Respecting Stories

Last week we looked at a dense information source, the book What’s Really Happening to Our Planet? by Tony Juniper. This week I want to dive into some very controversial territory by examining another dense information source and the phenomenon it represents; Christian fundamentalism American style.

Torchbearer is the latest film directed, produced and written by White House strategist Steve Bannon featuring Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson. It is another type of information source claiming to share a number of facts. It is presenting a picture of the world in which the only thing a person really needs to know is the Bible. In the film aspersions on man without god multiply until the message is basically to be human is to be a hell creature – fallen, fallen, fallen! This narrow interpretation of Christianity embraced by fundamentalism is, in my mind, a perversion of Christianity through and through. Man does not come off looking like something so loveable god would give his only son to reveal to them his unending love for that which he had created. Man comes off looking like the devil, no, better, comes off looking like nothing so much as an unruly adolescent in need of a good beating by those in authority.

The problem with this Bible-only approach to truth is that it dismisses many of the most important insights other compassionate human beings have discovered outside the confines of religious thought over the last two thousand years. Misunderstanding the ecological crisis is the most obvious problem with this type of intellectual mono-vision from my point of view but the psychological understanding of trauma and the effects of abuse run a close second. People who wish to nourish a love of their fellow man cannot, in good conscience, ignore these modern insights. To do so is to dismiss the very spirit of revelation as it is talking to our age, to use the mythic terms from our monotheistic background. The person in front of you is alive and real, to kill them because a book tells you to is to make that book an idol. Instead of worshipping the living god, one has been seduced into necrotic worship of the dead. God is not found among the dead.

This is what I fear: the patriarchs of the bomb are invoking the patriarch in the sky, cloaking their oil procuring war plans in the most giant beat stick of them all. They are calling on a wrathful god to bring his holy beating to earth “for our own good,” as Alice Miller explained.

I appreciate the sincerity with which a fundamentalist approaches the problems of the world. Much of what seems to inspire the fundamentalist is a virtuous desire to protect their children from the fallout of a consumer culture gone over the edge, refusing to recognize any limitations on its hunger and greed. I feel in many ways more akin to them then to the shallow people of the endless party our mass media teaches us to be. I applaud their willingness to look the darkness of history in the eye and not flinch. Torchbearer includes a number of gut wrenching film clips of our historic atrocities and unspeakable cruelties. More people should remember these things more often. Still, it is traumatizing to gaze into the abyss and fundamentalists, I believe, are traumatized. These people’s sincere soul-needs are being shepherded through the topsy-turvy world of symbolisms of the highest order, those which directly concern the archetype of the Self. There is a healing potentially working its way through their love of the Christ as portrayed in the Gospels which these true believers try to nurture and discover. It is like they are so close, and yet…. Instead of that which liberates, they are under the pall of that which enslaves.

The Self archetype is not to be toyed with. Miss your shot at god and you arrive at the anti-god of the feared meaninglessness and nihilism which has inspired the misbegotten faith of the mind parasites we looked at last week. As James Hillman pointed out, if we are off just a few degrees when the projection of our path between where we really are and the foot of the cross takes place, we end up kneeling before a thief. Now there are good thieves and their are bad thieves, but they remain thieves. What they steal is life itself; these parasites are Vampires feeding on days spent serving false gods and nights spent dreaming in theologies fantastic, instead of theophanies properly imaginal. So many hours sitting in meetings, fearfully praying to invisible powers, listening to preachers, doing what you are “supposed” to do and following orders, writing checks, judging everyone not in your cult damned, talking always about your religion and little else – in so many ways the days of a life of a fundamentalist are stolen by the false infinities haunting their minds, born of the traumatic wound.

There is another way to say we should have respect for facts as facts. We say the same thing when we say we should have respect for stories as stories. That stories move us so deeply is one of the greater parts of the mystery of our being. That they do play such a central role in our ‘soul’ or ‘psyche’ is simply a fact, a feature of our humanity. We have had to live with this mind a long time and have learned a thing or two about it. Replace facts with stories and the result is tragedy. Enliven facts with stories and the result is a living grace.

Fundamentalism denies the reality of the psyche. It denies the realm of symbol, insisting on literal interpretations driven by a fear that if it something was not historically real, it has no reality at all. In this they are mistaken. Carl Jung once commented that all of his work was to try and convince modern man of the reality of the psyche. There is very much a reality involved in these mythologies that guide civilizations but it is not the reality of the Calculus and molecules. It involves the psychological and philosophical underpinnings of how we derive meaning from perception and love from flesh. The problem the fundamentalist has is that they cannot trust the symbol to point beyond itself. For them everything is literal; wheat cannot be transmuted into flesh, the grape and the wine it gives us to make our hearts glad cannot be transmuted into the emotions of our fiery blood, they do not hear the Word in our words of kindness and comfort we give freely to one another. Yet this is just what happens on the earth. The fundamentalist has a problem of faith, they lack its “fundamentals” and so are unable to see the sacramental nature of our sacred world. They cannot bring themselves to believe in the miracle, existence as it is, nor that at its fundamental root this creation is good. They are instead driven to seek magic and miracles, not as symbols but as real events, to prove existence is not as it is. They are the great doubters among us, making themselves over as true believers in reaction formations. Their wounds keep them away from the healthy faith in an intelligent creator and good creation that enlivens compassionate and wise actions undertaken with a cheerful heart out in the real world just as it is. They cannot forgive god for including death in the way of life.

The symbol of the crucifixion captures the sorrows of the world like no other. Here goodness is tortured by Empire: that which is compassion is scorned as weak by those blind to the fact that this is god among us. As they kill they triumph for a day, but in doing their deed of devilry they have also released the spirit of the Christ. There is nothing they can do about that. Everywhere eyes are opened and the poor are given the good news as the dark deeds of devilry expose the emperor’s nakedness. The alpha males are brought to answer to the voice of thunder, their ego fortress shattered in a confrontation with the real power that runs the cosmos. On that same cross the poor and suffering are comforted by the voice of god who they find not in the thunder but in the still small voice, the voice of conscience. At that moment of Christ’s death the veils of the temples were torn and the mysteries openly proclaimed to all the world. This is just what Clement of Alexandria proclaimed so long ago in his Exhortation to the Greeks, that Christianity was the public revelation (exposure?) of the heart of the pagan mystery religions. Fundamentalists are a return to the pre-Christian mystagogue and a Gnostic reading of creation as the work of a demented god. Christian fundamentalism is a misunderstanding and misuse of our own Western tradition, pagan and Orthodox.

The truly faithful are to live in “joyful participation in the sorrows of the world”, as Joseph Campbell once put it. This is what the grace in our myth is there to assist us with, for this is hard. It is truly an ongoing challenge to lean towards the good in a world where life feeds on life and Empires so often seem to crush all that is good in the world. (Ring any bells?) This learning to live in “joyful participation in the sorrows of the world” is a challenge worthy of human beings with our many skills and abilities. When the symbolism of the human imagination is working properly so that facts are facts and stories are stories, this is the result. A deep joy wells up from the depths of our consciousness, unassailable by the tides of time. The Vajra diamond, or Kant’s transcendental, or the image of god in man, whatever the metaphor – that which they point to cannot be stained by human folly for we do not create ourselves and this bliss pours forth pure out of that mysterious emptiness from which the next moment comes. This deep joy is a reflection of that which we are building up in our characters over a whole life time of choices and there is no short cut to getting there, no magic words that suddenly make everything over into what it is not. This is the great insight seen in the moment of repentance; that what you do matters, what you say less so. This Self is the over arching archetypal reality of who and what we are as unique individuals, which is created and expressed through what we do with ourselves and with others during that whole lifetime. We never see this Self in its totality, yet we are never separated from it either as long as we live. This Self will weave its thread into the interdependent fabric of earth life whether the ego cooperates with the process or not, learns to embrace its mortality and human limitations, or not. Though rooted in ignorance vs. wisdom instead of good vs. evil, the end result is no different in the East or the West: be careful of those crying Lord, Lord.

“Go ahead and cheat your neighbor, go ahead and cheat a friend,
do it in the name of heaven, you can justify it in the end.
There won’t be any trumpets blowing, come the judgment day
and on the bloody morning after, one tin soldier rides away.”
One Tin Soldier, The Original Caste


Taking Stock

Last week we crossed the threshold. That post discussed the out of body experience as one that is associated with early childhood trauma. In these cases the emotional reactions within the physiology of the victim are so extreme that the evolutionary survival imperative takes over. The result is that the conscious point of view is taken to a safer place, an altered state, where some form of ego continuity can occur. Once the “spirit” leaves the “body” there is nothing more. That’s it. That is as far as we can go, there is nothing further in this direction that human beings can know with certainty.

This does not stop authoritarian true believers from insisting that their particular brand of fanaticism has pierced the veil, mastered the threshold and now offer their followers immortality. There is no end to the cults willing to anchor phobias in people’s bodies to enslave the hearts and minds of the gullible. Though it is hard to even comprehend for many people, the truth of the matter seems to be that these institutional “spirits” just do not care about the individual. What they need is another number to grow their ranks, another replaceable cog to provide them a little more profit be it through tithing, taxes or consumer purchases. Indeed, as so many of our social critics have pointed out, in the age of mass man the most endangered species is the honest, compassionate individual. There is just no edge in that. There is no way to twist that into something that will always put you out on top.

Compassion understands it is not all about me; that I do not always need to be first and come out on top. It has eyes large enough to notice that what is seen out there, beyond my skin, is also real. Further, in looking beyond one’s own needs and desires, we encounter a whole world full of hurt.

There are any number of ways a person might organize their thinking about the hurt that they encounter. I have been suggesting, for a little over two and half years now, that ecology will prove to be the umbrella under which all the lesser abuses can be gathered. And now we have crossed the threshold. The next post is going to talk about things that many readers may not be psychologically prepared for. It is going to talk about nuclear war and what it means when one dares to bring feeling and subjectivity to the subject.

Before going there though, I thought it best to take a moment to take stock of where we are, where we have come from, and a bit about where we are going with this whole mindful ecology project. Since its inception I have had a broad outline of what it was I hoped to share. For a number of my readers who have been with me since the early days it probably did not escape notice that this project was being structured along the lines of a three act play, or an initiation if you prefer. Initiation; now there is a word with all kinds of associations and no clear definition. I use it to refer to any structured teaching modality designed to cause lifestyle changes in those who undertake it. Which is, of course, exactly what mindful ecology is all about. First let’s get right in our hearts, then what we should do as individuals in our own lives about the insanity of our un-sustainability will take care of itself.

The first act, or first degree if you will, was the preparatory material covered in the first year of posts. They covered the basics of the ecological view which is summarized in the concepts of Homo Colossus and die off. The basics of a Buddhist point of view, reasoning, compassion and a contemplative practice were shared as a means for integrating what the mind knows about our ecological predicament into our hearts. In this way we become aware of how our bodies and emotions are also involved. Just as in any good story the main characters were introduced in the first act and the conflict introduced. We had a graduation on the one year anniversary.

Without conflict there can be no good story. The second year took us into an exploration of the forces in play in our society, and in our individual psychologies, which have allowed the manufacture of Homo Colossus to proceed. This was a year of posts dealing with some of the darker aspects of our lives in the over-developed nations. If the first year could be characterized as intellectually information rich, the second was about the emotional richness of our biological being. Understanding the evolutionary role of emotions became the foundation for wide ranging discussions of violence. It started with physical violence as it is studied in killology. It used the news, particularly of school shootings and attacks, to try and remain real to the effect these things are having on people’s lives; particularly on the lives of our children. The discussion of violence then expanded to include not just physical abuse but also mental, emotional, psychological and “spiritual” abuse as well. This of necessity included a whistle stop tour of some of the myths and motifs of western religion, again, with an emphasis on the role the child plays in all this.

Part of that year’s discussion included an introduction to Jungian analysis of symbolism. His conception of the archetypes give us a way to talk about items found in the basement of the mind. It proves useful for individuals but also for a type of psycho-historical analysis. What haunts the modern mind? The apocalyptic end of the world we seem powerless to prevent. Melting ice caps and mushroom clouds haunt our dreams. I suggested we in the over-developed world were writing ourselves into the apocalyptic script as the villain of the story. The idea of Babylonian Capitalism was meant to capture that idea. I wrote:

“Ecologically oriented as I am I cannot help but point out a few details I think are telling. It is my opinion that in general we human beings are not nearly as unconscious as we let on. We understand a lot more about our existential situation than we dare to admit within the very limited confines of our everyday waking consciousness. One of the ways I see this manifesting is in the care with which we have crafted the neoliberal globalization message to fit so well with the apocalyptic symbolism. Here in the basement of the mind… We have turned to the dark side to receive our revelation.”

The image of Babylon trading with all the nations captures the economics of hyper-globalization in our time rather well, don’t you think? Babylon falls in the story. If we learn from our myths we can avoid meeting on the fields of Armageddon, the western cremation ground:

“Here is my two cents about what the story in the Book of Revelation means; it’s like an inside view of the resurrected life, life beyond robots. It is a rather simple message really, involving the mystery of ever-present time: The war is over – the good guys won. The Apocalypse has been cancelled.”

That was not quite the whole truth as I perceive it. There is an element of postponing that day of reckoning by whole heartedly devoting oneself to the cause of life in the fight against all that would enslave it and destroy it. We will be getting to that soon now.

That second year ended with an examination of that which we moderns fear more than anything else in the world; the vulnerability involved in human kindness. Instead of a graduation, its end was marked by the only Wednesday post to go missing. I played hooky but asked my readers to consider the David Bowie song Five Years.

The third year introduced the idea that as a society we have known we were on an un-sustainable trajectory since, at least, the release of MIT’s Limit’s to Growth study in the 1970s. Proceeding then on this assumption, the posts of the last six months or so have been exploring the ramifications. Each essay was written both to process the times through my own body-mind, and to hopefully share some insight into what is happening to us politically and socially so that others might act with a bit more understanding when their own times get tough.

In Vajriana Buddhism there are said to be mother tantras and father tantras. In Western psychotherapy early childhood relationships with one’s parents are said to be the source of our neurosis and psychosis. The role of parents, and specifically parental unkindness, provided our entry way into this third year’s discussions. Child abuse was teased out of the cob-web filled shadowy corner it normally hides in within our cultural conversations. A number of posts have discussed how such abuse affects human beings, and how those human beings in turn carry that abuse forward. By my way of thinking, the most important development in the psychological sciences is the new appreciation of the role trauma plays in our lives. Freud could not believe it when most all the patients coming to him were talking about their sex abuse as children. In his Victorian mindset that just was unthinkable and so his brave explorations of the unconscious were soon couched in terms of Oedipus complexes and a whole host of alternative explanations for what was going on in his patients. Jung, Alder, Fromm, Maslow, and many others, while providing important insights into the psyche, all failed to place the act of traumatizing abuse front and center in their theorizing. It is only in the last decade or two that those who seek to heal the mind have called a spade a spade.

But now, with last week’s post, that avenue of mindful ecological contemplations came to its final point. As mentioned, what more is there to rationally say once someone has been so terrified and hurt that their own “spirit” leaves their “body”? Now we are going to turn our attention to the needs outside of our own. We are going to begin a whole new level of engagement with our times. Not all people should go with us there right now. If you are very new to this site and this work you might want to consider going through the whole process first. All along I have spoke about how we should be training to become skilled at triage. This image is meant to viscerally convey the steely-will coupled with courage lead by the heart which I think we need to deal with the darkness of our times. The image is one of a bloody battlefield in which emergency medical procedures, of both body and mind, are being offered to the wounded. It is triage because not all the wounded are going to be people, or animals, we can save. Hard as that is.

If you are new to this site and this work, now that you see its structure, consider giving yourself a few months, if not years, to just live with your ecological knowledge. Remaining mindful of ecology is the path; it is meant to be the gentle touch of compassion for our frightened hearts. Once that pathway of deep self-acceptance and self-comfort has been established, a person becomes more capable of handling larger fears and terrors; living with ambiguity and the unknown become much more life supporting than life threatening. This gives us the courage to admit to ourselves what we do know clearly, what is not unknown to us. All along we are to be strengthening ourselves by the application of wise compassion. When it comes to this kind of work, going too slow is just right. On the other hand, going is necessary. Going is key. Going On is what we each need to do. We should not be satisfied with anything less than taking our seat, becoming unshakably grounded in our own truth, our own understanding of what is real.

That means we do not permanently run from any irrational fear which our psychological or biological inheritances have left us prone to suffer from. Life should be lived with gusto, with a joy at the preciousness of the opportunity. It does not last forever you know. Never forget that the business of living is living. If self-destructive elements are getting the upper hand in your life STOP. Stop the additional work or self-therapy, stop the ecological studies, stop meditating and contemplating, stop until your feet are on the ground and you are again as clear as you can be that your first and foremost obligation is to your own long term well-being. Care for your most intimate connection with the earth – your own being. So much of this work is doing by not doing. That is, in fact, the hardest lesson of all. It is where the ego meets the Self.

Maturity recognizes that there is nothing I can do today that will solve all my problems or the world’s. What we are dealing with individually are issues which nothing short of a whole lifetime will ever fully address. We need to give ourselves a break about being just exactly where we are today, with our limited ability to do just a little better than yesterday. The path to happiness might seem long but placing ourselves firmly on it requires no more than that today, we are just a touch less ignorant and cruel than we were yesterday. With each choice we learn to build our characters with actions taken in which we can respect ourselves.

We need to learn to welcome tomorrow. It brings us another opportunity to both work and celebrate. Tomorrow, of course, is just what all people alive on earth right now are not sure of. The bomb has been in the basement of our mind for a long time now. The ecological crisis spelling the end of our un-sustainable ways has been there too, not as long perhaps, but all the more devastating when we consider one detail. When Robert Lifton interviewed survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki a common thread was how much it hurt knowing that the suffering that had been inflicted on them was man made. They were not suffering an ‘act of god’ as we say, but the deliberate, planned cruelty of other human beings. Today our ecological science has collected sufficient evidence that victims of horrifying circumstances are no longer able to make this ancient distinction. For us, already the ‘act of nature’ and the acts of Exxon are not so clearly distinguishable. What happens to our species when the violent acts of nature might also be violent acts of man against man?

For those who are ready to proceed with the rest of this third year of mindful ecology I have another contemplative exercise to suggest in preparation. Not that it bears directly on the subject of nuclear war, but it bears directly on some of the context I think we need if we are to understand our times and our peers without losing our sense of compassion.

I would like to suggest you watch, or re-watch, a movie from the 1970s; that decade which has proven to be so pivotal in retrospect. I am not saying I approve of everything in this movie. Indeed some part of it should offend the sensibilities of just about anyone watching. Yet adults are meant to visit Disneyland, not to try to live there. We live in an R rated world. Some of the people who want power over us seek to keep us infantilized, insisting we only consume G rated fare. Others seek to become powerful at our expense, and make a buck, by sewing addictions to the X rated, as if that made someone a real adult. I suggest here, as in so many other areas, the wisest course is to seek the middle way. Adult life is R rated.

The movie Network was the winner of four Academy Awards in 1976. It’s a movie about a prophet and a prophetic movie. It has a couple of speeches I think all people should listen to, particularly Americans just now.

Life out of Balance

“A dread of what is happening to our future stays on the fringes of awareness, too deep to name and too fearsome to face.
Despair cannot be banished by injections of optimism or sermons on ‘positive thinking’. Like grief, it must be acknowledged and worked through. This means it must be named and validated as a healthy, normal human response to the situation we find ourselves in… Faced and experienced, its power can be used, as the frozen defenses of the psyche thaw and new energies are released.”
Joanna Macy, World as Lover, World as Self

Koyaanisqatsi (from the Hopi language), n.
1. crazy life. 2. life in turmoil 3. life out of balance 4. life disintegrating 5. a state of life that calls for another state of living.


Last week we looked at the widespread resentment among the people of the U.S. as it is reflected in our unusual presidential campaign season. I suggested that one of the reasons behind the resentment people feel is bound up with the lack of meaningful work, for those who can find work at all. The anger and resentment are the sound and fury by which we are striving to tell ourselves everything is going to be ok, and so cover up the gaping void at the heart of how we experience our labors.

Much of what modern business is engaged in is a meaningless pursuit of profit divorced from any higher end. Much (most?) is little more than accelerated use of limited resources for trivial ends and increased production of pollutions exported into the poorest parts of the world. Work, which should serve the worker by providing a dignified means by which they can serve the great good of their community, has become positively toxic. Part of this view of meaningless economic norms consists of the hollowing out of the rewards society offers. When you understand the role of sweat shop labor, unfair trade, financial shenanigans and resource exploitation in sustaining the globalized economy, the rewards lose their luster; the Porsche and the big rock diamond ring fail to impress. All diamonds, one could say, are blood diamonds. When the rewards a society offers no longer entice its members, that society is in trouble.

Understand that what I am suggesting is that much of what we do economically fails to make any sense when the forecasts of the ecological sciences are taken seriously. If mass migrations and starvation due to shifting climate’s impact on food production in the next decade or two is going to become a world wide crisis unlike any the human species has faced in recorded history, it is rather neurotic to proceed with business as usual. The trends suggest that by 2050 there will be an additional three billion people and the number of cars on the road worldwide is expected to double even while the weirding of the weather drives mass migration and crop failure. The pie is shrinking and already people are becoming more agitated about getting their slice. Individuals, states and nations are presented with a stark choice in the age of limits; either train to be satisfied with less or be prepared to fight even more intensely for your piece as the competition for what remains increases all across the globe. The types of resource wars we can expect in 2050 based on those engaged in now and over the last decade, are likely to be even more desperate. This is the context of our industrial lives from the ecological point of view.

Recognizing class resentment was a first level analysis and the suggestion that behind that was the meaninglessness of labor was offered as a second, deeper level of analysis. Admitting our economic juggernaut is not only trashing the planet but also failing to provide meaningful employment for the vast majority is such an uncomfortable thought few are going to be able to go there. The implications are so pervasive it is frightening to contemplate.

To contemplate…

This is just the sort of difficult psychic terrain those of us training in contemplation are working hard to deal with. With the body and mind settled and grounded such highly disturbing ideas are allowed to work their way through our own perceptions of what it means to be alive in the age of limits. Our contemplation provides a container in which dangerous ideas like this can be examined with some degree of psychological safety. The walls of this container are built from the heartfelt gratitude of our saying yes and thank you and ending our sessions by dedicating the merit.

It is not easy to admit to oneself that what your doing to earn a living doesn’t really matter much in the big scheme of things or, worse and more accurately, is actually actively working against those very trends that might guide us to a more sustainable way of living together. On the other hand, if you are going to find your way to a life nourished by meaningful experiences this recognition is a necessary first step.

This matters since, as we learned from holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, human beings can endure enormous suffering if they are able to find meaning in it. Recall his story about the grieving widower? Born in the heart of Nazi darkness we would be wrong to dismiss such talk as just so much pablum; it is not bright-sided happy talk spouted by the privileged behind the prison of their rose-colored glasses. This need to meaningfully contribute in a healthy and wholesome way is the thread by which we can achieve the psychic balance which is what brings happiness right in the midst of all that is going wrong.

The contemplative container provides the place where we can begin to feel the full implications of what we know. Classic contemplative subjects include the impermanence of all phenomenon including oneself and those one loves. We all know we are going to die someday but through contemplative practice we can take that factoid from our head and lodge it in our hearts. Though the process is painful the result is a powerful awareness of the preciousness of every moment. Not taking life for granted, we slowly grow wiser in how we will choose to live it.

Fear, pain, anxiety, rage, jealousy, and despair might accompany you on the cushion at times, yet our practice of observing without clinging and resting naturally without constantly interfering and meddling with what comes up acts as an alchemical retort in which transformations of such poisons can take place. Daily practice is the slow burning low flame applying psychological heat. Mindfulness and meditation are being marketed as the panacea for a stressed out world, which it is, but when the marketing happy talk fails to mention this other side of the meditative experience it betrays those caught by its allure. We sit to explore the human mind and many of its systems are ancient and archaic, embodying the full force of evolutionary striving.

This is offered as preparatory thoughts for introducing what I see as an even more fundamental analysis of our social predicament than the meaninglessness already mentioned. There is a third level of analysis to be uncovered once we are willing to sit with the truth of labors lost.

This third level of analysis throws the meaninglessness of individual labor in stark relief by questioning the collective labor of the whole of fossil fueled industrial civilization. This third level moves beyond words; it gets to deeper places until it is actually felt in the body. We can talk about it but really getting it is everything here; only if it can be moved from the head into the heart can it even begin to be truly understood.

For those prepared or feeling called to go this far I suggest watching, or for many readers re-watching, the film Koyaanisqatsi: Life out of Balance. The fact that this is an older film is just another bit of evidence that we have been clear about all of this for quite some time now.

To watch, find a place with good quality sound and video where you will not be disturbed or observed so there are no social constraints on the expression of emotions. Done as a contemplative exercise it has the potential to tap very deeply into some scary emotional territory, so be prepared for that and allow yourself a few days to fully absorb your experiences. Bring a quiet mind that can stay with the images without too many words. Watch the movie and watch how you are reacting, just letting whatever comes up flow through, not trying to hold onto any particular feeling or insight.

The film shows what it means to be living in a world out of balance. If you do the exercise, here are a few thoughts. The film begins with a very low tone chant which is not dissimilar to the low tone chant of Tibetan Buddhism. It is the hum of the rocks, of OM, of the stone Buddhas all over the world hiding in jungles and wastelands. Vibrating with its frequency one can find the calm eye of the storm.


Recognize Homo Colossus in the large mechanical prosthetics shown on the screen by remembering they are working 24 hours a day all over the globe, every day of the week non-stop. Bear in mind that everything you’re seeing continues in this moment as well; the frantic multiplicity of specific things drums on unceasingly. Using the contemplative mind that appreciates the invisible behind the visible, do not allow the false-comfort thought that these things are only one-off events to lull you back to sleep. See the prodigious amounts of energy and materials our modern world uses to keep the trains running on time.

There is only us, not so much you or I alone; we are hyper-social creatures. Earth seems almost proud of her bounty, “look how many dreams I can fulfill” she seems to say as she supports all this activity with equanimity, holding all and each on her expansive lands.

Burn through the one-shot earthly deposit of concentrated carbons and you get this one-shot machine age.

If human happiness really did depend on an endless ascent up the ladder of material progress then this message of civilizational collapse would be bleak beyond measure. That is not the case. It is important to stay grounded in this insight. There is some future for our children beyond 2050, it’s just not one that will continue all these activities that have lead us into this blind alley. Eventually we will need to dream a dream larger than just building more data centers (each of which pollutes as much as a small city) to enable ever more people to sit in front of digital devices and enter the “good life.”

The problem is how we are going to get from here to there. This is where despair comes in. This, I suggest, is the rock bottom issue in the collective psyche we see manifesting itself as rage, anger and resentment in the political and religious spheres. Remember we are in training. As the suffering quotient continues to rise as limits continue to squeeze, the need for compassionate action skillfully employed under triage conditions also grows more acute. Exercises in which we touch this despair are direct educations about ultimate values brought directly to deeper parts of the psyche.

It might be tempting to just throw in the towel. It only hurts because you care – about the people alive today and those who will live tomorrow; about the freedom to live well for all the living, breathing, feeling members of the biosphere. It is tempting to join the latest fad and get your degree in Assholeism, then you can pretend not to care who or what you hurt. It is tempting but don’t.

Just here is a meaningful work we can do.

We don’t need more information, knowledge or data. We need to fully integrate what we know intellectually with the rest of our being. Then it shapes lives into something well lived that does not depend on how external events unfold over which you have little or no control. Piercing the darkness one arrives at a fresh appreciation for all that is good within what we have right now. One is no longer foolish enough to believe it will remain this way for long. Grounded in the truth, we become immobile in our witness, like the stone Buddha.

These are hard psychological states and difficult transformations. Feeling sad and lost and angry at our ignorance go with the territory. To do more with our lives than just join the crazy train we have the tool of mindfulness. Like shamans of old we can hope our personal journeys undertaken with integrity and courage might be of some benefit to others when the same dark dawnings come to their hearts.

Coming to Terms

“In a future that is as unavoidable as it will be unwelcome, survival and sanity may depend upon our ability to cherish rather than to disparage the concept of human dignity. My purpose in writing this book has been to enhance that ability by providing a clear understanding of the ecological context of human life.”

Overshoot, William Catton


I fear our ignorance more than our evil. In my experience evil is self-defeating, ignorance on the other hand, seems to know no bounds.

Contemplation is the art of penetrating thought that reworks previous understanding, mulling over something until insight comes forth from its gestation period. In Eastern traditions there is a set of practices designed to train the attention and increase the length of time the contemplative state can be retained. In these traditions value is placed on the depth of an insight, on how deeply it can be “felt.” The meditative position we see in statues of the Buddha with legs crossed and body upright allows stillness to develop and it has been found a still mind follows a still body, eventually. This meditative position is also one of the most grounded a human being can take, meaning in it can you can weather shocks, you can let energy pass through your emotional body into the earth on which you sit. If an insight arises that is so new and penetrating that it rocks your world, as we say, you can just breathe through it, watch it arise and eventually dissolve. Insight after insight, ignorance is diminished.

Without developing wisdom, diminishing ignorance, we go round and round in circles. Doing the same thing over and over again even though it doesn’t work is part of our craziness. Why? It has been suggested that more often than not decisions are made in ignorance of the relevant context in which they are being made. Consideration of the whole environment in which events occur is studied in what is known as systems theory. It is the study of complex systems; how they behave, what makes them tick and how they react to changes. Basically, the way towards not just knowledge but wisdom lies along the route of increasingly incorporating the environments of events in one’s contemplations. With the introduction of the environment we have entered the field of ecology.

We are only able to think along pathways we have terms for; concepts must exist for at least the structural aspect of the act of thinking. Every subject of study has its own vocabulary, using labels to communicate the context of its understanding. In today’s post we are building up to an understanding of the key ecological concept of an environment’s carrying capacity. We will work our way towards this through a series of steps each illustrated by images worthy of our contemplation. Mass, energy and light are the fundamental steps that will lead us to this week’s larger view.

ecosystems_diagram_open-external-environment_01An ecosystem is a name for an organized unit, a logical level that is complete in that it includes all the components it needs to survive over the long term. Ecosystem models are created when a boundary is drawn around the functions of interest; a patch of garden, pond, forest or planet. As soon as boundaries are introduced a system is defined. Ecosystems are open systems which mean these models explicitly include interactions with their environment. There will be inputs, typically energy and outputs including waste heat and processed materials.

Since ecosystems model the earth’s biosphere it helps to have a clear internal reference of our planet’s position, to include the earth’s temporal and spatial environments when bringing it before the mind’s eye. In the early solar system orbiting dust grains collided and stuck together in a process of accretion that in approximately 10,000 years produced boulders and asteroids a kilometer wide. Over the next million years these objects continued to collide forming moon and mars sized objects. These baby planets crash into one another over tens of millions of years until there were just a few survivors, each in its own orbit. So far this is all standard stuff from a high school astronomy class but to begin to pierce the mist of time and absorb your ancestry in your bones it might help to contemplate two details of the process, seeing them as they might have unfolded; the formation of our moon and the arrival of water.

When the rocky inner planets form, the denser elements sink into their planetary cores. These iron and nickel cores support the less dense molten magma consisting of rocks rich in oxygen, silicon and such. Above the magma the planetary crust forms. Some 50 million years after the accretion began early earth collides with another baby planet with such titanic force that it melts the crust and sends vaporized rock orbiting our young planet. In this final major accretion event our moon was born. The vaporized rock collides and sticks until our companion is formed, roughly 25% as big as earth but huge on the horizon with an orbit only 10,000 miles away. The moon has been receding from the earth ever since. The moon, uniquely in our solar system, lacks an iron core since by the time its birth collision occurred these heavier elements had already sunk to the earth’s core. Only the magma rocks were ejected.

As the great gas giants of the outer solar system complete their formation they perturb the orbits of the meteors and asteroids. On earth the bombardment becomes extreme yet it also brings water, the essential element for life. Only objects far enough from the sun are able to contain water that is not boiled off, far enough away to form ice. Out between Mars and Jupiter today we can see one of these asteroids, 1-Ceres. At close to 1,000 kilometers across it is nearly round, a proper planetoid, but not very dense probably because it contains a large amount of water ice. The earth’s waters, covering 70% of the planet, could all have arrived here in collisions with just a few such asteroids. During contemplation picture in your mind’s eye the arrival of these bubbles of life giving water on our fiery, volcanic planet until a natural awe and gratitude arise. It is difficult to pierce the mist of time but we have a knowing, a type of intuition about what we are, as it were, built through a long chain of cause and effect. Our ancestors were titans.

the_blue_marble_nasaThe most famous photo of all time was taken December 7th, 1972 by the last manned mission to the moon, Apollo 17. This picture of the earth as seen from the moon is profound on so many levels. Of interest right now is how absolutely self-contained our planet is materially. The mass of our planet was gathered ~4.5 billion years ago and aside from a few meteors here and there has not substantially changed its material content since. All life ever has had or will ever have to survive and thrive is here on the planet right now. Materials cycle. They are used over and over again without losing their ability to function. All materials have their circular paths like water as it moves from ocean to cloud to rain to river to ocean to cloud…

Materials cycle, energy does not. Energy is a one way flow which can be temporarily captured, diverted, used to build complexity and sustain life as anti-thermal dynamics yet inevitably, in total, will always drive towards an increase in entropy, towards a more dispersed, useless state. Energy cannot be reused. It can be transformed from one form to another, as we see in photosynthesis magically converting light into food, but every transformation will only proceed if there is a degradation from concentrated energy to more dispersed and dissipated.

Earth, our jewel in space, is continually bathed in the light of our sun, bathed by radiation about 10 percent ultraviolet, 45 percent visible and 45 percent infrared. This unceasing flow of energy provides the one way gradient on which the web of life weaves its majestic forms.

All the ecosystems on our planet depend on the energy received from the sun (aside from a few specialized ecosystems that use the energy of geothermal vents). These ecosystems structurally consist of the primary producers and the secondary consumers, the plants and the animals. The primary layer is able to fix sunlight for the manufacturing of food from inorganic materials; green plants, algae and water plants. This biotic component is called autotrophic, which means self-nourishing. The secondary layer is heterotrophic meaning other nourishing. Since heterotrophs are unable to create their own food they must acquire it by consuming the complex materials created by the autotrophs.

The secondary, consumer layer is usefully further divided into herbivores, carnivores, omnivores and saprovores. The herbivores eat only plants, carnivores feed on other animals, omnivores feed on both plants and animals and saprovores feed on decaying organic materials, detritus. Most people have encountered these terms before except perhaps the term saprovores, which is a touch ironic. Saprovores feed on decaying organic materials, petroleum is decaying organic material. When humanity started its dependency on non-renewable fossil fuel energy sources it entered into a detritus ecosystem. These ecosystems are characterized by exuberant growth followed by a die-off crash. More about this as these posts proceed.

Today it is worth pausing with the saprovores a moment to emphasize the role of the compost heap in the larger scheme of things. When the complex biotic materials break down they do not “die” in any ultimate sense. There is no place cut off from the rest of the whole of Gaia in which the damned are cast off. There is only the compost heap, the recycling of every element in making way for new life to flourish and in its turn decay. Christian mythology has at times been understood to teach that there is a second death, one of the soul in hell above and beyond the death of the body. There is no such second death, the sun at midnight is ever the sun, and the dark humus of the compost heap is the farthest reaches of the truly existing.

The recognition of autotrophs and heterotrophs provides more than just a classification scheme. By following energy relationships through food webs it also uncovers the fundamental structure of earth’s ecosystems.

The primary trophic layer of green plants supports the herbivore layer which is known as the primary consumers. The carnivores that eat the primary consumers are known as the secondary consumers and finally in some ecosystems there are tertiary consumers dining on the secondary consumers. Each layer is able to utilize only about 10% of the energy transferred to it; about 10% of the energy is converted into biomass. This creates what is known as the energy pyramid with a large base of primary producers supporting increasingly smaller layers above it. For example in a simplified model a patch of field with 1,000 grams of wheat could support 100 mice as primary consumers. In the field 10 foxes could survive as secondary consumers on that many mice and those foxes could support 1 eagle as a tertiary consumer. All terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems are structured in this energy pyramid form.

Another way to track energy through an ecosystem is to look at the respiration rate in relation to the total production of biomass. Any complex structure above absolute zero temperature requires, as Schrodinger has shown, a continual pumping out of the disorder to maintain its order. In ecosystems the complex biomass structure is maintained by the total community respiration which, we could say, pumps out the disorder. The ratio of total community respiration to total community biomass (R/B) is the maintenance to structure ratio, the thermodynamic ordering function. Nature might seek to maximize this ratio, a subject we will return to when our discussion takes up the dynamics of ecological succession.

We see there are finite quantities of material and a fixed flux of radiant energy on earth. Our planet is defined by these limitations. The thermodynamic energy laws give earth its characteristic dynamics, strictly delimiting what is and what is not possible. With these tools on our cognitive tool belt we are now in a position to begin to appreciate the concept of an environment’s carrying capacity.

The carrying capacity is the maximum population size of a species that the environment can sustain indefinitely. In population biology it is defined as the environment’s maximal load. Next week’s post will look at carrying capacity in more detail but I leave you with two ideas to ponder until then. For an environment to sustain a population indefinitely its material and energy needs must come from renewable sources and there cannot be significant damage to the organisms or their environment; negative impacts lower the carrying capacity. The second idea is that the carrying capacity of an environment can change over time due to changing conditions. Some of the many variables that directly affect an environment’s carrying capacity include; changes in the availability of food and water, or changes in the ability of the environment to process wastes, or changes in the availability of energy in a useable form. In today’s world all of these variables are changing in ways that are shrinking our planet’s carrying capacity. This is the larger, slower reality behind the ephemeral headlines.

Approaching Ecology

Carmel Point

The extraordinary patience of things!
This beautiful place defaced with a crop of suburban houses –
How beautiful when we first beheld it,
Unbroken field of poppy and lupin walled with clean cliffs;
No intrusion but two or three cows pasturing,
Or a few milch cows rubbing flanks on the outcrop rock-heads –
Now the spoiler has come: does it care?
Not faintly. It has all time. It knows the people are a tide
That swells and in time will ebb, and all
Their works dissolve. Meanwhile the image of the pristine beauty
Lives in the very grain of the granite,
Safe as the endless ocean that climbs our cliff. – As for us:
We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;
We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from.

Robinson Jeffers


Today I want to talk about two factors I think are indispensable for an approach to the study of ecology that can bring not just knowledge but some desperately needed wisdom. One is a personal relationship with deep time. The other is the relationship between the biosphere and the planet and how that unfolds for us personally as the relationship between mind and body.

Ecology is the science that studies life in the context of the environments in which it is found. The combination has uncovered fascinating, paradigm changing insights into life, the universe and everything. Why did including the environment in our contemplations and investigations have such an outstanding impact on western thought? For that we will need to return to the roots of modern western ideas on a whirlwind tour.

The theology of the west has seen the natural world as little more than a stage scene, theatrical props supporting the real action and little more. The real action was seen as the human soul’s relationship with its transcendent creator, a creator beyond or outside the natural world. With the enlightenment the western mythology was further molded as we dared to dream of an unending ascent of man through the power of our science and technology. The enlightenment asserted that the human being reflected divine attributes in its ability to reason. Hence animals and women were accorded lesser status due to their weaker reasoning capacity than men. Mathematics was the queen of the sciences as we perceived ourselves to be ghosts in a clockwork universe governed by deterministic laws. Descartes drew the proper implications of this philosophy and asked just where exactly the invisible world of thought and emotion, vision and conjecture we immediately experience and the mindless, dumb, silent, mechanical universe touched one another. Charmingly, he suggested it was in the pineal gland that the immaterial and material universes interacted.

Soon after the scientific revolution of the enlightenment the earth was not the center of the universe, the ego was not the center of the psyche and Homo Sapiens were no longer the sole reason for the evolution of life. The worldview built on an unbridgeable gap between spirit and matter failed to provide meaningful understanding as the new data poured in. Everywhere we looked we encountered the need to take the environment in which the objects of our study existed into account; we needed to think in terms of systems instead of isolated abstractions.

Object + environment = system

The root of the evolutionary insight is that differential reproduction is a product of the ongoing interaction between the individual and the environment. All the bountiful diversity of life and the strength to endure through the deep time of billions of years comes directly through the interplay of the biosphere and the planet. Nothing exists apart from this interconnectedness. It is the relationship between life on the one hand, expressed as movement and awareness and the planet on the other in which mountains and oceans, forests and deserts provide the objects for life’s awareness and the landscapes for life’s movements.

This is fundamentally an expression of a pattern, of intelligence. The primary reality is the relationship. It is not possible to separate life and its environment. Mind and matter are abstractions which in the real world are not two things but one. The materialist cognitive science of our day confronts the uncanny proposition that physical nervous system tissue creates non-physical thoughts, what Francis Crick rightly called the Astonishing Hypothesis. The aspect of the so-called mind-body problem that strikes us as uncanny, from its first description by Descartes through to the Bayesian neural nets haunting the “thinking meat” of today, is an artifact of separating our abstractions in our own thinking and expecting reality to follow suit. It does not.

To see just how slippery the terms we often use unthinkingly can be, consider a simple amoeba. A single celled life form is about as simple of an example of life as can be found. Create a food gradient in a Petri dish with the food source at one end and allow time for the food molecules to disperse. Place that cell in an environment in which there is a food gradient and it will tend to move towards the food source. The seemingly random motion of the cell will form a tendency, a probability density, to move in one direction over the others. (I examine the amoeba and belief in more detail here)

There are mysteries here. We see a form of awareness of the environment, the data of the changing molecular concentrations of food being processed into actionable information and an exercising of choice, or will. Here in one of the simplest models of life conceivable a whole handful of terms are being used to expound our understanding but each term is a continuum; where is the exact demarcation of cell and environment in the “sensory” interface of molecular exchange happening at the surface membrane? Just when does the “sensory” data turn into information? Did the choice arise only for the cell or is it more of a programmed reaction to the environmental configuration so we would be more correct to say the will is in the environment?

With this last question we are approaching another way of understanding mind, awareness. By watching closely how information and data is actually formed and processed, the seemingly clear boundary we take for granted in western thought between mind and the environment gets fuzzy. This is part of what Gregory Bateson meant by an ‘ecology of mind.’ It might also be what Dogen is getting at in the quote at the top of this blog. What might have sounded like poetic eastern mysticism in this context takes on a type of scientific insight; one that values the unity found in the relationship between mind and its contents or life and planet more highly then the disunity an analysis into concepts provides.

While Descartes was able to doubt animals had any emotions or awareness worthy of the name, evolution and ecology as well as cognitive science discovers a single continuum of awareness running through all of life. It is a continuum that extends through, or somehow depends intimately on, the inanimate environment as well.

The basic, most fundamental insight of ecology is that everything is connected to everything else. There is no part you can point to and say ah, this is where thinking occurs and nowhere else.

“The extraordinary patience of things!”
To begin to apprehend reality as it is, outside the narrow concerns of an individual life, is a form of worship. Your knowledge about the early stages of planetary evolution will not win you a raise and will only put you firmly in the geek camp as cocktail party banter. It does however give you a way to spend some time with a larger view of the universe; one that includes the un-human Jeffers refers to. Just to find it interesting to know how oxygen was first a poison or how the Pangaea supercontinent broke up is to show respect for the earth and the ways of planets. True there is no human interest here; no way to manipulate circumstances to avoid pain or acquire pleasure but this relief from those narrow concerns is a balm to the modern soul.

I have said before, in a sense life lives us. You are a child of deep time, a fruition of a life process that has been ongoing for billions of years, so long as to be unimaginable. We are able to capture the magnitude of these time spans conceptually rather easily but wisdom comes from deepening contemplations about them until they are felt in the body. The flow of blood is like the flow of rivers, the flow of signals in the nervous system is like the chemical communications of forest fungi tying together all the forest trees, the hard bones that give your body it’s structure are similar to the mountains and rocks, every breath you take is a participation with the atmosphere of rain and clouds – mythic metaphors, poetic analogies, scientific facts.

Gaia is the goddess of ecology. Scientifically the Gaia concept teaches how life shapes the non-living environment to create a context in which life can thrive. It is an intimate inter-penetration of organic and inorganic material flows, a dynamic summation of the biosphere plus planet. Mythologically the Gaia concept is a personalization of spaceship earth, the mother of us all, jewel in the vast darkness and emptiness of space. In future posts we will have the chance to discuss egolessness, here in passing it is worth noting that Gaia knitted together your body and Gaia brought forth your mind. In the mansions of awareness there are numerous experiences in which you get in touch with this reality in a visceral way. In this family of experiences you are able to touch a profound rest, a snuggling into the breath body, or energy body, or heart body, or body-mind. This is the part of you that is a child of deep time and knows it.

Instead of a lonely outcast among the cold vacuums of space and blind, dumb planetary rocks we find ourselves at home on Gaia. We do not sense this if we are too caught up in the exclusively human concerns. The poet reminds us how to wake up from that dream:

We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;
We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from.

Ecology teaches us what we are. It teaches what Jeffers tried to communicate with the term he coined, inhumanism. It is not pro-human or anti-human but outside this framework entirely. The Wikipedia entry for Jeffers puts it well, “the belief that mankind is too self-centered and too indifferent to the ‘astonishing beauty of things.’ Jeffers articulated that inhumanism symbolized humans’ inability to “uncenter” themselves… [a] recognition of the trans-human magnificence.” One perhaps non-intuitive result of inhumanism is that it encourages one to look on the wisdom and folly of the human race with a more kindly eye. The distance between the street urchin and the captain of industry does not seem so large nor the morality of our quickly passing societies quite so inflexible.

These are the ideas that provide what I think are the proper contexts to approach studying the sciences of ecology. We should approach them with a type of humility that is willing to see beyond our anthropomorphism.