“The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” … “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
Attributed to Karl Rove, Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush
Last week we talked about taking a scientific attitude towards our experiences. What if what is true matters? That is what we are asking. There is a frightening degree of disconnect today between the events unfolding in the physical environment and how we are currently thinking and talking about them. It has been the position of Mindful Ecology that the human psyche is a highly complex phenomenon doing the best it can under the evolutionary conditions from which it arose, but this complexity leaves it prone to harmful distortions. It can be profoundly gullible and at times simply mistaken in just those things it believes with the most certainty. Through training the mind can come to recognize its characteristic weaknesses and account for them. This attitude embraces the old fashion idea that there is a real world outside our senses and that our minds are, of necessity, made to conform themselves to that reality. These essays often refer to the ‘molecular world’ in order to stress that the organization and construction of our environment is not malleable to human opinion.
We are all members of what Karl Rove dismissively referred to as the “reality based community” whether we like it or not. Mr. Rove’s point was that this community had become no more than a special interest, one among many (and not one those needing to get elected would have to pay much attention to). The work of mind training using cognitive therapy techniques in the context of ecological concern has this single goal: to remove one’s confusion on this point – the molecular world is not malleable to human opinion. In An Inconvenient Sequel Al Gore states towards the end of the film, “I am not confused.” He explains he has carefully thought long and hard about the issues of climate change. As a result of this process he is no longer in doubt as to what is real, or what is right and what is not right about how we approach these issues and the challenges they bring. This is what Mindful Ecology is about. It is offered as a way of talking about the physical, emotional, and spiritual changes a growing awareness of ecological realities brings about in people who are willing to suffer to know the truth. The suffering is not the end in itself, arriving at the place where confusion has been conquered for oneself, that is the point.
There are no short cuts to that place of peaceful assurance. No magical prayers or incantations, no mass media campaign or TED talk, no pill, and no single super-special book is going to get you there. You are. It doesn’t work any other way.
I am not big on sharing reams and reams of data. There are many others making the important evidence available. This Mindful Ecology work is not aiming to convert the deniers of climate change, the sixth extinction, ocean acidification, desertification, and the other clear environmental signals. If it could it would ask such people to learn to sit quietly and listen to what their bodies are telling them but no, working with deniers is not where my interests lay. I leave that job to others much more competent and trust to the overarching direction of history in which fakes and fantasies, be they of utopias or distopias, crash and burn. I see the idea of Mindful Ecology being most useful for those who have already been called by the earth’s pain and understand something is very wrong in the relationship between humankind and the one planet we call our home.
In the 1970s when the Limits to Growth stated in no uncertain terms that Homo Colossus had to change or die, it was reasonable to believe we were being called to make radical changes. Business as usual was clearly suicidal and so we expected our societies would alter their trajectories. From the perspective of today, here on the cusp of those Limits to Growth curves, it has become obvious that this is not going to happen. Perhaps this is not what we were being called to do by the powerful signal of earth’s pain. Perhaps this was not a signal to take up yet another political cause, forming yet another special interest and lobbying for environmentalists to get our particular slice of the pie. Maybe this was something much, much larger in the grand scheme of things.
Einstein nailed it when he observed that with the development of the nuclear bomb humankind’s technical capacity had outrun its moral capacity. He pondered darkly about how this was a formula for collective suicide if the balance was not restored. The signal of earth’s pain could be just that initiatory threshold being offered to our kind. Just under the headlines we are seething to use those nuclear weapons, get the nightmare out of the closet and see just how bad WWIII is really going to be. At the same time the collapse of ecological stability is accelerating. The outcome of this in history is anyone’s guess. The outcome in the psychological realm is also anybody’s guess. I’m suggesting that these psychological changes may prove to be the deciding factor in the long run, assuming there is a long run. It is not inconceivable that we are heading into a new barbarism or even our own extinction. I do not think this is the case but it is not inconceivable given the evidence at hand today. Wouldn’t we all like to see a few centuries hence?
By sitting with the love of earth in my breast, the topsy-turvy world where bullies pretend to be holy men was overcome. The emperor of that reality making empire Karl Rove went on about – that emperor is naked as a jaybird, that emperor has no clothes. This is a very important political lesson just now. I do not think anyone who touches this ground of being found by following a love for the earth is going to miss the same experience. It is waiting for us out there in the reality of the molecular world and it is not going anywhere for a long, long time. It involves a correct recognition of the place the creature is within the creation, where the contained is within the container. This is an ecological insight. Ecology is the study of living things in their environment. Creating a relationship between one’s own soul and the world-soul brings liberty to the inner Atlas, that part of us that learns of the ecological crisis and tries to carry the world on our shoulders. Children of the empire, we have inherited its hubris. Turning away from empire on the outside involves turning away from its hubris on the inside.
The way our Western tradition ancestors would of said it is that ‘it is not me; it is He in me which is greater’ that does great things and in which we can trustingly put our hope. That greater is what we are called to have a relationship with. When the mind is not lost in fantasy but has properly aligned reason and imagination, it can relax. It can enjoy life’s journey, loving and laughing even under the darkening skies. This is how I understand faith. It is a term describing a psychic condition in which a person believes, from deep down in the basement of their mind where the heart of character is found, that this earthly experience is basically good. Faith is born from years of saturation in the evidence, not a willful disregard for what is really real or a quick fix magic spell disguised as a prayer for a broken soul.
There are elements in play out here in the molecular world – and in its reflection in the world of the psyche – much larger than the philosophies of the age are yet accounting for. Everywhere people are groping for this larger picture of how we human beings might fit into the deep time and deep space our knowledge has revealed. We have learned all about the trauma god, how our abuses of one another ripple across the human family generation after generation. We have come to know how hate and anger is cheap and easy, just as the bully is the lowest form of character. Now that we understand something of these causes and effects of suffering and compassion, it is interesting to ask how far our new self-knowledge might take our future cultural evolution. It is unknown how far into virtue societies organized around respect for the earth and other sentient beings might go. Imagine how differently we might be dealing with the ecological crisis if the fundamental virtue of our society was extending validation to other individuals, instead of trying to out-compete them at every turn. While that might seem an impossible daydream to the average American raised on the gospel of Adam Smith, it has in fact been the norm for cultures other than ours many times in the past. This means there is no unbridgeable gulf between where we are today and where this type of a tomorrow could lead us. Our leaders will not lead us there but we might get there one person at a time.
Those convinced they are entitled to their empire dreams born of hubris will be washed away by the river of time as the Limits to Growth curves start to really bite; if, that is, truth matters. Those who would risk the future of our species for quarterly profits, though they are all loud and screaming now, will not have the last word; if, that is, truth matters. It is not just that our oil based community infrastructure will crash on the rock of renewable energy’s lesser capacity, though it will. There is also an undeniable moral dimension to these things as well, a karmic aspect. As Pope Francis has recently reiterated very publicly, the brunt of the pain of these ecological disasters is born by the poor. In contemplation consider it this way: the cars we in the developed world drive hurt the poorest of the poor. That too is real. We have been trained not to care but we can undo that training if we choose.
The conscience of the species is being pricked. It is the Abraham moment of our times. Will we kill our children, sacrificing them on the altar of strange gods like the GDP, or will we listen to our conscience and refuse to go along with such bloody, murderous plans? Mindful Ecology is not an exercise of spiritual one-upmanship allowing us virtuous tree huggers to pole vault over the unwashed masses. It is a means of understanding just the opposite: how interdependence is the reality of the human family’s emotional and cognitive experience just as much as it is our physical truth. We are all in this together. This is neither a feel-good bumper sticker slogan nor a kind of New Thought mysticism. It is just the way it is, relationships are at the core of our being. As Joanna Macy once said, ‘if you really understand this, that we are all in this together – it should scare the hell out of you.’
Life is much better once the hell is out of you.
Somehow we have to retain perspective so that while we speak truth to power and fight the good fight, we do not ourselves become only more cruel and bitter. We also need to “ramble out yonder and explore forests, climb mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for awhile and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space,” as Edward Abby taught us. Shed tears for the earth, spit out curses on the blindness torturing her, but do not forget the silly human race is not as powerful and almighty as it likes to think it is. Do not forget that all existence is a gift. It is most honorable to pay tribute to that gift with our own happiness. ‘Follow your bliss,” Joe Campbell never tiered of insisting on, that this is the Way. Each person is asked to unfold their own character, to fully show up in their own lives. We can encourage each other in this. In acts of loving kindness and in the laughing smile the whole great work of the universe seems to come to fruition. We are here to enjoy the garden. Sometimes it seems that the Western world is so enmeshed in the ideas and images of the biblical Book of Revelation that it has forgotten Genesis 1: that it is a good creation and we humans are a natural part of it; that earth is in fact a garden paradise for eyes that see the wilderness aright.
I have come to believe that even in the worst case scenario of another human population bottleneck the human family will almost certainly pull through. Cold comfort for many perhaps, but it means I am not unseated by the daily bad news as I once had been. Storms or bombs, political, economic or social insanity, whatever might be the disaster du jour, they remain a long way from the extreme, yet not wholly improbable, event of our species experiencing another population bottleneck. For me this belief that we would pull through a population bottleneck is not just cold comfort. It was how I looked evil right in the eye and came away from the encounter stronger. We as a species might avoid this horror, or it might be just the lesson we need to establish a habit of encouraging our better natures instead of feeding our lower ones. Who knows? Who really knows? In that open question the defeatist attitude that worked as an inner destroyer of honest hope for the future lost its power over me.
I have come to believe that what makes life so precious is not that there are billions and billions of creatures but that everyone I come to know is uniquely individual. This is true of the animals in my life and so much more so for the people. As long as somewhere in the future of Gaia, a boy and girl are still able to meet, fall in love, and carry on the work of nurturing the long childhood of our kind, as long as I know that is the future we are heading towards, I do not fear despair as I once did. It has a floor.
These firm convictions came by examining the sciences involved to the best of my ability and sitting with my own informed experience of being human long enough to listen a little to what the body’s deep wisdom is singing in its DNA song. Somewhere in that alchemy of earth and psyche there arose the diamond body, as it were, the thunderbolt chariot on which my waking awareness takes its seat. “I am not confused.” We prepare for this transformation of consciousness; we do not make it nor make it happen. What we are looking for in the silence is already in the nature of things. Our role is to train, train hard until we recognize where our efforts end, and then our open hand can freely choose to accept the gift that is offered. In gracious acceptance of existence, with a “yes” and “thank you,” we find our human nobility.
I’m not trying to set myself up as a model. Lord knows my master’s degree is in folly, not wisdom. But I do think it is important to talk about what can be talked about. People all over the earth are involved in these ideas of contemplation and mind training. People all over the earth are deeply hurt and confused by the ecological abuse of our earth. By doing the work, each and every one of us is directly handling the same raw material. If we use our voices to speak truth among each other, bit by bit we will work an integration of wisdom and folly more in line with our best intentions – both as individuals and as a species.