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.

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?

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.

Voice of the Earth

Cynthia and I are getting ready to lead a workshop called Voice of the Earth at the Partnering With a Green God conference in Sharon, CT. I always find it challenging to speak in public about these things, because I feel I know and understand so little. But going into it does have a clarifying effect.

I’m not clear about much, but I am clear about this:

In the real world, there is no past and no future, only this that is happening right now. Past and future are ideas. Dwelling exclusively in the idea of past or future blinds us catastrophically to what is happening right now, Life in all its wonder and complexity.

Our senses do not give us an accurate representation of reality. The known is dead and gone. The living truth is unknowable. To live in devotion to the known, the mental image, is to live in conflict with reality, because reality is dynamic, always new, and the known image is static, always old. We do tremendous violence trying to force reality into the mold of our image of reality. Reality cannot be known, only lived in not-knowing. We think we know, but we do not know.

Bringing awareness to our predicament, without any thought-movement away from it whatsoever, brings some other factor into the equation. I call it “emptiness.” When emptiness is discovered, it is at least possible that the mind will reboot, will alter its operating system in the face of the fact that its own behavior is clearly causing all the misery. But this must be seen in its actuality, not believed in theory.

Beyond this, I really don’t know much. That “other factor” — which I call variously emptiness, or stillness, or silence — remains mysterious and can become an obsession in itself, because it feels so big, so godlike, so far beyond one’s own puny brain. How else could it be capable of seeing the truth, when the brain is so good at dodging the truth? Attention, or awareness, or emptiness, is very mysterious indeed. One wants that in one’s life. But turning it into an object of pursuit or belief or another identification creates a real barrier to being present to the whole of what is right now.

Emptiness is always present. Whether one thinks of it as something that is present to everything, or as the space in which everything is happening; emptiness remains, ungraspable, unknowable, always present.

One other thing that I feel is that we humans have a very hard time letting down our guard enough to allow the experience of others to impact us – other people, other animals, other life forms. It is only through love that we can enter into that experience. We have to want the other to be the other, to be what they are, and not diminish the other with our desire, or our fear. We can never know the other through analysis, dissection, or the absolutely-common projection of ourselves onto them. To know the other at all we must set ourselves aside and listen. To enter into the truth of the other involves a loss of self most people find impossible or too frightening to contemplate except perhaps in a very few relationships.

Paradoxically, becoming grounded in deep emptiness creates the feeling of oneness — that I am the whole movement of life — and at the same time exposes my deep ignorance about what the world really is. In regard to the encounter with whales, I feel that we are each other, and at the same time that the whale is so foreign, so other, that the relationship requires the greatest possible caution and respect. And so it is with the whole world. We are each other, and we don’t know anything about each other. Respect and caution and undivided attention are essential.

I seek the sanctification (to make holy, to make whole) of the whole world. The human economy seeks the commodification (to buy and sell, to make convenient) of the world. How with this violence can the sacred compete? How with the stimulation of the senses can the depths of not-knowing compete? How with all this agitation can stillness compete? I feel like an ambassador of two unknowable realms, deep silence and the lives of the whales and seals. I know nothing about either and yet I feel myself to be an ambassador for them, since they do not often speak for themselves in the human world. They can. Of course they do, but humans don’t generally listen.

via negativa

Many years ago a good friend of mine told me that she thought my approach to spirituality would never catch on with anybody else because it is too stark. I was not entirely sure what she meant, but I was none too happy with that judgement. Stark? It is about the overflowing abundance of the whole movement of Life!

But I see now that she had a valid point. Not that I can or want to change my approach, but it is not one that is likely to lead to a best-selling spiritual movement. Because my understanding of spirituality is based on inner emptiness.

I am not alone here. There is a long spiritual tradition known as the via negativa, or the way of negation. It holds that in order to come to a realization of the presence of God, one must set aside everything that is not God. Every idea one has about God, that is not God. So ideas have to go. Every experience one thinks one is having of God, that is not God, so experiences have to go. One peels away layer after layer of belief and perception, and each one is set aside because it is not God. Until everything is gone. Every layer is peeled away until nothing is left.

There is no core. No grand spiritual states. No special status as the chosen one. No promise of heavenly eternity. No soaring idealism. There is only emptiness.

I wouldn’t blame anyone for shrugging at this point and saying, “your friend was right. This is worthless. Emptiness? What good is that?”

The central insight of the via negativa is that if you want spiritual fireworks, there are a million ways to get them. These days there is a belief system for every personality type. But if you want the truth, you have to get to know emptiness. If you do not know your emptiness — your essential non-existence (ouch!) — then you are driven by the perpetual search for your true self, which you will never find. In fact, the whole bloody mess that humanity is in, from endless war to life-threatening environmental destruction to the commodification of just about everything (you and me included) is founded on our steadfast avoidance of our essential emptiness. It is founded on the impossible task of finding ourselves in some particular thing: a set of beliefs, a title and position, having more than the other guy, being better than somebody else. Have you noticed that no one is every satisfied with these things? It does not take long for restlessness to resume and for the mind to go in search of some new thing to pin its identity on.

The discovery of inner emptiness ends the search, for it is the heart of our being.

Emptiness is what remains when everything transient falls away. It is the immeasurable space in which everything happens, all thoughts and experiences. Emptiness is what makes awareness possible, awareness of both inner and outer reality. Emptiness is the capacity to allow things to be as they are, without adherence to any mindset. Emptiness is what unites us with everything, all matter and all energy. Everything is emptiness. Humans hold no lock on emptiness; we are no more and no less empty than anything else. The paradoxical conclusion of the via negativa is that I am nothing, therefore I am everything. The beauty, the mystery of the via negativa is that it leads to an absolutely inclusive via positiva. When every particular thing that is not-God is set aside, God is found, not in any particular thing, but in everything-together, the creative outpouring of the whole universe. Which also means, strangely enough, in every particular thing. Everything is sacred, absolutely.

Because I do not exist as a separate entity, because there is no individual soul or spirit, no thing that is running the show, no center that makes this body separate from the rest of the universe, I only exist as the whole of intertwined reality. The “I” that I think I am doesn’t exist at all. John is an ephemeral invention of a body-mind. What does exist is the whole movement of everything, immeasurable, unimaginable, indivisible. And within that whole movement is the appearance of a body-mind that thinks it has a separate existence called “John.” That illusion will die when the body dies, just as it dies every night as the body enters deep, dreamless sleep. What remains is energy, and emptiness. Lots and lots of emptiness.

So, yes. Pretty stark. You don’t exist as a separate entity. Your essential nature is emptiness. Emptiness that is full of everything that arises and falls away. Emptiness is what you are fundamentally, and emptiness is what makes it possible to embrace the whole dynamic movement of Life without prejudice. Emptiness is what makes it possible to let go of the mad rush to achieve and acquire and possess, which is driving humanity, and the planet with us, into a death spiral.

It is hard to understand, but in the choice between Life and Death, if we are to choose Life, we must become acquainted with our essential emptiness. Because only emptiness embraces the whole of reality with unadorned, unaffected, unconditional love.