A Listening Life

Bernie Krause and Gordon Hempton are leaders in the fields of acoustic ecology and nature recording. They are two of the world’s great listeners. Bernie just released a book, The Great Animal Orchestra, which is a personal and scientific account of the field of acoustic ecology. Gordon was just interviewed by Krista Tippet on the NPR show, On Being. Gordon called this interview the largest amount of airtime ever devoted to the subject.

I really enjoyed this interview, both the broadcast version and the unedited one. I especially appreciate the way that Gordon talks about what it means to him to listen. Listening is one of the most essential, elemental things an animal does.  Gordon makes the point that throughout the history of life on Earth, seeing is optional, but listening is essential. No animal has ever developed “earlids.” Our ears never sleep. But we humans have found other ways to stop listening, perhaps for the first time in evolutionary history. We have become preoccupied with our own thoughts – our internal virtual reality, or if we listen at all, we very selectively attend only to that one element in the total sound field that we think is important to us, and we filter out everything else. And in our modern world with its ubiquitous screens, we overwhelm the auditory channel with visual stimulation.

For Gordon, to listen means to let go of the filtered, focused, selective attention we are taught and return to a more elemental, more natural, open awareness of the whole tapestry of the acoustic world. Bernie Krause describes this in his book as well. Open awareness — deep listening — changes us.

These two nature recordists are articulating what I have found in what I call the contemplative life, which basically means a life of listening. And this is what draws me to nature sound recording. It’s not mainly about capturing and preserving sounds, although obviously that is part of it. It is really about learning to listen more fully. There is a magic in open awareness that both Bernie and Gordon describe, and so does Roger Payne in his book Among Whales as he relates how it feels to hear a whale singing beneath his sailboat: there is a subtle but utterly reorienting shift of perspective, in which one experiences the integrity of a place, and one’s irreducible participation within that place. One experiences oneself as inextricably part of the larger whole. One finds oneself, locates oneself as Here and Now and This. And it is absolutely astonishing to discover how much of our self-identity has been founded on not-Here, not-Now, ANYTHING but THIS!

When I am listening and recording in the Bay of Fundy, I feel as if I am listening not so much to the particular sounds as to the space itself, and to something even deeper than the space, the presence of the whole Bay and the mysterious stillness in which the Bay itself is enfolded. The Bay is well suited to this kind of listening because it is so huge, and actively in motion, and yet it can be as still as a pond. Every little sound is absorbed into this vast stillness and you can hear and feel that presence that is the whole Bay. Especially in the middle of the night when there are no lights and all you can do is hear the presence of the Bay. This is what nature recording is about for me. Listening. Being present and being in the presence of a particular place, and by extension being in the presence of the whole Earth, the whole universe. It is only in those times of deep listening that I know who I really am.

When we do begin to listen unfiltered (or as near to it as we can consciously get), one of the things we inevitably discover is that we humans are generating an awful lot of noise, primarily from the internal combustion engine and the jet engine. Noise has a specific definition in acoustics: random acoustic fluctuations that contain no meaningful information. The bugaboo of nature recording is electronic noise, the hiss created by microphones and amplifiers. The signal is the acoustic wave that contains information. The bird song. The cricket song. The whole soundscape tapestry. The idea is to maximize the signal-to-noise ratio. Increase the signal, reduce the noise.

But the real bugaboo in recording and listening is engine noise. It is noise, because it conveys no information. A song, be it whale, bird, frog, cricket or human, conveys information. Here I am. This is who I am. Most animals who sing have signature songs, songs that identify them as individuals to others. Who knows what other information all these songs convey? Noise conveys no information, and when it becomes dominant it masks or obscures important information, and that is absolutely the situation we are in now. Human noise is obscuring our awareness of who we really are as members of a living planet.

Gordon Hempton has made this his primary cause with an organization called One Square Inch of Silence. He talks about silence as an endangered species. The encouraging fact is that, unlike global warming, unlike all the toxins we have dumped in the ocean, noise pollution is utterly and instantly reversible. Just shut off the engines, and there is the silence waiting. I suppose it is possible that there has been irreversible damage to some species and some places from excessive and prolonged noise, the ecosystem equivalent of loss of hearing, but still, there is something we can do, if only we were willing.

I remember what it was like after 9/11/2001 when air traffic was halted. As I mentioned previously, the right whales in the Bay of Fundy also enjoyed the quiet that was imposed by reductions in shipping traffic after 9/11. Their stress levels dropped when the shipping noise stopped. They could hear each other again without fighting to overcome the noise.

I wonder what it would be like if humanity declared a noise sabbath. One day a week. No air traffic. No internal combustion engines. Except those few absolutely essential to preservation of life. What would happen to our stress levels? What would we hear that we have not been hearing? Could we do it? Just one day a week? One day a month? No chain saws. No lawn mowers. No jet skis. No airplanes. No cars. No trucks. No trains. No ATVs. No snowmobiles. No weed wackers. No generators. Wow. What a day that would be! Many of us would hate it. The withdrawal might be painful for some. Cessation of so much noise also means cessation of most of the activity to which we are accustomed. We might have to experience ourselves as we are, without the cover of noise and frantic activity. That can be painful at first.

But we might find that we love it. That this silence, this deep listening, is what we have been looking for for a long, long time. We might come to wonder how we ever lived without it. We might come to realize that silence is essential to survival.

Fear of Missing Out

My experience of contemplation is that at its core it is a way of being fully attentive, to others, to the Earth in all its manifestations, to one’s own inner experience. And more than that, it is coming to be aware of the deep “emptiness” that makes all such attentiveness possible. In practice, contemplation means being still, being quiet, and being alone. What makes contemplation difficult is that it requires absolute honesty. One eventually has to face the truth about oneself. In stillness, all one’s blemishes, prejudices, erroneous beliefs and deep fears are exposed.

The reward is an even greater ability to be attentive, a deeper engagement with the movement of Life in all its complexity and pain and wonder. At moments, it involves a stunning sense of belonging to something unimaginably beautiful and creative and generous: the living universe.

Contemplation appears to me to be irreconcilable with the electronically-hyperconnected world of smart phones, iPads, Facebook, texting, Twitter and 24/7 news coverage. The mantra of our day is that electronic devices and social media are connecting us in ways never seen before. That may be true, but at the risk of being dismissed as an old fart, I have to say that this hyperconnectivity is also disconnecting us profoundly right at the moment when we most desperately need to be deeply connected, not to our electronic devices, but to deep wisdom. I have not yet seen any evidence that iphones and Facebook connect us to our deepest wisdom. But deep wisdom is what we need most as we move into a hotter, more crowded, more polluted, more conflicted world.

The most disturbing aspect of the digital media world is the way it is reorganizing our brains away from attentiveness and toward fragmented busyness. I do not have a cell phone or a Facebook account. We do not have high-speed internet at home. But I do spend some time online. I do update this blog now and then. And I find that the more time I spend online, the less able I am to pay attention to what is right in front of me. My attention span is shorter. I am more impatient. I don’t listen as well. I find it harder to be still for long periods.

If I am experiencing that restlessness and inattentiveness, then what about the people who spend most of their day with their iPad and their Blackberry and their Facebook and their Twitter feed? Are they forgetting how to listen to their own friends, their own spouse, their own children, their own hearts? Are they forgetting how to listen to the wind, to the birds, to the trees? Are they forgetting how to listen at all?

We act and we talk as if this change in our behavior is inevitable and desirable, but from a contemplative perspective it is neither. This digital thing claims to be about connection, but it sure looks like it is mostly (if not entirely) about disconnection and the fear of not being part of the latest thing. I hear there is even an acronym for it. It is called FOMO: Fear of Missing Out. This new technology is sold to us by tapping into one of the most primal human fears: fear of being excluded from the group.

The contemplative life also includes the Earth community. It is more concerned about what is good for the whole community of Life, than it is about what is good for me, or satisfying for me, or stimulating for me. The digital revolution is an unmitigated disaster for the Earth community. What is the life span of a cell phone? About 18 months. Hundreds of millions of them are thrown away every year. Only about 10% are recycled. We have four dead computers in the house, three of them only a few years old, and we are not heavy users. (At least my original Powerbook lasted over a decade before the logic board failed. My twenty-two year old Mac Classic still works perfectly!) Where do we think all that trash goes? Barry Commoner’s Second Law of Ecology states: there is no such thing as “away.” It goes into the soil. It goes into the air. It goes into the water. We eat, drink and breathe our waste.

And where do we think we get the electricity to power all these devices and the server farms and the cell towers that connect them? Coal. Oil. Nuclear fission. Natural gas. More and more and more.

It’s another bubble, like the dotcom bubble and the credit default swap bubble. It can not last. It carries the seed of its own destruction. The Earth can not support it. What will happen when the electronics fail us and we have to face ourselves again, when we open our eyes to the world beyond the little screen, and discover that we have wasted the planet that is our true home and diminished its possibilities?

Fortunately, the Earth is still alive, even though greatly diminished already in its biodiversity. It is still beautiful. It is still generous. It is still fascinating. It is still mysterious. If we could start and end each day connecting to the natural world, even if it just means looking out the window at the sky for five minutes, instead of checking our Facebook walls, it might be enough to remind us what truly matters, who we truly are, where we truly belong. For the more courageous, we can sign off Facebook and face ourselves in silence. Start and end each day in silent contemplation, in communion with reality.

This is the joke of our supposed new-found connectedness. We were never disconnected in the first place. We are already profoundly connected through our participation in the movement of all Life. Disconnection is impossible as long as life remains. What we do to the planet and to each other we do to ourselves. In our illusion of disconnection we invented devices to “connect” us. But because they plaster over the source of our true connection, they ultimately disconnect our sense of who we are from reality.

I thought I might find a way to reconcile the new digital hyperconnectivity and some sort of contemplative practice. But I see that it can not be done. Contemplation is devoted to deep silence, which is where our true connection, the one that never fails, is to be found. Electronic devices are not merely a shallow substitute, they are a distraction, a nuisance, ultimately a lie. They get very much in the way of discovering the deepest place within ourselves that is the connection to everyone and everything. Not the connection of separate fragments into a conglomerate, but the original, undivided whole that is the essence of reality.

If you can manage not to be afraid of missing out on the latest thing, set it all aside for a while. Turn off all the devices. Walk away from them and be alone. Be still and watch the trees. Let them teach you what it means to be connected in reality. They are masters of interconnection. They don’t need the latest gadget to do it. And neither do we.

Voice of the Earth

Cynthia and I are getting ready to lead a workshop called Voice of the Earth at the Partnering With a Green God conference in Sharon, CT. I always find it challenging to speak in public about these things, because I feel I know and understand so little. But going into it does have a clarifying effect.

I’m not clear about much, but I am clear about this:

In the real world, there is no past and no future, only this that is happening right now. Past and future are ideas. Dwelling exclusively in the idea of past or future blinds us catastrophically to what is happening right now, Life in all its wonder and complexity.

Our senses do not give us an accurate representation of reality. The known is dead and gone. The living truth is unknowable. To live in devotion to the known, the mental image, is to live in conflict with reality, because reality is dynamic, always new, and the known image is static, always old. We do tremendous violence trying to force reality into the mold of our image of reality. Reality cannot be known, only lived in not-knowing. We think we know, but we do not know.

Bringing awareness to our predicament, without any thought-movement away from it whatsoever, brings some other factor into the equation. I call it “emptiness.” When emptiness is discovered, it is at least possible that the mind will reboot, will alter its operating system in the face of the fact that its own behavior is clearly causing all the misery. But this must be seen in its actuality, not believed in theory.

Beyond this, I really don’t know much. That “other factor” — which I call variously emptiness, or stillness, or silence — remains mysterious and can become an obsession in itself, because it feels so big, so godlike, so far beyond one’s own puny brain. How else could it be capable of seeing the truth, when the brain is so good at dodging the truth? Attention, or awareness, or emptiness, is very mysterious indeed. One wants that in one’s life. But turning it into an object of pursuit or belief or another identification creates a real barrier to being present to the whole of what is right now.

Emptiness is always present. Whether one thinks of it as something that is present to everything, or as the space in which everything is happening; emptiness remains, ungraspable, unknowable, always present.

One other thing that I feel is that we humans have a very hard time letting down our guard enough to allow the experience of others to impact us – other people, other animals, other life forms. It is only through love that we can enter into that experience. We have to want the other to be the other, to be what they are, and not diminish the other with our desire, or our fear. We can never know the other through analysis, dissection, or the absolutely-common projection of ourselves onto them. To know the other at all we must set ourselves aside and listen. To enter into the truth of the other involves a loss of self most people find impossible or too frightening to contemplate except perhaps in a very few relationships.

Paradoxically, becoming grounded in deep emptiness creates the feeling of oneness — that I am the whole movement of life — and at the same time exposes my deep ignorance about what the world really is. In regard to the encounter with whales, I feel that we are each other, and at the same time that the whale is so foreign, so other, that the relationship requires the greatest possible caution and respect. And so it is with the whole world. We are each other, and we don’t know anything about each other. Respect and caution and undivided attention are essential.

I seek the sanctification (to make holy, to make whole) of the whole world. The human economy seeks the commodification (to buy and sell, to make convenient) of the world. How with this violence can the sacred compete? How with the stimulation of the senses can the depths of not-knowing compete? How with all this agitation can stillness compete? I feel like an ambassador of two unknowable realms, deep silence and the lives of the whales and seals. I know nothing about either and yet I feel myself to be an ambassador for them, since they do not often speak for themselves in the human world. They can. Of course they do, but humans don’t generally listen.

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?”

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 “hubris.”

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. 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.