An Introduction to Contemplative Ecology

Contemplative ecology is a commitment to reality.


The Challenges of Contemplative Ecology

Contemplative ecology--bringing together the insights of ecology and the contemplative life--offers a unique and valuable perspective on the ecological crises of our times. It might even offer a significant part of the solution to those crises. But these are not easy things to communicate. Contemplative ecology lies pretty far outside the main stream of most people's experience, so trying to explain it presents several challenges.

The first challenge is to understand the meaning of contemplation. The word is used in different contexts to refer to different traditions and practices. It is often used to refer to the Christian tradition of monasticism or the more modern practice of centering prayer. Sometimes it is used synonymously with meditative practices such as Buddhist mindfulness. Sometimes it refers to a more intellectual inclination toward a studious life - a life devoted to books and the mind. So to understand what I mean by contemplative ecology, we have to understand what I mean by contemplation. My understanding of contemplation does not come out of any spiritual or religious tradition or belief system. It is entirely experiential. My perspective may overlap with other contemplative traditions, with Christian contemplation and Buddhist meditation, but in essence my perspective is neither Buddhist nor Christian. It does not come primarily from the teachings of these traditions, but from my own experience and observations. To the extent that my perspective overlaps with Buddhist or Christian or any other tradition, it is because we are drawing from the same well of life.

For me, contemplation is the art of "listening," through all of the senses, to the entire range of experience, inner and outer. A contemplative is one who takes the time to observe herself and the world around her closely and sensitively, with openness and without making demands. He observes his own thoughts and feelings and patterns of behavior. She actively observes herself, others, the plants, the animals, the wind, the rain, the streams and rivers. Contemplation honors the world with open, undivided, undemanding attention.

But contemplation is more than just paying attention. The world that presents itself in consciousness is just the tip of the iceberg. Reality -- the living world -- never reveals itself completely. Contemplation is a kind of shedding of everything we cling to and everything we push away and everything we identify with, embracing life as it is. At its core, contemplation is the humbling--mortifying to the sense of being a separate self--encounter with unfathomable reality. Contemplation clears a space in which reality can speak in its own voice. That voice can be confounding; it can be glorious; it can be frightening. It is never tame.

Contemplation is the most subversive of activities. Contemplatives are among the most radical of revolutionaries, and the most courageous of heroes. They dare to face the most terrifying demons: their own. They challenge the dominant social and economic order by ceasing all activity that is not essential to life and embracing what their societies push to the margins of concern. They demonstrate the lie that we need all the stuff we are incessantly commanded to buy. They remind us of our true nature, and move us to examine and reorder our lives, without doing anything aside from being what they are.

The second challenge is the subject of ecology. It is a widely used word but I am not sure it is well understood. It has scientific, philosophical and sociopolitical meanings that do not entirely align with each other. So, to understand what I mean by contemplative ecology, we need to understand what I mean by ecology.

Very briefly and inadequately, the central insight of ecology is this: There is no such thing as a separate thing. Life is a complex system of both spontaneous and conditioned interactions with permeable boundaries. Everything belongs to and contributes to and derives its essential existence from this system of interrelated systems. Nothing can be understood outside of its context, outside of its relationships, outside of its interdependencies. Ecology involves observing everything in context and beginning to understand the intricacies of interrelationship that make things what they are. That includes us. Just as there is no such thing as a separate thing, there is no such thing as a separate self.

[For more on what contemplation and ecology mean to me, see Contemplation for a World in Crisis.]

The third challenge is that we have to understand what it means to bring these two together. Ecology and contemplation are usually held in separate realms. Ecology is usually about the living world outside of us. We might have a glimpse that we are part of that world, but it is studied as something separate from "me." Contemplation is usually about the inner world of the mind. It involves taming the passions, or trying to silence the chatter of the mind, or trying to achieve union with God.

A further problem is that contemplation is seen as essentially spiritual and ecology as essentially physical (again being consigned to separate realms). The body is seen at best as a vehicle for the essential person, or at worst an enemy to be conquered, and almost always as completely separate from the essential "me." "You are not your body. You are a spirit or a mind or a consciousness that inhabits the body," is a statement I have heard from most spiritual teachers in one form or another. This mind-body or spirit-body separation runs very deep in our culture and in both eastern and western religions. Even Advaita, the religion of non-duality, makes consciousness the only reality, and the physical world an illusion. It achieves its "non-duality" by negating the reality of the living world. So what can contemplation and ecology have to do with each other? What do the mind and spirit have to do with the functioning of ecosystems?

Contemplative ecology is also challenging because, if fully understood and embraced, it is radically different from the familiar social and psychological landscapes most of us inhabit. It poses a direct challenge to the exploitative norms of human civilization. And since we prefer to live in a familiar world, and we resist the unfamiliar, when trying to understand contemplative ecology we will inevitably run into our own resistance to it. At some point we must let go of our commitment to the familiar, and enter a trackless land, the wild multiplicity of reality, a land of inner emptiness and the unpredictable, untameable movement of life.

Finally, contemplative ecology is challenging to communicate because it hinges on very personal experiences, and everyone must discover those experiences for themselves in their own way. The meaning is not in the descriptions but in the unmediated encounter with reality. I can share my experience, but mine is not a template for anyone else's. I do believe there is an essential core to contemplative ecology that anyone can find for themselves, so my work in contemplative ecology is my attempt to point the way toward those vital experiences and the understanding that accompanies them.

Paying Attention: A Commitment to Reality

Contemplative ecology is not a plan or a program or a practice or a path or a belief system. It is not a prescription for something that has to be done or achieved. It is not an attempt to bring about psychological or social change, although it may effect change at the deepest levels. It is a commitment to reality. Paying attention and seeing things as they are is at the core, without any attempt to move away from the reality of the living world, no matter how uncomfortable it might be. Reality is whole, but we divide it into external and internal parts, and we tend to emphasize one and ignore the other, so practically speaking, a commitment to reality means paying attention to both the external and the internal and the dynamic interface where they meet and create each other.

Contemplative ecology means different things to different people. For me, contemplative ecology is about honoring and serving the whole movement of life. It is dedicated to whatever it takes to get past our self-centered nature so we can pay attention to and live in support of and care for the whole of life. We humans devote most of our life energy to our own perceived wants and our own perceived needs, and we force everything else to serve us as well. Can we, instead, honor and serve and see that we are members of the whole movement of life: the plant communities, the animal communities, the communities of microbes, the lichens and mosses, the insect communities, the river and lake and pond communities, the ocean communities, the soil communities, all the many and varied communities of Earth and all the many and really incomprehensible ways they interact? This is not a trivial question. It's not a simple matter of choice, as if we could just decide to do this, and it would be done. The internal and external obstacles to such a reorientation are formidable. What would it actually take for us to so change our orientation? Is it even possible? That is the question that contemplative ecology tries to answer.

Contemplative ecology is an encounter with the unfathomable wholeness of the living world, and the essential emptiness of the separate self. It is a stick in the spokes of everything the human mind desires for itself and projects onto the world.

A Psycho-Social Exploitation System

Humans have unleashed a destructive force that is consuming the planet, destabilizing life systems at the deepest levels. Our ways of living and working, of growing and catching food, of making things, of gathering the materials to make things, and our ways of disposing of those things are destabilizing the atmosphere, the soil, the hydrosphere, the oceans and many individual species of animal and plant: the entire biosphere.

Many solutions have been proposed for addressing the ecological crisis, especially global warming. Most of these involve new applications of technology and are attempts to keep the current system intact while finding new ways to fuel it. In my view, all of these solutions fail because they do not address the root causes of the crisis. We cannot begin to address the ecological crisis if we do not understand its roots, and its roots lie both in the mind and in society, the one reflecting the other. The mind and society form a system that is both internal and external. It is a psycho-social system that is fundamentally out of alignment with the living world.

The External System

Externally -- where we are more familiar with it -- this psycho-social system takes the form of economic systems that depend on infinite growth and the turning of everything -- people and animals and plants and minerals -- into commodities to be sold and bought and discarded. It takes the form of political systems that favor those with money and power and exclude everyone else. It takes the form of technologies that consume vast quantities of Earth materials: minerals and water and soil and ancient sunlight buried in coal and oil and gas deposits. It takes the form of educational systems that stifle creativity and demand conformity to the data-driven, commodifying economy. It takes the form of endless wars over ideology and access to resources. It takes the form of an agricultural system that is more and more dependent on vast quantities of imported water, external inputs of fertilizer, herbicides and insecticides, and patented, sterile seeds; destroying soil fertility and carbon capacity, disrupting the natural balance of predators and pollinators and inflicting suffering on many animal species who are seen as nothing but raw material to feed the system. And it takes the form of a culture of mobility, of leisure and business and educational air travel and global shipping that is spreading invasive animals, plants and disease organisms -- and lots of noise -- into environments unequipped to deal with them. And, as we all know by now, it takes the form of vast quantities of carbon being transferred from the Earth's crust into the atmosphere and the oceans, with myriad destructive effects that will last thousands of years.

None of this is accidental. Agro-civilization requires the importation of material resources and the concentration of those resources in relatively few hands. Exploitation is the norm: exploitation of Earth, exploitation of all living beings, exploitation of each other. This exploitation is not new. What is new is that exponential growth has created a crisis where Earth can no longer absorb the damage that is being done.

A genuinely sustainable human presence on Earth requires a new type of social and political organization; new but also old, more like the other animals. We must take only what we need from the local landscape, and everything taken must be given back in a form that life can use for the creation of more life.

The Internal System

Internally, this destructive system exists as the desire for infinite expansion of the self. It functions as the desire for more things, more wealth, more power, more attention, higher social status, more exciting experiences in more exotic locations, more comfort, more convenience. It exists as the desire to be in charge, to feel in control. It exists as the fear and avoidance of discomfort and death and weakness and vulnerability and loss of status and possessions. It exists as the constant noise of the inner monologue that sorts and categorizes and divides and blames and rationalizes. It exists as unconscious perceptual and mental filters and biases that prevent us from seeing and hearing and feeling what we do not want to see and hear and feel. It exists as our perceptual preference for anything that confirms what we already believe. It exists as our preference for the familiar and habitual over anything unfamiliar or different. It exists as the internalization of social norms that wield tremendous influence over our behavior. It exists as our prejudices, our habits, our mindset, our likes and dislikes. It exists in who and what we include and exclude from our circle of concern, what we care about and what we despise and fear. It exists as our sense of who we are, our sense of what the world is, our sense of what we expect the world to give us, our sense of self. It exists as our beliefs about the nature of our essence, whether we are mortal or immortal, whether we are essentially a body or essentially a disembodied spirit, whether death is final or whether our essence continues after the body dies, whether we essentially belong to the Earth or are essentially separate from it. These are examples of the internal aspect of the psycho-social system that is destroying the Earth. It is complicated terrain to explore.

The Boundary of the Self

The internal and the external are intimately related. The demand for infinite economic growth and the infinite desire for more possessions are intimately interconnected. That is fairly obvious. Perhaps not so obvious is how our feeling of separation from the natural world and our belief in a disembodied spirit-self are intimately related to the commodification and exploitation of other lives. We exploit others, and we create enemies, in part to reinforce our sense of self: our sense of self thrives on separation and conflict. The ways that we lie to ourselves are mirrored by the many ways that social media and commercial media and really all of our institutions propagate lies and distortions and prejudices of every kind. The mind develops and adapts in relationship with the world it encounters. Therefore, the mind reflects that world and the world reflects the mind. If you want to know the state of the mind, look at the world. Look at the conflict in the world. Look at the impulse to destruction and exploitation and prejudice. That conflict lives in the mind as well as in the world. You want to change the world? Your mind must change. You want to bring order to a confused and conflicted mind? Your world must change. They are two parts of the same system. If we ignore the internal and focus only on the external, we ignore half of the system. If we ignore the external and focus only on the internal, we exclude the other half. If we bring them together into one interactive system, we shake the foundations of many of our most cherished beliefs and behaviors and traditions.

The boundary of inclusion and exclusion is the boundary of the self. The boundary of acceptance and rejection is who we think we are. Total acceptance and total inclusion mark the end of the sense of being a separate self, because the self is separation. Will I ever take care of something or someone if I believe I am essentially separate from them? Will I care for the Earth if I am separate from it, if I believe I will continue in a nonphysical realm after the body dies? Will I care for the other animals if I think I am above them, better than they are, more important than they are, essentially different from them, essentially separate from them, if I believe that they only exist to serve me?

Contemplative ecology reunites these two domains, which are really one domain in the first place: the inner and the outer, the psychological and the social, the spirit and the body, the human and the natural, the self and the world, desire and economics, cognitive bias and politics, the way the mind works and the way all natural systems work, the ways in which mind and spirit and society and the natural world are interrelated and mutually dependent. Contemplative ecology includes everything, and therefore has a chance of addressing a problem that also includes everything, but it's an explosive mix. It challenges our sense of who we are and what we think the world is and how power operates in society. It threatens our belief in the true nature of our selves. Contemplative ecology upsets the status quo.


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 reality, and perhaps to see through all in the human mind and human society that is illusory, destructive and life-defeating. Free of distractions, untethered from habitual behaviors, we are faced with ourselves in our actuality. We get to see what we normally hide, even from ourselves. We come face to face with 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 our social circumstances have conditioned our patterns 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 is often realized in an 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 fact 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 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 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. Talking about emptiness accomplishes nothing. Being touched by emptiness changes everything. Discovering the wholeness of everything and the hollowness or emptiness of the self--and the futility of a society devoted to augmenting the self at the expense of everything else--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 does not mean 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.

Emptiness is what is, regardless of what we think about it or how we experience it, or how we describe it. Emptiness is the reality behind the story, behind the description, behind the experience. Emptiness is a direct and immediate affront to the feeling that I exist, that I can be protected, that I can be perfected. Emptiness--unfathomable reality--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. The sense of being a separate self cannot stand in the face of reality. And so we push emptiness away. We avoid it with our noise and activity. We keep busy. 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. When I stop, reality comes rushing into the space I used to occupy to the exclusion of everything else. It is very simple, but because most of us never stop, it's revolutionary when we do.

Emptiness 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 unravels, founded as it is on the belief that treasures can be stored up and kept safe for the all-important and immortal self. Emptiness takes away everything we think we are, and returns us to what we actually are: the whole movement of life.

Our current society does not serve life. It serves the separate self. Can we see that serving the self is delusional? The self is a fiction; it does not deserve our devotion. The self is like a dream character: it eats and eats and never gets filled. Thus it consumes the whole world without ever finding satisfaction. It does not deserve the commitment of our life energy to its maintenance and enlargement. The self does not deserve our devotion. 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.

Listening to the Voices of the Earth

My approach to contemplative ecology places an emphasis on listening. By "listening" I mean paying attention with all the senses to the natural world, the world of the other animals, the wind, the flowing waters, the insects, the soil, the plants, the trees. But I also mean particularly listening with the ears. We are a vision-dominated culture. Hearing the world can change how we perceive the world and our place in it.

Paying attention, without imposing any agenda, lies at the heart of contemplation. It's quite simple. Understanding it all intellectually is extremely complex, impossibly complex, and not the heart of the thing. Being with it in stillness is simple, although we create so many mental barriers that it can be hard to get out the door and settle down and sit quietly for a few hours and just observe and be there with the other lives that are going about their business. We are tugged now by so many text messages and social media postings and self-imposed demands that unplugging and getting outside and listening to the world are becoming increasingly difficult. But it is still essentially simple. Shut up and listen. Get outside. Look around. Look at the sky. Feel the wind. Listen to the birds, especially the birds. They are the great messengers of the living world. Our hearing sensitivity is tuned to bird song. We are physically, evolutionarily tuned, not to hear each other, but to hear the voices of the birds. Listening to the natural world grounds us simultaneously in the reality of the current moment, and in the long history of life on Earth; what it means to be one animal among all of the animals.

If emptiness makes no sense to you, start listening to the birds, not as a means of identifying them but just to listen and begin to appreciate their world. Begin to experience the amazing complexity of the living world and your place within it. See where that takes you.

The living world is much richer than we are taught to believe. We give astonishingly little attention to, and have so little respect for, the plants, the animals, the soil, the waters, rock and air. And yet they are part of this amazing new creation every moment. It is the saddest thing in the world that we can go through an entire life trying to get away from life, trying to be somewhere other than here. Trying to be in some state of mind other than the one we are in. Always thinking there has to be something better than this. Always trying to reach some imagined future state of perfection. Living exclusively in our thoughts. That is how we miss the beauty and the magic that we already inhabit, that already surrounds us, that we already are.

The plants and the animals, the land and the sea have gifts for us we have lost or forgotten. They are rich in ways that we are poor. They have ways of knowing and ways of communicating we do not have. We can learn from them, begin to get a glimpse of their world, if we pay attention to them without imposing our agenda on them. Life is extraordinary. This life. Ordinary life. Exactly as it is. Beautiful, painful, inexplicable. I think this is why we love nature so much. It is free of us, free of our ideas about it. Freedom from the net of our ideas is exactly what we need because we have forced our ways of thinking onto the whole of reality, to the detriment of all. Our ideas are too small to encompass the living world.

We in the civilized world have spent many thousands of years trying to impose our will on the Earth, assuming that we alone are sentient and creative. Assuming that we are separate from everything else. Even now, in the midst of an unprecedented environmental crisis, we are more concerned with imposing our solutions than with listening to what the Earth has to tell us. How can we solve a problem if we don't understand its cause? And how can we know the cause if we don't listen, and learn from what we see and hear? But listening is not just a means to an end. Listening is a vital part of the re-engagement with the Earth that we so desperately need. Listening is essential to life.

In the act of listening, emptiness may also make itself known. In listening, the inner voice that judges and categorizes and tries to make sense out of everything falls silent. The force that tries to take possession of everything and tries to position the self in relationship to everything, is still. Just listen for a minute, without an agenda, and you are dwelling in emptiness. It's not a big deal. But notice the difference between listening in emptiness and demanding, complaining, describing or explaining. Notice that mental chatter dominates our lives and runs our lives, and is the basis for the whole damned economic and political system. Notice that listening makes no demands and has no explanations and seeks no power and has nothing to sell and doesn't need to buy anything.

Also be aware that attention can become greedy. It can probe and demand. Contemplative attention honors the mystery of the other. It gives others the freedom and respect to express themselves and to be themselves and to reveal themselves in their own time and their own way, or not to reveal themselves at all. Emptiness without attention to the natural world leads to a disembodied spirituality. But attention without emptiness continues to make demands upon the living world and force experience into the mind's template of the familiar.

It is simple. Listening, paying attention in emptiness, undermines the very foundation of our psycho-social-political-economic systems. With empty listening comes a simple sense of belonging. Very simple, and completely threatening to our sense of self and all of the systems that reinforce our sense of self and feed on our sense of self.

Emptiness and The Whole Movement of Life

Stop. Look. Listen. Pay attention, inwardly and outwardly. Not so hard really. The mind creates an image of itself and the world and then it lives in defense of that image, to the exclusion of reality. Some of that image expresses itself consciously. Most of it does not. The world is what it is, not what we think it is. We move half-blind and sometimes fully blinded by our own unconscious prejudices through a world to which we intimately belong but which we cannot begin to comprehend. But we can listen. We can grant less authority to the inner monologue and the media noise and more to the voices of the Earth. We can give less attention to the screen and more to the living world. And in this listening we might be touched by that emptiness that changes everything, that reminds us of who and what we really are: the whole movement of life, the presence of everything. But to realize the presence of everything, we have to be emptied. And to be emptied, we have to listen. And there it is.

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