Choosing Life

For the body is one and has many members.


Author's note: The earliest versions of this essay go back to 1996. I recall struggling with this essay over many months and it feeling like a huge accomplishment when it finally came together. I felt like I had pulled something of great significance out of the dimmest shadows of my psyche and experience. And, indeed, almost everything I have written since has repeated these themes in some way. Although the origins of my understanding of natural contemplation go back to the four years from 1986 to 1990, this essay represents my first coherent articulation of it. What's missing from this essay is my 1995 encounter with a whale. That experience did not start appearing in my writing until much later. It appears that the way my brain works, it takes several years of gestation for significant new experiences to emerge in conscious understanding.



In July of 1990 I sat on a rock high above Little Rock Pond, my favorite place on Vermont's Long Trail. I was near the beginning of a month-long trek along the trail. I wrote these words in my journal:

The religious minded (among whom I include myself) must change our ways. Christians especially foster a sense of human superiority under the power of a benevolent divinity. We think God is in charge, and has created the world for our benefit, so we don't have to worry. It is meant to be as it is. Meanwhile, rapists take what they want from the Earth, and the hungry are robbed of their daily bread.

If any Christian teaching can be applied, it is Paul's "...the body is one and has many members..." We must wake up soon to the fact that "if one member suffers, all suffer together with it." Thus we all suffer with the loss of the rain forests and their inhabitants, the acidification of mountain lakes, the carbonization of the atmosphere, the bleaching of the night sky and the coral reefs. We humans can no longer afford the fantasy that we hold divine right to supremacy, the idolatry that we are God on Earth. We must soon find our proper place among the orders of being.

I come from a family steeped in religion: both of my parents were ministers, as were both of my father's parents. Although I have not continued that line, the effects are unavoidable. I have thought in Christian terms for most of my life. I have lived under the influence of the belief that humans are the star attraction here on Earth; that we may be in nature, but we are not of nature; that we are not like other animals, and they are not like us; that we, unlike any other being, are akin to God; that each and every individual human life is absolutely sacred, but non-human lives may be expended and exploited for our benefit; that this Earth is but a bridge to the Kingdom of God, and is not therefore of any spiritual significance in and of itself. This is not our home. Our home is with God in Heaven.

I have wrestled mightily with these and many other deeply ingrained beliefs, for although their hold on me has been strong and deep, three currents in my life have forced me to question them.

I decided in my early twenties to take my Christianity seriously, to put my faith at the center of my life, and go wherever that took me. Although I grew up in a Protestant tradition where mysticism was largely ignored, as soon as I discovered the mystical tradition within Christianity, I was drawn to it. Deciding to live by my faith and feeling drawn to deeper silence were nearly synonymous for me.

What I have found in silence has shaped everything else, and remains at the core of my understanding of life. I have practiced many methods of meditation, but none of them has drawn me or affected me in the way that silence itself has. I prefer not to seek any particular state of mind, but merely attend to whatever I find within and without. Two things happen. First is the simple calming of the chatter of the mind. The ability, therefore, to see more clearly, to listen more intently, to be more aware, without the overlay, the intrusion, of thought, of opinion, of reaction.

The second thing that occurs is very hard to discuss, because it is not captured by any set of descriptions. The attainment of deep silence requires, it seems to me, that we set aside all our possessions, most particularly that which we possess in the mind: our beliefs about self and other. When the limit of understanding and knowledge and memory and opinion is reached and seen clearly, the vast world that lies beyond knowledge opens, although it cannot be grasped conceptually. Having encountered this world, it is then impossible to forget what a small, insufficient, misleading thing the known is. The world we do not know is ever so much more vast than the world we know. The world that lives and breathes is ever so much more vital than the world we grasp. This sounds nice and simple when condensed into a few words, but the reality of it is deeply unsettling to the conventional mind, a fundamental change in perspective with wide-ranging implications. And with it comes an unspeakable sense of radical (at the root) connection with all that is, a sense of the perfect unity of being.

As I began to "listen" in silence (what my mother called "deep calling to deep"), I soon felt a need to move to the margins of human existence, to see the world from some perspective other than the one of modest comfort I was raised in. So I lived and worked among homeless people, and learned a little about the harshness of our society. In the midst of comfort, it is easy to imagine and believe all sorts of things that don't hold up for a minute on the streets. On the street, it is especially hard to pretend that God rewards only the virtuous and condemns only the wicked. I am embarrased now that I ever believed such a thing, and I cringe when I hear such falsehoods still being preached from Sunday pulpits. My homeless friend Al was stabbed to death just at the point when he was pulling his life together. My friend Alpha Otis Stephens was electrocuted by the State of Georgia for a crime he said, and I believe, he did not commit, while some of Georgia's citizens chanted, "Fry the Bastard."

In 1986 I traveled to Nicaragua in the midst of the Contra war. There the cocoon of my beliefs about myself and the world cracked open. There I encountered a deeper material poverty than I had ever known. I have lived my whole adult life on less than a poverty-level income, by official U.S. Government standards. Yet in Nicaragua I was unavoidably one of the world's wealthy. I had shoes! I had spare shirts! I had my own supply of breakfast cereal so I didn't have to eat rice and black beans three times a day. I realized then how superfluous most of my "needs" are. Beyond sun, air, water, food and companionship, what do I really need?

Two girls whose bodies had been shattered by a Contra land mine, thoroughly shattered my system of beliefs and brought me, I believe, into contact with reality. I cannot do justice to it here, but this encounter was, in one and the same moment, tremendously unsettling, and incomprehensibly joyful. For the first time I experienced one of the horrors of war, and the powerful possibilities for love that erupt when we open our eyes and meet each other face to face. I caught a glimpse of how unreal and puny and limited my beliefs are in the face of life itself. Returning to the United States, I experienced as never before how our society, and our very sense of identity, are based on the utterly superfluous. This, I believe, is the root of our problems.

My experience of silence and my experience of war and poverty have, I must admit, shaken me, though I have not experienced anything close to the worst of war or poverty, nor probably the best of silence. I have come to realize that my understanding of life and my sense of self are deeply inadequate representations of what is real. I have felt my Christian beliefs especially as an obstacle that separated me from the life I wanted and needed to know and touch. In Nicaragua particularly, life seized me and shook me. In that shaken state (half euphoria, half bewilderment) I returned home.

I grew up on Black Mountain, a magical horseshoe of granite in southern Vermont. I spent much of my childhood exploring among its rocks and mosses. In the midst of spiritual turmoil and my own impending homelessness, I returned to those woods and made my home in a tent.

Over three difficult years I began to stitch back together, drawing heavily on the inspiration of the natural world. Warmed by the Sun. Rocked to sleep by the wind. Pulled out of sleep in the middle of the night by a violent thunder storm. Waking each day with the chorus of birds. Sitting or walking in the company of a stream. Sharing my "living room" with the deer, the turkeys, the ravens and owls and vultures, the bobcats and coyotes. My clothes dismembered by mice for their nests. What I learned and felt during that time is now woven into my bones and nerves. It is easier to feel than it is to describe.

We share Earth with a magnificent variety of plants and animals. Are we not just one among many? Humans do, of course, have special abilities that make us unique. But so do all creatures. Our special abilities - logic and language, self-consciousness and moral choice - are impressive, to be sure; but the intelligence, forethought and communicative ability of other creatures are also impressive, and their own peculiar specializations even more so. The closer I look, the more marvelous and complex non-human life becomes for me. I can not live among the other animals, the wind and rain, the trees and grasses and soil; and salvage any exalted place for human kind.

Even more, I cannot imagine living without all these other creatures. Aside from the obvious ecological necessities (the food web, the cycling of water, the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide, the recycling of waste, etc.), non-human life is essential to the health of the human spirit. We are knit together, and cause great damage when we try to set ourselves apart. Until I lived those years in the woods, I felt like an alien from some other planet - utterly at odds with the world, and at odds with myself.

Although I have separated these three currents in order to describe them, they have continuously fed and influenced each other. My initial impulse to silence was not entirely genuine: it contained a fair dose of escapism, a desire for spiritual perfection. Living close to the Earth showed me that mysticism can be more than just the wish to be free of the body and its mortality, free of the Earth and its discomforts and ego-bursting realities, free of life and its difficulties. If the path of silence is followed to the end, it leads back to the body, back onto the Earth as home, back into nature, back to "the least among these, my brothers and sisters." It leads to a fuller sense of belonging, a deeper empathy, a clearer understanding of the interconnections and interdependencies of life. I live and breathe the same life and breath shared by all life.

"For..the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body... If one member suffers, all suffer together with it."

We may be uniquely capable among Earth's creatures of having this kind of perception, this vision of a community (Jesus called it the Kingdom of God) that excludes nothing and no one, but we also seem uniquely capable of shattering that unity into fragments. "I am a human Self, a demigod; I have no need of you animals. I am a rational being; I have no need of you emotions. I am rich and comfortable; I have no need of you miserable poor. I am Spirit; I have no need of this wretched body or the Earth that made it. I am a self-made individual; I have no need of the community." How silly. We love our delusions and hate reality.

We humans need to change radically how we think about the natural world and how we live in it. The world is not ours, nor is it here solely for our benefit. We need it, but it could do without us. We do not sit at the pinnacle of creation. Other life is not here to serve us, nor do we know enough to "manage" it all "sustainably." Life supports, sustains, amuses and blesses us, but it does not favor us. Although it goes against all likelihood and tendency, we need to limit our numbers and our appetites. We must give the world some breathing room. We must do our best to repair what we have damaged. We must find a new, less injurious way of living in the natural world.

We must learn to set aside the thousands of voices that scream endlessly "You are unlimited, Godlike! Fulfill yourself!" and rediscover the simple beauty of our limited, mortal, creaturely lives. We have exalted and defended against all intrusion and created an identity from that which is truly limited and lifeless: our image of our selves. We have denied, excluded or destroyed that which is unlimited and vital: life itself. We must ground our lives in that which is most essential, so that we may let go of the superfluity that is choking the planet and diminishing our own lives.

I said that when I returned from Nicaragua I realized that we have based our identity on the superfluous. Part of that is the extraneous stuff we buy and devote our lives to accumulating, the entirely unprecedented levels of wealth we attain, but take no joy in. But that is the easy part to understand. What I really mean is this: we identify our very selves with the version of reality that lives in our heads, and prefer it to reality itself. We cling to our ideas and concepts and beliefs and memories, our fears and fantasies, and carry on as if this inner version of reality is reality. Mental maps of the world and our place in it are useful, necessary and unavoidable, but they are incomplete at best, and destructively inaccurate at worst. They are part of what shapes our personality, but they are not the totality of who we are. Individuals and the world we inhabit are too complex and too deeply intertwined to be clearly defined and described by any model.

When used as a basis for complete definition of self and the world, as a substitute for reality, our images and concepts inevitably lead to conflict with reality. When reality presents us with evidence contrary to our self-defining images we will either deny reality outright, or create some new belief that explains reality away while preserving our self and world images as intact as possible. We really do prefer our own version of reality to reality itself. I have experienced this over and over and over. It is a subtle and immensely powerful process. It takes place in each of us every day, but most of us are completely unaware of it. But the reality we fear to face is the truth that will set us free.

We have now deeply alienated ourselves from the physical, social and spiritual realities that we require to live a fully human life. We are more comfortable in the "virtual" world of our own making than in the real world that includes other people and other creatures and other lives.

Yet we cannot completely escape life. Life is, after all, with us every moment whether we welcome it or not. The more detached our sense of self becomes, the more it is challenged by life. Self, then, in defense of itself, must ever more vigorously deny and attempt to destroy life. It is hard, very hard, to maintain self-defining illusions in the face of all of life, but it is possible. It requires ever more complex systems of denial and belief, but it is possible. It is all too common. A complex system of denial and belief is precisely what we are caught in, what prevents us from acting quickly in the face of the clearest evidence that we are tearing life on Earth apart.

This struggle will continue as long as we identify only with that which the mind can grasp and invent.  If we live only in the constricted world of our own creations, we must rely on the projections of our hopes and fears to give us some comfort and sense of self; we need a heaven to save us from our hell. But if we "listen" in silence, and attend to the natural world, and learn from those people who our societies push to the margins of existence, life might speak to us in a way we have not heard before, and give us something real to stand on and live from. For then our sense of life and self is something we feel in our bones and manifest in our lives, not merely something we grasp with our minds.

Given a chance, life, the true source of our being, can breathe within our lives again. Given a chance, the living universe, in its awesome, incomprehensible vitality, can break through whatever concepts we might have about it, and ourselves, and each other, and speak directly to us about who we truly are. Given a chance.

But "I" is at stake, and terribly resistant to letting go of its meager possessions.

Perhaps, then, life must catch us off guard, crack us open, wound us even. Some aspect of life must strike us to the core, by way of love, by way of beauty, perhaps even by way of loss. Only then will we ever begin to let life inform and inspire and enlighten us. We can but orient ourselves to that possibility, and breathe, and listen, and participate, and learn, and dare to be shaken and changed.

"For... the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body... If one member suffers, all suffer together with it."