Earth Love

We say nature is red in tooth and claw and indeed it is; to eat is the means of survival. But reproduction is the engine of evolution and so cooperation and synergy are equally fundamental. So this is no objection to our aspirations for it. It is only with mankind that we find cruelty for cruelty’s sake yet this is no objection to our aspirations for it either, as it is also only with mankind that we find loving kindness and compassion being nurtured for its own sake. With the human being we find a life form capable of aspiring to extend love to all sentient beings – earth love.

I would like to share my aspirations for the world with you. Perhaps you will recognize some of your own deepest longings and hopes in them. Through the magic of sharing a heartfelt connection we will have strengthened one another’s subjectivity, we will have become friends. Making such connections are all the more valuable in our times when it is so hard to swim against the current.

The subject of hope is a difficult one because it is so easily contaminated with the idea that we need to achieve what we hope for. My earliest teachers used to warn not to “lust after results” and now, decades later, it still rings true. It is natural to want to achieve the outcome we are working on; we read in the hope of becoming better informed, we study in school hoping to earn a certificate or a degree which we hope will keep us off the streets and out of the unemployment line or perhaps we work hard for our employer hoping they will in turn reward us with some security. In all these ways and many, many others we hope for outcomes to accompany our efforts and there is certainly nothing wrong with that. It is human nature to act on our hopes and try to make them come to pass. The problems come when we convince ourselves we cannot be happy unless our hopes and dreams come to pass. That gets it all backwards, like looking through the wrong end of a telescope.

Our deepest aspirations form our character, that elusive yet pervasive quality that colors our reactions to the events of our lives. Integrity and honesty are qualities of character which we see expressed when keeping our word or remaining strong yet gentle under pressure. These character traits can bring a type of happiness to our lives that is not as fickle as feel-good emotions or quickly satiated pleasures. As the Stoics taught they are also not dependent on the events of the world we experience; how we choose to react to events remains our choice and in that choice we remain unbounded, free even if we find our bodies in chains.

I would like to live in a society that is wise enough to practice Buddhist Economics. In 1955 E.F. Schumacher coined the term as part of his work with Asian societies and then published an essay with the same name in 1966 which was included in the book Small Is Beautiful in 1973. It is worth mentioning this pedigree for those who might think our problems and their solutions were not clearly seen some time ago. The basic wisdom it had to share is that since human greed is boundless – like drinking salt water the Buddha taught – the highest quality human life is one that is happy and satisfied with the least possible. “From an economist’s point of view, the marvel of the Buddhist way of life is the utter rationality of its pattern – amazingly small means leading to extraordinarily satisfactory results… since consumption is merely a means to human well-being, the aim should be to obtain the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption.”

This is a nugget of wisdom shared by monks and nuns of every tradition, updated in the Voluntary Simplicity movement, and recently articulated meaningfully in John Michael Greer’s acronym L.E.S.S. – Less Energy, Stuff and Stimulation. A society respecting this wisdom will not be without greed and exploitation but on balance a culture that discourages such behavior, understanding it as a selfish, somewhat sad aberration, will provide fewer sociological niches in which such greed and exploitation can grow and thrive.

Not only would we then walk lighter on the earth but we would also have more time for creative pursuits, nurturing friendships and all the other noble and dignifying activities which are currently so often squeezed out of our oh-so-busy schedules. On a very practical level more people could live with a sense of contentment if the needs of all were met before the endless wants were provided to the few. Cultures of the past organized themselves around these types of values. Knowing this nurtures my aspiration even though I cannot see a way to get there as a society from where we are today.

I aspire to live in a world that appraises the success of a cultural order by how well it treats its weakest members. This might sound crazy in our time of celebrity-worshiping only the winners in our winner-take-all culture, yet it to has formed the social values of cultures in the past. The concern for the downtrodden was once a defining characteristic of Jewish, Christian and Muslim societies and continues to appear here and there where people show concern for the widow and orphan. Though helplessly out of fashion today, this hope is nurtured every time I encounter broken lives from broken homes populating our city streets; there must be a better way. It is also nurtured in the countless acts of kindness my city contains everyday. Action taken on behalf of the poor, sick, and the old make no headlines and provide none of the prizes our enculturation teaches us to value, still the acts of compassion and basic human decency are not extinct.

I hope to see that a large majority of people never doubt the dignity and worth of a human life. When Tibetan lamas came to the West they had a very hard time understanding our culture’s sense of self-loathing. I believe this uniquely western psychological trait was created by advertising. I do not think it is part of some ‘inherent, unchangeable human nature.’ To sell us a bill of goods we were sold, as we say, a bill of goods. Though in my opinion the human psyche has been deeply wounded by the psychologically manipulative tricks of the ad men, I think this damage is reversible.

One of my deepest aspirations is to live on an earth in which the industrial killing machine of modern warfare can no longer harvest lives by the millions for The Lord of Death. Nor will death squads be allowed to roam free with their instruments of torture, abuse and terror in jungles, ghettos or Guantanamos. This might seem the most unrealistic hope of all yet I believe it would be the direct result of just one basic, though fundamental change: an increase in our respect for women and children. If, on the balance, the number of rapes and beatings of women and children we as a society are willing to tolerate was minimized, it seems to me the ripple effect would reach all the way to the world’s battlefields and torture chambers.

Finally I aspire to live in a world in which the wisdom of our elderly members is prized highly. Recognizing the endurance involved in achieving old age with dignity intact, and the value of understanding that only experience can bestow, just might provide the stabilizing influence for the whole of the rest of our culture. It is easy to romanticize the Native American tribes debating with their elders in seeking out the best course of action as those that would be most likely to benefit the 7th generation, still the historical example remains. Again, on the balance, it encourages my heart as a realistically better way to live than what I see around me today.

These are the aspirations for  the changes I dream of seeing in our human relationships, the ecology of our social interactions. My conviction is that they reflect a basic respect for the earth, for life just as it is in all of its forms. These changes would represent a healing of the sickness that is causing us to poison our homes, steal an honorable human future from our children and murder whole species among our four-legged, finned and feathered brothers and sisters.

I will not surrender my dreams. Nor will I tuck them safe into an obscure corner of my being and watch everything I hold precious be destroyed. This is my earth love. It is comfortable thinking like a mountain; it has no need to take up gun, knife and chainsaw as its enemies do. We do not need to wake up tomorrow to a world transformed into the one of our dreams to be happy. Everyone of these aspirations can be put into practice in our own individual lives right now. We can act from that place that is courageous enough to admit to ourselves and to others around us that we dare to hold these aspirations. When we do, we discover something that has outlasted empires and civilizations throughout the long history of our earth – we discover the power of an indestructible intention.

I have met literally hundreds and hundreds of people in person and through writings that feel the same way. Each of us would express our deepest aspirations in our own unique way but that does not prevent us from recognizing the same aspirations in one another. Tens of thousands, maybe millions, of people right now are feeling this same throbbing, living heart of earth love. Looking out across our killing fields, heartless businesses, shoddy consumerism values and callous disregard for the preciousness of life, a deep and abiding revulsion arises within. It’s a call.

This indestructibility doesn’t come because we have some sort of super-power. It’s a recognition that the very pulse of life itself provides the spaciousness for such aspirations. Every couple falling in love, every wolf howling at a fresh moon, every dolphin cresting waves for the sheer exuberance of it are each reflecting this earth love, this mystery out of our planet’s deep time.

None of us can stop the seeds we have sewn from sprouting. Things will run their course. None of us is rich enough, smart enough, nor powerful enough to individually turn this ship around. However we individuals are not powerless. Recognizing our indestructible intentions together, it is hard to rationally justify a limit on just how far things might change for the better. It will take time, centuries perhaps. It will never become an angelic utopia and it cannot come about by trying to cut out or deny the darkness that dwells in the heart of each and every one of us. But even all  this taken together, it seems to me, it not sufficiently powerful to overcome the indestructible intention of our earth love.

There are many demons about in the world today but there are also many friends. Thank you, friends, for reading my aspirations for the world. What are yours?

Earth Love: Phenomenon

BlackSludgeLake(Credit: Liam Young/Unknown Fields)

Have you seen this man-made toxic lake before? This phenomenon is a small token of the price we are willing to pay to have our smartphones and other high-tech gadgets. The BBC recently wrote about The dystopian lake filled by the world’s tech lust. We outsource the pollution, hire the cheapest labor on earth we can find and then decorate our pockets and wrists with the products of so much suffering.

Don’t take my word for it. His Holiness the 17th Karmapa has been touring universities in the United States for the last few weeks. He stated at Stanford, “…we only see what we have in our hands when it comes to technology. We only see the new iPhone that we have acquired. We do not see directly with our own eyes all the natural resources and all of the human hardship that went into the production of that iPhone. Our attention tends to remain just at the surface with what we can see with our own eyes even though all the information about what went into the production of the iPhone for example is available to us… we seem to get stuck with just seeing what’s before our eyes and not looking at the larger picture of where this is all coming from.” (Time ~35:00)

At Harvard he stated, “Interdependence is not just about the sharing of information or an understanding we might arrive at in our brains, in our heads. It is about sharing the feelings in our hearts and about our real experience.” (Time ~24:00) At Yale he taught, “I think that in order to understand the necessity of environmental protection we need to understand how connected we are to one another and to our environment… We often feel at some distance from our environment, we divide the world into subject and object and we feel that the external environment is an object separated from us by some kind of boundary and at some distance from ourselves as subjects. We need to dissolve this artificial boundary and decrease the distance between ourselves and our environment.” (Time ~27:00 and ~30:00)

While on this tour he also mentioned that we humans are “shockingly selfish.”  Those words have haunted me, tearing away at the veil of normality my culture tries so hard to hide behind. Phenomenon created by our overdeveloped greed, like that toxic lake in Baotou China, does not disappear because we cover it up in slick advertising jingles and corporate logos. In today’s post I want to look at what kinds of phenomenon someone who carries a deep love for the earth in their hearts can become mindful of. Please do not take this as a holier-than-thou tirade; I own an iPhone and spent my engineering career in the computer business. The point is we are all in this together.

Another phenomenon to consider: the recent earthquake in Nepal. Close to one million Nepali workers are virtual slaves to the companies that employ them throughout the gulf region. Many would like to return home to check on their families and properties, but most cannot. They must seek permission from the corporations employing them to leave the countries in which they work, a feudalism-like law clause known as kefala. We don’t much care to know the details of how the oil infrastructure of the world works, just so long as gasoline comes out of our pumps and our store shelves remain properly stocked. It brings to mind Susan Neiman’s Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy in which she investigated how the Lisbon earthquake was a manifestation of evil for eighteenth-century Europeans. Her point was that it shook their conviction that the world made some sort of sense. Part of my haunting wonders what blowback might be in store for the overdeveloped world since the countries less enthralled with greedy consumerism are paying such horrendous costs in seeing their traditional monuments crumble and centuries of traditional lifestyles overturned.

A final phenomenon to consider; a letter published last month in Nature Climate Change updating research first published in that journal in 2013. The research concerns the disconnect between many of our climate models and the surface temperature increases as they have been measured in the last 15 years or so. The climate models have been agreeing that the mean global temperature should be warmer than what we are experiencing given the current carbon content of the atmosphere. Skeptics and denialists have made much of this discrepancy while those seeking understanding have worked hard to find what factors are not being properly included in the models that might explain the discrepancy.

Model makers have added numerous factors to their models in the attempt to have stronger correlations between their simulation runs and the temperature data. Simply put, the models track well for close to a century of data but then around the year 2000 something goes a bit awry. The models find that we should be suffering an even greater degree of mean surface warming than we are. Does this mean the science has been crying wolf and we can all forget about those dark and dismal prognostications and go back to increasing our numbers and shopping at Wal Mart forever? Not quite. As so often happens when dealing with fallible human intelligence, what first seems one way turns out to be another. In this case what seems to be some slightly good news, that the warming is less drastic than our best science considers most probable, is most likely not good news at all. Quite the contrary.

Which illustrates the first point I want to make about waking up in our age of ecocrisis as it concerns our relationship with the phenomena unfolding in the world around us. I have mentioned before that I think those who let their despair over the depressing reality of a civilization committing suicide to commit suicide themselves are making a mistake. Humility suggests we should be wary of any one way decisions like this since however much our current analysis might support our conclusions, it is the nature of intelligence to evolve and change.

Here is not where I insert “the happy chapter” and anyone who thinks I might needs to read our kitchen table conversation. What I am getting at is more subtle, perhaps something only us older folks can really appreciate. It comes from looking back on all those things we were so certain about in past decades and how, if we avoided the temptation of shutting down thinking through one fundamentalism or another, those certainties changed from one decade to the next. When considering the meaning of the phenomenon our earth presents we would do well to recall the wisdom in the Taoist tale of The Lost Horse:

A man who lived on the northern frontier of China was skilled in interpreting events. One day, for no reason, his horse ran away to the nomads across the border. Everyone tried to console him, but his father said, “What makes you so sure this isn’t a blessing?” Some months later his horse returned, bringing a splendid nomad stallion. Everyone congratulated him, but his father said, “What makes you so sure this isn’t a disaster?” Their household was richer by a fine horse, which his son loved to ride. One day he fell and broke his hip. Everyone tried to console him, but his father said, “What makes you so sure this isn’t a blessing?”

A year later the nomads came in force across the border, and every able-bodied man took his bow and went into battle. The Chinese frontiersmen lost nine of every ten men. Only because the son was lame did the father and son survive to take care of each other. Truly, blessing turns to disaster, and disaster to blessing: the changes have no end, nor can the mystery be fathomed.

As told by Ellen J. Langer, in The Power of Mindful Learning

To return to the climate modeling – a few weeks ago the mystery just might have been solved. The researchers examining oceanic factors knew these great bodies of water had the proper magnitude of influence on climate to cause the variations encountered but could not figure out just how such an influence might be accounted for. Most people have heard about the El Nino in which the temperature of the Pacific Ocean changes for a year. There is a similar phenomenon that causes variations in the surface temperature that stretches across decades. It is known as the ‘Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation’ (IPO) and when it’s known variations were added to a climate model the researchers discovered it explains the temperature discrepancy between the simulations and the measured data. They were able to model back to 1920 and found the fit significant.

Frighteningly what this means is that as the IPO ceases, once this natural reprieve from our climate forcings ends over the next little while, the most probable outcome will be a rapid acceleration of warming. Quoting the abstract, “Recent history suggests that the IPO could reverse course and lead to accelerated global warming in the coming decades.” In other words our time right now – this time since the year 2000 characterized by record breaking drought and wildfires on the west coast and storms like Sandy and Katrina on the east and south coasts, not to mention bark beetle infestations, accelerated species extinctions and the rest of the list of horrors – this time has actually been a moment of mercy. It is as if we had been given one more opportunity to slow down the train heading over the cliff. That same period saw the global peak in conventional oil production which now looks to have occurred around the year 2005. Not unrelatedly, global financial games desperate to prop up currencies that require growth in a world where the oil-fed engines of growth have stalled have dominated the headlines since 2008. At a time when we know it is unsafe to burn the oil and coal we already have, we indulged in an orgy of tar sands and shale oil development, new coal trains and pipelines, and now new deep sea drilling in the Arctic if Shell gets its way.

That finding in climate science should have dominated headlines world-wide. The deafening silence in the media brings me to the second point I want to make about phenomenon in the age of limits. The overdeveloped world inherits a combative attitude towards the natural world; the wilderness is to be tamed, the frontier to be settled. Our Faustian cultural ambition of increased scientific understanding is based on the belief that knowledge is power. Not just any power but power over, as illustrated in the uses we have put our sciences to in our technologies. We have already looked at how we turned away from appropriately human scaled use of technology to embrace that which has made us Homo Collosuss.

Events are conspiring to teach us that in this hubris we were quite mistaken. The ‘forces of nature’, the ‘acts of god’, the ‘phenomenal world’ is much larger than we are and farther beyond our control than we imagined in our feverish dreams fueled by the oily devil juice. Phenomenon will proceed along the ways of cause and effect as it always has, regardless of what we might think about it. We can choose to focus on the latest Hollywood scandal and ignore the ecological sciences but phenomenon like the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation we have been discussing will inevitably run their course.

As practitioners learning to transform the poison of this ecological darkness into the nectar of an enlightenment, this humble assessment of our true position seems to me very fundamental. Our lives and those of others are as threads in a tapestry. They will be shaped by, and of necessity will need to deal with, the phenomenon of their environment.

Seen rightly, fully accepting this allows us to set aside a crushing burden that was nothing but delusion anyway. Our job is not to save the world. Our job is to spread kindness and happiness as opportunity presents itself. Whatever phenomenon appears moment by moment is our path. There is already enormous suffering in our world and rational analysis can only conclude much more is probably coming. Collectively we have chosen not to take advantage of this time which could well turn out to have been a lull before the storm. Due to interdependence you and I and everyone else will have to deal with that. Yet ultimately, what is more important is how we as individuals choose to use this time. I suggest we use it to strengthen our skills of empathy and personal freedom of choice. In this way we are properly preparing for the trials to come.

The future holds sickness, old age and death. These are coming to the globalized industrial system just as assuredly as they are coming to each of us and our loved ones. Making peace with that, perhaps we can teach one another a better way to live than this endless and futile flight from death we enslave ourselves to. Those who can be happy even while accepting the world of phenomenon just as it is have plenty of work to do.

The battlefields are spreading. We need people trained in triage.

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 place the mystery of creation is such a small box. We are so conditioned to see the non-alive environment as dumb and dead and nothing more it is difficult to imagine any other view could even be coherent.

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 been given everything of ultimate worth. Just perhaps, that insight will cut the power behind our clinging to lesser things. Try it. Why not give it a shot?

Earth Love: Speech

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 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. 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 songs 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? 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 intellectual 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-abiding 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. 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, to pray, 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.