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 unfathomable encounter with 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.

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 reality, and perhaps to see through all in the human mind that is illusory, destructive and life-defeating. Free of distractions, untethered from habitual behaviors, we are faced with ourselves in our actuality. We get to see what we normally hide even from ourselves. We come face to face with 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 our social circumstances have conditioned our patterns 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 is often realized in an 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 fact 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 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 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. Talking about emptiness accomplishes nothing. Being touched by emptiness changes everything. Discovering the wholeness of everything and the hollowness or emptiness of the self—and the futility of a society devoted to augmenting the self at the expense of everything—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 does not mean 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.

Emptiness is what is, regardless of what we think about it or how we experience it or describe it. Emptiness is the reality behind the story, behind the description, behind the experience. Emptiness is a direct and immediate affront to the feeling that I exist, that I can be protected, that I can be perfected. Emptiness—unfathomable reality—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. The sense of being a separate self cannot stand in the face of reality. So we avoid it. We keep busy. We fill the world with noise. 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 remains when I stop. It is very simple, but because most of us never stop, it’s revolutionary when we do.

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 unravels, founded as it is on the belief that treasures can be stored up and kept safe for the immortal self.

Our current society does not serve life. It serves the separate self. Can we see that serving the self is delusional? The self is a fictional character. It 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.

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?