Contemplation Is An Unmediated Encounter With Reality

Contemplation is essential to addressing the ecological crisis. Unfortunately, contemplation is not very well understood. Contemplation is not meditation, it is not mindfulness, and it is not prayer, at least not if we want to understand contemplation as an essential part of addressing the ecological crisis at its root. At its heart, contemplation is an unmediated encounter with reality. Reality is the whole of what actually is. Contemplation is an encounter with the whole of everything, an unmediated encounter with unfathomable reality.

So what’s that about? Is that even possible? Because that is the opposite of how we live our lives. We do not go through the day encountering reality. We each have a mental framework, a way of understanding the world, that we developed as infants and children. The framework is our fundamental understanding of how the world works, and how to get what we need. It developed in a specific familial and cultural and physical context. We learned how to function in a particular world and we carry those habits with us throughout our lives, every day, imposing that framework, that worldview, onto the world that we encounter, taking everything we experience and massaging it into the frame that we developed when we were very young. That frame, that worldview, is all we know.

In order to have an unmediated encounter with reality, we absolutely, unequivocally have to break that frame, which for most people is a terrifying prospect. The frame forms the bulwark of our identity. Contemplation is therefore a direct challenge to our sense of who we are.

And that’s only half the battle. We also have to contend with our sensory experience. We normally think of our senses as our windows on the world, but they are also veils that obscure the world. Even though our senses are expressions of our contact with the world, and in many ways have more integrity than our mental interpretations of them, they are also filters that screen out most of what is happening and feed into our brains only a small portion of the tiny fraction of the world that we encounter. Over millions of years, evolutionary experience has determined what we need to know in order to survive and has sculpted our senses to limit our experience to that which we need to know. The universe is incomprehensibly large. If we were aware of everything that we encounter, we could never process that much information and make sense out of it. So our senses have been sculpted by experience to give this organism what it needs to survive, and only what it needs to survive. We are not experiencing reality; we are experiencing a filtered version of reality that helps us move around, find food, find mates and create communities of common interest and mutual support.

So our mental frameworks and our raw sensory experiences are massively filtering reality. We can never experience and know what is real. And yet, contemplation is an unmediated encounter with reality. Contemplation at its heart means absolutely, unequivocally abandoning our sensory experiences and the frameworks that we use to interpret and manage our sensory experience—at least for a moment—so reality can touch us.

That is why contemplation is often referred to as the via negativa, the way of negation. In order for reality to reach us, we have to lose hold of all sensory experience and all of the mental frameworks that we use to filter, to judge, to deny, to manage, to understand, to manipulate our experiences. Reality is what is left when the entire package of our beliefs and experiences is set aside.

Then, and only then, we can return to our sensory experience, and return to our mental frameworks—which we cannot live without—with an understanding of how they operate, how they limit us, what role they play. We can return to them wholeheartedly without being ruled by them, humbled by the immensity of the living world and the inadequacy of our understanding. The critical event in negating our experience and our beliefs is the unraveling of the mentally-constructed sense of being a separate self. When belief and experience fall away in favor of reality, the self falls away as well, and that sense of being a separate self is what is driving the ecological crisis. As long as we feel that we are separate selves, our needs are infinite; we are forever attempting to bridge that gap between “me” and the rest of the world. We are forever searching for fulfillment, and unfortunately these days mostly we attempt to find fulfillment in purchases and in conflict. Yes, we are “fulfilled” by conflict. As long as we identify with our mind-constructed selves, we need conflict in our lives in order to feel alive. Conflict is a twisted attempt to bridge the gap between “me” and the rest of the world, without giving up my sense of being a separate self. It makes no sense, and it doesn’t work, but we keep trying to do it anyway. Conflict reinforces our sense of self, but it never satisfies our need to connect with reality.

The ecological crisis—in which we fill every space with ourselves and eradicate the living, non-human world—will never be resolved as long as we think we are separate selves attempting to find fulfillment. When we encounter reality, which is completely beyond our capacity to experience or understand, and we see that the separate self is an illusion created by our own minds, then we can return to our sensory experience and our limited mental frameworks, knowing what they are and what they aren’t knowing what they can do and what they can’t, knowing where we belong and where we do not, fully appreciating the multiplicity and diversity and wonder of life, and knowing the limits within which we must live in order for life itself to thrive.

The via negativa is hard to accept, because it allows no compromise. Reality is what it is, and if we try to hold on to even one sliver of our personal untruths, we will not be touched by the real. But the flip side of the via negativa is an absolutely inclusive via positiva. We are everything, but we can never know what that means until we set aside everything we think we are and everything we think the world is, and everything our senses tell us, and allow reality to speak for itself, in its own tongue, in its own time, in its own, incomprehensible way. And that is the heart of contemplation: to let reality speak of its wholeness, despite our incapacity to understand what we are being told, and to be utterly changed by the encounter.

Ecological Spirituality

My preoccupation for the last 30 years has been to articulate an authentic, ecological spirituality that erases the division between the spiritual life, the life of the body, and the life of the Earth. That body-spirit division lies at the heart of most of what we call “spirituality.” It might even be fair to say that this is what most of us mean by “spirituality:” a belief that something exists beyond this physical world, and that our true nature, our essence, the thing that makes us most human, belongs to that disembodied realm. I grew up with this belief. I cannot say with absolute certainty that it is incorrect. But I do think that placing our essential nature outside the body, and beyond the Earth, plays a significant part in the disconnection that prevents us from living in balance with the natural world. We can at least begin to consider what having an ecological spiritual orientation looks like and how it might restore that balance.

The word “spirit” comes from the Latin spiritus. Spiritus is the root of words like “inspiration” and “respiration” and “transpiration.” Spiritus means “breath.” The Indo-European root is likely (s)pies, which means “to blow.” In its original meaning, spirituality is a physical thing, the movement of lungs, the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide, the absorption of oxygen into the blood, the movement of blood-borne oxygen throughout the body. Only in the 14th century did “spirit” start to mean a supernatural, disembodied entity, a ghost.

I think of spirit-as-breath this way: what is the most obvious difference between a living body and a corpse, aside from movement? A body at rest may be sleeping, but a body that is not breathing is a dead body. So breathing, spiritus, is the most obvious sign of animal life. Spiritus is the most visible sign of what animates us, what makes us tick, the difference between life and death. It is not the only sign, but it is the most visible, so it is easy to imagine how breathing became equated with life itself. Spirituality is our essential understanding of what animates us, what makes life happen, where life comes from and what keeps it going.

When I speak of spirituality, I am referring to this most fundamental orientation toward reality, our essential understanding of who we are and how the world works, and what the sources of life, creativity and agency are. Who am I? What is real? What makes life? Why do things happen the way they happen? What do I place at the center of concern, and what do I place at the periphery? These are spiritual questions. How we live in response to these questions, consciously and unconsciously, defines our spirituality even more than our conscious beliefs.

Ecological spirituality answers these questions from the perspective of the ways that life systems function and interact.

Ecological spirituality ends the centuries of belief in a spirit that inhabits the body but remains essentially separate from it and the natural world. It ends the destructive separation in which the spirit is believed to be superior to the body and the human superior to the animal. It restores us in the most fundamental way to our existence as human animals, one of many expressions of life on Earth. It deepens our appreciation of the other creatures and elevates their standing as thinking, feeling beings with their own ways of knowing and existing in the world. It speaks to both our outer life as creatures and members of human communities, and to our inner longings and questions about who we are and what ultimate reality is. It might not answer all of those questions, but it addresses them in a way that is meaningful and rich and satisfying and life-affirming.

Ecological spirituality is not peripherally ecological; it is fundamentally ecological. It is a spirituality that is not merely concerned about the natural world; it is grounded in the natural world. Ecologically speaking, our essential nature resides in interactive interdependence with the whole movement of life. There is no such thing as a separate thing. There is no such thing as a separate self. Our sense of separation and independence are illusions. The defense of the self is the destruction of life. Caught in the net of selfhood, we seek endless distraction and satisfaction through acquisition. Realizing our radical kinship with all forms of life, we find deep satisfaction simply in being alive and being in relationship with everything. The sooner we stop living in defense of ourselves, the sooner we start living in support of the whole living world.

Encountering our essential emptiness and listening to Earth speak, we are addressing the ecological crisis at its root, because at its root the ecological crisis is not about the natural world, it is about us; it is about our alienation from Earth; it is about our devotion to our selves; it is about our obsession with a mind-made illusion that is destroying the living world.

The first time I met a whale, time slowed to a trickle. Fifteen seconds became an eternity. A gaping hole opened and I fell into a heart of stillness in which it was irrevocably clear that the whale and I were members of a single movement of life that includes everything. My memories, my plans and schemes, my beliefs and needs, all fell away. Even the sensory experience of it fell away. For those fifteen seconds of eternity, that whale and I swam together in the depths of the living universe, and for the first time in my life, I knew who I was; I knew what life is; I knew that the spirit is the creative intertwining of everything.

Our minds have confused themselves with illusions of separation. When we let go of everything our minds invent, we fall into the immeasurable, unfathomable abundance of this living Earth and find our home here where it has always been.