Emptiness Changes Everything

If you want to understand contemplation, and therefore contemplative ecology, you have to become acquainted with emptiness. You can’t bypass emptiness and understand why contemplation has the potential to address the root causes of the ecological crisis. The encounter with emptiness is a fundamental stick in the spokes of the operations of the human mind and all it wishes for and all it projects onto the world in the myriad forms of exploitative desire, that endless grasping for more. Emptiness negates all of our attempts to affirm our independent existence. Not too many people want to go there, but contemplation cannot be understood without emptiness.

Emptiness is not to be found in its description. The thing that actually reshapes a life cannot be described. My own words do not do it justice. Emptiness unmasks all of our images and replaces them with incomprehensible reality. If it doesn’t turn a life on its ear, it hasn’t been seen, or it has been seen and dismissed. Buddhists speak of emptiness (sunyata) as the flip side of interdependence. That is, because everything is absolutely interdependent, everything is empty of independent existence. In other words, emptiness is the interdependence of absolutely everything. This is good as far as it goes, but if it remains only an intellectual formulation, it barely hints at the “turn your life on its head” effect of actually seeing the truth of emptiness, of discovering that you do not exist in the way that you imagine you do, as a separate, independent self. It is hard to accept that all of one’s life energy has been poured into the maintenance and defense of a fiction. What a waste of life energy.

Emptiness is the key. Emptiness is what makes contemplation inherently ecological. The emptiness (non-existence) of the separate self is the presence and interaction of everything. Without emptiness, contemplation might be understood as stillness or quietude or self-reflection, but not ecology. You might have an idea about wholeness or oneness or interdependence, but you don’t necessarily experience it. You don’t get the whole movement of life rushing in, where before you had a separate self, trying to make its mark on the world and trying to get the world to fulfill its desires and confirm its beliefs. Emptiness is the loss of every belief and every idea and every image of one’s self and the world. Emptiness takes away everything we think we are, and brings us into contact with the whole of everything, exactly as it is, beyond all images, all experiences, all ideas, all stories, all beliefs, all understanding. Emptiness changes everything.

In Wildness Is Our Salvation

The human exploitation system is swallowing up everything wild and innocent. Yet what can we do? We are products of that system and we live in that system and getting out of it requires profound changes in human thinking and behavior. The changes required in the human psyche and human society run so deep that even those few who want to change, who see the necessity for change, find real change very difficult. We tinker at the edges and hope we are doing something profound.

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Breaking the Frames

When I was a college undergraduate, I studied the theoretical underpinnings of Freudian psychoanalysis with J. Giles Milhaven, a former Jesuit priest and professor of religious studies at Brown University. One of the central concepts that I took away from my studies with Dr. Milhaven was the therapeutic necessity of what he called “breaking the frame.” His belief was that problems in human relationships come mainly from the way that we frame those relationships; the belief structures that we build around our relationships to make sense out of them and align them with our own needs and desires. Not all of our frames are dysfunctional. But when our framing stories are too far out of alignment with reality, we expend useless energy trying to force the world back into our frame, instead of allowing our frame to adjust to reality. This is the source of much of our distress: our framing of reality is out of step with reality itself yet we remain committed to our frame.

Our frames are intimately intertwined with our sense of who we are.  To dissolve one of our essential frames is to lose our sense of self. We are so committed to our mental frameworks, that we usually fight like hell in defense of the frame, even as it diverges further and further from the truth. In those cases where our commitment to our frame is absolute, the only solution is for something outside of us, some person, some situation, some unexpected force, to break the frame. Something has to happen that exposes the false frame, allows it to be seen at last for what it is. Not reality; merely a way of interpreting reality. Not the self; merely a story about the self. Not the other; merely an image of the other.

This is not an easy thing to go through. We pin our sense of security, our sense of identity, on our mental frameworks. When the frame is broken, we feel truly lost for a time.  This is well known to everyone who has lost anything that helped define our life: losing our health, losing a job around which we organized our life, losing someone we love, discovering that someone we trusted has been deceiving us; discovering that the system that supports us abuses others. The loss is hard enough, but the disorientation that comes with the breaking of the frame can be completely debilitating. We resist this disorientation, so we can carry on for years beyond the point at which we receive the first clues that our framing story is out of alignment with the truth. We resist and resist and resist the loss of the frame, because along with the frame goes a solid sense of identity. The frame is the boundary of the self. Without the familiar frame, who am I?

My work with Giles Milhaven was very influential. A lot of my frames have broken over the years, and it has never been easy. But I also have seen that ultimately it is healthier to stay in touch with reality than it is to carry on in conflict. It is easier to have a fluid and adaptable sense of self, than it is to have a rigid and fixed identity that is in conflict with the living world.

And I have seen that the framing of reality is not only something that happens in the individual; it happens to entire cultures, especially now when so much information is channeled through mass media and shared by millions of people almost simultaneously. When a distorted frame is shared, it becomes more and more possible for us to participate in mass delusion. It is hard enough to break the individual frame. It is even harder to break the societal frame, because we seem to be wired to conform to societal norms. We prefer to do what our peers are doing, to think the way our peers are thinking, to care about the things that we perceive our peers to care about, to look like the images that claim to convey what our peers look like. The risk of not conforming is isolation, being ostracized, kicked out of the community. If we rebel at all, we usually rebel within a subculture to which we continue to conform.

The planetary ecological crisis requires the breaking of frames at many levels: individual, societal, economic and political. A truly daunting prospect. I find myself frustrated with most attempts at change because they end up being the sort of change that tries to massage reality into the existing frame. Very rarely does anyone dare to break the frame. The consequences are too frightening. We react violently when someone tries to break our frame before we are ready. The frame is “me” until it is broken, so I will fight to the death to preserve it.

This is a great conundrum. Fundamental change is required of us at this time but most of us are not ready for the change. We are committed to our worldview, not to the world. We are willing to tweak the system, but not to turn the system on its head. We want our life to go on in its familiar track, not to change everything. We want security, not uncertainty. We want more, not less. We want to keep the frame intact and just change the picture. If someone tries to break the frame, or the Earth breaks the frame, we will resist. But the frame has to break nonetheless. Life depends on it now.

An example of changing the picture without breaking the frame would be our hope that technology will solve all of our ecological problems. The techno-optimists believe that we can solve all of our problems with solar panels, wind turbines, smart grids and electric cars. The only change required is a change of means, not a change of self or society. It won’t work. As long as we have a sense of self – or an economic system – that endlessly demands more and more, the technology won’t help. We’ll keep needing more of it, and the planet is already groaning under the weight of our perceived needs. Emphasis on the word “perceived.” These are not real, biological needs. They are needs arising from how we frame reality, including our sense of identity. The frames need to be broken. How do we do that without creating a backlash? How do we get around our resistance to essential change? That is the conundrum.

There is no easy solution to this. We are not yet ready to break the frames that define us in relation to the natural world. All I can say right now is that the longer we postpone the reckoning with reality, the harder the reckoning will be. The farther we push the physical limits of the planet, the harder the crash will be.

Take one example: Imagine a world without fossil fuels. Not 100 years from now when some unlimited fantasy fuel has magically appeared or the beleaguered Earth has somehow supplied us with the raw materials and the land to build millions of solar panels and wind turbines and hydro dams. Now. Imagine your life right now without fossil fuels. The blasting and drilling and fracking and pumping have stopped. Coal and oil and natural gas are gone. How does the limiting of your mobility, your autonomy, your employment options, your material security – all of which are presently tied to the availability of fossil fuels –  affect your sense of who you are, of how your community is structured, of what you can do?

Which of your frames – your fundamental assumptions about who you are and what the world is and what you expect the world to give you – are dependent on fossil fuels? Are you willing and able to abandon those frames for the sake of life on Earth?

Fear of Missing Out

My experience of contemplation is that at its core it is a way of being fully attentive, to others, to the Earth in all its manifestations, to one’s own inner experience. And more than that, it is coming to be aware of the deep “emptiness” that makes all such attentiveness possible. In practice, contemplation means being still, being quiet, and being alone. What makes contemplation difficult is that it requires absolute honesty. One eventually has to face the truth about oneself. In stillness, all one’s blemishes, prejudices, erroneous beliefs and deep fears are exposed.

The reward is an even greater ability to be attentive, a deeper engagement with the movement of Life in all its complexity and pain and wonder. At moments, it involves a stunning sense of belonging to something unimaginably beautiful and creative and generous: the living universe.

Contemplation appears to me to be irreconcilable with the electronically-hyperconnected world of smart phones, iPads, Facebook, texting, Twitter and 24/7 news coverage. The mantra of our day is that electronic devices and social media are connecting us in ways never seen before. That may be true, but at the risk of being dismissed as an old fart, I have to say that this hyperconnectivity is also disconnecting us profoundly right at the moment when we most desperately need to be deeply connected, not to our electronic devices, but to deep wisdom. I have not yet seen any evidence that iphones and Facebook connect us to our deepest wisdom. But deep wisdom is what we need most as we move into a hotter, more crowded, more polluted, more conflicted world.

The most disturbing aspect of the digital media world is the way it is reorganizing our brains away from attentiveness and toward fragmented busyness. I do not have a cell phone or a Facebook account. We do not have high-speed internet at home. But I do spend some time online. I do update this blog now and then. And I find that the more time I spend online, the less able I am to pay attention to what is right in front of me. My attention span is shorter. I am more impatient. I don’t listen as well. I find it harder to be still for long periods.

If I am experiencing that restlessness and inattentiveness, then what about the people who spend most of their day with their iPad and their Blackberry and their Facebook and their Twitter feed? Are they forgetting how to listen to their own friends, their own spouse, their own children, their own hearts? Are they forgetting how to listen to the wind, to the birds, to the trees? Are they forgetting how to listen at all?

We act and we talk as if this change in our behavior is inevitable and desirable, but from a contemplative perspective it is neither. This digital thing claims to be about connection, but it sure looks like it is mostly (if not entirely) about disconnection and the fear of not being part of the latest thing. I hear there is even an acronym for it. It is called FOMO: Fear of Missing Out. This new technology is sold to us by tapping into one of the most primal human fears: fear of being excluded from the group.

The contemplative life also includes the Earth community. It is more concerned about what is good for the whole community of Life, than it is about what is good for me, or satisfying for me, or stimulating for me. The digital revolution is an unmitigated disaster for the Earth community. What is the life span of a cell phone? About 18 months. Hundreds of millions of them are thrown away every year. Only about 10% are recycled. We have four dead computers in the house, three of them only a few years old, and we are not heavy users. (At least my original Powerbook lasted over a decade before the logic board failed. My twenty-two year old Mac Classic still works perfectly!) Where do we think all that trash goes? Barry Commoner’s Second Law of Ecology states: there is no such thing as “away.” It goes into the soil. It goes into the air. It goes into the water. We eat, drink and breathe our waste.

And where do we think we get the electricity to power all these devices and the server farms and the cell towers that connect them? Coal. Oil. Nuclear fission. Natural gas. More and more and more.

It’s another bubble, like the dotcom bubble and the credit default swap bubble. It can not last. It carries the seed of its own destruction. The Earth can not support it. What will happen when the electronics fail us and we have to face ourselves again, when we open our eyes to the world beyond the little screen, and discover that we have wasted the planet that is our true home and diminished its possibilities?

Fortunately, the Earth is still alive, even though greatly diminished already in its biodiversity. It is still beautiful. It is still generous. It is still fascinating. It is still mysterious. If we could start and end each day connecting to the natural world, even if it just means looking out the window at the sky for five minutes, instead of checking our Facebook walls, it might be enough to remind us what truly matters, who we truly are, where we truly belong. For the more courageous, we can sign off Facebook and face ourselves in silence. Start and end each day in silent contemplation, in communion with reality.

This is the joke of our supposed new-found connectedness. We were never disconnected in the first place. We are already profoundly connected through our participation in the movement of all Life. Disconnection is impossible as long as life remains. What we do to the planet and to each other we do to ourselves. In our illusion of disconnection we invented devices to “connect” us. But because they plaster over the source of our true connection, they ultimately disconnect our sense of who we are from reality.

I thought I might find a way to reconcile the new digital hyperconnectivity and some sort of contemplative practice. But I see that it can not be done. Contemplation is devoted to deep silence, which is where our true connection, the one that never fails, is to be found. Electronic devices are not merely a shallow substitute, they are a distraction, a nuisance, ultimately a lie. They get very much in the way of discovering the deepest place within ourselves that is the connection to everyone and everything. Not the connection of separate fragments into a conglomerate, but the original, undivided whole that is the essence of reality.

If you can manage not to be afraid of missing out on the latest thing, set it all aside for a while. Turn off all the devices. Walk away from them and be alone. Be still and watch the trees. Let them teach you what it means to be connected in reality. They are masters of interconnection. They don’t need the latest gadget to do it. And neither do we.