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.

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Breaking the Frames

When I was a college undergraduate, I studied the theoretical underpinnings of Freudian psychoanalysis with J. Giles Milhaven, a former Jesuit priest and professor of religious studies at Brown University. One of the central concepts that I took away from my studies with Dr. Milhaven was the therapeutic necessity of what he called “breaking the frame.” His belief was that problems in human relationships come mainly from the way that we frame those relationships; the belief structures that we build around our relationships to make sense out of them and align them with our own needs and desires. Not all of our frames are dysfunctional. But when our framing stories are too far out of alignment with reality, we expend useless energy trying to force the world back into our frame, instead of allowing our frame to adjust to reality. This is the source of much of our distress: our framing of reality is out of step with reality itself yet we remain committed to our frame.

Our frames are intimately intertwined with our sense of who we are.  To dissolve one of our essential frames is to lose our sense of self. We are so committed to our mental frameworks, that we usually fight like hell in defense of the frame, even as it diverges further and further from the truth. In those cases where our commitment to our frame is absolute, the only solution is for something outside of us, some person, some situation, some unexpected force, to break the frame. Something has to happen that exposes the false frame, allows it to be seen at last for what it is. Not reality; merely a way of interpreting reality. Not the self; merely a story about the self. Not the other; merely an image of the other.

This is not an easy thing to go through. We pin our sense of security, our sense of identity, on our mental frameworks. When the frame is broken, we feel truly lost for a time.  This is well known to everyone who has lost anything that helped define our life: losing our health, losing a job around which we organized our life, losing someone we love, discovering that someone we trusted has been deceiving us; discovering that the system that supports us abuses others. The loss is hard enough, but the disorientation that comes with the breaking of the frame can be completely debilitating. We resist this disorientation, so we can carry on for years beyond the point at which we receive the first clues that our framing story is out of alignment with the truth. We resist and resist and resist the loss of the frame, because along with the frame goes a solid sense of identity. The frame is the boundary of the self. Without the familiar frame, who am I?

My work with Giles Milhaven was very influential. A lot of my frames have broken over the years, and it has never been easy. But I also have seen that ultimately it is healthier to stay in touch with reality than it is to carry on in conflict. It is easier to have a fluid and adaptable sense of self, than it is to have a rigid and fixed identity that is in conflict with the living world.

And I have seen that the framing of reality is not only something that happens in the individual; it happens to entire cultures, especially now when so much information is channeled through mass media and shared by millions of people almost simultaneously. When a distorted frame is shared, it becomes more and more possible for us to participate in mass delusion. It is hard enough to break the individual frame. It is even harder to break the societal frame, because we seem to be wired to conform to societal norms. We prefer to do what our peers are doing, to think the way our peers are thinking, to care about the things that we perceive our peers to care about, to look like the images that claim to convey what our peers look like. The risk of not conforming is isolation, being ostracized, kicked out of the community. If we rebel at all, we usually rebel within a subculture to which we continue to conform.

The planetary ecological crisis requires the breaking of frames at many levels: individual, societal, economic and political. A truly daunting prospect. I find myself frustrated with most attempts at change because they end up being the sort of change that tries to massage reality into the existing frame. Very rarely does anyone dare to break the frame. The consequences are too frightening. We react violently when someone tries to break our frame before we are ready. The frame is “me” until it is broken, so I will fight to the death to preserve it.

This is a great conundrum. Fundamental change is required of us at this time but most of us are not ready for the change. We are committed to our worldview, not to the world. We are willing to tweak the system, but not to turn the system on its head. We want our life to go on in its familiar track, not to change everything. We want security, not uncertainty. We want more, not less. We want to keep the frame intact and just change the picture. If someone tries to break the frame, or the Earth breaks the frame, we will resist. But the frame has to break nonetheless. Life depends on it now.

An example of changing the picture without breaking the frame would be our hope that technology will solve all of our ecological problems. The techno-optimists believe that we can solve all of our problems with solar panels, wind turbines, smart grids and electric cars. The only change required is a change of means, not a change of self or society. It won’t work. As long as we have a sense of self – or an economic system – that endlessly demands more and more, the technology won’t help. We’ll keep needing more of it, and the planet is already groaning under the weight of our perceived needs. Emphasis on the word “perceived.” These are not real, biological needs. They are needs arising from how we frame reality, including our sense of identity. The frames need to be broken. How do we do that without creating a backlash? How do we get around our resistance to essential change? That is the conundrum.

There is no easy solution to this. We are not yet ready to break the frames that define us in relation to the natural world. All I can say right now is that the longer we postpone the reckoning with reality, the harder the reckoning will be. The farther we push the physical limits of the planet, the harder the crash will be.

Take one example: Imagine a world without fossil fuels. Not 100 years from now when some unlimited fantasy fuel has magically appeared or the beleaguered Earth has somehow supplied us with the raw materials and the land to build millions of solar panels and wind turbines and hydro dams. Now. Imagine your life right now without fossil fuels. The blasting and drilling and fracking and pumping have stopped. Coal and oil and natural gas are gone. How does the limiting of your mobility, your autonomy, your employment options, your material security – all of which are presently tied to the availability of fossil fuels –  affect your sense of who you are, of how your community is structured, of what you can do?

Which of your frames – your fundamental assumptions about who you are and what the world is and what you expect the world to give you – are dependent on fossil fuels? Are you willing and able to abandon those frames for the sake of life on Earth?

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.

Where’s a Whale to Go?

The Right Whale Research Team at the New England Aquarium have been studying whales in the Bay of Fundy, Canada for more than 30 years. The peak of right whale presence in the Bay is usually in September or October of each year. So it was that in 2001 the team was in the Bay when shipping traffic was halted due to the 9/11 attacks. It also happens that at that time the team was pioneering a new research method, using dogs to track right whale feces. Whale feces are a treasure trove of information, including the presence of stress hormones.

It should come as no surprise, but the NEAQ now has evidence that stress levels in right whales decreased when ships were absent in the days following 9/11/2001.

http://rightwhales.neaq.org/2012/02/right-whale-researchers-make.html

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/feb/08/shipping-noises-chronic-stress-whales

Chronic stress wreaks havoc with general health, as most of us know. Shipping noise is pretty much ubiquitous throughout the oceans, so where is a whale to go to get some peace?

I have several connections to this story that make it personally resonant.

My very first encounter with a whale was in 1995, in the Bay of Fundy.

That was a fin whale, not a right whale. But the encounter was one of the most ecstatic of my life, and it changed the course of my life. I came home so excited that my parents then changed their vacation plans and went whale watching on the same boat out of Nova Scotia and also saw whales. My mother then turned that experience into a children’s sermon called Digby the Whale.

I did not know about the story until several years later, after my mother’s death. Discovering that story was a revelation to me, because it helped me understand why the whale encounter had been so potent for me. In her genius, she recognized what the whale represents, at least for her and for me: they are messengers of the Deep. For me, this story was the conscious wedding of what until then had been an unconscious understanding: my life is uniquely oriented toward the contemplative life especially as it expresses itself in the natural world. It is really as a result of my mother’s insight that The Natural Contemplative came into being.

My mother’s story anticipates the NEAQ’s research finding: “Whales are probably happiest when they are experiencing deep calling to deep.. and they are not really meant to be in the midst of the hullabaloo of human restlessness and noise.”

Back to the Bay of Fundy. I had my first experience of a right whale in 2002, also in the Bay of Fundy. I was on a whale watch boat but I was well aware of the NEAQ research boats and the dogs, although it took a while for me to learn what the dogs were doing.

Although I was a Benedictine novice back in the 1980s, it is really the whales and the Bay of Fundy that made me a contemplative. And my mother’s story:

“Like Digby the Whale, I think that we too are meant to live with the deep in us quietly calling [and listening] to the deep which is God, and not always be around the hullabaloo and the noise and the restlessness that is all around us in the world.”

That is as good a description of the contemplative life as I know.

If you read my last post you’ll know that I, too, find the press of human noise pretty stressful. I can relate to the whales. I want to get away from the hullabaloo, and I don’t always know where to go, except for short periods. The cell phone and wireless devices have reached into nearly every corner of our world. The Bay of Fundy used to be one of my quiet places. But, like the right whales, I am finding that even there the noise is increasing, thanks especially to cell phones and iPhones and all the rest of those mobile noise makers.

In addition to the noise, we are now bathed in wireless signals (a “smart” meter was just installed on our house this week. Before now, we had no wireless signals at our house. We are going to try to get rid of this one too). How sure are we that this ocean of electromagnetic energy we are swimming in does not add up to yet another stressor? If we turned off all the signals for a few weeks, like what happened for the whales in 2001, would we discover that our stress levels drop as well?

I well remember what it was like to be outside in the days following 9/11 when all air traffic was grounded. It was lovely. What an interesting experiment it would be, to turn off all the wireless signals for a couple of weeks. What might we hear? What might we rediscover in ourselves and in our world, if we simply turned off all the noise?

But the real question is, where can the whales go? Right whales (of whom there are only about 500 remaining) go to the Bay of Fundy in the summer, because that is where their food is most abundant. They don’t have a lot of choice in the matter. Maybe there are technologies that can make ship traffic quieter, but there will be costs involved, and are we willing to pay those costs for the sake of the whales? Maybe we would if we realized that they and we are much the same. We need the quiet. We need the deep in us to call to and hear from the Deep that is the living universe, if we are to know any measure of peace in our time.

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.