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.