Contemplation is essential to addressing the ecological crisis. Unfortunately, contemplation is not very well understood. Contemplation is not meditation, it is not mindfulness, and it is not prayer, at least not if we want to understand contemplation as an essential part of addressing the ecological crisis at its root. At its heart, contemplation is an unmediated encounter with reality. Reality is the whole of what actually is. Contemplation is an encounter with the whole of everything, an unfathomable encounter with reality. Continue reading “Contemplation Is An Unmediated Encounter With Reality”
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.
Cynthia and I are getting ready to lead a workshop called Voice of the Earth at the Partnering With a Green God conference in Sharon, CT. I always find it challenging to speak in public about these things, because I feel I know and understand so little. But going into it does have a clarifying effect.
I’m not clear about much, but I am clear about this:
In the real world, there is no past and no future, only this that is happening right now. Past and future are ideas. Dwelling exclusively in the idea of past or future blinds us catastrophically to what is happening right now, Life in all its wonder and complexity.
Our senses do not give us an accurate representation of reality. The known is dead and gone. The living truth is unknowable. To live in devotion to the known, the mental image, is to live in conflict with reality, because reality is dynamic, always new, and the known image is static, always old. We do tremendous violence trying to force reality into the mold of our image of reality. Reality cannot be known, only lived in not-knowing. We think we know, but we do not know.
Bringing awareness to our predicament, without any thought-movement away from it whatsoever, brings some other factor into the equation. I call it “emptiness.” When emptiness is discovered, it is at least possible that the mind will reboot, will alter its operating system in the face of the fact that its own behavior is clearly causing all the misery. But this must be seen in its actuality, not believed in theory.
Beyond this, I really don’t know much. That “other factor” — which I call variously emptiness, or stillness, or silence — remains mysterious and can become an obsession in itself, because it feels so big, so godlike, so far beyond one’s own puny brain. How else could it be capable of seeing the truth, when the brain is so good at dodging the truth? Attention, or awareness, or emptiness, is very mysterious indeed. One wants that in one’s life. But turning it into an object of pursuit or belief or another identification creates a real barrier to being present to the whole of what is right now.
Emptiness is always present. Whether one thinks of it as something that is present to everything, or as the space in which everything is happening; emptiness remains, ungraspable, unknowable, always present.
One other thing that I feel is that we humans have a very hard time letting down our guard enough to allow the experience of others to impact us – other people, other animals, other life forms. It is only through love that we can enter into that experience. We have to want the other to be the other, to be what they are, and not diminish the other with our desire, or our fear. We can never know the other through analysis, dissection, or the absolutely-common projection of ourselves onto them. To know the other at all we must set ourselves aside and listen. To enter into the truth of the other involves a loss of self most people find impossible or too frightening to contemplate except perhaps in a very few relationships.
Paradoxically, becoming grounded in deep emptiness creates the feeling of oneness — that I am the whole movement of life — and at the same time exposes my deep ignorance about what the world really is. In regard to the encounter with whales, I feel that we are each other, and at the same time that the whale is so foreign, so other, that the relationship requires the greatest possible caution and respect. And so it is with the whole world. We are each other, and we don’t know anything about each other. Respect and caution and undivided attention are essential.
I seek the sanctification (to make holy, to make whole) of the whole world. The human economy seeks the commodification (to buy and sell, to make convenient) of the world. How with this violence can the sacred compete? How with the stimulation of the senses can the depths of not-knowing compete? How with all this agitation can stillness compete? I feel like an ambassador of two unknowable realms, deep silence and the lives of the whales and seals. I know nothing about either and yet I feel myself to be an ambassador for them, since they do not often speak for themselves in the human world. They can. Of course they do, but humans don’t generally listen.
It isn’t that often these days that I get to have a real honest-to-goodness experience of the nondual nature of reality, but for some reason it came in the middle of the night. In the wake of that timeless, spaceless “moment,” the mind came roaring in for several hours with its attempts to describe, explain, return to, claim ownership of, categorize, and so on, this inexplicable “experience.” This amazing thing shows up and the mind just desperately wants to understand it, and is utterly incapable of doing so, not for lack of trying!
The “experience” itself, which is more of a non-experience, is simply the two-fold sense that the self is an utter illusion, and that reality is absolutely undivided. There really is only one thing, one being, one entity, which encompasses everything. The strange thing about being the only thing in existence is that there is no “other.” All-one-ness is absolute aloneness. The beauty of things appearing as separate is that they get to experience reunion. They get to experience love. In the all-one there can be no “experience” of anything, and certainly not of love.
So maybe love is what this whole thing is here for. Maybe everything, all these seemingly separate things, are here to fall in love. The one appears as two so there can be a me and a you and we can fall in love and revel in the mystery of our other-ness.
But underneath and within all of that, there really is only one. There is no other. So there is nothing to lose and nothing to gain, and all the conflict based on fear of loss and striving to gain is utterly unnecessary, born of the illusion of the “self,” but still there is only one and even all of that illusion is an expression of the one.
Strange stuff. There really is no me and no you. Not really. But there is, of course the vivid appearance of a me and a you. And that is as it should be, because all-one-ness is pretty flat without the dance of “me” and “you” that takes place within it.
But without knowing that the me and the you are really illusions, love becomes struggle and conflict and fear. So it seems like the very nicest thing is to be fully involved in the dance of other-ness, without the fear that comes from believing that other-ness is the final and ultimate reality.
Knowing the essential unity of everything makes separateness a dance instead of a battle. Experiencing our other-ness makes unity a dance instead of a flat and featureless field of nothingness.
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.
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?