Saved By the Whales Again!

Natural History Magazine recently reported two separate instances of humpback whales protecting seals from the very sophisticated and coordinated attacks of orca whales in the Southern Ocean.

The scientists who observed the rescues speculate that this might be maternal instinct on the part of the whales. The problem with that bit of speculation is that it is extremely difficult to determine the gender of humpback whales at sea, and there is nothing to indicate that these were female whales.

The final paragraph of the article may come closer to the truth:

“When a human protects an imperiled individual of another species, we call it compassion. If a humpback whale does so, we call it instinct. But sometimes the distinction isn’t all that clear.”

It seems likely to me that other animals are perfectly capable of acting out of compassion. I would not be surprised if the seals communicated their distress to the larger whales. Last year we saw interspecies communication at work in the case of Moko the dolphin who saved two pygmy sperm whales who had beached themselves in New Zealand.

We seem to find it hard to believe that a non-human animal is capable of flexible behavior. We humans sometimes act compassionately toward other animals, and sometimes we eat them. Why should we think other animals behave any differently?

Whales have been living on Earth with their large, complex brains about a hundred times longer than modern humans. Maybe they are the more mature species, and we have a thing or two to learn from them about living on Earth with grace, balance, and compassion.

This is my hope for the year(s) ahead. That we humans will begin to see other beings not as objects to be studied or exploited, but as co-equal creatures, creators and creations both, of this amazing, rich, vibrant, living Earth.

Contemplative Ecology

Since I wrote this piece, contemplative ecology has become more widely known, although not all of us who use the term use it in exactly the same way. For more on what contemplative ecology means to me, see Contemplative Ecology: Contemplation for a World in Crisis.

In my last post I wrote about conservation spirituality, and I alluded to the fact that my own spirituality is essentially contemplative in nature. A year or more ago I was casting around for a term I could use to describe what I do, because there didn’t seem to be a ready-made form I could fit my work into. I came up with the term Contemplative Ecology. I did a Google search and didn’t come up with any results (there are many more now) so I decided it was unusual enough to describe my odd little endeavors.

Before I had really thought much about it, I liked the term because it simply brought together my two primary areas of interest and endeavor: contemplation and ecology. I have been involved in some sort of contemplative practice for more than 30 years. I have been studying whales and observing the natural world and working in environmental conservation for 20 years. Increasingly, the two have been joining into one. The insights I have from contemplative living have been merging with the insights from observing nature. The lessons of contemplation have become more and more applicable to the environmental crisis. The insights that come from observing my own mind at work seem to apply to the natural world, and the insights that come from observing the world seem to be relevant to my inner life. There is an essential seamlessness to it all that speaks of a fundamental unity where there are often thought to be absolute distinctions, of mind and body, of nature and spirit, of self and other, of nature and human. And so it seemed appropriate to describe what I do as Contemplative Ecology.

Ecology, as I understand it, is the study of the interrelationships inherent in all natural systems. The First Law of Ecology, to my mind, is this: There is No Such Thing as a Separate Thing. Everything is and belongs to and contributes to and derives its essential existence from, a system of nested, interrelated systems. A thing can not therefore be understood outside of its context, outside of its relationships, outside of its interdependencies. Ecology involves observing everything in context and beginning to understand (very difficult) the intricacies of interrelationship that make things what they are.

Contemplation involves deep attention to one’s own mind and body and experience. It is ecology applied to oneself, applied to the workings of one’s own organism. The same ecological lesson applies. There is no such thing as a separate thing – no such thing as a separate “self.” Everything that happens is connected to something else that happens. The brain itself and all its thoughts and imaginings would not exist without a bewildering host of intertwining influences, from sun and rain and soil and plants and water, to spouses, parents, schooling, job stresses, cultural assumptions going back thousands of years, and what you ate for supper.

It seems to me that anyone who goes deeply into ecology will arrive at contemplation. And anyone who goes deeply into contemplation will arrive at ecology. And both will see that the human and the natural are one and the same, and the inner/outer, self/other distinction is at its heart a false one.

And both will see the really terrible errors of thought that humans have made, separating us from the natural, and separating the natural from the sacred. And with those thoughts come the horrors we have introduced into the world, all based on the fallacy of separation. As if humans uniquely exist apart from everything else.

To me, contemplation and ecology are the same thing. The only thing that separates them is the false separation between the inner and the outer. But because that distinction is so sharp for most people, the term Contemplative Ecology becomes useful. It illuminates the fact that contemplation need not be inwardly focused and ecology need not be outwardly focused.

There is one more aspect to contemplative ecology that needs to be explained. It is an elusive one. It is really the core of the thing, but impossible to pin down. It eludes all descriptions and definitions. There is a strange fact about contemplative practice. It becomes necessary, in speaking of it, to use words like “emptiness” and “void” and “stillness” and “silence.”

It sometimes occurs that a period of contemplation or meditation is exceptionally quiet, that the mind is very still and alert, not asleep. When this happens, at least for me, there is an overwhelming feeling of being -in essence- one vast body that includes the whole of everything. A boundlessness. And later, when the natural boundaries of body and thought reassert themselves, a feeling of deep affection for all beings. Why should this be so? Why shouldn’t a time of deep silence be merely vacuous? Why not merely empty and meaningless? Why so pregnant with affection, with love, with deep connection to everything? This is the core insight of contemplation: behind the veil of experience is an “emptiness” that is also wholeness.

The same insight can be reached through ecology. One might begin by observing one plant or animal or ecosystem in detail, and thinking of that thing as a separate thing. But the more one observes and tries to understand, the more elusive the “thing” becomes, as one sees more and more clearly that the thing is really a complex mix of energetic relationships and not a separate thing at all. The moment can come when the “thing” slips away entirely, and one realizes that there is only this vast network of interrelationships. No thing can be grabbed hold of at all. No thing can be definitively pinned down. The only reality is the wholeness in which every “thing” swims. “Things” are convenient descriptions of temporary states of the whole.

Starting with a part and being led to an encounter with the whole, which includes one’s own being. It is the same in contemplation and ecology. It is the heart of Contemplative Ecology, and perhaps the healing of our troubled world.

Conservation Spirituality

I don’t think conservation spirituality yet exists as a movement, an academic discipline or a tradition. Even the name is not in wide use. I will attempt here to explain what I mean by it, even though I have a few misgivings about the term.

Like Conservation Biology, and the much newer Conservation Psychology, conservation spirituality is concerned with the restoration, preservation and protection of biodiversity in all its manifestations – human, plant, animal, ecosystem, and Earth-system. It recognizes that we are in a time of human-induced crisis in all of those interacting systems and subsystems.

Anyone interested in addressing these interrelated crises must understand the root causes of the problems. If we only address symptoms, the underlying disease will remain untreated, and there is every chance that our “solutions” will merely be new forms of the problem. The breakdown of planetary life systems is due to exponential increases in the human population, and in natural resource extraction and destruction made possible by the discovery of fossil fuels and the development of industrial methods of manufacturing and agriculture. But even more, as I see it, the planetary crisis is at root a spiritual crisis.

For a long time I have been reluctant to use the word “spiritual” because it means very different things to different people, so to use it without defining it is to invite confusion. If you had 100 people in a room you would probably get 100 different definitions and descriptions of what spirituality means. But I also suspect that nearly every person would relate something very personal, a felt sense of connection or belonging or surrender to something larger or deeper or older or wiser than themselves alone. It is this felt sense of connection and interconnection that makes conservation and spirituality so relevant to each other, for our crisis involves a deep alienation of the human from the natural, indeed from everything other than our own imagined self interest.

Understood in this way, conservation spirituality draws upon any and all religious and non-religious spiritual traditions, practices, experiences and insights that foster a deeply personal, felt sense of connection or belonging to a greater wholeness, in order to face with clarity the truth of the imbalance humans have introduced into Earth’s life-support systems; to let go of destructive habits of thought and action; to provide a foundation for creative actions, changes in lifestyle, ways of communicating, and types of community engagement that support the flourishing of life in all its diversity; and to embody a deep respect, reverence and compassion for every living being as well as the living Earth as a whole.

Conservation spirituality is not an academic discipline, and I don’t know that it ever could be. Academia is built upon the products of the human mind, and organized around increases in knowledge and the sharing of information. Spirituality is intensely personal, at its heart incommunicable, and deeply grounded not in knowing but in being.

For me, the worst thing one can do, spiritually speaking, is to pretend to know anything. Bear cubs have a delightful habit of delicately placing unfamiliar leaves in their mouths and drinking in all sorts of olfactory and taste sensations, by which they are able to determine whether the leaf is safe to eat or not. In terms of spirituality, we are like those cubs in the woods. Always. The moment we think we know, we stop tasting. The moment we think we know, we stop listening. The moment we think we know, we stop learning. The moment we think we know, we stop paying attention to the whole movement of life as it is unfolding in this moment. The moment we think we know, and become fixated on the idea over and against the living reality, we create the kind of disconnection from being a living member of a living world that lies at the heart of the crisis we are precipitating.

My misgiving about using the term “conservation spirituality” is that, to me at least, what I am trying to point to is in no way different from the heart of all spirituality. It is not a separate discipline or a focus area. It flows naturally out of spirituality, out of that felt sense of connection and belonging to everything. But, I know not everyone’s spirituality includes a deep reverence for and interconnection with the whole movement of life, so by calling it conservation spirituality I am hoping to distinguish it from other spiritual expressions that are unconcerned with the human-planetary crisis through which we are now living. Or perhaps I am trying to illuminate how all spirituality must be concerned with that crisis in order to be real.

Conservation spirituality is distinct from the dialogue that is taking place around religion and nature because it is not primarily concerned with received tradition. That is, it is not about learning from sacred texts or theological writings. It is not primarily concerned with learning *about* the connection (or lack thereof) between religion and nature or spirituality and nature. It is concerned with directly knowing and living that connection. It is concerned with that very personal, felt understanding of connection to or identification with something larger, deeper, older, wiser, whether that “something” is experienced as God or Earth or silence, or is experienced in a very specific person, a parent or grandparent or other elder, or in a direct encounter with a wolf, a whale, a squirrel, a tree, a mountain, a sea.

Conservation spirituality is not the same thing as eco-spirituality. Ecospirituality is similar to what I am calling conservation spirituality in that it attempts to foster a feeling of connection to and care for Earth. But what I am calling conservation spirituality, while it includes ecospirituality, is not confined by it. Ecospirituality encourages developing a sense of connection to Earth. Conservation spirituality might be that, but it also might take other forms, such as my own, which is significantly Earth-oriented but even more deeply rooted in contemplative silence. In my experience, contemplative silence, followed to its root, leads out into the whole of everything, including Earth. But Earth is not its starting point, so it is not ecospirituality as such. It is contemplative spirituality, which is also part of this broader thing I am calling conservation spirituality.

It is also possible that someone’s spiritual experience could be more religious and more specifically oriented to a felt sense of connection to God. And from that might come a particular flavor of caring for the diversity of life as God’s creation. That too would be part of conservation spirituality. Conservation spirituality is absolutely inclusive of all spiritual expressions that one way or another reveal our connection to and lead to a deeper concern for the living world.

Conservation spirituality not only fosters a felt sense of connection to the deepest sources of life and creativity, but also seeks to illuminate at a very deep level the roots of the current crisis. I do believe that there is an inextricable connection between external and internal reality. The crisis we see in the world is a reflection of an inner crisis, a deep severing of the self from everything else of which it is an inextricable part. Problems we refuse to address in the world become psychological problems, often deeply repressed. Both create each other. The external crisis is also a spiritual crisis, a crisis in our deepest sense of who and what we are, of our place in this world. An identity crisis.

Let me repeat the description of conservation spirituality I stated above:

“… conservation spirituality draws upon any and all religious and non-religious spiritual traditions, practices, experiences and insights that foster a deeply personal, felt sense of connection or belonging to a greater wholeness, in order to face with clarity the truth of the imbalance humans have introduced into Earth’s life-support systems; to let go of destructive habits of thought and action; to provide a foundation for creative actions, changes in lifestyle, ways of communicating, and types of community engagement that support the flourishing of life in all its diversity; and to embody a deep respect, reverence and compassion for every living being as well as the living Earth as a whole.”

The essence of conservation spirituality, of all spirituality, is love. Love of the truth, love of this life exactly as it is, love of Earth in all her manifestations. It is not manipulative. It is not escapist. It wants to see things as they are, to face the truth — inwardly and outwardly — and in that facing of the truth, without blame and without self-justification, realizing where wholeness lies, and living in that wholeness.

Deep Stillness

I talk about stillness a lot. A revised and expanded version of Waves of Stillness is to be published in the environmental journal Whole Terrain this year. As a word, “stillness” is problematic. There are two kinds of stillness. There is superficial stillness, and there is deep stillness. When I talk about stillness, it is usually deep stillness.

Superficial stillness is the absence of movement. It is a glassy pond. It is a tree on a day when there is not a whisper of wind. Every leaf and branch is motionless and silent. It is a quiet mind. It is a beautiful thing, this stillness. It is the goal of most meditation. It is the rest sought by most retreatants. It is rare in our hyper-busy, high-speed communications world. It is well worth seeking and finding this stillness.

But it is still superficial. It comes and goes. Inevitably the wind picks up and stirs the leaves again. Inevitably the mind starts chattering again. Or the dogs start barking. Or the “to do” list starts forming again.

We see from a leaf-like, superficial perspective. If we get a hint of stillness, and decide we like that, it is superficial stillness that we try to get for our selves.

It is lovely in itself, this superficial stillness, but part of its loveliness is that it points to a deeper stillness. Not the stillness of the leaves on a calm day, but the stillness of the dark soil in which the tree is rooted. That stillness is permanent, unending, regardless of wind or calm. Regardless of a busy mind or a quiet mind. Regardless of motion or rest. It is easy to make the mistake of thinking that superficial stillness can be extended indefinitely, become permanent, and that is what deep stillness is.

But no. The leaf can never know deep stillness. The leaf only knows leaf stillness, superficial stillness. The mind only knows superficial mental stillness, its own quietude. But in the superficial stillness there is at least the possibility of catching a whiff of the deep stillness that lies beneath it.

This is endlessly difficult to describe, because our language is entirely oriented toward superficial reality, toward that which we can touch and taste and smell and hear and see and feel and think and know, toward movement and the absence of movement. So it is impossible to describe deep stillness or explain how it is that it makes itself known. There is no formula for finding it. It reveals itself or it does not. When it does, it leaves the mind utterly baffled, because the mind has no way to explain it, describe it or even be sure what it is.

But when deep stillness does reveal itself, in a timeless, experience-less, wholly conscious moment, that moment will never be forgotten, and it will reorient everything. Because now the leaf knows it is a leaf, part of a vast tree, arising from deep roots embedded in nourishing soil. Paradoxically, the leaf also now knows that it is not a leaf at all, but the whole tree, and through the whole tree, an entire universe. Everything that before was experienced in isolation now is seen in context. And the context is the whole of everything.

Deep stillness is everywhere. It is the whole of everything. It is the deep soil in which everything is rooted. It is where we always and ever live and breathe and have our being.

We think we are leaves that can sometimes grasp a few minutes or hours of superficial stillness, when the conditions are right. In fact we are always and forever deep stillness itself, pouring itself out in the interplay of motion and rest, sound and silence, life and death, everything as it is. We are the totality of everything together, and the deep stillness that holds everything in its loving embrace.

If I Could Talk to the Animals

It was a good week for relations between us and our animal kin. A New York Times Magazine article by Charles Siebert titled “Watching Whales Watching Us”, and follow-up interviews on Fresh Air and the Diane Rehm Show give voice to what seems to be an increasingly acceptable message: we are not alone. Other animals, whales and chimps at least, are also conscious, intentional, creative, capable of compassion, and highly communicative. And of course, for centuries we have been using and abusing these highly sensitive creatures for our own narrow purposes.

The “are we alone” question has always been attached to our search for extra-terrestrial intelligence. I have been suggesting for a few decades that the intelligent “others” we have been searching for are right here on Earth, we just don’t recognize them as such. How, then, can we hope to recognize intelligence when or if we find it on other planets, in forms completely alien to us and Earthly life?

The interview with Diane Rehm was particularly touching because of the quality of the questions and comments from listeners who called in. We may really be learning. We may finally be able to recognize in other animals the qualities we most admire in ourselves. In that interview Charles Siebert raised the question of whether the isolating event that separated our sense-of-self from the other animals was the development of spoken language, something we do not seem to share with any other animal. I don’t think he is right, because there are human cultures that have not lost the ability to understand Earth’s many means of communication. Our sense of separation seems to have more to do with civilization than language.

I have been wondering recently whether part of our destructive relationship with the planet is not mere indifference or greed, but an active fury at our feeling of separation, a rage at Life for inventing a creature (us civilized humans) that is unable to participate in the non-verbal chorus of all creatures.

But among the many things that whales are teaching us, one is that the communication link between species has not actually been broken, even for those of us raised in civilization’s dubious arms. Whales communicate with us regularly, in potent non-verbal ways. This is nothing short of astonishing. Our evolutionary paths diverged more than 100 million years ago, so we are not exactly first cousins in evolutionary terms.

It is easy to poke holes in the idea that whales communicate with humans, unless you have experienced it yourself. It is such an overwhelming, life-altering experience that to deny it is to deny all that is good and beautiful and mysteriously wonderful in this world.

I am thrilled at the possibility that we are entering into a period of genuine collaboration with the other intelligences of the planet. To me, whales and chimps are only the beginning. The other animals, the plants, the fungi, the soil, whole ecosystems, the planet as a whole, these are also intelligent and purposeful, if we can but learn to listen to them on their own terms not on ours. As far as I can see, the solution to our many, many problems, planetary, social and personal, will not come from the human being alone, least of all from the human mind alone, but from all forms of life functioning in collaboration with each other.

Our greatest task right now is to listen deeply and listen well to the other intelligences who share this planet with us, and learn from those who have lived here a lot longer than we have.

Related posts:

Visits with Whales

What Do Whales “See?”

Watching Whales, Watching Ourselves

Waves of Stillness