Earth Love: Mind

“But epistemology is always and inevitably personal. The point of the probe is always in the heart of the explorer: What is my answer to the question of the nature of knowing? I surrender to the belief that my knowing is a small part of a wider integrated knowing that knits the entire biosphere or creation.”
Mind and Nature – a Necessary Unity, Gregory Bateson


What is it exactly that forms the river into the specific form it takes as it winds its way down a mountainside? The water interacts with the land it touches and together they work out the path it takes. Riverbanks constrain the water and the water carves the riverbanks. Throughout, conditions form the expression of the river; a boulder in the middle of the river here, a fallen log there, the incline of the ground is steep here and less steep over there. The tides and flows are molded by all these factors. The shape of the river also is influenced by the organic matter it interacts with; algae slowing the flow in the stagnant water of a cul-de-sac or a trout vigorously kicking splashes of water and pebbles to and fro.

Not one element of the river is expressing itself just-because. There are causes involved at a multitude of scales all working together to bring forth the exact expression of the pattern of relationships which we call a river. Ever changing yet ever constrained, the river embodies and expresses these patterns of relationships moment by moment.

Ask a physicist what makes the river take the exact form it does and they will be able to explain it in terms of gravity and hydrodynamics. They can provide a detailed description in complex equations. Here is another area in which I think it is extremely helpful for contemplatives to have some grounding in modern science. The equations involved in the description of fluid behavior are difficult. These complex discoveries are among the more impressive achievements of the modern mind, yet without some exposure to the level of detail the sciences speak there is no real way to appreciate that. This blog is not the place to examine such equations and I am certainly not the best guide to such explorations but it is worth a moment to just see one set for a simplified 2D flow:

Navier-Stokes-Stream2DStill, in spite of our deep understanding of the dynamics of fluids the human mind remains unable to predict the shape of a river in any but the most trivial of environments. This inability to predict is due to more than just the number of variables involved, although those are immense. Imagine a computer able to handle them all and still we would be unable to form accurate predictions due to the chaotic nature of water flows.

Just how the turbulence within the river will develop is highly sensitive to the initial conditions. We call this state of affairs a chaotic system. The force of cause and effect is no less prevalent in such systems; it is simply that the slightest change in the starting values of the parameters leads to very different outcomes. In the real world our instruments are only able to measure to certain degrees of accuracy so those differences in initial conditions act as a barrier to our ability to predict exactly what will happen as the rivers weave their warp and woof on their way to the oceans. (Measurement and its characteristics in the real world were mentioned earlier.) There will be more to say about complex systems that incorporate chaotic dynamics as we proceed along this blog project. For now I think it well illustrates that the type of ‘intelligence’ a river is involved in is not as simple and trivial as we might think it is before we analyze it.

The river itself of course has no trouble navigating all these factors. Embodying this ‘intelligence’ is what it does moment by moment. It reminds of a quip by Buckminster Fuller, “I wonder”, to paraphrase what he said, “how many decimal places of Pi nature carries out her calculations before deciding it is good enough to make a water bubble?”

We have grown so used to thinking of mind as something only human beings have. A more narrow definition of mind would be hard to imagine. Such a narrow definition is useful in some contexts but as a general world-view it may not serve us well. Too narrow a view admits only a mysterious ghost in the machine in the human brain finding itself in a dead universe of automatons and carnival masks, or to use the classical terms – atoms and void. Ok, let us say for the sake of argument that view is true on the atomic level. Does that necessarily entail that there is nothing real at any other level? To insist it does would be a logical error.

This might seem pedantic but there are enormous debates in our history trying to decide if the consciousness animals have might have any characteristics we could rightly call mind and if so to what degree. The way we treat and eat animals might need to change if we were to change our view on this matter. Still, most people are willing to assign some degree of mind to their pets and extend it as a logical implication to other animals of the wild. The Elk and Wolf both display behaviors that we recognize as purposeful and intuitively we assign such functionality to mind. It gets a bit harder to say the same about a worm or a gnat perhaps.

Here is where a mindful ecology lets its love for the earth whisper wisdoms from indigenous peoples. As astonishing as it might be, and as I have mentioned before, even a single celled amoeba can be said to have beliefs of sorts since it too displays purposeful behavior. Daringly, might we suggest that those flowing rivers we just looked at are best understood as also being expressions of mind? Or to be a bit more careful, mindful ecology is suggesting that there are definitions of mind that are coherent while being able to incorporate not only the biological but also the whole container in which the biosphere is found. To be clear: this is the heresy some proponents of the Gaia hypothesis are at pains to disown. They are comfortable admitting life might form non-life towards serving its needs but cannot see how the obverse relationship could have an equally valid standing. We are so conditioned to see the non-life as dumb and dead and nothing more it is difficult to imagine any other view could even be coherent unless there was theism behind it.

Why might it matter how narrow or wide we define the nature of mind? I asked a few posts ago to take some time with a flower or a candle and really ask yourself; just what is it you think is really going on here? Here is one way to view such things.  This view I am proposing is firmly rooted in an ecological understanding of how critical to the well-being of living things is the interactions they have, always and everywhere, with the non-organic. There is a whole here that cannot be separated. Even a cell in a laboratory’s sterilized Petri dish remains dependent on its environmental container.

That there is design in nature is the puzzle of puzzles. Theists claim it proves their view, Darwin is said to have explained it without recourse to a mind-of-god hypothesis and the artists, poets and lovers never fail to be inspired by it. The contemplatives suggest it is actually very difficult, perhaps impossible, to draw a distinct boundary between the expression of mind seemingly inside and the expression of mind seemingly outside. They seem to have intuitively grasped a definition of mind surprisingly modern in its ramifications.

Describing the shape and dynamics of a river as a manifestation of intelligence comes from an appreciation of a few fundamentals normally attributed to consciousness. There is information. Information requires a physical representation; it needs a material base as we have learned from cybernetics and computer science. In our computers the information is in the form of electrical voltages high and low, in the formation of a river it is in the form of the riverbanks and other elements. There is communication. Communication establishes relationships which are required to express any pattern whatsoever. In our computers the relationships are between logic gates, particular patterns of electrical circuits. In the shaping of the river the relationships are between hydraulic flow characteristics, gravity, organic material and a whole host of other features.

Recognizing the primacy of relationships is another way of saying reality is interdependent, or dependently arising. Recognizing the primacy of relationships is also why when Gregory Bateson tried to teach about an ecology of mind that would include the mind of the Redwood forest and the sea amoebas. He wrote: “The pattern which connects is a metapattern.  It is a pattern of patterns. It is that metapattern which defines the vast generalization that, indeed, it is patterns which connect.” (Mind and Nature, italics in original). Patterns are relationships in which meaning is found, intelligence.

When you can sense the trees you see shimmering their leaves in the wind are joining the shrubs and lawn under the cloud bedecked blue sky in expressing a mind that is not fundamentally different than your own – then a peace can blossom in your mind-stream that embraces you thoroughly, warmly, like a mother. Look straight up into the deep blue sky. Without over-romanticizing it sense the ancient jellyfish who were perhaps the first to seek light, and the vines crawling upward reaching for the sun, then add the countless flowers spread over the whole of the earth and over eons, shifting to get just a few more of those precious rays. Sense your ancestors, many of whom were not at all polite or quiet or even human. The treasure house of awareness in its container is precious, priceless, the jewel worth more than any possible purchase.

Everything that would make you into a stranger on this earth, resist it. Others are all too willing to deny your reality to sell you something, force you to do their bidding, enlist you in their cause, trap you in their own nightmares… gently set aside the peer pressures. Remove the hands of fear from your throat. Fight off the constrictions on your chest and breathe freely. Recognize that with the jewel of awareness you have everything of ultimate worth. Just perhaps, that insight will cut the power behind our clinging to lesser things. Try it. As my teacher says, give it a shot.

Earth Love: Speech

“And so, thus:
This is known as the Far-Reaching Perfection of Discerning Wisdom in a Single Letter.
They all praised what had been spoken by the Blessed One.”

We are surrounded by wonder.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama teaches that each morning when we wake up we should think “How fortunate it is I have woke up. I’m alive; I have a precious human life. I’m not going to waste it; I’m going to use all my energies to develop myself, to extend my heart out to others, to seek to benefit others as much as I can.”

Is this how you wake up more often than not, at ease yet grateful for another chance to play in the streams of ever changing energies? Or do you immediately collapse all awareness into your own individual concerns and your hopes and fears for the new day?

As contemplatives we are training in learning to listen to the experiences within our awareness with increased mindfulness. We train to listen more carefully. Before screaming our agendas to the world it is better to first quietly listen, as if to ask of our body, speech, mind and all the phenomenon of earth, what would you say to me right now? Awaking from our dreaming and dreamless sleeping selves is a good time to recall how many layers consciousness includes. This recollection is easily available if we are able to take a fundamentally grateful attitude towards all the mysteries of being. It is not so easy to access if our fears rule us, for then we want to see our waking selves as the be all and end all of our whole existence. That fear based living is actually even worse for of the waking awarenesses, of which there are many, we give legitimacy only to that ego part that is wholly devoted to our own plans, needs and desires. If all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail. In the same way if we are too anthropomorphic in our view, the whole universe is reduced to what we can feed us.

In those first moments of waking the Dalai Lama’s teaching seems to imply there is a power of sorts to set the tone for our day, to plant a small seed with an aspiration to be our better selves and make the most of the opportunity. His words turn our attention to the “energies” which are a part of our constitution as the way to make this happen. Energy is a good term here to remind us that we are dealing with an ever changing phenomenon when we consider how we will be expressing ourselves throughout the day. This whole dynamic expression of our self is what is referred to as speech in the classic Buddhist classifications of our constitution as body, speech and mind.  This morning aspiration practice is teaching us to tune into the humming of our cellular dynamics, the molecular flows of air and the atomic flows of light that greet us as our sense gates come back online. It is a good practice for health of body and mind to rest a moment in gratitude and listen – is there a bird chirping? A partner breathing? Bustling family in another room? Even the hum of traffic can bring a certain reassurance that the cosmic play goes on. Try to rest at ease a moment and feel the interconnected world supporting your spark of awareness. All these things need to be just as they are for you to have this exact moment of consciousness just as it is.

This wider definition of speech as the whole expression of the dynamic nature of phenomenon is also usefully applied to the environment through which you will be moving throughout your day. The too anthropomorphic view only recognizes speech as an attribute of the human race and so finds the whole universe to be mute. It takes some work to learn to listen to the natural world in such a way that its noises are recognized as communications. The earth has grown silent for us. We no longer sense the deities of the forest, river and mountain nor do we hear the languages of birds and beasts as one that means anything to us at all. Perhaps nothing more poignantly illustrates our alienation from the roots of our culture in the indigenous cultures of our ancestors than this hollowed out silence of a deadened world.

We need to redefine language as communication and not just alphabet and writing. This positions the uniquely developed skills of human language firmly within the evolutionary developments of the earth’s biosphere where the bees communicate with dance, the ants with pheromones, the birds, whales and dolphins with songs and the monkeys with an astonishing range from tender to threatening. An appreciation for the actual ecology of the earth cannot help but include a profound awe before the invisible yet very real webs of communication all around us without which life as we know it could not exist.

What is communication? Isn’t it fundamentally about sharing? As mentioned, it is an expression of the energetic nature of all living things. All living things relate to their organic and inorganic environments to one degree or another and these relationships, are they not expressing a communication of one form or another? There is an irreducible social element involved in ecological relationships. No man is an island – nor is any other living thing. No movement is without meaning. Nor is there any action taken or reaction processed that is without an energetic signature expressing the unique ongoing existence of the being involved. This is the weaving of the world of communications we are training to become sensitive to. The heart filled with a love for the earth wants to share in its dancing.

The Dalai Lama’s advice also includes the phrase that is one of the cornerstones of this blog project; a precious human life. Our skillful use of speech is certainly one of the attributes that makes a human life uniquely precious among all the life forms on earth. With the ability to manipulate alphabets to produce words the range of communication, and with it our awareness, is made more spacious. With our communication artifacts we wield a truly magical power: the sentences and mathematical equations by which we communicate our ideas from one mind to another are not subject to decay over time. Today we can read the poets and philosophers of Ancient Greece and recognize a human mind like our own. This magical ability was well named time-binding by Alfred Korzybski whom we encountered earlier. Time-binding captures the essence of the ability of the written words and maths as well as the drawn, painted and sculpted artifacts of our other symbol systems to communicate across time and space.

The books we have inherited from our ancestors are particularly precious to me. I know of no other medium by which a similar level of detail can be shared from one mind to another. In my opinion it is one of the more worrisome signs of our degenerate times that our bookstores are closing and the pundits are seemingly unaware that electronic delivery of text is not the same. The medium is the message; who really reads War and Peace on their Kindle? This is an aside but worth a soapbox moment. The death of the literate class is threatening democracy and poisoning our resilience against Caesars. It is also indicative of a generation consumed with hubris. We are sure there is nothing of value in the past since we are on our way to our glorious future of endless progress taking us to life extension and space travel. Or, to account for the other half of our hubris, we are so uniquely wicked as to be living in the end times so what does it matter what history might have to teach us? I encourage all my readers to read. Read real books; science, literature, history, philosophy – it is your birthright, your inheritance. Keep the time-binding magic alive and do not let those who would profit from your ignorance win the battle for your mind. Learn to listen to generations other than your own. End of soap box.

This uniquely human form of communication that relies on words is worth considerable contemplation. Have you noticed how your most intimate sense of self is often expressed as the thoughts you think, especially in the more poetic forms? Isn’t it a bit mysterious that this most intimate sense of yourself as an individual depends on a set of words which are wholly a social phenomenon? This is a general experience of contemplatives through the ages: that the most “me” parts inside are found on analysis to include “you” too.

It is a fact that our words, by which we think, each and every one of them, were given to us by the culture in which we were raised. They are a collective invention. After all words are about communication and in communication it takes two to tango. Words carry information only to the degree that we agree on their meanings. They are 100% a gift from our social environment. Last week’s essay mentioned the fuzzy boundaries of the body and now we see another fuzzy boundary. We can ask just where exactly does your self begin and the society of others end when considering the parents, grandparents, teachers and friends by which we learned to speak?

Equally a fact is that the words themselves are arbitrary. They only function due to this social agreement. There is no inherent doggie-ness in the word d-o-g. It is completely empty of such inherent correspondence between the reference and the referent. This too is mysterious and not just a little magical. Who decided b-l-u-e would mean blue? No one. Yet it appears.

I have one last idea about speech to suggest might be worth some contemplative time. In seeking the calm mind of shamata the thoughts are quieted down, which means the stream of words is given a gentle but effective “ssshhhhh…” Funny how using a word to get beyond words can work this way. To get the trick to work effectively though requires a knack of recognizing the windy, energy filled sources of these conceptual streams. To find them it might help to consider this – your voice is the sound of your thoughts. Now there are many voices but they are all yours and recognizable as such. These voices are the internal representations of your ability to speak. They are yours in the same sense that the collective words that are making up ‘your’ thoughts are yours. The difference of course is that the voice is coming from the collective or social phenomenon we experience as our body. Its source is ultimately the DNA as it expressed itself in your particular Evo-Devo unfolding. It is said that if you listen real quietly you can hear the song on the voice or in the voice or of the voice itself. It is said it sounds like AH or perhaps Om Ah Hum all at once. Those who have heard it say the song has no beginning and no end; that its expression of energy is not in time or of time. But these are just words, of course.

Earth Love: Body

“What it is it to be admitted to a museum, to see a myriad of particular things, compared with being shown some star’s surface, some hard matter in its home! I stand in awe of my body, this matter to which I am bound has become so strange to me. I fear not spirits, ghosts, of which I am one, – that my body might, – but I fear bodies, I tremble to meet them. What is this Titan that has possession of me? Talk of mysteries! – Think of our life in nature, – daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it, – rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! The solid earth! the actual world! The common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we?”

Thoreau, The Maine Woods


As contemplatives we are trying to become wise so that we can effectively serve others. We are willing to meditate an hour or two a day to aid in that quest, inspired by what we know so far. Whoever said ignorance is bliss did not know much about bliss, or grief for that matter. Aldo Leopold in Sand County Almanac taught us “We grieve only for what we know. The erasure of Silphium from Dane County is no cause for grief if one knows it only as a name in a botany book.”  After our dinner table conversation last week, if you pursued the resources that were mentioned, we have shared our grief.

One of the things that surprise many people, me included, is how information about the losses we are experiencing in the ecological crises is felt so profoundly in the body. The sorrow is a weight on the heart, the vision of horror that opens up wracks our bones, the tears that flow join a ragged-edged breath and seem to burn inside. Reading materials like Derrick Jensen’s evokes visceral reactions. It’s as if our living bodies wake up to their sensations and discover something hard and frozen lodged deep within. Unless you have practiced some form of body-work, as members of the modern world you will likely find yourself unequipped to deal with this primeval level of revelation.

Modern education presents a surprisingly impoverished set of images and models of the human body. Our scientific model is the most sophisticated in history but what about the view from the artistic eye? If you are like most people when you turn your attention inward your default image of yourself is something like a child’s stick-figure. It remains on a level of second grade or so where a big head is detailed and takes center stage with a few limbs tacked on here and there so the feet and hands can be attached. Those caught in the pornified culture will add genitalia but wildly distorted – sketchy and exaggerated, like cartoon conventions.

This is not the place to explore the rich historical factors that accompany modernity’s body images but a few things need to be said. In Western art what are the most typical images of flesh? I think most people would agree it is the corpus of Christ; the torn flesh of a tortured murder victim. Centuries of hair-shirt asceticism attempting to subdue the flesh for the sake of the spirit still provides our largely unacknowledged psychic environment, particularly in the land the Puritans settled. Today of course the resurgence of the repressed has produced a torrent of sex products – some say they basically paid to build the internet as we know it and it is certainly an old standby in advertising – but again the impoverishment is obvious with most of it being crude, corny and rather pathetic as its used to sell us soap and cars.

What we do not find are any body models of what it feels like inside. Where are our own body models to correspond to the chakra systems or acupuncture meridians of the East? Obviously I am painting with a very broad brush and I apologize to those who know the many nuances of the story I am skipping over here.

The point is that when we encounter the ecological endarkenment (seems wrong to call it an enlightenment) we are confronted with the task of integrating pain on a visceral level and most people come to this task without tools. Developing tools that work for us in our circumstances and with our upbringings is a large part of the work of building and enriching a mindful ecology. I certainly have no ready made answers; no esoteric diagrams to share that will suddenly reverse the centuries of alienation built into our character armor. I do think something like Alex Grey’s work is moving along these lines:

AlexGreyPregnancy The stick-figure impoverishment might hold some answers. In that caricature the balloon-head is really all that matters as if to say my ego, my talking and planning part of my being, dwarfs the rest of what I am. Let’s try and recapture the contemplative’s raw, open experience with its shock and wonder so well express by Thoreau in the quote that started this post. Let’s ask, just what is this body?

I am going to suggest it is the first and most intimate place our life on this planet asks us to show our compassion. To befriend ourselves shows respect for the grand epic of life’s deep time expression throughout the biosphere. It recognizes human life is precious. The thing is, most of the time this is not what our bodies feel like to us, this is not our default awareness. Maybe this is something we can develop. It is true after all.

The ego is sure it owns the body. The body is there to serve its endless seeking and planning to fulfill its desires, feed its hungers and heap praises on itself for being so very unique and special. If we can quiet all that survival instinct stuff down just a tad a different picture presents itself. This body you are – just where did it start? With the seed and the egg, the red and white bindus of the chakra systems, the germ cells of biology. Where was your planning and scheming mind in all this? We sort of forget that each of our initial elements came from others, that our very existence is wholly dependent on others right from the start.

These elements come together and the development of the body begins. Evo-Devo is the study of how this evolutionary development unfolds. It is simply fascinating. Remember when we talked about using a hand lens and a telescope and how you first need to quit your ego concerns enough to find something other than your plans for the four Fs fascinating? This is the same sort of thing, not exactly flattering to the ego but fascinating. Sean Carroll’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo is a good introduction. Researchers discovered that a small set of genes have been conserved so that the fruit fly and the mouse have the same genes working to create the basic body layout. This was unexpected. What separates these species is less the content of the genetic code and more the differences in the spacing and temporal expression of the genes. In other words, we found another realm in which a type of ecology was the key to a proper understanding. The DNA is not an isolated information carrier but equally requires an information rich environment which switches genes on and off.

HoxGene The Evo-Devo process continues, cells multiplying, differentiating and moving about until we have the full human body. While the ego is indeed riding the chariot, as it were, it is astonishingly blind to the actual complexity it takes for granted. The biological complexity of the human body is well enough known but how much of it remains head-only knowledge and how much of it has really sunk in? When I really sense my germ cell beginnings, these gifts from my mother and father, it is as if an ancient wind blows through my being bringing with it the news that I am not unrelated to the rocks and trees.

So what is the body? From this view it has more in common with all the non-human ancestors and relatives than ego is comfortable admitting. There is a lot of distributed intelligence going on wholly outside the purview of conceptual mind’s immediate awareness – what I like to call, following Gregory Bateson, the ecology of mind. Bateson’s wonderful term turns our attention to the other major components of our bodily life; its relationship with the environment beyond the skin boundary.

The contemplative’s most basic tool is the breath. Follow the breath, be mindful of the breath. Why? In part because this is the most obvious location where the boundary between self and other begins to get fuzzy. With every in-breath we are taking the environment deep into ourselves, all around our heart actually. With every out-breath we return it. The first obvious item to note is how much larger the atmosphere of air is than the body cavities it fills. Most religious traditions use terms for breath or air when describing spirit, the powers larger than us yet in which we move and have our being. Second item to note is that the contents of the air by which we maintain our bodies was put there by others. As human beings we are 100% dependent on the oxygen created by, for the most part, green plants. In this most intimate of exchanges we give back just exactly what these green plants need so that they can ‘breath’ as well. There is nobility and dignity in our relationship here, so much richer than any human-only castle isolation of mega-cities full of shopping malls we might try to construct.

Along with breath as a universally recognized tool of contemplation there are the practices of ritual, prayer and blessings which accompany our consumption of food. Food too comes from outside of us and is brought deep within as another illustration of our boundaries being fuzzier, softer than drawing the edge of our self at our skin would indicate. The food is returned to the larger environment from which it came as fertilizer. Though we do not recognize the nobility of our participation in this cycle, it is there none-the-less. We spend untold wealth moving these wastes where they poison our waters instead of fertilizing our lands because it just doesn’t fit that stick figure’s image of itself. Sanitation, yes that is sane, soil nutrient loss is not.

While we have the stick figure on the toilet there is one more point to make. Earth-love is earthy. The Zen master insists enlightened doing accompanies the bowel movement as much as anything else. My phenomenological point concerns what happens when you overexert just a touch in the muscular passing. What happens? The blood flow to the brain gets squeezed and our consciousness dims a bit. In the vernacular, we experience a head rush. For the ego stick figure this is just too much, it adds insult to injury by illustrating clearly just how much this seemingly omnipotent consciousness depends moment by moment on the body.

StickFigureOnToliet In looking at how fuzzy the boundary between self and other actually is, as we experience it in our body, we looked at breathing and eating. We did not even touch on the sense gates and how they only work by sampling and absorbing the environment. They are funny things; molecular structures sampling other molecular structures to make molecular signals to cellular networks becoming mind. The dance of permeable boundaries is everywhere you look.

Our body is a bud on the deep time tree of life, a nutrient of the biosphere. Aware and awake this is actually a sacred calling, or at least it can potentially be made so. Earth-love is the idea that there is something worth living for or living with that is neither ego centered nor exclusively human centered. It is centered in deep time, in the biosphere, yet it is as close as our body, the first place earth asks us to care. We don’t have to care, we are free not to. We can spoil our nest and the biosphere will carry on regardless. Another ego blow; we just are not powerful enough to stop all life, though we sure could do a number on ourselves.

With these thoughts to fuel our contemplations turn again to that hurt in the body the eco-crises reveals. Acknowledge it, allow it to unfold and it will thaw. In my experience eventually it became more like an energy signature of flowing calligraphy than a Gordian knot that cannot be cut. Set the stick figure inner body aside along with the other adorable but dated artifacts of your childhood. The world needs us to grow up a little.

One way many traditions suggest to do this is to gently yet persistently develop a sense of what your body feels like. When walking and moving about throughout your day lightly be aware of your center of gravity, a spot three or four finger breadths below the navel. While sitting in your contemplation can you sense the sensations in your right middle toe? Can you get quite enough to sense your heartbeat? If not, that is a pretty good guide towards the next stage of contemplative skill. A lot of people worry about how to experience non-conceptual mind in their contemplations. I suggest just let that go and try to feel your heartbeat. Once you can feel it try and sense where the oxygen energy of each breath is going. On one level the monkey mind will keep doing its thing but your awareness will settle into a deeper place. Soon you will be on your way, on your way home, reclaiming your birthright; “our ancestral home of old.”

Our Kitchen Table Conversation

“For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst and provide for it.”
Patrick Henry


Have you heard the expression ‘it’s time to have a kitchen table conversation?’ It rumbles around some family’s traditions like an old blanket kept in a hope chest or a rocking horse in an attic no one quite got around to throwing away. I think families should insist on eating together and resist the seductions of a society that would isolate each member in front of a television or make them too busy to gather at the same time. At such meals there are conversations that might become some of the family’s best memories. This is not that kind of kitchen table conversation.

When a member of the family is drinking too much, or smoking too much, running around too much, gambling too much or any of the other many addictions we are all prone to in this age of unrelenting competition, zero security and constant bombardment of messages about how we are lacking-losers unless we buy this or that, the time comes to sit that person down and have a kitchen table conversation. When the craziness of the addiction is such that the time to change has come, the loved ones sit that person down for some straight talk.

It is time on this blog project to have our kitchen table conversation.

Compassion, as my teachers teach it, differs a bit from what we typically think it is. In the New Testament it is said that if someone slaps you on the cheek you should turn the other cheek to them as well. My teachers say that compassion is acting to stop the arm from delivering that second slap. Now of course these are words, concepts, so we need to be careful not to get too hung up on them but the reasoning is easy to understand: cut their bad karma instead of going your saintly way and allowing them to go to the hells. In the current context the first slap is the reality of our ecological circumstances. The second is allowing these things to drive you into despair.

Past posts have mentioned ecological facts like population overshoot, bottleneck, and that an estimated 200 species are going extinct day in and day out so we can continue to shop. I am concerned that so far this blog project has not clearly expressed the full extent of the horror involved. No one who knows me has ever accused me of being Pollyanna and those who are friends through these words should have no doubt on that score either. If these things concern you, if they tear you up inside, rejoice. Contemplatives of many traditions have taught about the gift of tears or the heart of sadness. Far as I can tell, this is how earth is calling us to wake up.

On the other hand it is frighteningly easy to register these things as just so much cognitive content, file it away and go on with lifestyles hardly changed at all. It takes a lot of energy to maintain the constant denial involved with not feeling these things. Generally we are wise to fear that fully engaging our emotions might debilitate us, after all the issues are so much larger than we are as individuals and there are no solutions that are going to allow us to maintain the lifestyles we have grown accustomed to. So why bother? The problem is not talking about it is making us zombies.

We don’t need more facts; we need to feel what is going on. Adding that element of our emotional reactions melts the hard heart and pierces the character armor that keeps us barely alive. That energy is how we can get to the place where every day our most fundamental attitude is a joyous, playful one. Life should feel basically good most of the time. Not manic, not rickety pride, not hope for tomorrow’s wealth, fame and fortune but a ground of basic well-being that befriends oneself and then others. It is like a cellular level vibration resonating with everything that breathes.  Can you even imagine such a thing, basically feeling good without needing anything more than food and breath and relationships?

The world is much more magical than our consumer culture dares to let us imagine. The trick is to learn to say to say yes and thank you to the biosphere where the massive energies of the earth’s mountains and streams, lakes and trees, clouds and animals of every sort flow through our veins and nervous system, look out our eyes and touch with our flesh. The price for touching these sacred energies is allowing the full depth of feeling and just being with it. We do not need to label it depression or fear, sadness or despair. In its purity it is just the energy of awareness.

Our kitchen table conversation is going to end with my sharing two movie recommendations that reflect something important about the feeling-tone that accompanies mindful ecology as I understand it. They are depressing films yet they carry a message I think we desperately need to hear. The first is a short film that deals with the level of personal, day to day life and the interactions we find there. The second deals with the global picture as understood from the point of view of those who have studied the science and are convinced we are on the verge of encountering powerful tipping points in the areas of peak oil, climate change, mass extinction and population overshoot. Before getting to that though there are a few more things to bring up while the kitchen table conversation continues.

This might sound silly to some but I have struggled with the idea; how can I laugh or feel good knowing all the pain happening in this moment and the pain we are cooking up for our children and their children? Wouldn’t that make me a monster, lacking empathy? Wouldn’t I lose what is most noble in my heart to delight in the goodies of a first world life while ignoring the suffering third world from which most of it comes? I recognize there is an element of pride in such thoughts but there is also something precious I do not want to lose. It is an ongoing struggle but it brings to mind two things I read in my youth that have stayed with me ever since, maybe they can help others too. The first was from Jungian thought where people work with what is known as the shadow; without skill you might cast out your demons but in the process lose your angels too. That is how they put it. The second idea comes from reading Nietzsche, “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”

It is important to recognize in our kitchen table conversation that the violence and abuses are much more extensive in our cultures than we put on; the centuries of making greed and competition our gods have twisted what is noble about man and produced an army of the walking wounded. We like to think that these are aberrations, perversions that do not reflect the core values of our culture and, perhaps, to some degree they are. We like to think all these men in expensive suits are basically nice guys or the blue collar cat-calls are all innocent fun but after reading books like the following couple, I just do not think that is true. Derrick Jensen in A Language Older than Words has explored the roots of the violence he suffered at the hands of his father. In that most difficult book what he documents is how pervasive the pathology of violence and its denial throughout our cultures really are. Alice Miller has explored the roots of sexual and physical child abuse in For Their Own Good, a volume many psychologists and psychiatrists working in these fields consider a fundamental study. She explores Hitler’s childhood to make the point most forcefully that these abuses that take place outside of the public eye have serious social consequences, much like the private tailpipe or factory waste waters polluting our commons. No one reads or writes this stuff for pleasure. The human heart is answering to needs that run much deeper. This is the type of depth that if brought to mindfulness and ecology becomes springboards into living a whole different kind of life.

That alternative is loving-kindness. It seems to be less powerful than the violence it confronts, yet it is not. Remember the comments about compassion earlier? We label kindness or gentleness feminine virtues and thereby relegate them to the privacy of our homes. Culturally we dismiss them as having no practical role to play in ‘the real world.’ Thing is, loving-kindness is the one door through which we all must pass if we are to taste the beauty of the life we have been granted. The hubris that dreams of Nietzschean supermen or celebrates the heroics of the killing fields of war by that very move remains cut off from the beating heart of the mountains, the peace of the pure lake, and the streams of DNA unfolding in its mitochondrial embrace throughout all living things.

The first movie I would like to recommend to my readers is This is Water. It is only ten minutes long. In this short piece I find an element of daily life in an overdeveloped country is very well captured and turned into a lesson. It lays out the feeling-tone of the environment of walking wounded in which we move and reminds us that we have a choice in how we respond. You should know that the author of the words in this short film committed suicide. The words come from a commencement address; sharing the truth with our young people – that is the challenge for real heroes.

We are interested in being a help to others by ending our suffering and theirs but first we need to look at that suffering, take off the blinders and face it head on. The second film I am recommending should feed an anger good people hold against ignorance. This is a dangerous practice but if we nurture such awareness carefully it spurs us to action. What A Way To Go: Life at the End of Empire is Timothy S. Bennett and Sally Erickson’s heart-felt soliloquy. While it is certainly not going to be everybody’s cup of tea, nor do I agree with every point made, I think it should be required viewing for every citizen of an overdeveloped country. Find a place and time to view this where you will not be distracted. Consider lighting a candle and thanking the filmmakers for their generous contribution to our difficult times.

Thank you, each and every one of you who have read this, for sharing in this kitchen table conversation. It seems only right to let the filmmakers have the last word:

“Our culture, in its present configuration, could not last… One thing seems clear; this global environmental, political and economic predicament we live in today is critical. The possible scenarios range into the highly disturbing and the time seems, well, immanent.”

The View from Here

“‘Everything exists’: that is one extreme.
‘Everything doesn’t exist’: that is the second extreme.
Avoiding these two extremes,
The Tathagata teaches the Dhamma via the middle…”


In wrapping up our whirlwind tour through the foundational view I would like to share a sketch of how these ideas might be helpful in understanding our times, like an impressionist painting in words.

First here is a reminder of why any of this is being discussed. We are trying to find a way to live knowing all the detailed horrors of our ecological circumstances yet still be joyfully appreciative for life just as it is. The paradoxical nature of this agenda is leading us throughout. Earlier posts have already addressed that this joy we are looking for is not the happy face, Pollyannaisms of popular feel-good society but recognition that in order to be of benefit to those we come into contact with, being suicidally depressed is less than helpful. If you are in a relationship, celebrating your loving bond involves being happy to be alive in the circumstances of that relationship. If you are a mother or father, inspiring your children with the best of your love entails showing them how life can be lived well. If you are a teacher or a nurse or any of the countless other professions that seek to serve the needs of others your effectiveness involves the ability to share an appreciation for life. Basically we are trying to understand how in spite of it all, being aware and awake to the exquisite highs and lows of life is worth the pain involved.

The pain is unavoidable, the suffering is optional. That is one way to summarize the teaching the view is trying to convey. It is a tricky thing to communicate and a tricky thing to grasp because it is looking to navigate a middle way between the two extremes of what was known classically as eternalism and nihilism or what might be more readily understood today as idealism and realism.

On one side there are all those thought systems that claim some aspect of our experience touches upon eternal, unchanging somethings. Platonic forms, deathless souls, mathematical truths and gods as popularly understood are a few of these types of thought systems that entail some aspect of eternalism. More pedestrian, yet perhaps more relevant in the final analysis, the same tendency is found in our social and political realms when the value of justice or freedom or other ideals are held up as more than guides amidst ever changing conditions. Ideas and ideals are meant to serve the needs of living, breathing beings – not the other way around.

The other side is populated by all those skeptical thought systems that wield a deconstruction of those eternalisms that are taken so far only confusion and meaninglessness remain. There are fewer widespread instances of these thought systems since they do not compliment our egos but they remain as undercurrents in much of what passes for normality today. The suspicion that mortals with conscious awareness is a joke at our expense or as H.P. Lovecraft had it most colorfully; that the universe might have a blind, gibbering, idiot god at its heart, the conviction that love is nothing more than chemical reactions and chemical reactions are somehow less worthy of holding such an elevated emotion is more of the same.

It is easy to understand the attractiveness of the eternalism position. Our ego would like to build a castle in the air and then move into it and thereby avoid death. The defense against this danger is the advice to always ‘take your body with you’, advice familiar to anyone practicing mindfulness. Our elaborate religious and philosophical systems all seek to identify a truth that will stand for all time, outside the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. If we can just find the right combination of conceptual details the puzzle of existence will be unlocked and then we can proceed with life fearless and free of suffering. It is our happiness project.

When the happiness project falls apart, which it inevitably must if in fact all compound things are impermanent, the ego falls not to the ground of the particulars but into the hells of the nihilists.the-towerThat this is the usual way of things is well known yet resisted, feared. We see this in the religious fanatic quick to kill anyone who might threaten the legitimacy of their particular castle in the air. Just living in a way different from the fanatic’s choice threatens to be the lightning strike that will bring the whole house of cards tumbling down. The same dynamics play out in the political realm when war is justified not because a physical threat to communities has occurred but because belligerents have dared to question our castles. Those of us old enough to have lived most our lives under the shadow of the Cold War between the United States and Russia are all too familiar with how these seemingly philosophical differences get translated into very real policies and actions. More recently all the rhetoric about ‘they hate our freedoms’ used to turn attention away from historical grievances and injustices between East and West is more of the same type of air-castle defense.

The classical presentation of the middle way between the extremes of eternalism and nihilism uses the idea of self and the possibility of an afterlife. The eternalism position is found in those that teach the self exists now and will continue to exist after the body dies. The nihilism position is found in those that teach the self exists now but will not exist after the body dies. The middle way between these two is held by those teachers that teach that the self does not exist now nor will it in some afterlife. This is the teaching of selflessness within the Buddhist traditions.

The idea of selflessness is important because relief from suffering is related to how well we understand it in our heart-mind, yet it is easily misunderstood. I recently completed Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation and Philosophy by Evan Thompson and can recommend it to those interested in the contributions neuroscience can make to our understanding of these things. The summary is that there is no self as an entity but only as a process; life lives us. We could say there is indeed a center to the mandala but that it is occupied by centerless space.

By the way, speaking of the afterlife, this middle way view is the root of the contemplative recommendation to call to mind one’s own death every day. While our feel-good, all is awesome in consumer-land culture sees only depression here, it is actually a way of staying in touch with what is most real and important, as well as cutting through the fog of habit that so easily blinds us to just how precious each and every day actually is.

Taking in the last few hundred years of philosophy in the west allows us to use reason to illustrate the middle way. I think for many people this resonates more deeply than speculations about selfhood. This is all about the role of science, the inheritance from the age of the western enlightenment and how we justify our educational and political institutions today. The Descartes – Locke – Kant traditions have placed reason on a pedestal as the means by which we might grasp the eternal truth and the really real. They would like to have the certainty deductive logic provides extended to inductive logic. Recognizing that inductive logic can only provide insights of a wholly different type the skeptics rise and in their deconstructions soon give rise to nihilism. The Hume – Nietzsche – Derrida traditions have been interpreted this way. The Bayesian approach to reasoning sketched out earlier is one way to navigate the middle way between these two extremes by recognizing that reason is a useful tool, thereby avoiding the nihilism and yet it is not some sort of direct line to cosmic truth central, which avoids the other extreme of eternalism.

It is worth returning to the point made earlier. The middle way is not meant to be a final answer, an alternative air-castle. The wisdom it embodies is that the answer to the riddle of life is to be found in the living of it. What it offers is an alternative lifestyle which satisfies the existential longings and conforms to the existential circumstances of a finite, conscious being. This contemplative lifestyle is the alternative to dogma and any conceivable conceptual-only system claiming to be or represent the final truth. It offers an ever changing process instead of fixed structures, relationships as primary instead of things. It teaches us to train in seeing that right here and right now is an ever new and fresh moment – open, spacious and relaxed, even while being in the midst of all these appearances that are so luminous, vivid and clear.

Ecological issues today also illustrate the three positions people can take regarding what is really real. The eternalists assure us there is nothing to worry about. The nihilists are sure the end of the world is just around the corner. The middle way between these extreme sees a collapse of fossil-fueled industrial civilization as inevitable but not fundamentally different than the collapse of previous civilizations in the past. Can you see how each of these positions will lead a person into distinctly different lifestyles? Can you see how accepting finitude might lead one to be able to let the huge cycles of history unfold as they will, while we carefully tend our gardens and take joy in their harvests?