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.

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.. 

Introduction to Contemplative Ecology

I just posted an essay called Introduction to Contemplative Ecology on my website. It seemed a little long for a blog post. The other thing I want to say about it is that I am beginning to think about moving away from the terminology of “contemplative ecology.” It feels like that language is more confusing than clarifying. It requires too much explanation of things that are not essential. I first started using that term 5 or 6 years ago, simply to make the connection between the inner and the outer, which we normally hold in separate realms. But the words “ecology” and “contemplation” mean too many things to too many people, and do not always point in the direction I want them to point.

In particular, since the publication in 2012 of Douglas Christie’s Blue Sapphire of the Mind: Notes For a Contemplative Ecology, contemplative ecology has become associated specifically with the Christian contemplative tradition. I see contemplative ecology as fundamentally non-sectarian, relevant to anyone, anywhere, at any time. So I am trying to find some other way of referring to this thing. I have no doubt about what contemplative ecology is, but I am not sure what to call it anymore, even though my use of “contemplative ecology” predates Douglas Christie’s book. In that way, this essay is more a mark of where I have been than where I am going. But, language of naming it aside, this essay is also a pretty good summary of my perspective on what contemplative ecology is all about.

Here is an excerpt from the essay:

“Humans have unleashed a destructive force that is consuming the planet, destabilizing life systems at the deepest levels. That force is both internal and external. It is a psycho-social system…

If we exclude the internal and focus only on the external, we ignore half of the picture. If we exclude the external and focus only on the internal, we exclude the other half. If we bring them together into one interactive system, we shake the foundations of many of our most cherished beliefs and behaviors.

“The boundary of inclusion and exclusion, what we consider internal and what we consider external, is the boundary of the self. The boundary of acceptance and rejection is who we think we are. Total acceptance and total inclusion mark the end of the sense of being a separate self. Will I ever take care of something or someone if I believe I am essentially separate from them? Will I care for the Earth if I am separate from it, if I believe I will continue in a non-physical realm after the body dies? Will I care for the other animals if I think I am above them, better than them, more important than them, essentially different from them, essentially separate from them?

“Contemplative ecology, then, reunites these two domains, which are really one domain in the first place: the inner and the outer, the psychological and the social, the spirit and the body, the human and the natural, the self and the world, desire and economics, cognitive bias and politics, the way the mind works and the way all natural systems work. The ways in which mind and society and the natural world are interrelated and mutually dependent. It’s an explosive mix. Contemplative ecology includes everything, and therefore has a chance of addressing a crisis that also includes everything, but it is a threat to our sense of who we are and what we think the world is and how power operates in society. It is a threat to our belief in the true nature of our selves. Contemplative ecology therefore poses a challenge to the status quo.”

Read the entire essay…

Contemplative Ecology

Since I wrote this piece, contemplative ecology has become more widely known, although not all of us who use the term use it in exactly the same way. For more on what contemplative ecology means to me, see Contemplative Ecology: Contemplation for a World in Crisis.

In my last post I wrote about conservation spirituality, and I alluded to the fact that my own spirituality is essentially contemplative in nature. A year or more ago I was casting around for a term I could use to describe what I do, because there didn’t seem to be a ready-made form I could fit my work into. I came up with the term Contemplative Ecology. I did a Google search and didn’t come up with any results (there are many more now) so I decided it was unusual enough to describe my odd little endeavors.

Before I had really thought much about it, I liked the term because it simply brought together my two primary areas of interest and endeavor: contemplation and ecology. I have been involved in some sort of contemplative practice for more than 30 years. I have been studying whales and observing the natural world and working in environmental conservation for 20 years. Increasingly, the two have been joining into one. The insights I have from contemplative living have been merging with the insights from observing nature. The lessons of contemplation have become more and more applicable to the environmental crisis. The insights that come from observing my own mind at work seem to apply to the natural world, and the insights that come from observing the world seem to be relevant to my inner life. There is an essential seamlessness to it all that speaks of a fundamental unity where there are often thought to be absolute distinctions, of mind and body, of nature and spirit, of self and other, of nature and human. And so it seemed appropriate to describe what I do as Contemplative Ecology.

Ecology, as I understand it, is the study of the interrelationships inherent in all natural systems. The First Law of Ecology, to my mind, is this: There is No Such Thing as a Separate Thing. Everything is and belongs to and contributes to and derives its essential existence from, a system of nested, interrelated systems. A thing can not therefore be understood outside of its context, outside of its relationships, outside of its interdependencies. Ecology involves observing everything in context and beginning to understand (very difficult) the intricacies of interrelationship that make things what they are.

Contemplation involves deep attention to one’s own mind and body and experience. It is ecology applied to oneself, applied to the workings of one’s own organism. The same ecological lesson applies. There is no such thing as a separate thing – no such thing as a separate “self.” Everything that happens is connected to something else that happens. The brain itself and all its thoughts and imaginings would not exist without a bewildering host of intertwining influences, from sun and rain and soil and plants and water, to spouses, parents, schooling, job stresses, cultural assumptions going back thousands of years, and what you ate for supper.

It seems to me that anyone who goes deeply into ecology will arrive at contemplation. And anyone who goes deeply into contemplation will arrive at ecology. And both will see that the human and the natural are one and the same, and the inner/outer, self/other distinction is at its heart a false one.

And both will see the really terrible errors of thought that humans have made, separating us from the natural, and separating the natural from the sacred. And with those thoughts come the horrors we have introduced into the world, all based on the fallacy of separation. As if humans uniquely exist apart from everything else.

To me, contemplation and ecology are the same thing. The only thing that separates them is the false separation between the inner and the outer. But because that distinction is so sharp for most people, the term Contemplative Ecology becomes useful. It illuminates the fact that contemplation need not be inwardly focused and ecology need not be outwardly focused.

There is one more aspect to contemplative ecology that needs to be explained. It is an elusive one. It is really the core of the thing, but impossible to pin down. It eludes all descriptions and definitions. There is a strange fact about contemplative practice. It becomes necessary, in speaking of it, to use words like “emptiness” and “void” and “stillness” and “silence.”

It sometimes occurs that a period of contemplation or meditation is exceptionally quiet, that the mind is very still and alert, not asleep. When this happens, at least for me, there is an overwhelming feeling of being -in essence- one vast body that includes the whole of everything. A boundlessness. And later, when the natural boundaries of body and thought reassert themselves, a feeling of deep affection for all beings. Why should this be so? Why shouldn’t a time of deep silence be merely vacuous? Why not merely empty and meaningless? Why so pregnant with affection, with love, with deep connection to everything? This is the core insight of contemplation: behind the veil of experience is an “emptiness” that is also wholeness.

The same insight can be reached through ecology. One might begin by observing one plant or animal or ecosystem in detail, and thinking of that thing as a separate thing. But the more one observes and tries to understand, the more elusive the “thing” becomes, as one sees more and more clearly that the thing is really a complex mix of energetic relationships and not a separate thing at all. The moment can come when the “thing” slips away entirely, and one realizes that there is only this vast network of interrelationships. No thing can be grabbed hold of at all. No thing can be definitively pinned down. The only reality is the wholeness in which every “thing” swims. “Things” are convenient descriptions of temporary states of the whole.

Starting with a part and being led to an encounter with the whole, which includes one’s own being. It is the same in contemplation and ecology. It is the heart of Contemplative Ecology, and perhaps the healing of our troubled world.