22 December 2010

Why Do I Love Whales?

The following gem is taken from an article written by Willy Jones in the Fall 2010 newsletter of the Blue Ocean Society for Marine Conservation. Willy is a ten-year-old junior naturalist aboard Newburyport Whale Watch's Prince of Whales.

Willy is not alone. Many of us have had exactly this same experience on our first meeting with a whale. I've written about it extensively, but never with his simple elegance. I have read eco-philosophers, and spiritual teachers, but Willy says all that needs to be said. We are each other.

Thank you, Willy.


Why Do I Love Whales
by Willy Jones

To me, whales are angels.
The first time I saw a whale, I got to look into its eye,
and I saw a sparkle.
Then I thought to myself, "Wow, this is really important."

I remember exactly how I felt.
I held my breath, and everything around me just stopped.
The people talking, the noise of the boat, it all stopped.
It was just me and the whale looking at each other.

I felt like me and that whale were part of each other.
We were each other.
That connection has been there forever.
Whenever I see a whale, I remember that connection.


Have a blessed holiday season, everyone!

16 October 2010

The Dream of the Old Man

This dream came to me somewhere around 1987 or 1988. I had been to Nicaragua, and was involved in many activist groups in the U.S., trying to stop the war. And I was frustrated by the tone of these groups. It was all about fighting for the cause, so urgent, so pressing. I tried at the time to get a few minutes of personal sharing time onto the agenda, but was told, we don’t have time for that. We have too much to do. Not that all these gatherings were so cold, but it was a real frustration for me, because my experience in Nicaragua taught me that it is indeed in being fully present to each other and to the whole movement of Life, right here, right now, that the salvation of the world lies.

Given the volume of anger and conflict in our world today, I thought it might be time to hear from the Old Man.

In this dream, the Old Man is the last to speak at a gathering of activists, mostly young, but some older as well. It is the beginning of the gathering when everyone present is giving updates about their projects, about everything they have been doing since the previous gathering, apparently some sort of annual event. He has been listening to all the others give their reports, and now it is his turn to speak.

I awoke from the dream, and immediately grabbed a tape recorder and settled back into a half-dream state to recreate the speech. I believe that this transcript is a very accurate representation of the words in the original dream.

It is perhaps worth noting that this dream came to me before I had significantly discovered the beauty and the powerful presence of the non-human world. I was a people person, and had not yet consciously realized that trees and mice and whales and seals and rocks and grasses and birds are people too, all equal partners in the sacred movement of Life. If I were to have this dream now, I think there would be a slight shift of emphasis, to include being present to the whole world, people, plants, animals, wind and water and soil. To the realization that there is one whole movement of Life, which includes all of us, and the answer to all of our questions lies right here, right now, in being fully present to and in this sacred movement.

But here is the Old Man himself, in his words.


It is good to be here. I’ve missed this gathering the past two years. It was three years ago I was here last. And I look over those three years and I ask myself, why did I miss this? What was I doing that was so important that I couldn’t take the time to enjoy being with you all? And I am wondering what was going on. How was I living that I couldn’t take the time just to be with you?

And especially now. You know, I’m very aware of… it’s good to be among these young people. And I’m very aware that I am getting old. And maybe this will be the last time that I can come here. And what was I doing with… losing time… what was I doing? What was so important?

And I think that since I have lived most of my life, I have something I would like to say to you young people. I am hearing you use words like “fight” and “the struggle.” You are angry. You are trying to make a point. You are trying to be heard. You don’t think anyone cares. You don’t think anyone is listening. And you are banding together in your anger. And you are finding strength for your fight.

As I look back on my life, I don’t think fighting is very important. They seemed important at the time, our battles. It seems like it’s the only thing that is important. We are hurting. Our friends are hurting. And we are just discovering how deep that pain is. We are just discovering how many people, and how much the people around us are suffering, and we are angry. And it seems as if no one could possibly have understood what we understand now, because if they knew, they would have done something! We must be the first.

And so we fight. We are angry and we fight. And we feel a deep frustration with those who are not joining us in the fight. And so we stake out our territory and defend it and defend it and defend it. Because now that is who we are. It is a piece of us. And By God! You better understand, because if you don’t understand this struggle, this suffering, you don’t understand me, and I want you to understand me.

I look back on my life, and I remember. I have had many of these times.

What I want to say to you is, don’t get to my age and look back on your life of fighting, of defending personal territory. Because you’ll stop and wonder, where was I? I was so busy fighting for my cause that I never really noticed the world around me.

We have been given to each other to love each other. And there is nothing more beautiful than that we spend time together, paying attention to each other, enjoying being together, delighting in each other’s presence.

That’s all there is. That is everything. There is nothing more complicated than that. And I can see in my life, I have spent so much energy fighting for causes and looking to make change that I have missed the beauty of simply being alive.

So I say to you who have your causes, your missions to accomplish: pay attention to those around you. Enjoy being here. Enjoy simply being alive. And be with other people simply for the joy of it, not because they are sisters and brothers in the cause or because they are people who can get you where you want to go. Just enjoy being with people, so you don’t reach my age, at the end of your life, and have to say “Where was I? What was so goddamned important that I missed the joy of being with friends, of being alive, of being simply here?”

17 July 2010

How With This Rage Shall Silence Hold a Plea?

I have been reading Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, and it has been an eye opening experience. It has been a long, long time since I was so upended and unsettled by a book. I agree completely with Howard Zinn's jacket endorsement: "This is a brilliant book, one of the most important I have read in a long time."

It is not an easy book to read. It exposes the brutality at the heart of neoconservative economic theory and practice (which passes as "free-market capitalism" but in no way deserves to be even remotely associated with the word "free"). It is not as if I am unfamiliar with that brutality. I saw it first-hand in Nicaragua in 1986, where the United States government was the terrorist, deliberately targeting civilians in the second poorest country in the western hemisphere because the Nicaraguans dared to believe that they could have a democracy that was their own, and not a servant of the U.S. corporate state. I was there. I met the victims. I saw it with my own eyes and felt it in my own heart, and was changed by what I experienced.

But the depths of the brutality and greed outlined and meticulously researched in The Shock Doctrine make me feel like I have been asleep for the past couple of decades and am just now waking up to a world I hardly recognize. Like Rip Van Winkle, I have slept through a revolution. This revolution was waged, and seems to have been won, by those forces of greed and destruction that I saw at work in Nicaragua, but naively thought had at least been slowed down by being brought to light. My only consolation (which is no consolation at all) is that I am not alone. We have all been asleep while our democracy has been sold out from under us to a few extremely wealthy individuals and corporations.

Read the book. I can't do justice to its impact here.

The personal crisis for me is that such revelations call into question the relevance of the contemplative life that I live. Shouldn't I be out there on the front lines, defending the freedom and dignity of the majority of the people against the rapacious greed of the wealthy and powerful few who are taking control of the entire planet? They are not only taking control, they are plundering everything for their own enrichment. They are taking all the natural resources. They are raiding all the public treasuries. They are occupying all the land. They are enslaving the people. "They" are probably not even bad people. Those who plan such destruction think they are defending freedom and spreading prosperity through economic growth. The ability of humans to rationalize our own self-serving behavior in benevolent terms seems to be close to infinite.

Greed is winning the day. Greed is consuming the planet. Greed and self-deception.

So what can we do about greed and self deception?

This line from Shakespeare's Sonnet 65 has been running through my mind:

How with this rage can beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?

How with this greed can contemplation hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than silence?

How can silent awareness and simple compassion hope to overcome the cacophonous violence that is the warp and weave of our society? Everything is against it. Everything.

Compassion, true empathy, which means experiencing the other as self, whether the "other" is of a different political motivation, nation, class, ethnicity, gender, species, chemical composition - yes, it is possible to see oneself in a stone - requires a gap in the noise. It takes a cessation of the engine of thought, of self-defense, of self-justification, of self-aggrandizement, of self-deception. We worship the self. Our entire social and economic system serves the self. The self that is incapable of seeing the other as anything but other. Increasingly, it is a self incapable of seeing the other as anything but enemy.

I guess I am a true Krishnamurtian (J. Krishnamurti, 1895-1986) because it seems to me that the "self" is the root of the whole problem. We have devoted our life energy, our economies, our governments, our militaries, our nations, our jobs, everything, to this thing we call "me." It's all about "me," or at best a very minor extension of "me" called "us." Both me and us absolutely require a "them" to exist. Without a "them" to hate, to feel superior to, to exploit, to oppose, "us" falls apart. "Me" ceases to exist.

The "self" is a phantom. It is a mind-made fantasy. We have designed an entire way of life in devotion to a phantom. Because it is a phantom, because it does not actually exist, it takes constant feeding. Does that make sense?

If your body is hungry, you give it food and it is satisfied for a while, until it grows hungry again. But a phantom can't be satisfied. It eats and eats and eats, and its hunger is never filled, because it is not a real hunger. It is not the hunger of a body. It is the hunger of a fantasy. It is like dream eating. The self is a dream entity. So it eats and eats and eats and is never satisfied, because it only exists in the mind. So it goes on eating. It is eating up the whole planet. This dream entity has somehow been loosed on the world. It is consuming real people and real trees and real whales and real oceans and real soil, but it itself is not real. It has taken possession of a real body, and the real body is doing its bidding, and has become utterly confused thinking that the two are the same. The body, which has real needs, thinks it is the "self" which only has unquenchable desires.

I am afraid that unless we all see this, and very very soon, then all of our other efforts at reform or change or awakening or whatever you want to call it, will not amount to anything. The very structure of the self must be seen through. It must be seen for what it is, seen directly, and seen through.

I have no recipe for this. It requires a gap. It requires a moment of silence. It requires the instantaneous cessation of the entire mechanism of self-generation, which is an ongoing process that for most of us only ceases in deep sleep. It does not require the destruction or the stripping down or the abuse of the person. It does not require a form of shock therapy. It is not something that I can do to you or do for you. It is not even something I can do to or for myself. I don't know how to explain it. It just has to happen. You have to be caught off guard. You have to be open to it. You have to be willing to see what an awful mess we are making of this beautiful life and you have to be willing to be changed utterly.

And all that is needed for that change, that total transformation, is one moment of deep stillness. For the self-creating mental mechanism to shut up for one moment, and then for the implications of what is seen in stillness to be welcomed into the mind and expressed in the life of the person. The body-mind needs to see that it is not a "self." It needs to stop believing in its self-generated world view. It needs to see the self-illusion, the ongoing self-deception, and then set that deception aside and enter into honest engagement with reality.

It is the simplest thing imaginable. A total non-violent revolution in a single moment of awareness of the whole movement of life. But it is so simple, so absolutely humble, that it is continuously drowned out by the noise of the mind. And more and more it is buried by the violence of the machinery of the modern corporate/consumerist economy, which is the ultimate expression of the phantom-self trying to satisfy its insatiable cravings.

On the other side of silence lies honesty, simplicity, participation in the whole movement of birth, life, natural death and regeneration, true connection to the whole of everything (not the fake connection we now pretend to have through our little screens), an end to ideology, an end to enmity, and the simple satisfaction of being a living body with basic needs but no insatiable cravings. A healthy, vibrant planet; a modest, satisfying life.

But how with this rage can silence hold a plea?

29 June 2010

The Oil and the Whales

This is not for fun. This is one of the most distressing video reports I have seen from the Gulf of Mexico. At about 7:00 minutes in, dolphins and a sperm whale appear, struggling to live, some clearly not succeeding.

A new article from National Geographic suggests that the removal of as few as three whales from the Gulf population of sperm whales could doom that population to extinction. At this point, it seems to me that the death of only three whales would be a miracle. I'm afraid the Gulf sperm whales are lost.

I just came from a presentation to the next generation (a crowd of 6 year-olds) of my whale program, "Whales, A World of Sound." My small effort to help a new generation fall in love with the whales isn't going to amount to anything if the whales don't have a healthy ocean that they can live in.

My friends at the Ocean Alliance are sending their research vessel to the Gulf to investigate the effect of oil and dispersents on the marine life there. They just published a report from their global survey of sperm whales showing how our human generated pollution has spread to every ocean in the world, far from the industrial centers that are the source of the toxic substances, and entered into the flesh of these amazing animals. The Gulf is a magnified version of what is happening everywhere in other forms. We are poisoning the oceans everywhere. And really, like the blowout, we seem to be incapable of stopping it. We don't even seem to be trying.

I am sick at heart.

24 June 2010

The Survival Value of Not Knowing

An excellent article by Naomi Klein, called A Hole in the World, was published in the Guardian earlier this week. Here is a quote:

But as the BP disaster has revealed, nature is always more unpredictable than the most sophisticated mathematical and geological models imagine. During Thursday's congressional testimony, Hayward said: "The best minds and the deepest expertise are being brought to bear" on the crisis, and that, "with the possible exception of the space programme in the 1960s, it is difficult to imagine the gathering of a larger, more technically proficient team in one place in peacetime." And yet, in the face of what the geologist Jill Schneiderman has described as "Pandora's well", they are like the men at the front of that gymnasium: they act like they know, but they don't know...

The most positive possible outcome of this disaster would be not only an acceleration of renewable energy sources like wind, but a full embrace of the precautionary principle in science. The mirror opposite of Hayward's "If you knew you could not fail" credo, the precautionary principle holds that "when an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health" we tread carefully, as if failure were possible, even likely. Perhaps we can even get Hayward a new desk plaque to contemplate as he signs compensation cheques. "You act like you know, but you don't know."
This relates also to a recent blog posting by Larry Crockett on the Greek concept of "hybris."

Hubris (also hybris; pronounced /ˈhjuːbrɪs/) means extreme haughtiness or arrogance. Hubris often indicates being out of touch with reality and overestimating one's own competence or capabilities, especially for people in positions of power (wikipedia).

Sounds familiar, eh? Not nearly as eloquent as Ms. Klein or my father, I wrote about this a couple of decades ago from a contemplative perspective in an essay I called The Asking Is the Answer, which I just rediscovered and posted on my essays page. This theme was also part of my post a couple of weeks ago on the blowout (and this one from The Sustainable Soul).

Naomi Klein's mantra sums it up: "You act like you know, but you don't know."

The contemplative perspective is that this is true of all of us, all the time, about everything. We don't know anything about anything. We only think we know. The more we act like we know, the more trouble we cause. The more we understand how deep our ignorance goes, the more harmoniously we can live within the whole movement of Life. Why? Because when we understand the true depths of our ignorance, we pay attention, we remain alert, we question our own assumptions, and we consider the possible consequences of our actions.

We are faced with an unprecedented crisis. We can find a place for ourselves in the natural world that recognizes the limits of our understanding; or we can grasp at the appearance of control that comes with the illusion of certain knowledge, and hasten the destruction that we are surely bringing upon ourselves.

Replacing hubris with humility is our only hope.

18 June 2010

Whales in the Gulf

Several people have asked me whether there are significant numbers of whales in the Gulf of Mexico and how they are being affected by the Deepwater/BP blowout. The whales I know best are the ones who spend the summer off the coast of New England. Right whale mothers and calves winter off the coast of Florida and could be affected later this year if oil wraps around and starts making its way up the east coast of Florida. Occasionally a right whale wanders into the Gulf. Right whales are highly endangered. There are only about 400 remaining, and the death or sickness of even one can affect the long term survival of this species.

Many humpbacks winter off the coast of Hispaniola (Haiti/Dominican Republic). I do not know whether they ever wander into the Gulf, but right now they are in northern waters.

Many of us have seen pictures of dolphins swimming through oil and dispersant soaked water in the Gulf, but what I did not know is that there is a Gulf resident population of sperm whales that feed in the Mississippi delta region. One of those whales has now been found dead, as detailed in a current New York Times article.

So the oil continues to spread, and the death toll is mounting, and we have barely begun to see how this tragedy is changing the structure of life in Gulf-area ecosystems.

Is our oil-driven life really worth this? Are we sure that this blowout was the exception, and not a harbinger of things to come as we drill in ever more challenging areas for a resource that is becoming harder and harder to access? There are signs, including the President's White House address, that the message is sinking in. The oil era is coming to an end, and the sooner the better. Surely this spreading death is not the legacy we want to leave to future generations of humans, whales, and all the other spectacular life forms that inhabit this good Earth.

All of us can start to think about how we can live without oil. All of us have to.

12 June 2010

We Must All Be Changed

I am still working on my CD called Natural Meditation. This is an excerpt of the final track, much revised from earlier versions. Some of you might recognize bits and pieces from my talks on contemplative prayer, previous blog posts and other places. I am still wrestling it into a coherent whole, but it felt important to add it to the mix right now, something of a balance to and further clarification of my previous post on the Deepwater blowout.

Nothing short of total transformation can save us now. We must all be changed. And yet, my understanding of that transformation is that it is much simpler, more humble, and more intimate than we commonly think. No lighting bolts, voices from the sky or mind-blowing bliss trips are required. We simply need to be still. For one moment, be perfectly still. And listen deeply.


As a marine naturalist I have been with hundreds of people who are meeting a whale for the first time, and often something beautiful and remarkable happens on that first meeting.

Whales are mind-bogglingly huge and graceful and mysterious. They have lived here one hundred times longer than modern humans, yet they live most of their lives out of our sight and reach and understanding. They are intelligent and aware, creative and communicative. The human encounter with this extraterrestrial intelligence is so surprising and unprecedented, that the mind does not quite know what to do. The normal mental activity that takes the present and connects it to what is already known and familiar, stops abruptly. The culturally accumulated assumptions about who we are and what the world is, break down. The mind meets something it cannot fully comprehend, all the senses open, and the whole person comes into direct engagement with the sheer fact of Whale.

In that moment, mind chatter silenced by sudden awe, you are returned to your essential nature. You and the whale meet in perfect stillness, one movement of Life together. You know you are that movement. You know you are that stillness.

And the immediate, visible result is sheer joy and awe. But the important result is invisible.

For one vital moment, you see with perfectly transparent clarity that the mind cannot tell you who you are. Your ideas and experiences cannot tell you. Your preferences and opinions cannot tell you. Your possessions and personal history cannot tell you. Your accumulated knowledge and accomplishments cannot tell you. You spend your life trying to pin yourself to those things, to find yourself in them. Then you meet something you can not fathom (a whale in this case, but it could be any deep love, or a terrible loss) and all that mental orienteering comes to a halt.

In one astonishing moment, your center of gravity shifts, from your thoughts about the world, to the world itself; from the exclusive world of “me” and “mine” to the absolutely inclusive totality of the whole movement of Life. From restlessness to stillness.

This is the essence of natural meditation.

Be still, welcoming everything, possessing nothing.

This is not a practice. It is a description of reality. Stillness -- welcoming everything, possessing nothing -- is what we are, always. In moments like meeting a whale for the first time, we notice what has always been true. We are deep stillness. We are the whole movement of Life. We possess nothing.

The mind does not know what to do with this. The mind is perpetually caught up in resisting, judging and clinging -- the very opposite of being still, welcoming everything, and possessing nothing. It has built an entire identity out of restlessness, judging itself and others and clinging desperately to that which it cannot keep. From the mind's perspective, natural meditation is both impossible and undesirable, a repudiation of everything it has worked for.

So once it gets a whiff of stillness, the mind tries to turn it into a project, something it can acquire for itself: Try to be still. Try to be more accepting. Try not to cling. But that is the mind trying to take possession of something that simply does not fall in its domain. Natural meditation is not something the mind does. It is not something the mind can do. There is nothing the mind can do to stop its compulsive doing. There is no technique. There is no method. The mind has to be brought up short by incomprehensible reality. It has to fail absolutely to understand reality, and then it has to continue on anyway, leaping into the unknowable truth of being alive. There are a thousand ways that can happen, none of them predictable.

So natural meditation is sort of the anti-meditation meditation. There is nothing you can do to do it. And there is nothing you have to do to do it. You are already doing it. Just notice the stillness that welcomes everything and possesses nothing. Just see it.

You are not defined by your mind. Thoughts are just thoughts. They don’t define or describe you. They don't define or describe the world.

Our minds have become so clever, so obsessed with themselves, that we find it hard now to do this very simple thing: be present here, listen, look, feel, be aware, be alive, in this body, in this place, in this time. Be still. Be real. Embody reality. Reality is stillness, welcoming everything, possessing nothing. And it only exists here and now.

What if, at least for a moment, we set aside every idea that some future place or experience or state of mind 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 program through which we will achieve anything at all, we simply dwell in this, right here, right now?

What is this like? To live without the overlay of past and future, without the burden of all our concepts layered onto what actually is?

This is not what most of us think we 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. We are caught in the mind's net of how it wants things to be. The mind wants a world it can understand and control, and it wreaks havoc trying to press reality into the mold of its limited ideas and beliefs.

We give so little attention, we have so little respect for what is right here: the plants, the animals, the soil, the waters, rock and air, our bodies, each other, deep silence. And yet what is here is an amazing new creation every moment. It is the saddest thing in the world that we can go through an entire life trying to get away from Life, trying to be somewhere other than here. Trying to be in some state of mind other than the one we are in. Always thinking there has to be something better than this. Always trying to reach some imagined future state of perfection. That is how we miss the beauty and the magic that we already inhabit, that we already embody, that we already are.

If you can, take a little time, every day, to be alone in the natural world, without books or computers or music, without any agenda. Just listen to the wind, to the movement of the trees, to the singing of the birds, to whatever is happening. Just listen and look and be present in love. There are riches beyond imagining to be found in this. Life is absolutely extraordinary. This life. Ordinary life.

Life only exists here and now. By dwelling in the mind's idea of past and future, of what should be, of what was, we miss what is right here. This. Exactly as it is. Beautiful, painful, inexplicable. Absolutely real. Absolutely free of our ideas about it.

We in the civilized world have spent many thousands of years trying to impose our will on the Earth, assuming that we alone are sentient and creative. Assuming that we are separate from everything else. Even now, in the midst of an unprecedented environmental crisis, we are often more concerned with imposing our solutions than with listening to what the Earth has to tell us. How can we solve a problem if we don't understand its cause? And how can we know the cause if we don't listen, and learn from what we see and hear? Deep listening, which is the heart of natural meditation, is a vital part of the re-engagement with the Earth that we so desperately need right now.

The plants and the animals, the land and the sea, are part of the creative world. They have gifts for us we have lost and forgotten. They are not layered over with civilized concepts. They embody unity and interdependence and stillness. We can re-learn that from them, if we simply pay attention to them without imposing our agenda on them. We have so much to learn about living in balance, from the trees, the grass, the birds, the other mammals, for me the whales and the seals have been my greatest teachers. Just by observing freely who and what they are in and for themselves.

As long as the mind is trying to make the world revolve around itself, nothing makes sense. And so the mind itself is caught in chaos. It tries to find the whole truth in itself, in its own experiences and concepts, and it can't. The mind was never made for that task. It was never meant to tell us who we are. It is not capable of telling us exactly what the world is. When the mind-made idea, of self, of other, falls apart, and one is dropped into the deep well of stillness, it is like realizing the Earth orbits the Sun, rather than the Sun orbiting the Earth! Suddenly things make sense! And the mind can relax. It doesn't have to tell you who you are. It doesn't have to tell you what is true. It just has to let go of its devotion to itself, and devote itself to the living truth, to the whole movement of Life. This is a huge relief, for the mind and for the Earth, which has been laboring under the burden of our confusion for a long, long time.

When the mind sees this, truly sees it, then the mind can rest and be at peace. Then peace truly reigns. When we discover the inner stillness that allows Life in all its wonder to live and breathe. When everything is welcomed and released. When we allow our injured, frightened, agitated selves to appear, and dissolve freely, in the welcoming embrace of a love too deep for words. One moment in the embrace of the real strips away all of our illusions of separation, and leaves us with nothing we can possess, and nothing we need to possess, living in unfathomable abundance.

11 June 2010


The Deepwater Horizon oil blowout is so upsetting that I have not been able to write about it. I can barely absorb the enormity of it. Which aspect of this mess does one focus on? The human lives lost? The oil itself? The risk of drilling deep wells (4 - 7 miles deep) in deep water? The impact on deep sea marine life, on corals, on turtles, on tuna, on dolphins? The impact on shore life, on pelicans, on marshes, on shellfish, on oysters? The impact on people who fish for their livelihood? The impact on people who love the marshes and used to go to them for solace, to connect with unspoiled nature? Does one focus on BP, Transocean, Haliburton, and the layers upon layers of lies and deceptions that continue to this day, but that one realizes are part and parcel of corporate life in the modern world? Does one focus on the political grandstanding and government incompetence and complicity? Does one talk about the way in which mega-corporations now influence every aspect of our lives, for who can resist a corporation that earns a couple billion dollars in profit every month? Does one talk about how our democracy appears to be in tatters? Does one talk about the shallow reporting and blatant propaganda and the way the government-corporate-security machine blocks real reporting? Does one talk about our own complicity, about our utter dependence on fossil fuels? Does one look for the droplets of hope in this sea of despair? This "spill," this catastrophic blowout, touches everything, just as oil now touches everything. Can one write sensibly about everything, and the collapse of everything? The only meaningful response must also touch everything.

In 2003 I played a minor role in a much smaller oil spill on the southern shores of Massachusetts. I was a shorebird monitor working for Massachusetts Audubon when several hundred thousand gallons of fuel oil spilled out of a barge making its way through Buzzards Bay. Much of that oil came ashore on the sanctuary where I was working. I learned three things on the day when the representatives of the Federal and State governments and the "responsible party" showed up to "manage" the crisis.

First, we have no effective contingency plans for dealing with oil spills, so the response is "make it up as you go along." Oil spills are chaotic and unpredictable. We could at least TRY to prepare, which we don't seem to do at all. Having plans in place, and then following those plans would surely help a lot. BP and the Federal government both appear to have failed catastrophically on this score. But still, I did see first hand that oil spills have a life of their own, and the response has to be both highly coordinated and profoundly flexible, features not apparently built into either corporate or government bureaucracies. Features that are perhaps not fully achievable, which should give us extreme pause about allowing drilling to take place in deep water in the first place.

Second, ego rules the day. Everyone wants a piece of the action, wants to be in charge, wants to be the top dog, wants to stick it to everyone else. It's hard to find anyone who really gives a damn about what's happening. It's hard to be in the middle of an oil spill and not become cynical.

Except, in the case of the Buzzards Bay spill, the people who were hired to do the actual cleaning up. Mostly ethnic minorities, probably not paid very well, many bussed in from all over the country, roaming the beaches in yellow hazmat suits in the hot sun, picking and raking and shoveling the oil into garbage bags. They were, for the most part, disgusted by the whole thing, and genuinely interested in the welfare of the plovers and terns who were nesting on the beach at that time (it was exactly this time of year - seven years ago on this day I was patrolling the beach, educating the cleanup workers about the birds, and updating my sketches of every nesting bird and the oil patterns on their feathers. We couldn't capture the birds to clean them because that would mean abandoning active nests). Lesson number three: if you want to know what's going on, don't listen to the big shots. Listen to the men and women doing the dirty work (unless the Corporation has put a gag order on them).

I had taken the bird patrol job originally because I had been sick for a couple of years with something akin to chronic fatigue syndrome, along with debilitating heart palpitations, and I needed a quiet, healthy, outdoor job. I wanted, more than anything, to become deeply acquainted with the land and the sea, to open wide all my senses and become intimately familiar with one little stretch of coastline and all its inhabitants. I wanted to atune my life to the rhythms of the land and the sea, to orient my life to a Life deeper than myself, and deeper than the stressful human world as well.

Instead, an oil spill on my very first day on the beach, egos galore, chaos, stupidity and many, many sad oily birds, most of whom could not be saved, most of whom were probably never even seen. I left that job sick at heart, even more exhausted than when I went.

And now I see the same thing playing out on a much larger scale in the Gulf. We seem to be incurably shortsighted and negligent, even willfully destructive of the only home we have. We seem to have physical power -- fossil fuel augmented power -- well beyond the capabilities of our brains, certainly way beyond our level of wisdom and respect. I really don't understand how short-term profit has managed to eclipse all good sense, but it has. The impression I have of the BP execs is that, in the words of Bruce Cockburn, "they've been lying so long they don't know what's real." They are living in a delusional world. But in a sense they are just magnified versions of the rest of us. We have all been living in a delusional world. One in which we believed we could heap any amount of abuse on our planet home, could live for our self-gratification alone, and there would be no consequences. The Earth would just take it and take it and keep on taking it, indefinitely, infinitely, without complaint.

Well, the abused Earth had one too many holes punched in her and now she is pouring out her life blood.

It seems terribly clear to me that we do not know how to think about being part of a living world. We are pretty good at thinking mechanically. We're great at inventing gadgets. We are amazingly good at spinning theories. We are lousy bad at understanding complex systems. There's a reason for that. Complex systems -- bodies, ecosystems, planets -- can't be understood. They aren't linear. They aren't predictable. Small changes create big changes. They adapt. They invent. One cannot control them or master them. If one wants to survive, one can only work with them, attentively. One must learn their rhythms and their ways more deeply than mechanical thinking can encompass. It's like riding a wave. You can't predict what it will do. You can only go with it and keep your balance. You need to "think" with your whole body, not just from the narrow confines of your left brain. You have to respect the wave you are riding. Try to dominate it, and it will teach you who the Master is.

Are we learning? Are we learning that we are not the master here? Are we learning that our planet home is beyond our control and comprehension? Are we learning that our planet is alive and dynamic and inventive and ever-changing? Are we learning that we have limited brains that can only see from a limited perspective? More knowledge is not going to save us. Only more humility. Only coming to a full understanding of how little we know -- how little we can know -- and learning to live sensitively in not knowing.

We are adapted to function at a small scale, at a community scale, where no individual is expected to know everything, and no individual has much power over anyone else. Maybe our institutions have become too big for any human being to manage. Maybe it is not humanly possible to behave decently within such monstrosities. Maybe we have created financial and corporate and government systems too big and powerful for our limited brains to handle, and we need to scale down, rapidly, back to the community scale that we can comprehend. At the very least, we need to figure out how to break the death grip that mega-corporations and financial institutions have on our lives, on our government, on our democracy. We must end the cycle in which the giant corporations get all the reward for unmanageably risky behavior, and the rest of us, and the planet, get all the pain. There is much more being revealed here than negligence on the part of an oil drilling operation.

"Not knowing" used to be the language of mystics. Now it is the language of survival. We need to accept how little we can know, and change our behavior so it is in harmony with our profound ignorance. We could use a healthy dose of caution. From a full appreciation of our limits, knowing how little we can know, comes greater attention to the life that is right at hand, and greater sensitivity to the possible consequences of acting out of ignorance. With "not knowing" comes attention, humility and compassion.

There is so much we can never know. We can never know the living truth that is the planet's life. Our only hope for survival is the recognition that we are a part of that planet, and if we reach deep enough into ourselves and discover our essential ignorance, we can also find our essential inseparability from the home that is so much more than just a place we occupy. It is our body. We are part of it as much as blood cells are part of the human body. We are currently behaving like blood cells in rebellion against their host, a condition that cannot turn out well. That behavior will end. It will either end before the body collapses, or it will end with the collapse of the whole body. But end it will, because the part cannot attack the whole and survive.

We need to recover our rightful place within the natural order of Earth's body and the deeper order of being in which even it is embedded. We need to recognize that our intellectual understanding of that larger body is, and always will be, partial, limited and distorted in most of its essentials. We must live with a deep appreciation of our ignorance. The way of "not knowing" is the way of listening deeply. It is the way of learning. It is the way of being fully present to life as it is unfolding. It is the way of respecting Life over self. It is the way of being open to the whole truth. It is the way of creative improvisation. It is the way of love. It is the way of Life itself.

06 June 2010

A Sea Change

I have been wanting to write a piece about ocean acidification for several months, but it has not come together. Nor is this piece exactly what I wanted to write. But it seems to be the case that - horrible as the BP oil spill is - even this catastrophe is not leading us to take seriously the fact that fossil fuels are poisons, whether spilled or burned, and we need to stop using them. For me, the untold lives lost from this leak will have been lost in vain unless we learn this lesson. Oil, and coal, are poisons. We have to stop using them. Whether they visibly leak and spill on land or sea, or whether we burn them and make them invisible, they are deadly poisons.

We have an opportunity here to awaken at last from our oil-soaked dreams of unending wealth and gain, which have turned into a nightmare of unending disease and untimely death, for us, for the Ocean, for the whole Earth.

It's no fun being so gloomy. But how are we ever going to change this situation if we don't look in the mirror and see that we are what has to change? All of us. You and me. No exceptions. That might sound depressing, but it is actually empowering. Because it means change is in our hands, not someone else's.


Spills and leaks are not the only way that oil disrupts the life of the Ocean. A much bigger threat to the Ocean - at least over the long term - is carbon-induced acidification. Despite a comprehensive article by Elizabeth Kolbert in the New Yorker in 2006 (still available online) and a 2009 movie called "A Sea Change: Imagine a World Without Fish," very few people know about ocean acidification.

The Ocean absorbs about half of all the carbon that is pumped into the atmosphere. It has been thought that this is a good thing. If not for the Ocean, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would be much higher than it is, and we'd already be living in a much warmer world. But increased CO2 in the Ocean is leading to ocean acidification, and that could be even more catastrophic than global warming. The Ocean is not actually becoming acidic, but it is becoming less alkaline. In the past 250 years, average surface ocean pH has dropped from 8.179 to 8.069. That is a 28% increase in acidity (or decrease in alkalinity). We have believed that the Ocean, like the Atmosphere, is too big for its chemistry to be changed by our activity. We have been wrong.

The declining pH of the Ocean is already affecting organisms that are essential to the marine food chain: corals and pteropods. Lower pH inhibits these and other organisms' ability to build calcium carbonate shells and bodies. As ocean pH continues to decline many essential organisms will be affected, including oysters and clams, shellfish, krill and many other forms of zooplankton, essential food for many species of fish, bird and marine mammal. One blue whale eats about two tons of krill every day. No krill, no blue whales. No fish. A severely diminished ocean.

It will take time for the Ocean to reach catastrophic pH levels, but the problem is it will take even more time for the Ocean to balance itself. If we were to stop burning all fossil fuels right now, it would take thousands of years for the pH of the Ocean to return to what it was prior to the industrial/fossil-fuel revolution, because of the extremely slow circulatory patterns of ocean currents. But we continue to burn fossil fuels, adding carbon to the atmosphere and the Ocean, at ever increasing rates.

We commonly hear now that to avoid the worst effects of global warming, we need to reduce our carbon emissions by 80% in the next 40 years. Hard enough to do that. But to avert the crisis of ocean acidification, it is probably not enough to reduce the amount of carbon we are pumping into the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels. We have to stop it. Get to zero. Soon. Pteropods and corals are already showing signs of carbon-related distress. Any further decrease in ocean pH could have devastating consequences for the marine food web. As the Ocean goes, so go we all.

This needs to be our goal: eliminate all fossil fuels from our diet. As soon as possible. Say what? How is that even possible? Our entire economic system, how we work, how we live, how we move around, how we make money, how we stay warm, how we manufacture and ship all the stuff we need and want and throw away, how we light our homes and businesses, all is dependent on the energy stored for millions of years in decaying plants, dragged out of the ground and used up in the course of a couple of hundred years. Oil is our fuel of choice for transportation and heat. Coal is our fuel for electricity. Transportation, electricity and heat provide us with the kind of life we take for granted..

Our way of life is now so bound up with the burning of coal and oil and gas that such a change feels impossible. It is not simply a matter of stopping a habit. It means changing how we live. It means changing our politics, our means of living and moving around, the ways we do our work. Almost everything we do.

It is amazing, almost unimaginable, that a mere 250 years ago there was essentially no oil (except whale oil). There was no gas. Coal was known and used, but little. The world we consider unalterable and our birthright began less than 250 years ago with the invention of the steam engine. The carbon orgy really got going a mere 60 years ago, following World War Two, when consumerism became a way of life. Our lives now are so bound up with buried sunlight, our sense of who we are and what we need most essentially is so aligned with this particular way of living, that it is very hard to imagine doing without oil or coal or gas. But most humans have, and some still do. And so can we.

We cannot go backward. We know that. We cannot snap our fingers, turn off all the oil and gas wells, shut down the coal mines, and go back to the way we lived three hundred ago or even sixty years ago. We certainly can't go back to burning whale oil. For one thing, there are now many more of us and many fewer whales. Three hundred years ago the human population was about six hundred million. Now it is nearly 7 billion. That ten-fold increase in population was made possible largely by industrial agriculture, which is also heavily dependent on fossil fuels. We can't snap our fingers and suddenly start fueling our current way of life with windmills and solar panels and organic agriculture. We will need all of those, but adopting them will require big changes in how we live. Fossil fuels have made possible a way of life that I believe cannot exist without them. We have some tough choices to make.

Short of the discovery and wide implementation in the next few years of some new, clean and safe, nearly unlimited form of energy (none of which describes nuclear fission), radical change is needed. Unimaginably radical. Change at a pace and a scale humanity has never seen. How is such a change possible?

There are only two things I am sure of here. One is that as long as we think it is impossible, it will be impossible. Our only hope of achieving zero carbon emissions from fossil fuels is to devote all our creativity to the task. Eighty percent reduction in 40 years is a start, but not enough. We have to get to zero. Not just because of the carbon, but because of all the other ways fossil fuels poison our world and our bodies.

The other thing I am sure of is that the easiest thing that we can do, the fastest and the simplest and the least painful, is the one thing that most of us won't even consider. Slow down. Live with less. Adjust our expectations. Simplify. Own less. Travel less. Share more. Experience more discomfort. Live more like the other animals, taking no more than we physically need and giving more back to the Earth. Accept that much of the "progress" of the last three hundred years has not been progress at all, it has been poison. Abandon the psychological need for more and more and more and shrink materially. Go back to using non-polluting technologies of the past that could still work for us now.

Among the modern technologies, the ones that seem to me most promising and helpful are wind and micro hydro, passive solar heating, ground source heat pumps for heating and cooling, and to some extent photovoltaic electricity. But there's no way those are going to provide the power joy ride we've been on for the past 60 - 300 years. Scaling back radically has to be part of the solution.

Hard as that sounds, it requires no technological breakthroughs. We simply have to change our minds, which can happen in an instant. We simply have to accept that it is okay to do less. Alot less. We don't have to be so busy. We don't have to accomplish so much. It's not good for us anyway. We can slow down. And then we can relearn manual skills that are rapidly being lost. I think the hard part is not the physical change, but the psychological change. Our sense of self has become bound up with carbon-fueled progress and speed, so what has to change is who and what we think we are.

In order for us to stop using fossil fuels, "who I am" cannot be bound up in owning a car or a big house, or a constant increase in income and possessions, or jetting around the world, or always having instant comfort at our fingertips, or instant communication around the globe*, or the instant gratification of driving to the mall whenever the mood strikes, or a calendar full of ten different activities in ten different places in one day. "Who I am" cannot be bound up in endless electronic and fossil-fueled entertainment. *[All the computers and all the server farms need to be manufactured and powered, and right now that takes a lot of fossil fuels - I recently read that server farms have now surpassed air travel as the single largest contributor to carbon emissions. At least Google, the owner of the servers on which this blog is hosted, is looking at wind power. Don't get me started about Facebook.]

I don't for a moment think it is likely that we will shift to a mentality, to a sense of "who I am" that is more like indigenous people who have lived in balance with their land for thousands of years, or like the great whales, who have lived in balance with their environment for tens of millions of years. That is a long way to shrink from where we are now. But I still maintain that that is exactly what we need to do, at least temporarily, that it is the only thing we can do fast enough, and that doing so now, when we have options, is a lot easier than waiting until the change is forced on us by an Earth pushed beyond endurance. And I still maintain that doing so is faster and simpler and more realistic than trying to fuel our current lifestyle with new forms of renewable energy, or waiting for some technological miracle to save us. We have to slow down. To accomplish less. To empty out our lives, to decide what is essential and discard all that is superfluous.

Maybe that's just my bias. I'm a contemplative. That's what contemplatives do. We try to whittle life down to its essentials.

But I don't know why most of us are so resistant to this idea. It is not as if most of us really enjoy the stressful, accelerated, polluted, noisy, nonstop, war-ravaged, economically polarized, world that fossil fuels have made possible. It's not as if most of us really benefit from it (did you make 6 billion dollars in the first quarter of this year, like BP did?). It is not as if we are all relaxed and playful and in love with our lives. It is not as if fossil fuels have made our world healthier and more vibrant. It is just that we have forgotten how to live any other way, and we have been conned into believing that this is how we want to live, how we must live. We have been taught to believe this is progress, that "more" is the meaning and purpose of life. But it isn't, and it never was, and it never will be, and right now "more" is killing us, not just like a cancer, but often enough in the form of cancer itself, and it is killing the Earth and the Ocean.

The good news is that although the Earth is already greatly diminished, it remains resilient, creative, and abundant with diversity of life. It has great powers of healing and regeneration. It is beautiful and helpful and peaceful and supportive. That is the real world. That is what we are too. If we realign our sense of "who I am" with that world, the real world, the living world -- the Earth, the soil, the Ocean, the air, the plants and the animals and the microorganisms, deep silence, the heart of everything, silent listening, watchful stillness, loving, uncompromising honesty -- our lives will truly improve, will be less stressful, more peaceful, more enjoyable, more real, more beautiful, more adaptable, more creative. All of that comes from Life itself, and we cannot be that unless we are aligned with reality, with Life, the living truth which is alive within us and around us, always in everything.

Whether it's oil spills or global warming or overfishing or ocean acidification, we tend to think that there is a technological or political solution that will rescue us - you and me - from having to change. I am suggesting that there is a solution, an earth-centered solution, but it does require us to change. It just happens to be a blessed change, a sacred slowing back down to an Earthly pace, that is quite possibly the very thing we are searching for in our heart of hearts.

02 June 2010

Contemplative Prayer

In March I led an introduction to contemplative prayer at the Dummerston Congregational Church in Dummerston, Vermont. I have posted an edited transcript of that introduction in the essays section of my website.

Contemplation remains for me the most potent antidote to the insanity of the modern world. It doesn't appear to accomplish anything, but in fact it touches every aspect of our lives and reorients us in exactly the ways we need right now.

Here is an excerpt:

"Fleeing to the desert is a way of standing against the dominant social order and returning to a more elemental way of living. The harsh desert environment strips things to the essentials. I would guess that fleeing to the desert in some form is a human practice as old as civilization. It is a way of getting free of cultural and social norms, which wield immense influence over our identity and behavior. Very practically, it was a way of fleeing persecution and oppression. Women and men fled the cities to escape from the exploitation built into civilization's norms and structures.

"But even more potently, fleeing to the desert, and by extension contemplative prayer, is a way of facing oneself at the deepest levels, and perhaps to see through all in the human mind that is illusory, destructive and life-defeating. Without civilization's distractions, we come face to face with ourselves in our actuality, including those aspects of ourselves that our busyness, our compulsiveness, our conformity to social rules, and our immersion in entertainment usually obscure.

"Contemplative prayer is profoundly optimistic, because the assumption is that what one will find if stripped to the core, is not evil, but blessing, a communion with reality that is beyond words...

"...although in its origins this practice of sacred presence was applied to the inner life, and still has a profound role to play there, in our current age it is just as important to bring this kind of deep listening to the natural world.

"I have found that in essence there is no difference between the inner and the outer worlds. The distress we see in one is mirrored in the other. The beauty and wonder also. The sources of our very being are to be found in both.

"So I encourage taking time, every day if possible, to be alone, without books or music or any agenda at all, in the natural world. Just listen deeply to the wind, to the movement of the trees and plants, to the singing of the birds, to whatever is happening. Not to add to your bird life list or identify or categorize. Just listen and look and be present in love, inwardly and outwardly. There are riches beyond imagining to be found in this.

"The plants and the animals, the land and the sea, are also part of the creative world. They have gifts for us we have lost and forgotten. They are intelligent and communicative. They are not layered over with civilized concepts, they embody unity and interdependence. We can re-learn that from them, if we simply pay attention to them without imposing our agenda on them. We have so much to learn about living in balance, from the trees, the grass, the birds, the other mammals, for me the whales and the seals have been my best teachers. Just by observing freely who and what they are in and for themselves.

"We have spent many thousands of years imposing our will on the Earth. Even now, we are often more concerned with imposing our solutions than with listening to what the Earth has to tell us. How can we solve a problem if we do not truly understand its cause? And how can we know the cause if we do not listen and learn from what we see and hear? Deep listening, which is the heart of contemplative prayer, is a vital part of the re-engagement with the Earth that we so desperately need right now."

29 May 2010

Deep Ocean Drilling Must End

With the failure of the "top kill" to stop the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, I really feel that we need to commit now to stop oil drilling in the deep ocean. The oil we gain from drilling offshore is simply not worth this catastrophic loss of marine life and human livelihood. The whole thing is upsetting beyond words.

I am especially concerned about the deep Earth/deep ocean wells. This one is at least 3.5 miles below the ocean floor, and therefore under tremendous pressure. I assume this is a large part of the reason why the top kill failed. There are other even deeper wells being explored, as deep as five miles beneath the ocean floor. At these depths the temperatures and pressures are tremendous. We cannot reliably control these wells.

This simply has to stop. Now. We have to find other ways to live. The message couldn't be clearer.

This is not ultimately about BP or government regulation, as much as there is clearly blame in both departments. This is about all of us being addicted to oil, and oil lying now in harder and harder to reach places.

So we must stop drilling offshore and find another way. All of us have to find a way to live without this oil. No other course is acceptable now.

30 April 2010

Who Will Pay?

Who will pay for the catastrophe of oil unfolding in the Gulf? BP? They are responsible for the cost of containment and cleanup. But who will really pay? The tuna. The turtles. The dolphins. The plovers and gannets and herons and shrimp and oysters and God knows what. The marshes. The shellfishermen. How long would the list be if it included every life touched and damaged and lost by this mess? I can't begin to imagine.

We are all paying, and the cost is too high. Oil and coal are filthy and dangerous. We get to see that when they touch sea or land. We forget when they combust into atmosphere, turned temporarily invisible. Oh yes. We are all paying, dearly. Paying to preserve our sacred "lifestyle."

So. Now. What are we willing to sacrifice of our lifestyle so that we, and all the creatures, and this magnificent Earth don't have to keep paying this unbearable cost in lives?