Blowout

The Deepwater Horizon oil blowout is so upsetting that I have not been able to write about it. I can barely absorb the enormity of it. Which aspect of this mess does one focus on? The human lives lost? The oil itself? The risk of drilling deep wells (4 – 7 miles deep) in deep water? The impact on deep sea marine life, on corals, on turtles, on tuna, on dolphins? The impact on shore life, on pelicans, on marshes, on shellfish, on oysters? The impact on people who fish for their livelihood? The impact on people who love the marshes and used to go to them for solace, to connect with unspoiled nature? Does one focus on BP, Transocean, Haliburton, and the layers upon layers of lies and deceptions that continue to this day, but that one realizes are part and parcel of corporate life in the modern world? Does one focus on the political grandstanding and government incompetence and complicity? Does one talk about the way in which mega-corporations now influence every aspect of our lives, for who can resist a corporation that earns a couple billion dollars in profit every month? Does one talk about how our democracy appears to be in tatters? Does one talk about the shallow reporting and blatant propaganda and the way the government-corporate-security machine blocks real reporting? Does one talk about our own complicity, about our utter dependence on fossil fuels? Does one look for the droplets of hope in this sea of despair? This “spill,” this catastrophic blowout, touches everything, just as oil now touches everything. Can one write sensibly about everything, and the collapse of everything? The only meaningful response must also touch everything.

In 2003 I played a minor role in a much smaller oil spill on the southern shores of Massachusetts. I was a shorebird monitor working for Massachusetts Audubon when several hundred thousand gallons of fuel oil spilled out of a barge making its way through Buzzards Bay. Much of that oil came ashore on the sanctuary where I was working. I learned three things on the day when the representatives of the Federal and State governments and the “responsible party” showed up to “manage” the crisis.

First, we have no effective contingency plans for dealing with oil spills, so the response is “make it up as you go along.” Oil spills are chaotic and unpredictable. We could at least TRY to prepare, which we don’t seem to do at all. Having plans in place, and then following those plans would surely help a lot. BP and the Federal government both appear to have failed catastrophically on this score. But still, I did see first hand that oil spills have a life of their own, and the response has to be both highly coordinated and profoundly flexible, features not apparently built into either corporate or government bureaucracies. Features that are perhaps not fully achievable, which should give us extreme pause about allowing drilling to take place in deep water in the first place.

Second, ego rules the day. Everyone wants a piece of the action, wants to be in charge, wants to be the top dog, wants to stick it to everyone else. It’s hard to find anyone who really gives a damn about what’s happening. It’s hard to be in the middle of an oil spill and not become cynical.

Except, in the case of the Buzzards Bay spill, the people who were hired to do the actual cleaning up. Mostly ethnic minorities, probably not paid very well, many bussed in from all over the country, roaming the beaches in yellow hazmat suits in the hot sun, picking and raking and shoveling the oil into garbage bags. They were, for the most part, disgusted by the whole thing, and genuinely interested in the welfare of the plovers and terns who were nesting on the beach at that time (it was exactly this time of year – seven years ago on this day I was patrolling the beach, educating the cleanup workers about the birds, and updating my sketches of every nesting bird and the oil patterns on their feathers. We couldn’t capture the birds to clean them because that would mean abandoning active nests). Lesson number three: if you want to know what’s going on, don’t listen to the big shots. Listen to the men and women doing the dirty work (unless the Corporation has put a gag order on them).

I had taken the bird patrol job originally because I had been sick for a couple of years with something akin to chronic fatigue syndrome, along with debilitating heart palpitations, and I needed a quiet, healthy, outdoor job. I wanted, more than anything, to become deeply acquainted with the land and the sea, to open wide all my senses and become intimately familiar with one little stretch of coastline and all its inhabitants. I wanted to atune my life to the rhythms of the land and the sea, to orient my life to a Life deeper than myself, and deeper than the stressful human world as well.

Instead, an oil spill on my very first day on the beach, egos galore, chaos, stupidity and many, many sad oily birds, most of whom could not be saved, most of whom were probably never even seen. I left that job sick at heart, even more exhausted than when I went.

And now I see the same thing playing out on a much larger scale in the Gulf. We seem to be incurably shortsighted and negligent, even willfully destructive of the only home we have. We seem to have physical power — fossil fuel augmented power — well beyond the capabilities of our brains, certainly way beyond our level of wisdom and respect. I really don’t understand how short-term profit has managed to eclipse all good sense, but it has. The impression I have of the BP execs is that, in the words of Bruce Cockburn, “they’ve been lying so long they don’t know what’s real.” They are living in a delusional world. But in a sense they are just magnified versions of the rest of us. We have all been living in a delusional world. One in which we believed we could heap any amount of abuse on our planet home, could live for our self-gratification alone, and there would be no consequences. The Earth would just take it and take it and keep on taking it, indefinitely, infinitely, without complaint.

Well, the abused Earth had one too many holes punched in her and now she is pouring out her life blood.

It seems terribly clear to me that we do not know how to think about being part of a living world. We are pretty good at thinking mechanically. We’re great at inventing gadgets. We are amazingly good at spinning theories. We are lousy bad at understanding complex systems. There’s a reason for that. Complex systems — bodies, ecosystems, planets — can’t be understood. They aren’t linear. They aren’t predictable. Small changes create big changes. They adapt. They invent. One cannot control them or master them. If one wants to survive, one can only work with them, attentively. One must learn their rhythms and their ways more deeply than mechanical thinking can encompass. It’s like riding a wave. You can’t predict what it will do. You can only go with it and keep your balance. You need to “think” with your whole body, not just from the narrow confines of your left brain. You have to respect the wave you are riding. Try to dominate it, and it will teach you who the Master is.

Are we learning? Are we learning that we are not the master here? Are we learning that our planet home is beyond our control and comprehension? Are we learning that our planet is alive and dynamic and inventive and ever-changing? Are we learning that we have limited brains that can only see from a limited perspective? More knowledge is not going to save us. Only more humility. Only coming to a full understanding of how little we know — how little we can know — and learning to live sensitively in not knowing.

We are adapted to function at a small scale, at a community scale, where no individual is expected to know everything, and no individual has much power over anyone else. Maybe our institutions have become too big for any human being to manage. Maybe it is not humanly possible to behave decently within such monstrosities. Maybe we have created financial and corporate and government systems too big and powerful for our limited brains to handle, and we need to scale down, rapidly, back to the community scale that we can comprehend. At the very least, we need to figure out how to break the death grip that mega-corporations and financial institutions have on our lives, on our government, on our democracy. We must end the cycle in which the giant corporations get all the reward for unmanageably risky behavior, and the rest of us, and the planet, get all the pain. There is much more being revealed here than negligence on the part of an oil drilling operation.

“Not knowing” used to be the language of mystics. Now it is the language of survival. We need to accept how little we can know, and change our behavior so it is in harmony with our profound ignorance. We could use a healthy dose of caution. From a full appreciation of our limits, knowing how little we can know, comes greater attention to the life that is right at hand, and greater sensitivity to the possible consequences of acting out of ignorance. With “not knowing” comes attention, humility and compassion.

There is so much we can never know. We can never know the living truth that is the planet’s life. Our only hope for survival is the recognition that we are a part of that planet, and if we reach deep enough into ourselves and discover our essential ignorance, we can also find our essential inseparability from the home that is so much more than just a place we occupy. It is our body. We are part of it as much as blood cells are part of the human body. We are currently behaving like blood cells in rebellion against their host, a condition that cannot turn out well. That behavior will end. It will either end before the body collapses, or it will end with the collapse of the whole body. But end it will, because the part cannot attack the whole and survive.

We need to recover our rightful place within the natural order of Earth’s body and the deeper order of being in which even it is embedded. We need to recognize that our intellectual understanding of that larger body is, and always will be, partial, limited and distorted in most of its essentials. We must live with a deep appreciation of our ignorance. The way of “not knowing” is the way of listening deeply. It is the way of learning. It is the way of being fully present to life as it is unfolding. It is the way of respecting Life over self. It is the way of being open to the whole truth. It is the way of creative improvisation. It is the way of love. It is the way of Life itself.

Deep Stillness

I talk about stillness a lot. A revised and expanded version of Waves of Stillness is to be published in the environmental journal Whole Terrain this year. As a word, “stillness” is problematic. There are two kinds of stillness. There is superficial stillness, and there is deep stillness. When I talk about stillness, it is usually deep stillness.

Superficial stillness is the absence of movement. It is a glassy pond. It is a tree on a day when there is not a whisper of wind. Every leaf and branch is motionless and silent. It is a quiet mind. It is a beautiful thing, this stillness. It is the goal of most meditation. It is the rest sought by most retreatants. It is rare in our hyper-busy, high-speed communications world. It is well worth seeking and finding this stillness.

But it is still superficial. It comes and goes. Inevitably the wind picks up and stirs the leaves again. Inevitably the mind starts chattering again. Or the dogs start barking. Or the “to do” list starts forming again.

We see from a leaf-like, superficial perspective. If we get a hint of stillness, and decide we like that, it is superficial stillness that we try to get for our selves.

It is lovely in itself, this superficial stillness, but part of its loveliness is that it points to a deeper stillness. Not the stillness of the leaves on a calm day, but the stillness of the dark soil in which the tree is rooted. That stillness is permanent, unending, regardless of wind or calm. Regardless of a busy mind or a quiet mind. Regardless of motion or rest. It is easy to make the mistake of thinking that superficial stillness can be extended indefinitely, become permanent, and that is what deep stillness is.

But no. The leaf can never know deep stillness. The leaf only knows leaf stillness, superficial stillness. The mind only knows superficial mental stillness, its own quietude. But in the superficial stillness there is at least the possibility of catching a whiff of the deep stillness that lies beneath it.

This is endlessly difficult to describe, because our language is entirely oriented toward superficial reality, toward that which we can touch and taste and smell and hear and see and feel and think and know, toward movement and the absence of movement. So it is impossible to describe deep stillness or explain how it is that it makes itself known. There is no formula for finding it. It reveals itself or it does not. When it does, it leaves the mind utterly baffled, because the mind has no way to explain it, describe it or even be sure what it is.

But when deep stillness does reveal itself, in a timeless, experience-less, wholly conscious moment, that moment will never be forgotten, and it will reorient everything. Because now the leaf knows it is a leaf, part of a vast tree, arising from deep roots embedded in nourishing soil. Paradoxically, the leaf also now knows that it is not a leaf at all, but the whole tree, and through the whole tree, an entire universe. Everything that before was experienced in isolation now is seen in context. And the context is the whole of everything.

Deep stillness is everywhere. It is the whole of everything. It is the deep soil in which everything is rooted. It is where we always and ever live and breathe and have our being.

We think we are leaves that can sometimes grasp a few minutes or hours of superficial stillness, when the conditions are right. In fact we are always and forever deep stillness itself, pouring itself out in the interplay of motion and rest, sound and silence, life and death, everything as it is. We are the totality of everything together, and the deep stillness that holds everything in its loving embrace.

The Insurrection of the Real

Here is my dilemma as a contemplative and a marine naturalist. On the one hand, my experience as a contemplative tells me that this world is essentially perfect. There is only one, perfect unity of being, appearing in a multitude of forms, animate and inanimate. This perfect unity of being is essentially generous and beautiful and loving. Heaven is right here, right now.

On the other hand, I have seen the horrors that humans perpetrate upon each other and other lives. The way that humans slaughter whales is so horrific, especially of course for the whale, but also for almost any person watching the act, that “heaven” is about the last word that would come to mind. Hell is more like it. We are destroying the world that supports us, that makes “us” possible! Destroying it! Destroying ourselves. Destroying the oceans. Destroying the whales. Destroying the forests. Destroying the fertility of the soil. Nothing that anyone has done or said has come close to changing this basic fact. Nothing. We are not moving anywhere near fast enough to avert catastrophe. The catastrophe is already being visited upon the world, and we wealthy humans — anyone technically capable of reading this — are just too insulated from it to see it yet.

I have also seen war at first hand. I have seen the slaughter of the innocents. It is Hell on Earth.

To try to puzzle this out logically leads to a kind of madness. Either I have to pretend that the horrors aren’t really that horrible, which puts me in the position of trying to deny the undeniable; or I have to say that my contemplative insights are utter nonsense, which puts me in the position of discounting the most compelling and joyful experiences of my life. In other words, to get this to make sense in the logical mind, some part of my essential experience has to be denied. How can reality be both perfectly good and perfectly horrible?

The only way that I can understand this — while recognizing that any attempt to understand and explain is going to diminish the lived truth in a way that is limiting and ultimately unsatisfying — is that the real world is fundamentally good and generous and beautiful. Life is a miracle. That is not a belief, it is a reality I have seen and experienced. Hell is exclusively a human invention, the result of having a brain that creates very compelling images and stories, thoughts and beliefs. So compelling are these mental constructions that the whole organism starts acting as if the thoughts and dreams are real, and as if the living world is of peripheral importance at best, or only an obstacle to spiritual perfection, or merely a means to the end of financial gain.

— Virtual Reality

From the moment we awake to the moment we fall asleep, our minds are busy worrying, planning, remembering, analyzing, criticizing, complaining, stating opinions, and most important of all, comparing what is new to what is already known. All this activity creates a sort of virtual reality of the mind: the world as we know it. We are mesmerized by this mindscape, and have been for millennia.

Words and ideas and dreams have tremendous power. To believe one’s own thoughts and opinions, to repeat them over and over and act as if they are true, is to enter a world in which anything seems possible, at least within the self-referencing mindscape. We have become so captivated by the infinite possibilities of what thought can imagine, that thought has taken over. Thought has become our dominant reality, overtaking that which is actually, physically real. We feel more at home in our thought worlds than we do in the living world of forests and rivers and animals and oceans and earth, and pain and death. More and more we really do live in a virtual reality. All of us, not just those of us plugged into our iPods and Xboxes. The mind is its own virtual reality machine, constantly inventing its own reality.

This is how we live now, in our idea worlds – which often stand in violent opposition to the living world. It is shocking to see. We are absorbed in a mental fabrication, a mindscape that has very little to do with the reality of the living world. This has been true for a very long time, but it is getting more and more so as we inundate our two dominant senses, our eyes and ears, with the output of our electronic devices. Our horizon is narrowing. Our felt sense of living and breathing seems to be getting more and more remote. We have now deeply alienated ourselves from the physical, social and spiritual realities that we require to survive.

We have essentially been living within the nightmare of our own thought patterns. We have devoted more life energy to our thoughts and beliefs about the world, than to the living world itself. And although this has been going on for millennia, only in the last few decades, as we have run headlong into the limits of the Earth to sustain the damage, has it become obvious how our idea about the world is out of step with the living world itself.

We are more comfortable in the “virtual” world that exists only in the mind than in the real world that includes other people, other creatures, other life kinds — mountains, rivers, oceans, soil communities, forests, prairies, airspaces — and our own bodies. The living world, with all its magic and beauty and incomprehensible interconnectedness, is what remains when the mind becomes still. The living world shines with its own brilliant luminosity when it is no longer shrouded by the net of thought and concept and belief. It is perfectly magical.

— Reality

What is the real world? Where is it to be found? It is everything, everywhere, and not any one thing alone. We experience it as the fullness of this that is right here, right now. It is the stuff of Life. It is silence-birth-death-life-love-whale-bird-snake-human-river-ocean-forest-rain-sun-heat-cold-soil-insect-rock… It is heaven/earth, spirit/body, energy/matter. It is what the Rev. Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping calls “The Great Unknowable.” It is what actually is, beyond any idea or image that we can have of it. It is entirely out of reach of our concepts, but it is what we are. It is what everything is. Reality is the intricate, irreducible dance of all being.

This living world is profoundly intelligent, organized, self-sustaining, open, unified, spontaneous, creative, interdependent, fearless, and incomprehensibly beautiful.

By comparison, the mind-made world is confused (but awfully clever), confining, defensive, agitated, limited, self-absorbed, mortally afraid of the unknown, fragmented, and deeply unsatisfying. And yet we have devoted the bulk of our life energy to this mind-made world and have acted as if that is the real world.

Why life emerged in the form of an animal with a brain capable of getting lost in its own thought maze, I do not know. It seems that we have about one generation, maybe less, to find our way out of the maze.

— The Insurrection of the Real

My solution, for what it is worth, is an Insurrection of the Real in two parts.

Part One is to stop believing in the exclusive dominion of the mindscape. Stop believing that the mind gives an accurate representation of reality. Stop being a slave to whatever thoughts and beliefs and opinions happen to appear in the mind. See how the mind creates illusion, see how destructive those illusions are, and stop believing in those illusions. Belief here means simply a thought or a complex of thoughts that is repeated over and over until the mind becomes committed to it. Committed to it means that it feels threatened if that thought complex is challenged in any way.

See this in yourself through direct observation of your own thoughts and your own behavior. See which ideas you hold that are easily threatened. If your immediate response is to defend your idea, rather than listen to what is being said, you are in the presence of one of your deeply-held thought patterns. It is very important to see this in yourself and not take anyone else’s word for it. Taking someone else’s word for it is merely adding another book to your library of ideas about the world. Either we each see this at work in ourselves, or it has no real meaning.

For the whole organism, including the brain, to withdraw its unquestioning devotion to the mind-made world is a radical shift in orientation, a non-violent revolution of the deepest order. This revolution happens in an instant, the moment the mind’s illusions are seen and understood. No blood is shed. No lives lost. The mind simply stops believing in its own illusions.

That doesn’t mean it is easy. Facing oneself in this way requires absolute honesty. It requires watching the mind at work as it spins its tales, trapping the actual in its web of opinions, excuses, justifications, hopes and dreams.

Part Two of the Insurrection of the Real is to re-inhabit the beauty, the mystery, the magic and the essential goodness of the living world. In practical terms this means opening all our senses to the world. What does it feel like to walk down the street? What does a thought feel like? Where in the body do doubt and anger and happiness reside? What does it feel like to be cold, or hot, or hungry, or full? Not to be able to describe it, but to know the feeling of it. The sound of the singing bird. The rustling of wind. The rushing of a brook after a rain. No labels, just the sense of it.

Do you know how life feels? How it sounds? Do you know how it feels to dig in living soil, or get entangled in blackberry bushes? Do you know what it feels like to be approached by another animal much larger than you are? Do you know how your life fits in with the natural community in which you live and move?

At times I suspect the whales of being instigators of this insurrection. Meeting a whale is a great way to have your ideas about whales blown to pieces. You are faced with an incomprehensible presence that simply has to be met on its own terms. And as you get to know whales, you realize that the more you think you know, the more likely you are to be wrong.

Whales are infinitely surprising, but this is simply the way Life is: endlessly creative. Only ideas become fixed. Reality continues to invent itself.

— Dwelling In Silence

In my experience, the quickest, and perhaps the only way to come to a true understanding of this, since it can not be captured in an idea or a word, is to dwell in silence.

Silence has a way of forcing confrontation with what is real. In silence there is a heightened sense of being present to what ever is happening. Stepping aside from the mental voice that is constantly labeling, commenting, criticizing, demanding, or trying to understand, the senses open. Alertness dominates. Thoughts, images, and sensory experiences come and go, each one vivid, alive, and fleeting. The silent alertness endures. Thought becomes like a tool that is taken up and set aside as needed. Flexible, like Life itself.

Spend a little while in silent contemplation of all experience as it comes and goes, and the mindscape dissolves. For all its apparent ability to eclipse reality, the mind-made world is so fragile and insubstantial that it requires a strange combination of constant maintenance and deep inattention to keep its illusions intact. Silent alertness instantly unmakes those mind-made illusions, which is probably why we allow so little silence in our lives. We do not want to be reminded of what is real, and how devoted we are to our illusions.

It becomes obvious that our sense of who we are is derived almost entirely from the mental activity of the commentating voice, the voice that judges and criticizes and keeps score of rights and wrongs, and wishes for more, and sorts and categorizes and decides what it likes and what it doesn’t like. Very little of our sense of who we are comes from our raw sensory experience of the world. Even less comes from our alertness to that experience. And hardly anything comes from a sense of being an expression of the actually real, all unseen and unknowable, that resides behind and within the living world, everything that is, and everything that we are.

Dwelling in silent alertness, being as fully present to the whole movement of life as possible, makes this apparent. The mindscape is a deeply inadequate representation of the real. And yet, when the mind is very still and alert, there is a feeling of the whole movement of life that is going on beyond the reach of sight and sound and thought. There is an echo of that in which we are moving, and which is moving through us, all out of sight and out of mind. That is the real world, unknowable though it may be in its wholeness.

If the exploration of silence is followed to the end, it leads back to the body, back into nature, back to Earth, with a subtle but significant difference. What changes is the locus of identity. The sense of “who I am” shifts from “me alone,” to “everything together.” Maybe for some people the shift is complete. For me it tends to flip back and forth. But once you have dwelt in silence for even a moment and felt who you are in the dance of everything, nothing ever looks the same.

Silence invites seeing the world in this way, in its order, beauty and goodness. Seeing the world this way invites living this way. No longer held in the trance of the mind’s distorted image of the world, we can let the real world live and breathe, through us, through all things, through everything together.

Oh, to stop, to give up everything, all belief and all seeking and all understanding, for one moment, and be launched headlong into the dynamic, unpredictable wonder of being here, of being this, this particular unfathomable life.

Oh, to be this deep well of silence, and everything pouring out of it into the utter perplexity of being.

Oh, to be so perplexed, so undone, so tossed by the waves of being.

What will you do when your search for understanding eclipses the living of that which you can not understand? Which will win your heart? Hell or Heaven? The known or the unknowable? The noisy chatter of self-perpetuation, or deep silence? The predictable and rather shabby entertainments of the mind, or Life itself in all its wild, dancing, utterly mysterious actuality?

Not to Destroy, But to Build

Reflections on a gospel passage “I come not to tear down the Law but to fulfill it.” I first wrote this almost two years ago, but it is terribly relevant to me right now.

It seems to me that this gospel passage shows that Jesus was struggling with a challenge that is highly relevant to us today. For him to say something like “Do not say that I have come to tear down the Law” must mean that people were in fact accusing him of that very thing. Which means that his actions and his words were perceived as a challenge and a threat to traditional belief and practice.

But he replies to this criticism, “I have come to fulfill the Law,” which sounds to me like this, “I am honoring the very foundation on which the Law is built, on which all religion is built. If the edifice of your beliefs and practices is falling it is because those beliefs are not true to the foundation, not because I am tearing them down.”

Now, it seems to me that we face this same challenge today. The structures of our societies and our economies, our thought structures and many of our religious structures, are not true to the foundation of Life. They serve only themselves. And many are in full-frontal assault on the foundation of Life on Earth. So how do we, as people who wish to remain true to the foundation, which is the fundamental unity of all that is — which expresses itself as love of oneself, love of neighbor, of enemy, of life forms alien and mysterious to us humans — how do we stay true to that foundation of unity and at the same time deal effectively with the structures — in which we ourselves are deeply enmeshed — that perpetuate genocide and biocide?

People the world over identify deeply with the super-structures of belief and tradition that they hold dear. Yet so many of those structures must fall or be transformed if Life on Earth is to be reclaimed. People, all of us, will feel that what we hold most dear, our very sense of self, is under attack. How do we, with Jesus, say “I have not come to tear apart but to fulfill. Not to destroy, but to build. It may feel like an attack on the foundation, but it is not. There is a deeper foundation to be rediscovered. Let the false fall away and the truth return. Let the structures that are destroying Life fall away and let new life grow from the still-healthy root.”

How do we do this? Can love transform the world? How does love approach those who feel threatened by the change, those who feel that all they hold dear is under attack, including their very sense of identity? How do we allow our devotion to belief and tradition and security to fall away, if that is the consequence of being true to the foundation of radical, inclusive love? How do we bear witness to the truth, knowing that there are many edifices of society and self that will not stand under the scrutiny?

If we are to survive the coming decades, and if we are to live on an Earth that is vitally alive with all manner of life forms, radical change must come. To welcome that change we will have to know what is true and what is false, and we will have to know how to let go of many of our most cherished possessions, those possessed in the mind, and embrace the living truth.