Contemplative Ecology: Contemplation for a World in Crisis

This is the revolution of contemplative ecology: a fundamental change of perspective, a complete reorientation, giving up the illusion of separation and allowing reality to live and breathe within us and around us, to change us completely.


Crisis and Contemplation

Humanity is at a crisis. We have put at risk the systems that all of life depends on for survival: the air, the soil, the ocean, the waters. Crisis means a point of inflection, a change in direction, the decision that will determine the outcome. Will we continue on our current, disastrous path, or can we change completely?

My understanding of the crisis and its resolution is based in my experience of contemplation. Contemplation offers insights into the nature of the ecological crisis that come from no other place that I know.

Contemplation is the art of "listening," through all the senses, to the entire range of experience, inner and outer. The word "contemplative" comes from the Latin root "templum," which means a place set apart, and originally referred to an area set aside for observing the auguries. The prefix "con" is an intensive, so the meaning of contemplation is essentially, "careful or sensitive observation." A contemplative is one who takes the time to observe herself and the world around her closely and sensitively, with openness and without an agenda. 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 attention.

Contemplation is simple in practice, yet it touches everything, our sense of who we are and our sense of what the world is, our relationships with each other and the Earth, the whole movement of life. Nothing is excluded from this simple but profound thing called contemplation. That is why contemplation is relevant to the ecological crisis. The crisis also touches everything: our work, our economies, civilization's long history of violence and exploitation, how we think the world works, who we think we are.

Because the crisis involves the whole sweep of the human presence on the planet, the resolution of the crisis must be equally comprehensive. A thousand things must be done to restore balance, but one essential thing: a fundamental shift of perspective without which all other actions will fail because they do not go to the root of the problem.

Although it is simple, contemplation goes to the root. Doing so, it challenges our sense of identity, of power, of control and even of meaning, especially where that meaning has been adopted from society without question. Contemplation changes everything. It might therefore seem threatening to some. The contemplative perspective shakes our worldview to its foundations. If it fails to do so, it is because it has been bent to fit into the mind-society system that it challenges. It is not an ideology. It is not a belief system. It is a way of looking. Contemplation does not have to be attached to any religious or spiritual tradition or practice. Anyone can pay attention, anywhere, at any time.


The heart of contemplation is inner emptiness. Inner emptiness makes attention to the whole movement of life possible. Inner emptiness is the capacity to allow everything to happen as it is happening, inwardly and outwardly. It is the abandonment of a fixed sense of self, which normally adheres to some experiences and excludes others. This emptiness is immeasurable, indescribable, but it carries with it a deep affection for everyone and everything. It has no enemies. It knows no conflict. It knows no separation. It knows only love and acceptance. Inner emptiness is absolutely inclusive. That is its nature.

This is the essence of contemplation: attention to the whole movement of life, inner and outer, from the perspective of inner emptiness. Emptiness that brings fulfillment without the need to have or attain or become anything more than what already is. Stillness that quiets the restlessness of greed, of acquisition, the basis of the exploitative economy. Silence that allows us to hear and to speak the truth, to be honest with ourselves and with others.

Another word that could be useful in understanding contemplative emptiness, but only if we are clear about what it means, is "mystical." "Mystical" means "with closed lips." The root is the same as the word "mum" which is imitative of closing the lips. All esoteric, other-worldly connotations aside, mysticism is the thought-stopping realization that reality cannot be captured with words or concepts.

If I say "look at that tree," is the tree captured by the word? Knowing the word, do I know the full story of any actual tree, or see into its inner layers, or know how it experiences the world, or know how it is cycling energy at this moment, or know its fate? I may not even know if it is an ash or an oak. My knowledge of the tree is small and partial. But I call it a tree, because it is convenient. Convenient and useful, and misleading.

The truth of the tree cannot be spoken in a word. So if you are concerned with introducing me to the truth of the tree, you would never be satisfied with using a word, not even "ash" or "oak." The word can point, but it cannot enlighten. If I take a year to sit in that tree and watch it and listen to it and feel it sway, all through its seasonal changes, I might begin, barely, to have a sense of what that tree is. I might. Or, I might realize that I could sit there from the beginning of that tree's life as a seed to the very end when every molecule has been transformed into something else, and I would still never know the full truth of that tree. And if anyone asked me, "what is a tree?" I would be struck dumb. How in a few words can I say anything meaningful? How, with words, can I do anything but diminish the truth? That is true mysticism. The nature of truth cannot be spoken because it is alive and dynamic and vastly interrelated and therefore incapable of being captured in a word or a thousand words or a lifetime of words.

Contemplation, paying attention, carries within it the seed of this realization. No matter how careful my attention, I am not experiencing reality. Reality, even the reality of my own life, is elusive. The truth is unfathomable. Contemplation is inherently humbling. I have no idea who I am. I have no idea what the world is. Emptiness is open to everything as it is, without being able to pin anything down.

The Whole Movement of Life

Ecology is the study of organisms and their adaptations and relationships to each other and their environment. At its narrowest, ecology is the study of population dynamics, how and why species and population numbers increase and decrease in response to environmental changes. At its broadest, it is the study of all of the complex interactions present in natural systems.

The central insight of ecology is this: There is no such thing as a separate thing. Everything 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. Ecology involves observing everything in context and beginning to understand the intricacies of interrelationship that make things what they are. This is a difficult and never-ending challenge, because all complex systems are constantly changing and transforming in unpredictable ways. It is impossible to be perfectly up to date on what is actually happening.

One might begin by observing one plant or animal in detail, and thinking of that thing as a separate thing. But the more one observes and tries to understand, the more elusive the "thing" becomes. One sees more and more clearly that the thing is actually a complex mix of energetic relationships and not a separate thing at all. The moment can come when the "thing" slips away entirely, and one realizes that there is only this vast network of interrelationships. No thing can be grabbed hold of at all. No thing can be definitively pinned down. The only reality is the dynamic whole of everything. "Things" are convenient and necessary and delightful, but ultimately inadequate, descriptions of temporary states of the whole.

Contemplation is essentially ecological. While the central insight of ecology is that there is no such thing as a separate thing, the central insight of contemplation is that there is no such thing as a separate "self." Our sense of self is an idea, a mental image, a story we tell ourselves, one that is fatally flawed and increasingly destructive. Contemplation involves seeing through the illusion of the separate self and allowing the inexplicably real to live and breathe within us and around us. The importance of self diminishes, as the importance, the beauty, the value of the whole movement of life increases. More and more, one's sense of "self" resides in the whole movement of life, in the fluid movement of reality that has no center.

Whale Song

One of the realizations that comes with a contemplative ecological perspective is that humans are not the only creative forces on the planet. Whatever we find in our own bodies and minds we are likely to find in others as well since we are all branches of the same tree. This is good news, because it means we have more help than we might have thought in resolving the ecological crisis. Transformation, like life itself, is a collaborative process. Life has a tendency to push us back into balance, even when we resist. [It has to be said, though, that we are resisting hard, and it will take a very hard push to reestablish balance if we don't get our act together.]

I know this best from my work with whales. I have been with many people who are meeting a whale for the first time and I have heard numerous stories from others about their first contact with a whale. There is no question about it. Whales change people's lives.

Exactly what is going on in the whale-human encounter remains a mystery. It is not clear what role the whales are playing and what we humans are projecting onto the whales, but the whale-human encounter often leaves the human speechless, or so captures the attention that time and thought seem to stop.

The experience that people have that they can't speak about -- or if they try to speak about it, they lose hold of it -- is a sense of wholeness or deep belonging. Life is a single creative act, and I am that. The "I am" that is here isn't separate from the "I am" that is the whale. I am not a separate thing; I am the whole movement that includes this and that. In that sense, I am the whale. Sometimes that feeling is so intense that one feels duty-bound to spend the rest of one's life in service to the well being of whales. Many people who work with whales began with such an encounter. I certainly did. Whales astonish us, and draw us into a more elemental, essentially contemplative mode of perception.

Most people are surprised when they learn that humpback whales, who sing beautiful, complex melodies, are constantly changing their song. Sometimes the change comes gradually. Over the course of the year, individual whales introduce variations that become part of the song sung by all the whales in a population. Over the course of several years, the changes pile up to the point where a new song is born. Sometimes the change comes suddenly. The whole population of whales drops the old song and begins singing a new one, its origins unknown to us humans. Through a combination of sudden and gradual changes, the songs being sung now are entirely different from what the whales were singing a decade ago.

The scientists who made these discoveries were as surprised as anyone. At first they assumed that they were hearing different whales singing, or different populations. Their assumption was that animals don't change their fundamental behavior so rapidly and completely. It took a leap of human imagination to accept that an ocean full of whales can alter its song over the course of a few weeks or months. Something like the folk process in human music is taking place among humpback whales, and we have no idea why. The old ideas about mate attraction and male competition have not held up to investigation. We do not know why humpback whales sing. All we know is that humpback whales are highly inventive and very hard to pin down, like life itself. And we know that when people hear whale song, they are often moved to tears. The song changes, and those who hear the song are changed by the song.

One of my most common comments after a whale watching trip is "I've never seen that before." Whales are infinitely inventive and surprising. When going out to see whales, one must hold very lightly any preconceptions one has. One must set aside what is known, and be open to what is.

This is not easy. It takes tremendous humility, which means that from moment to moment, no matter how much knowledge we have accumulated, we know we might be wrong. We know we are wrong. We know that our perception and our perspective is always limited. We know that we do not really know anything. Whatever we think we know must be set aside in deference to what is. What is, is the only reality. What is can never be captured by what is already known. It is too complex, too dynamic, too alive. The known is dead and gone. Reality is what is, one incomprehensible outpouring of creative energy.

A whale has its own experience and its own creativity, which is not ours. A tree has its own experience and its own creativity, which is even less like ours. The whole universe is full of unimaginable experience and creativity. We can only approach our essential unity with these by experiencing how little we can know them. Opening ourselves to their inherent mystery reveals our deepest commonality with them, our commonality as members of a larger movement.

When we allow other beings to exist on their own terms, when we listen to them without imposing our worldview onto them, when we free them from our demands, we also free ourselves to participate fully, with them, in life's improvisational creativity. When we free them from our preconceived ideas about them, then we are free to listen to and to learn from and to collaborate with them.

Most of us vigorously resist this freedom, this openness to what is, because it threatens our self-concept, which is based fundamentally on division. No "self" exists without the "other." We define ourselves by what we are, but even more forcefully by what we are not. That division exists only in our minds, in how we view the world. In reality, in the living world, there is no such division.


This is the contemplative ecological revolution: attention to the whole movement of life, inner and outer; realizing inner emptiness; giving up the illusion of separation and allowing reality to live and breathe within us and around us, to change us completely. Consequently, identification with self and society ends. The structures, inner and outer, of domination and control, of conformity and consent, of abuse and exploitation fall apart. It is a fundamental change of perspective, a complete reorientation. I am not a separate entity observing the world or living in the world. This body is but one aspect of the whole outpouring of life, one constantly transforming cell in the body of the living universe. Apart from that whole movement, I have no existence at all. The sense of being a separate, autonomous self is merely an image in the mind. The whole movement of everything together is the only reality. Everything is sacred. Everything is holy, which means "whole." The only thing that is not holy, the one thing that has separated itself from the whole, is the idea of separation, the violation of the integrity of life in violent acts of domination and control and exploitation of each other and the whole living world, based on an idea.

To realize this requires an inner revolution, a complete reorientation of the mind. But it is a revolution in which nothing needs to change, for everything to change.

Self and Society

The ecological mess is born of a human psycho-social system that exists to serve an entity that doesn't exist: "me"! Nature serves physical organisms, aspects of itself. Civilization exists to serve "me." The cultivation of needs blatantly serves "me." Power and privilege serve "me." Control and domination serve "me." Security serves insecurity, and nothing is more insecure than "me," because the "me" is a fiction. It only exists as an idea in the mind.

It's a confounding puzzle. The thing we who were raised in western civilization value most and praise most highly, our sense of self, our individuality; the thing that we think most defines us as human, lies at the root of our most serious danger. I am not by nature a communitarian. I know well how important individuality is. I know how ugly group thinking can get. Whole nations can go insane. You don't want to give yourself up to an angry mob. On the other hand, I think sane societies have existed, perhaps most particularly those that remained and still remain close to the land. I think it could be argued, but I don't possess all the evidence, that it is precisely our separation of the self from the Earth that planted the seed of our madness. We have elevated the "me," the "self," to God-like centrality, above and beyond and separate from everything else, even our own bodies. And therein lies the problem.

If your body is hungry, you give it food and it is satisfied for a while, until it grows hungry again. But a phantom can't be satisfied. It eats and eats and eats, and its hunger is never filled, because it is not a real hunger. It is not the hunger of a body. It is the hunger of a fantasy. It is like eating in a dream: you eat but you are never filled. The self is a dream entity. So it eats and eats and eats and is never satisfied, because it only exists in the mind. So it goes on eating. It is eating up the whole planet. This dream entity has been loosed on the world. It is consuming real people and real trees and real whales and real oceans and real soil, but it itself is not real. It has taken possession of a real body, and the real body is doing its bidding, and the mind/body has become utterly bewildered thinking that the two are the same. The body, which has real needs, thinks it is the "self" which only has unquenchable desires.

The mind is confused, thinking its own construct, its self-image, is a real thing, an entity that needs defending and improving. It tries to find reality in its image of reality, and it can't. The mind's image of reality is not made for that task. It can't tell us who we are. It can't tell us exactly what the world is. We never know what is actually going on. The harder we try to force the world into our image of it, the more desperately out of step with reality we become. We think we know, but we don't know. We don't know anything. We go through life shrouded in not-knowing. The sooner we realize that, the more balanced our behavior can become.


Once the illusion of the separate self is revealed, its centrality is dethroned, and the whole person can become reoriented toward reality.

This is no small thing. This is the unraveling of fear and violence and conflict and greed, the foundation of our society, the foundation of the separate self, the root of our crisis. The person who has been wholly identified with their thoughts and feelings and reactions and opinions and achievements and pursuit of exciting new experiences, discovers this unfathomable emptiness, and the person reorients, away from their ideas about the world and about themselves, and toward reality itself, the whole movement of life.

There tends to be a cascading effect of honesty in the wake of such a shift. Honesty about everything, about internal deceptions and rationalizations and false motives, honesty about our cruelty toward each other and toward the other forms of life who make this planet the vibrant, beautiful place that it can be. Often, if there are issues or emotions or relationships that have been avoided or deeply repressed, they begin to emerge into consciousness for the attention and healing they require.

Blame also falls away. Because there is no self, there is no one to blame for anything. There is no moral agent running each life. We are all doing the best we can, without exception. That doesn't mean we can't do better, and it doesn't mean we shouldn't protect each other from those of us who have fallen into violent delusion. It only means that blame is pointless.

This would be perilous territory if it were an ideology. Believing that there is no self would likely lead to even more denigration of the individual life than we already see, because believing in no-self leaves me fully intact. Only you get erased. But actually seeing that there is no self, my self, leaves nothing in its wake but love and affection for everyone and everything.

What is becomes central. Life is what matters. What I think about it, what it can do for me, becomes essentially unimportant.

Because the root of the ecological crisis lies in a flawed mental model, which can change in an instant, the resolution to the crisis could also come in an instant. At the root of the crisis, it must. Many decades of work lie ahead of us as we reorient our ways of living toward balance and natural abundance and simplicity and the well-being of the whole of life, but the foundation of our current lifestyle, the deep, deadly attachment we have to it, collapses in a moment, when we realize that the "self" our lifestyle serves, is a figment of our own imagination.

The beginning and the end of contemplation is the whole of reality, alive in the multiplicity of ways of being of every form of life, aware of itself in myriad ways we humans can barely imagine. We can catch a glimpse by paying attention to the other lives who share this world. But it is always only a glimpse. The living world is right at hand, and always just beyond our grasp. Still, it is enough. One glimpse of the dynamic complexity of the living world and the hollowness of the mind's image of that world, changes everything.