“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac
Last week completed the investigation of gentleness started in August when we took note that kindness is dangerous. The arc likely did not cover the ground expected but there is a reason for that. I would ask again, along with the authors of On Kindness, “What is it about our times that makes kindness seem so dangerous?” To be gentle includes use of the surgical knife instead of a rusty sword when surgery is the only hope for saving the patient. A person who can be gentle is not spineless, that comes from a popular misconception around what compassion is all about. No one escapes the family dynamics that make us who we are unscathed. How we relate to those things powerfully determines the degree of gentleness we can bring to bear when it really counts.
Another characteristic of a contemplative life, in addition to gentleness, is simplicity.
Cognitive simplicity is where we need to start. Leopold’s Land Ethic is a crowning achievement of where we want to end up. In 25 words he captures something every heart recognizes is profoundly true; something that applies always and everywhere, at least on some level, anytime we choose to judge the justice of human activities. It is not meant as an absolute law that would ban all human use of the land, yet it gives an ethical guidance to its use that we can rely on. It has roots justifying its position that run deeply into the inherent nature of our molecular world. It is not just an ethic someone has chosen, though it is that too, for it is also an ethic that has made itself known to us as we have increased our understanding of ecology.
The cognitive simplicity that complements a contemplative life is not found in the economy of words; though beautifully expressed that is not the essence of what is important about these types of things. It is the simplicity of the insight which captures us with its almost child-like obviousness. This obviousness, this simplicity, is just that which we find it all to easy to lose track of in our very complex and sophisticated conversations around production, pollution, war and jobs.
Cognitive simplicity is where we need to start. An individual is able to resist the allures of group-think to the degree they are firm in their foundation. This means they hold to simple truths felt deeply, instead of overly sophisticated conceptual constructions which can more easily lend themselves to sophistry. There is a strength of conviction we can find that arises from our emotional nature with its intimate connections to our physiology which grounds us without making us fanatics.
Here is an example of a cognitive simplicity that has stuck in my craw since first learning about it as a child. The numbers differ but the ratio remains and is what really matters. In this world it would take, it has been estimated, on the order of 175 billion dollars to alleviate abject poverty. In this world there are, it has been estimated, on the order of 250 trillion dollars held in private wealth. Yet decades roll by and the helter-skelter of hyper-capitalism can find no way to provide “for the least of these,” as the New Testament had it. Russell Brand points out that is equivalent to having 500 pounds in your pocket and a starving, hungry child in front of you asking for 40 pence and you saying “Oh no! Not on your life, its my money!” I think, very simply, that any world system that condones this type of behavior is profoundly flawed, mistaken and dangerous.
Such a judgment is so simple our academics laugh at the naivety involved. I don’t know. I’ve read hundreds of books about the political economy, thought about these things long and carefully, including all the things I have seen first hand and heard about among friends. In all that, far as I can tell, it actually does come back to being just that simple for me. Maybe it was my being raised in a culture based in Christianity but for whatever sociological, psychological and metaphysical reasons, in my heart of hearts I believe we should love one another enough to set the needs of the poor above the greeds of the rich.
Of all the Jesus stories and teachings that molded the western ethical view none has effected me more than the eschatological ethic. From Mathew 25.35-40 NIV:
“…take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ ”
The centuries of western culture have been influenced by this Christian ideal. It has produced that stream of hospitals and orphanages and other good works dedicated to assisting the needs of the “least of these” in which humankind is able to find, as Mother Teresa often said, “Jesus in disguise.” Slavery and racism eventually fell before the weight of this simple ethic which turned the powers of hierarchy and patriarchy on their head. Though today it is popular to restrict our compassion to our own, our cultural roots belie such clever means of getting our collective conscience off the hook.
So for me this is a cognitive bolder of simplicity. It is a loadstone I have found extremely meaningful in understanding who and what I am. Looking carefully, I can say both that I have chose it freely and that it has chosen me. I have chosen to make such an ethical outlook my own, accept it as a value that is true for me. It has not always rested peacefully with me; I have struggled with it, fought it, and tried to deny it or replace it – all to better get along in the world as it actually is. In the end I chose to live with the pain of a world that so often fails to live up to its compassionate potential and, as far as it is in my power, to abide by my chosen belief all the same. In coming to make this choice, as wrestling with it illustrates, there is a sense in which something larger than my ego was involved. In this sense this value has enlisted me in its ranks. In this whole process of wrestling with what I consider right and wrong in the realm of societal relations, my role has been as much a passive ‘victim’ of overwhelming emotions of compassion as it has been an active disciple of the same. I recognize that there is something about the way my ‘heart’ is constructed that insists on simple truths like this. They make up the boulders of my consciousness itself, as it were. In the simplicity I am embodied as the wisdom of age confirms the understanding of the child.
Sitting on my bolder I am unshakable not only because I have made a choice among equally real potential options. The existentialists can miss this point, that just choosing alone may not be sufficient to supply our absurd life with meaning. Sitting on my bolder I experience those parts of my being that are unshakable. This experience has its origin as much in the world as it has revealed itself to me as in my choosing to ‘believe’ it. The world and I have come to this point, together. It holds it in its mountains, sings of it in its rivers, whispers of it in its soil. There is another power among us humans. We all know how the powers of greed, violently corrupt lusts, and stupidity have turned the pages of history. Still, there is another power among us humans. In every generation the joyful, awe inspiring, passionate dedication of true love among couples has always been a part of what we are. I live in America; I can almost hear the long centuries of Native American lovers in the woods, dancers in the valleys, families in the plains, honoring their elders long past who are now resting in their burial grounds just as I honor mine. This is just as real as the corporate boardrooms on our lands today.
What this love teaches us is real too. We hurt ourselves when we lack the courage to admit these parts of ourselves into consciousness, into our public conversations, into our institutions. We could talk about compassion explicitly, it is not beyond our capacity. Instead we are choosing to amp the hate and vitriol of our public discourse, with rising acts of hate crimes and attacks on women and children the predictable outcome.
For centuries, millennia, our forefathers and foremothers who knew the sweet taste of love held it close, however darkness may have tried to assault it. Everyone who has ever loved has nurtured the same flame of hope, delicate and yet invincible, that someday all people would be able to enjoy its blessings, to enjoy what it is like to be in love. If we could, we dare to whisper in our deepest heart wish, there would be no miserable poor suffering unspeakably just beyond our feast table. The feast cannot be complete until all have been invited.
‘Oh my god,’ I can hear some readers crying and gnashing their teeth, ‘this is communism!’ Well far as I can tell that is just a smear campaign designed to water down what is so clearly in the Bible. But I admit things are not so simple as I might make them out to be when filled with moral indignation. Consciousness is inherently individual, like a dot amidst space-time. Each individual consciousness records such unique paths through time and space there is no way we should expect concord. Whether or not that allows us to retain respect for one another depends solely on our attitudes towards the views we hold. We can hold them deep enough to die for, inspired to fight to protect what we honor and yet never need to cross that line that separates intellectual and emotional honesty and integrity from sham and lies. We can learn to hold who and what we are without insisting we are certain in what we know and that all others must be wrong.
Ethics is one bolder, one simplicity on which it is possible for each of us to arrive at our own convictions. Like a mandala, there are other boulders set equidistant from this one. I do not expect, nor insist, that the universe conform to my ethical choice. In fact, from what I have experienced first hand that certainly does not seem to be the case. Not in any straightforward fashion anyway. I have known of far too many cases in which bad things happen to good people. The ethical values are what I work to promote, want to see more of, seek to nurture when I find them and generally molds how I understand what it means to be a human being.
Another foundational simplicity is associated with my study of physics, chemistry, and biology in which the roles of atoms and molecules is front and center. This is how it all works; the explanatory power of the relatively simple atomic hypothesis is amazing.
Energy follows a one way path, creating the arrow of time. Materials cycle, the waste of one process being input into another always and everywhere. These are the ecological cognitions from which all the rest of my ecological outlook flows. They are simple, incontrovertible. To this I have added my study and experience and arrived at my view.
Contemplative simplicity is not the same as fanatical clinging to conceptual content. It is much more visceral than that. I have arrived at my view. That is not the same as saying it is the only one or that all other views are necessarily incorrect. I cannot know that with any certainty, all I can know is that I have arrived at my view. I know how I got here, how slow and careful contemplation has been open to where the deep molding of my evolution has worked its way with me and left me who and what I am.
The simplicity of our cognitive boulders serve us well when we find ourselves on the battlefield performing open soul surgery in triage tents. It does no good to panic in a crisis. Grounded in simplicity there just might be a chance to do some real good.