I somehow thought that the key to waking us up to the dire situation of the earth right now, and the key to rapidly finding solutions would be for us to wake up to our true nature, to see the false nature of the mind-created self, and the deep truth of who and what we are. It doesn’t appear to be working out that way. I am finding the words inadequate. I am finding that no one understands them, unless they understand them already from their own powerful experience of the deep unity of our existence. Without that experience, they are just more words, of little or no use.

And I am finding that there are people who are claiming to be “awakened” to their true nature as “consciousness”, who nevertheless seem to have little or no understanding of or concern for the unprecedented ecological catastrophe that humans are visiting upon our earth home. They may well be doing some hidden good for the earth, but it’s hard to tell.

I just watched the new Julian Lennon movie, “Whaledreamers.” The movie is about the Mirning people of Australia, a nearly exterminated indigenous people who have an ancient tradition of dream communication with the whales. It is not a great movie. Some of the whale footage is beautiful, and aspects of the story of the Mirning are moving and inspiring, but the movie is a bit too hip and superficial for me to get very excited about it.

And yet, this one thing does come through the gloss. Whales change people’s lives. Whales are waking people up, to both the environmental devastation we are visiting on the the earth, and to our essential unity as integral parts of a living planet. This has been my experience, and it is the reason I love my whale work. With one look, a whale can communicate the whole thing. You are not the separate little organism you think you are. You are this amazing thing called Life. We are one being, like one superorganism. I’d have to say whales are most likely the brains and we are merely the hands. God help us, the hands think they are the brains and are choking their own true brains and the world that is their true body.

All it takes is one look from a whale, and many people get this immediately. But so few of us ever get to look a whale in they eye, that it then becomes the job of people like me to try to convey that experience, and the vital message it transmits, to those who have never seen a whale, have never had the experience of oneness. It is like being an ambassador from a world that has a language that can not be translated into any human language.

Words create distinctions. In unity, there are no distinctions. Unity doesn’t mean similar to, or connected to. It means one. We are one. There is only the one. There are no separate things. Humans just like to pretend we are separate and act as if we are separate, apart from all the rest. But we are not separate. Not from each other. Not from the whales. Not from earth. Not from cosmos. Never were. Never will be.

Somehow whales know how to communicate this fundamental unity. They communicate it in a way we all can understand, without words. I wish I knew how they do it. That is what all my words attempt to convey, not the idea of unity, but the fundamental fact of unity. We and the whales and the whole earth and the whole universe are one living entity. When we do harm, we are harming our very selves. Not figuratively, literally.

Oh, never mind. Find yourself a whale, and hope she looks you in the eye. You’ll never be the same.

What Now?

The other night we were talking about our environmental impact and looking at ways we can reduce it. The overall feeling that I took away from that conversation is that we are not thinking any where near radically enough. All our ideas are tinkering at the edges. What we need is a total, communal, global revolution in how we live. We have a human society that is growing rapidly in both sheer numbers of people and in the standard of material comfort we demand. The planet is already near the breaking point, and suddenly billions more people want, and are building, the standard of living we have here in the over-developed world.

So, wrapping the hot water heater, and installing solar hot water panels, and turning off our lights, and carpooling, while good and useful things, seem utterly inadequate. We need a whole new way of living. “We” means all of us. We need a miracle. And we need it now.

There are signs that little shifts are happening all over the place. But most of those shifts appear to be more cosmetic than deep. We need a radical shift. A shift at the very root of who and what we are and how we live. Not just a greener image. Not just a new president. A deep understanding of and orientation to our place in the natural order.

I am continuously frustrated by several attitudes that stand in the way of focusing our intelligence and energy on creating a new way of living.

There is the old attitude of “It’s not really a problem. I don’t have to change anything.” Simple denial. Increasingly difficult to maintain, but lots of us are holding on anyway.

Then there is despair. “It’s too big a problem. There is no way we can all change that much in that short a time. So I’ll just carry on as always and hope it doesn’t hit me too hard personally.”

Finally, there is false hope. “Look at all the shifts taking place. Look at the new president. Just relax. It is all going to work out just fine.”

Denial. Despair. False hope. All deadly.

Here is my feeling about this. Total, radical change is possible. It is necessary. It is inevitable. We will bring it about or it will be forced upon us by circumstance. The former is far preferable.

But to bring it about we need to set aside our denial, and our despair, and our false, easy hopes. We need to open our eyes. We need to get to work. We need to be ready for radical changes in our lifestyles and material comforts. Yes, I do think so. Most of the green gurus want us to think the easy changes will suffice. Just change a few light bulbs and all will be well.

And they want us to believe that infinite growth in every one’s material comfort is still possible. But we have to be ready to give all of that up. In fact, the fastest way for all of us to survive is simply to stop demanding continuous growth in our material lives. Every other approach is going to take too much time and way too much luck.

The idea that infinite economic growth lies at the heart of our well-being is a relatively new phenomenon in human society, and a very new thing on the planet. A strictly human invention. I am no economist, but as far as I understand, this growth is fueled by an economy based essentially on lending with interest, and on legally-mandated corporate profits. This is seen nowhere else in the natural world. It has to go. It is already falling apart.

Looking at my own life, I can see that a big part of the resistance to change is based on fear. It is based on various beliefs about who I am and what I need and what I want, all of which go into making up my sense of self, who I think I am. That is why I have spent so much time talking about the self, the illusory self. We are so committed to maintaining this idea of ourselves. More committed to that, it seems, than to the well being of life on earth.

This situation we find ourselves in really does seem to require of us that we cut our ties to the past. I mean the past that tells us who we are. The past that tells us what can and can not be done.

Who knows what is possible? The other day I was pretty much slapped down, at least that is how it felt, for my attitude that I can do something to save the whales from destruction. That I can do the impossible. When all I was trying to do is get a bunch of other people to care enough to look at their own lives and figure out what they can do, what we all can do together. This is not impossible. Why is it labeled impossible? We are the source of the problem. We are the source of the solution. Maybe impossible for me alone, but not at all impossible for us together. What is truly impossible is that we will all continue to live as we are living now, and the outcome will be different from the toxic catastrophe we see now.

Our assumptions about who we are and what we need, and what is possible, are destroying the planet, our home, the source of our lives. We are in major self-destruct mode. All in the name of having more for our selves. Crazy.

There is no blame here. We are all doing the best we can. And we can do much better. We simply don’t need all this stuff. We don’t need it to be happy. It doesn’t make us happy.

The poorest 3 billion people on the planet do need more to live decent lives. But you and I do not need any more. We need less. Much less. There is so much we need to shed. Assumptions. Guilt. Blame. Rationalizations. Fear. The past. The false self. Tons of stuff. The planet needs for us to possess less.

Let it all go, and face this moment in all its wonder and its dynamic complexity. Face it fully, falling neither into despair nor into false hope. Do all the obvious and easy things, and then dig deeper, into the very heart of who we think we are. Every moment, drop the assumptions of the past. The assumptions of last year. The assumptions of yesterday. What is possible now? And now? And now? What now? What now?

Donella Meadows liked to say, there is just enough time for this radical change, if we start now. I would put it slightly differently. There is just enough time for this radical change, and that time IS now. Now is the only time we will ever have.

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 Be Missed

I have written surprisingly little in this blog about the natural world. When I first conceived of The Natural Contemplative I had a double purpose in mind. First, I would write about contemplation from the perspective of one who sees contemplation as a natural part of every life. I have read that only about 1% of the human population are “natural contemplatives.” With this I wholeheartedly disagree. Whatever these others mean by “contemplative” it is not what I mean. We are all natural contemplatives. Most of us are merely unaware, perhaps even a little afraid, of our contemplative core. Unaware and perhaps a bit resistant to the truth of our own being. Or perhaps we know it, but call it by another name.

Second, I wanted to write about the natural world that is so dear to me, especially the whales and seals I have come to know in myriad ways over the past 13 years or so. I thought I would be writing about the intimate link between our contemplative nature, and the contemplation of nature. The link between our deepest nature and the deepest nature of all life. The inextricable bonds and intertwinings and interdependences. The song we share with whales and seals and birds. How meeting another wild animal can thrust you instantly into an understanding of your own true nature. The fallacies of independence, autonomy, mastery, domination, conflict, exploitation, self. The unutterable damage we are inflicting on ourselves through the damage we inflict on each other, on earth. The ultimate conclusion that there is no “other.” All damage is ultimately self-inflicted. The harm we do to another is done to ourselves.

It turns out these are really hard things to write about.

There is no common language, no common frame of reference within which to discuss these things. The belief in separation is so profoundly written into our language and our ways of thinking that it is nearly impossible to talk about the perfect unity of being.

Both eastern and western spiritual traditions are usually caught in apparent dualities. I grew up in the Christian tradition, so I know quite well its dualities. Good vs. evil and all that. Its emphasis on achieving eternal life and rather peripheral concern for the life we are living right here, right now, especially the rich and beautiful lives of other animals, of rocks and rivers and trees and soil and sky. There is little if any love for these living entities. There is even a denial that we are animals. There is us, made in God’s image, and then there is everything else, everything lesser than us. We are going to heaven, if we believe the right things. The dominant tradition hardly seems to care where everything else is going or about loving the richness of this life.

But I have also spent time among believers and practitioners of eastern traditions, especially Buddhism. And like the Christian longing for heaven, the eastern traditions have their preference for enlightenment, nirvana, transcending this illusory world and dwelling in some purely spiritual plane that is free of the hurt and illusion of this bodily, animal life. Even among self-proclaimed “non dualists” there is a not-too-subtle dualism that prefers “pure consciousness” or “being the observer” or “detachment” to the complexity of being matter-earth-animal-human.

Even the non dualist who proclaims “everything is consciousness” can’t seem to escape from a subtle dualism. This goes back to the language problem. Immediately the mind wants to interpret this statement by countering, “so everything is not body.” Consciousness=good. Body=bad.

I started this blog because I was tired of hearing two things: that spirituality is basically about personal salvation or personal enlightenment, and that the material world, the earth, the animals, our own bodily lives, don’t have any spiritual significance. Bodies suck. Best get free of them. And the bodies of animals and rocks and rivers really suck. Best get free of all that. After all, those things die. What good can they possibly be?

I have spent some time recently reading the work of Adyashanti, who is a spiritual teacher, about my age, coming out of the Zen tradition. I initially enjoyed encountering his writing because his approach to meditation resonates with my own, and that is a very, very rare thing. Even among meditators I have always been a bit of an oddball. I still deeply appreciate what Adya is carrying into the world. His message is very straightforward, relatively free of spiritual jargon, and clearer than any I have heard for a long time. He goes to the root of the thing in a way many people can understand. I have never met him (I will next spring) but my impression is that he is carrying a loving presence with people that is quite rare. About 90% of what he says makes perfect sense to me. Read his book Emptiness Dancing if you are interested.

But I find myself increasingly frustrated with his lack of concern for the natural world and the body. In a recent interview he was asked, “Are the body and physical sensations illusory?” His reply was “Yes and no. Ultimately everything is a dream, and yet you still have to deal with the body… it’s still going to hurt if you bump your head.”

What a sadly impoverished sense of what it is to be a body! Good God! It’s just a bloody inconvenience? Not a word as to the glory of the web of life. Not a word as to the incredible beauty and grandeur of mountains and whales and wolves. Not a word as to the joys of rain and sun and feeling the caress of wind on skin. Not a word about the intricate and intelligent web of life. How sad. And Adya is one of the better ones. He speaks of the danger of getting stuck at the place of “being pure awareness” and how important it is to carry that awareness back out into life. He speaks of the importance of not trying to hang out in a false bliss state. Yet he has little good to say about being a body and he doesn’t seem to care if we trash the planet. Oh well, everything dies. That’s the way it goes. It’s all a dream anyway.

So as you can see I have a fair bit of anger about this. No one seems to be talking about the deepest insights of contemplation – the riches that flow out of silence and the understanding that the sense of being a “separate self” is a mind-created illusion – while at the same time really loving this animal life. I wanted to try to do that, to bring those two worlds together, to reunite heaven and earth, spirit and matter, but it is turning out to be a tricky business, which just goes to show how foreign it is to our ways of thinking about and seeing the world and our place in it. In trying to explain it I more often feel torn in half than successful at reunification.

If I am anything, and I resist all labels, I am probably some kind of non dualist. From what I have seen, there is only one thing. Spirit and body are the same thing. Distinctions exist only in the mind. They are a story, a convenience, a fiction, an illusion. Really, there is only one thing, one being, one energy matrix that forms and reforms into temporary nodes, including of a type (which we call a “nervous system”) that is able to “read” itself after a fashion. Who knows what is really going on? No one! All we know is what a tiny portion of the brain says it thinks is going on, or what it invents to fill in the gaps in its knowledge.

My whole adult life, and maybe longer, I have wanted to understand the very root of the reason why we are here in this form, and the reason for all the apparent misery, personal and planetary. I have wanted to know why we are so unhappy, so destructive, so exploitative. And I have wanted to know what is possible for us. Is the peaceable kingdom a fantasy or a reality? Is it a description of an afterlife or a description of this life – a hint at the underlying reality of this life that we merely fail to see? Is this mess for real, or are we merely blind and ignorant and locked in our own limited perceptions and mental frameworks? What is really real?

I have had enough glimpses of a vibrant, beautiful, glorious, sacred, joyful, generous, loving, welcoming reality hiding in the cracks between all our misery that I have needed to understand deeply what the hell is going on here. I have needed to understand the workings of my own mind, with the understanding that my mind isn’t essentially different from anyone else’s. We are all working with the same basic mechanism. And it determines how we see the world and how we respond to the world, far more than most people want to admit.

But trying to understand the mind, even observing one’s own mind at work, is a dense thicket. It’s fascinating, but one can get rather tangled up in it.

I keep having to pull back to the basics. Yes, I want to understand the very root of suffering, the root of greed and violence and the feeling of separation. I want to understand the root cause of devotion to ideology. But I also want to recall what I do know and to embody it.

Explanations, theologies, philosophical frameworks aside, one thing is clear to me. The foundation is Love. This is not an idea I have, it is something I have seen very clearly, more clearly than I have seen anything else. Clearer than a clear blue sky. I can not for the life of me, for all my thinking and investigating, answer in a way that satisfies my mind or anyone else’s, why deep love should take the form of war and rape and child abuse and flood and famine and children blown apart by land mines and drug addiction and exploitation of the planet and religious fanaticism and all the rest of it.

But I do know that all of that mad mess is also an expression of this one beautiful thing. Somehow maybe it just has to be this way, for no particularly good reason. I don’t know. But given the choice between this world exactly as it is and some imagined bliss world, I would take this world any day (well, most days!), for the simple reason that I have been around long enough not to trust my fantasies of perfection. In the end those fantasies have caused me much more suffering than anything life has sent my way. And the things I love most in my life happened like accidents. I never saw them coming, and I would never want to have lived without them. Good things and “bad” things.

So which is more trustworthy here, life, or my idea of what life should be? I’ll take life as it is, thank you very much. This life is so rich and mysterious and wild, can I really imagine anything that would be an improvement?

I am inclined these days to think that the source of our worst problems is the belief that there is something better than this life exactly as it is. Paradoxically, the way to make this life infinitely better is to embrace it and be embraced by it exactly as it is. Everything in this body/brain thing has been trained to resist this life as it is. This body/brain has been taught that there is always something better. A better job, a sexier mate, a perfect heaven or state of pure consciousness, a faster car, whatever. The list goes on. There is always some safer, disembodied, detached, airbrushed, virtual reality that is better than this messy bodily life. There is always some reason to despise this that is. To despise the world. To despise our own lives. To despise our bodies. To despise the animals and the plants. There is always something better than this, just around the corner. Human meaning derives from striving for that something better. This is what we have conditioned ourselves to believe. This is what we are taught from the very beginning.

What if… What if all that striving for something better, and the lack of love for this right here exactly as it is, is what is making everything appear so messed up? What happens if we stop striving and improving and really get to know this right here? What happens if we fall in love with reality?

Oh my. It’s unbelievable. What riches we have been missing. What bliss! What joy! What wonders! What sorrows! What disappointments! What successes! What failures! What laughter! What tears!

There is no imagined, hoped for, or virtual substitute that can hold a candle to this life, exactly as it is. The “nothing” and the “everything.” The tangible, lively world and the unknowable deep silence out of which it pours. The material known that is a wave on the surface of the deep unknown. Grasp at one or the other and we live a fragmented life. Allow both together and we have heaven on earth. Right here. Right now. This. Exactly as it is. The whole shebang. Not to be missed.

Visits With Whales

We had an amazing experience yesterday aboard The Prince of Whales, which is a whale watch boat operated by Newburyport Whale Watch in Newburyport, Massachusetts. Cynthia and I joined Head Naturalist Dianna Schulte of the Blue Ocean Society to provide educational context on the trip. I have collaborated with Blue Ocean as an educator for the past five or six years.

After sighting a few fin whales in the distance who were spending very little time at the surface, we were suddenly joined by a young humpback, later identified from its fluke pattern as Lutris, which means “otter.” Lutris is the six-year-old offspring of Lava. Before we identified him/her, we assumed it was a much younger juvenile, because Lutris spent close to an hour with us, right next to the boat, continuously checking us out, behavior that is more common among younger whales.

Several people who were on the lower deck had the very great honor of being looked in the eye by this magnificent creature. Several times s/he rolled over to bring one large, pink eye out of the water to look at us. For a six-year-old to show this much curiosity and persistence in visiting a bunch of humans on a boat is fairly unusual, and it was a great privilege to be among those visited.

Nearly every one of us on the boat felt an almost irresistible urge to jump into the water. People were hanging over the rails, trying to get as close as possible to Lutris as s/he passed. It felt to me like we were being called home, like it was an intentional communication from Lutris to us, one which we recognized at a deep and unidentifiable level. Something very unusual was going on in this encounter. Something was being communicated, something we all felt, and experienced as an urge to be as close to the whale as possible.

Several times we tried to leave, because our time was running short, but Lutris maneuvered into our path and would not let us go. Lutris was maintaining contact even when we were ready to break it off. It is unavoidable. Lutris was reaching out to us. The only other time I have felt such a clear connection and communication was when we encountered another young humpback who was entangled in fishing gear. That whale’s call for help, which we and others were able to provide in the end, was inaudible, but unmistakable. Lutris was not calling for help, but was seemingly making contact.

There is a strange phenomenon that occurs when one is visited by a whale in this way. Afterward, the whole experience slips away like a dream. We spent an hour with Lutris but it felt like minutes. And looking back, it was hard to believe that it was real. To be visited by such a huge wild creature, who is obviously intelligent and aware and purposeful and curious, just doesn’t compute in the brain somehow.

That inability truly to process the experience makes it feel a little surreal. But it is very real. It is the honest truth. It makes one realize what a marvelously inadequate thing this little brain is for truly understanding the living world. We are deeply embedded in beauty and wonder, and we hardly even know it. It remains a deep mystery to us. But when one meets a whale, or is met by a whale, in this way, one comes into direct encounter with the limits of the brain’s ability to comprehend, and that in itself opens up new horizons of possibility for engaging with this world. It is utterly impossible, in my experience, to go back into the human-dominated world after an experience like this, and feel quite the same way about it.

Clearly, the human is not the be-all and end-all of creation. The human is embedded in a magnificence it can not even comprehend. And the whale is also part of that magnificence, and so is all of life and all of everything. It adds dignity to our lives to see ourselves in this light, and also takes away our pretense of being the best and the brightest of all creatures.

I don’t know if it is intentional, but one of the things the whales are doing is putting us in our proper place in the order of things. It is a more humble place, but it is also a more beautiful and happy, and truly majestic place than the self-centered arrogance that has dominated human behavior for the past several thousand years.

Welcome home.