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.