Contemplation Is An Unmediated Encounter With Reality

Contemplation is essential to addressing the ecological crisis. Unfortunately, contemplation is not very well understood. Contemplation is not meditation, it is not mindfulness, and it is not prayer, at least not if we want to understand contemplation as an essential part of addressing the ecological crisis at its root. At its heart, contemplation is an unmediated encounter with reality. Reality is the whole of what actually is. Contemplation is an encounter with the whole of everything, an unfathomable encounter with reality. Continue reading “Contemplation Is An Unmediated Encounter With Reality”

We Must All Be Changed

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. I met Dr. King on April 22nd, 1967, slightly less than one year before he was killed. I had just turned six. He was coming to Brown University to speak, and my father, who was a chaplain at the university, was given the job of meeting Dr. King at the airport. I went along for the ride and shook the great man’s hand. I remember the total attention that he gave to me as he met me. Two weeks earlier, he had come out publicly and forcefully in opposition to the war in Vietnam, and an ocean of criticism had fallen on him for doing so. Here was a man carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, and yet, he had the time and attention for an unknown six-year-old white kid from Rhode Island. Continue reading “We Must All Be Changed”

Metanoia

I have been following and occasionally commenting on an article in Orion magazine by Derrick Jensen called “Self Evident Truths.”

The other commentators frequently refer to a book that Derrick co-authored called Deep Green Resistance (2011), which advocates a resistance movement that includes the use of violence to bring down industrial civilization. What follows is a slightly modified version of a comment I made on the Orion site earlier today.

I’ve been operating under the assumption, which was common twenty years ago (cf. How Much is Enough (1992) by Alan Durning), that a more modest, European style life is sustainable. That using 90% less electricity than the American average (which we do, and which is perfectly comfortable) is sufficient. That driving less, and eating more local food and no grain-fed animals, and drinking fewer bottled drinks, and not flying, and mending clothes rather than buying new, and fixing things rather than replacing them, and keeping a computer for a decade rather than a couple of years, and eschewing the whole smartphone/cell phone thing, etc etc is enough. That converting to solar for heat and electricity is good enough. I thought it was sufficient to live with less of this stuff. That the American (now mostly global) “way of life” is so obscenely obese, that trimming the fat is enough. That giving it all up entirely is not necessary. And that may still be true, although we are not even close to doing any of that trimming!

But now I am not certain. I am not entirely convinced, but I am at least unsettled by Derrick’s position, which is that the entire package of civilization as we know it is unsustainable. That any importation of materials from outside your immediate region is unsustainable. That any use of fossil fuels is unsustainable (this is unequivocally true – no finite resource can be used indefinitely). That any mining of minerals is unsustainable. That any exploitation of labor is unsustainable (this one seems more a moral stand than a physical one – unfortunately, exploitation of labor can probably go on indefinitely in a strictly biological sense). I reject absolutely the use of violence and destruction to bring down the system because I feel they are part of the system that needs to be transformed, but the advocacy of a strict definition of sustainability is compelling.

What kind of life would we be living without any export or import of materials, without any fossil fuels, without any mining of minerals, without any exploitation of labor? What if we include animals in that? How would we live without any exploitation of human or animal labor? Now we are back to being hunter/gatherers with perhaps a bit of permaculture thrown in. Or if we compromise a wee bit on the animal part, we can include being pastoralists (shepherds, goatherds, nomadic reindeer herders etc).  What else is there that is completely harmonious with the processes of life? How else can we be human animals, where absolutely everything we take from the Earth is given back in a form that is useful to Life? What else can it possibly mean to live sustainably?

I ask these questions in all seriousness. From this strict definition of sustainability (which is the only definition that the Earth cares about) nearly everything we do now is unsustainable. It all has to stop one way or another.

I agree with Derrick that to participate in the current industrial economy is de facto to live a life of violence and exploitation. That is part of the structure of civilization. Theologian John Dominic Crossan calls it the “exploitative normalcy” of civilization and argues that Jesus was calling his followers to reject that system absolutely, both in the external circumstances of their lives and even more potently in the internalization of that system in their own behavior and thinking (cf. The Birth of Christianity (1998)). I have been making that argument for a couple of decades. But I still reject the intentional use of violence to combat what is for most of us the unintended violence of a system we were born into and are trying to find a way out of. Violence can not end violence. There has to be a better way.

The Civil Rights Movement is a fine example of positive, nonviolent, coercive resistance, but my understanding is that Dr. King, toward the end of his life, was beginning to realize that the sickness at the heart of the American individual/social/economic/military system was so deep that the tactics of the movement were inadequate. Something more like a religious conversion was needed, what Jesus called metanoia — a complete transformation of heart and mind. Resistance tactics were adequate for achieving limited political and social gains within the exploitation system, but not for transforming or unravelling the system itself. Dr. King got into big trouble with his movement colleagues when he started addressing the root sickness, because that sickness is in all of us, and we much prefer to project it onto someone else. Like it or not, this is not an us-versus-them problem. It is an all-of-us-together problem. That doesn’t mean there aren’t a few people who are benefitting from the system at the brutal expense of everyone and everything else (and that “few” now includes most of us in the industrialized world), but it does mean we will get nowhere by projecting all of our fear and anger and blame onto them.

J. Krishnamurti (1895 – 1986) said in his book, Beyond Violence (1970),

“… unless there is a fundamental, radical revolution in the psyche, in the very root of one’s being, mere trimming, mere legislation on the periphery, has very little meaning. So what we are concerned with is whether man, as he is, can radically bring about a transformation in himself; not according to a particular theory, a particular philosophy, but by seeing actually what he is. That very perception of what he is, will bring about the radical change. And to see what he is, is of the highest importance – not what he thinks he is, not what he is told that he is.”

This still seems to me to be our best and perhaps our only hope. That we see things (ourselves included) as they/we truly are and stop deceiving ourselves. That in itself brings about a radical reorientation without any violence or coercion. I have seen this in action, and I known how powerful it can be.

That still leaves open the question of how much is enough and how much is too much. It still leaves us pondering the meaning of sustainability: we must use only what we truly need, and absolutely everything we use from the Earth must be given back in a form that is beneficial to Life. It still leaves us with the urgent question of whether we can change course quickly enough and soon enough to avert catastrophe. But I am convinced we can not answer those questions adequately and on the scale required, where it actually makes a global difference, without a radical transformation of heart and mind. Without that transformation we inevitably fall back into violence, the endless repetition of that ancient ill.

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.

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.