31 December 2009

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.

09 December 2009

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, that behind the veil of experience is not emptiness, but 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.

10 November 2009

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.

03 August 2009

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.

24 July 2009

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

07 April 2009

What Do Whales "See?"

I presented my program called "Whales: A World of Sound" last weekend at the Rey Center in Waterville Valley, New Hampshire. There are three components to the program, and unfortunately I only managed to cover two of the three: ocean acoustics and whale communication.

The third component I touched on, but only briefly. It could potentially be an entire presentation in itself: How does living in a sound world shape a whale's consciousness and world view?

We will leave aside the question of whether whales have consciousness and world views. This has been for a long time the deadly third rail of animal science, because it is essentially impossible to verify the inner experience of any other creature, humans included. But I don't have to be strictly scientific here or in my talks, so I take it as a given that whales are conscious and therefore have a world view (I assume that whales and other animals do have an experience of the world, as we do. I assume that conscious experience is a function of a reasonably complex nervous system. These are assumptions. No one has figured out what causes sensory stimuli to be experienced. But I am comfortable with the assumption that if it happens in the human nervous system, it is common to all complex nervous systems, perhaps even to all nervous systems, perhaps even to all complex systems. I will forever wonder in what ways the universe experiences itself, as a whole universe, not just through its individual parts, but that is another topic entirely).

While you and I live primarily by sight, and our sense of the world is shaped by the way light waves interact with solid surfaces, whales live primarily by sound, and their world is shaped by how sound waves interact in water.

Think about this for a moment. We know the world through our 5 senses, and through a myriad of other senses that we don't often name (sense of location in space, sense of impending danger, sense of humor, gut feelings of many types), but especially through our sense of sight. We are heavily oriented toward the visual world. We also know the world through the way that our brain processes the raw sensory information it receives from the very specific structures of the eye, ear, nose, touch receptors, and tongue. One could say it is not the external world that we know. All we really know is an inner world of our particular sense receptors and the particular way that our brain processes the information from those receptors. This combination gives us our way of "seeing" and understanding the world.

So how do other creatures experience the world?

We know, for instance, that bats use sonar to create three-dimensional maps of the world, that they "see" through sonar much the way humans see through vision. We have no idea how a bat experiences that world, but we can imagine that it might be somewhat like how we see the world. Except that the physical properties of high-frequency sound are very different from the properties of the frequencies of light through which humans see the world. So what is "seen" by the bat is not the same as what is seen by the human.

We all know this most clearly through our familiarity with dogs. We know that they live in a world of smells that is beyond our capacity to experience. To some very significant degree, a dog's world is a world of smells, and we can only imagine how a dog constructs its view of the world through this complex intertwining of many scents from all directions.

Whales primarily experience the world through sound. Vision is nearly useless in most oceans of the world. What is this sound world like? Furthermore, whales are essentially water bodies moving in a water world. Land animals are water bodies moving in a world of air. Sound waves move very easily from ocean-water to body-water. One possible consequence of this is that whales are essentially transparent to each other and seamless with the ocean, that the boundary between whale and ocean is blurry, not sharp the way the visual boundary is. Dolphins, porpoises and sperm whales, all of whom use high-frequency sonar, can probably "see" right through and into each other. A dolphin fetus is probably "visible" to other dolphins from the beginning. And that fetus is probably experiencing the mother's sonar-illuminated world from the moment its nervous system is developed enough to process the information. All toothed whales are highly social creatures, and we can only begin to imagine the level of intimacy they experience and how that shapes their view of the world and each other.

Large baleen whales do not use high-frequency sonar, but rather use very low-frequency sounds for communication, probably for finding food, and probably for navigation. Low frequency sounds are not useful for creating a fine-scaled map of the world, but are excellent for finding large scale structures at great distances, like islands and coastlines. There is some evidence that large whales do indeed tend to swim long distances from one large structure to another. Possibly they find these structures using low-frequency sonar. Possibly they have a detailed map of the ocean in their memory. Possibly that map includes not only islands and seamounts and coastlines, but also the locations of all the other whales that they can hear across thousands of miles.

Try to imagine what it is like to live in a water world of sound in which boundaries are fluid or nearly transparent. I imagine a solid world of island and continents, and a diffuse, fluid world of echo and movement that is a nearly seamless life/water entity. The sound boundaries are very soft. I wonder if the whales experience themselves as the ocean itself, taking shape and making sound. They are that ocean.

When humans meet whales, one of the most common experiences we have is to feel a sense of deep commonality with the whale, a feeling of unity, of oneness, as if the boundary between human and whale melts away and we experience being one life movement together. As if we are members of one body. For that moment we feel more like the body as a whole, and less like one individual member of the body.

That whales are highly communicative animals is undeniable. Are they conveying to us their essential experience of the world? When we encounter them, are we briefly glimpsing the world as they experience it, as a nearly seamless whole? We with our vision-oriented world and a brain that tends to divide everything up into distinct categories and entities have a very fragmented worldview. The whales, I would guess, tend to experience the world and their place in it much more in its unity, as a seamless whole. When we meet them, we get this glimpse, but we have a very hard time holding onto that perception. It is not how our brains are set up.

This could explain why some people feel that whales are highly-evolved spiritually. I am not going to comment on that. I have no idea at all what the inner life of a whale is. They have been around a lot longer than we have so it does not seem unreasonable to me to imagine that they are more highly developed in many realms than we are, but I really do not know.

But based on trying to imagine myself into their sound-mediated world, based on having sat for many hours with eyes closed just listening to the world, including the groans and gurgles and thumps of my own body, and based on the fact that in water all those sounds would be clearer, more transparent, and would travel much greater distances more quickly, I can easily imagine that the whales hear the world in its essential wholeness.

And it seems to me that this sense of wholeness is somehow communicated when we meet. And since wholeness, or the essential unity of existence, is the central feature of what we call spirituality, it makes sense that we experience whales as highly-developed spiritual beings. That doesn't mean they believe in God, or come from Alpha Centauri or came to earth to teach us how to live in harmony with each other. But it does mean that we have a lot to learn from them, if we can set aside for awhile our human way of seeing the world, separated into distinct things, and step, even for that one brief, indescribable moment, into their way of hearing the world as one unified body, from which nothing can be separated.

If this subject interests you, there is a new show from the Canadian Broadcast Company called Ocean Mind. It covers these same subjects from a similar perspective. Downloads are available here:

Listen at


Downloads at

http://www.podcastdirectory.com/podshows/4047436 (part two)

http://www.podcastdirectory.com/podshows/4032364 (part one)

Note 5-1-2015: The above links are no longer working and unfortunately the CBC seems to have dropped hosting for the first episode. For the moment, the second episode can be streamed here.

I was excited to hear this show, because it has been scientifically unacceptable to talk about these things for many decades. Between hard-core scientist and new-age seeker, there has been very little friendly ground for exploring these questions. I am happy to see it coming out once again. We humans have a lot to learn in a very short time if we are going to prevent making the world uninhabitable for us all, and whales do seem to be able to show us this essential thing: that we are all members of one body together. Whatever befalls one member of the body, befalls the whole body. Our fate and their fate are therefore inextricably intertwined.

21 March 2009

When Ideas Get in the Way

One of the worst things that ever happened to my spiritual life was that I started reading about spirituality, especially "spiritual awakening." This started happening only recently. Before I started reading about it, I only had my own experience to contend with.

The problem with reading about spirituality is that a fresh, lived experience has a layer of ideas, concepts and language added to it. With concepts in hand, it is then very easy to think that understanding the concept is the same as understanding the thing itself. The really destructive aspect of this is that the concept then becomes a filter that prevents any real surprise. Life becomes dull. The essence of spirituality, at least as I understand it in my own life, is to be oriented toward the real, toward what actually is. The real is constantly changing, constantly surprising. To have spiritual ideas or beliefs is to kill the real. When one has a box full of spiritual ideas, it becomes very difficult to be surprised anymore, and that is the death of the spiritual life.

It would be better, I think, to throw out all the spiritual self-help books, and stop listening to spiritual teachers who are peddling their particular experience or method of "waking up."

I am throwing away all the spiritual ideas that I have acquired from reading and listening to spiritual teachers. I am even throwing away my own "spiritual" and "mystical" experiences, and going back to direct engagement with life as it is right now.

So, here is the question: what remains when we throw away all our ideas about "awakening" "enlightenment" "heaven" "eternity" "spirituality" "God" "higher self" "bliss" and all the rest of it? What if we set aside, at least as an experiment, everything we think we "know" about ourselves and the world and the spirit? Everything. What if, at least for a moment, we set aside every idea that there is some future place or experience that will fulfill all of our longings, and return all we have lost?

What if this, right here, right now, is all we have and all we are? What if, without any reference to the past or the future, with no past knowledge through which to filter the present, no imagined future through which to postpone the direct engagement with now, with no program through which we will achieve anything at all, we simply dwell in this, right here, right now?

What is that like? How many people even know what this is like, without the overlay of past and future? Without the burden of all our concepts layered onto what actually is?

I can tell you, this is not what most "spiritual seekers" are looking for. Not this moment, exactly as it is. We want something higher, something better, something eternal, something exciting and perfect and purely blissful.

The saddest thing in the world to me is that most of us go through our lives without ever experiencing life as it actually is. We are caught in the net of how we want things to be, and how we think they are. Our ideas about it dominate, and create a screen through which we are incapable of experiencing things as they are. We live in our ideas of the past and the future almost exclusively.

Meanwhile there is this beautiful thing called Life that only exists here and now. By dwelling in the mind's idea of past and future, we miss most of what is going on right here and now. This. Exactly as it is. Beautiful, painful, inexplicable. Absolutely real. Absolutely free of our ideas about it.

This is all there is. And all the books and all the teachers only serve, in my limited experience, to give us more ideas about what it all means. And those ideas add to the filter that blocks our direct engagement in the real.

Now and then you might meet some one who embodies this reality, and has nothing at all to sell you. And you meet that person, or that animal, or that tree or that blade of grass. And you get it too. You see how you have been imposing your world view onto the world. And for a moment you drop your world view, all the accumulation of your ideas about the world. How it should be. How you want it to be. How it should have been. How you hope it will be. And for a moment you come into direct, unmediated engagement with what actually is, right now.

You will, never, ever forget such a moment. You may fall back into the trance of the mind. Maybe for days or weeks or years. But you will never forget what is real and what is false, and how we spend our days mostly in devotion to what is false.

You will never forget the vitality of that moment. And maybe the mind will realize its gigantic mistake and will become quiet at last, and allow the real to live and breathe again, without any idea about it whatsoever. That moment is still here, waiting to be heard, touched, seen, felt, and lived.

16 March 2009

Watching Whales, Watching Ourselves

Watching whales is like the best kind of meditation. It is completely baffling.

Meditation isn't really worth anything unless it exhausts all of our strategies and concepts and opinions and plans and ideas about who we are and what the world is, and leaves us with nowhere to go and nothing to do. Leaves us with nothing at all to grab onto, no safety net, no life raft, no "self." Nothing but this moment in its marvelous, incomprehensible actuality.

Well, maybe watching whales doesn't do that for most people, but it does for me. Whales are extremely hard to observe. They are completely at home in a medium we can barely approach. They appear but briefly in our view, and from those brief glimpses we construct an idea of who they are and what they are doing. We can attach cameras and time-depth recorders to their backs with suction cups, and those stay on for a few minutes or hours, expanding our glimpse a little bit.

But all we ever get is a glimpse. And from that glimpse we concoct an entire world: our idea of what a whale is.

Most of us don't realize it, but this is exactly what we do with our own lives as well. All we ever get is the tiniest glimpse of the world. Even our own life is largely unknown to us. The brain has functions and purposes and motivations and decision-making processes that remain forever unconscious. Like the whales, we are largely mysteries, even to ourselves. Other people, other animals, other life forms, are entirely mysterious. A tiny glimpse is all we ever get.

And from those fleeting glimpses, we construct a world view. We patch all the gaps and cracks with our ideas, with a creative surmise about what it all means. We walk around pretending we know exactly who we are and exactly what the world is, imposing our world view onto the world, all the while not really having a clue. And we don't even know we are doing this. We think the world we know is the actual world. We pretend we have it all figured out, and all under control. We happily ignore the fact that all we get is fleeting glimpses.

Meanwhile the world lives beyond any ability of ours to grasp it and understand it.

The thing about watching whales is that even if you are very observant and keep careful notes and spend years following them around, they keep surprising you. They keep inventing new behaviors. The keep baffling your expectations. You can not possibly figure them out. All you can do is enjoy them in their actuality, and play the game of trying to understand them, and stay open to the truth as it reveals itself, always new.

This is a simple and obvious fact about observing whales. It is also a simple and obvious fact about observing our own lives. But it is hard to see this in ourselves. We want very much to believe that we know who we are. We do not like the feeling that we are driven by powers and processes hidden from our own view. We do not like admitting that the "me" of conscious understanding and experience is not the truth.

But this remains true, whatever we think or feel about it: Like whales, we are a mystery, even to ourselves. Our lives go on largely out of view. We often do not know why we do what we do. We are more unconscious than conscious. We pretend we know. We invent stories to explain ourselves to ourselves. But we do not really know. What we know is but the exhalation as the whale comes up to breathe. We ignore the disappearance back out of sight. We stitch together the conscious experiences, and pretend that the patchwork result is "true to life."

The thing about watching our lives is that even if we are very observant and keep careful notes and spend years in meditation or therapy, we keep surprising ourselves, and each other. We invent new behaviors. We baffle our expectations. We can not possibly figure each other or ourselves out. All we can do is enjoy each other and ourselves in our actuality, and stay open to the truth as it reveals itself, always new, always surprising, always deeply mysterious. Just like watching whales.

14 February 2009

Waves of Stillness

For the past several months I have been working on a major revision to my CD, Natural Meditation. That project has become a bit bogged down. So I wanted to share with you, my faithful blog readers, the new track for the CD. I recorded the track on the shores of the Bay of Fundy, New Brunswick, last August. Here is the script for the track, not as I originally recorded it but as edited for the new CD. It is one of my favorites, about the closest I have yet come to conveying the essence of how I see the world.

One other note: when I capitalize the word "Life" I am referring to the entire life-system, birth, growth, decay, death, reintegration, rebirth, the complex interplay of ecosystems, and all the unseen, unknown underpinnings of the same. Like wise when I capitalize "Bay." I am referring not just to a body of water but to an entire life-system.



I want to take some time to talk about something I consider central to natural meditation.

I’m sitting on the shore of the Bay of Fundy, shrouded in fog. Foghorns sound in every direction. The Bay of Fundy is a 180-mile long, 700-foot deep, ancient rift valley at the northern end of the Gulf of Maine. Over 100 billion tons of water flow in and out of the Bay every twelve hours, making it an area of exceptionally high marine productivity and endlessly changing character.

A large grey seal lives here, whom I have observed over several years. A length of orange nylon rope is wrapped around his neck that was once attached to a lobster pot or a bit of fishing gear or a buoy. He got entangled in it and couldn’t get it off, and the rope has remained in place. Over the years his skin has folded over the rope, embedding the rope in his neck. Filaments of nylon stick out like hair. The neck looks raw and infected. The seal can't do anything about it and the presence of this rope will surely shorten his life.

The Bay remains abundant with seals, dolphins and porpoises, large whales, pelagic birds, and the herring and plankton on which they all feed. But for how long? Whales and seals get entangled in our gear, seals are shot wholesale by fishermen who see them only as competitors for their livelihood, and the fisheries are erratic. Here on the shores of the Bay, it is all on display: nature’s abundance and inherent balance, and the imbalance we have introduced. Our ways of living and working, of growing and catching food, of making things, of gathering the resources to make things, and our ways of disposing of those things are tightening like a rope around the neck of the world.

How has such an intricately balanced system lost its equilibrium? For the first time in the history of the earth, as far as we know, one species’ activity is having an impact at a planetary level. Radical change is needed, but what is the root of the imbalance?

Most of us derive our sense of who we are from the things that we accumulate, not only money and possessions, but our accomplishments, our status in the community, our personal resume. We spend our lives trying to pin ourselves to these things, to locate ourselves in them.

But it doesn’t work. When we reach what we think is going to be the pinnacle of achievement or possessions or experiences, even spiritual experiences, very quickly that achievement loses its savor, and then we need the next thing. Another pinnacle appears and we feel like we have to set out to achieve that new pinnacle. We are never satisfied with who and what and where we are right now. We are always seeking something else, something more, something better. And that constant pursuit of more is running full speed into the wall of the physical limits of the planet.

And since that pursuit of more and better never brings true satisfaction, but is actually making most of us more miserable, and making the planet less vibrant and healthy, it makes sense to step back and ask, what does satisfy? What makes for a rich and satisfying life?

This is where natural meditation has a part to play. It may not seem like much, but it makes a real difference to take a look around at what is right here. It makes a difference to listen to the waves crashing on the rocks, or watch the gulls flying by, or the swirling of the fog, the grass bending in the wind, the other animals going about their lives, looking for food, looking for each other, playing. It makes a difference to pay attention to our own thoughts and feelings and sensations in the same way, without blame and without self-justification, without an agenda. Paying attention freely, opens up the possibility of clearly seeing the natural world, the impact we are having on it, and our place within it. Paying attention makes it possible to see the ways in which the mind tricks itself into thinking it is separate from everything else. And paying attention in this way allows a sense of self to emerge that is deeper than any words or ideas can convey.

At its root, the ecological crisis is not about too much carbon and too many people and too much waste and too many toxic products. It is not about bad policy and inefficient technology. It is about us. We have forgotten who we are. In our scramble to accumulate and possess, to understand and control, we have lost touch with the living truth, which we cannot possess. Paying attention to the whole movement of Life, is one way of remembering what has been forgotten, and restoring the balance.


The fog is clearing a little and the wind is picking up, creating ripples on the surface of the water. These ripples have their own distinct, individual quality, yet they are in no way separate from the Bay. In partnership with wind, the Bay forms surface ripples that arise, intertwine, fade and disappear.

Nothing can be held. Everything slips away from us: our most beloved friends and companions, our most cherished ideas of who we are and what the world is, our own lives. Everything is in motion, like ripples on the surface of the deep. Everything resides in stillness, like the depths underlying the activity at the surface.

When I first came to the Bay of Fundy I was captivated by its presence. 100 billion tons of water in motion, yet the stillness of it enfolds everything in its embrace. Stillness in motion. The deep, rippling at the surface. The whale, rising to breathe. This stillness lives in us as well, and knowing it is a profound homecoming. Knowing this stillness at the heart of our own lives reunites us with everything.

Watch the grass blowing in the breeze. Watch the sun rising. Listen to the rain falling. Listen to thoughts arising in the mind and falling away, like waves crashing on the shore.

This is life in this moment, the true miracle. This is deep stillness, expressing itself in everything. In us. In the other animals. In the plants, the insects, the water, the soil, the air, the clouds, the fog, the mountains, the deep bedrock, the depths of the sea, all the sea creatures, the empty space within and between, all the life fueled by the sun’s energy, all the phenomena in the universe.

When we discover this stillness in our own being, then we have no need for more than this that is, right here, right now, exactly as it is. Because this is everything. In this moment, in life being lived right here, right now, the whole universe participates. It is all the movement of stillness. All the marvelous interplay of waves on the surface of the deep, and therefore the very deep itself.

27 January 2009

The Singing of the Seals

I have always wanted to hear seals sing. There are many stories and legends out of Scotland indicating that seals are great lovers of music and great singers as well. There is nothing in the scientific literature about this at all. Not a word as far as I can tell.

I have called to seals with my penny whistle and had them appear out of nowhere to listen. My partner, Cynthia, once heard a harbor seal sing a single, pure note as it surfaced next to her kayak. In our musical duo, Coracle, we play several tunes that are thought to have come from the singing of the seals.

But until this past summer, I had never heard the seals sing.

Cynthia and I are planning a concert that will take place on February 21st in Bellows Falls, called The Seal Woman's Sea Joy. The concert will feature our seal music, and other music inspired by the sea and our deep connection to the creatures of the sea.

In fact, we were writing the description for the concert just days before we heard the seals sing. I have talked to a few people now who have heard the seals sing, so it is not quite as uncommon as I had thought, but still I can not find any mention of it in any scientific journal or book.

We were camping on the coast, in a location that for various reasons I shouldn't disclose, when we were awakened just before sunrise by one of the strangest sounds I have ever heard. We were deeply puzzled by it, and lying in the tent we tried to figure out what it was. A radio in the distance? A dog barking? Someone singing? Some strange sea bird unfamiliar to us? The wind?

It hit us nearly simultaneously, I think. Seals. We were hearing the singing of the seals.

We scrambled out of the tent, grabbed binoculars and microphones and ran out to the point of land. And there, on a rock exposed by the low tide, were a couple of dozen seals. Far enough away that we could not see them very clearly, and are still not sure whether they were harbor seals or grey seals. Either is possible. Or both.

They sang for about an hour, while the sun rose. My recordings are marginal, thanks to gulls, wind noise, the crashing of waves, and the slapping of mosquitoes. But we will be using the best parts in our program on the 21st. But, more important, now I know it is true. Seals really do sing. I don't know if they are actually singing songs. That would require a repeated pattern to the vocalization, and I have not found any repetitions in my small sample of recordings. But they are melodic. They are lovely.

Well, not to everyone. A fisherman was out there collecting seaweed from the exposed rocks, and the recording clearly catches his commentary on the singing seals, "They sure do like to holler, don't they?" About an hour later that same fisherman was out there in his boat shooting those very same seals. Not for food or clothing. Just for spite. A common practice, we were later told.

It was an incomprehensible whiplash of shock to be delightedly listening to the seals sing one moment, and helplessly watching them being slaughtered the next. We couldn't make sense out of it then, nor now. Their singing was a profound gift to us, and it surely drew attention to them, bringing death to we do not know how many.

In the old legends, killing the seals was also common practice. But invariably those who hurt the seals hurt them selves in some way. The seals saw to that. On the other hand, those who helped the seals, or just loved them, were always rewarded in some way, with abiding friendship if nothing else. We wonder what harm this fisherman has brought upon himself by slaughtering these innocent singers. The fishing way of life is dying, and the fishermen take it out on the seals. We wonder what benefit he and his fellow islanders might reap if they can learn to love what they now hate.

And I wonder if the seals are really singing. It is impossible to calculate the good that was done for whales when Roger Payne and Scott McVay discovered that humpback whales sing, and spread their songs throughout the human world.

If seals are singers too, it might awaken us once again to the intelligence and beauty and social sophistication that shares the planet with us.

Once upon a time I was fascinated with SETI, the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence. Well, we don't even recognize intelligence when it is in our own back yard. Often enough we kill it. What makes us think we would recognize it, and honor it, if it came from outer space?

I am told that along the Maine coast, shooting seals is a thing of the past, maybe two generations gone. And I understand that seals are generally flourishing, the elimination of cod having opened up food sources for them in many areas. The human battle against the seals is one the humans are sure to lose, one way or the other. Either we will fail to exterminate them, or we will succeed in that, and lose the opportunity to learn from them, to appreciate them, to fall in love with them, and with the other life forms that share this magical, singing world.

08 January 2009


I somehow thought that the key to waking us up to the dire situation of the earth right now, and the key to rapidly finding solutions would be for us to wake up to our true nature, to see the false nature of the mind-created self, and the deep truth of who and what we are. It doesn't appear to be working out that way. I am finding the words inadequate. I am finding that no one understands them, unless they understand them already from their own powerful experience of the deep unity of our existence. Without that experience, they are just more words, of little or no use.

And I am finding that there are people who are claiming to be "awakened" to their true nature as "consciousness", who nevertheless seem to have little or no understanding of or concern for the unprecedented ecological catastrophe that humans are visiting upon our earth home. They may well be doing some hidden good for the earth, but it's hard to tell.

I just watched the new Julian Lennon movie, "Whaledreamers." The movie is about the Mirning people of Australia, a nearly exterminated indigenous people who have an ancient tradition of dream communication with the whales. It is not a great movie. Some of the whale footage is beautiful, and aspects of the story of the Mirning are moving and inspiring, but the movie is a bit too hip and superficial for me to get very excited about it.

And yet, this one thing does come through the gloss. Whales change people's lives. Whales are waking people up, to both the environmental devastation we are visiting on the the earth, and to our essential unity as integral parts of a living planet. This has been my experience, and it is the reason I love my whale work. With one look, a whale can communicate the whole thing. You are not the separate little organism you think you are. You are this amazing thing called Life. We are one being, like one superorganism. I'd have to say whales are most likely the brains and we are merely the hands. God help us, the hands think they are the brains and are choking their own true brains and the world that is their true body.

All it takes is one look from a whale, and many people get this immediately. But so few of us ever get to look a whale in they eye, that it then becomes the job of people like me to try to convey that experience, and the vital message it transmits, to those who have never seen a whale, have never had the experience of oneness. It is like being an ambassador from a world that has a language that can not be translated into any human language.

Words create distinctions. In unity, there are no distinctions. Unity doesn't mean similar to, or connected to. It means one. We are one. There is only the one. There are no separate things. Humans just like to pretend we are separate and act as if we are separate, apart from all the rest. But we are not separate. Not from each other. Not from the whales. Not from earth. Not from cosmos. Never were. Never will be.

Somehow whales know how to communicate this fundamental unity. They communicate it in a way we all can understand, without words. I wish I knew how they do it. That is what all my words attempt to convey, not the idea of unity, but the fundamental fact of unity. We and the whales and the whole earth and the whole universe are one living entity. When we do harm, we are harming our very selves. Not figuratively, literally.

Oh, never mind. Find yourself a whale, and hope she looks you in the eye. You'll never be the same.

06 January 2009

What Now?

The other night we were talking about our environmental impact and looking at ways we can reduce it. The overall feeling that I took away from that conversation is that we are not thinking any where near radically enough. All our ideas are tinkering at the edges. What we need is a total, communal, global revolution in how we live. We have a human society that is growing rapidly in both sheer numbers of people and in the standard of material comfort we demand. The planet is already near the breaking point, and suddenly billions more people want, and are building, the standard of living we have here in the over-developed world.

So, wrapping the hot water heater, and installing solar hot water panels, and turning off our lights, and carpooling, while good and useful things, seem utterly inadequate. We need a whole new way of living. "We" means all of us. We need a miracle. And we need it now.

There are signs that little shifts are happening all over the place. But most of those shifts appear to be more cosmetic than deep. We need a radical shift. A shift at the very root of who and what we are and how we live. Not just a greener image. Not just a new president. A deep understanding of and orientation to our place in the natural order.

I am continuously frustrated by several attitudes that stand in the way of focusing our intelligence and energy on creating a new way of living.

There is the old attitude of "It's not really a problem. I don't have to change anything." Simple denial. Increasingly difficult to maintain, but lots of us are holding on anyway.

Then there is despair. "It's too big a problem. There is no way we can all change that much in that short a time. So I'll just carry on as always and hope it doesn't hit me too hard personally."

Finally, there is false hope. "Look at all the shifts taking place. Look at the new president. Just relax. It is all going to work out just fine."

Denial. Despair. False hope. All deadly.

Here is my feeling about this. Total, radical change is possible. It is necessary. It is inevitable. We will bring it about or it will be forced upon us by circumstance. The former is far preferable.

But to bring it about we need to set aside our denial, and our despair, and our false, easy hopes. We need to open our eyes. We need to get to work. We need to be ready for radical changes in our lifestyles and material comforts. Yes, I do think so. Most of the green gurus want us to think the easy changes will suffice. Just change a few light bulbs and all will be well.

And they want us to believe that infinite growth in every one's material comfort is still possible. But we have to be ready to give all of that up. In fact, the fastest way for all of us to survive is simply to stop demanding continuous growth in our material lives. Every other approach is going to take too much time and way too much luck.

The idea that infinite economic growth lies at the heart of our well-being is a relatively new phenomenon in human society, and a very new thing on the planet. A strictly human invention. I am no economist, but as far as I understand, this growth is fueled by an economy based essentially on lending with interest, and on legally-mandated corporate profits. This is seen nowhere else in the natural world. It has to go. It is already falling apart.

Looking at my own life, I can see that a big part of the resistance to change is based on fear. It is based on various beliefs about who I am and what I need and what I want, all of which go into making up my sense of self, who I think I am. That is why I have spent so much time talking about the self, the illusory self. We are so committed to maintaining this idea of ourselves. More committed to that, it seems, than to the well being of life on earth.

This situation we find ourselves in really does seem to require of us that we cut our ties to the past. I mean the past that tells us who we are. The past that tells us what can and can not be done.

Who knows what is possible? The other day I was pretty much slapped down, at least that is how it felt, for my attitude that I can do something to save the whales from destruction. That I can do the impossible. When all I was trying to do is get a bunch of other people to care enough to look at their own lives and figure out what they can do, what we all can do together. This is not impossible. Why is it labeled impossible? We are the source of the problem. We are the source of the solution. Maybe impossible for me alone, but not at all impossible for us together. What is truly impossible is that we will all continue to live as we are living now, and the outcome will be different from the toxic catastrophe we see now.

Our assumptions about who we are and what we need, and what is possible, are destroying the planet, our home, the source of our lives. We are in major self-destruct mode. All in the name of having more for our selves. Crazy.

There is no blame here. We are all doing the best we can. And we can do much better. We simply don't need all this stuff. We don't need it to be happy. It doesn't make us happy.

The poorest 3 billion people on the planet do need more to live decent lives. But you and I do not need any more. We need less. Much less. There is so much we need to shed. Assumptions. Guilt. Blame. Rationalizations. Fear. The past. The false self. Tons of stuff. The planet needs for us to possess less.

Let it all go, and face this moment in all its wonder and its dynamic complexity. Face it fully, falling neither into despair nor into false hope. Do all the obvious and easy things, and then dig deeper, into the very heart of who we think we are. Every moment, drop the assumptions of the past. The assumptions of last year. The assumptions of yesterday. What is possible now? And now? And now? What now? What now?

Donella Meadows liked to say, there is just enough time for this radical change, if we start now. I would put it slightly differently. There is just enough time for this radical change, and that time IS now. Now is the only time we will ever have.