I wrote these down about a decade ago and thought I would dust them off and share them once again. They don’t say everything about my perspective (leaving out especially my amazement and delight at the intelligence and creativity of the other animals and my insistence that they not be treated like commodities or “resources”). These “ways” came into view for me over the course of an extended period of solitude. A few will be familiar to Buddhists: impermanence and interdependence particularly. But I did not learn them from any religious or spiritual tradition. They are not matters of belief. You can test them against your own experience and verify their validity. Continue reading “Six Ways of Life and One Human Illusion”
Watching whales is like the best kind of meditation. It is completely baffling.
Meditation isn’t really worth anything unless it exhausts all of our strategies and concepts and opinions and plans and ideas about who we are and what the world is, and leaves us with nowhere to go and nothing to do. Leaves us with nothing at all to grab onto, no safety net, no life raft, no “self.” Nothing but this moment in its marvelous, incomprehensible actuality.
Well, maybe watching whales doesn’t do that for most people, but it does for me. Whales are extremely hard to observe. They are completely at home in a medium we can barely approach. They appear but briefly in our view, and from those brief glimpses we construct an idea of who they are and what they are doing. We can attach cameras and time-depth recorders to their backs with suction cups, and those stay on for a few minutes or hours, expanding our glimpse a little bit.
But all we ever get is a glimpse. And from that glimpse we concoct an entire world: our idea of what a whale is.
Most of us don’t realize it, but this is exactly what we do with our own lives as well. All we ever get is the tiniest glimpse of the world. Even our own life is largely unknown to us. The brain has functions and purposes and motivations and decision-making processes that remain forever unconscious. Like the whales, we are largely mysteries, even to ourselves. Other people, other animals, other life forms, are entirely mysterious. A tiny glimpse is all we ever get.
And from those fleeting glimpses, we construct a world view. We patch all the gaps and cracks with our ideas, with a creative surmise about what it all means. We walk around pretending we know exactly who we are and exactly what the world is, imposing our world view onto the world, all the while not really having a clue. And we don’t even know we are doing this. We think the world we know is the actual world. We pretend we have it all figured out, and all under control. We happily ignore the fact that all we get is fleeting glimpses.
Meanwhile the world lives beyond any ability of ours to grasp it and understand it.
The thing about watching whales is that even if you are very observant and keep careful notes and spend years following them around, they keep surprising you. They keep inventing new behaviors. The keep baffling your expectations. You can not possibly figure them out. All you can do is enjoy them in their actuality, and play the game of trying to understand them, and stay open to the truth as it reveals itself, always new.
This is a simple and obvious fact about observing whales. It is also a simple and obvious fact about observing our own lives. But it is hard to see this in ourselves. We want very much to believe that we know who we are. We do not like the feeling that we are driven by powers and processes hidden from our own view. We do not like admitting that the “me” of conscious understanding and experience is not the truth.
But this remains true, whatever we think or feel about it: Like whales, we are a mystery, even to ourselves. Our lives go on largely out of view. We often do not know why we do what we do. We are more unconscious than conscious. We pretend we know. We invent stories to explain ourselves to ourselves. But we do not really know. What we know is but the exhalation as the whale comes up to breathe. We ignore the disappearance back out of sight. We stitch together the conscious experiences, and pretend that the patchwork result is “true to life.”
The thing about watching our lives is that even if we are very observant and keep careful notes and spend years in meditation or therapy, we keep surprising ourselves, and each other. We invent new behaviors. We baffle our expectations. We can not possibly figure each other or ourselves out. All we can do is enjoy each other and ourselves in our actuality, and stay open to the truth as it reveals itself, always new, always surprising, always deeply mysterious. Just like watching whales.
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.
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.
One late summer day, six friends sat on the ground, eating lunch and talking about the state of the world, the nature of enlightenment, and our own paths and beliefs. I sat, eating, saying little, watching ants drag our crumbs away. As we parted one friend said to me, “I wish I knew what it was you weren’t saying.”
But how can I talk about something that can not be described? One day, 22 years ago, a new perspective arrived that was beyond description, beyond any of the beliefs and opinions I had about myself and about the world. It wasn’t experienced in the way we normally think of experience, as an external happening. It wasn’t held the way beliefs are held. It was more a realization of what is false than an experience of what is true. Yet this realization stayed with me as the most vital moment in my entire life. As the false fell away, for that timeless moment, I had a sense of being at the very center of the outpouring of all that is, all energy, all matter, all Life. Every mote of dust, every animate and inanimate life, and the dance of it all was seen as the holiest of holies. Suddenly it was seen that this intricate, irreducible dance is our own true being and always has been. There is no “me” that is separate from everything else. It was terribly obvious.
But it was years before I could speak of it. There were no words for it. There were no concepts that could contain it. Words reduce the irreducible. I knew instinctively that such a thing could never be described, only lived.
So how do I convey this to anyone else, this indescribably beautiful, joyful reality in which all lives and moves, and has its being, even in the midst of what appear to be the horrors of the world? How do I demonstrate that nothing needs to change for everything to change?
I keep trying to explain. We live in illusion. We think that the beauty and balance and harmony we long for is off in some distant place and time. We think that we have to get that raise, or that perfect job, or avoid getting sick, or we have to elect the right leaders, or get enlightened, or go to heaven, or convince everybody to think the way we do, or solve all the world’s problems, and then we will be happy, then all will be well. All of that is illusion. All the beliefs we have about ourselves and others, all the concepts we have about the world, all the experiences we seek, all the fulfillment we think we need, all the stories we tell to make sense out of it, all the projection into the future of our dreams of perfection: exclusive devotion to all of that is the problem. Everything we need is right here. For thousands of years we have been devoting our precious life energy to our ideas about reality, and neglecting reality itself.
When I try to explain this, everyone gets the words. Everyone gets an idea that they fit into their existing framework of ideas. They add another chapter to the story that the mind tells to reduce the world into something the mind can understand. They don’t see the story-making process at work.
It is in seeing the process at work that the beauty behind the fiction is revealed. Blind devotion to the mind-made story, mistaking it for the real, is driving the chaos and destruction. As long as this continues, suffering continues. Not only personal suffering, but planetary suffering – the suffering of all that seeking and wanting projected world-wide. Often this astonishing beauty, this elemental goodness, only reveals itself when the story falls apart, through illness, through loss, or through a surprising encounter with the incomprehensibly real, a whale, a forest, a lover. Then the limit of the mind-made image is revealed, and Life itself becomes the real. And even Life is seen to be but a wave on the surface of the deeply real. To see this, to really see it, changes everything.
Are loss and ecstasy necessary to reveal this? I think not. This story-making is active all the time. The startlingly real is managed and reduced into the existing framework of belief and opinion and concept a thousand times a day. This can be seen any time, but the force of devotion to the unreal, half-baked stories of the mind is so strong, it can take a tremendous shock to divert attention back to the real, even for a moment.
What is the real, the actual, beyond the mind-made image? This, right here, is it. This, right here, right now, is alive. And being alive it can not be captured by an image in the brain. All we ever know is an image in the brain: the dead past. We are this being alive: the living present. Always. Yet we live in devotion to the known image. We constantly attempt to flee from the unknown reality. It frightens us.
Is there anything anyone can do or say that will dissolve that fear, and allow the real to live and breathe in our lives again? Can anything free the mind that lives in perpetual self-defense, the mind that needs to pretend it is the source of everything, the mind that thinks it can live forever, the mind that believes its image of the world is an improved substitute for the living world in its astonishing actuality? It only takes one moment in the embrace of the real, but the mind is perpetually fleeing from the freedom of that embrace. It wants more. It wants something, anything, other than this that is, right here, right now.
I know that reality is good and beautiful and generous, and that all that beauty is obscured behind a veil of concepts and beliefs and images and stories, the only things the mind can grasp. I know that to see this with total clarity in its complete obviousness is very, very good news, a huge relief, the easing of millennia of burden.
This seems very important. The end, perhaps, of the planetary catastrophe. The end of fractious belief. The end of conflict. But I don’t know what to say. Because when I speak of it, the words disappear into the mind-made stories that we tell about ourselves and the world. Once again the spontaneous gift of being alive is appropriated into the mind-made story of “me” and “mine.”
And I think that maybe it is better to keep silent, and let the silence ring, and let the wind blow, and let the galaxy spin, and let light reflect off water, and let hearts beat and whales sing, and let time and space dissolve into silence and reemerge again and again, and let the mind pretend it understands, and let the ants crawl away with the crumbs, and let reality speak for itself with much greater eloquence than all these words.