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.

Contemplative Inquiry: A Radical Approach to the Environmental Crisis

My diagnosis of the environmental crisis is that it is essentially a spiritual crisis. We have become utterly lost spiritually, and so we are susceptible to every huckster who comes along promising us wealth, wish fulfillment, escape, adventure and excitement, tons of sex, or whatever our brains happen to be craving.

None of that works. None of that fills the void that we feel, except very temporarily, so we are caught in a perpetual cycle of seeking more. Increasingly, not even traditional religious beliefs fill that void. That became particularly true for me as I saw the major religions at best slow to respond to the degradation of the natural world and at worst blind or indifferent to it. More interested in salvaging a human-centered cosmos than in looking very clearly at what is going on, at what we are doing to this precious Earth. More interested in getting to heaven than in noticing the heaven we already inhabit.

So for me this spiritual crisis requires a radical solution. Meaning, simply, going back to the root. Nothing less will do. We must reclaim the very root, the very deepest foundation of who and what we are.

All the religions are founded on an experience of this root, and then the root has become lost in a forest of beliefs and doctrines and institutional survival mechanisms. Too often, our truth has gone no deeper than belief, and belief is always subject to being contradicted by reality, and therefore threatened by it, and then we become reactive and defensive of our beliefs instead of open to and grounded in reality.

To go to the root means to realize what we truly are. This truth can not be conveyed in words, because words create distinctions and categories, and the truth is inherently indivisible. It must be seen. It must be encountered. It is being lived right now, at all times, within and around us. We only fail to recognize what is staring us in the face all the time. And in that failure we become lost and confused and frightened. We think we are separate, and with that thought we create separation. And then we seek security and comfort anywhere we think we can find it.

“Contemplative Inquiry” is a fancy term for a very simple turning to see what is real, and to let go of all that is superfluous. It is so simple. The only reason it seems hard is that it is not a mind thing. It is not something the mind does. It is bigger than that. It is where the mind comes from, it is what the mind is. The conscious mind doesn’t even know the whole mind, doesn’t even know why it is doing what it is doing most of the time. All it can do is make up a story that tries to create a feeling of coherence out of that which it does not truly understand. The mind can not even comprehend itself. How can it comprehend the whole movement of reality?

Meanwhile, there is within us and around us all the time, this quiet presence, this deep silence, watching and listening and opening to everything exactly as it is. And this silent presence is our most essential nature.

This silence is mostly unnoticed. Those who notice it by some miracle, often by some terrible loss or grief, usually ignore it in the end, because, after all, it is only silence. Not very interesting. Not like all those promises of more stuff and peak experiences and wealth and knowledge and power!

But those lucky few who attend to silence discover riches beyond imagining. They discover their own true self in absolutely everything that is, in life living itself, all an expression of this deep silence, the still center of all that is.

Being thus filled, they can never be tempted by promises of fulfillment. Being thus emptied, they can never feel threatened by reality.

Be still. Realize the root of all things.

There is a tendency to talk about the need to find a new framing story that will guide us to better behavior, to a better relationship with nature. And while it is true that an old story has wielded tremendous influence — the mind loves a good story, being itself the great turn-reality-into-story machine — any story is ultimately a mind-created thing. A story can not therefore describe the living truth.

Nothing can save us now but the living truth. The truth of what actually is right now. Not what we want. Not what we believe. Not what we desire. Not what we crave. Not what we think. Not even what we experience or imagine. What is. What actually is: the one thing we never pay any attention to because it is so simple, and so seemingly uninteresting and unfulfilling. Yet it is the whole of everything. It is superabundance. It is the living truth that the mind can not grasp. And so the mind must learn its true place in the order of things and give up its throne. It resists and resists, like any tyrant. It cajoles and promises like any addict. It is addicted to itself, to its own version of reality.

In the end it surrenders, as it must. And when it does, it finds peace. The peace of knowing what it truly is and where it truly belongs. Each and every one of us must see this living truth for ourselves. No one can give it to us. No belief system can contain it. No institution can mediate it. No guru or teacher can transmit it. No expert can convince us of it. No story can generate it. It is too deeply intimate a thing for any of that. It must be seen for and in one’s self and in one’s world, or it has no reality and no meaning.

There is tremendous possibility in this, because the solution to the whole thing lies in something that is immediately accessible to every one: it is the one universal truth, irrespective of culture or religion. It lies in our common identity as human animals in a deeply interconnected universe. And, deeper still, in the deep silence that abides within and around and through all that is; the deep well of being; the silent, indivisible one; the still center of us all. The very root.

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.