Contemplative Prayer

In March I led an introduction to contemplative prayer at the Dummerston Congregational Church in Dummerston, Vermont. I have posted an edited transcript of that introduction in the essays section of my website.

Contemplation remains for me the most potent antidote to the insanity of the modern world. It doesn’t appear to accomplish anything, but in fact it touches every aspect of our lives and reorients us in exactly the ways we need right now.

Here is an excerpt:

“Fleeing to the desert is a way of standing against the dominant social order and returning to a more elemental way of living. The harsh desert environment strips things to the essentials. I would guess that fleeing to the desert in some form is a human practice as old as civilization. It is a way of getting free of cultural and social norms, which wield immense influence over our identity and behavior. Very practically, it was a way of fleeing persecution and oppression. Women and men fled the cities to escape from the exploitation built into civilization’s norms and structures.

“But even more potently, fleeing to the desert, and by extension contemplative prayer, 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 civilization’s distractions, we come face to face with ourselves in our actuality, including those aspects of ourselves that our busyness, our compulsiveness, our conformity to social rules, and our immersion in entertainment usually obscure.

“Contemplative prayer is profoundly optimistic, because the assumption is that what one will find if stripped to the core, is not evil, but blessing, a communion with reality that is beyond words…

“…although in its origins this practice of sacred presence was applied to the inner life, and still has a profound role to play there, in our current age it is just as important to bring this kind of deep listening to the natural world.

“I have found that in essence there is no difference between the inner and the outer worlds. The distress we see in one is mirrored in the other. The beauty and wonder also. The sources of our very being are to be found in both.

“So I encourage taking time, every day if possible, to be alone, without books or music or any agenda at all, in the natural world. Just listen deeply to the wind, to the movement of the trees and plants, to the singing of the birds, to whatever is happening. Not to add to your bird life list or identify or categorize. Just listen and look and be present in love, inwardly and outwardly. There are riches beyond imagining to be found in this.

“The plants and the animals, the land and the sea, are also part of the creative world. They have gifts for us we have lost and forgotten. They are intelligent and communicative. They are not layered over with civilized concepts, they embody unity and interdependence. We can re-learn that from them, if we simply pay attention to them without imposing our agenda on them. We have so much to learn about living in balance, from the trees, the grass, the birds, the other mammals, for me the whales and the seals have been my best teachers. Just by observing freely who and what they are in and for themselves.

“We have spent many thousands of years imposing our will on the Earth. Even now, we are often more concerned with imposing our solutions than with listening to what the Earth has to tell us. How can we solve a problem if we do not truly understand its cause? And how can we know the cause if we do not listen and learn from what we see and hear? Deep listening, which is the heart of contemplative prayer, is a vital part of the re-engagement with the Earth that we so desperately need right now.”

Deep Ocean Drilling Must End

With the failure of the “top kill” to stop the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, I really feel that we need to commit now to stop oil drilling in the deep ocean. The oil we gain from drilling offshore is simply not worth this catastrophic loss of marine life and human livelihood. The whole thing is upsetting beyond words.

I am especially concerned about the deep Earth/deep ocean wells. This one is at least 3.5 miles below the ocean floor, and therefore under tremendous pressure. I assume this is a large part of the reason why the top kill failed. There are other even deeper wells being explored, as deep as five miles beneath the ocean floor. At these depths the temperatures and pressures are tremendous. We cannot reliably control these wells.

This simply has to stop. Now. We have to find other ways to live. The message couldn’t be clearer.

This is not ultimately about BP or government regulation, as much as there is clearly blame in both departments. This is about all of us being addicted to oil, and oil lying now in harder and harder to reach places.

So we must stop drilling offshore and find another way. All of us have to find a way to live without this oil. No other course is acceptable now.

Who Will Pay?

Who will pay for the catastrophe of oil unfolding in the Gulf? BP? They are responsible for the cost of containment and cleanup. But who will really pay? The tuna. The turtles. The dolphins. The plovers and gannets and herons and shrimp and oysters and God knows what. The marshes. The shellfishermen. How long would the list be if it included every life touched and damaged and lost by this mess? I can’t begin to imagine.

We are all paying, and the cost is too high. Oil and coal are filthy and dangerous. We get to see that when they touch sea or land. We forget when they combust into atmosphere, turned temporarily invisible. Oh yes. We are all paying, dearly. Paying to preserve our sacred “lifestyle.”

So. Now. What are we willing to sacrifice of our lifestyle so that we, and all the creatures, and this magnificent Earth don’t have to keep paying this unbearable cost in lives?

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.

What Do Whales “See?”

I presented my program called “Whales: A World of Sound” last weekend at the Rey Center in Waterville Valley, New Hampshire. There are three components to the program, and unfortunately I only managed to cover two of the three: ocean acoustics and whale communication.

The third component I touched on, but only briefly. It could potentially be an entire presentation in itself: How does living in a sound world shape a whale’s consciousness and world view?

We will leave aside the question of whether whales have consciousness and world views. This has been for a long time the deadly third rail of animal science, because it is essentially impossible to verify the inner experience of any other creature, humans included. But I don’t have to be strictly scientific here or in my talks, so I take it as a given that whales are conscious and therefore have a world view (I assume that whales and other animals do have an experience of the world, as we do. I assume that conscious experience is a function of a reasonably complex nervous system. These are assumptions. No one has figured out what causes sensory stimuli to be experienced. But I am comfortable with the assumption that if it happens in the human nervous system, it is common to all complex nervous systems, perhaps even to all nervous systems, perhaps even to all complex systems. I will forever wonder in what ways the universe experiences itself, as a whole universe, not just through its individual parts, but that is another topic entirely).

While you and I live primarily by sight, and our sense of the world is shaped by the way light waves interact with solid surfaces, whales live primarily by sound, and their world is shaped by how sound waves interact in water.

Think about this for a moment. We know the world through our 5 senses, and through a myriad of other senses that we don’t often name (sense of location in space, sense of impending danger, sense of humor, gut feelings of many types), but especially through our sense of sight. We are heavily oriented toward the visual world. We also know the world through the way that our brain processes the raw sensory information it receives from the very specific structures of the eye, ear, nose, touch receptors, and tongue. One could say it is not the external world that we know. All we really know is an inner world of our particular sense receptors and the particular way that our brain processes the information from those receptors. This combination gives us our way of “seeing” and understanding the world.

So how do other creatures experience the world?

We know, for instance, that bats use sonar to create three-dimensional maps of the world, that they “see” through sonar much the way humans see through vision. We have no idea how a bat experiences that world, but we can imagine that it might be somewhat like how we see the world. Except that the physical properties of high-frequency sound are very different from the properties of the frequencies of light through which humans see the world. So what is “seen” by the bat is not the same as what is seen by the human.

We all know this most clearly through our familiarity with dogs. We know that they live in a world of smells that is beyond our capacity to experience. To some very significant degree, a dog’s world is a world of smells, and we can only imagine how a dog constructs its view of the world through this complex intertwining of many scents from all directions.

Whales primarily experience the world through sound. Vision is nearly useless in most oceans of the world. What is this sound world like? Furthermore, whales are essentially water bodies moving in a water world. Land animals are water bodies moving in a world of air. Sound waves move very easily from ocean-water to body-water. One possible consequence of this is that whales are essentially transparent to each other and seamless with the ocean, that the boundary between whale and ocean is blurry, not sharp the way the visual boundary is. Dolphins, porpoises and sperm whales, all of whom use high-frequency sonar, can probably “see” right through and into each other. A dolphin fetus is probably “visible” to other dolphins from the beginning. And that fetus is probably experiencing the mother’s sonar-illuminated world from the moment its nervous system is developed enough to process the information. All toothed whales are highly social creatures, and we can only begin to imagine the level of intimacy they experience and how that shapes their view of the world and each other.

Large baleen whales do not use high-frequency sonar, but rather use very low-frequency sounds for communication, probably for finding food, and probably for navigation. Low frequency sounds are not useful for creating a fine-scaled map of the world, but are excellent for finding large scale structures at great distances, like islands and coastlines. There is some evidence that large whales do indeed tend to swim long distances from one large structure to another. Possibly they find these structures using low-frequency sonar. Possibly they have a detailed map of the ocean in their memory. Possibly that map includes not only islands and seamounts and coastlines, but also the locations of all the other whales that they can hear across thousands of miles.

Try to imagine what it is like to live in a water world of sound in which boundaries are fluid or nearly transparent. I imagine a solid world of island and continents, and a diffuse, fluid world of echo and movement that is a nearly seamless life/water entity. The sound boundaries are very soft. I wonder if the whales experience themselves as the ocean itself, taking shape and making sound. They are that ocean.

When humans meet whales, one of the most common experiences we have is to feel a sense of deep commonality with the whale, a feeling of unity, of oneness, as if the boundary between human and whale melts away and we experience being one life movement together. As if we are members of one body. For that moment we feel more like the body as a whole, and less like one individual member of the body.

That whales are highly communicative animals is undeniable. Are they conveying to us their essential experience of the world? When we encounter them, are we briefly glimpsing the world as they experience it, as a nearly seamless whole? We with our vision-oriented world and a brain that tends to divide everything up into distinct categories and entities have a very fragmented worldview. The whales, I would guess, tend to experience the world and their place in it much more in its unity, as a seamless whole. When we meet them, we get this glimpse, but we have a very hard time holding onto that perception. It is not how our brains are set up.

This could explain why some people feel that whales are highly-evolved spiritually. I am not going to comment on that. I have no idea at all what the inner life of a whale is. They have been around a lot longer than we have so it does not seem unreasonable to me to imagine that they are more highly developed in many realms than we are, but I really do not know.

But based on trying to imagine myself into their sound-mediated world, based on having sat for many hours with eyes closed just listening to the world, including the groans and gurgles and thumps of my own body, and based on the fact that in water all those sounds would be clearer, more transparent, and would travel much greater distances more quickly, I can easily imagine that the whales hear the world in its essential wholeness.

And it seems to me that this sense of wholeness is somehow communicated when we meet. And since wholeness, or the essential unity of existence, is the central feature of what we call spirituality, it makes sense that we experience whales as highly-developed spiritual beings. That doesn’t mean they believe in God, or come from Alpha Centauri or came to earth to teach us how to live in harmony with each other. But it does mean that we have a lot to learn from them, if we can set aside for awhile our human way of seeing the world, separated into distinct things, and step, even for that one brief, indescribable moment, into their way of hearing the world as one unified body, from which nothing can be separated.

If this subject interests you, there is a new show from the Canadian Broadcast Company called Ocean Mind. It covers these same subjects from a similar perspective. Downloads are available here:

Listen at

http://www.cbc.ca/ideas/features/ocean-mind/index.html

Downloads at

http://www.podcastdirectory.com/podshows/4047436 (part two)

http://www.podcastdirectory.com/podshows/4032364 (part one)

Note 5-1-2015: The above links are no longer working and unfortunately the CBC seems to have dropped hosting for the first episode. For the moment, the second episode can be streamed here.

I was excited to hear this show, because it has been scientifically unacceptable to talk about these things for many decades. Between hard-core scientist and new-age seeker, there has been very little friendly ground for exploring these questions. I am happy to see it coming out once again. We humans have a lot to learn in a very short time if we are going to prevent making the world uninhabitable for us all, and whales do seem to be able to show us this essential thing: that we are all members of one body together. Whatever befalls one member of the body, befalls the whole body. Our fate and their fate are therefore inextricably intertwined.