The Natural Contemplative
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 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. But it is not an ideology. It is not a belief system. It is a way of looking. Anyone can look, and see for themselves whether contemplation has any validity. No one who understands contemplation would ever try to force it on anyone else. Contemplation is too deeply personal for that. You cannot make someone else look clearly and candidly at their own experience. You can only offer the invitation.
The heart of contemplation is inner emptiness. Inner emptiness makes attention to the whole movement of Life possible. 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.
Paying attention requires inner emptiness. Attention does not come from analyzing, criticizing, judging, imposing our beliefs, or in any way being controlled by our own thoughts. Attention comes from emptiness. Not an experience of emptiness. Not an external quietness, but a field of emptiness that is the background to all activity, to all thought, to all movement, to all experience. The mind can become aware of this emptiness when its normal activity of self-perpetuation stops, when interpretation ends and observation begins, all experience arising in emptiness.
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 with others.
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 "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 you 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? You may not even know if it is an ash or an oak. Your knowledge of the tree is small and partial. But we call it a tree, because it is convenient. Convenient and necessary, and misleading.
The truth of the tree cannot be spoken in a word. So if I am concerned with introducing you to the truth of the tree, I 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 you might begin, barely, to have a sense of what that tree is. You might. Or, you might realize that you 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 you would still never know the full truth of that tree. And if anyone asked you, "what is a tree?" you would be struck dumb. How in a few words can you say anything meaningful? How, with words, can you 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 really 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 giving up 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, my 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 resist.
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.
Words cannot even begin to convey it. Shifting into the realm of words often causes the sense of it to evaporate. It is better to remain silent and let the reality of it sink in. You are not just this isolated little human. You are the whole movement of Life.
Nothing exists in isolation. Nothing stops changing. Nothing can ever be definitively pinned down. Whether you are observing yourself or the world, you never get to stop and say, this is it, this is the way things are, forever and ever, so be it. Now I know. End of discussion.
You think you know, but you don't know. By the time you describe what you have observed, it has changed. By the time you observe it, it has changed. You have changed! You have changed it. It has changed you.
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. The 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 simply do not know what is really going on. 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 large, 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, 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 in Life's improvisational creativity. When we free them from us, then we are free to listen and to learn from 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. 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 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. We have been living for a long time in an exclusive mindscape that is barely able to allow the reality of the living world to enter into it. 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.
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, of which industrial civilization is only the most recent, most brutal example, 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 desires.
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 become.
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 on which one stands.
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?
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 of everything. It is full of love.
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 underpinnings of our current lifestyle, the deep, deadly attachment we have to it, vanishes 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.