Ecological thinking embodies explorations of relationships between living things and those living things and their environments. The living things can be as large as a blue whale or as small as a bacterium. The environments can be as small as a drop of pond water or as extensive as the whole universe itself. With the proper use of the right tools these relationships can be explored in great detail. Part of a contemplative’s satisfaction and wellbeing comes from spending the time that is needed to really enjoy these details.
Spending time with mammals leaves little doubt that there is awareness behind their eyes. It is a commonplace that our cats and dogs have personalities we come to love. Many people take this obvious acknowledgment of awareness as just a first step and extend the same recognition that there is some sort of awareness to the birds, insects, invertebrates and all the rest of the species populating the biosphere with such endless forms most beautiful.
This living world is in contrast to the deadened one too many of us habitually inhabit. The modern industrialized environment is so dominated by human artifacts that it is all too easy to forget to take even a single moment for mindfulness; for remembering how special it really is to be alive for the few years we are each allotted. This is why it is so helpful to have tools to support our efforts at remaining awake. The tools remind us that we are not isolated freaks of nature persecuted with self-conscious awareness of our mortality but are actually bearers of human dignity within a large community of life.
The dead world is the other way of viewing existence: that the pessimistic, nihilistic, thoroughly reductive materialism where only the dog-eat-dog of selfish, cruel, competitive power seekers all tragically and robotically unfree is “really” real. Many think that this is the necessary view that science teaches us, many more fear that this might be the case and refuse to look long and deep into the ways of the deadened world. They fear a silent universe. In the classical contemplative teachings all these insights are welcomed as the courageously clear analysis of the way the grey world really is. There is suffering involved in birth, sickness, old age and death, a suffering that is both individual and planetary. For you as an individual, things can look rather bleak. Our running away from this truth only makes us more haunted and hunted, more susceptible to the snake oil salesmen offering relief through a new purchase. The ancient advice is to stop running away, to look directly on the ways of being. Then you might have the power, the inspiration, to find the cracks where the light and magic can get in. The rumor is that there is a world of rainbows hiding just below the surface of the grey.
To help in this work, and it is work, there are tools of escape. The grey world is no more “really” real in any absolute sense than any of the other many conceptual castles we are capable of constructing for ourselves. The tools are everywhere once we are clear that the task is lessening our self-absorption. The first one I recommend for your consideration is kept on the person: a simple hand lens that fits easily into a pocket or purse. This is a simple tool that unlocks a whole new world within the world. Examine the ice on the pond, the weave of your clothes’ fabric, the luminous sheen on a dragonfly wing, the multiple eyes of your friendly neighborhood spider and any of countless other items populating your immediate environment. An appreciation for the intricate intelligence within forms naturally arises as we become more acquainted with their details. Unfortunately the human nervous system can quickly become numb to any stimuli it encounters repeatedly but with a hand lens always close you train in looking again, in really seeing the individual form in front of you and not just the conceptual label that normally accompanies perception.
Korzybski taught us in the 1930s that the menu is not the meal. His master work, Science and Sanity, is well worth spending time with if you have a scientific bend to your intellectual curiosities. In this work he points out how quickly our nervous systems can label this living, green stuff under our feet grass and by this very move miss all conscious perception of the individual, unique blades. He goes on to point out that those individual, unique blades have a reality to their existence that the abstraction “grass” does not. The simple expediency of using a hand lens every day in all kinds of places to examine all kinds of things helps wake us up to our senses again and slip out of the too settled grey zone of abstract conceptual thought. This simple hand lens acts to focus our curiosity outward, out into the world beyond our immediate personal concerns.
So as you are out walking under the sky with your hand lens in pocket, what other practice might we participate in? One I find fruitful is taking on the chore of picking up the human garbage I see along some part of my walk. Find some part of the environment you frequent regularly in which it is possible to see the natural world, however slight such a glimpse might be. Take a moment to pick up any human made pollution scarring this experience of the natural world, or at least a bit of it. The hope is that others might enjoy a view of the living planet and find relief from their grinding, daily concerns in a moment of appreciation of the world’s beauty. I live in an urban area so choose a park walkway for this practice. I have found the world readily cooperates, providing new trash to work with most every day. Sure it is a small thing and certainly will not save the world but that is just the point; it is a practice that embraces the reality of what I can do which is not much, but it is something.
The next set of tools is for the home. I was taught that every well-appointed home should have a few basic mind tools; a microscope, a telescope and a set of encyclopedias. Perhaps the last is now passé with the arrival of the internet but the others are all the more needed in our time of experts. In the same way that the hand lens widens the world one lives in, the wonderful (and for the most part affordable) basic microscope and telescope delivers whole new worlds. The thing is, it is just not the same to see a photo of a cell or the rings of Saturn as it is to gaze on these things with your own eyes. Of the many foolishness’s of our times perhaps none is more destructive of a zest for living then the pervasive sovereignty of experts. Somehow most of us have been left with the impression that if we are not able to contribute some new insight into a science or invent a new math or algorithm, then there is nothing for us in exploring the marvels of the world on our own. Here is the secret – encountering reality is beneficial to our mindstream, our souls if you will. It is not an exclusive club for the wealthy and powerful, the super-smart but rare genius but a very democratic feature of the human experience. It is yours for the taking.
For example, I have had quite awe inspiring experiences playing with the spectrum of light revealed by a prism. Sure I had read in my physics books that sunlight consists of all the colors of the rainbow, even saw the photo. But when I got my hands on a water prism and reproduced some of the experiments of Newton, Boyle and Goethe… something deep inside me changed. The world became a more magical place. All these tools can work the same way. All it takes is an alert awareness, a relaxed curiosity. The microscope, telescope, hand lens and prism can unite with rational studies to educate the imagination, the inner senses. How this in turn works out in practice will occupy us for the rest of this post.
Consider how contemplation of geese flying overhead can lead to a rich sense of being at home on the earth. In the presence of this event, these migrations, your consciousness is participating in an ecological and evolutionary adaptation that has been going on for centuries, millennia, and if you allow for all that has ever flocked across the face of Gaia, for hundreds of millions of years. It is just a single detail within the biosphere yet a necessary one. As they glide by in the sky and within your awareness, are you able to sense the timelessness of the event? How innumerable individual animals have come and gone yet the pattern remains? What is important is that the role be carried out, that this particular niche in the manifold exuberance of life’s anti-entropic explorations is wholly filled. If there were no geese another species would have evolved to take advantage of the same resources.
In the same way there seems to be a role for self-conscious beings given our particular human apperception of existence. Poetically, our thisness meets the other’s thusness as we ask, what makes the grass green? Who or what makes that which is real, seem real to me? Final, complete introspective investigation uncovers the most intimate ‘this’ is simply ‘thus’, beyond perceiver and perceived as two. All the contemplative tools are designed to provide an entryway into this insight, whether they are tools to hold in the hands or tools to hold in the mind.
Perhaps one way into a taste of this non-duality and the way our sense of reality mixes with it in contemplation is through thinking about what is known in the west as the Music of the Spheres. This is said to be the harmonies the planets are making as they follow their celestial movements and is a fine example of a tool held in the mind. The music of the spheres is like a Zen koan. Sound is the label we give to the human sensory neuron-firings stimulated by vibrations in the earth’s atmosphere which cause the delicate bones of our inner ear to move. Where is any objective sense of sound in all of this? Really apprehended, one experiences an unmovable silence in the heart of all sounds, an emptiness of the element of the absolutely real in sound that seems to exist in sound until we take full awareness of its processing. In this state of mind, now consider the Music of the Spheres as a profound not-sound since there is no atmosphere in space to carry the vibrations we label sound. Yet one could say the planets sing as their orchestrated movements unfold across the spacetime of relativity and vibrate using the most fundamental macrocosmic force of all – gravity.
Just as there is a kind of silence in sound when apprehended with due weight given to the role of our nervous systems, there is a kind of sound in what we perceive as silence. Perhaps we are so constructed as to be deaf to the rest of the orchestra of existence outside of our atmosphere; we are after all wholly children of our Mother Earth. Perhaps all things in all scales, from the collision of galaxies through the spinning and orbiting of planets, on down to the molecular world’s non-stop shaking and the quarks ceaseless vibrations (to say nothing of strings) are all producing harmonious “sound.” The Music of the Spheres indeed!
What good is training with such thought experiments? It is not to assert dogmatically that there is such a sound beyond sound and that what we typically experience as sound is just a delusion. Nor is it meant to assert the opposite. In becoming open to the possibility that there is a Music of the Spheres that we can hear though the faculty of intuition and insight one also entertains an awareness of the larger, cosmological context in which an awareness of “sound” is taking place. The context of galaxies through to quarks is the web of fullness on which our sense of what is “really” real selects a very particular slice due to the construction of our nervous systems. Such has been our human nature “from the beginning”, part of what Biblical Genesis called our being created in the image of god.
The reason tradition says to train this way is that from this view it is possible to recognize the inescapable interdependent quality of all conscious experience which in turn alleviates suffering by transforming it from something “really real” in an absolute sense and hence life as hell, into something “real, but not quite how it seems” which can open one to experience life as sacred world here and now. These are advanced teachings, hard for the conceptual mind alone to grasp since they are about awareness itself, that more fundamental feature of mind all sentient beings share and on which our conceptual thoughts themselves depend.
The Music of the Spheres is the koan for hearing. Similar contemplations can arise for the other senses as well. Both techniques – sharing the deep time role of geese overhead and looking deeply into what hearing is – are ways of shifting the center of gravity of one’s awareness outside the ego. Wisdom teachings insist that however painful it might be for ego to see through its delusions it is worth the effort. We can remember that what we actually are is mystery yet we can be assured it is a wholly natural fruition of all that is, a bud on the flowering process of life, a wholly owned expression of causes and conditions written in deep time and across deep space.
Softening the boundary between self and other, one’s allegiance can become increasingly aligned with the side of all living things instead of narrowly focused on your life or your species alone. You will find yourself rejoicing in another’s good fortune and saddened by another’s misfortunes. Equally, taking good care of yourself respects the sliver of the divine other in the budding of life you happen to know most intimately. I suggested in a previous post that when we hear mindful we think heartful. In the same way I suggest that when we hear other we think other-self or larger-self or rest-of-self: in a word, family. In studying ecology we learn we cannot really discard garbage, that it cannot really be thrown away because there is no away wholly disconnected to everything else. This is similar – there is no other that is wholly other. Again, ecological concepts weave well with concepts from the contemplative traditions. Next week we will look at the contemplative traditions most recognized tool, meditation.