The Natural Contemplative

Ask the animals and they will teach you








The Natural Contemplative Blog Archive

Be still, possessing nothing, welcoming everything.

This is an archive of postings on The Natural Contemplative Weblog, including several that have been deleted from the blog, and some that were never published. Together, these postings offer a fair representation of my understanding of who and what we are, and what we can do to change course radically for the good of the Earth.

Here is a list of my favorites:

Emptiness Is the Immeasurable

The Earth Is Speaking

In Wildness Is Our Salvation

The Hermit

Breaking the Frames

The Whole World is Sacred

Fear of Missing Out

Voice of the Earth

Why Do I Love Whales?


A Sea Change

Saved by the Whales Again!

What Do Whales "See?"

When Ideas Get in the Way

The Singing of the Seals

The One Needful Thing

The Insurrection of the Real

Not to Destroy But to Build

Belief is a Sword

The Mind Chases Its Tail

Words Fail

Whatever Happened to 'Save the Whales?'

A Radical Approach to the Environmental Crisis

09 July 2017

At Least 3 of 7 Dead Right Whales Due to Humans

Now seven North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) have been found dead in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in the last month. Two probably from being hit by ships and one from entanglement in fishing gear. The cause of death in the other four is not known at this time.

North Atlantic right whales are already highly endangered, and the loss of even one, especially a female, increases the risk of extinction. It's very hard to do piecemeal protection for these animals. When ship strikes were rising in the Bay of Fundy, a lengthy regulatory process led to moving the shipping lanes through the Bay to avoid right whale areas. That was a success, but soon thereafter, the whales abandoned the Bay of Fundy due to lack of food there and seem to have moved north. Now we are seeing the same problem in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

We are not dealing with one isolated problem. Global shipping, increased fishing effort to secure a dwindling supply of fish, and global warming all contribute. Here's what I see as the bottom line: are we willing to radically alter our way of life (e.g. dramatically reduce global shipping, with all of the economic consequences of that) to allow creatures like right whales to survive? Or are we too committed to our own ways to allow these creatures to live?

Unfortunately, I think I know the answer to that question. We need a spiritual revolution, a radical change in our most fundamental beliefs and behaviors. But I don't know what it will take to bring that about.

07 July 2017

Emptiness Is the Immeasurable

Contemplative ecology is founded upon an encounter with a realm that is difficult to talk about, the core realm of the contemplative life: the realm of emptiness or silence or stillness or nothingness.

Contemplation is a way of facing oneself at the deepest levels, and perhaps to see through all in the human mind that is illusory, destructive and life-defeating. Without society's distractions, we come face to face with ourselves in our actuality, including those unappealing aspects of ourselves and our culture that our busyness, our compulsiveness, our conformity to social norms, and our immersion in entertainment usually obscure. We face all of the ways in which we have unconsciously internalized our culture's norms of belief and behavior. Ultimately, we have to face our emptiness.

Emptiness is the essential nonexistence of the self that believes it is separate from everything else, but it is also much more than that. Emptiness is the immeasurable. Emptiness often comes as the encounter with something you cannot fully comprehend: a deep love, or a terrible loss; the arrival or departure of another life; or the inscrutable nature of your own mind. Emptiness is the visceral recognition that your existence is not separate from the existence of everything else, that everything exists in interrelationship and interdependence, and that reality cannot be controlled or managed or experienced or understood in its vital actuality. The mind can't grasp it. It's too big; it's too complex; it's too dynamic; it's too alive. Emptiness is the encounter with the unfathomable, living presence of everything.

Touched by the infinitely unknowable, nothing can ever be the same. Life is so much more than this petty little mind.

The power of the encounter with reality is not in the description. The attempt to describe it usually requires negative terms like silence, emptiness, nothingness, stillness. These are entirely inadequate words to describe the whole of unfathomable reality. What they point to is that we are filled with our beliefs and memories and worldviews, and usually need to be emptied of them in order to come into contact with the reality of the living world. That living world is always right at hand, but it remains eclipsed by the mind's ideas about it.

The encounter with emptiness reorients the organism. Much more needs to be said about emptiness - what it is, what it means, why encountering it turns our lives upside down and inside out, why we fear it - but there is little that can be said. How can emptiness be described? It can't. You have to go there. Talking about emptiness accomplishes nothing. Being touched by emptiness changes everything. Discovering the hollowness or emptiness of the self collapses the foundation of the exploitative psycho-social system and reorients life toward life itself, the whole movement of life.

What emptiness emphatically is not, is some kind of esoteric experience that comes as the result of years of spiritual training. Emptiness is not something we can obtain or lose. It is not having a quiet mind or being "in the flow." It is not spaciousness or openness. It is not a heightened state of awareness or consciousness. Emptiness is not a state of mind. It cannot be experienced.

It's really quite simple and straightforward. It's right at hand. Emptiness is what is, regardless of what we think about it or how we experience it. We can acknowledge it or we can try, and ultimately fail, to deny it. That is all. Emptiness—unfathomable reality—undoes everything we try to do. It ruins all of our plans and hopes and schemes. It is everywhere and everywhen and everything, yet when it reveals itself, it comes like a thief saying, "Nothing persists. Nothing you believe is true. Nothing you experience is real. Nothing belongs to you, not even your self, not even your life." And civilization crumbles, founded as it is on the belief that treasures can be stored up and kept safe for the immortal self. Emptiness is a direct and immediate affront to the feeling that I exist, that I can be protected, that I can be perfected. Emptiness contradicts all of the stories we tell about the self and the other. Emptiness takes everything away from us that we wish to possess, including our sense of identity. And so we push emptiness away. We avoid it with our noise and activity. Minute by minute we reinforce the feeling of being a separate self (the words "separate" and "self" come from the same root) through our mental and physical activity. When we stop and listen, and especially when we listen to the natural world, emptiness is right here. Emptiness is what remains when I stop. It is very simple, but because most of us never stop, it's revolutionary when we do.

Our current society does not serve life. It serves the separate self. Can we see that serving the self is delusional? The self does not deserve our devotion. It does not deserve the commitment of our life energy to its maintenance and enlargement. Nor does society deserve that devotion, nor any group, nor any belief system. Only reality, the whole of life, deserves that. The life devoted to the whole movement of life (which, make no mistake, includes every individual) is a rare and beautiful thing. Few of us seem able to go there. Devotion to self keeps reasserting itself. Those who do go there, even briefly, will also know about emptiness. Like the outer and the inner, wholeness and emptiness travel together. They are the yang and the yin of the way of existence. You can't have one without the other.

Many people find the idea of emptiness frightening or depressing. We are afraid to learn the truth about ourselves. We do not want to know that all of our striving is for nothing. Contemplation is bad news for the separate self, but good news for life. What one finds when stripped to the core is not evil, but a blessing: the communion of reality beyond words; easing at last the generations of fear and pain we have been inflicting on ourselves and the world.

An Introduction to Contemplative Ecology, of which this is an excerpt, can be read in its entirety here.

06 July 2017

We Need an Ecological Spiritual Revolution

The following is a modified version of the final part of the post The Whole World Is Sacred. I am reposting that part because it is a good summary of what I am trying to communicate.


The human presence on Earth has become so dysfunctional; 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 so fundamentally out of harmony with natural, life-giving processes, and so destructive to the basis of life, that we must be utterly changed, inwardly and outwardly, in our sense of identity and in the structures of our societies. New technologies and a few policy changes are insufficient and often merely perpetuate the problem in a new form.

We need an ecological spiritual revolution: a complete change of heart and mind, a reorientation at the deepest levels of psyche and society. The nature of that revolution is what I have tried to articulate in this blog and my other writing and workshops: see that we are deeply out of touch with reality because our beliefs distort reality; see that I am no thing (empty), and therefore everything (whole); see that everything is sacred; listen to the animals; be devoted to the well being of the whole movement of life.

Contrast those with what I think characterize our dominant perspective: my beliefs form the core of my identity - I'll kill to defend them if I have to; I am an individual, autonomous self, and that self reigns supreme; My life and the lives of those related to me or close to me are of great value, but everything else is of value only if it is useful to me and my kin and my nation or wherever I happen to draw the boundary of my "self" (and it is a very flexible boundary, although we fail to recognize that).

A complete reversal of orientation has become a matter of survival. I have tried to describe where I think that reorientation comes from, and to make clear that it is possible, but it remains elusive at best. It is a reorientation in which nothing needs to change for everything to change. It is not something that comes as a result of anything we do; it comes when we stop all of our doing and see things as they are. The truth is right at hand waiting for us to recognize it and be changed by it.

03 July 2017

'Unprecedented' Loss of Right Whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence

This is tragic news for this extremely vulnerable and magnificent species. Right whales have abandoned the Bay of Fundy due to lack of food there and are apparently moving north. What is going on in the Gulf of St. Lawrence?

'Unprecedented event': 6 North Atlantic right whales found dead in June

'The loss of even one animal is huge with animals with a population this small,' says marine biologist.

Read the CBC Article...

Researchers from the Marine Animal Response Society examine one of the dead right whales. (Marine Animal Response Society)

01 July 2017

Contemplative Ecology in 100 Tweets

Last year I tried an experiment, editing a summary of contemplative ecology to fit into the format of a series of tweets. As far as I can tell, only 2 or 3 people read any of those tweets. Oh well. I don't belong on Twitter and that's not what Twitter was made for. So I have posted the entire series on my website, with the date on which each group was posted.

Here is the first group:


Contemplative ecology is not a plan, a program, a practice, a path, a story or a set of ideas or concepts or beliefs.

Contemplative ecology is not a prescription for something that has to be done or achieved.

Contemplative ecology is not an attempt to bring about psychological or social change, but it can effect change at the deepest levels.

Read the rest here.. 

09 February 2017


I have posted a new essay on my website called Repent!

This essay is particularly relevant to the Eco-Spiritual Revolution  retreat day  my father and I are planning for April 22. Other essays that are relevant to that day include Metanoia and In Wildness is Our Salvation.

I am convinced that most of the work we are doing to alter the destructive trajectory of human civilization is tinkering at the margins. We are extremely resistant to making change in the only place it really matters: our own lives. A fundamental change of direction is needed, which Jesus probably called shub, which was translated into Greek as metanoia and into English as repentance. Shub means "to vomit" as well as "to turn or return." I take it to mean being so repulsed by the status quo in oneself, in one's own life, that one needs to be viscerally emptied in order to move in a new direction.

Here is an excerpt from Repent!:

"In some fundamental way, human society is profoundly out of touch with reality. "Be not reconciled to this world," said Jesus. Repent! Turn away from your society and everything it stands for, and turn toward God and everything God stands for. Or as John Dominic Crossan put it so clearly in his Birth of Christianity, turn away from "all that systematically destroys and dehumanizes and dominates." Turn toward all that creates and includes and makes whole.

"The essential question of my life from that point until the present became, what is the kingdom of God? Where is it to be found? What does it mean to repent, to turn away from all that is unreal, and turn toward God, toward wholeness, toward reality? I knew then what my purpose was: to find the kingdom of God, not in some future time or distant place, but here and now. I felt that it was "right at hand." I think I knew intuitively that that meant it was already present, but unnoticed, unappreciated, perhaps not fully realized, veiled by the destructive illusions spun by the human mind. I was determined to see through the illusions and break through to the kingdom, which lay, I was convinced, right at our fingertips."

Read the whole essay...

17 October 2016

Star Trek Lives!

And now, for something completely different...

If at any time in your life you have enjoyed Star Trek: The Original Series, you have to go to the Star Trek Set Tour in Ticonderoga, NY

Cynthia and I took a foliage drive over that way yesterday (the colors were spectacular) and it was more fun than I have had in a long time.

The first thing we did was try to beam out of here. Cynthia made it. I got left behind. Figures.

Sick Bay was one of the most complex parts of the ship. Cynthia was hoping someone could look at her back, but the doctor was elsewhere:

Here I am sitting at Captain Kirk's private table, writing on a Star Trek era tablet. 1966 or 2266? 

Beaming off the ship didn't work so I tried climbing. That didn't work either.

This is one big ship, let me tell you. Crewman Deer and I weren't paying attention and almost got sucked into the warp core. They need to get the safety grill in place asap.

A dream come true: we arrive on the bridge. 

Space, The Final Frontier. 

I can't explain it. Sitting in the Captain's chair, looking out the forward view screen into the vastness of space was a very emotional experience. 

Captain Minke with Crewman Crockett (it takes all kinds to make a universe).

Checking out a space anomaly at Mr. Spock's science station was pretty exciting as well.

Crewman Crockett, Captain Minke (in pocket), Admiral James Cawley and Crewman Deer. James Cawley is the mastermind behind this whole thing. He played Captain Kirk in the fan films he produced on these sets. He has done a marvelous thing here.

It was hard to leave the Enterprise bridge and the 20th or 23rd century, whichever it was. I admit I find the 21st century mostly pretty trying. But it is also a little hard to tell which era you are occupying in downtown Ticonderoga. That's a good thing. It's a perfect place to host the Star Trek Set Tour.

And back to the timeless beauty of the fall foliage.

 The wonders of Earth are many and varied!

07 September 2016

What Is Consciousness?

I have avoided wading into the thicket of consciousness. We consider it such a central part of our identity, it is astonishing how little we understand it. As far as I can see, consciousness studies are a mess. We can't even seem to agree on a definition of the word, much less understand how it works or what it is for. But it comes up over and over whenever you want to try to understand why humans behave the way they do. So I am wading in, even though I do not understand consciousness any better than anyone else. So approach all of this skeptically. For that matter, approach everything skeptically, including your own beliefs and opinions. As we will see as we get into this, we don't really know much, not even about ourselves. Be very skeptical indeed of anyone who claims to have all of the answers.

The exact nature of consciousness is mysterious. No one has figured it out. Why does the brain create conscious experience at all, and how does it do it? Philosophers and neuroscientists have puzzled over that one for hundreds and thousands of years, and we still do not know. We can't even agree on a definition. Not all experience is conscious. Most mental activity is unconscious. Most of our true motivations are unconscious. That alone should give us pause, should be grounds for humility. This thing that is our most intimate experience remains beyond the grasp of our understanding. We have different definitions and different opinions and very little common understanding. We do not know ourselves at all. Perhaps we cannot know ourselves. But we act as if we do know. We act out of ignorance as if we have true understanding.

Is Consciousness the Knower or the Known?

I am not an expert on consciousness studies or philosophy, only on my own conscious experience. In other words, no expert at all. But as far as I can see, and from what I have read, confusion reigns over what consciousness is and what it means. Often the word "consciousness" refers to conscious experience, what is sometimes also called "the contents of consciousness" or "qualia." It refers to those experiences that are known, that are experienced consciously: sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touches, feelings, thoughts, dreams. Unconscious experiences also exist: things that happen, that go on around us, that we never experience consciously. The photons enter the eye, the brain processes the nerve impulses, but it never creates an image that is experienced consciously. Someone speaks, but we don't hear it. A filter in the brain prevents it from being formed as a conscious experience. Consciousness in this sense is a very limited thing, a small part of the whole operation of the brain. It never has access to the whole truth. Most of reality is unknown, unheard, unseen. Even that which is received by the brain through the sense organs, mostly remains unconscious.

Also mostly unconscious are the actual operations of the brain. Decisions are made based on past experience and past conditioning, the punishments and rewards of our youth, our earliest attempts to survive in a confusing and enigmatic world. The brain forms a simplified model of how the world works, and it moves through the world based on that simplified, often wildly inaccurate, model. This is unconscious action. We have no conscious access to these operations, even though they are the source of most of our behavior. We do not know, can not know, this aspect of ourselves.

Another use of the word "consciousness" refers to a presumed "experiencer" of all experience. This experiencer is mysterious, like the photographer behind a camera. The known lies in front of the lens. What is behind the lens? By this conception of consciousness, cameras without photographers, brains without experiencers, do not create conscious images.

Under this meaning of the word, some entity other than the brain sees every sight and hears every sound and feels every feeling while remaining forever out of view itself. This idea is central to much nondual philosophy. Experiences are bodily but the experiencer is disembodied. Sometimes this entity is supposed to be God. Sometimes it is thought to be a "higher" self. It is often referred to as "pure consciousness". However it is conceived (and it can only be a matter of speculation since it never reveals itself to itself), it is supernatural and omniscient. Pure consciousness is the only reality, and everything else is an illusion. Spiritual awakening is understood to be the realization of this: The world you apparently experience is a dream. Pure consciousness is who you really are.

So it appears to me that there are two camps on conscious experience: those who believe that consciousness is simply the contents of consciousness, that there is no "experiencer;" and those who believe that consciousness and the contents of consciousness are separate, that there is a non-corporeal experiencer who is experiencing every experience. This experiencer is supernatural, bigger than the self, bigger than the brain, bigger than the mind, bigger than the body, perhaps even as big as God. It remains always out of sight, never knowable, the knower of all that is known.

As far as I can see, and I am ready to be completely wrong about this, consciousness and the contents of consciousness are the same thing. No supernatural conscious entity exists behind everyday, fleeting consciousness. When a sound is heard, the compression of air is processed by an ear and a brain. No one is hearing the sound. When a raven flies by, an eye and a brain create an image of a very mysterious phenomenon. No one is seeing a raven. No one is seeing through these eyes or hearing through these ears. Seeing is happening. Hearing is happening. One particular instance, among the many billions of human and non-human instances, of the universe creating an image of itself. Consciousness is therefore a small thing. An amazing thing, but only a tiny, keyhole expression of reality, and more a veil than a window. Consciousness reveals limited aspects of the world, but it also massively filters most of it.

I can't locate my self in consciousness any more than I can locate myself in my left hand, which also gets only occasional use. Consciousness makes its claim on our essential identity, because most of us feel pretty strongly that we can lose our left hand with no loss of self (although if we are a professional violinist it will present a real challenge to our sense of identity as well as to our vocation), but we feel we can't lose consciousness without losing self. But is that so? We lose consciousness every night. Most of our sleeping hours are dreamless and utterly unconscious. But we wake up in the morning with no sense of having not existed. Conscious experience is not what gives us that feeling of existing as a separate and unique entity. I would argue that what does that is the story of the self.

The Story of the Self

There is a third way that "consciousness" is used, and this one lays special claim to our sense of self. It refers to the inner monologue, the stream of sub-vocalized words that we "hear" in our heads, but no one else hears. I often refer to this as "the commentator." It is like the commentator at a sporting event, constantly referring what is happening to what it knows from memory. It is often judgmental, it is very opinionated, sometimes entertaining, can be extremely annoying, is frequently wrong, and its presence takes attention away from what is happening in the world around us. Many people simultaneously identify with it and make futile attempts to drown it out. Some meditators see silencing the inner commentator as the ultimate goal of meditation. Yet we attach great importance to it. It tells us who we are. Through a series of thoughts, it separates "me" from whatever is being experienced. It locates "me" in memory of the past and in judgment of others. Our sense of self as derived from the commentator is actually quite flexible. It is constantly reinventing itself depending on the circumstances, while managing to give the impression of continuity.

The first few seconds of waking up from deep sleep are a good time to see this self-mechanism kick into gear. The mind starts rehearsing what it knows about who and where it is, and in mere seconds can rebuild its sense of self. But before it gears up, raw experience reigns, without commentary, without reference to self. Self is an activity of the mind. Self is a mind-constructed fiction. It is an activity that explains and makes connections and relies heavily on memory to build a fictional entity called "me." Our minds love to tell stories, to connect what they know, and explain away what they don't understand. Loss of "self" is the loss of the ability to tell a coherent story. It isn't loss of consciousness that kills the sense of self (unless that loss is permanent), it is the loss of episodic memory and the loss of the ability to weave a coherent narrative, to update and reinvent continuously the story of "me" in reference to memory. When the storytelling stops, so does the self.

For all of our great attachment to the story of the self, most of us also experience a kind of ecstasy when the self-story stops and we function with unconscious action, and conscious experience, but no commentator. This is often referred to as "being in the flow." Actions seem to just happen on their own, although those actions rely heavily on prior practice and muscle training. Musicians and athletes and artists know this state. The commentator shuts up and the basic, unconscious training of the brain kicks in. It feels great. Although we identify with the storyteller, what this tells us is that the storyteller is not running the show. It is not the decider. It is just the commentator. The action is going on out of sight in the unconscious brain. The commentator is merely trying to make sense out of that small portion that appears in conscious experience, and trying to relate it to what resides in memory.

I suppose there is nothing wrong with this, but it is not trivial. The human enterprise is built on a foundation of self-hood as the ultimate reality. Take away the self, and the whole edifice of human civilization collapses. Its reason for being ceases to be. The power and control and exploitation, the endless seeking for self-fulfillment, the fear of the unknown that expresses itself in rigid religious beliefs and unbeliefs of all stripes, all crumble to dust if there is no self. Self-help, self-denial, self-actualization, self-realization, success, status, power, control, all rendered meaningless if there is no self.


There is a fourth use of the word "consciousness" as well. Some people use "consciousness" to refer to self-consciousness, to having a self-image or a self-concept, to being able to distinguish one's own body from everything else. I think self-consciousness in humans is related to the story of the self, the commentator, but other animals, like chimps and dolphins and whales and seals, also have self-images. They recognize themselves in mirrors. They have or can use names for themselves and for objects in their world. I do not have any idea what it is in the brain that creates that sense of self-existence as distinct from everything else. Memory might play a role. It might have something to do with lateralized brain function. I do not know whether marine mammals and non-human primates have self stories like we have. I tend to doubt it. I think they are self-conscious, and they have conscious experiences, but are they storytellers? I don't know.

Depending on which definition you are using, "consciousness" is limited to humans, shared by several mammals with complex brains (chimps, dolphins and porpoises, humans, elephants, whales), common to all animals with central nervous systems, or a basic feature of the entire universe. These different aspects of mental function are all referred to as "consciousness" but they are not necessarily linked. It is possible to have conscious experience, but not be self-conscious. It is possible to have conscious experience but not tell a self-story about it. No one can know with any certainty whether or not there is a supernatural experiencer of all experience. What we call "consciousness" is not one thing, but many things, and lumping them together is very confusing.

The Whole Body

We have invested so much of our sense of self in some aspect of consciousness that we balk at the idea that consciousness is a small and relatively unimportant function of the brain. Who am I if not my conscious self? Bodies with brains find satisfaction in a challenging task, in achieving what looked difficult or impossible. Meaning still resides in that. Meaning resides in friends, in good company, in fellowship with plants and animals, in healthy surroundings, in nourishing food, in everything that is full of the vitality of the whole movement of life. That's life stuff, not self stuff. That's deriving meaning from participation, not from separation or exclusion or domination. The self is insecure, seeing as how it doesn't actually exist. So it tends to be pretty territorial. It struggles endlessly to prove its existence through "more and better." Gotta have more. Gotta be better. Gotta live forever. That is the stuff of the self, trying to prove it exists, when in fact it does not exist.

The self we think we are is ephemeral, existing only as a complex of thought patterns in the mind. We think the real self is the self we imagine ourselves to be, the self that is a spirit housed in this body, but somehow separate from it. We think the body, the natural world, the physical universe, is "other." We imagine it to be inanimate, unconscious, unimportant. In many of our spiritual and religious traditions, we think the physical world is an illusion, or that it is "fallen" and that our ultimate goal is to escape it or at best redeem it.

We have it backward. Tragically, destructively backward.

We fully inhabit this world. There is no other. This is the only life we will ever have. Our goal is to make of our lives a harmonious counterpoint to the melody of the whole universe. The other animals don't have to work at this. They do it naturally because, it appears, they have not created self stories that separate them from the whole.

We create self images, and we act as if the image is the real, and the real is the image! Backward! We treat the "self" as if it is the most important thing of all, and the "world" as if it either doesn't matter or is to be despised or doesn't exist! We treat other animals as if they have no reality or only exist for our use. We can do whatever we want to them. They can't feel anything at all. They aren't even real. We are the only real things. Our disembodied consciousness, our spirit, our self is the only real thing!

Backward. "I" am the one who does not exist. The self image has no reality. The real is all that lives in actuality, beyond all images, beyond all consciousness. The real cannot be known. The known isn't real. The real cannot be imagined. The image is not real. The mind creates our experience and interpretation of reality, but it does not create reality. Far too often, the mind creates an experience or an interpretation of reality that is wildly out of touch with reality itself.

I think that consciousness has created real problems for us and for the world. Our identification with it to the exclusion of all that lives beyond our conscious experience has caused real problems.

If we could see this, really see the truth of reality's wholeness and the way the mind creates a fragmented image of it, that would turn our world upside down and inside out. Which is to say that it would reorient us toward reality, putting reality back on its feet. There is no way to see this and not be reconfigured by it, because this error lies at the very heart of our mistaken sense of reality and identity. We believe the unreal self image is separate and ultimately real. We believe the whole of reality is an illusion or at best an unfortunate burden, a temporary prison. Is it any wonder we are making such a mess of the world?

07 August 2016

Six Ways of Life and One Human Illusion

I wrote these down about a decade ago and thought I would dust them off and share them once again. They don't say everything about my perspective (leaving out especially my amazement and delight at the intelligence and creativity of the other animals and my insistence that they not be treated like commodities or "resources"). These "ways" came into view for me over the course of an extended period of solitude. A few will be familiar to Buddhists: impermanence and interdependence particularly. But I did not learn them from any religious or spiritual tradition. They are not matters of belief. You can test them against your own experience and verify their validity.

The Way of Not Knowing: Nothing is what it appears to be.

All experience consists of the sensory and mental apparatus of the experiencing organism, not of objective reality. Sensory illusion is relatively trivial compared to mental illusion, which is much more troublesome. Mental illusion filters and obscures our experience so that our ideas about reality can become deeply divided from reality itself. This is the state most of us are in most of the time. Everything known and experienced is at best an echo of reality, and at worst a delusional fiction. The real can't be known. The known isn't real. The best we can do is to pay attention to what is actually happening right now, and not get completely lost in thought, while realizing that even the most careful attention yields an imperfect view of reality.

The Way of Interdependence: There is no such thing as a separate thing.

Everything (including humans of course) is and belongs to and contributes to and derives its essential existence from, a system of interrelated systems. A thing cannot be understood outside of its context, outside of its relationships, outside of its interdependencies. This is true at all levels, organismic, ecological, and cosmic. In some sense, the universe is one organism, one being, made up of nested, interactive systems, just as the body is made up of many cells, and many systems that work together, and is host to many organisms on which it depends. Organisms are not really organisms. They are expressions of a system of relationships. The sense of separation that humans often feel is an illusion.

The Way of Impermanence: Nothing lasts forever.

Everything that is born, dies. Everything that arises, falls away or is transformed into something else. Thoughts. Breaths. Heartbeats. Bodies. Species. Suns. Galaxies. Reality is in constant (if sometimes very slow) motion, and always returning to emptiness. For anything to exist at all, it must have a beginning, it must go through multiple transformations, and it must have an end. But that does not give us the right to hasten everything to its demise. It makes existence precious.

The Way of Emptiness: Form is what we know and experience, but emptiness is everywhere.

Emptiness and form are two aspects of the same thing. We are surrounded by emptiness. It is vast. It is everywhere. It gives shape to all form, just as form gives shape to it. We get enchanted by form and become blind to the emptiness. The walls of the room define the space, but it is the space that we use, that we live in. Our blindness to emptiness is like clinging to the wall and never using the available space of the room. Solid objects are not really solid. They are mostly empty space. One of the practical expressions of recognizing the emptiness of life is allowing time to be alone, to be quiet, to be still and to listen. When we fear emptiness, we spend every waking moment trying to fill the world with our noisy selves.

The Way of the Present: Life only exists here and now.

If we live in constant resistance to what and where and when we are, we cannot live fully. If we derive our sense of self from anything other than who and what and where we are right now, we will never be happy. Living in the present is not a task to be achieved. Living in the present is what we do. Always. No matter what. The present is the only reality. It is impossible not to live in the present.

But it is also possible to live in the illusion that the present is not the only reality. Living in time's illusion means the mind is caught up in obsessing about an imagined past or future. It means investing all of life's energy in what we might become, or what might have been. It means never noticing what is right here in front of us, and being content with that. Having a good memory, and being able to plan for the future are still relevant and useful in a practical way. It's just that life is always here and now, not there and then, not maybe someday when everything is perfected.

In short: There is only the present. Whatever is happening, it is happening now. Realize that, and the mind's desperate attempt to resurrect the past and control the future will probably relax, and things will probably go more smoothly.

The Way of Love: The essential nature of reality is total acceptance of, and movement with, everything exactly as it is.

This is very difficult for most of us to accept. We tend to define ourselves by what we exclude or whom we exclude. Total acceptance of everything exactly as it is feels like an abdication of sensible judgment, if not a kind of annihilation of our sense of self.

Acceptance does not equal approval. There is a lot of bad stuff going on in the world, and most of it is born of our mental illusions. But we cannot come into alignment with reality by denying that things are the way they are or by creating sharp divisions between "us" and "them." Those divisions exist only in the mind, and obscure our vision.

The Illusion of the Separate Self: There is no separate "self!"

The illusion of the separate self is our attempt to violate the ways that life works. To believe in the fiction of the separate self is to avoid all of these ways, and since these are ways that cannot be avoided, the attempt to do so causes much suffering, for oneself, for others, and for the Earth. The illusion of separation, and it is truly only an illusion, a tale we tell ourselves about ourselves, comes from resisting some aspects of life and clinging to others. Imagine if the "in" breath tried to separate itself from the "out" breath and declare that it alone is eternally real. Death would not be far off.

Be empty, welcoming everything, possessing nothing. That is the way of life.

19 July 2016

Aligning With Reality

I wish everyone everywhere could read and absorb the import of this blog post by Dave Cohen at Decline of the Empire:

This seems to me the crux of the human problem. The human mind loves its own illusions and spends every waking minute of every day attempting to interfere with reality. Ignore it, improve it, completely twist it out of shape, but never face it. The mind is exceptionally good at making stuff up and running around in a fantasy world where its illusions are real and reality is the illusion.

The human mind incessantly spins webs of illusion and calls those illusions reality. It is not a "solution" to the human problem, and offers no hope whatsoever, but it seems to make some kind of difference to become aware that this is so. One moment of candor changes the landscape of illusion. The role of the prophet has always been to speak a resounding "No, We Can't!" when the entire culture is caught up in a delusional "Yes, We Can!" To say "Stop!" when everyone else is screaming "Go! Grow! Move ahead!"

The comment on the blog by "Jim" also deserves to be read. He is speaking about the problem of climate change, but the ecological crisis is about much more than climate. It is about the impact of industrial civilization on every aspect of the living system we call Earth:

"The only avenue for justifiable hope is by most people realizing that the problem is enormously difficult, that it actually requires radical changes, and that the pain of those changes is necessary to avoid greater future pain."

The environmental destruction being wrought by humanity has no simple solution. The changes required lie not only in societal structures but in deeply entrenched psychological structures. Changing those structures might be possible -- or might not be -- but if it is possible, it requires an unrelenting honesty that is foreign to our current way of functioning in this world. We are consummate liars, and our most "successful" individuals are the biggest liars of us all. We hate the truth because it requires us to change, to give up cherished comforts and beliefs. No one could speak the whole truth and get elected to public office or placed in charge of a large organization. So we all continue this dance of optimistic lies.

But which do you think is more likely to benefit life: living in thrall to the false optimism of the mind's illusions, or being aligned with reality? Telling ourselves unending stories about how clever we are, or facing our many layers of ignorance? Believing that salvation is just around the corner if we keep digging, or turning around and making the long slog back out of the hole we have dug?

In other words, the most life-affirming thing we can do at this point is stop telling happy stories of endless progress and look this beast in the face. And then realign our lives.

Aligning with reality is not easy, it requires facing hard truths about ourselves and our society, but it is the only chance life has of surviving and thriving. How can we hope to solve our problems if we are not willing to face the truth about them?


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