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.

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