The Ground of Goodness

Since April we have been looking at our times as the age in which the limitations on humanity’s ability to continue growing as Homo Colossus start to bite. I’ve said what I think needed to be said, time to move on. We have a lot more territory to cover. Our next investigations will be looking into how the Buddhist lifestyle of low consumption and non-aggression is both ecologically responsible and can teach us how to live a meaningful, high quality life. But first, this is the 100th post. It seems a good time to state again what Mindful Ecology is all about.

We need to wake up to the reality of our situation. We live in a molecular world that follows its own laws to create a spectrum of emergent phenomenon, a very tiny proportion of which we are able to become aware of through our senses and their technological extensions. The primary characteristic of our molecular world is its impermanence; it is everywhere in a state of flux due to the electrical forces that bind the atomic constituents of these molecules. It turns out that electricity, or more generally electromagnetism, is the great shaper of the world as we experience it at the human scale.

Physicists and chemists have taught about the electrical nature of the natural world in the tradition of materialism. Relativity teaches that energy and mass are not two different things and the conservation laws teach that energy and mass cannot be destroyed. The universe is functional across vast reaches of space and time and everywhere in space and time it exhibits, simultaneously, a wholeness that includes the tiniest quantum particles, the largest galaxies and everything in-between. Teachings like this are ways of reminding ourselves that what we encounter when we encounter non-living being is much more than just what meets the eye.

Yogis have taught about the electrical nature of our human nature in the tradition of contemplation using chakras, wheels of energy whirling around seed syllables. These chakras are said to be located at the primary ganglions of the body’s nervous system and at nexus points where the nervous system integrates the muscles, organs and bones. Teachings like this one about the body containing chakras are ways of reminding ourselves that what we encounter when we encounter another living being is much more than just what meets the eye.

Complimentary teachings like these are ways of reminding ourselves that there is a basic goodness to existence in all its detail; the fundamental ground of our experience is that it all works so well together. Even when it doesn’t.

Recognizing the electrical nature of the world that is experienced at the human scale prepares us to better appreciate some of the implications of the modern world’s use of electricity. We all understand that it is the power plants that keep the lights on. Most people also know the majority of these power plants world wide use coal as their fuel, a dirty fuel that is the source of much of the excess carbon emissions driving climate change. What few seem to fully appreciate is the rate of growth these power plants are being asked to serve. Since 1980 the global demand for electricity has doubled. It is expected to double again by 2035. About thirty years for the first doubling, twenty for the second; how long should we expect for the next doubling of demand after that, ten years as per the trend? How long before even the most obstinate among us admits we are on an unsustainable trajectory?

We need to wake up to the reality of our situation. It is not a question of what new green techno-gadget we need to invent to keep the wealth pumps going but a question of what we can do to avoid being hit by the falling debris as the large life support systems of mankind’s built up, artificial environments come crashing down. We should be discussing triage techniques and battlefield tactics, not dreaming of self-driving cars and going to Mars. I ask all people of the beleaguered planet to consider the possibility that what ecology is teaching us today calls for a whole different point of view about what it is to be a human being and why we gather ourselves together in human societies and, perhaps most critically, how our species relates to the rest of the organic and inorganic environments which make up our one and only planetary home.

If one is convinced that the life we live now is unsustainable and has no future, what is a person going to do with such knowledge? It seems that there is so little an individual can do in the face of our collective choices driving our society to make a bad situation worse. If the only hope is for our society to wake up and start making sense, well, that I fear is not much of a hope at all. It looks all the world like our societies are hell-bent for leather on pressing this unsustainability just as far as it can go before crying uncle. Where then should we look for real work that just might be of real benefit to ourselves and, most importantly, might really benefit the next couple of generations that are going to have to live through environmental hell? What can we do? As it happens I believe it is only in the world of individual lives that the true balm for what ails us is to be found.

I am presenting the argument that the ecological crisis is a symptom. The disease is in how modern ideas about mankind’s role in the universe have poisoned our relationships with each other and the rest of the living and non-living world. My position is that we do not know our own minds well. We do not know what they are capable of in peak moments of bliss and cognitive clarity, nor do we comprehend how easily they can carry us away on delusional abstractions that have no basis in the reality of our molecular world. We are so in our heads we are at risk of losing touch with our body, the physical reality in which our lives unfold; so into our abstractions of economy and nationalism, status and hierarchy that we are losing touch with our need for clean air, water and soil. To be risking even the slightest chance of the kind of planetary chaos ecologists are warning us about, with the calm demeanor of our existing social discussions is, in my mind, a sure sign of collective psychosis.

Traditions of meditation and waking up are surrounded by a wall of Cosmic Foo Foo so high it is almost impossible to see the point. I am suggesting that most of that is just not relevant to what we are really trying to convey by these types of teachings. What we are trying to say has everything to do with waking up to the reality of your situation as it is in the here and now and as it will potentially become in the future. We have a funny habit of making ourselves slaves to our own ideas about ourselves and our world by forgetting that, as long as we draw breath, we are completely free to remake today in any image we desire. People walk away from lifetimes spent in bad marriages, dogmatic religions and hateful ideologies all the time. One day some insight dawns and they see through some ignorance on their part which had lead them to believe in their own slavery. At that moment they are free and there is no going back because the truth of the insight is always right there in front of them, reflected in the ceaseless unfolding of reality as reality. There is no going back into the cocoon of make-believe.

I am convinced that the same one-way insight comes into the lives of everyone who plumbs the depths of what our ecologists are saying. This ecological insight is already pervasive, like a shadow running through our modern societies, and it is spreading. More and more people, young and old, will be caught and forced (or is that called?) to plumb these dark and depressing depths in their search for the truth. Mindful Ecology recognizes this process as a full blown hero’s descent into the underworld, the first step on the road to enlightenment. It offers both a like-minded community and an encouragement for a serious, daily practice of meditation. It is by developing the skills of meditation that we are able to begin to integrate our head’s knowledge with our heart’s responses to that knowledge. It is my position that we are in crisis due to a disease within our minds and bodies that cuts us off from our ongoing experience of the living earth. It is a disease with a long pedigree in the non-indigenous cultures of the East and West, but one that can be cured within the individual. Mindful Ecology seeks to live once again in a sacred world as our ancestors once did. That is what the world looks like to one who is awake.

Awake. Then we can trust to the wisdom of life itself to show each of us what individual way we must travel to remain on the path of beauty. Then we can trust the womb of emptiness from which all things come forth, instead of placing our trust in the fickle whims of social and religious dogmatisms. We do not need to wait for samsara to suddenly become less insane before stepping into the sacred world.

Our neighbors need to meet shamanistic warriors, yogis and yoginis and others harmonizing their minds with their bodies and their lives with the land. Not many are happy; sharing joy has become a work of great virtue. Not many are fearless; daring to know and yet enjoying life anyway has become a great witness. Not many are free; showing the power to choose kindness in our rude, violence-soaked cultures has become a great liberation. Working to spread the enlightenment of our endarkenment is the great work, the most meaningful of all work, for we hold the elixir of sadness in the compassionate heart that establishes each person in their own place.

Grateful and content we can move among our time as unshakable peacemakers. Grateful because we have conquered our fear and strong emotional resistance to seeing emptiness. Content because we have pushed desire to its end in the cremation ground and learned the true value of a breath. Unshakable because in our hearts we have let sadness take root in compassion and tasted selfless equality. We are peacemakers for we have communed with the bones of our ancestors in the earth, buried the hatchet under the tree feeding on fields of blood, and now carry our ebony flint sharp and our powder dry, ever ready as protectors of the land.

It is an extremely beautiful and fortunate thing to be alive. As human beings we have the opportunity to share the most profound depths of one another, including the awe and wonder of our clear light of being. It is my conviction that each of us embodies a cosmic seed of sorts, that we have cosmic roots, that in a way we have all been here a long, long time even as we are thoroughly and completely mortal. As a Buddhist I believe there are two truths. In the exquisite moment, quick as a finger snap, is all that we dream might some day come true for us in our heart of hearts. To see it we need only set aside the veils of aggression that blind us to the powerful electrical and elemental magic of ordinary life.

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