Mindfulness + Ecology = Compassionate Wisdom

The Power of Contentment or A Way Forward

“A flower falls, even though we love it; and a weed grows, even though we do not love it.”
Dogen Zenji

If  ecological concepts are given careful and sustained contemplation, in my experience they will have profound effects on the whole of one’s view of life; of right and wrong, of what is meaningful and what is not. They open up the world that greets us through our senses and the world that we participate in when we close our eyes. They also lend themselves to a type of commentary on history that acts as a corrective towards our innate tendency to see our own generation as uniquely special or on a more personal level, to see ourselves as overly unique.

Take the simple and most basic concept right out of ecology 101; the food web. Think for a moment what it means that most all ecosystems on earth are rooted in the primary producers, the green plants. It is worthy of some contemplation. Most all life as we know it depends directly or indirectly on those photosynthesizing entities, which are getting the sum total of all the energy that will sustain the rest of the food chain directly from the sun.  Now with this as a background thought bring to mind how grateful you are for the smile on your lovers face, or your grandmother’s apple pie, or the silly way Aunt Milly has of laughing. You get the idea. Allowing the warmth of human kindness to arise within an ecological context it naturally comes accompanied by gratitude to the fiery nuclear furnace in the sky and the humble weeds and plants of the fields. If you can stay with the contemplation a while it soon becomes obvious that the dew of the morning and the work of the worms join the storm clouds and lightning and all the rest of the endlessly interdependent details that make living on earth possible. They are all intimately linked to Aunt Milly’s smile. This is how the artist sees, this is how the poet apprehends, this is how the mystic understands. We are tragically mistaken to dismiss these understandings as childish imaginations; beautiful perhaps, but of little account in the important world of adult politics and commerce. These are the facts. This is reality. The poetic is inherent.

It is necessary to say a word or two about the power of the human imagination. The western mainstream has had a tendency to underrate just how pervasive and formative this mental faculty really is. On the one hand it is possible to use the trained imagination to open the doors of perception or to dive beyond the surface of experience. What else are the great insights of physics or our other apprehensions of generalities within the sciences? We do not see gravity with anything but the mind’s eye, yet few would deny the mind’s eye is perceiving something here that is as real as rocks. Then there is the use of imagination in its ability to spin alternative worlds, the utopias or distopias of literature and fantasy. We all use imagination’s power whenever we indulge in justifying our words and actions to ourselves by ruminating seemingly endlessly around an event that bothers us, remaking the important parts in our own image. Which brings me to the last use of imagination important to the point being made here; imagination makes it possible for humans to pretend to forget the facts of interdependence and countless others that are literally staring us in the face. In our forgetting we craft the type of mental world most of us spend most of our lives in. It is a world of work and getting ahead, of shopping and endless entertainments yet painfully hollow and shallow and empty at its core. This is the world that worships youth and dismisses age, that rewards the sports player yet pays the teacher poverty wages, that can see no viable way to stop carbon pollution if it costs anything. It is also the world that each and every one of us will, sooner or later, curse as we find it to be unreal. Each and everyone of us will, sooner or later, confront an illness or a death, an injury or loss that cuts deep enough to shake us out of this illusion-like autopilot consciousness. At that time all the cliches of wisdom come forth; happiness in life is found in giving to others, there is no free lunch, what goes around comes around, no one every died regretting they did not spend more days at work, blood runs thicker than water.

Ecology provides an approachable avenue to reminding ourselves about some of the most precious truths about the gift of being alive. Used mindfully it can wake us up a bit in the moment by moment unfolding of the present, the only life we will ever have.

Lest these ideas leave the wrong impression that mindful ecology is a New Age fluffy cotton candy for the mind honesty requires that mention be made of other fundamental ecological concepts that will bear much fruit if respectfully contemplated; overshoot, limits to growth, feedback mechanisms and the usefulness of the compost pile. Somewhere in the midst of ecological mindfulness there is also the death of the most profound illusion of them all in the human experience, the death of the ego.  Ego fancies itself separate from the body and mind, imagines its reach is beyond the very limited boundaries of one individual life among countless trillions, it refuses to recognize that in a very real sense life lives us, we are the servants here and not the masters. The ecological crises that has haunted the human experience down through the centuries is born of a blindness to the place of humankind in the larger scheme of things. In our hubris collectively and individually we spin a phantom of anthropomorphism from which it is not possible to find a healthy balance between our cultures and the larger world – we either value ourselves or our world too much or too little, seeing ourselves as the saviors of the planet or its worst scourge.

The Buddha taught that the first truth that must be admitted if we are to find liberation is that human life in this world includes suffering; that we are destined to say goodbye to all we love and hold dear, to live through illness, pain and death. In a very similar way the first steps of ecological mindfulness entail an honest appraisal of the crises unfolding all around us today in its seemingly apocalyptic dimensions. That is, those in who this awareness is being born are typically first initiated into it through despair. Despairing for the lives our children are being handed and despair for the extinctions and boundless cruelties we humans are visiting upon the natural world. The global culture is careening head-long over a cliff. On this point most every ecologist in the world agrees, regardless whether their specialty is climate change, extinction rates or the health of oceans, soils, forests or farmlands.

It is my thesis and my hope that mindfulness can act as the balm for these wounds. What I have found is what I am calling mindful ecology.

How despair is the proper reaction of any warm hearted human being to an honest appraisal of our predicament is the topic we will pick up in the next post.

2 Replies to “Mindfulness + Ecology = Compassionate Wisdom”

  1. Wow. I’m a regular reader of John Michael Greer’s blog and came across a link to your blog in this week’s post (was it in your comment? can’t quite recall). I’m so glad I clicked on it. As one who started awakening in 2008 and had a pretty despairing time of it, I so appreciate your efforts and suggestions. May I have the strength to put at least some of them into practice. Concise, blunt, beautiful, wise, and very timely are just a few things I’d say about your blog. I read from most recent to the oldest (do most people do that, I wonder?) – and the last few postings brought shivers of delight to my self. Quite a journey! Keep up the great work…

  2. Rob – Welcome and thank you for the encouragement. I knew I was not the only one who struggled for years with the reality of our ecological crises before some peace of mind returned. My goal on this blog is to share what worked for me. Unexpectedly wrestling with the dark brought light, a “shiver of delight” from a glimpse into our world as sacred. The discussion will get there eventually, hope you stick around!

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