mental model of the world is flawed. Most of us never even realize we have a model! And if we do know we have one, we are absolutely devoted to defending it. And if we realize it is flawed, we are absolutely devoted to improving it.

Alan Greenspan has an incredible opportunity, perhaps once in a lifetime, to recognize the truth: no matter how much energy he pours into fixing up his model of the world, he will fail. Guaranteed. It will never be accurate.

Reality will go on being what it is, regardless of what he, or you, or I think about it. Reality is so wild and free that there is no conceptual framework, no model, no ideology, no belief system that can possibly capture it.

When this is seen (usually it takes a catastrophic collapse of your mental framework for this to be seen -- you have to lose something that you think is essential to your world view) then for a very brief time there is an opportunity not to go shopping for a new, improved model of the world. Before a new model, or an improvement on the old model, asserts itself, one can realize what remains when the conceptual framework is stripped away. It is a deep emptiness that remains.

Do not fear this emptiness. Stay a while in this empty place. Dwell for a time in this lost place. Stay in this place where you do not know how the world works, where you do not know what reality is, where you do not even know who you are. Stay there. Drop right into this place of not knowing. It is a deep well of silence. It is a deep well of creative force. It is a deep well of outpouring Life.

Alan, this is my message to you: drop the framework. Make no attempt yet to patch it up. It is flawed. It is inaccurate. It always will be. Allow yourself to fall into the generous, loving arms of Life being lived. Everything beautiful and giving and loving and creative comes out of this deep well of silence, where the self has no model with which to define the world, and the world lives its own wild and beautiful life. You are that life, indescribable, undefinable, untameable, and totally real.

06 October 2008

The Kingdom of God Is Right At Hand

Where or what is the kingdom of God?

This is it. Right here. Right now.

It is not a future time. It is not some exalted place in the clouds. It is not even dependent on some set of conditions: perfect peace and justice. It does not appear after peace appears or after justice is established.

Peace and justice and balance and harmony and abundant life are not conditions on which the kingdom of God depends. The kingdom of God is not dependent on any condition. It is already here among us. It has only to be recognized. Peace and justice and balance and harmony and abundant life are dependent on the presence of the kingdom of God. It is in recognizing the kingdom of God, already present, that peace and balance are restored. We've been doing this backward for a very, very long time. Trying to create the kingdom of God by establishing peace, by any means necessary, including through war. Totally backward, right?

This is my understanding of why Jesus said, "seek ye first the kingdom of God... and all these things shall be added unto you. Take no thought for the morrow; for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself." (KJV Matt 6:33-34).

Seek ye first the kingdom of God, because all else is dependent on it. Take no thought for tomorrow, because when tomorrow arrives, it is today. It is always today. It is always right now. Right here, right now is the only place we ever are. So if the kingdom of God is to be found anywhere, if it has any reality, it must be found right here, right now. It's presence can not possibly be dependent on any change in conditions.

So, this is it. This crazy mess called Life is it. This is the kingdom of God, right here, right now. This is heaven. It is only in thinking and acting as if this is something other than the kingdom of God that we make it appear to be something other than the kingdom of God. God's kingdom is within us and around us at all times. It is what we are. It is Life living itself through us and through everything. And it is deeper even than Life. It is the source of Life. Not an external source but the intrinsic source, the energy within matter. The stillness within energy. The incredible beauty and intelligence and creativity within stillness, within energy, within matter, within Life.

The kingdom of God is everything, and it is that without which nothing could be. It is therefore immediately at hand, in everything. Pick up a stone and it is there. Take a breath and it is there. Fall into deep sleep and it is there. Awaken to the rising sun and it is there. It is in every encounter, every sight, every sound, every thought, every feeling, every joy, every sorrow, every happening. It is what makes all of that possible, and it is all of that, the interplay of all being. There is nothing you can do to escape the kingdom of God. You have never been anything or anywhere but the kingdom of God.

We think that we are separate from it, that it is far off from us either in space or in time. It is by believing that thought, by repeating it incessantly, that we make it appear to be true. But it was never true. And if we stop repeating these untruths and turn back to the immediacy of life being lived right now through all of life together, then the presence of God's kingdom, its beauty and majesty, its wonder and surprise, its creativity and intelligence, its peace and harmony, become immediately apparent once again.

Seek ye first the kingdom of God in the dance of all things. Right here. Right now.

Look! The kingdom of God is right at hand.

17 September 2008

Lost in the Story of "Me"

One moment I am deeply absorbed in the story of "me" and "mine," so
deep into it that it doesn't feel like a story, it feels like truth.
The next moment I have fallen right out of the story. The story is
still there, but like seeing words on a page, the story of "me" is
seen as a story. I am no longer absorbed by the story, no longer
identified with it, no longer feel like a character in it. Belief in
it has disappeared. It has lost its spell.

Everything that I have always taken to be "me" is seen as a fiction
invented in the brain. And who then am I if not this story that used
to be my entire sense of "me?" With what am I now identified? Where
is the boundary of me? It is gone. The story of me is still here. The
body still appears to be here. The apparent trajectory of the body
through life is still here. But none of that is "me" anymore. I just
can't find any "me" to identify with all of that. It just is, without
a "me" at the center. Who am I? I simply can not truthfully answer
that question. There does not seem to be any "I" anymore, even though
everything remains essentially the same as before. I am whatever it
is that formerly was spinning the story of "me" and was totally
captivated by the story, and now is no longer. This "I am" still
finds the story interesting, but is not absorbed wholly into it.

In recent weeks something has been looking at the story of "me" and
"the world" and trying to find some place in the narrative that will
captivate it again, captivate it in that old way so that it becomes
completely absorbed in the story, completely lost in the images and
meanings that are part of the story. I don't understand what it is
that is doing this. Some nostalgic part of the brain I guess. It
seems to think that getting lost in the story again will be some kind
of homecoming.

It's not going to happen, not for long anyway. Once the story is seen
through, there is no going back to the suspension of disbelief that
the story requires. The story of "me" is so very compelling, until it
is seen through, until the words are seen on the page and the images
and meanings collapse. You fall right out of the page, and there is
no hope then of ever knowing who you are, no hope of identifying with
anything.

Not that anyone really falls out of anything. It's just that the
story of "me" no longer works as a means of identification, as an
adequate description of what I know I am. The stories we tell
ourselves about ourselves just aren't true. The image we have of
ourselves and the world, everything we know, is completely fictional.
And nothing more so than the sense of being a separate "me." Who we
are, there's no other way to say it, is everything. We are the dance
of everything. There are no separate selves. I was raised a Christian
so I know what heresy this is within that context, although I think
you can find hints that this is exactly what Jesus was talking about.
There is no "self" that is separate from God and needs to return to
God and be accepted or saved by God. There is only God. God is
everything. That separate self thing is a story invented and
constantly revised and maintained in the brain. A fictional character.

But let it be known, that to see the nature of the story of "me" as a
story, to really see it and not just have an idea about it, is to
fall away from everything that drives humans to do the things we
normally do. All our striving is born out of uncompromising belief in
the story of the separate self. When that story no longer captivates,
when it is seen clearly for the fiction that it is, well, there's no
telling what might happen.

07 September 2008

Belief is a sword

Belief is a sword that we draw to defend ourselves from the truth.
The truth is simply this that is right now. Alive. Untamable.
Unbelievable. Any belief about it diminishes its grandeur. Any
opinion about it divides its wholeness.

When belief and opinion appear, as they will, know that you are
wielding a weapon that cuts and diminishes reality. Set them aside as
quickly as you can without doing further violence. Know that the
weapon drawn to cut another down to size also cuts you. Divides you
from your true self.

There is nothing wrong with disagreement. Disagreement can be
creative . Disagreement helps one to see beyond the horizon of the
known and familiar.

But when I am committed to being right, and I am committed to making
you wrong, when I have to cut you down to build myself up, that is
when the truth, the living truth, is shredded.

It is perfectly possible to disagree, and challenge each other,
without needing to win the argument, without needing desperately to
be right. But that requires a sense of self that is not in any way
dependent on particular beliefs and opinions. It requires a deep love
for reality, for this that is as it is right now. That love does not
come from the mind, which is divisive by nature, but from reality
itself.

And so we know that the truth is love. Reality is love. Reality is
welcoming of everyone and everything. Reality does not take sides,
except to take both sides!

When the individual prefers reality to anything the mind can create,
then that love can permeate even the individual mind or "self." But
the starting place is not to try to wrestle the mind into compliance,
but to take the perspective of reality, which is perfectly happy with
things exactly as they are (which is not to say that anything will
stay as it is!).

Can we live in the dynamic fullness of this that is as it is? Can we
live in the paradox that reality is perfectly comfortable with
conflict, and that being fully embraced by reality, and fully
accepting that embrace, has a tendency to reduce conflict? Conflict
comes from the belief in separation. Holding such a belief is part of
the real, but the underlying truth is that reality is an unbroken
whole, and to accept the embrace of reality is to return to
wholeness. Embraced by the whole truth, how can any partial truth
survive for more than a little while?

Beliefs and opinions are having a field day, but no one ever believes
anything without someone else believing the opposite, so a kind of
temporary balance is struck that hints at the underlying wholeness
that is never truly broken and can be recalled at any moment.

25 July 2008

The Mind Chases Its Tail

I set out to write what I see and know as simply and clearly as
possible. Instead out poured all these words, wrapped in
contradiction. And more words to try to sort out the contradiction,
creating more contradiction. Here it is anyway. I think I may soon
have to stop trying to talk about this.

I have used the word "enlightenment" below but I am not easy about
that, or any other word. At home we call it "scrumny" -- the
realization beyond time and words and experiences of that which
always is and always has been. Any familiar word I might use to
describe this will inevitably run up against the rocks of someone
else's understanding or interpretation of the word, and probably
cause confusion. I am not pretending to know what "enlightenment" is,
in any sense that anyone else might use that word. I only know what I
know, and that is common to us all, to everything. Call it "scrumny"
if that clears up any confusion.

Or call it being alive. Try substituting "being alive" for
"enlightenment" and see how absurd it is to think you can "get" it,
or don't already "have" it. Because what this all amounts to is this:
being alive (with all that that actually means) is all there is. The
trouble starts when the mind thinks it is anything less than that, or
that it can get something more...


Enlightenment, as I understand it, isn't something you get. It isn't
even something that happens to you. It is the realization of what you
already are. Or, even worse, the realization of what you are not. It
is seeing things as they are, or as they are not. The mind, however,
thinks enlightenment is something it can get. And if you tell the
mind it is not something it can get, then it goes about trying to get
it by trying not to get it. This is the way the mind works. It will
go on trying to get it, or trying to get trying not to get it, until
it finally, actually realizes it can't get it. Until it finally gives
up entirely. Not trying to give up. Not adopting an attitude of
giving up. Actually giving up. Exhausting all avenues of seeking.
Then it realizes it had it all along.

When the mind finally, actually gives up trying to get somewhere
other than 100% here (which is where it is anyway), when it finally
stops thrashing around trying with total futility to avoid the
obvious and inevitable (which is what it has been doing pretty much
all the time), then the truth dawns. The living truth that has
obviously always been the only truth, encompassing even the mind's
futile, gymnastic attempts to escape it. You (the mind) can think
about this. You (the mind) can try to see it. You (the mind) can try
and try and try to get it. And you (the mind) can even become
resigned to not getting it (with which the mind will soon become
bored, and it will pick it up and try and try again).

And you (the mind) will fail utterly. And that utter failure is the
realization of what has been hanging around all this time waiting for
you (the mind) to really, truly, utterly fail to get it. That is the
simple realization that while the mind was busy living in its own
made-up world of getting that and getting rid of this, life has been
ticking along quite nicely, quite happy even to be a mind that thinks
it can somehow get what it already is.

It's a joke. The mind gets the idea that it is separate from
everything else, that it is what it calls a "self." And then
(predictably) it feels rather separated from everything, so it goes
looking for the unity it thinks it lost. Or else it goes about trying
to augment the feeling of separation in a way that makes it feel
temporarily better. We call that "achievement."

It forgets that it is the one that created the thought of separation
in the first place, so it doesn't quite know where to look for this
no-separation thing which it sort of remembers as if it were a long
ago dream. And it creates dramatic stories about being kicked out of
paradise, or living in samsara, so it can commiserate with all the
other minds that think they are separate, and that makes it feel
better for a while. And then it takes up the search again. And it
searches and searches, until the search finally ends in total
failure. And then the unity that never left gets to reappear. And you
(the mind) realize that there never was any separation. Only an idea
of separation. And that little idea caused all this trouble. And the
failure of the search, the total failure, is the "return" to what was
never left. This total failure is sometimes called "surrender."

There's no faking it. The mind is constantly attempting to escape
from "this that is." It will continue to attempt to escape until it
finally realizes absolutely that it can not. Until that realization
comes, "this that is" will primarily consist of attempting to escape
from "this that is," with all its apparent misery. At some point, the
realization comes that escape from "this that is" is absurdly
impossible. What happens then is anybody's guess, but the mind's
primary activity just lost its fuel, so it is likely to turn things
to jelly for a while.

In any event, there is nothing "you" can do about this, because
"you," that feeling of being a separate self, is only this
impossible, absurdly heroic attempt to escape from "this that is." An
attempt that is absolutely bound to begin, continue, and end in
failure. Which is homecoming. The attempt to escape. The failure of
the attempt. It's all homecoming. There never, ever, ever, is
anything other than being home. There never, ever, ever was anything
but being home. Only the thought that there could be something
"else," made it appear, all too vividly, that there was.

"This that is" is so utterly extraordinary, if you stop and look at
it, that it is crushingly sad that we waste so much effort trying to
escape from it, or trying to "better" it (which is another form of
escape). But we do. And we will. Until we realize we can't. Until we
realize that we (along with everything) are the very thing we are
seeking, and the very thing we are trying to escape.

21 July 2008

Words Fail

One late summer day, six friends sat on the ground, eating lunch and talking about the state of the world, the nature of enlightenment, and our own paths and beliefs. I sat, eating, saying little, watching ants drag our crumbs away. As we parted one friend said to me, "I wish I knew what it was you weren't saying."

But how can I talk about something that can not be described? One day, 22 years ago, a new perspective arrived that was beyond description, beyond any of the beliefs and opinions I had about myself and about the world. It wasn't experienced in the way we normally think of experience, as an external happening. It wasn't held the way beliefs are held. It was more a realization of what is false than an experience of what is true. Yet this realization stayed with me as the most vital moment in my entire life. As the false fell away, for that timeless moment, I had a sense of being at the very center of the outpouring of all that is, all energy, all matter, all Life. Every mote of dust, every animate and inanimate life, and the dance of it all was seen as the holiest of holies. Suddenly it was seen that this intricate, irreducible dance is our own true being and always has been. There is no "me" that is separate from everything else. It was terribly obvious.

But it was years before I could speak of it. There were no words for it. There were no concepts that could contain it. Words reduce the irreducible. I knew instinctively that such a thing could never be described, only lived.

So how do I convey this to anyone else, this indescribably beautiful, joyful reality in which all lives and moves, and has its being, even in the midst of what appear to be the horrors of the world? How do I demonstrate that nothing needs to change for everything to change?

I keep trying to explain. We live in illusion. We think that the beauty and balance and harmony we long for is off in some distant place and time. We think that we have to get that raise, or that perfect job, or avoid getting sick, or we have to elect the right leaders, or get enlightened, or go to heaven, or convince everybody to think the way we do, or solve all the world's problems, and then we will be happy, then all will be well. All of that is illusion. All the beliefs we have about ourselves and others, all the concepts we have about the world, all the experiences we seek, all the fulfillment we think we need, all the stories we tell to make sense out of it, all the projection into the future of our dreams of perfection: exclusive devotion to all of that is the problem. Everything we need is right here. For thousands of years we have been devoting our precious life energy to our ideas about reality, and neglecting reality itself.

When I try to explain this, everyone gets the words. Everyone gets an idea that they fit into their existing framework of ideas. They add another chapter to the story that the mind tells to reduce the world into something the mind can understand. They don't see the story-making process at work.

It is in seeing the process at work that the beauty behind the fiction is revealed. Blind devotion to the mind-made story, mistaking it for the real, is driving the chaos and destruction. As long as this continues, suffering continues. Not only personal suffering, but planetary suffering - the suffering of all that seeking and wanting projected world-wide. Often this astonishing beauty, this elemental goodness, only reveals itself when the story falls apart, through illness, through loss, or through a surprising encounter with the incomprehensibly real, a whale, a forest, a lover. Then the limit of the mind-made image is revealed, and Life itself becomes the real. And even Life is seen to be but a wave on the surface of the deeply real. To see this, to really see it, changes everything.

Are loss and ecstasy necessary to reveal this? I think not. This story-making is active all the time. The startlingly real is managed and reduced into the existing framework of belief and opinion and concept a thousand times a day. This can be seen any time, but the force of devotion to the unreal, half-baked stories of the mind is so strong, it can take a tremendous shock to divert attention back to the real, even for a moment.

What is the real, the actual, beyond the mind-made image? This, right here, is it. This, right here, right now, is alive. And being alive it can not be captured by an image in the brain. All we ever know is an image in the brain: the dead past. We are this being alive: the living present. Always. Yet we live in devotion to the known image. We constantly attempt to flee from the unknown reality. It frightens us.

Is there anything anyone can do or say that will dissolve that fear, and allow the real to live and breathe in our lives again? Can anything free the mind that lives in perpetual self-defense, the mind that needs to pretend it is the source of everything, the mind that thinks it can live forever, the mind that believes its image of the world is an improved substitute for the living world in its astonishing actuality? It only takes one moment in the embrace of the real, but the mind is perpetually fleeing from the freedom of that embrace. It wants more. It wants something, anything, other than this that is, right here, right now.

I know that reality is good and beautiful and generous, and that all that beauty is obscured behind a veil of concepts and beliefs and images and stories, the only things the mind can grasp. I know that to see this with total clarity in its complete obviousness is very, very good news, a huge relief, the easing of millennia of burden.

This seems very important. The end, perhaps, of the planetary catastrophe. The end of fractious belief. The end of conflict. But I don't know what to say. Because when I speak of it, the words disappear into the mind-made stories that we tell about ourselves and the world. Once again the spontaneous gift of being alive is appropriated into the mind-made story of "me" and "mine."

And I think that maybe it is better to keep silent, and let the silence ring, and let the wind blow, and let the galaxy spin, and let light reflect off water, and let hearts beat and whales sing, and let time and space dissolve into silence and reemerge again and again, and let the mind pretend it understands, and let the ants crawl away with the crumbs, and let reality speak for itself with much greater eloquence than all these words.

06 July 2008

An Explanation of 'Everything is Silence'

Q: What do you mean "everything is silence?"

A: Silence is just a word. There are other words one might use in its place and those other words would perhaps make sense to people: Spirit, Source, Consciousness, God. But I prefer not to use any of those words because they are already loaded with meaning for most people. If you say "everything is Spirit" or "everything is God" people will think they know exactly what you are talking about and they won't really look at it. But silence is not something that one can really have an idea about, at least not if you say "everything is silence." Most people would think of silence as the absence of sound. So if "everything is silence," including sound, then what does that mean? What on earth is he talking about? If that is the response, then I have accomplished something.

Q: So what are you talking about?

A: Well, just like the wave is really a movement of the ocean, to me everything is a movement of silence. The reason I like the word silence is because it is actually by becoming acquainted with silence, with the depths of silence, that one can begin to realize that it is not empty. I mean most of us think of silence as mere absence. And indeed it does appear that way. But anyone who has ever really gone into silence in a deep way can tell you that not only is it not mere absence, not a big empty space, but it has this quality of fullness that one can not fathom. It is full of everything. And there is this sense that not only is it full of everything, but it IS everything. That "everything" is simply a manifestation of what lies in silence. Just like a wave is simply a movement or manifestation of the ocean. The wave is not separate from the ocean, right? It is the ocean. It is the ocean appearing as a wave. Well, sound, or anything else, is not separate from the silence. It isn't "in" the silence. It IS the silence. It is silence appearing as sound, or an animal or a tree or a person. It is all the same. It is all appearances of matter and energy, and even matter and energy in some sense are preceded by silence, are merely aspects of this deep, deep mysterious "nothing" that I am calling "silence," but others might call "Spirit" or "Consciousness" or "God."

But if you take this as a bunch of interesting ideas and all you get is the idea of it, then you aren't getting it at all. To "get it" you have to become acquainted with silence. Really acquainted with it. You have to dwell in silence. Maybe for years. Or maybe just for a few seconds. I think one moment in awareness of the depths of silence would be enough to transform any life. To reorient it away from itself and its own apparent products and accomplishments, toward the real source of all that. The source of everything appearing as you and me and the grass and the fish and the stars and energy and everything.

All of that is deeply intertwined, and in that sense it is not separate, but it is also all a manifestation of silence, of emptiness, or of spirit or source or consciousness or whatever words you want to use. But the words really get in the way if we have an idea about what the words mean. So I like to use the word silence, because in this day and age, hardly anyone knows what silence is. So it is a mysterious word. And if you really go into that mystery in a deep way, you will be amazed at what you find there. The whole of everything. It's all there in silence. Because, silence is everything, and everything is silence. Waves in the ocean. Dancing tongues of fire.

05 July 2008

Everything is Silence

Everything is silence.

Ripples in silence. Waves in the ocean.

Tendrils of silence. Dancing tongues of fire.

There is no other.

Everything is silence.

30 June 2008

Contemplative Inquiry: A Radical Approach to the Environmental Crisis

My diagnosis of the environmental crisis is that it is essentially a spiritual crisis. We have become utterly lost spiritually, and so we are susceptible to every huckster who comes along promising us wealth, wish fulfillment, escape, adventure and excitement, tons of sex, or whatever our brains happen to be craving.

None of that works. None of that fills the void that we feel, except very temporarily, so we are caught in a perpetual cycle of seeking more. Increasingly, not even traditional religious beliefs fill that void. That became particularly true for me as I saw the major religions at best slow to respond to the degradation of the natural world and at worst blind or indifferent to it. More interested in salvaging a human-centered cosmos than in looking very clearly at what is going on, at what we are doing to this precious Earth. More interested in getting to heaven than in noticing the heaven we already inhabit.

So for me this spiritual crisis requires a radical solution. Meaning, simply, going back to the root. Nothing less will do. We must reclaim the very root, the very deepest foundation of who and what we are.

All the religions are founded on an experience of this root, and then the root has become lost in a forest of beliefs and doctrines and institutional survival mechanisms. Too often, our truth has gone no deeper than belief, and belief is always subject to being contradicted by reality, and therefore threatened by it, and then we become reactive and defensive of our beliefs instead of open to and grounded in reality.

To go to the root means to realize what we truly are. This truth can not be conveyed in words, because words create distinctions and categories, and the truth is inherently indivisible. It must be seen. It must be encountered. It is being lived right now, at all times, within and around us. We only fail to recognize what is staring us in the face all the time. And in that failure we become lost and confused and frightened. We think we are separate, and with that thought we create separation. And then we seek security and comfort anywhere we think we can find it.

"Contemplative Inquiry" is a fancy term for a very simple turning to see what is real, and to let go of all that is superfluous. It is so simple. The only reason it seems hard is that it is not a mind thing. It is not something the mind does. It is bigger than that. It is where the mind comes from, it is what the mind is. The conscious mind doesn't even know the whole mind, doesn't even know why it is doing what it is doing most of the time. All it can do is make up a story that tries to create a feeling of coherence out of that which it does not truly understand. The mind can not even comprehend itself. How can it comprehend the whole movement of reality?

Meanwhile, there is within us and around us all the time, this quiet presence, this deep silence, watching and listening and opening to everything exactly as it is. And this silent presence is our most essential nature.

This silence is mostly unnoticed. Those who notice it by some miracle, often by some terrible loss or grief, usually ignore it in the end, because, after all, it is only silence. Not very interesting. Not like all those promises of more stuff and peak experiences and wealth and knowledge and power!

But those lucky few who attend to silence discover riches beyond imagining. They discover their own true self in absolutely everything that is, in life living itself, all an expression of this deep silence, the still center of all that is.

Being thus filled, they can never be tempted by promises of fulfillment. Being thus emptied, they can never feel threatened by reality.

Be still. Realize the root of all things.

There is a tendency to talk about the need to find a new framing story that will guide us to better behavior, to a better relationship with nature. And while it is true that an old story has wielded tremendous influence -- the mind loves a good story, being itself the great turn-reality-into-story machine -- any story is ultimately a mind-created thing. A story can not therefore describe the living truth.

Nothing can save us now but the living truth. The truth of what actually is right now. Not what we want. Not what we believe. Not what we desire. Not what we crave. Not what we think. Not even what we experience or imagine. What is. What actually is: the one thing we never pay any attention to because it is so simple, and so seemingly uninteresting and unfulfilling. Yet it is the whole of everything. It is superabundance. It is the living truth that the mind can not grasp. And so the mind must learn its true place in the order of things and give up its throne. It resists and resists, like any tyrant. It cajoles and promises like any addict. It is addicted to itself, to its own version of reality.

In the end it surrenders, as it must. And when it does, it finds peace. The peace of knowing what it truly is and where it truly belongs. Each and every one of us must see this living truth for ourselves. No one can give it to us. No belief system can contain it. No institution can mediate it. No guru or teacher can transmit it. No expert can convince us of it. No story can generate it. It is too deeply intimate a thing for any of that. It must be seen for and in one's self and in one's world, or it has no reality and no meaning.

There is tremendous possibility in this, because the solution to the whole thing lies in something that is immediately accessible to every one: it is the one universal truth, irrespective of culture or religion. It lies in our common identity as human animals in a deeply interconnected universe. And, deeper still, in the deep silence that abides within and around and through all that is; the deep well of being; the silent, indivisible one; the still center of us all. The very root.

09 June 2008

Visits With Whales

We had an amazing experience yesterday aboard The Prince of Whales, which is a whale watch boat operated by Newburyport Whale Watch in Newburyport, Massachusetts. Cynthia and I joined Head Naturalist Dianna Schulte of the Blue Ocean Society to provide educational context on the trip. I have collaborated with Blue Ocean as an educator for the past five or six years.

After sighting a few fin whales in the distance who were spending very little time at the surface, we were suddenly joined by a young humpback, later identified from its fluke pattern as Lutris, which means "otter." Lutris is the six-year-old offspring of Lava. Before we identified him/her, we assumed it was a much younger juvenile, because Lutris spent close to an hour with us, right next to the boat, continuously checking us out, behavior that is more common among younger whales.

Lutris Head

Several people who were on the lower deck had the very great honor of being looked in the eye by this magnificent creature. Several times s/he rolled over to bring one large, pink eye out of the water to look at us. For a six-year-old to show this much curiosity and persistence in visiting a bunch of humans on a boat is fairly unusual, and it was a great privilege to be among those visited.

Lutris Eye

Nearly every one of us on the boat felt an almost irresistible urge to jump into the water. People were hanging over the rails, trying to get as close as possible to Lutris as s/he passed. It felt to me like we were being called home, like it was an intentional communication from Lutris to us, one which we recognized at a deep and unidentifiable level. Something very unusual was going on in this encounter. Something was being communicated, something we all felt, and experienced as an urge to be as close to the whale as possible.

Several times we tried to leave, because our time was running short, but Lutris maneuvered into our path and would not let us go. Lutris was maintaining contact even when we were ready to break it off. It is unavoidable. Lutris was reaching out to us. The only other time I have felt such a clear connection and communication was when we encountered another young humpback who was entangled in fishing gear. That whale's call for help, which we and others were able to provide in the end, was inaudible, but unmistakable. Lutris was not calling for help, but was seemingly making contact.

There is a strange phenomenon that occurs when one is visited by a whale in this way. Afterward, the whole experience slips away like a dream. We spent an hour with Lutris but it felt like minutes. And looking back, it was hard to believe that it was real. To be visited by such a huge wild creature, who is obviously intelligent and aware and purposeful and curious, just doesn't compute in the brain somehow.

That inability truly to process the experience makes it feel a little surreal. But it is very real. It is the honest truth. It makes one realize what a marvelously inadequate thing this little brain is for truly understanding the living world. We are deeply embedded in beauty and wonder, and we hardly even know it. It remains a deep mystery to us. But when one meets a whale, or is met by a whale, in this way, one comes into direct encounter with the limits of the brain's ability to comprehend, and that in itself opens up new horizons of possibility for engaging with this world. It is utterly impossible, in my experience, to go back into the human-dominated world after an experience like this, and feel quite the same way about it.

Clearly, the human is not the be-all and end-all of creation. The human is embedded in a magnificence it can not even comprehend. And the whale is also part of that magnificence, and so is all of life and all of everything. It adds dignity to our lives to see ourselves in this light, and also takes away our pretense of being the best and the brightest of all creatures.

I don't know if it is intentional, but one of the things the whales are doing is putting us in our proper place in the order of things. It is a more humble place, but it is also a more beautiful and happy, and truly majestic place than the self-centered arrogance that has dominated human behavior for the past several thousand years.

Welcome home.

Lutris Flukes

01 June 2008

Where Would You Rather Live?

Is there any idea, or any belief, or any concept, or any thought that you can have about life that is more real, or more vital, or more alive than life itself, more alive than being alive? So where would you rather live, in your ideas and beliefs and concepts about Life, or in being alive itself?

For thousands of years, our ideas and thoughts and beliefs and concepts about life have been more real to us than living itself. Our sense of who we are, our identity, has been based more in what we think and what we believe about life than in the simple fact of being alive.

For us to survive now, we must turn and allow ourselves to be embraced fully once again by the simple beauty of being alive and we must allow our ideas and beliefs about Life to recede in importance.

Our obsession with our thoughts makes them chaotic and overwhelming. They were never meant to carry the burden of telling us who we really are. That job is too big for them. When we bring the clear seeing that is grounded in our inner silence to bear, then we shift our sense of who we really are, from thought, to silence. From that which can not carry our true being to that which is our true being, life itself, being alive, the whole of everything.

28 May 2008

Facts and Figures Do Not Wake People Up To The Truth

Facts and figures do not wake people up to the truth of their unity with
nature. It is the direct encounter with nature that wakes one up to that
truth. My experience of whale watch naturalists is that our patter is
all about facts and figures. Whales are fascinating creatures, but it is
not the facts and figures, not the knowledge about whales that reaches
and changes people. It is the fact of the whale itself, it is the
unmediated encounter with the unknown and unknowable magnificence of the
whale. Facts and figures appeal to the mind. Unmediated encounter
appeals to the whole organism, the whole movement of life in a person.

To me, this is one of the most important things we can do for people,
from a very early age, to give them the opportunity to see that there is
no separation between them and the natural world. Trying to manage the
natural world seems a little crazy to me. It is too complex. Our brains
and our mental models of the world are too simplistic. Nature is alive,
for God's sake. As soon as you figure it out, it has changed! What we
need most is not managers but respectful participants in the unfolding
of nature. Not control but respectful participation. Where does that
respect come from, the willingness to look and listen really carefully?

It seems to come from some experience of the natural world that is
unmediated. A direct encounter with something that strikes to the core
and says to the individual human brain, you are this. You are not
separate from this. You and this are one and the same. Take care.

This is where I am trying to go, not only through whale watches and
through whale programs, but through other means. To create the
circumstances in which the human brain might be able to see that it is
in no way separate, to get it to stop for one small moment the constant
stream of separating chatter and story, to allow reality to meet reality
and realize they are one. To correct the deadly imbalance that has come
into the world because the human brain thinks it is in charge, in
control, that it is capable of understanding everything, and through
perfect understanding will come perfect living.

Life already lives itself just fine, thank you very much. It doesn't
need any help from human brains. Sorry, human brain, you are pretty
amazing, but you can't hold a candle to life itself. You can be pretty
smart, but your intelligence is only a tiny slice of the intelligence of
the whole of life. When you set yourself against nature, which is your
own nature, you are being very dumb indeed.

Maybe it is time to stop thinking that all the answers to our problems
will come out of the human brain. Maybe it is time to start listening
deeply to what nature has to tell us.

This seems to me a rather lovely place for the human mind to come to
rest: in the recognition that it is but one of the multitude of
expressions of Life's intelligence, and therefore conscious of all that
it receives from life. Knowing all that life provides it, perhaps it
will in turn treat life with the care and respect it deserves. It can
not keep going the way it has been, pretending that it is separate and
independent of all of the rest of life. That is its fundamental error,
and that error is making the whole world inhospitable to human life, and
many other lives as well.

12 April 2008

Saved by the Whales

[Note: I originally posted this on MySpace in December 2007. It then became the core of a talk I gave for the Center for Tropical Ecology and Conservation at Antioch University New England on 4 April 2008. This version is sort of a combination of the two.]

I have followed a slightly unconventional path. Although I have been working with whales in one way or another for about ten years, I am not a scientist. I do not have a masters degree. I did not set out to study whales. The direction that I am taking with the whales now really doesn't make much sense unless I lay out a bit of my personal history.

I received my BA in linguistics 25 years ago. In my senior year I took a course in animal communication, and found myself most intrigued by bird song and the songs of
humpback whales. That is when I first discovered the work of Roger Payne, who later became a friend and mentor. Roger discovered that humpback whales sing, he discovered theoretically that fin and blue whales can communicate across entire ocean basins, and he pioneered the use of callosity patterns on right whales to identify individuals, much as humpbacks are identified by their individual fluke patterns.

When I graduated from college I thought it would be pretty cool to intern with someone who was doing dolphin communication work, and I put out as many feelers as I could in that direction, all of which led exactly nowhere.

I had to do something, and worked for a very short while in a psychiatric hospital, but since most of the time I felt like I was on the wrong side of the desk, that didn't last long.

For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, and were even less clear to me then, I rocketed off in an entirely different direction and landed in Atlanta, living and working in a homeless shelter, and participating in street actions in opposition to Georgia's death penalty. I also had a correspondence with a man on death row, Alpha Stephens, who was executed during my time there, and who I helped to bury. Alpha was an amazing man. He stated right up to the end that he was innocent. He had a heart the size of the world. Right up to the end he bore no malice toward those who were killing him.

I left Atlanta and moved back to Vermont to continue that same work in Rutland. And I fell into deep despair. Because although I knew that I was doing good work, and helping individual people, there was a deeper level of disease that I felt I was not addressing at all. Dom Helder Camara, the Brazilian priest said it this way: "Why is it that when I feed the poor they call me a saint. But when I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist?"

I wanted to know why there were so many homeless, and so much violence. Not just the political and economic whys. I knew those. I wanted to know the deepest possible why. Why do we do this to each other? Social and economic inequity and the creation of underclasses and enemies have been going on for millenia. Is this the final word on human nature and civilization? I can tell you, I was in deep, deep darkness, and looking for any crack of light.

So, what did I do? I went to a war zone.

I met a woman who had just returned from Nicaragua. She was on fire. She said she had seen something in Nicaragua she had never seen before. An incredible vitality and joyfulness in the midst of a terrible war. I wanted to see that. So off I went. Looking for a miracle.

I went to Nicaragua in the midst of the proxy war the US was waging against the second poorest country in the western hemisphere, with claims that if we did not remove them from power, the Sandinistas would be on the Texas border in a matter of months. A terrible threat to our security.

And, astonishingly, I found there what I was looking for. I really did. I'm not kidding. It was not at all what I was expecting.

I did not know I was doing this at the time. This is all retrojected understanding. But I carried to Nicaragua the entire package of my conditioning, all the world view that I had inherited from my family and culture, and all that I had learned growing up in Vermont. I had a conceptual idea about who I was and how the world worked, and in its own context, that framework had worked pretty well, I thought.

In Nicaragua it was shredded. The whole thing.

For ten days my mind struggled to fit what it was seeing and hearing to what it already knew about the world, and none of it fit. For ten incredibly stressful days it tried one strategy after another, denial of the undeniable, fantastic stories that made no sense whatsoever, arguments, complaints, reframing, you name it. It tried any strategy it could come up with to fit what I was seeing and hearing and experiencing into the framework of what it already knew. And it all failed.

One afternoon thousands of Nicaraguans had been walking and marching across the country in protest against the war and in celebration of the coming of Easter, and my companions and I received word that there had been an attack about 30 miles from where we were working on a Habitat for Humanity project.

The press release we phoned back to the states read:

"Six people were killed Sunday, February 16th riding home from a march for peace and life in the depths of Chinandega, Nicaragua. The six, and nine others who were injured, were ambushed and shot after their truck hit a land mine. They were returning to their homes after the walk. More than two hundred bullet holes were counted in the truck. A twenty-nine year old Swiss national was among the dead. The rest were unarmed civilians. One woman who was injured told reporters that she was trying to breast-feed her baby after the truck had been stopped by the mine, when she heard rifle shots and the screams of other women. According to newspaper accounts the attack was carried out by the Contras with CIA help. The headlines of one paper read, "Reagan Responsible." This is the most recent of the attacks by the Contras on the civilian population."

We had agreed not to travel directly into an area of conflict, but something in me snapped, and I told the group that I simply had to see this. I had to touch it. I had to make it real. I had to know the truth. I could not return to Vermont telling someone else’s story.

This was the moment at which, barely knowing what I had done, my whole organism made the shift away from shoring up its old framework, and toward the truth. At that moment I wanted the truth, no matter how terrible, more than anything in the world. That total commitment to the truth changed everything.

After much argument, we agreed to find the survivors of the attack, and in a hospital in Leon Nicaragua, the lid was blown off my world.

To shorten a very long story, where I expected to find grief, and destruction, and mourning, well I did find that, but I also found incomprehensible joy. In a room with a ten year old girl whose body had been blown to pieces by bullets and shrapnel, I, and a room full of doctors and nurses and patients, and the girl herself, were smiling and laughing and nearly dancing for the sheer uncontainable Joy of the meeting. It was the most joyous homecoming you can imagine. Why? How could this be?

At this point this gets very hard to talk about. I have been trying for 22 years to find a way to talk about it. In fact I think it is fair to say that my whole life has been oriented to understanding the core of this experience. Something happened that day that is completely beyond description or analysis. The best I can say right now is that for the first time in my life, I let my devotion to illusion fall away, and I allowed the real to live and breathe within and around me.

I reached the point where I simply couldn’t stand any longer to live in the illusory world my mind had created. I saw very clearly its attempts to wiggle out of really facing the truth, and in one perfectly clear moment, something in me decided that it actually preferred the truth to this dance of denial and belief and rationalization.

In that moment, my mind finally dropped its attempt to filter, deny, understand, conceptualize, fit the new into some template of the familiar, and I entered into total engagement with the truth. Mind, eyes, and heart wide open, taking it all in, willing to go wherever life was leading.

And because I am not the only one this happened to, it must be said that the Nicaraguans at that time in their history, experiencing at least some measure of freedom after decades of oppressive dictatorship, and despite the war being waged against them, were wide open themselves. And astonishingly willing to forgive. To release us from our bonds of guilt. Incredibly freeing.

And so there was a meeting in openness, without the overlay of the conceptual framework. And when you take away the conceptual framework, I mean really let it fall away, the underlying reality is Love.

I mean, what is love but complete openness, not as another concept, but as an actual physical, lived reality, total openness to everyone, welcoming of everyone and everything exactly as it is.

So my way of framing reality and understanding it fell to pieces, and I fell into love. And it was a profound homecoming.

I felt intensely that I had returned to a home I never knew I had left.

So, I came back to Vermont after this experience, on fire myself, and everything was upside down.

What once was familiar now felt foreign. The ordinary lives being lived here, felt destructively strange. I recall being plagued by this question at the time: How do we live, how do we stay fully alive in a culture that worships death, and deals death, and profits from death and teaches death? Not just deadly to people and plants and animals, but deadly to the spirit, soul killing?

I lived in the woods for a couple of years, not having anywhere else to go. I entered a monastery, in search of a radical change of life. I knew the previous foundation of my life had been shaken, but I had no words to describe it at that time. I had no framework to wrap it in. And that is good. I was in search of a way to live it, not just talk about it.

9 years later, things had calmed down a bit, and some of it had gone underground again. I was normalizing to my social environment once again. A lot of this had returned to the background. I was feeling a bit confused because I didn’t know how to talk about this incredible experience I had had nine years before. I didn’t know what to do with it.

So my girlfriend and I were on vacation in Nova Scotia, and on a rainy day in August she decided we should go on a whale watch.

Which seemed to me like a really dumb idea. I'd never seen a whale, but the thought of being a tourist gawking at a bunch of whales and putting them off their food just seemed dumb to me.

But she really wanted to go, so we went.

So we motored around for a couple of hours without seeing anything but rain and fog. Most everyone was in the cabin, and I was standing on the aft deck, on the starboard side, staring into the rain.

There might have been some other passengers out there, but I don’t remember them. All I remember is the rain and the water of the ocean. When out of the fog this thing appears, right next to the boat, this gigantic snout comes out of the water, and then this gaping hole opens and baptizes me in whale breath, and then the long, long wait as a whale several times longer than the boat I'm on goes slowly past, like waiting for a train to go by at the crossing. It just never ends. I think now I must have dropped into a different time space, because that fin whale rolling past me really seemed to take forever. It probably only took 15 seconds, but it seemed like for ever.

The back of the whale. The small dorsal fin 2/3 of the way along the back.

And then it was gone. The normal passage of time returned, and I started screaming. Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God! Which is exactly how it felt. Nicaragua all over again. I was thrust into total joy.

Now this happens to a lot of people with whales. There is something going on here that I do not fully understand. I have a sense of what is going on, but I’m not sure I really get it completely.

Here is one quote to represent those experiences. This is from Robert F Kennedy, Jr who is the senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, speaking about meeting a grey whale for the first time.

“I am not a very sentimental person. I don’t think we ought to save animals because they are cuddly or pettable. But it’s simply an amazing experience having those whales roll over and look you in the eye. There really is an interspecies contact there. There’s an intelligence. And it’s undeniable. It’s different from any experience I’ve ever had, and I have been around animals all my life… It’s like two universes touching and finding a commonality. That’s about as far as I want to go with that, but… it’s truly an extraordinary experience.”

I have been with hundreds of people who were seeing a whale for the first time. And for many people this is a life-altering experience. From my own experience, and from being with so many others, here is my take on at least part of what is going on.

Whales are so big, and so graceful, and so silent, and so mysterious, living most of their lives out of sight and out of reach, and so unprecedented on first meeting, I think what happens is the chatter of the mind comes to a full stop. All the mental activity that takes the present and tries to relate it to the past, to what is already known and familiar, just stops. The mind meets something it can not pigeonhole, and the whole person comes into direct engagement with the sheer fact of WHALE.

This is a profound event, but I think most people miss the true significance of it. They fail to notice how committed they normally are to that mental activity, and fail to notice what was present in the absence of it. They think the excitement comes from what happened, but my experience tells me the real excitement comes from what DIDN’T happen. The mind didn’t interpret. The mind didn’t try to understand. The mind didn’t try to fit the present to the past. The mind didn’t try to escape into an imagined future. The mind stopped labeling, and reality had a chance to emerge into the foreground, reality in which you and the whale meet in perfect stillness, one movement of life together. The absolutely real gets to reassert itself. And joy erupts. And you fall in love. And for that one moment, you are returned to who you are, fundamentally.

Last year I had a British couple on one of my trips, and we saw lots of humpback whales and it was beautiful, and the whole trip back all they could say was “I had no idea.” Exactly right. They had no preconceived notion with which to diminish the raw, unmediated experience. And they were clearly awestruck and deeply in love. And changed.

So the lesson for me of Nicaragua and of meeting whales is this: We live our lives in devotion to a mental framework, most of it deeply unconscious, that defines and describes, and determines our response to reality. This is our over-simplified, internal model of the world. It helps us move around.

And then we start to think that model defines us, tells us what the world really is and who we really are.

Then, when the model comes into conflict with reality, we prefer the model. We fight to the death to preserve the model, our self-image, our world-image. Our oh-so familiar beliefs and opinions and habitual ways of reacting. Because we think that is who we are, fundamentally. Through this we create conflict, in ourselves and in our world and we create deep division out of that which is essentially whole. This is going on all the time within us and around us. We see it in all conflict.

Most attempts at change involve trying to change the model. Changing the paradigm. Changing the belief system, or trying to get other people to convert to our belief system. This shift I am talking about is of a different order. This is about dropping all belief. This is about dropping the model entirely, at least as a source of identity.

When the mind finally decides to abandon its framework, I mean when it really sees it’s own activity at work and realizes it must drop it, the flood gates open and reality pours in. Indescribable. All reality. The good, the painful, the ugly. All our tendency to control and manipulate and have things our way. All the extraordinary beauty of being cosmos-earth-water-plant-animal-consciousness. All the deep mystery behind it, behind our own being. All that is welcomed, without any attempt to sort it into the parts I like/the parts I don’t like, I understand this/I don’t understand that, I accept this/ I reject that etc.

This is no small thing. This is the unraveling of that which most of us live in utter devotion to, what we think we are: our thoughts and opinions and preferences and reactions.

Not that any of that disappears completely, it just no longer forms the foundation of who I think I am. There is a deeper foundation that appears, on which all that stands.
What appears is what has been here all along, unnoticed: the deep, dark soil in which we are rooted: radical welcoming of everything exactly as it is, including our own lives. Not only us welcoming it, but it welcoming us: one movement of welcoming that encompasses everything. Pure joy. Tremendous vitality. Unbounded love.

And… a loss… a small loss... But it feels like a big loss… a loss of a clear sense of existing as a separate, independent “self.” For that sense of a separate self came from adhering to some form of exclusivity. That sense of self was achieved and maintained by being in opposition, or resistance, or competition with someone or something, with some aspect of life as it is. It defined itself as “no - not that.”

This sense of a separate self can not survive “yes – yes to everything and everyone.”

And that is because there is only one thing that can truly, authentically, deeply say “yes” to absolutely everything as it is: and that is the movement of absolutely everything as it is. That movement includes us, but it doesn’t come from us.

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Over the past ten years, I have found any way I could to be with whales. Mostly, I have volunteered, first licking envelopes, then getting to work with Roger Payne, and spending a lot of time with him, I learned a lot about whales. Then I found a way to work on a whale watch boat as Naturalist. And when I felt I knew enough, I put together several programs, which I have presented in libraries and schools and town halls and retreat centers all over Vermont.

I have to admit that until about a year ago I considered myself a bit of a whale addict. The moment I stepped on the boat, all my cares, worries, depression would just disappear. On seeing whales, joy would erupt again.

This was not acceptable to me. I know, I know! That joy is the true condition of life. Unbridled, whole-hearted, mind-boggling joy is our birthright. Freedom is our birthright. Not just we humans. All of us. This is heaven. There is no other. The only hell is the one we create for ourselves and each other in our minds, and project out onto the world.

So this is where I am now. And this has thrown my whale work into a bit of a spin because I don't need it like I did. And I realize that it is not the whales that need saving. We are the ones who need saving.

I am telling you this, because it is the only thing that makes sense out of what I am doing now in my whale work. I see whales as liberators, potentially releasing us humans from the shackles of our own thought habits. Those thought habits are destroying the planet. And the planet, in her almost infinite generosity, is trying to set us free, if we will but listen and learn. Whales are amazing creatures, and to meet a whale, is often to meet oneself in a new way, to be thrown back into that childlike freedom in which everything is unknown, and you hurl yourself into that unknown without fear, and learn about it with body, mind and spirit, all in concert.

What I want is for people to wake up, to realize their essential freedom. To discover that they have been living a nightmare of their own making, and walk away from the prison wall that doesn't actually confine them. The prison of their own ideas and thoughts and feelings and opinions and beliefs and reactions and likes and dislikes, the whole catastrophe of the self-image and the world-image.

Maybe the whales can help. That is what I am experimenting with. Can whales help people to wake up? Help us to see that everything we think is real, is an illusion? Bring our wall-building momentarily to a halt, so that reality might show us the wall, and show us that we are free of it??

They can. I know they can. It’s rare on your average whale watch. Really rare amidst all the hullabaloo.

But whales are beautiful anyway and worth spending some time with. And sometimes it gives me a chance to talk about what I think really matters. Bringing the madness of the tyranny of exclusive devotion to the products of the human mind to a stop, and returning to the deep love that is our true condition.