Emptiness Is the Immeasurable

Contemplative ecology is founded upon an encounter with a realm that is difficult to talk about, the core realm of the contemplative life: the realm of emptiness or silence or stillness or nothingness.

Contemplation is a way of facing oneself at the deepest levels, and perhaps to see through all in the human mind that is illusory, destructive and life-defeating. Without society’s distractions, we come face to face with ourselves in our actuality, including those unappealing aspects of ourselves and our culture that our busyness, our compulsiveness, our conformity to social norms, and our immersion in entertainment usually obscure. We face all of the ways in which we have unconsciously internalized our culture’s norms of belief and behavior. Ultimately, we have to face our emptiness.

Emptiness is the essential nonexistence of the self that believes it is separate from everything else, but it is also much more than that. Emptiness is the immeasurable. Emptiness often comes as the encounter with something you cannot fully comprehend: a deep love, or a terrible loss; the arrival or departure of another life; or the inscrutable nature of your own mind. Emptiness is the visceral recognition that your existence is not separate from the existence of everything else, that everything exists in interrelationship and interdependence, and that reality cannot be controlled or managed or experienced or understood in its vital actuality. The mind can’t grasp it. It’s too big; it’s too complex; it’s too dynamic; it’s too alive. Emptiness is the encounter with the unfathomable, living presence of everything.

Touched by the infinitely unknowable, nothing can ever be the same. Life is so much more than this petty little mind.

The power of the encounter with reality is not in the description. The attempt to describe it usually requires negative terms like silence, emptiness, nothingness, stillness. These are entirely inadequate words to describe the whole of unfathomable reality. What they point to is that we are filled with our beliefs and memories and worldviews, and usually need to be emptied of them in order to come into contact with the reality of the living world. That living world is always right at hand, but it remains eclipsed by the mind’s ideas about it.

The encounter with emptiness reorients the organism. Much more needs to be said about emptiness – what it is, what it means, why encountering it turns our lives upside down and inside out, why we fear it – but there is little that can be said. How can emptiness be described? It can’t. You have to go there. Talking about emptiness accomplishes nothing. Being touched by emptiness changes everything. Discovering the hollowness or emptiness of the self collapses the foundation of the exploitative psycho-social system and reorients life toward life itself, the whole movement of life.

What emptiness emphatically is not, is some kind of esoteric experience that comes as the result of years of spiritual training. Emptiness is not something we can obtain or lose. It is not having a quiet mind or being “in the flow.” It is not spaciousness or openness. It is not a heightened state of awareness or consciousness. Emptiness is not a state of mind. It cannot be experienced.

It’s really quite simple and straightforward. It’s right at hand. Emptiness is what is, regardless of what we think about it or how we experience it. We can acknowledge it or we can try, and ultimately fail, to deny it. That is all. Emptiness—unfathomable reality—undoes everything we try to do. It ruins all of our plans and hopes and schemes. It is everywhere and everywhen and everything, yet when it reveals itself, it comes like a thief saying, “Nothing persists. Nothing you believe is true. Nothing you experience is real. Nothing belongs to you, not even your self, not even your life.” And civilization crumbles, founded as it is on the belief that treasures can be stored up and kept safe for the immortal self. Emptiness is a direct and immediate affront to the feeling that I exist, that I can be protected, that I can be perfected. Emptiness contradicts all of the stories we tell about the self and the other. Emptiness takes everything away from us that we wish to possess, including our sense of identity. And so we push emptiness away. We avoid it with our noise and activity. Minute by minute we reinforce the feeling of being a separate self (the words “separate” and “self” come from the same root) through our mental and physical activity. When we stop and listen, and especially when we listen to the natural world, emptiness is right here. Emptiness is what remains when I stop. It is very simple, but because most of us never stop, it’s revolutionary when we do.

Our current society does not serve life. It serves the separate self. Can we see that serving the self is delusional? The self does not deserve our devotion. It does not deserve the commitment of our life energy to its maintenance and enlargement. Nor does society deserve that devotion, nor any group, nor any belief system. Only reality, the whole of life, deserves that. The life devoted to the whole movement of life (which, make no mistake, includes every individual) is a rare and beautiful thing. Few of us seem able to go there. Devotion to self keeps reasserting itself. Those who do go there, even briefly, will also know about emptiness. Like the outer and the inner, wholeness and emptiness travel together. They are the yang and the yin of the way of existence. You can’t have one without the other.

Many people find the idea of emptiness frightening or depressing. We are afraid to learn the truth about ourselves. We do not want to know that all of our striving is for nothing. Contemplation is bad news for the separate self, but good news for life. What one finds when stripped to the core is not evil, but a blessing: the communion of reality beyond words; easing at last the generations of fear and pain we have been inflicting on ourselves and the world.


An Introduction to Contemplative Ecology, of which this is an excerpt, can be read in its entirety here.

We Need an Ecological Spiritual Revolution

The following is a modified version of the final part of the post The Whole World Is Sacred. I am reposting that part because it is a good summary of what I am trying to communicate.

The human presence on Earth has become so dysfunctional; our ways of living and working, of growing and catching food, of making things, of gathering the resources to make things, and our ways of disposing of those things are so fundamentally out of harmony with natural, life-giving processes, and so destructive to the basis of life, that we must be utterly changed, inwardly and outwardly, in our sense of identity and in the structures of our societies. New technologies and a few policy changes are insufficient and often merely perpetuate the problem in a new form.

We need an ecological spiritual revolution: a complete change of heart and mind, a reorientation at the deepest levels of psyche and society. The nature of that revolution is what I have tried to articulate in this blog and my other writing and workshops: see that we are deeply out of touch with reality because our beliefs distort reality; see that I am no thing (empty), and therefore everything (whole); see that everything is sacred; listen to the animals; be devoted to the well being of the whole movement of life.

Contrast those with what I think characterize our dominant perspective: my beliefs form the core of my identity – I’ll kill to defend them if I have to; I am an individual, autonomous self, and that self reigns supreme; My life and the lives of those related to me or close to me are of great value, but everything else is of value only if it is useful to me and my kin and my nation or wherever I happen to draw the boundary of my “self” (and it is a very flexible boundary, although we fail to recognize that).

A complete reversal of orientation has become a matter of survival. I have tried to describe where I think that reorientation comes from, and to make clear that it is possible, but it remains elusive at best. It is a reorientation in which nothing needs to change for everything to change. It is not something that comes as a result of anything we do; it comes when we stop all of our doing and see things as they are. The truth is right at hand waiting for us to recognize it and be changed by it.

Contemplative Ecology in 100 Tweets

Last year I tried an experiment, editing a summary of contemplative ecology to fit into the format of a series of tweets. As far as I can tell, only 2 or 3 people read any of those tweets. Oh well. I don’t belong on Twitter and that’s not what Twitter was made for. So I have posted the entire series on my website, with the date on which each group was posted.

Here is the first group:

6/11/16

Contemplative ecology is not a plan, a program, a practice, a path, a story or a set of ideas or concepts or beliefs.

Contemplative ecology is not a prescription for something that has to be done or achieved.

Contemplative ecology is not an attempt to bring about psychological or social change, but it can effect change at the deepest levels.

Read the rest here.. 

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?

Just Stop

I’ve been thinking about the end of the world. The world that had a stable climate, vast intact terrestrial and oceanic ecosystems, silent places, and an abundance of complex life forms is ending. A new world of climate chaos, disintegrating ecosystems and mass extinctions is taking its place.

And then there is the world that needs to end because it is so destructive and is making every one and everything so miserable: the world of buying and burning and drilling and fracking and blowing up and otherwise destroying and exploiting and acquiring and hoarding without any consideration of consequences. That world needs to end, in which we believe we are separate from Earth and are therefore immune from whatever we do to it.

Reverend Billy (Billy Talen) put it like this in his new book The End of the World (2012, OR Books):

“To save our own life we have to save the tree’s life. That means: we must remember that this tree is a life. Then we might get back on track saving our own lives.”

We must remember that this tree is a life. It is a life and it has a life. It has a reason for being. It feels the air moving through its leaves or needles. It communicates continuously with the other trees around it. And, if we feel a need to justify it in human terms, it is another part of our lungs. It is just as much a part of our body as the tissue in our chests. And we are part of it.

Because the car is my greatest contribution to the destruction of Earth, I am trying to leave it parked at home as much as possible. Which means there is a lot of entertainment that I do not take part in. There are a lot of experiences I am missing that require travel.

Instead I lie on the bench I have placed in the back yard under a huge old pine tree. I love gazing into the upper branches of the tree and listening to the whisper of the thousands of needles in the wind, and feeling the slow swaying of the trunk, and maybe even the subtle lifting and relaxing of the ground beneath me, or am I just imagining that? It’s a magnificent tree. I lie there exchanging the gifts of oxygen and carbon dioxide with it. I could not live without something like it and it could not live without something like me. Does it know this? Does it feel my presence like I feel its presence? Does it feel the additional weight on its roots? Can it acknowledge the gift of CO2 and be grateful for it? I think it can. Tree consciousness is not like animal consciousness, but it must have its own ways of experiencing the world.

The realization of non-separation re-enchants the world. Earth is full of ways of seeing and hearing and smelling and feeling and touching and other senses that we do not have and for which we have no words. The human is but one of the many ways Earth knows itself. What could be more delightful?

Earth has been doing interesting things for a lot longer than humans have been adding to the repertoire, and Earth will go on doing interesting things long after we humans have disappeared into the deep night. So for me the delights of the non-human world, the dancing of trees for instance, are more deeply satisfying than anything humans can create. Earth experience is everywhere, in everything. One need not go anywhere to find it.

But one must be willing to lose something. One must be willing to die at least a little before physical death comes to force the issue. Every one of us will face physical death. All of our plans and hopes and dreams and projects and relationships, all the ways we have defined ourselves, will come to an end, ready or not. We will be called upon to leave the projects unfinished, say goodbye to all the possessions and all the loved ones, lose everything, let the world carry on without us, transition into emptiness.

One must be willing to give up some of those projects, give up a sense of finding fulfillment in doing more, or having more or being more, in order to slow down enough to listen, to look, to experience what we already are, without need for improvement or amendment. To discover what Earth is now, without need for augmentation. To discover the magic that life is now, already, without anything being added to it, without even adding a thought.

Earth is alive. It’s a miracle. Our most clever invention is not any more amazing than Earth’s invention of the plant-animal-atmosphere-ocean-soil respiration system. Nothing we can do can make it more miraculous than it already is.

But we can make it less. I’m afraid that many of our plans and projects reduce its possibilities, can even annihilate the whole gorgeous thing. We must be willing to die at least a little to the mind-made sense of self, die to separation, to prevent annihilation.

It seems to me that this is the reality of our situation: we must come to terms with death before we die, which means we are required to do and to be less than what we had hoped and dreamed. We must accept the physical limits to our Earthly existence. Mother Earth is telling us “No!” and we are throwing several tantrums because we do not like to be told “No.” We think our freedom and our essence is to be found in satisfaction of infinite desires. Our sense of self is bound up with “more.” Getting comfortable with “No!” requires a more mature sense of self, one that does not require constant expansion and gratification. One that is content with what is.

Can a species like ours grow up fast enough? I doubt it. But there is this tantalizing possibility: stopping takes no time at all. Doing takes time. Progress takes time. If there is much more we have to do, we are doomed, because we have run out of time.

Lacking time, all that is left to us is to stop everything. Just stop, inwardly and outwardly, mentally and physically. Not forever, but long enough to be unmade. Then to rediscover the abundance of Earth, the beauty and wonder of the non-human, the unfathomable depths of silence.

The crazy rush to the cliff can stop in an instant. It is possible. Just stop.