Anjali

And how does that make you feel?

This is a question you will not often hear in public discourse. It is easier to proceed with the type of social relations we have chosen to reward when we pretend that the people involved are little more than automatons. We do recognize it hurts to be hungry, or scared, or shamed. There is no attempt to deny we are emotionally driven creatures, quite the opposite, in fact, when we take account of how we actually spend our money to influence one another. A person needs to hunt far and wide to find a rational argument laid out with evidence and a well reasoned conclusion among all the noise in the mass media. It is so much easier to use snarl words and poke the inner beast with a stick than it is to talk with the inner angel.

There is talk in the United States of rebuilding the long neglected infrastructure. It means more roads, bridges…. What future is this preparing for? Certainly not the one the ecologists are telling us to prepare for. In that future the role of carbon dioxide producing long distance travel is likely to be greatly constrained. Ask yourself if the solution to the problems of our built-out infrastructure are going to be best addressed by creating more of the same and repairing what exists? The number of cars on the road is expected to double by 2030, think its crowded out there on the highways today? Do you really think 20, 50, or 100 years from now, that the dollars spent on automobile infrastructure will still seem to have been the best use of our limited public funds?

Take a moment to check in with what you feel about these facts. First sit still and take a few deep breaths to calm the mind down from running in circles, and then slowly allow your own answer to come to you. Slowly bring to mind a picture or your own felt intuition of just what the world of the day after tomorrow is going to be like if, in fact, a huge national investment is made again into the ecologically destructive technology of fossil fuel transportation. Remember the tonnage of earth killing cement and pavement it will require, the pipelines, fracking. Remember the output of our tailpipes, how it lags for a decade or more. How does it make you feel?

Tell me, does it matter to you how other people feel?

Fear leaves the mind unable to reason well. It is very difficult to cultivate the angels of our better nature when our imaginations are fed on hellish images of anger, pain, suffering, injustice, abuse, killing, rape, torture, and war; in other words, all the types of images that seem to be ever increasing among our mass media communications and “entertainments.” Do we consider the impact all of this is having on the minds of the youngest among us? Do we care?

Normally these kinds of concerns are dismissed as naive, unrealistic for the world of a gray dawning Monday morning. I disagree. The integrity in a moment of consciousness is related to how integrated the whole person is at that moment. The most abstract thoughts continue to have emotion at their core, and the most extreme emotions constitute thoughts of sorts. What is reasoning to the mind, compassion is to our emotional make up.

Choosing a lifestyle of non-violence and low consumption comes directly from this insight. When you see the beating of the sacred hearts all around you, well you just need to see it for yourself: this is a sacred world. I greet you with anjali. I recognize the divine dwells within you: I recognize you have real subjectivity. In doing anjali we affirm that the universal spiritual teaching applies between us, that the Golden Rule between I and Thou applies. It is found in every major religion and philosophy, it is the gold standard of proper human relations. Why? Because it is our reality.

At the heart of my own consciousness is a profound mystery. I am grateful for the awareness I call my own, it is immeasurably precious to me. The logic of the Golden Rule is then impeccable. I will grant that you too have this same mystery at the core of your experience. This makes us kin. Mindful Ecology invites us to extended our anjali greeting to all the animals on earth as well, for they too bear the mark of subjectivity.

Consciousness is relationship. More specifically, consciousness is our relationship with the “things” it contains. These things, we should recall, are reflections in our awareness of real objects, however weird those objects might be in themselves. “Things” are the molecular world’s emergent states which happen to be happening at our human scale. Consciousness is consciousness of these things.

These things are always and everywhere in relationships among themselves. This is the reality of interdependence. This matters a great deal when we turn our attention to the different ways in which we treat those things we consider fully alive and those we do not. It is a slippery slope, this dividing dead and alive. The Cartesian split soon justifies splitting the more worthy, the more alive, from the lesser. Our Faustian investigation of machinery has lead us to suspect we ourselves might be little more than robots. We fear our body is more real than the mind, that we might be nothing but bodies, that mind is an accident, meaningless. It supports prejudice since some among us might look like they are alive and worthy of anjali, but really be little more than automatons. Throughout the western history of ideas animals, children, women and slaves have all had their integrity of consciousness questioned.

It is not hard to see that the Cartesian inheritance carries with it a pride in rational thought defined as being free of all emotion. What characterizes all those that had been placed in the category of not-quite-as-really-alive-as-ourselves? Animals, children, women, the uneducated and the slave were all understood as living lives lead by emotion instead of thought. Their crime was to allow feeling to rule their actions instead of cool reasoning. We have already looked at Descartes Error in this regard, how neuroscience contradicts any clear separation of thought and emotion. The Age of Reason was followed by the Age of the Romantics precisely because it seemed no reconciliation between thought and feeling would ever be found. That such a reconciliation has been found, and backed up by all the proof of modern neuroscience, is a really big deal. The Cartesian gulf begins to look like little more than a crude rationalization meant to justify cruelty. How is it, exactly, that one being with subjectivity could lay judgment on another being with subjectivity, such that the later is not extended an equivalent basic right to their existence which one unquestionably grants oneself?

For in the depth of feeling, are we not then most real?

It is not in the heights of thought that we come to sense the greatest depths of being. The experience is much more directly accessible than that. What we are is not the contents of our thoughts, it is our reaction to that which we contemplate.

Kindness is Powerful (1)

“Religions are basically inventions of the human mind… Compassion is fundamental to our nature. To achieve it we do not need to become religious, nor do we need any ideology. All that is necessary is for us to bring forth our basic human qualities.

“The real Avalokiteshvara (the greatest Bodhisattva) is compassion itself… an ideal quality which we must strive to cultivate to a limitless degree.

“My religion is kindness, a compassionate heart… this is both the root and the fulfillment of all spiritual paths… Let others concern themselves with God.”
His Holiness the Dalai Lama, quoted in Celestial Gallery, Romio Shrestha

 

Kindness is the acid that eats through all pretensions to elite entitlement. It recognizes the truth of interdependence requires we meet on a ground of equality. All beings want happiness and to avoid suffering, and all beings’ own life is precious to them. These things make us equal first and foremost; before any segmentation due to status, belief, race, gender, species or anything else which divides us, applies. When we embrace another human being, literally or figuratively, in a fully honest extension of our heartfelt love and kindness, it is an act of celebrating who they are, as they are, without agenda and without conditions. It is an act of embracing them from this ground of being. It can be a powerful experience, perhaps the most powerful awareness is capable of. It can be as if all the energy of a panic attack due to the fear of death were being harnessed, because there is no fear, and applied to this moment between us. Yet the stream of compassion is stately and graceful, full of the patience of a mountain and a strength on par with a slowly revolving galaxy.

These powerful moments are rare. They are rarely found where we work, sometimes in the home, occasionally between lovers but most often it seems they occur in emergency rooms and funeral homes, our modern cremation grounds.

It would be a mistake to overlook the powerful psychological truth behind an act of heartfelt kindness. Before we can talk about what that is though, we will first need to clear away some baggage. As one might expect in a world of violence saturated entertainments we are not particularly well educated on understanding the ins and outs of compassion and kindness. Of late we have gone in for a more Spartan sensibility. I will argue that is sad, that by doing so people alienate themselves from the one thing that can bring healing and happiness to lives in the midst of our troubled times.

One objection to compassion being a well spring of our human nature comes from the school of popularized biology that insists selfish genes cannot make altruistic mammals. We had a chance to look at just how mammals need kindness earlier among the wire and cloth monkey mothers. I’m willing to bet the best interpretation of the evidence is that it is very possible for a social mammal to have honest loving kindness for another. Objections to compassion being actually possible for human beings also abound among the philosophers. Nietzsche famously allowed that compassion is a part of human character but claimed those who extol its virtues to be inspired by no more than the resentment of the poor and powerless against the wealthy and the strong. His acidic assessment of Christian hypocrisy remains a damning indictment but that does not of necessity remove the possibility or value of actual loving kindness.

On the flip side from those who object to compassion being real are those who are sure true compassion is easy for human beings. These are all the good-doers running around thinking they are helping others, all the while hurting people right and left. They think they know what is best for folks and off they go to do right by them. It is often hard for a person kept overly busy chasing virtues on a never ending escalator towards unobtainable purity to slow down long enough to ask themselves if what they are doing is really bringing benefit to other sentient beings. I submit to you that the world is full of more unskillful harmful poisoning than healing from the church dragons among us, that the full depths of compassion are not achieved as easily as the do-gooders in the world believe.

There are many reasons for that last. I want to draw our attention to one built into the very concept of spirituality, almost like a trap. I contend that real compassion is not possible for those who are sure they, or their cult, alone have the truth.

These people have not yet taken what Buddhists would consider the first step on the path of Dharma. Let me explain. The person who espouses a dogma is pretending to a certainty that is not available to the human mind. Dogmatic faith says things like, “I know this is the one true church” or “I know this is the one true god / message / standards / commandments,” or the real bait on the hook, “I know what happens after death (and can sell you fire insurance)!” They do not.

These people have not yet obtained intellectual honesty. For any number of psychological reasons, they have yet to find the courage to accept the reality of the cognitive, conceptual and emotional limits of biological earthly human life. Lacking self honesty, there is no further step that will aid them on the path of suchness, the reality of things. They have yet to enter the vehicle by which this path is traveled. Intellectual honesty forces us to admit that we do not know, that we cannot know with certainty. Therefore honesty requires admitting these unfalsifiable claims are in fact our best guess or perhaps more graciously, our most meaningful expression of myth and honored traditions. It is as if hope in the human breast is home to two types of faith. Fanatic faith is toxic.

Most people who have walked this earth over the long millennia stretching back into deep time have not claimed dogmatic certainty. Monotheistic history is the history those in the West know best but it is not a characteristic sample. More commonly the symbol systems we today consider religious were woven into the daily context of transformation all people in the culture participated in. There was not the separation between church on Sunday and life on Monday we are familiar with. The Navajo and Tibetan people are good examples of such cultures in which a certain shamanistic sensibility guides each person along a path of beauty expressing itself through one’s daily activities. In such a milieu the arts of saying ‘Yes’ and ‘Thank You’ have a chance to refine the energy of compassion, push it and develop it and see just how far it will go. Such cultures say they are giving birth to spiritual warriors: men and women who are heroes due to their tamed minds as opposed to warmongering heroes who dominate the bodies of others.

The healing wisdom traditions of our inherited stories and myths encapsulate centuries of lessons about how and how not to live as social beings. These are one and all rooted in a humble attitude as their basic foundation, the ground from which they offer succor. The ground recognizes that we are not free to say what is real and not, but we are free to try and learn from it. The ground includes reverence before the wonder and preciousness of life as we experience it within the ever enveloping environment of the earth and sky. It is just this humble attitude that is lacking in the dogmatic individual.

The human being naturally wants to say ‘Thank You’ and ‘Yes’ to the experience of living. This is the fundamental response, the root of our psychology coming directly from the organic health of the bodymind – the thrill that it exists at all, a finite point in a sea of infinities.

In the dogmatic believer fear clouds this basic ground of goodness, obscuring it behind a fog of conditions; covenants and contractual obligations full of gods granting magical powers and virtues rewarded with wealth. Each time thoughts naturally turn to ‘Yes’ and ‘Thank You’ the fears instilled by their dogmatic faith get triggered and instead of finding comfort just resting in that awareness of the sacred, they suffer from the mind running circles around it, trying desperately and hopelessly to capture the essence of the experience in words; the holy books of all kinds. As every terrorist act is designed to shout: We value doctrine above persons! They are living upside-down.

The dogmatist has, as we say, a chip on their shoulder. They try to convince themselves and others that they have a mainline to the capital-T truth the rest of the world lacks. To the degree that they remain with their dogmatic insistence they are incapable of true compassion. Though they might act kind and always strive after virtue as it is defined by their creeds, at the end of the day this elitism makes a meeting of hearts between equals impossible.

The start of compassion is said to be the recognition that all sentient beings want the same thing you want, namely, happiness. It is also the recognition that all sentient beings are just like you in that they suffer. It is from this ground of equality that empathy is born. The elite might have pity, a real type of sorrow for all the poor smucks who just don’t get it. But this is not the fellow-feeling from which insight into the truth of interdependence can arise.

The spiritual elite add one other ingredient to their witch’s brew of dark curses, one which is having its day right now all across the globe; the dogmatist who just knows what is really going on is, in their own mind, unquestionably an elite human being and so naturally they are entitled to act in ways others are not. This sense of entitlement is what makes a discussion with such people such an unnerving experience. They deny your moral right to exist. Technically they fit the definition laid out in Aaron James’ Assholes; A Theory:

“In interpersonal or cooperative relations, the asshole:
1) allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically
2) does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement; and
3) is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people.”

This sense of entitlement is haunting the house of the abused child, inspiring the bully in the pulpit, and echoing darkly through the heartless environments dripping wealth in our financial centers. This sense of entitlement is not just a problem with religious fundamentalists. It is a problem inherent in belief itself when it is allowed to claim logical closure.

What this means is that any system of thought that retains intellectual integrity will be an open system, one that recognizes the acquisition of knowledge is an ongoing activity. Its honest pursuit will provide an individual with powerful intuitions and strong emotional commitments but these will not be elevated to the level of dogma. Logically, open systems compliment compassion by granting that each individual has their own unique dream and integrity. Cultures that encourage open systems allow each generation of minds to explore their own experiences as being as true, real and legitimate as any that have gone before.

A closed system by contrast insists that all that is of real importance, or all that human beings really need to know, has already been revealed and what the existing generation needs to do is accept its authority and learn to live by its lights. Thought that retains intellectual integrity does not allow for such closed systems, ones in which circular logic seemingly succeeds in containing the one truth for all people in all times under all circumstances, like some sort of ideational perpetual motion machine. We insist intellectual integrity does not allow for closed systems not because we free thinking heretics are cussed. It is because a closed system necessarily depends on claims that cannot be falsified and thought stopping circular logic and in these things we recognize ways by which the human mind can be mislead, deceived and controlled. Karl Popper taught well the distinctions between open and closed systems of thought and their social and political implications in The Open Society and Its Enemies. It was also his work that first clearly teaches us how and why we need to ask if claims are falsifiable. But wait, there’s more. Closed systems suffer from another inherent weakness, for as Douglas Hofstadter was at pains to point out in his masterpiece Gödel, Escher, Bach: The Eternal Braid, it is a characteristic limit in conceptuality itself that any system complex enough to be interesting that is capable of proving some things true, cannot itself be proven true by any conceivable means from within that same system. Gödel’s Theorem is a coffin nail on all such fevered, Faustian dreams.

The dogmatic believer is threatened by openess. It is too exposed. It is too vulnerable. It is too raw and real. They fear space. Earlier I mentioned that the basic truth of our experience, ground-floor truth, is the thrill of existing at all. It is also true that all things in universe (used intentionally as a verb) are impermanent, which means space will take away what you have come to love. Love will still exist, it is as indestructible as the Queen of Space herself. Truth be told, what you find most precious in love is love itself, so what you find most precious is indestructible. That should comfort you but it is your choice. It becomes a question of what you value more: “the magic in a young girl’s heart” or your magic, yours alone.

Only one of these believers in magic, as far as I can tell, carries the balm of compassion wisely.

Kindness is Dangerous

“Kindness, we will argue in this book – not sexuality, not violence, not money – has become our forbidden pleasure. What is it about our times that makes kindness seem so dangerous?”
On Kindness, Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor

 

Kindness is dangerous, make no mistake about it. To be kind is to admit you care, exposing yourself to the surrounding bullies and giving them ammunition by which you can be hurt. This is why so many torture techniques are about raping the wife and killing the children to destroy the man. He cares and so his psyche breaks witnessing the cruelty.

The smallest act of kindness is revolutionary, an active protest against the insistence that this whole planet is full of people, animals and things meant only to be used to further our personal pursuit of wealth and power. With an act of kindness you dare to interfere with the Invisible Hand of the marketplace, threatening social chaos because you are not pursuing your own interests first and foremost. Of course we are a culture of smiles, but they do not reach our eyes. Too often the only purpose of our friendliness is to grease the wheels and make using one another a little easier.

“Goodbye cruel world.” Is the only way to escape this cruel world to die? Perhaps if we became a touch less cruel ourselves, the world would look a touch less cruel as well. Perhaps if in addition to selfish genes and ruthless competition we also filled our lives with thoughts of mutual aid and cooperation we would find our days proceeding much more smoothly, more filled with peace and contentment then they are right now.

When you feel caged in, hurt and vulnerable it is impossible to extend to another human being a warm, heartfelt acceptance. If inside you are feeling that you have been used and abused by others, you are not going to be able to greet other human beings in an atmosphere of trust. If you suspect every act of kindness has some ulterior motive, you are not going to be able to accept comfort from other people. Under these circumstances the interactions between human beings are ruled by fear which makes everyone wary, always on the lookout for the next insult, blame or threat. We see this everywhere; unhappy marriages, unhappy families, unhappy workplaces. That it is easier to sell someone something they don’t need if they are stressed out and full of fear is exactly why our media does all it can to keep images of carnage and pain, human cruelty and deception surrounding us at all times. The only kindness we accept is that of Hannibal inviting his guest to dinner.

In A Language Older Than Words Derrick Jensen writes, “I sometimes feel as though the tone of this book is not appropriate. I’m not certain the language is raw enough. My language is too fine, the sentences too lyrical, to describe things neither child nor adult should have to describe at all.”

By creating a culture devoted to material gain through individual competition we have also created a culture in which it is almost impossible to relax. Can you feel how, as a society, we are just getting wound up tighter and tighter? We all fear that if we let our guard down and expose our open and vulnerable side, others will take advantage of us. We fear they will use shared intimacies against us, fears that are often well grounded. While thankfully only a few people will experience torture, very few people will escape the devastating experience of having a trust betrayed by a friend or lover, by a boss or colleague, by a parent or sibling. We suffer when some intimate detail of our vulnerability, which we were courageous enough to share, is used against us. We suffer so deeply that we are quick to create a persona, a mask, that pretends we are not as hurt as we actually are. At first we use our mask as a band-aid but over time, as the scar tissue grows, it becomes character armor. We no longer even think about whether what we are about to say or do to another is cruel or not. We no longer notice when we are devastatingly cruel, carelessly flinging arrows and spears into the broken hearts around us.

We have become astonishingly cruel to one another as our capitalistic relations have become ever more brutal and exploitive. Coming out on top is the over-riding value; we must be first, best, brightest, and cutest or else the big machine of corporate power will chew us up and spit us out on the street.

The new management style that was all the rage recently well captures our social bankruptcy. In this breakthrough of business acumen the competition that dictates relationships between businesses was encouraged among the employees as well. The world of business is notorious for its dirty tricks and cold heartedness; ‘it’s just business’ we say, as we deny paying an insurance claim to the family with a child dying of cancer. The new management, following the same playbook, encourages backstabbing your peers by reporting their mistakes to their superiors secretly, negative office smear campaigns to destroy the careers of your competitors, and disingenuous reporting of other people’s achievements so yours stand out as unquestionably the best. Anyone recognize any of this? The logic is straight forward enough: the best businesses are those that out-compete all others, so the best employees are those that out-compete all others. Basically we have come to worship the CEO as asshole. In doing so we have come to prize the human being that can most quickly and thoroughly be an asshole to another human being as the highest achievement of personality and character.

We have become so fascinated by the gross power the abusive wield, that we have grown blind to the more subtle power found in acts of generosity and kindness.

True kindness, or the lack thereof, comes directly from how we see the world. There is not much more to it than that. The difficulty of the path in which we work on developing compassion is that we cannot change the way we see the world. Not directly anyway; the way we see things is the way we see things. We can fool ourselves for awhile, and others even longer, by trying to force ourselves into some regime of positive thinking or faith or groundless optimism but in the end, the world we see is the world we live in.

This is not to say there is no way to change the way we see the world, far from it. In fact it is more of a problem for the human mind that it is too easy to change the world we see into one we picture must be there. The contemplative arts are forms of training the mind to see what is really there beyond our fearful clinging and grasping. By calming the mind and letting it rest we discover a basic ground of goodness, we allow ourselves to become aware of the subtle delight that accompanies energetic, organic existence.

The world we have been taught to see by our immersion in the norms and mores of our dominate culture is one in which a dead, mechanical universe exists only to serve our needs. The non-human life we find on this planet is considered to be a kind of pseudo-life arising from mechanical chemical reactions. Non-human creatures only seem to have feelings, self consciousness and worth – much as women and children were considered to be for most of history. Only humans are really aware we are alive because we can talk to one another, although this condemns us to a lonely soliloquy. Around and around we go, stimulating one another in our echo chamber to ever greater feats of anger and destruction, stoking the fires of fear and justifying our injustices.

If what you actually see invokes respect you will naturally seek to treat it with the decorum it deserves. For the human being our most graceful acts and attire are reserved for those special occasions when matters of highest individual importance are unfolding; births, deaths, and marriages. We instinctively understand our value is the value of the unique individual. Extending this simple recognition to all sentient beings is an ethical ideal perhaps, but it is also little more than a simple recognition of the facts, namely, that before the forces of life and death all living things are equal. I am vulnerable to suffering, so must you be. At this level of being we are equal and this is simply the truth. Social and cognitive constructs do not reach here; in the silence there are no claims of revelation and salvation, status and domination. Here in our equality it is undeniably obvious that you and I, we have each been born of earth.

Recognize this and you recognize that no one has the right to tell you how to live or lord it over your innermost heart. No one else can give you the final answers to what this life is all about. Recognize this and you recognize the full implications of your choice to be cold-heartedly cruel or not.

Kindness is dangerous, make no mistake about it.

Earth Love

“May I be like the earth,
Providing the air, the ground, water,
And everything she provides
That is our sacred source of life.

Inspired by the example of the earth, this prayer encourages us to aspire to be an unconditional source of well-being and life for others. This is a supreme aspiration. We do not just have a great deal to learn about the environment – we also have a lot to learn from it.”
The Heart Is Noble, His Holiness the 17th Karmapa

 

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 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. I think we should all ask ourselves just what is our own Aspiration for the World.

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 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 in odd places like the Freemason and worker’s unions 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. The poor, sick and 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 our 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: 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 are so conditioned to see the non-life as dumb and dead and nothing more it is difficult to imagine any other view could even be coherent unless there was theism behind it.

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 everything of ultimate worth. Just perhaps, that insight will cut the power behind our clinging to lesser things. Try it. As my teacher says, give it a shot.