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.


Sarah said...

John, when you speak of meditation for a contemplative as:
"an openness to all experience, an allowing of all mental phenomena, and being a somewhat detached observer of one's own inner experience."
I have found, the more that I allow this process of "emptying or of allowing all my thoughts and feelings, no matter what their nature, to RISE within my consciousness without judging them, they dissipate. They do not all disappear, and leave me void of experience yet...though they do release a great deal of attachment to emotional drama. Some have infact been fully released from they're grip on my unconscious actions.
I can only imagine if I had been practicing this state of awareness for 30 years how much clarity would surface. I have recognized the duality where the emptying of experience leads to the path of uncovering the truth or essence of being.
This state of being is most felt when in nature. A few years ago, before I took the leap with a career change, I took a "mental health day" from the high school where I was working as a para for the History Dept. I gave myself permission to take off the day because of the high stress I had been experiencing working within public education. That morning I took a walk out my normal route into the dunes on a trail that leads to soft sands of a lengthy beach on the bayside of Nantucket Sound. I had not put into terms yet what those walks in nature had been doing for me. I began the walk with a statement, not meant for any other human to hear, "Universe I am ready to know my path, please guide me". As I meandered on the trail in the midst of the pine blotched dunes with birds fluttering in the early morning sun, a deep sense of clarity bellowed over me...working in a position where I could act as a conduit for children to regain or deepen their connection with nature. I sang out with deep joy and gratitude as this awareness poured out of me, giving me rise to the path that I have followed for the past two years. I chose to express this desire to help our children "remember" by becoming a public school science teacher. It seemed, the best way at the time to reach those of most need.
It remains uncertain if I will be most effective at carrying out my path in the public school system, and as one of my teachers says, "you are only a victim if you let yourself be one, you must work to improve the situation you are in, even if this means acts of subversion, or if you have exhausted your resources then simply leave the situation. Soon I will be looking for the community to help me carry out my work, what this looks like, I am not exactly sure, but I know the essence of my path, to connect our children with nature, will be at the center.

John said...


Thank you for your thoughtful comments, and for your dedication to connecting children with the natural world. This is so important, as the dimensions of the world we inhabit contract even further into a 3" screen!

In my experience, there is no privileged state of "no experience" to be attained. If it comes, it comes unbidden, unsought, not as a result of 30 years of contemplative practice, or any other time-bound process. There is nothing particularly special about it (actually I think it happens all the time, thousands of times a day, but the brain glosses over it, stitching together its conscious experiences to create the illusion of a seamless, unbroken continuum).

What you are describing, being open to all experience and allowing mental states and experiences to appear and dissolve on their own, is all there is. Experiencing (or discovering) the timeless state is as likely to happen to a "beginner" as it is to a "veteran" meditator, maybe even more to a beginner, since veteran meditators can be quite full of ideas about what meditation should be like, and that gets in the way of attending to what actually is.

I mentioned the timeless state not to exalt it above any other state, but merely to illustrate how everything we think of as "self" can fall away, leaving only deep affection for and identification with the whole movement of Life. Which isn't the outcome that one would probably expect.

I also somewhat regret using the word "detached." You describe it better than I did. Being affectionately open to all experience opens the possibility of realizing the timeless affection that lies at the heart of our existence, of all existence. It is such a simple thing, and so easily overlooked. Approaching all experience with that natural affection can indeed dissolve much drama.

Gareth Howell said...

Sarah's sand dune experience is frequently reported by cyclists, now more so than ever. I certainly think on my bike, and not easy thoughts either!
One of those thoughts is as follows that I need to distinguish between "ethology" and "ecology" since the term contemplative ecology only says what ethology already does.

Plant and animal ethology are interesting subjects, that which it is right to do to animals or plants, the natural world....... or not.

I do contemplate on my hands and knees when I consider the natural world, planting onions, potatoes, flowers, collecting seeds for the following year, and so forth, but anybody who has theories about "contemplative ecology" really needs to have some practical experience of working with nature (and creation) to consecrate, and to avoid desecrating it; growing things in the garden and plot. Very few people have.

In a world of empires where capitalism is so dominant, it is impossible to suggest that everybody should have such sacred attitudes, have a plot. That is not how empires of the western world have developed.
Knowing about nature can be very trivial and ignorant, although in the theoretical sense knowledgeable. Merely having knowledge of contemplative ecology or ethology does not make it sacred or consecrated.

John said...


I agree with you that 'contemplative ecology' or whatever you want to call it requires a relationship with the living world. I have tried to be clear about that. The ecology side of contemplative ecology is entirely founded on an actual, complex relationship with other beings: seals, whales, trees, grasses, weasels, woodchucks, spiders, ants, bees, wildflowers, stones, mountains, forests, bays, estuaries.... The contemplative side involves an encounter with our inner emptiness. Neither of those is theoretical. They are very real, very practical.

Contemplative Ecology, as I intend it, is not a theory or a set of concepts. Either it is a complete reorientation of the human mind and society - a stick in the spokes of the ever-spinning wheel of the human enterprise - or it has no significance at all. A deeper relationship with other beings is one consequence of this reorientation, but so is a continuing awareness of our essential emptiness. The encounter with emptiness challenges everything that most humans pin their lives on.

Your use of the word "ethology" is obviously not the conventional "science of animal behavior" so you would have to explain what you mean by that in order for me to comment on it.

- John