“The Most Radical thing any of us can do at this time is to be fully present to what is happening in the world.”
There is so much suffering in the world, how can you not care? When you do care, empathy will break your heart. You will not be happy. It will seem a sin to be happy in the face of the knowledge lodged in your breast like a cannonball. Staying with the uncomfortable, it becomes even more so. Not only is there so much suffering but there is very, very little you can do about it. Very little you will be able to change so that the suffering is diminished even for just a few sentient beings, even for just a little time, even just a little bit.
It is equally true that there is so much wonderful in the world, how can you not care? When you do care, joy will overflow your heart. You will be happy for every other being that has ever been happy, in any way. It will seem a sin to be depressed in the face of the knowledge lodged in your breast like a flower. Not only is there so much wonder in the world but there is very, very little you can do about it. Very little you will be able to change so that the happiness is darkened for sentient beings, maybe for a few, maybe for a little time, maybe just a little bit.
Buddhism states the first Nobel Truth is that life includes suffering. It also teaches that living a human life is an extremely precious opportunity. Holding both of these at the same time is just one of many things that seem difficult, if not impossible for the conceptual mind, yet we do it naturally everyday. Perhaps we can say we understand this core characteristic of life with the heart-mind. With the part of us that breathes and feels along side our thinking.
The Buddhism I draw inspiration from is realistic; it teaches enlightenment is knowing reality as it actually is without the illusions and delusions that blind us in ignorance. Among the most grievous blind-spots of our current worldview is failing to see the value of the natural world, our planetary environment, and our place in it. In our ignorance we have sewn seeds of destruction. Buddhism teaches that causes invariably have effects; Karma. It teaches running away into an ’empire of illusion’ will only lead to more bad ju ju.
On the other hand, it is realistically possible to make things a bit better. A Buddhist will try and use the power of consciousness to sew good causes; nothing like a utopia or other fantasy lands, just better, a little. The past shows it is possible to have alternative values then those presently in the ascendancy in our culture. If we choose to again reward compassionate action above self aggrandizement, the sorrows of the coming times will be greatly lessened. The protector plays an honorable role. As things continue to go sideways perhaps they will be valued even more then a captain of industry. It is a worthy hope, worth working for.
What if humankind will never go to the stars? What if earth life is all there is and we humans are the only self aware life form in our galaxy? What if there is no escape, if death is just rebirth and we all come back to taste the fruits we have sewn? “For all of us, becoming indigenous to a place means living as if your children’s future mattered, to take care of the land as if our lives, both material and spiritual, depend on it.” Ms. Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass mentions the missing key; that our spiritual life depends on the land. In one stroke this insight moves beyond the duality of the Cartesian splitting of mind and matter into a whole new depth about what it means to be alive right here, right now.
Earth is where we experience “all our woes and joys.” On this one planet we share with every other sentient being we have ever known anything about, it is undeniable that every experience of living includes some sunshine and some rain, some joy and some pain. Astonishingly, even the Nazi gas chambers were not able to stop the young from falling madly in love when the soldiers came home. All of history’s torture chambers, pedophiles, rapists and killers are unable to stop the laughter of a mother and father with their child, a child with friends, old folks gathering around the family table or any of the other countless millions of expressions of caring and love and joy, happening right now, all over the world. This very instant the devils are dying from a thousand-million strokes of laughter.
Yet are there not a thousand-million tears as well, right now, this very instant?
I believe it is most probable that a century or two from now the human population will have shrunk to perhaps one or two billion people, from the 7+ billion alive today. The coming decades promise to be bitter ones, with an increase in suffering all around.
I believe in the long descent, centuries of undoing as history again escorts human beings through the collapse of a civilization. This time the civilization in question is world wide and has the unique characteristic of having powered itself with hydrocarbons. Acting like a mechanical lever these fuels have magnified our reach. The extractive industries in particular, and the footprint of all of us generally, is now of a size out of all proportion to our surroundings. Instead of homo sapien we have become a prosthetically enhanced new species, Homo Colossus. It is obvious but needs to be said; that which is not sustainable will not be sustained. This new type is not long for this earth.
These projections about the course of the near future are hardly mainstream. Those who argue with the thesis are buoyed by a cheap optimism nurtured in the corporate culture of the industrial nations. No one wants to hang out with a gloomy Gus and gee, just look at all these neat things to buy and do, how could anyone be anything but ecstatic? Life got you down? Perfect: we have Prozac, Disneyland, 500 channels, slick magazines, pornography on demand, fast cars, fashionable clothes, bright city lights, celebrity diets and gossip, movies and movie stars, tomatoes in the wintertime and don’t look now but it there just might be another SALE on! Put on a non-happy face and it will not be long before someone suggests you need counseling, drugs, an affair – anything to fix the pathos. We have indeed been ‘Bright-Sided‘ by the pushers of the more-better-faster religion of our times.
It leaves us Ill prepared when the day comes, as it must, when the tides turn less cheerful. In the West we have inherited from our so-called enlightenment an unfailing belief in progress. For the last few centuries that hope has guided the struggling lives of people all over the world. History, it was believed, had a point; time proceeds in a linear fashion leading to us, the highest pinnacle of earth’s history and yet not the highest it will ever reach because tomorrow will be even better. It is taking a long time for the tide to life all boats but the boats are coming up.
For a materialist culture that cannot seem to find a way to place any value on clean water and air, unpolluted food or stewarding our topsoil for our progeny, we sure are convinced we are not blinded about this either, this central conviction of our times, this belief in secular progress. With all the fanaticism of a fundamentalist we hang on to “growth is good, growth at all costs” even as the complex systems of our societies and environments unravel all around us.
Did you catch the trick? See the slight of mind in the persuader’s rhetorical flourish? More-Better-Faster. They hide better in the middle of more and faster, as if it belonged there. As conscious beings we all want what is better, seeking it is the way towards a meaningful life. Nothing wrong here. It is the company it keeps that is suspect. Many thinkers in the past have insisted that the better human life is to be found not in acquiring more but in desiring less, not in going ever faster but in slowing down and noticing the moment. No wonder such heresies are so swiftly scorned. The whole house of cards would come tumbling down if the economies of the world were to all get smaller and go slower. Panic!
It is very probable that in our one-sided, obsessive pursuit of better, as defined in the materialist way, we have wove ourselves into a cognitive delusion. This is a powerful delusion made all the more so as it is shared collectively. It is actually very difficult to think along any other lines. Without growth, the economists ask, where will the money come from to pay back loans? Where, caring parents ask, will the chance for my children to have a better life come from? These are valid concerns, real in the context of the systems we have created. This does not change the fact that they could still be delusional, out of touch with the reality of our finite planet, our single home.
I started by pointing out the paradox at the very heart of human life; the awareness of both glory and suffering. Perhaps, just perhaps, there are better ways to live that do not couple themselves to anything like the concepts of more and faster as we understand them in our times. It is possible that the better life has more to do with relationships, intellectual, physical and spiritual, then it does with more stuff. It is possible that the better is known by those who have the time to appreciate the good things of life, refusing to run around harried and tiered, desperately chasing the Joneses.
At this stage of collapse most of us remain involved in the Homo Colossus systems for putting food on our tables, it is an inescapable part of our here and now. Dedicated practice to contemplative science provides a way to live that supports moving beyond the meaningless business as usual habits that are so toxic in our culture. If your vision into the ecological crises is insisting that your life reflect alternative values, then a meditation discipline provides a way to walk the talk. This is a daily practice providing an alternative to both extremes of seeing the only meaningful responses to the ecological crises in protests or in retreats from the world.
My thesis is that despair, while it might seem warranted, is an important place to visit but a damaging place to live. My thesis is that one does not need to sacrifice intellectual integrity, nor deny the gloomy knowledge, to find a personal way through the dark woods to a golden dawn, through the horrifying facts to another set of facts equally real and equally important to experience which leads to happiness. These alternate facts concern a) what it is to be human, a child of the cosmos and evolution’s long creativity and b) the depth of meaning to be found in the opportunity to serve other sentient beings (human and otherwise) through offering aid to the animate and inanimate world that is right outside your door.
It seems obvious that life has a lot more to do with this question of happiness and suffering then with more faster. It seems obvious that kindness and compassion, in spite of their current unpopularity, are equally valid guides for how to be human as those currently on our pedestals; greed, selfishness and getting ahead. I think a lot of people are noticing the same thing and it is giving our culture a serious case of suicidal depression. We will start to take a look at where it comes from and how it manifests itself next week.