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.

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.