Torture

PewTorturePollI think every citizen of the world’s various governments should read the report released last week to the U.S. senate summarizing the use of torture by the CIA in the years 2001 to 2009.

In this Christmas season many millions of Christians worldwide honor their image of deity in the form of a child. Yet Christianity’s iconic image, which shocked the ancient world, is not the stable first constructed by St. Francis of Assisi but the crucifix, that of a man being tortured to death. What Buddha taught was kind of subtle; how the mind makes the world we experience. What Jesus taught was not subtle at all, at all: torture man and you kill god. The corpus on the cross is stating this in as clear of terms as it is possible to get: that which would torture is damned, cut off from the divine. There have been centuries of thought devoted to the theological meaning of the crucifixion but might the most basic message be the most important ?

I have avoided the subject of politics on this blog up to this point and do not anticipate turning to it often from here on out either. Still there are times events touch on aspects of this blog’s project so directly it is worth taking the risk of alienating some readers to explore them. As a lifelong member of Amnesty International I think it is important to use the fact that there is torture going on in the world – right now – as a subject for our contemplations. It is important to recognize just what it is that we are seeking to liberate ourselves and all other sentient beings from. Ignorance is what we are trying to overcome by our practice of meditation; we are looking for the middle way between extreme views of all kinds. The enlightened mind can only be born from a heart of loving kindness. Torture shows how twisted the paths have become for those whose path has lead them to these hallways of horror, how very far lost it is possible to become.

Torture – what the human mind created, it can undo.

To avoid being misunderstood I want to say at the outset that I think it is important everyone on earth becomes aware of this report not to join the bandwagon of the many, many voices heaping scorn and derision on the United States. Just the opposite actually. The form of government in the United States and the track record of its relationship with other countries and peoples is one of the most precious chapters in the history of civilizations. Even if it is only in its rhetoric, it has tried to affirm the rights of the individual above state and religion. This is in stark contrast to those religious traditions that dictate what can be thought to their members and those political despots that lord it over their critics with death squads and torture.

I do not think I have a Pollyanna view of the United States and its role in history. Yet it seems to me only ignorance would refuse to agree there is an important difference between its actions in the world and say, the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge or the Stalinist purge or the Nazi death camps. Critics of the empire the United States can all too easily lose sight of these vital differences in the rhetoric that would paint the US as the great Satan.

I am of the opinion that the US has acted in horrific ways many times and deserves much of the criticism it currently receives. If I could wave a magic wand and change one thing about my country it would be that we would listen carefully to our critics and take their concerns to heart as ways to help us become a better society. Having spent my whole life in the states my experience has been that the people who do “most of the working and paying and living and dying” would give you the shirt off their backs if it was needed. It is for these citizens I recommend a long, sober contemplation of this senate report. All the blowback from our country’s selfishly evil deeds, manipulations of lives and minds, death dealings and lies are coming home to roost. Perhaps it is naïve but I place my hope in the hands of these people because among them I think it is just possible for a mature understanding to develop about our country’s place in the world. Our most probable future is going to be characterized by payback on so many levels; ecological yes but political, economic, social and religious as well. We already see our cities aflame and our coasts flooded. My hope is that the quite majority are willing to accept the discipline of enduring the results of our mistakes with an eye to learning from them. As this century unfolds and the American empire unravels, as I believe it most probably will, there will be an opportunity to return to the political and cultural roots that once made this country a shining light on the hill, a source of hope for millions of the poor and downtrodden the world over.

It is just these considerations that provide the proper context for appreciating just how lost the world-wide modern industrialized societies have become. So how then should people seeking to stay awake respond to such an item as this senate report? First we should recognize that the details in the report are about real human beings who inflicted and suffered these events. Second we should recognize that this is a cyclic event. Every so often the CIA is dragged through the mud in public. The last time was during the 1970s investigations led by Senator Church. We collectively cast our shadow on this whipping boy and feel better when the whole thing quickly disappears down the empire’s memory hole. Nothing is fundamentally changed by the process but our image of ourselves gets a face lift.

What do these despicable actions teach us about the human condition? Acts of barbarism are caused by rigidity of consciences, a result of extreme views. This ideological fixation, lost in concepts without feeling is the avenue of Mara, the devil, the spinner of illusions and lies “who was a murderer from the beginning.” Doesn’t that characterize well what these station chiefs, trainers and army recruits were chasing down these corridors of hell? Here’s why it is so hard for those who have participated in these kinds of things. Sacred world requires seeing the entire world with a type of purity that is born of absolute acceptance. It is hard to accept one’s self in unconditional terms when acts of blasphemy against awareness haunt the conscience. There is no final escape from conscience, the hounds of heaven and all that. This is why forgiveness is such a precious gift. The lost are so sure they are so right… until they are not.

It is taught that it is possible to purify all evil deeds, obscurations and degrading actions but it is remorse and regret that unlocks these powers. Neither individuals nor countries can hide behind weasel words like extrajudicial punishment and enhanced interrogation techniques. That culturally we show no regret and remorse about these things is just a sign of how full blown our psychopathology has become. The psychopath / sociopath are defined by having no regret when regret is the proper response. When it is missing it is due to a profound ignorance, an inability to see that there is something to be remorseful about. I suggest this is just what we see in this national spin about the torture we committed a few years ago.

The world created by these mental delusions is known as samsara in the East, the fallen world in the West. Classically it has been likened to a world on fire, a pit of snakes and an island of cannibals. It is not hard to see how these describe the world such unfortunates inhabit: world on fire, a war zone; pit of snakes, everyone’s full of poisons; island of cannibals, what we call dog-eat-dog. It is not surprising that those who live in this mind created world, creating nightmares for themselves and other people also easily create nightmares for the environment. People so caught up in exclusively anthropomorphic concerns can hardly spare a thought for spilling poisons in a river or anything else along those lines.

There are a number of important lessons to draw from this pathetic turn of affairs in foreign affairs, not least is the new note being played; the total lack of remorse. These evil acts are condemned not because they contradict the history of American ideals and centuries of international law but because the techniques did not prove to be effective. This, I suggest, is a frighteningly clear indication of just how far the so-called leader of the free world has lost its bearings. It is hard to think straight about politics in our time. The public square has become dominated by Ph.D.-level psychological spin-doctoring, the internet has created an echo chamber where any nutty idea can find encouragement and the mass media has become almost wholly irrelevant by refusing to take up any of the truly important issues facing our society. It has been said that the American people get the government they deserve and it is true we citizens have become all-together too complacent with our corporate sponsored infantalization. Still this lack of remorse should be capable of penetrating even our hardened, manipulated hearts.

To think straight about modern political philosophy it is important that we recognize the role played by the desire for creating utopia through the enlightenment project that is coming unraveled all around us in our time. The ancient wisdom teaches that this was always destined to be a quixotic attempt since the broken world has always been broken and cannot be fixed. To think straight also requires that once we see this clearly we do not swing to the opposite extreme and disregard any and all attempts to seek a better way of being in this world. There are differences between living under the barbarism of the killing fields and not, and these differences matter a great deal.

In some perversion of human experience we have come to expect a life without hardship, to be continually entertained and to never be put upon to do what we do not feel like doing. The fake world created by the mass media’s advertising machines is constructed out of irrational images and emotions and now it is as if we have shoved our heads into that fantasy land and insisted to all the world that we are living in utopia. We react just like the marketing messages are designed to have us react. Meanwhile as our heads are surrounded by sex, violence, anger, power plays and all the rest of it, the real world our bodies occupy is becoming daily less and less capable of supporting living things and the clash between nations is growing more and more harsh.

All of this serves as a reminder for why we practice. Seeing deeply into our brokenness provides the fuel. The aspiration remains to relieve all those who suffer. During practice we recognize our minds classify all sentient beings into three groups. There are those we love and who love us that we hold close to ourselves. There are those we hate and who have harmed us and others that we push as far away from ourselves as we can. Finally there are all those who we neither love nor hate but are simply indifferent to their fate one way or the other. The traditional aspiration works with all three groups. In the traditions that include visualizations we are taught to see the group of enemies as in front of us, that they hold one of the keys to our heart of loving kindness.

Compassion is the way to peace. Recognizing the ignorance involved it is possible to embrace even these very dark deeds without condemning the species capable of them.

Meditation

Wisdom traditions all teach that there is real work involved in pursuing their teachings. The idea that there is a savior going to fix everything for you is foreign to this way of thinking. No one can do for you the working with your mind you need to do for yourself. The different traditions have differing disciplines but all of them include an element of getting to know your mind, your psyche, your soul. Mediation is just that, a date with your mind; a time set aside to observe with care just what it is that is unfolding in your awareness at that very moment. One of my teachers said that meditation is like scheduling a meeting with your mind at Starbucks, a getting to know you better appointment.

Meditation quite simply is a dedication to a very simple and fundamental realization: it is an endlessly fascinating thing to be a self-conscious awareness awake in a universe full of wonders and mystery. Meditation is a deliberate remembering that right where you are sitting now you are participating in a cosmic experience.

For thousands of years countless individuals from both the East and the West have made a daily discipline of meditation. For the most part their experiences have been communicated to others as what to do as opposed to what to expect. Not a whole lot of time is spent explaining the types of results that a daily discipline encounters. Instead there are explanations of just how to go about doing the deeds. How to take the seven point posture and breathe in ways conductive to the quieting of the mind are often the only real instructions given. The traditions have learned to trust that those who do the work will also come to the fruition. There is a great respect for the individual nature of the inner experiences of consciousness that are nurtured in meditation and which go beyond what can be put into words. Indeed, too many words describing the results can be a hindrance if they tempt us to force our meditative experiences into what we think they should be. However, in the West there are too few traditions of contemplation to encourage people to take up the actual doing of a daily practice. For some few people the carrot of enlightenment is sufficient to create the stick of self-discipline. For others, perhaps some description of results will be the enticement they need. My hope in sharing these thoughts through this blog is to persuade those readers who do not have a daily practice, or are unable to maintain it regularly, to give it a shot. Why not? See you on the inside.

Choose a point of focus to anchor with; a small religious statue, flame, feather, stone or classically the breath. It could also be a particular thought or visualization. Train the mind to stay focused on the anchor with a rested concentration. Return the mind to it when you notice it has wandered. Hold the posture still, root the mind in sitting so it can spread its wings. Breathe from the belly; breathe naturally though tending towards the long and deep. The eyes stay open with slightly closed eyelids, resting the gaze on the object as if on a gently flowing stream. For inner thoughts and visualization also the eyes stay slightly open while the gaze rests dispersed in a gestalt, seeing everything, focusing on nothing. If you chant or sing make the tone deep so that it vibrates the body.

Relax. That is the key.

This first technique to be mastered, just described, is known in Buddhism as shamatha, calm-abiding meditation. In the Western mysticism of St. John of the Cross it is the stage spoken of as “my house being now all stilled.” This settling of the mind, quieting it down, allows a one-pointed concentration to develop. It is as if the mind becomes a calm pool from which it is possible to gently bring up an object of contemplation and stay with it without distraction. Perfecting this one-pointed concentration it develops into what is known in the East as samadhi, non-dual awareness. In the poetry of St. John of the Cross, “O night that has united the Lover with his beloved, transforming the beloved in her Lover.” In this way a skill in calm abiding is both the foundation on which all other techniques are built and the deep pool of peace from which one begins and to which one returns in every meditative session.

When a person first sits still for a half hour or more and simply observes the goings on within their mind typically the experience is one of anything but calm-abiding. Thoughts ping-pong off the skull, weave emotionally engaging stories of what should have been or should be in times to come, the chatty inner voice seems to be unceasing and many people conclude at this point that this mediation stuff is just making it worse. What is really happening is that the nature of mind is being encountered for the first time. This kinetic, frantic spinning is what you have been living with day in and day out for years without really noticing it for what it is.

So how did the idea that there is a calm-abiding state to be found within ever arise? There are a few ways to talk about it which in my experience can be very helpful for understanding the process and helping people stick with it. One way of touching the peace is to allow an awareness of the gap between thoughts or the gap between breaths to grow. That chatty inner voice that seems to be unceasing actually is modeled on the outer voice and stops to take a “breath” every once in a while. A related way of understanding what it is to practice calm-abiding recognizes that while on one level the chatty, discursive, conceptual mind works ceaselessly, never resting in sleep or wakefulness, on another level a continuous simplicity also exists which is untroubled, profoundly grounded and at peace. Do not expect thoughts to cease, it is the nature of thoughts to be continuously arising. Instead, when meditating move the locus of awareness deeper into the body, beyond the whirling thought-mind. Dwell in the heart.

In Tibetan traditions shamatha is not considered the final point of meditative practice. After gaining some facility with calm-abiding the student proceeds to what is known as vipassana which is a type of contemplation of ideas that are conductive to the nurturance of wisdom. Western traditions teach that after the purgative stage comes the illuminative (on its way to the unitive). When we understand this give and take that weaves periods of concentration with periods of rest, meditation soon becomes pleasant, which encourages us to stay with our discipline day after day. Once the mind has been calmed a bit the object of the meditative session is brought to awareness. I have found many times my contemplations on these subjects are greatly enriched by starting with whatever understanding I have of history, biology, chemistry, ecology, evolution, cosmology and physics. At other times a snippet of song or poetry or a remembered dream provide good starting points. In these practices radical acceptance is extended to self and others; the pain and confusions of ignorance and selfishness are absorbed deeply into the heart on the in-breath and an aspiration for all sentient being to be free of such suffering sent out on the out-breath.

So a meditative session is not an experience of voidness but instead a type of tasting of an insight. Intuition and felt-images work together to sow seeds of wisdom. Slowly as the days go by and melt into years the inner landscape of the body-mind unfolds, growing ever more detailed and rich. Both highs and lows, moments of despair and moments of ecstasy are all mixed together with the mind-stream in a type of alchemical process. When done correctly there is an increased empathy for everyone who shares with you this tricky yet wonder-filled mind and there is a gratitude for experience that extends forgiveness to all, leading beyond ego based judgments of good and bad.

I recommend adopting a daily practice. Take anywhere from a half hour to two hours every day to set aside the concerns of the world, concerns around survival and status, and recall the true roots of what it is to be human. Mindfulness is remembering.

This life that you are experiencing will not last forever, of that we can be sure. Drink deeply of it.

The practice of contemplation is an act of protest against the shallow characterizations of living that pervades our cultural mono-vision of consumers and consumption. Deep practice is an alternative lifestyle, a step outside of the mainstream. With the development of skill these practice sessions become a way of bathing again in the refreshing waters of earth’s purity. By nurturing compassion and aspiring to heal the rifts that have grown so threatening between us and the earth, we touch the natural world as a friend, confidant, and admiring lover. By bringing the value of living-being clearly to mind we strike a blow against the nihilistic meaninglessness that has grown like a cancer in western societies since at least the First World War.

Practices like the Zen tea ceremony are a good guide to what the contemplative traditions hold as the good life. They celebrate better without the more and faster that has become our cultural dead ends. Every meditation session is our small yet important contribution to the overall state of mindfulness enjoyed by the whole of the human race at that moment. Every session is a blow against the darkness of isolation and anomie and a ringing endorsement of our profound inner liberty, dignity and freedom.

The inspiration for practice comes from some glimpse we have had into the potential of the human mind’s states of consciousness. Perhaps it was a moment of love that knew no bounds and embraced all beings, all things, and all events. Perhaps it was a moment when the intricate pattern of cause and effect, that seems so filled with the pain of mistakes, was seen through the eyes of grace to be perfect, just as it is, always has been and always will be. Perhaps it was a second of helping another living thing find peace or laughter or healing when the scales fell from our eyes and we saw the sacred within this very earthly life. There are many, many states of consciousness in the mansions of the mind. With practice all three realms are visited: the heavenly, the hellish, and the earthly. Yet to do the practice is itself an affirmation that our small, selfish, fearful states of mind do not wholly define us. To do the practice is to affirm that these higher, selfless states of consciousness are precious even if they are discarded and belittled by the culture at large.

In the age of ecocide we can be overwhelmed, wailing ‘what can I do?’

“The Most Radical thing any of us can do at this time is to be fully present to what is happening in the world.” Joanna Macy

A word or two about doing the work. It is your mind, your body, your fate, your breath, your death, your love, your wisdom, and your folly that is the content. Ultimately it is also your skillful means and inner guru that will see you through as well. Fundamentally, any practice done with sincerity and integrity cannot be done wrong. If your will is to sit and meditate and you sit and meditate for some time regardless of the actual content of the session it will have a beneficial fruitfulness from whatever effort was extended. Contemplative practice is an experiment in the exploration of consciousness. Your life events as they are processed by your mind and body provide the lab materials. The contemplative training technologies are the instruments, tools for this most exacting observational science. No one knows what result you will get from the experiment, not even you – until you actually do the work. I was also taught to keep a journal, a lab notebook as it were. You might find it aids in keeping focus as the years go by.

One final note. I studied the collected works of Carl Jung intensively for four or five years when I was young, between the ages of 17 and 21 or so. This model of depth psychology has remained with me to some degree. The model has a place for mandala images of the non-ego Self, a dictionary of symbolism by which to understand the hypnogogic imagery that can arise in deep meditative states, and a rich understanding of the developmental tasks typical of the different stages of life. His work served as a bridge for me to learn to rationally respect the non-rational, for the waking self to respect the dreaming self. I do not consider myself a Jungian nor do I think his model is as complete or useful as other, non-psychological ones. Still, Jung’s is the best work I know in the modern Western cannon of intellectuals that provides a context for and understanding of what the real alchemy of consciousness is all about. Buyer beware, but it worked for me. (See Lewis Mumford ‘The Revolt of the Demons’ New Yorker 23 May 1965 for an important corrective.) I mention this intellectual debt so my readers aware of Jungian thought will have a proper context in which to asses my ideas and in the spirit of sharing what I have found supportive of living a contemplative life in these modern times. My attention now that I am in my 50s is on science and meditation, the ecological crises and healing the deep wounds it causes but I recognize the expression of my thought bears an indelible stamp from my earliest teachers.

The Music of the Spheres

Ecological thinking embodies explorations of relationships between living things and those living things and their environments. The living things can be as large as a blue whale or as small as a bacterium. The environments can be as small as a drop of pond water or as extensive as the whole universe itself. With the proper use of the right tools these relationships can be explored in great detail. Part of a contemplative’s satisfaction and wellbeing comes from spending the time that is needed to really enjoy these details.

Spending time with mammals leaves little doubt that there is awareness behind their eyes. It is a commonplace that our cats and dogs have personalities we come to love. Many people take this obvious acknowledgment of awareness as just a first step and extend the same recognition that there is some sort of awareness to the birds, insects, invertebrates and all the rest of the species populating the biosphere with such endless forms most beautiful.

This living world is in contrast to the deadened one too many of us habitually inhabit. The modern industrialized environment is so dominated by human artifacts that it is all too easy to forget to take even a single moment for mindfulness; for remembering how special it really is to be alive for the few years we are each allotted. This is why it is so helpful to have tools to support our efforts at remaining awake. The tools remind us that we are not isolated freaks of nature persecuted with self-conscious awareness of our mortality but are actually bearers of human dignity within a large community of life.

The dead world is the other way of viewing existence: that the pessimistic, nihilistic, thoroughly reductive materialism where only the dog-eat-dog of selfish, cruel, competitive power seekers all tragically and robotically unfree is “really” real. Many think that this is the necessary view that science teaches us, many more fear that this might be the case and refuse to look long and deep into the ways of the deadened world. They fear a silent universe. In the classical contemplative teachings all these insights are welcomed as the courageously clear analysis of the way the grey world really is. There is suffering involved in birth, sickness, old age and death, a suffering that is both individual and planetary. For you as an individual, things can look rather bleak. Our running away from this truth only makes us more haunted and hunted, more susceptible to the snake oil salesmen offering relief through a new purchase. The ancient advice is to stop running away, to look directly on the ways of being. Then you might have the power, the inspiration, to find the cracks where the light and magic can get in. The rumor is that there is a world of rainbows hiding just below the surface of the grey.

To help in this work, and it is work, there are tools of escape. The grey world is no more “really” real in any absolute sense than any of the other many conceptual castles we are capable of constructing for ourselves. The tools are everywhere once we are clear that the task is lessening our self-absorption. The first one I recommend for your consideration is kept on the person: a simple hand lens that fits easily into a pocket or purse. This is a simple tool that unlocks a whole new world within the world. Examine the ice on the pond, the weave of your clothes’ fabric, the luminous sheen on a dragonfly wing, the multiple eyes of your friendly neighborhood spider and any of countless other items populating your immediate environment. An appreciation for the intricate intelligence within forms naturally arises as we become more acquainted with their details. Unfortunately the human nervous system can quickly become numb to any stimuli it encounters repeatedly but with a hand lens always close you train in looking again, in really seeing the individual form in front of you and not just the conceptual label that normally accompanies perception.

PocketMagnifierKorzybski taught us in the 1930s that the menu is not the meal. His master work, Science and Sanity, is well worth spending time with if you have a scientific bend to your intellectual curiosities. In this work he points out how quickly our nervous systems can label this living, green stuff under our feet grass and by this very move miss all conscious perception of the individual, unique blades. He goes on to point out that those individual, unique blades have a reality to their existence that the abstraction “grass” does not. The simple expediency of using a hand lens every day in all kinds of places to examine all kinds of things helps wake us up to our senses again and slip out of the too settled grey zone of abstract conceptual thought. This simple hand lens acts to focus our curiosity outward, out into the world beyond our immediate personal concerns.

So as you are out walking under the sky with your hand lens in pocket, what other practice might we participate in? One I find fruitful is taking on the chore of picking up the human garbage I see along some part of my walk. Find some part of the environment you frequent regularly in which it is possible to see the natural world, however slight such a glimpse might be. Take a moment to pick up any human made pollution scarring this experience of the natural world, or at least a bit of it. The hope is that others might enjoy a view of the living planet and find relief from their grinding, daily concerns in a moment of appreciation of the world’s beauty. I live in an urban area so choose a park walkway for this practice. I have found the world readily cooperates, providing new trash to work with most every day. Sure it is a small thing and certainly will not save the world but that is just the point; it is a practice that embraces the reality of what I can do which is not much, but it is something.

The next set of tools is for the home. I was taught that every well-appointed home should have a few basic mind tools; a microscope, a telescope and a set of encyclopedias. Perhaps the last is now passé with the arrival of the internet but the others are all the more needed in our time of experts. In the same way that the hand lens widens the world one lives in, the wonderful (and for the most part affordable) basic microscope and telescope delivers whole new worlds. The thing is, it is just not the same to see a photo of a cell or the rings of Saturn as it is to gaze on these things with your own eyes. Of the many foolishness’s of our times perhaps none is more destructive of a zest for living then the pervasive sovereignty of experts. Somehow most of us have been left with the impression that if we are not able to contribute some new insight into a science or invent a new math or algorithm, then there is nothing for us in exploring the marvels of the world on our own. Here is the secret – encountering reality is beneficial to our mindstream, our souls if you will. It is not an exclusive club for the wealthy and powerful, the super-smart but rare genius but a very democratic feature of the human experience. It is yours for the taking.

For example, I have had quite awe inspiring experiences playing with the spectrum of light revealed by a prism. Sure I had read in my physics books that sunlight consists of all the colors of the rainbow, even saw the photo.  But when I got my hands on a water prism and reproduced some of the experiments of Newton, Boyle and Goethe… something deep inside me changed. The world became a more magical place. All these tools can work the same way. All it takes is an alert awareness, a relaxed curiosity. The microscope, telescope, hand lens and prism can unite with rational studies to educate the imagination, the inner senses. How this in turn works out in practice will occupy us for the rest of this post.

Consider how contemplation of geese flying overhead can lead to a rich sense of being at home on the earth. In the presence of this event, these migrations, your consciousness is participating in an ecological and evolutionary adaptation that has been going on for centuries, millennia, and if you allow for all that has ever flocked across the face of Gaia, for hundreds of millions of years. It is just a single detail within the biosphere yet a necessary one. As they glide by in the sky and within your awareness, are you able to sense the timelessness of the event? How innumerable individual animals have come and gone yet the pattern remains? What is important is that the role be carried out, that this particular niche in the manifold exuberance of life’s anti-entropic explorations is wholly filled. If there were no geese another species would have evolved to take advantage of the same resources.

In the same way there seems to be a role for self-conscious beings given our particular human apperception of existence. Poetically, our thisness meets the other’s thusness as we ask, what makes the grass green? Who or what makes that which is real, seem real to me? Final, complete introspective investigation uncovers the most intimate ‘this’ is simply ‘thus’, beyond perceiver and perceived as two. All the contemplative tools are designed to provide an entryway into this insight, whether they are tools to hold in the hands or tools to hold in the mind.

Perhaps one way into a taste of this non-duality and the way our sense of reality mixes with it in contemplation is through thinking about what is known in the west as the Music of the Spheres. This is said to be the harmonies the planets are making as they follow their celestial movements and is a fine example of a tool held in the mind. The music of the spheres is like a Zen koan. Sound is the label we give to the human sensory neuron-firings stimulated by vibrations in the earth’s atmosphere which cause the delicate bones of our inner ear to move. Where is any objective sense of sound in all of this? Really apprehended, one experiences an unmovable silence in the heart of all sounds, an emptiness of the element of the absolutely real in sound that seems to exist in sound until we take full awareness of its processing. In this state of mind, now consider the Music of the Spheres as a profound not-sound since there is no atmosphere in space to carry the vibrations we label sound. Yet one could say the planets sing as their orchestrated movements unfold across the spacetime of relativity and vibrate using the most fundamental macrocosmic force of all – gravity.

Just as there is a kind of silence in sound when apprehended with due weight given to the role of our nervous systems, there is a kind of sound in what we perceive as silence. Perhaps we are so constructed as to be deaf to the rest of the orchestra of existence outside of our atmosphere; we are after all wholly children of our Mother Earth. Perhaps all things in all scales, from the collision of galaxies through the spinning and orbiting of planets, on down to the molecular world’s non-stop shaking and the quarks ceaseless vibrations (to say nothing of strings) are all producing harmonious “sound.” The Music of the Spheres indeed!

What good is training with such thought experiments? It is not to assert dogmatically that there is such a sound beyond sound and that what we typically experience as sound is just a delusion. Nor is it meant to assert the opposite. In becoming open to the possibility that there is a Music of the Spheres that we can hear though the faculty of intuition and insight one also entertains an awareness of the larger, cosmological context in which an awareness of “sound” is taking place. The context of galaxies through to quarks is the web of fullness on which our sense of what is “really” real selects a very particular slice due to the construction of our nervous systems. Such has been our human nature “from the beginning”, part of what Biblical Genesis called our being created in the image of god.

The reason tradition says to train this way is that from this view it is possible to recognize the inescapable interdependent quality of all conscious experience which in turn alleviates suffering by transforming it from something “really real” in an absolute sense and hence life as hell, into something “real, but not quite how it seems” which can open one to experience life as sacred world here and now. These are advanced teachings, hard for the conceptual mind alone to grasp since they are about awareness itself, that more fundamental feature of mind all sentient beings share and on which our conceptual thoughts themselves depend.

The Music of the Spheres is the koan for hearing. Similar contemplations can arise for the other senses as well. Both techniques – sharing the deep time role of geese overhead and looking deeply into what hearing is – are ways of shifting the center of gravity of one’s awareness outside the ego. Wisdom teachings insist that however painful it might be for ego to see through its delusions it is worth the effort. We can remember that what we actually are is mystery yet we can be assured it is a wholly natural fruition of all that is, a bud on the flowering process of life, a wholly owned expression of causes and conditions written in deep time and across deep space.

Softening the boundary between self and other, one’s allegiance can become increasingly aligned with the side of all living things instead of narrowly focused on your life or your species alone. You will find yourself rejoicing in another’s good fortune and saddened by another’s misfortunes. Equally, taking good care of yourself respects the sliver of the divine other in the budding of life you happen to know most intimately. I suggested in a previous post that when we hear mindful we think heartful. In the same way I suggest that when we hear other we think other-self or larger-self or rest-of-self: in a word, family. In studying ecology we learn we cannot really discard garbage, that it cannot really be thrown away because there is no away wholly disconnected to everything else. This is similar – there is no other that is wholly other. Again, ecological concepts weave well with concepts from the contemplative traditions.  Next week we will look at the contemplative traditions most recognized tool, meditation.

Fools and Fisher Kings

“May all sentient being enjoy happiness and the root of happiness.
May they be free from suffering and the root of suffering.
May they not be separated from the great happiness, devoid of suffering.
May they dwell in great equanimity free from clinging, aggression and prejudice.”
Traditional Tibetan Buddhist Prayer

My interest in sharing ecological insight through this blog project is not to simply provide additional intellectual bling for you to dazzle your friends with at your next party. We moderns have forgotten the older role of knowledge as doors and passages into deeper places of awareness and experience in our rush to monetize and mechanize everything. No, what we are exploring here are some of the ways in which our daily lives might so deeply incorporate an acknowledgement of reality as to be transformed by it, transformed into wiser and more compassionate human beings.

For knowledge to effect a transformation like this requires that it be absorbed at levels deeper than the endlessly chatty internal discursive dialog that we experience in our conscious awareness. Look back on your own experiences, which ones have had an actual life changing effect, however small? Can you recognize how these work their way into your psychic makeup far deeper than the stream of chatty internal talk ever does? Traditionally this deeper absorption of learning has been referred to as learning it bodily; we say we know it in our bones or our hearts or that we have a gut instinct.

Yogas in the East and alchemy as explained by Carl Jung in the West are schools of thought that try to capture this universal experience of allowing teachings and learning to enter us so deeply that they change the way we view the world and our lives within it. They recognize something the cultures of today tend to dismiss, namely that the dichotomy between body and mind is not as solid and real as it sometimes seems, that profound knowing is as much an act of the body as of the mind. All of this is part of what mindfulness means as I am using the word.

I thought long and hard about including the term mindful in the title of this blog. So much foo-foo has accumulated around the term by now that an argument could be made that it no longer conveys anything meaningful. But I think we have already conceded too much intellectual ground to the perversions of evaluating all things human through the lens of the market. I hope to battle for the right of this word to regain the cutting brilliance it has earned through centuries of use. Foolish, I know, yet perhaps a fool more like Perceval in the Grail Castle and less like Don Quixote tilting his lance at windmills.

Mindfulness in these contexts is of course a translation of a concept from the ancient languages Sanskrit and Pali. We can expect there to be a bit of a struggle to fully comprehend what it means both because of the challenges involved in transplanting core concepts from one culture to another, particularly over centuries, and in this case because some of what is alluded to by mindfulness is intrinsically difficult for the human mind to fully comprehend. A good place to start is to clear the decks a bit by mentioning what it is not.

Mindfulness is not the latest trick for executives to master the art of pursuing profit with one pointed concentration, despite the many workshops and conferences promising just that. Mindfulness is not a shortcut to psychological well-being and popularity, nor is it meant to be an excuse for spacing out during your efforts at learning and the concentration involved in study. Mindfulness is not an esoteric, occult power that will lead to Svengali-like power over other people’s minds as we saw when Obi Ben Kenobi convinced the guards that “these are not the droids you’re looking for” with a wave of his hand.

So what is mindfulness then? Well if at this point I offered a pithy sentence or two that would only defeat the whole purpose. The whole point of using the handle mindfulness is to indicate something other than the typical conceptual discursive thinking experience which is our mind’s default. You know, that endless ruminating about our to-do list, how we should have done this or that differently in the past, how the future will likely be better or worse than right now and how without the slightest bit of effort thoughts seem to be able to plan, plan, plan…

A Zen master would likely leave it at that at this point, more than enough said already. I am not such a wise being and in fact share the very modern propensity to want to talk about everything, including that which cannot really be talked about. Assuming this is sufficient warning not to take anything I have to share too seriously, since I am really just another bozo on this bus, from here on in I am going to talk freely about what has helped me. The whole world has become a culture of Western modernism to some degree, my hope is that as a member of this mono-culture some of what has struck me might resonate with others.

In the culture of Tibet people locate the mind in the region of the heart. A number of indigenous peoples including some of the Native American tribes see things the same way. This sounds strange to us since we are so used to allocating thought to the grey matter in our skulls and dismissing the role of the rest of the nervous system. Neuroscience however confirms that the endocrine, hormone and neurotransmitter molecules throughout our bodies all have roles to play in creating this awareness we experience. The classic yogic inner map of the body with the chakras as nexus points along the spine is not so far from the modern scientific view after all.

In the culture of Tibet people locate the body as centered in the head. Now we are really confronting something that just seems to be nonsense to us. Consider this though; four of the five sense gates of the body are all located where? Adorning the skull of course. Observing this they simply gave it the weight it seemed to deserve in an introspective analysis. In the Western mainstream traditions introspective analysis is burdened with a bad boy reputation. Psychology tried to make this the central tool of its scientific research under Wilhelm Wundt in the 1880’s but that did not work out so well, so the whole idea that objective truths could be found from introspective observation of inner states of consciousness was tossed overboard. This Western blind spot does not change the fact that the same human body structure is shared the world over and there is no reason to assume a priori it would not reveal itself to have common characteristics for all those who approached an investigation of it with a certain care. The yogas teach this is exactly the case, something not to be accepted as dogma but investigated for oneself.

Anyway, now I think my pithy sentence about what mindfulness actually is might be understood. I know I said such a thing would defeat the purpose but I also said I’m a fool. So rushing in where angels fear to tread; I suggest it might be helpful to hear the term mindfulness and translate it internally as heartfulness.

Last week wrapped up a dismal estimation of the most probable outcome of humanity’s overshooting the boundaries and limits of the natural world. Understanding the ecocide slowly unfolding around us day in and day out breaks your heart. Those with the courage to allow themselves to feel this in the body are like the knights of old, chivalrous and questing yet covered in armor in a desperate attempt to protect themselves. Look out from your visor, through the bars of the man-made environment and catch a glimpse of the landscape through which you roam. The land has grown desolate and grey. The soil no longer productive without a dose of toxic chemicals forcing it to grow crops, the trees wilting under the sun that is burning too hot thanks to the smokes belching out of our tailpipes, the streams and oceans clogged with plastics and heavy metals lending a satanic sheen to the waste land.

In our hearts we know this is not the way it needs to be, we know that somewhere there is a fortress of sacredness still at the center of the world but how can we find it? Questing without pause, accompanied by thoughts of collapse and extinction when we wake and as we fall asleep, eventually something snaps and we find ourselves in the center of the world, in the castle where we encounter an old king long in pain, suffering a mortal wound but unable to die; the industrial world grown old and now hollow and meaningless, yet unable to let go. Before our vision a procession of wonders clamors by; iPhones and big screen TVs, dancing maidens and fighting gladiators, angry preachers and crying, starving children, beached whales and missing species. We are stunned into silence. Numb, we thicken our armor and try to forget all about the castle.

This is the Western story of the Grail quest; the esoteric, initiatory tale born in the underbelly of Christian cultures in a time of plague, famine and social breakdown. In the tale the procession included a glimpse of the Grail Maiden, a special feminine force bearing the cup said to contain the blood of the god-man, the anointed one, the Christ. The knight is banished from the castle. Wandering alone, locked in the unforgiving character armor choking off the free flow of breath, that vision of the Grail Maiden stays in our hearts, haunting us with the feeling-idea that there is a harmony to life on earth. What is the grail that contained the blood of the anointed but the body’s very flesh itself? Who is the Maiden but the earth, Gaia holding all flesh?

Years more are spent wandering in The Waste Land.

For the fortunate knights another crisis comes pealing like thunder from the sky. It comes to the ones foolish enough to continue caring, despite the burden it has added to the heavy weight of dealing with the world grown grey and toxic in the mono-vision of the marketplace. Another snapping and again the quester finds themselves in the castle, again they see clearly the king with his mortal wound, unable to die. However, this time the years have changed the knight. He is still a fool yet now there is a sacredness involved. Though the knight cannot see it yet it prompts him to not remain silent anymore. He asks the Fisher King:

What ails you?
What can I do to help?

With a shout of joy the king finally dies in peace. The processions fade and the walls of the castle fall. Astonished, the knight removes his visor to gaze upon the earth. Where once there was grey desert now green shoots are cutting through the crusts. Where once streams full of drugs and poisons boiled, now clear, pure waters flow laughingly. Where once the dreadful pale of silence hung on the air like a weighty gloom, now voices fill the atmosphere with the call of birds, the howling of monkeys and the croaking of frogs. Humbly the knight goes forth, no longer a stranger but completely at home on the earth. In his heart, as wide open as the sky itself, reverberates the lost secret word: yes, and thank you.

Those magical questions move a person’s psychic center of gravity from purely ego concerns to the larger self. Those questions set the knight on the true path. We will look at some practical means of traveling on that path next week.

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.