A Brief introduction to Contemplative Ecology
Contemplation confronts the exploitative normalcy of civilization with deep silence.
Humanity and Earth are in crisis. The fabric of life is unravelling and we have very little time to turn things around. Most of our attempts to solve the crisis are failing because they do not address the root causes of the crisis. Contemplative ecology brings the insights of contemplation into the ecological realm and attempts to address the ecological crisis at its root.
The ecological crisis involves our most fundamental sense of who we are, the essential meaning of our lives, our core beliefs about the nature of reality and whether we feel connected to or disconnected from the living world.
The Exploitative Normalcy of Civilization*
I don't think we can understand what contemplation has to say about the ecological crisis unless we accept two hard truths:
First, human civilization is exploitative at its core. The ecological crisis is not an accident. It is not a minor flaw in the project of civilization.
The fundamental assumptions of civilization are
- resource extraction,
- exploitation of human and animal labor,
- infinite growth in material and energy use and monetary wealth,
- the commodification of everything: ultimately aligning all value with buying and selling, with financial gain and
- having power over others.
Without these, civilization as we know it would not exist. Because these assumptions lie at the heart of the ecological crisis, the resolution of the crisis requires a fundamental reorientation, not just some tinkering around the edges.
The second hard truth is that we unconsciously accept these assumptions as normal. We are so deeply immersed in civilization's exploitative normalcy, that we can't even see how abnormally destructive it really is. If we never examine these assumptions, our entire life is an implicit affirmation of the normal violence of an exploitative system.
*I have adopted the phrase "exploitative normalcy" from historian John Dominic Crossan to describe the structures of civilization and the parallel structures of the mind that bind us to a life of violence and exploitation.
Contemplation confronts the exploitative normalcy of our lives with deep silence. Sometimes we have to leave society in order to see its violence clearly. We at least need to carve out a little space to slow down, to be still, to pay attention, to listen. Something has to stop us in our tracks, to disrupt the perpetual motion of the self.
Contemplation reveals the norms of society, especially the presence of those norms in our own beliefs and behaviors. Even a true hermit has to deal with the ways that the violence of their society has been internalized and is still present in themselves, despite their solitude.
Contemplation is not an easy road to walk. It reveals what we would rather keep hidden, from ourselves as well as from others, and it robs us of the excuses and rationalizations we normally use to justify our destructive behavior.
Emptiness Is the Immeasurable
So now we come to the heart of the matter, the heart of contemplation. What is it? And what does it bring to the ecological crisis?
This is not easy to talk about. There are many words, none of them adequate, that one could try to use to describe the heart of contemplation. The word I use is "emptiness."
Emptiness is not an esoteric experience that comes as the result of years of spiritual training. It is not a heightened state of awareness or consciousness. It is also not despair or suffering or depression. Emptiness is not a state of mind.
Emptiness is the immeasurable.
Emptiness is the unfathomable depths of reality.
Emptiness is the actual.
Emptiness is the unbridled power and presence of the whole universe.
Emptiness is wild, untameable, incomprehensible, life-giving, life-altering, unbroken wholeness.
The contemplative life is devotion to this emptiness, devotion to the actual.
Through contemplation, we find the emptiness that allows the actual to live and breathe and be what it is, without our constantly demanding that it conform to our needs and our expectations and our limited understanding. Touched by the infinitely unknowable, nothing can ever be the same. Life is so much more than this petty little mind!
When we are emptied of all of our beliefs and ideas and words, when we are emptied of the framework that we use to make sense of the world, one of the things that we lose is the sense of being a separate self.
Our sense of being a separate self is a mental construct, a fiction, a mask without a face. It is made up out of the mind's images of itself. When all of our mental constructs fall away in an encounter with emptiness, the self is one of those constructs that falls away.
The Infinite Desires of the Self
Ecologically, the problem with the illusion of the separate self is that, unlike a body that has limited physical needs, the self has unlimited desires. The self has infinite desires exactly because it is not real. It is like a hungry character in a dream. It eats and eats and eats and is never satisfied.
Our society wants us to believe and act as if we are hungry selves that have infinite desires that must be fulfilled and that the rest of the world exists only to satisfy our desires. A society that is built on the assumption that the self is real and that it is the most important thing in the whole world—that society will ultimately fail. But along the way it will lead to infinite exploitation and immense suffering because it is trying to satisfy a host of dream characters that can never be satisfied and can never stop seeking satisfaction.
To resolve the ecological crisis, we have to abandon the economy that demands infinite growth on a finite planet and we have to see very clearly that the self is infinitely needy, that it always wants more for itself.
We can play around with sources of energy and materials and means of transportation; we can fill the world with heat pumps and electric cars, solar panels and wind turbines, but as long as we are operating within that inner-and-outer system of infinite growth and exploitation, we are not going to solve the problems of pollution, habitat destruction, species extinction, global warming and the ways they interact with and amplify each other.
The ecological crisis is not just about carbon emissions or habitat destruction. It's about the fact that the entire system of civilization is built on a lie: that you and I exist as separate selves: separate from each other, separate from the natural world, separate from the other animals, separate from the plants, separate from the soil, separate from the water and the air.
The self is separation. The sense of being a self derives entirely from the walls of separation that thought builds through reality.
Free of the separate self, we are also free of the endless propaganda from commercial advertising, societal expectations, entertainment, educational practices, corporate news programs and social media telling us who and what we should be. We are free of the manipulative messages that tell us we are lacking something, and the market has exactly what we need to feel complete, at a price!
Seeing through the illusion of the separate self therefore has the potential to unravel the entire exploitation system. As the grip of the illusory self loosens, fear and greed fall away and no longer drive us toward destructive and isolating behavior. They are replaced with love and affection and simple sufficiency and necessity. The actual is not found in something more, something gained; but in less, in emptiness, in silence.
Remember: emptiness is not despair or nihilism. Emptiness is the presence of everything. There is no greater abundance than emptiness.
The Whole Movement of Life
When the self is seen through, what remains is what has been here all along: the deep, dark soil in which we are rooted; the whole movement of life; everything in its intricately interrelated actuality.
We belong fully to Earth. The other creatures, the plants, the animals, the soil, are not resources to be extracted, bought and sold. They are not objects to be studied. They are colleagues, companions, friends and sometimes food and sometimes threats to our health and safety. Regardless, we are absolutely dependent on them for our existence. We are part of each other. We are each other.
Through the encounter with emptiness, this is seen and heard and felt. It becomes the foundation of our life, not just an ornament on our preexisting mental framework.
This is nothing extraordinary or strange or esoteric. It is our natural condition, which is merely eclipsed by our hyperactive mental machinery. It has been pushed to the margins by a mechanistic, technological and essentially exploitative society. But it remains, waiting for us to stop and return our attention to it, to listen. When we fall back into the embrace of the way of life right now, right here, it is a relief and a homecoming. But it is not the result of anything we have done. It is not something we have attained through effort. It is not an accomplishment due to our cleverness or diligence.
It is what is waiting when we stop running away. It is what emerges into the foreground when we stand in silence in the midst of all that is.
What is waiting when the separate self falls away is a great love; not the possessive love of one who seeks another to fill some need, but the unbounded love of everything for what it is, simply for being; life itself. Being here, being this--this whole life, this whole world--is all we are and all we need.
We are part of each other; we are each other; one movement of life together.