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.
A shorter version of this essay is available here.
Humanity is at a crisis. We have put at risk the systems that
all of life depends on for survival: the atmosphere, the soil,
the oceans. 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. But 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 open their 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 space in which everything arises and falls away,
all thoughts, all feelings, all experiences. It 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 deep
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
Another word that could be useful in understanding the contemplative
perspective, 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. Mysticism is the thought-stopping realization
that reality cannot be captured with words or concepts.
If I say "look at the 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 necessary, and
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. Take a year to sit in
that tree and watch it and listen to it and feel it sway, all
through its seasonal changes, and 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 as I understand it is profoundly ecological. For
me, 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 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.
Nothing 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.
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, 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 no-thing and everything, in the
fluid movement of reality that has no center, the whole movement
of life in emptiness.
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
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 oneness 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 wide 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 to
be contained by a word or an idea.
This is a hugely important lesson. I think the importance of
it cannot be overstated. When this is fully seen, not only in
the encounter with whales or trees, but in the whole range of
our experience, the consequences are profound and transformative.
The known is dead and gone. Reality is what is, one incomprehensible
outpouring of creative energy. We are the whole movement of life,
alive right now, always now, only now.
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, although the tree is inextricably
linked to us through the exchange of the gifts of oxygen and carbon
dioxide. The whole universe is full of unimaginable experience
and creativity, like a single body, a single entity. We can only
approach our essential unity with these by acknowledging their
extreme otherness. Opening ourselves to the inherent mystery of
others reveals our deepest commonality with them.
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 us, then we are free to listen and to learn from
Most of us vigorously resist this freedom, this openness to what
is, because it threatens our self-concept, which is based
fundamentally on division. There is no "self" without
the "other." We define ourselves by what we are, but
even more forcefully by what we are not. But 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, from the perspective
of inner emptiness. It is a fundamental change of perspective,
a complete reorientation. I am not a separate entity observing
the world or living in the world. I am 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.
We have been living for a long time in devotion to an exclusive
mindscape that is barely able to allow the reality of the living
world to enter into it. This mindscape defines and describes,
and determines our response to reality. It is our over-simplified,
internal model of the world. It helps us move around. And then
we start to think that model defines us, tells us what the world
really is and who we really are.
Then, when the model comes into conflict with reality, we prefer
the model. We fight to the death to preserve the model, our self-image,
our world-image, our familiar beliefs and opinions and habitual
ways of reacting. We fight to defend it because we think that
is who we are, fundamentally. Through this we create conflict,
in ourselves and in our world and we create deep division out
of that which is essentially whole. This is going on all the time
within us and around us. We see it in all conflict.
Most attempts at change involve trying to change the model. Change
the paradigm. Change the belief system, or try to get other people
to convert to my belief system. The shift that comes with open
awareness is of a different order. Open awareness sets aside all
belief. Paying attention involves dropping the model entirely,
at least as a source of identity.
When the mind finally decides to abandon its framework, when
it sees it's own activity at work and realizes it must drop it,
the flood gates open and reality pours in. Indescribable. All
reality. The good, the painful, the ugly. All our tendency to
control and manipulate and have things our way. All the extraordinary
beauty of being cosmos-earth-water-plant-animal. All the deep
mystery behind it, behind our own being. All that is welcomed,
without any attempt to sort it into the parts I like/the parts
I don't like, I understand this/I don't understand that, I accept
this/ I reject that.
This is no small thing. This is the unraveling of that which
most of us live in utter devotion to, what we think we are: our
thoughts and opinions and preferences and reactions. Not that
any of that disappears completely, it just no longer forms the
foundation of who I think I am. There is a deeper foundation that
appears, on which all of that stands.
What appears is what has been here all along, unnoticed: the
deep, dark soil in which we are rooted: radical welcoming of everything
exactly as it is, including our own lives. Not only us welcoming
it, but it welcoming us: one movement of life that encompasses
everything. Tremendous vitality. Unbounded love.
And there is a loss. It is a small loss, but it feels like a
big loss: the loss of a clear sense of existing as a separate,
independent "self." For that sense of a separate self
came from adhering to some form of exclusivity. That sense of
self was achieved and maintained by being in opposition, or resistance,
or competition with someone or something, with some aspect of
life as it is. It defined itself as "no - not that."
The sense of a separate self cannot survive a deep, visceral,
total "yes -- yes to everything." And that is because
there is only one thing that can truly, authentically, deeply
say "yes" to absolutely everything as it is: and that
is the whole movement of absolutely everything. That movement
includes us, but it doesn't come from us, and it does not favor
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.
Inner emptiness is so simple, so absolutely humble, that it is
continuously drowned out by the noise of the agitated mind. More
and more it is buried by the noisy violence of the machinery of
the modern corporate/consumerist economy. But it is always available.
The ecological mess is born of a human economic/social system
that exists to serve an entity that doesn't exist: "me"!
Nature serves physical organisms, aspects of itself. Civilization
exists to serve the "me." The cultivation of needs blatantly
serves the "me." Power and privilege serve the "me."
Control and domination serve the "me." Security serves
insecurity, and nothing is more insecure than the "me,"
because the "me" is a fiction. It only exists as an
idea in the mind.
But we have elevated the "me," the "self,"
to god-like centrality. 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 dream eating.
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 has become utterly
confused thinking that the two are the same. The body, which has
real needs, thinks it is the "self" which only has unquenchable
The mind has become 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
Once the illusion of the separate self is revealed, its centrality
is dethroned, and the whole person can become reoriented toward
reality: The movement of the whole in emptiness.
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 in themselves, and the person
reorients, away from their ideas about reality, 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, aided by the shift
itself, the new ground of deep emptiness in which one lives.
What is becomes central. What I think about it, what it
can do for me, becomes essentially unimportant.
And that is love, isn't it? Allowing everyone and everything
to be what we are? Deeply desiring total freedom for all beings?
Allowing ourselves to be changed more than we seek to change others?
Opening all the senses to the whole range of experience, inner
and outer? Giving up all attempts at domination and control, even
at the subtlest levels of thought? Acknowledging our essential
That is deep love. That is what flows effortlessly out of emptiness.
The emptiness that remains when the self-mechanism falls apart
is no mere absence, but fullness. It is emptiness that is full
Finding this ever-present emptiness in oneself, this deep well
of love that pours out into the whole of everything, is the essence
of contemplation. It is the revolution that sends ripples out
into every aspect of our lives. Without this one essential realization,
all of our other efforts fall short, because they continue to
attempt to serve the phantom self.
Because the root of the problem 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 sustainability and simplicity, as we find ways
to scale back and reduce our destructive impacts, 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,
aware of itself in its wholeness. It is the simplest thing: a
total, non-violent revolution in a single moment of awareness
of the whole movement of life. Radical, inclusive love pouring
out in the whole of everything, our most intimate being, always
new, always alive, always just beyond the grasp of our understanding.