Contemplative Prayer

In March I led an introduction to contemplative prayer at the Dummerston Congregational Church in Dummerston, Vermont. I have posted an edited transcript of that introduction in the essays section of my website.

Contemplation remains for me the most potent antidote to the insanity of the modern world. It doesn’t appear to accomplish anything, but in fact it touches every aspect of our lives and reorients us in exactly the ways we need right now.

Here is an excerpt:

“Fleeing to the desert is a way of standing against the dominant social order and returning to a more elemental way of living. The harsh desert environment strips things to the essentials. I would guess that fleeing to the desert in some form is a human practice as old as civilization. It is a way of getting free of cultural and social norms, which wield immense influence over our identity and behavior. Very practically, it was a way of fleeing persecution and oppression. Women and men fled the cities to escape from the exploitation built into civilization’s norms and structures.

“But even more potently, fleeing to the desert, and by extension contemplative prayer, is a way of facing oneself at the deepest levels, and perhaps to see through all in the human mind that is illusory, destructive and life-defeating. Without civilization’s distractions, we come face to face with ourselves in our actuality, including those aspects of ourselves that our busyness, our compulsiveness, our conformity to social rules, and our immersion in entertainment usually obscure.

“Contemplative prayer is profoundly optimistic, because the assumption is that what one will find if stripped to the core, is not evil, but blessing, a communion with reality that is beyond words…

“…although in its origins this practice of sacred presence was applied to the inner life, and still has a profound role to play there, in our current age it is just as important to bring this kind of deep listening to the natural world.

“I have found that in essence there is no difference between the inner and the outer worlds. The distress we see in one is mirrored in the other. The beauty and wonder also. The sources of our very being are to be found in both.

“So I encourage taking time, every day if possible, to be alone, without books or music or any agenda at all, in the natural world. Just listen deeply to the wind, to the movement of the trees and plants, to the singing of the birds, to whatever is happening. Not to add to your bird life list or identify or categorize. Just listen and look and be present in love, inwardly and outwardly. There are riches beyond imagining to be found in this.

“The plants and the animals, the land and the sea, are also part of the creative world. They have gifts for us we have lost and forgotten. They are intelligent and communicative. They are not layered over with civilized concepts, they embody unity and interdependence. We can re-learn that from them, if we simply pay attention to them without imposing our agenda on them. We have so much to learn about living in balance, from the trees, the grass, the birds, the other mammals, for me the whales and the seals have been my best teachers. Just by observing freely who and what they are in and for themselves.

“We have spent many thousands of years imposing our will on the Earth. Even now, we are often more concerned with imposing our solutions than with listening to what the Earth has to tell us. How can we solve a problem if we do not truly understand its cause? And how can we know the cause if we do not listen and learn from what we see and hear? Deep listening, which is the heart of contemplative prayer, is a vital part of the re-engagement with the Earth that we so desperately need right now.”

Contemplative Ecology

Since I wrote this piece, contemplative ecology has become more widely known, although not all of us who use the term use it in exactly the same way. For more on what contemplative ecology means to me, see Contemplative Ecology: Contemplation for a World in Crisis.

In my last post I wrote about conservation spirituality, and I alluded to the fact that my own spirituality is essentially contemplative in nature. A year or more ago I was casting around for a term I could use to describe what I do, because there didn’t seem to be a ready-made form I could fit my work into. I came up with the term Contemplative Ecology. I did a Google search and didn’t come up with any results (there are many more now) so I decided it was unusual enough to describe my odd little endeavors.

Before I had really thought much about it, I liked the term because it simply brought together my two primary areas of interest and endeavor: contemplation and ecology. I have been involved in some sort of contemplative practice for more than 30 years. I have been studying whales and observing the natural world and working in environmental conservation for 20 years. Increasingly, the two have been joining into one. The insights I have from contemplative living have been merging with the insights from observing nature. The lessons of contemplation have become more and more applicable to the environmental crisis. The insights that come from observing my own mind at work seem to apply to the natural world, and the insights that come from observing the world seem to be relevant to my inner life. There is an essential seamlessness to it all that speaks of a fundamental unity where there are often thought to be absolute distinctions, of mind and body, of nature and spirit, of self and other, of nature and human. And so it seemed appropriate to describe what I do as Contemplative Ecology.

Ecology, as I understand it, is the study of the interrelationships inherent in all natural systems. The First Law of Ecology, to my mind, is this: There is No Such Thing as a Separate Thing. Everything is and belongs to and contributes to and derives its essential existence from, a system of nested, interrelated systems. A thing can not therefore be understood outside of its context, outside of its relationships, outside of its interdependencies. Ecology involves observing everything in context and beginning to understand (very difficult) the intricacies of interrelationship that make things what they are.

Contemplation involves deep attention to one’s own mind and body and experience. It is ecology applied to oneself, applied to the workings of one’s own organism. The same ecological lesson applies. There is no such thing as a separate thing – no such thing as a separate “self.” Everything that happens is connected to something else that happens. The brain itself and all its thoughts and imaginings would not exist without a bewildering host of intertwining influences, from sun and rain and soil and plants and water, to spouses, parents, schooling, job stresses, cultural assumptions going back thousands of years, and what you ate for supper.

It seems to me that anyone who goes deeply into ecology will arrive at contemplation. And anyone who goes deeply into contemplation will arrive at ecology. And both will see that the human and the natural are one and the same, and the inner/outer, self/other distinction is at its heart a false one.

And both will see the really terrible errors of thought that humans have made, separating us from the natural, and separating the natural from the sacred. And with those thoughts come the horrors we have introduced into the world, all based on the fallacy of separation. As if humans uniquely exist apart from everything else.

To me, contemplation and ecology are the same thing. The only thing that separates them is the false separation between the inner and the outer. But because that distinction is so sharp for most people, the term Contemplative Ecology becomes useful. It illuminates the fact that contemplation need not be inwardly focused and ecology need not be outwardly focused.

There is one more aspect to contemplative ecology that needs to be explained. It is an elusive one. It is really the core of the thing, but impossible to pin down. It eludes all descriptions and definitions. There is a strange fact about contemplative practice. It becomes necessary, in speaking of it, to use words like “emptiness” and “void” and “stillness” and “silence.”

It sometimes occurs that a period of contemplation or meditation is exceptionally quiet, that the mind is very still and alert, not asleep. When this happens, at least for me, there is an overwhelming feeling of being -in essence- one vast body that includes the whole of everything. A boundlessness. And later, when the natural boundaries of body and thought reassert themselves, a feeling of deep affection for all beings. Why should this be so? Why shouldn’t a time of deep silence be merely vacuous? Why not merely empty and meaningless? Why so pregnant with affection, with love, with deep connection to everything? This is the core insight of contemplation: behind the veil of experience is an “emptiness” that is also wholeness.

The same insight can be reached through ecology. One might begin by observing one plant or animal or ecosystem in detail, and thinking of that thing as a separate thing. But the more one observes and tries to understand, the more elusive the “thing” becomes, as one sees more and more clearly that the thing is really a complex mix of energetic relationships and not a separate thing at all. The moment can come when the “thing” slips away entirely, and one realizes that there is only this vast network of interrelationships. No thing can be grabbed hold of at all. No thing can be definitively pinned down. The only reality is the wholeness in which every “thing” swims. “Things” are convenient descriptions of temporary states of the whole.

Starting with a part and being led to an encounter with the whole, which includes one’s own being. It is the same in contemplation and ecology. It is the heart of Contemplative Ecology, and perhaps the healing of our troubled world.

The Singing of the Seals

I have always wanted to hear seals sing. There are many stories and legends out of Scotland indicating that seals are great lovers of music and great singers as well. There is nothing in the scientific literature about this at all. Not a word as far as I can tell.

I have called to seals with my penny whistle and had them appear out of nowhere to listen. My partner, Cynthia, once heard a harbor seal sing a single, pure note as it surfaced next to her kayak. In our musical duo, Coracle, we play several tunes that are thought to have come from the singing of the seals.

But until this past summer, I had never heard the seals sing.

Cynthia and I are planning a concert that will take place on February 21st in Bellows Falls, called The Seal Woman’s Sea Joy. The concert will feature our seal music, and other music inspired by the sea and our deep connection to the creatures of the sea.

In fact, we were writing the description for the concert just days before we heard the seals sing. I have talked to a few people now who have heard the seals sing, so it is not quite as uncommon as I had thought, but still I can not find any mention of it in any scientific journal or book.

We were camping on the coast, in a location that for various reasons I shouldn’t disclose, when we were awakened just before sunrise by one of the strangest sounds I have ever heard. We were deeply puzzled by it, and lying in the tent we tried to figure out what it was. A radio in the distance? A dog barking? Someone singing? Some strange sea bird unfamiliar to us? The wind?

It hit us nearly simultaneously, I think. Seals. We were hearing the singing of the seals.

We scrambled out of the tent, grabbed binoculars and microphones and ran out to the point of land. And there, on a rock exposed by the low tide, were a couple of dozen seals. Far enough away that we could not see them very clearly, and are still not sure whether they were harbor seals or grey seals. Either is possible. Or both.

They sang for about an hour, while the sun rose. My recordings are marginal, thanks to gulls, wind noise, the crashing of waves, and the slapping of mosquitoes. But we will be using the best parts in our program on the 21st. But, more important, now I know it is true. Seals really do sing. I don’t know if they are actually singing songs. That would require a repeated pattern to the vocalization, and I have not found any repetitions in my small sample of recordings. But they are melodic. They are lovely.

Well, not to everyone. A fisherman was out there collecting seaweed from the exposed rocks, and the recording clearly catches his commentary on the singing seals, “They sure do like to holler, don’t they?” About an hour later that same fisherman was out there in his boat shooting those very same seals. Not for food or clothing. Just for spite. A common practice, we were later told.

It was an incomprehensible whiplash of shock to be delightedly listening to the seals sing one moment, and helplessly watching them being slaughtered the next. We couldn’t make sense out of it then, nor now. Their singing was a profound gift to us, and it surely drew attention to them, bringing death to we do not know how many.

In the old legends, killing the seals was also common practice. But invariably those who hurt the seals hurt them selves in some way. The seals saw to that. On the other hand, those who helped the seals, or just loved them, were always rewarded in some way, with abiding friendship if nothing else. We wonder what harm this fisherman has brought upon himself by slaughtering these innocent singers. The fishing way of life is dying, and the fishermen take it out on the seals. We wonder what benefit he and his fellow islanders might reap if they can learn to love what they now hate.

And I wonder if the seals are really singing. It is impossible to calculate the good that was done for whales when Roger Payne and Scott McVay discovered that humpback whales sing, and spread their songs throughout the human world.

If seals are singers too, it might awaken us once again to the intelligence and beauty and social sophistication that shares the planet with us.

Once upon a time I was fascinated with SETI, the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence. Well, we don’t even recognize intelligence when it is in our own back yard. Often enough we kill it. What makes us think we would recognize it, and honor it, if it came from outer space?

I am told that along the Maine coast, shooting seals is a thing of the past, maybe two generations gone. And I understand that seals are generally flourishing, the elimination of cod having opened up food sources for them in many areas. The human battle against the seals is one the humans are sure to lose, one way or the other. Either we will fail to exterminate them, or we will succeed in that, and lose the opportunity to learn from them, to appreciate them, to fall in love with them, and with the other life forms that share this magical, singing world.

The Insurrection of the Real

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

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

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

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

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

— Virtual Reality

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

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

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

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

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

— Reality

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

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

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

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

— The Insurrection of the Real

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Dwelling In Silence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not to Destroy, But to Build

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

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

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

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

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

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

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