Here is my dilemma as a contemplative and a marine naturalist. On the one hand, my experience as a contemplative tells me that this world is essentially perfect. There is only one, perfect unity of being, appearing in a multitude of forms, animate and inanimate. This perfect unity of being is essentially generous and beautiful and loving. Heaven is right here, right now.
On the other hand, I have seen the horrors that humans perpetrate upon each other and other lives. The way that humans slaughter whales is so horrific, especially of course for the whale, but also for almost any person watching the act, that “heaven” is about the last word that would come to mind. Hell is more like it. We are destroying the world that supports us, that makes “us” possible! Destroying it! Destroying ourselves. Destroying the oceans. Destroying the whales. Destroying the forests. Destroying the fertility of the soil. Nothing that anyone has done or said has come close to changing this basic fact. Nothing. We are not moving anywhere near fast enough to avert catastrophe. The catastrophe is already being visited upon the world, and we wealthy humans — anyone technically capable of reading this — are just too insulated from it to see it yet.
I have also seen war at first hand. I have seen the slaughter of the innocents. It is Hell on Earth.
To try to puzzle this out logically leads to a kind of madness. Either I have to pretend that the horrors aren’t really that horrible, which puts me in the position of trying to deny the undeniable; or I have to say that my contemplative insights are utter nonsense, which puts me in the position of discounting the most compelling and joyful experiences of my life. In other words, to get this to make sense in the logical mind, some part of my essential experience has to be denied. How can reality be both perfectly good and perfectly horrible?
The only way that I can understand this — while recognizing that any attempt to understand and explain is going to diminish the lived truth in a way that is limiting and ultimately unsatisfying — is that the real world is fundamentally good and generous and beautiful. Life is a miracle. That is not a belief, it is a reality I have seen and experienced. Hell is exclusively a human invention, the result of having a brain that creates very compelling images and stories, thoughts and beliefs. So compelling are these mental constructions that the whole organism starts acting as if the thoughts and dreams are real, and as if the living world is of peripheral importance at best, or only an obstacle to spiritual perfection, or merely a means to the end of financial gain.
— Virtual Reality
From the moment we awake to the moment we fall asleep, our minds are busy worrying, planning, remembering, analyzing, criticizing, complaining, stating opinions, and most important of all, comparing what is new to what is already known. All this activity creates a sort of virtual reality of the mind: the world as we know it. We are mesmerized by this mindscape, and have been for millennia.
Words and ideas and dreams have tremendous power. To believe one’s own thoughts and opinions, to repeat them over and over and act as if they are true, is to enter a world in which anything seems possible, at least within the self-referencing mindscape. We have become so captivated by the infinite possibilities of what thought can imagine, that thought has taken over. Thought has become our dominant reality, overtaking that which is actually, physically real. We feel more at home in our thought worlds than we do in the living world of forests and rivers and animals and oceans and earth, and pain and death. More and more we really do live in a virtual reality. All of us, not just those of us plugged into our iPods and Xboxes. The mind is its own virtual reality machine, constantly inventing its own reality.
This is how we live now, in our idea worlds – which often stand in violent opposition to the living world. It is shocking to see. We are absorbed in a mental fabrication, a mindscape that has very little to do with the reality of the living world. This has been true for a very long time, but it is getting more and more so as we inundate our two dominant senses, our eyes and ears, with the output of our electronic devices. Our horizon is narrowing. Our felt sense of living and breathing seems to be getting more and more remote. We have now deeply alienated ourselves from the physical, social and spiritual realities that we require to survive.
We have essentially been living within the nightmare of our own thought patterns. We have devoted more life energy to our thoughts and beliefs about the world, than to the living world itself. And although this has been going on for millennia, only in the last few decades, as we have run headlong into the limits of the Earth to sustain the damage, has it become obvious how our idea about the world is out of step with the living world itself.
We are more comfortable in the “virtual” world that exists only in the mind than in the real world that includes other people, other creatures, other life kinds — mountains, rivers, oceans, soil communities, forests, prairies, airspaces — and our own bodies. The living world, with all its magic and beauty and incomprehensible interconnectedness, is what remains when the mind becomes still. The living world shines with its own brilliant luminosity when it is no longer shrouded by the net of thought and concept and belief. It is perfectly magical.
What is the real world? Where is it to be found? It is everything, everywhere, and not any one thing alone. We experience it as the fullness of this that is right here, right now. It is the stuff of Life. It is silence-birth-death-life-love-whale-bird-snake-human-river-ocean-forest-rain-sun-heat-cold-soil-insect-rock… It is heaven/earth, spirit/body, energy/matter. It is what the Rev. Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping calls “The Great Unknowable.” It is what actually is, beyond any idea or image that we can have of it. It is entirely out of reach of our concepts, but it is what we are. It is what everything is. Reality is the intricate, irreducible dance of all being.
This living world is profoundly intelligent, organized, self-sustaining, open, unified, spontaneous, creative, interdependent, fearless, and incomprehensibly beautiful.
By comparison, the mind-made world is confused (but awfully clever), confining, defensive, agitated, limited, self-absorbed, mortally afraid of the unknown, fragmented, and deeply unsatisfying. And yet we have devoted the bulk of our life energy to this mind-made world and have acted as if that is the real world.
Why life emerged in the form of an animal with a brain capable of getting lost in its own thought maze, I do not know. It seems that we have about one generation, maybe less, to find our way out of the maze.
— The Insurrection of the Real
My solution, for what it is worth, is an Insurrection of the Real in two parts.
Part One is to stop believing in the exclusive dominion of the mindscape. Stop believing that the mind gives an accurate representation of reality. Stop being a slave to whatever thoughts and beliefs and opinions happen to appear in the mind. See how the mind creates illusion, see how destructive those illusions are, and stop believing in those illusions. Belief here means simply a thought or a complex of thoughts that is repeated over and over until the mind becomes committed to it. Committed to it means that it feels threatened if that thought complex is challenged in any way.
See this in yourself through direct observation of your own thoughts and your own behavior. See which ideas you hold that are easily threatened. If your immediate response is to defend your idea, rather than listen to what is being said, you are in the presence of one of your deeply-held thought patterns. It is very important to see this in yourself and not take anyone else’s word for it. Taking someone else’s word for it is merely adding another book to your library of ideas about the world. Either we each see this at work in ourselves, or it has no real meaning.
For the whole organism, including the brain, to withdraw its unquestioning devotion to the mind-made world is a radical shift in orientation, a non-violent revolution of the deepest order. This revolution happens in an instant, the moment the mind’s illusions are seen and understood. No blood is shed. No lives lost. The mind simply stops believing in its own illusions.
That doesn’t mean it is easy. Facing oneself in this way requires absolute honesty. It requires watching the mind at work as it spins its tales, trapping the actual in its web of opinions, excuses, justifications, hopes and dreams.
Part Two of the Insurrection of the Real is to re-inhabit the beauty, the mystery, the magic and the essential goodness of the living world. In practical terms this means opening all our senses to the world. What does it feel like to walk down the street? What does a thought feel like? Where in the body do doubt and anger and happiness reside? What does it feel like to be cold, or hot, or hungry, or full? Not to be able to describe it, but to know the feeling of it. The sound of the singing bird. The rustling of wind. The rushing of a brook after a rain. No labels, just the sense of it.
Do you know how life feels? How it sounds? Do you know how it feels to dig in living soil, or get entangled in blackberry bushes? Do you know what it feels like to be approached by another animal much larger than you are? Do you know how your life fits in with the natural community in which you live and move?
At times I suspect the whales of being instigators of this insurrection. Meeting a whale is a great way to have your ideas about whales blown to pieces. You are faced with an incomprehensible presence that simply has to be met on its own terms. And as you get to know whales, you realize that the more you think you know, the more likely you are to be wrong.
Whales are infinitely surprising, but this is simply the way Life is: endlessly creative. Only ideas become fixed. Reality continues to invent itself.
— Dwelling In Silence
In my experience, the quickest, and perhaps the only way to come to a true understanding of this, since it can not be captured in an idea or a word, is to dwell in silence.
Silence has a way of forcing confrontation with what is real. In silence there is a heightened sense of being present to what ever is happening. Stepping aside from the mental voice that is constantly labeling, commenting, criticizing, demanding, or trying to understand, the senses open. Alertness dominates. Thoughts, images, and sensory experiences come and go, each one vivid, alive, and fleeting. The silent alertness endures. Thought becomes like a tool that is taken up and set aside as needed. Flexible, like Life itself.
Spend a little while in silent contemplation of all experience as it comes and goes, and the mindscape dissolves. For all its apparent ability to eclipse reality, the mind-made world is so fragile and insubstantial that it requires a strange combination of constant maintenance and deep inattention to keep its illusions intact. Silent alertness instantly unmakes those mind-made illusions, which is probably why we allow so little silence in our lives. We do not want to be reminded of what is real, and how devoted we are to our illusions.
It becomes obvious that our sense of who we are is derived almost entirely from the mental activity of the commentating voice, the voice that judges and criticizes and keeps score of rights and wrongs, and wishes for more, and sorts and categorizes and decides what it likes and what it doesn’t like. Very little of our sense of who we are comes from our raw sensory experience of the world. Even less comes from our alertness to that experience. And hardly anything comes from a sense of being an expression of the actually real, all unseen and unknowable, that resides behind and within the living world, everything that is, and everything that we are.
Dwelling in silent alertness, being as fully present to the whole movement of life as possible, makes this apparent. The mindscape is a deeply inadequate representation of the real. And yet, when the mind is very still and alert, there is a feeling of the whole movement of life that is going on beyond the reach of sight and sound and thought. There is an echo of that in which we are moving, and which is moving through us, all out of sight and out of mind. That is the real world, unknowable though it may be in its wholeness.
If the exploration of silence is followed to the end, it leads back to the body, back into nature, back to Earth, with a subtle but significant difference. What changes is the locus of identity. The sense of “who I am” shifts from “me alone,” to “everything together.” Maybe for some people the shift is complete. For me it tends to flip back and forth. But once you have dwelt in silence for even a moment and felt who you are in the dance of everything, nothing ever looks the same.
Silence invites seeing the world in this way, in its order, beauty and goodness. Seeing the world this way invites living this way. No longer held in the trance of the mind’s distorted image of the world, we can let the real world live and breathe, through us, through all things, through everything together.
Oh, to stop, to give up everything, all belief and all seeking and all understanding, for one moment, and be launched headlong into the dynamic, unpredictable wonder of being here, of being this, this particular unfathomable life.
Oh, to be this deep well of silence, and everything pouring out of it into the utter perplexity of being.
Oh, to be so perplexed, so undone, so tossed by the waves of being.
What will you do when your search for understanding eclipses the living of that which you can not understand? Which will win your heart? Hell or Heaven? The known or the unknowable? The noisy chatter of self-perpetuation, or deep silence? The predictable and rather shabby entertainments of the mind, or Life itself in all its wild, dancing, utterly mysterious actuality?