Is Silence Going Extinct?

As I noted in my previous post, we are just beginning to realize that natural soundscapes matter to ecosystem health, and that we have filled them with mechanical noise as if they don’t.

A new article on soundscape ecology was published yesterday in the New York Times, with some lovely audio recordings from Denali National Park embedded.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/18/magazine/is-silence-going-extinct.html

There is a very engaging lecture on this subject by soundscape recordist and ecologist Bernie Krause:

http://fora.tv/2009/09/22/Dr_Bernie_Krause_The_Great_Animal_Orchestra

We are looking forward to Krause’s new book The Great Animal Orchestra, which treats the subject of soundscape ecology in detail. It is due out next week.

My own recordings this week have focused on the red winged blackbird. Harbingers of spring, they are arriving about two weeks early this year and so may also be harbingers of a changing climate.

Time to Repent?

I have been feeling pretty apocalyptic recently.

I no longer think there is much we can do to avert climate catastrophe. Even the kind of repentance (metanoia) that I have been advocating for twenty years or more won’t change the harsh fact that we have utterly failed to address our most pressing problem. We are going over the cliff even if we slam on the brakes now (and we have done no such thing, we are stomping on the accelerator).

The most recent evidence of this is a summary report on the state of the ocean that predicts mass extinction in the oceans if we do not radically and rapidly change our values and our ways of living.

Now what? I really don’t know. We will have to adapt as best we can within the very real limits this much warmer, less hospitable world will impose on us. We must keep trying to wean ourselves off fossil and nuclear fuels, and reduce our environmental impact in every way, for the sake of future generations, but I no longer think we can stop climate disaster. We might be able to lessen its impact.

My biggest concern now is that increased environmental distress will lead to more conflict. I am afraid that a warmer world is also going to be a more stressful world, a meaner world, a more competitive, conflicted, militarized world. There will certainly be no end of work for those of us who wish to bring compassion and understanding and a vision of unity, interdependence and shared resources to a troubled world.

In my view, limited as it is, we have utterly failed to awaken to the Earth’s beauty and, more important right now, its fragility, and our absolute dependence on its health and well-being. We still manage to think that we are somehow separate from the Earth. That failure will ring down through the ages that remain to the human family. But it is never too late for us to awaken to our innate compassion, and to move forward into this unpredictable future in mutual support rather than enmity and competition. We can still repent (experience a complete change of mind), but I no longer hold out much hope that doing so will avert environmental catastrophe. It might help us survive it.

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.

Why Do I Love Whales?

The following gem is taken from an article written by Willy Jones in the Fall 2010 newsletter of the Blue Ocean Society for Marine Conservation. Willy is a ten-year-old junior naturalist aboard Newburyport Whale Watch‘s Prince of Whales.

Willy is not alone. Many of us have had exactly this same experience on our first meeting with a whale. I’ve written about it extensively, but never with his simple elegance. I have read eco-philosophers, and spiritual teachers, but Willy says all that needs to be said. We are each other.

Thank you, Willy.

Why Do I Love Whales
by Willy Jones

To me, whales are angels.
The first time I saw a whale, I got to look into its eye,
and I saw a sparkle.
Then I thought to myself, “Wow, this is really important.”

I remember exactly how I felt.
I held my breath, and everything around me just stopped.
The people talking, the noise of the boat, it all stopped.
It was just me and the whale looking at each other.

I felt like me and that whale were part of each other.
We were each other.
That connection has been there forever.
Whenever I see a whale, I remember that connection.

Have a blessed holiday season, everyone!

The Survival Value of Not Knowing

An excellent article by Naomi Klein, called A Hole in the World, was published in the Guardian earlier this week. Here is a quote:

But as the BP disaster has revealed, nature is always more unpredictable than the most sophisticated mathematical and geological models imagine. During Thursday’s congressional testimony, Hayward said: “The best minds and the deepest expertise are being brought to bear” on the crisis, and that, “with the possible exception of the space programme in the 1960s, it is difficult to imagine the gathering of a larger, more technically proficient team in one place in peacetime.” And yet, in the face of what the geologist Jill Schneiderman has described as “Pandora’s well”, they are like the men at the front of that gymnasium: they act like they know, but they don’t know…

The most positive possible outcome of this disaster would be not only an acceleration of renewable energy sources like wind, but a full embrace of the precautionary principle in science. The mirror opposite of Hayward’s “If you knew you could not fail” credo, the precautionary principle holds that “when an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health” we tread carefully, as if failure were possible, even likely. Perhaps we can even get Hayward a new desk plaque to contemplate as he signs compensation cheques. “You act like you know, but you don’t know.”

This relates also to a recent blog posting by Larry Crockett on the Greek concept of “hubris.”

Hubris (also hybris; pronounced /ˈhjuːbrɪs/) means extreme haughtiness or arrogance. Hubris often indicates being out of touch with reality and overestimating one’s own competence or capabilities, especially for people in positions of power (wikipedia).

Sounds familiar, eh? Not nearly as eloquent as Ms. Klein or my father, I wrote about this a couple of decades ago from a contemplative perspective in an essay I called The Asking Is the Answer, which I just rediscovered. This theme was also part of my post a couple of weeks ago on the blowout (and this one from The Sustainable Soul).

Naomi Klein’s mantra sums it up: “You act like you know, but you don’t know.”

The contemplative perspective is that this is true of all of us, all the time, about everything. We don’t know anything about anything. We only think we know. The more we act like we know, the more trouble we cause. The more we understand how deep our ignorance goes, the more harmoniously we can live within the whole movement of Life. Why? Because when we understand the true depths of our ignorance, we pay attention, we remain alert, we question our own assumptions, and we consider the possible consequences of our actions.

We are faced with an unprecedented crisis. We can find a place for ourselves in the natural world that recognizes the limits of our understanding; or we can grasp at the appearance of control that comes with the illusion of certain knowledge, and hasten the destruction that we are surely bringing upon ourselves.

Replacing hubris with humility is our only hope.