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 longer 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.
Contemplation as I understand it is therefore 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 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 what seems to be
a separate thing is 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, 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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
We and the whales are not the only participants in this grand
collaboration. Everything participates in it. 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
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 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? 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
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.