Deep Stillness

I talk about stillness a lot. A revised and expanded version of Waves of Stillness is to be published in the environmental journal Whole Terrain this year. As a word, “stillness” is problematic. There are two kinds of stillness. There is superficial stillness, and there is deep stillness. When I talk about stillness, it is usually deep stillness.

Superficial stillness is the absence of movement. It is a glassy pond. It is a tree on a day when there is not a whisper of wind. Every leaf and branch is motionless and silent. It is a quiet mind. It is a beautiful thing, this stillness. It is the goal of most meditation. It is the rest sought by most retreatants. It is rare in our hyper-busy, high-speed communications world. It is well worth seeking and finding this stillness.

But it is still superficial. It comes and goes. Inevitably the wind picks up and stirs the leaves again. Inevitably the mind starts chattering again. Or the dogs start barking. Or the “to do” list starts forming again.

We see from a leaf-like, superficial perspective. If we get a hint of stillness, and decide we like that, it is superficial stillness that we try to get for our selves.

It is lovely in itself, this superficial stillness, but part of its loveliness is that it points to a deeper stillness. Not the stillness of the leaves on a calm day, but the stillness of the dark soil in which the tree is rooted. That stillness is permanent, unending, regardless of wind or calm. Regardless of a busy mind or a quiet mind. Regardless of motion or rest. It is easy to make the mistake of thinking that superficial stillness can be extended indefinitely, become permanent, and that is what deep stillness is.

But no. The leaf can never know deep stillness. The leaf only knows leaf stillness, superficial stillness. The mind only knows superficial mental stillness, its own quietude. But in the superficial stillness there is at least the possibility of catching a whiff of the deep stillness that lies beneath it.

This is endlessly difficult to describe, because our language is entirely oriented toward superficial reality, toward that which we can touch and taste and smell and hear and see and feel and think and know, toward movement and the absence of movement. So it is impossible to describe deep stillness or explain how it is that it makes itself known. There is no formula for finding it. It reveals itself or it does not. When it does, it leaves the mind utterly baffled, because the mind has no way to explain it, describe it or even be sure what it is.

But when deep stillness does reveal itself, in a timeless, experience-less, wholly conscious moment, that moment will never be forgotten, and it will reorient everything. Because now the leaf knows it is a leaf, part of a vast tree, arising from deep roots embedded in nourishing soil. Paradoxically, the leaf also now knows that it is not a leaf at all, but the whole tree, and through the whole tree, an entire universe. Everything that before was experienced in isolation now is seen in context. And the context is the whole of everything.

Deep stillness is everywhere. It is the whole of everything. It is the deep soil in which everything is rooted. It is where we always and ever live and breathe and have our being.

We think we are leaves that can sometimes grasp a few minutes or hours of superficial stillness, when the conditions are right. In fact we are always and forever deep stillness itself, pouring itself out in the interplay of motion and rest, sound and silence, life and death, everything as it is. We are the totality of everything together, and the deep stillness that holds everything in its loving embrace.

Waves of Stillness

For the past several months I have been working on a major revision to my CD, Natural Meditation. That project has become a bit bogged down. So I wanted to share with you, my faithful blog readers, the new track for the CD. I recorded the track on the shores of the Bay of Fundy, New Brunswick, last August. Here is the script for the track, not as I originally recorded it but as edited for the new CD. It is one of my favorites, about the closest I have yet come to conveying the essence of how I see the world.

One other note: when I capitalize the word “Life” I am referring to the entire life-system, birth, growth, decay, death, reintegration, rebirth, the complex interplay of ecosystems, and all the unseen, unknown underpinnings of the same. Like wise when I capitalize “Bay.” I am referring not just to a body of water but to an entire life-system.

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I want to take some time to talk about something I consider central to natural meditation.

I’m sitting on the shore of the Bay of Fundy, shrouded in fog. Foghorns sound in every direction. The Bay of Fundy is a 180-mile long, 700-foot deep, ancient rift valley at the northern end of the Gulf of Maine. Over 100 billion tons of water flow in and out of the Bay every twelve hours, making it an area of exceptionally high marine productivity and endlessly changing character.

A large grey seal lives here, whom I have observed over several years. A length of orange nylon rope is wrapped around his neck that was once attached to a lobster pot or a bit of fishing gear or a buoy. He got entangled in it and couldn’t get it off, and the rope has remained in place. Over the years his skin has folded over the rope, embedding the rope in his neck. Filaments of nylon stick out like hair. The neck looks raw and infected. The seal can’t do anything about it and the presence of this rope will surely shorten his life.

The Bay remains abundant with seals, dolphins and porpoises, large whales, pelagic birds, and the herring and plankton on which they all feed. But for how long? Whales and seals get entangled in our gear, seals are shot wholesale by fishermen who see them only as competitors for their livelihood, and the fisheries are erratic. Here on the shores of the Bay, it is all on display: nature’s abundance and inherent balance, and the imbalance we have introduced. Our ways of living and working, of growing and catching food, of making things, of gathering the resources to make things, and our ways of disposing of those things are tightening like a rope around the neck of the world.

How has such an intricately balanced system lost its equilibrium? For the first time in the history of the earth, as far as we know, one species’ activity is having an impact at a planetary level. Radical change is needed, but what is the root of the imbalance?

Most of us derive our sense of who we are from the things that we accumulate, not only money and possessions, but our accomplishments, our status in the community, our personal resume. We spend our lives trying to pin ourselves to these things, to locate ourselves in them.

But it doesn’t work. When we reach what we think is going to be the pinnacle of achievement or possessions or experiences, even spiritual experiences, very quickly that achievement loses its savor, and then we need the next thing. Another pinnacle appears and we feel like we have to set out to achieve that new pinnacle. We are never satisfied with who and what and where we are right now. We are always seeking something else, something more, something better. And that constant pursuit of more is running full speed into the wall of the physical limits of the planet.

And since that pursuit of more and better never brings true satisfaction, but is actually making most of us more miserable, and making the planet less vibrant and healthy, it makes sense to step back and ask, what does satisfy? What makes for a rich and satisfying life?

This is where natural meditation has a part to play. It may not seem like much, but it makes a real difference to take a look around at what is right here. It makes a difference to listen to the waves crashing on the rocks, or watch the gulls flying by, or the swirling of the fog, the grass bending in the wind, the other animals going about their lives, looking for food, looking for each other, playing. It makes a difference to pay attention to our own thoughts and feelings and sensations in the same way, without blame and without self-justification, without an agenda. Paying attention freely, opens up the possibility of clearly seeing the natural world, the impact we are having on it, and our place within it. Paying attention makes it possible to see the ways in which the mind tricks itself into thinking it is separate from everything else. And paying attention in this way allows a sense of self to emerge that is deeper than any words or ideas can convey.

At its root, the ecological crisis is not about too much carbon and too many people and too much waste and too many toxic products. It is not about bad policy and inefficient technology. It is about us. We have forgotten who we are. In our scramble to accumulate and possess, to understand and control, we have lost touch with the living truth, which we cannot possess. Paying attention to the whole movement of Life, is one way of remembering what has been forgotten, and restoring the balance.

The fog is clearing a little and the wind is picking up, creating ripples on the surface of the water. These ripples have their own distinct, individual quality, yet they are in no way separate from the Bay. In partnership with wind, the Bay forms surface ripples that arise, intertwine, fade and disappear.

Nothing can be held. Everything slips away from us: our most beloved friends and companions, our most cherished ideas of who we are and what the world is, our own lives. Everything is in motion, like ripples on the surface of the deep. Everything resides in stillness, like the depths underlying the activity at the surface.

When I first came to the Bay of Fundy I was captivated by its presence. 100 billion tons of water in motion, yet the stillness of it enfolds everything in its embrace. Stillness in motion. The deep, rippling at the surface. The whale, rising to breathe. This stillness lives in us as well, and knowing it is a profound homecoming. Knowing this stillness at the heart of our own lives reunites us with everything.

Watch the grass blowing in the breeze. Watch the sun rising. Listen to the rain falling. Listen to thoughts arising in the mind and falling away, like waves crashing on the shore.

This is life in this moment, the true miracle. This is deep stillness, expressing itself in everything. In us. In the other animals. In the plants, the insects, the water, the soil, the air, the clouds, the fog, the mountains, the deep bedrock, the depths of the sea, all the sea creatures, the empty space within and between, all the life fueled by the sun’s energy, all the phenomena in the universe.

When we discover this stillness in our own being, then we have no need for more than this that is, right here, right now, exactly as it is. Because this is everything. In this moment, in life being lived right here, right now, the whole universe participates. It is all the movement of stillness. All the marvelous interplay of waves on the surface of the deep, and therefore the very deep itself.

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 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.

Words Fail

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.