17 October 2016

Star Trek Lives!

And now, for something completely different...

If at any time in your life you have enjoyed Star Trek: The Original Series, you have to go to the Star Trek Set Tour in Ticonderoga, NY


Cynthia and I took a foliage drive over that way yesterday (the colors were spectacular) and it was more fun than I have had in a long time.

The first thing we did was try to beam out of here. Cynthia made it. I got left behind. Figures.

Sick Bay was one of the most complex parts of the ship. Cynthia was hoping someone could look at her back, but the doctor was elsewhere:

Here I am sitting at Captain Kirk's private table, writing on a Star Trek era tablet. 1966 or 2266? 

Beaming off the ship didn't work so I tried climbing. That didn't work either.

This is one big ship, let me tell you. Crewman Deer and I weren't paying attention and almost got sucked into the warp core. They need to get the safety grill in place asap.

A dream come true: we arrive on the bridge. 

Space, The Final Frontier. 

I can't explain it. Sitting in the Captain's chair, looking out the forward view screen into the vastness of space was a very emotional experience. 

Captain Minke with Crewman Crockett (it takes all kinds to make a universe).

Checking out a space anomaly at Mr. Spock's science station was pretty exciting as well.

Crewman Crockett, Captain Minke (in pocket), Admiral James Cawley and Crewman Deer. James Cawley is the mastermind behind this whole thing. He played Captain Kirk in the fan films he produced on these sets. He has done a marvelous thing here.

It was hard to leave the Enterprise bridge and the 20th or 23rd century, whichever it was. I admit I find the 21st century mostly pretty trying. But it is also a little hard to tell which era you are occupying in downtown Ticonderoga. That's a good thing. It's a perfect place to host the Star Trek Set Tour.

And back to the timeless beauty of the fall foliage.

 The wonders of Earth are many and varied!

07 September 2016

What Is Consciousness?

I have avoided wading into the thicket of consciousness. We consider it such a central part of our identity, it is astonishing how little we understand it. As far as I can see, consciousness studies are a mess. We can't even seem to agree on a definition of the word, much less understand how it works or what it is for. But it comes up over and over whenever you want to try to understand why humans behave the way they do. So I am wading in, even though I do not understand consciousness any better than anyone else. So approach all of this skeptically. For that matter, approach everything skeptically, including your own beliefs and opinions. As we will see as we get into this, we don't really know much, not even about ourselves. Be very skeptical indeed of anyone who claims to have all of the answers.

The exact nature of consciousness is mysterious. No one has figured it out. Why does the brain create conscious experience at all, and how does it do it? Philosophers and neuroscientists have puzzled over that one for hundreds and thousands of years, and we still do not know. We can't even agree on a definition. Not all experience is conscious. Most mental activity is unconscious. Most of our true motivations are unconscious. That alone should give us pause, should be grounds for humility. This thing that is our most intimate experience remains beyond the grasp of our understanding. We have different definitions and different opinions and very little common understanding. We do not know ourselves at all. Perhaps we cannot know ourselves. But we act as if we do know. We act out of ignorance as if we have true understanding.

Is Consciousness the Knower or the Known?

I am not an expert on consciousness studies or philosophy, only on my own conscious experience. In other words, no expert at all. But as far as I can see, and from what I have read, confusion reigns over what consciousness is and what it means. Often the word "consciousness" refers to conscious experience, what is sometimes also called "the contents of consciousness" or "qualia." It refers to those experiences that are known, that are experienced consciously: sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touches, feelings, thoughts, dreams. Unconscious experiences also exist: things that happen, that go on around us, that we never experience consciously. The photons enter the eye, the brain processes the nerve impulses, but it never creates an image that is experienced consciously. Someone speaks, but we don't hear it. A filter in the brain prevents it from being formed as a conscious experience. Consciousness in this sense is a very limited thing, a small part of the whole operation of the brain. It never has access to the whole truth. Most of reality is unknown, unheard, unseen. Even that which is received by the brain through the sense organs, mostly remains unconscious.

Also mostly unconscious are the actual operations of the brain. Decisions are made based on past experience and past conditioning, the punishments and rewards of our youth, our earliest attempts to survive in a confusing and enigmatic world. The brain forms a simplified model of how the world works, and it moves through the world based on that simplified, often wildly inaccurate, model. This is unconscious action. We have no conscious access to these operations, even though they are the source of most of our behavior. We do not know, can not know, this aspect of ourselves.

Another use of the word "consciousness" refers to a presumed "experiencer" of all experience. This experiencer is mysterious, like the photographer behind a camera. The known lies in front of the lens. What is behind the lens? By this conception of consciousness, cameras without photographers, brains without experiencers, do not create conscious images.

Under this meaning of the word, some entity other than the brain sees every sight and hears every sound and feels every feeling while remaining forever out of view itself. This idea is central to much nondual philosophy. Experiences are bodily but the experiencer is disembodied. Sometimes this entity is supposed to be God. Sometimes it is thought to be a "higher" self. It is often referred to as "pure consciousness". However it is conceived (and it can only be a matter of speculation since it never reveals itself to itself), it is supernatural and omniscient. Pure consciousness is the only reality, and everything else is an illusion. Spiritual awakening is understood to be the realization of this: The world you apparently experience is a dream. Pure consciousness is who you really are.

So it appears to me that there are two camps on conscious experience: those who believe that consciousness is simply the contents of consciousness, that there is no "experiencer;" and those who believe that consciousness and the contents of consciousness are separate, that there is a non-corporeal experiencer who is experiencing every experience. This experiencer is supernatural, bigger than the self, bigger than the brain, bigger than the mind, bigger than the body, perhaps even as big as God. It remains always out of sight, never knowable, the knower of all that is known.

As far as I can see, and I am ready to be completely wrong about this, consciousness and the contents of consciousness are the same thing. No supernatural conscious entity exists behind everyday, fleeting consciousness. When a sound is heard, the compression of air is processed by an ear and a brain. No one is hearing the sound. When a raven flies by, an eye and a brain create an image of a very mysterious phenomenon. No one is seeing a raven. No one is seeing through these eyes or hearing through these ears. Seeing is happening. Hearing is happening. One particular instance, among the many billions of human and non-human instances, of the universe creating an image of itself. Consciousness is therefore a small thing. An amazing thing, but only a tiny, keyhole expression of reality, and more a veil than a window. Consciousness reveals limited aspects of the world, but it also massively filters most of it.

I can't locate my self in consciousness any more than I can locate myself in my left hand, which also gets only occasional use. Consciousness makes its claim on our essential identity, because most of us feel pretty strongly that we can lose our left hand with no loss of self (although if we are a professional violinist it will present a real challenge to our sense of identity as well as to our vocation), but we feel we can't lose consciousness without losing self. But is that so? We lose consciousness every night. Most of our sleeping hours are dreamless and utterly unconscious. But we wake up in the morning with no sense of having not existed. Conscious experience is not what gives us that feeling of existing as a separate and unique entity. I would argue that what does that is the story of the self.

The Story of the Self

There is a third way that "consciousness" is used, and this one lays special claim to our sense of self. It refers to the inner monologue, the stream of sub-vocalized words that we "hear" in our heads, but no one else hears. I often refer to this as "the commentator." It is like the commentator at a sporting event, constantly referring what is happening to what it knows from memory. It is often judgmental, it is very opinionated, sometimes entertaining, can be extremely annoying, is frequently wrong, and its presence takes attention away from what is happening in the world around us. Many people simultaneously identify with it and make futile attempts to drown it out. Some meditators see silencing the inner commentator as the ultimate goal of meditation. Yet we attach great importance to it. It tells us who we are. Through a series of thoughts, it separates "me" from whatever is being experienced. It locates "me" in memory of the past and in judgment of others. Our sense of self as derived from the commentator is actually quite flexible. It is constantly reinventing itself depending on the circumstances, while managing to give the impression of continuity.

The first few seconds of waking up from deep sleep are a good time to see this self-mechanism kick into gear. The mind starts rehearsing what it knows about who and where it is, and in mere seconds can rebuild its sense of self. But before it gears up, raw experience reigns, without commentary, without reference to self. Self is an activity of the mind. Self is a mind-constructed fiction. It is an activity that explains and makes connections and relies heavily on memory to build a fictional entity called "me." Our minds love to tell stories, to connect what they know, and explain away what they don't understand. Loss of "self" is the loss of the ability to tell a coherent story. It isn't loss of consciousness that kills the sense of self (unless that loss is permanent), it is the loss of episodic memory and the loss of the ability to weave a coherent narrative, to update and reinvent continuously the story of "me" in reference to memory. When the storytelling stops, so does the self.

For all of our great attachment to the story of the self, most of us also experience a kind of ecstasy when the self-story stops and we function with unconscious action, and conscious experience, but no commentator. This is often referred to as "being in the flow." Actions seem to just happen on their own, although those actions rely heavily on prior practice and muscle training. Musicians and athletes and artists know this state. The commentator shuts up and the basic, unconscious training of the brain kicks in. It feels great. Although we identify with the storyteller, what this tells us is that the storyteller is not running the show. It is not the decider. It is just the commentator. The action is going on out of sight in the unconscious brain. The commentator is merely trying to make sense out of that small portion that appears in conscious experience, and trying to relate it to what resides in memory.

I suppose there is nothing wrong with this, but it is not trivial. The human enterprise is built on a foundation of self-hood as the ultimate reality. Take away the self, and the whole edifice of human civilization collapses. Its reason for being ceases to be. The power and control and exploitation, the endless seeking for self-fulfillment, the fear of the unknown that expresses itself in rigid religious beliefs and unbeliefs of all stripes, all crumble to dust if there is no self. Self-help, self-denial, self-actualization, self-realization, success, status, power, control, all rendered meaningless if there is no self.


There is a fourth use of the word "consciousness" as well. Some people use "consciousness" to refer to self-consciousness, to having a self-image or a self-concept, to being able to distinguish one's own body from everything else. I think self-consciousness in humans is related to the story of the self, the commentator, but other animals, like chimps and dolphins and whales and seals, also have self-images. They recognize themselves in mirrors. They have or can use names for themselves and for objects in their world. I do not have any idea what it is in the brain that creates that sense of self-existence as distinct from everything else. Memory might play a role. It might have something to do with lateralized brain function. I do not know whether marine mammals and non-human primates have self stories like we have. I tend to doubt it. I think they are self-conscious, and they have conscious experiences, but are they storytellers? I don't know.

Depending on which definition you are using, "consciousness" is limited to humans, shared by several mammals with complex brains (chimps, dolphins and porpoises, humans, elephants, whales), common to all animals with central nervous systems, or a basic feature of the entire universe. These different aspects of mental function are all referred to as "consciousness" but they are not necessarily linked. It is possible to have conscious experience, but not be self-conscious. It is possible to have conscious experience but not tell a self-story about it. No one can know with any certainty whether or not there is a supernatural experiencer of all experience. What we call "consciousness" is not one thing, but many things, and lumping them together is very confusing.

The Whole Body

We have invested so much of our sense of self in some aspect of consciousness that we balk at the idea that consciousness is a small and relatively unimportant function of the brain. Who am I if not my conscious self? Bodies with brains find satisfaction in a challenging task, in achieving what looked difficult or impossible. Meaning still resides in that. Meaning resides in friends, in good company, in fellowship with plants and animals, in healthy surroundings, in nourishing food, in everything that is full of the vitality of the whole movement of life. That's life stuff, not self stuff. That's deriving meaning from participation, not from separation or exclusion or domination. The self is insecure, seeing as how it doesn't actually exist. So it tends to be pretty territorial. It struggles endlessly to prove its existence through "more and better." Gotta have more. Gotta be better. Gotta live forever. That is the stuff of the self, trying to prove it exists, when in fact it does not exist.

The self we think we are is ephemeral, existing only as a complex of thought patterns in the mind. We think the real self is the self we imagine ourselves to be, the self that is a spirit housed in this body, but somehow separate from it. We think the body, the natural world, the physical universe, is "other." We imagine it to be inanimate, unconscious, unimportant. In many of our spiritual and religious traditions, we think the physical world is an illusion, or that it is "fallen" and that our ultimate goal is to escape it or at best redeem it.

We have it backward. Tragically, destructively backward.

We fully inhabit this world. There is no other. This is the only life we will ever have. Our goal is to make of our lives a harmonious counterpoint to the melody of the whole universe. The other animals don't have to work at this. They do it naturally because, it appears, they have not created self stories that separate them from the whole.

We create self images, and we act as if the image is the real, and the real is the image! Backward! We treat the "self" as if it is the most important thing of all, and the "world" as if it either doesn't matter or is to be despised or doesn't exist! We treat other animals as if they have no reality or only exist for our use. We can do whatever we want to them. They can't feel anything at all. They aren't even real. We are the only real things. Our disembodied consciousness, our spirit, our self is the only real thing!

Backward. "I" am the one who does not exist. The self image has no reality. The real is all that lives in actuality, beyond all images, beyond all consciousness. The real cannot be known. The known isn't real. The real cannot be imagined. The image is not real. The mind creates our experience and interpretation of reality, but it does not create reality. Far too often, the mind creates an experience or an interpretation of reality that is wildly out of touch with reality itself.

I think that consciousness has created real problems for us and for the world. Our identification with it to the exclusion of all that lives beyond our conscious experience has caused real problems.

If we could see this, really see the truth of reality's wholeness and the way the mind creates a fragmented image of it, that would turn our world upside down and inside out. Which is to say that it would reorient us toward reality, putting reality back on its feet. There is no way to see this and not be reconfigured by it, because this error lies at the very heart of our mistaken sense of reality and identity. We believe the unreal self image is separate and ultimately real. We believe the whole of reality is an illusion or at best an unfortunate burden, a temporary prison. Is it any wonder we are making such a mess of the world?

07 August 2016

Six Ways of Life and One Human Illusion

I wrote these down about a decade ago and thought I would dust them off and share them once again. They don't say everything about my perspective (leaving out especially my amazement and delight at the intelligence and creativity of the other animals and my insistence that they not be treated like commodities or "resources"). These "ways" came into view for me over the course of an extended period of solitude. A few will be familiar to Buddhists: impermanence and interdependence particularly. But I did not learn them from any religious or spiritual tradition. They are not matters of belief. You can test them against your own experience and verify their validity.

The Way of Not Knowing: Nothing is what it appears to be.

All experience consists of the sensory and mental apparatus of the experiencing organism, not of objective reality. Sensory illusion is relatively trivial compared to mental illusion, which is much more troublesome. Mental illusion filters and obscures our experience so that our ideas about reality can become deeply divided from reality itself. This is the state most of us are in most of the time. Everything known and experienced is at best an echo of reality, and at worst a delusional fiction. The real can't be known. The known isn't real. The best we can do is to pay attention to what is actually happening right now, and not get completely lost in thought, while realizing that even the most careful attention yields an imperfect view of reality.

The Way of Interdependence: There is no such thing as a separate thing.

Everything (including humans of course) is and belongs to and contributes to and derives its essential existence from, a system of interrelated systems. A thing cannot be understood outside of its context, outside of its relationships, outside of its interdependencies. This is true at all levels, organismic, ecological, and cosmic. In some sense, the universe is one organism, one being, made up of nested, interactive systems, just as the body is made up of many cells, and many systems that work together, and is host to many organisms on which it depends. Organisms are not really organisms. They are expressions of a system of relationships. The sense of separation that humans often feel is an illusion.

The Way of Impermanence: Nothing lasts forever.

Everything that is born, dies. Everything that arises, falls away or is transformed into something else. Thoughts. Breaths. Heartbeats. Bodies. Species. Suns. Galaxies. Reality is in constant (if sometimes very slow) motion, and always returning to emptiness. For anything to exist at all, it must have a beginning, it must go through multiple transformations, and it must have an end. But that does not give us the right to hasten everything to its demise. It makes existence precious.

The Way of Emptiness: Form is what we know and experience, but emptiness is everywhere.

Emptiness and form are two aspects of the same thing. We are surrounded by emptiness. It is vast. It is everywhere. It gives shape to all form, just as form gives shape to it. We get enchanted by form and become blind to the emptiness. The walls of the room define the space, but it is the space that we use, that we live in. Our blindness to emptiness is like clinging to the wall and never using the available space of the room. Solid objects are not really solid. They are mostly empty space. One of the practical expressions of recognizing the emptiness of life is allowing time to be alone, to be quiet, to be still and to listen. When we fear emptiness, we spend every waking moment trying to fill the world with our noisy selves.

The Way of the Present: Life only exists here and now.

If we live in constant resistance to what and where and when we are, we cannot live fully. If we derive our sense of self from anything other than who and what and where we are right now, we will never be happy. Living in the present is not a task to be achieved. Living in the present is what we do. Always. No matter what. The present is the only reality. It is impossible not to live in the present.

But it is also possible to live in the illusion that the present is not the only reality. Living in time's illusion means the mind is caught up in obsessing about an imagined past or future. It means investing all of life's energy in what we might become, or what might have been. It means never noticing what is right here in front of us, and being content with that. Having a good memory, and being able to plan for the future are still relevant and useful in a practical way. It's just that life is always here and now, not there and then, not maybe someday when everything is perfected.

In short: There is only the present. Whatever is happening, it is happening now. Realize that, and the mind's desperate attempt to resurrect the past and control the future will probably relax, and things will probably go more smoothly.

The Way of Love: The essential nature of reality is total acceptance of, and movement with, everything exactly as it is.

This is very difficult for most of us to accept. We tend to define ourselves by what we exclude or whom we exclude. Total acceptance of everything exactly as it is feels like an abdication of sensible judgment, if not a kind of annihilation of our sense of self.

Acceptance does not equal approval. There is a lot of bad stuff going on in the world, and most of it is born of our mental illusions. But we cannot come into alignment with reality by denying that things are the way they are or by creating sharp divisions between "us" and "them." Those divisions exist only in the mind, and obscure our vision.

The Illusion of the Separate Self: There is no separate "self!"

The illusion of the separate self is our attempt to violate the ways that life works. To believe in the fiction of the separate self is to avoid all of these ways, and since these are ways that cannot be avoided, the attempt to do so causes much suffering, for oneself, for others, and for the Earth. The illusion of separation, and it is truly only an illusion, a tale we tell ourselves about ourselves, comes from resisting some aspects of life and clinging to others. Imagine if the "in" breath tried to separate itself from the "out" breath and declare that it alone is eternally real. Death would not be far off.

Be empty, welcoming everything, possessing nothing. That is the way of life.

19 July 2016

Aligning With Reality

I wish everyone everywhere could read and absorb the import of this blog post by Dave Cohen at Decline of the Empire:


This seems to me the crux of the human problem. The human mind loves its own illusions and spends every waking minute of every day attempting to interfere with reality. Ignore it, improve it, completely twist it out of shape, but never face it. The mind is exceptionally good at making stuff up and running around in a fantasy world where its illusions are real and reality is the illusion.

The human mind incessantly spins webs of illusion and calls those illusions reality. It is not a "solution" to the human problem, and offers no hope whatsoever, but it seems to make some kind of difference to become aware that this is so. One moment of candor changes the landscape of illusion. The role of the prophet has always been to speak a resounding "No, We Can't!" when the entire culture is caught up in a delusional "Yes, We Can!" To say "Stop!" when everyone else is screaming "Go! Grow! Move ahead!"

The comment on the blog by "Jim" also deserves to be read. He is speaking about the problem of climate change, but the ecological crisis is about much more than climate. It is about the impact of industrial civilization on every aspect of the living system we call Earth:

"The only avenue for justifiable hope is by most people realizing that the problem is enormously difficult, that it actually requires radical changes, and that the pain of those changes is necessary to avoid greater future pain."

The environmental destruction being wrought by humanity has no simple solution. The changes required lie not only in societal structures but in deeply entrenched psychological structures. Changing those structures might be possible -- or might not be -- but if it is possible, it requires an unrelenting honesty that is foreign to our current way of functioning in this world. We are consummate liars, and our most "successful" individuals are the biggest liars of us all. We hate the truth because it requires us to change, to give up cherished comforts and beliefs. No one could speak the whole truth and get elected to public office or placed in charge of a large organization. So we all continue this dance of optimistic lies.

But which do you think is more likely to benefit life: living in thrall to the false optimism of the mind's illusions, or being aligned with reality? Telling ourselves unending stories about how clever we are, or facing our many layers of ignorance? Believing that salvation is just around the corner if we keep digging, or turning around and making the long slog back out of the hole we have dug?

In other words, the most life-affirming thing we can do at this point is stop telling happy stories of endless progress and look this beast in the face. And then realign our lives.

Aligning with reality is not easy, it requires facing hard truths about ourselves and our society, but it is the only chance life has of surviving and thriving. How can we hope to solve our problems if we are not willing to face the truth about them?

21 May 2016

The Earth Is Speaking. Are You Listening?

The ecological mess we are in is a direct consequence of civilized humans being civilized humans. We have developed in such a way that our first impulse is not to adapt to our environment but to manipulate the environment to force it to adapt to us. We alter every landscape we enter to suit our needs and preferences, and indeed we are very good at this. Most of us see this as a good thing, a sign of our intelligence and general superiority. We like the feeling of being in control.

This attitude is prevalent even among those of us who know we are making a mess of the world and need to change. The change we envision is more manipulation, more geoengineering, more application of "renewable" energy technologies, the sudden discovery of unlimited fusion energy, more efficient cars, more carbon capture technologies, etc. Only a few of us talk about the need to have fewer children, to drastically reduce our material demands on the planet, to live with less, to fundamentally change how we live.

I think there is a reason for this. The reason is that such a change, at this point, requires a complete about-face in the human psyche, and that feels like a total change in human nature. It is not inaccurate to say that bringing about such a change is nearly impossible, or at least highly unlikely. One of the things I have realized as I have observed my own mind at work, is that we are much less free to make choices than most of us assume. We think we are making choices all the time, when, for the most part, we are playing out mental scripts laid down over millennia and written in our genes, and written in our cultural norms, and imprinted in infancy, and so fundamental to our sense of who we are, that they appear to be (but are not) immutable. The change required now to alter the trajectory that humanity is on is nothing less than a change in human nature, or at least a change in behavior that is so fundamentally different from the norm that it feels like an assault on our very identity.

I place no hope in technology and no hope in a sudden, cultural transformation. The kinds of changes in human society we have seen in the past, like the civil rights movements of the 60s, or the tearing down of the Berlin wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 90s, are often held up as exemplars of radical changes in human society. These were significant, but nothing on the order of what is required of us now. They did not fundamentally alter the basic orientation of civilization to exploit whatever resources and labor might be available to enrich the few (people) at the expense of the many (people, plants, animals, minerals). They have not come close to altering human orientation in such a way that we adapt to what is best for the whole biosphere in the long term, rather than altering the biosphere to suit us in the short term. Most people want change to be external to themselves, if they want it at all. They want someone else to change. They want the system to change. But they do not want to change themselves. They may be willing to put solar panels in the yard, or driving an electric car (if they can afford one), or use a cloth shopping bag, but not to change inwardly, not to be changed in their fundamental sense of what it means to be human.

The fact remains: we must change. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that we must be changed, for I do not believe that we are capable of changing ourselves at the depths where change is required. Something outside of us must change us. What is needed here is an inner/outer revolution. The whole thing must change, the psycho-social system that we call civilization and that we also call "me." The very foundation of the "self" has to change. I have to be changed, fundamentally. That is a change no one dares consider, or if they do consider it, can even begin to imagine how it might happen. We need an intervention. We are not going to do this on our own. And maybe that is the point. Intervention is required when we have so isolated ourselves from reality, that we can no longer see and hear and think clearly enough to act on our own behalf. Intervention brings us back into the community of the real.

This intervention is only going to come from the Earth. The loss of habitat. The silent springs and silent autumns we are already experiencing in diminished bird song and diminished insect song. The poisoned wells and disappearing fish. The deadly storms and fires. These are heart breaking. Maybe a broken heart will motivate deep change in us. Maybe the chaotic climate will force us to change. The Earth gets the final word. In the end we cannot live beyond the physical limits that Earth imposes.

From any perspective other than the contemplative, the change required of us now is impossible. Even the contemplatives, who bear witness to the fact that such transformation is possible (if rare), do it imperfectly. The early Christian monks were often aggressively in opposition to their bodies. They battled against every carnal impulse, and ushered in generations of misogyny and spiritual disembodiment in the process. You find it in contemporary versions of "spiritual awakening" in which your "true nature" is supposed to be a pure, disembodied consciousness. This notion of spiritual purity that can only be pure if it is disembodied has been around a long time and is killing any chance of re-entering the natural community in a healthy, balanced and fruitful way. We are inoculating ourselves with spiritual nonsense against the pleas of the Earth for essential change. Earth is speaking, but are we listening? Do we even remember how to listen to the voice of the Earth?

I do know that under the right circumstances, the human mind, the place where these problems originate, can change fundamentally. But it takes extraordinary circumstances, something akin to 'hitting bottom" for an addict, for such a deep change to occur. "Hitting bottom" is what the contemplative spiritual life has always been about. You throw out your illusions and get to the bottom of what is real. The Earth is real. Life is real. We are real when we are immersed in the Earth and Life. When we are immersed only in the products of our own manufacture and the virtual reality of our own minds, then we are not real. We are figments of our own imaginations.

Listen to the Earth. It's the only thing that can change us before change is forced on us. The Earth is speaking. Are you listening?

26 April 2016

09 April 2016

Introduction to Contemplative Ecology

I just posted an essay called Introduction to Contemplative Ecology on my website. It seemed a little long for a blog post. The other thing I want to say about it is that I am beginning to think about moving away from the terminology of "contemplative ecology." It feels like that language is more confusing than clarifying. It requires too much explanation of things that are not essential. I first started using that term 5 or 6 years ago, simply to make the connection between the inner and the outer, which we normally hold in separate realms. But the words "ecology" and "contemplation" mean too many things to too many people, and do not always point in the direction I want them to point.

In particular, since the publication in 2012 of Douglas Christie's Blue Sapphire of the Mind: Notes For a Contemplative Ecology, contemplative ecology has become associated specifically with the Christian contemplative tradition. I see contemplative ecology as fundamentally non-sectarian, relevant to anyone, anywhere, at any time. So I am trying to find some other way of referring to this thing. I have no doubt about what contemplative ecology is, but I am not sure what to call it anymore, even though my use of "contemplative ecology" predates Douglas Christie's book. In that way, this essay is more a mark of where I have been than where I am going. But, language of naming it aside, this essay is also a pretty good summary of my perspective on what contemplative ecology is all about.

Here is an excerpt from the essay, or read the whole piece at the link above or this short link that you can share with others who might be interested.



"Humans have unleashed a destructive force that is consuming the planet, destabilizing life systems at the deepest levels. That force is both internal and external. It is a psycho-social system…

If we exclude the internal and focus only on the external, we ignore half of the picture. If we exclude the external and focus only on the internal, we exclude the other half. If we bring them together into one interactive system, we shake the foundations of many of our most cherished beliefs and behaviors.

"The boundary of inclusion and exclusion, what we consider internal and what we consider external, is the boundary of the self. The boundary of acceptance and rejection is who we think we are. Total acceptance and total inclusion mark the end of the sense of being a separate self. Will I ever take care of something or someone if I believe I am essentially separate from them? Will I care for the Earth if I am separate from it, if I believe I will continue in a non-physical realm after the body dies? Will I care for the other animals if I think I am above them, better than them, more important than them, essentially different from them, essentially separate from them?

"Contemplative ecology, then, reunites these two domains, which are really one domain in the first place: the inner and the outer, the psychological and the social, the spirit and the body, the human and the natural, the self and the world, desire and economics, cognitive bias and politics, the way the mind works and the way all natural systems work. The ways in which mind and society and the natural world are interrelated and mutually dependent. It's an explosive mix. Contemplative ecology includes everything, and therefore has a chance of addressing a crisis that also includes everything, but it is a threat to our sense of who we are and what we think the world is and how power operates in society. It is a threat to our belief in the true nature of our selves. Contemplative ecology therefore poses a challenge to the status quo."

05 March 2016

Emptiness and Everything: In Wildness Is Our Salvation

The human exploitation system is swallowing up everything wild and innocent. Yet what can we do? We are products of that system and we live in that system and getting out of it requires profound changes in human thinking and behavior. The changes required in the human psyche and human society run so deep that even those few who want to change, who see the necessity for change, find real change very difficult. We tinker at the edges and hope we are doing something profound.

We need a spiritual revolution. For me "spirituality" means our most fundamental understanding of who we are and what the world is. And that is where the change needs to happen, at the root. Are we oriented toward reality, or do we live in thrall to our own delusions? The human species, perhaps no species, has ever faced anything like this. At the heart of this is a seemingly unsolvable puzzle: we are the problem and we cannot therefore solve the problem. If we try to solve it using the mind that is creating it, we only sow more trouble. If we try to solve it using the tools of a society founded on exploitation and inequity, we fail. Something from outside of the human psycho-social system needs to step in.

I see two ways this can happen, two forces that can take us out of ourselves in the way that is needed. The first is living in greater communion with the non-human world. The wild animals and plants are free of us. I think that is part of why being around them is so lovely. They are free of us, and therefore set us free from ourselves when we pay attention to them. The tragedy of this time is that very little of the wild world remains. It is being swallowed, extinguished or tamed at exponentially increasing rates. What chance do wild animals and plants have against the machinery of human industry? Meanwhile, most people are more attached to their iPhones than they are to the wild world. They can't be alone. They can't be quiet. They can't be away from their text messages. They never step out of the human mindscape. They hardly know that the wild world exists.

To step out of the human mindscape is to be vulnerable in a way most people are unable or unwilling to experience. Life is beautiful and wonderful and delightful, but it is also fragile, harsh and deadly. Aging and sickness and death are part of the package, part of how life works, how it regenerates, how it creates more of itself within the limits of the planet. Knowing this has always been part of the contemplative life. We must accept our mortality to be fully alive, because life and death are intertwined aspects of the movement of life. Life includes death, and with it, new life. The denial of decay and death brings annihilation, which is a very different matter.

As Aldo Leopold said (misquoting Thoreau) "In wildness is the salvation of the world." For Leopold, it was the dying light in the eyes of a wolf he had shot that showed him a world larger and deeper than the one he held in his head, a living world that was much richer than his worldview. But how do we give wildness a toe-hold in our lives anymore? Wildness - that which is free of the human mind - is being destroyed everywhere. And we need it more than ever.

Fundamental transformation of the human techno-psycho-social system has become a matter of survival, for us and for most of the species of life currently living on Earth. Most of us may not be active exploiters but we support or passively accept the system that does the exploiting for us. So what on Earth is going to bring about that transformation? What is going to stop us in our tracks? What can put a stick in the spokes of the industrial juggernaut? What reality can pierce the armor of our beliefs? What wolf will look us in the eye and tell us how very wrong we are, about everything? We must all be changed. But what can possibly bring about such a deep change? All of us are in the system. We are the system. It makes us what we are, and we in turn make it what it is, in an endless cycle. Like an addict who can't face his addiction, or an abuser who cannot stop manipulating everything around him, we need an intervention. Something from outside of the system needs to interrupt the system, but who or what is going to intervene?

With wild nature rapidly disappearing, we are left with one other thing that can stop us in our tracks: silence; emptiness. We fear it. We avoid it. We are unlikely to embrace it and be embraced by it, because silence is also wild. We can't control it. We can't understand it. We can't even identify with it. It eludes capture completely. Yet it is with us all the time. We only have to notice it, and allow it to be a presence in our lives. Silence, emptiness, undoes everything we have tried to do. It ruins all of our plans and hopes and schemes. It is everywhere, yet when it reveals itself, it comes like a thief saying, "Nothing is permanent. Nothing you believe is real. Nothing belongs to you, not even your self." And civilization crumbles, founded as it is on the belief that treasures can be stored up and kept safe, for me, for the immortal "I." Silence is a direct and immediate affront to the feeling that "I" exist. And so we push it away like we push away our mortality. We fill every second with noise and activity. Even meditation has become an app, to be dispensed with quickly, its aim to make us more efficient workers, better able to manage our busyness, better slaves.

Silence could save us, and wildness could save us, but that is like saying that saving us could save us. This is the conundrum. Salvation is right at hand. It is as close as breathing. And we run from it with all our strength. To stop the onslaught of destruction, we only have to stop running. Just stop. Only our fear of stopping and the emptiness that awaits prevents us from stopping. But that is enough to keep the machine going perpetually despite the fact that we are driving over the cliff. We are driving over the cliff and we are afraid to stop. And all we have to do to stop, is stop.

In emptiness is our salvation. The thing we search and long for. The ultimate sense of belonging. We belong to everything. Separation is not possible. The whole cosmic order is right at hand. But we can't really know that unless we come to a full stop. So the thing we fear is the thing we most desire and need. By fearing emptiness, we fear life. And the consequence of that is the violence and destruction that perpetuates itself down through the ages.

More wind farms will not save us. More solar panels will not save us. More nuke plants and oil wells will not save us. More rules and laws will not save us. More studies and research will not save us. We don't need to figure anything out. We don't need anything, except the abundance of life and the mystery of silence. To find them, we need only stop and discover what we already have and what we already are: emptiness and everything; silence and the whole movement of life.

31 January 2016

The Self Is a Mask

The self is a mask without a face,
a beguiling movie set built in the middle of nowhere.

We spend every waking minute and many of the sleeping ones
repairing the cracks and shoring up the supports in the fa├žade.
The self is that fragile. It requires constant maintenance.

When the self loses its power to enchant, the whole of reality reveals its power.
Touched by infinity, nothing is ever the same.
The mask is seen as a mask.
The empty lot behind the false front is revealed.

Only reality is real. The mind game of self-existence is a fake.

No longer living in devotion to the Magic Kingdom of the mind,
now what?

Suddenly a raven announces its presence, calling its way across the sky.

The Hermit

Solitude has a critical role to play in societal transformation.

Our sense of self and our sense of the world are profoundly influenced by the social norms that surround us. We tend to believe what our peers believe and see the world the way our peers see the world. Our worldview is heavily influenced by the messages we absorb every day from our friends, from our co-workers, from cable and internet news, Facebook and Twitter. The devilish part is that we do not even realize how much our sense of self is created by those around us. We merge with the group, while claiming that we are autonomous selves and independent thinkers.

Separating our perception from the filters of our culture is extremely difficult. This makes it nearly impossible to solve problems that are at least in part problems of perception and worldview. Such as the ecological crisis. Even for those of us who realize that the root of the problem lies in how we see ourselves and the world, it remains very challenging to see the world in any way other than the way our society frames it. Our society is constantly reminding us of who it thinks we are and what it thinks the world is, and we absorb and adopt that view, or risk isolation from our community.

Along comes someone who has chosen isolation voluntarily: the hermit. She saw the danger of social harmony. She stepped away from those influences in order to see more clearly. She carried those norms with her into her solitude, and wrestled with them as they continued to maintain dominance. She repeated in her own mind, over and over, the messages she had unconsciously absorbed from her earliest childhood. But without reinforcement from society, they began to unravel.

She stepped into a world most of us never see, a world alive with the non-human, the animal, the plant, the wind, the water, the stone, the soil, the sun and star light. She encountered her essential emptiness. Fell into it, quite unexpectedly. She discovered that apart from these others, she has no existence at all. She is these others. Her sense of being a separate self was a mental fabrication, aided by all of those messages from the society about who and what she should be; what matters and what does not matter; who is precious and who is expendable; what lies at the center of concern and what is outside the wall; what is a life, and what is a commodity. Without those messages filling her sense of self, she fell into the embrace of the real.

She discovered what life is.

She may decide never to return to society. Society is thoroughly distorted by the beliefs it promotes. It is delusional at its core. Who would want to return after getting free of it? If she does return, and speaks, will anyone listen? Her message is strange, almost incomprehensible. It challenges the entire edifice of human civilization, confronts it with its lies and distortions and self-aggrandizing rationalizations.

She speaks in contradictions. The real world is alive with beauty and power. The human mind belongs to that world but it is lost in its own illusions.  Everything is sacred, and nothing lasts forever. Imagination and lack of awareness are our greatest dangers. Our senses are our window on the world and a veil that obscures it. Most of our attempts to understand the real world reduce our understanding. We are these limited little organisms that move around and carry private thoughts, and we are the whole universe. We are emptiness and we are everything. The "self" is a fiction. The "other" is a fiction. Everything that supports civilization is essentially hollow: endless growth, personal success, entertainment, power, wealth, perpetual conflict. Civilization serves the self. Without self, civilization collapses. Civilization cannot be made less selfish. It is built on the illusion of the separate self. You can withdraw, or remove your consent, but you cannot reform civilization. Art was once an exuberant expression of being alive; now it is mostly self-referential, serving only its own perpetuation. Civilization has become the adversary of life.

The hermit is advocating the collapse of civilization. She is crazy. We won't listen.

The hermit is not advocating anything. She is just telling it like it is. Civilization is going to collapse whether we want it to or not. The only question is how and when. The hermit is telling us what hermits and other contemplatives have been telling us all along. This thing we cling to, this human civilization which provides a measure of safety and security for some and endless misery for others, is blinding us to reality. By insisting on living by its rules, we are cheating ourselves of the truth. We mouth our allegiance to our respective religions, but we never, ever want to go where they are pointing us. Divine reality, which we pretend to seek, demolishes our sense of self and undermines the foundation of society. We would rather pretend that reality belongs to us, and is captured by what we believe, and will do our bidding. We can manage it and shape it to our liking. No problem.

The hermit's message, like the sacred stories we like to ignore, is that God is a fire. God is a hurricane. God is an earthquake. God unmasks our illusions and unmakes our sense of self. The truth is not cozy and self-affirming. It is a disaster for our sense of self and a radical challenge to human civilization. Reality is terrifying to the illusory self. So we resist it like mad while paying lip service to it. Somewhere in our minds we know we cannot escape reality. But maybe we can distract it, buy it off with words of devotion.

The hermit offers an alternative. Lose yourself to find yourself. Lose your devotion to separation and find wholeness. Which, oddly, means finding oneself in opposition to the communal as well as the individual. The Group always has a circle that defines who is in and who is out. Wholeness includes everyone and everything and therefore stands in sharp contrast to The Group. The Self is like A Group of One. It also draws a circle that defines what is "me" and what is "not me." Reality therefore stands in sharp contrast to The Self. Reality demolishes all that includes and excludes and leaves nothing but itself, the whole of everything. Talking about it is easy. Encountering it is something else entirely. Total undoing. Reality is vast and incomprehensible. Very few dare to look it in the face.

The hermit has been there and come back to tell us about it. The Kingdom of God is right at hand. Ungraspable, it is nevertheless at our fingertips. Only the self stands in the way.

Will we listen, or will we turn away from her, settling back into the unreal world we think we know and think we can manage, a world no larger than the mental frame that encloses it?