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.