The Insurrection of the Real
Which will win your heart? The predictable and rather
shabby entertainments of the mind, or life itself in all its wild, dancing,
utterly mysterious actuality?
is my dilemma as a contemplative and a marine naturalist. On the one hand, my
experience as a contemplative tells me that this world is essentially perfect.
There is one, perfect unity of being, appearing in a multitude of forms,
animate and inanimate. This perfect unity of being is essentially generous and
beautiful and loving. Heaven is right here, right now.
the other hand, I have seen the horrors that humans perpetrate upon each other
and other lives. The way that humans slaughter whales is so horrific,
especially of course for the whale, but also for almost any person watching the
act, that "heaven" is about the last word that would come to mind.
Hell is more like it. We are destroying the world that supports us, that makes
"us" possible! Destroying it! Destroying ourselves. Destroying the
oceans. Destroying the whales. Destroying the forests. Destroying the fertility
of the soil. Nothing that anyone has done or said has come close to changing
this basic fact. Nothing. We are not moving anywhere near fast enough to avert
catastrophe. The catastrophe is already being visited upon the world, and we
wealthy humans -- anyone technically capable of reading this -- are just too
insulated from it to see it yet.
I have also seen war at first hand. I have seen the slaughter of the innocents. It is Hell on Earth.
To try to puzzle this out logically leads to a kind of madness. Either I have to
pretend that the horrors aren't really that horrible, which puts me in the
position of trying to deny the undeniable; or I have to say that my
contemplative insights are utter nonsense, which puts me in the position of
discounting the most compelling and joyful experiences of my life. In other
words, to get this to make sense in the logical mind, some part of my essential
experience has to be denied. How can reality be both perfectly good and
only way that I can understand this -- while recognizing that any attempt to
understand and explain is going to diminish the lived truth in a way that is
limiting and ultimately unsatisfying -- is that the real world is fundamentally
good and generous and beautiful. Life is a miracle. That is not a belief, it is
a reality I have seen and experienced. Hell is exclusively a human invention,
the result of having a brain that creates very compelling images and stories,
thoughts and beliefs. So compelling are these mental constructions that the
whole organism starts acting as if the thoughts and dreams are real, and as if
the living world is of peripheral importance at best, or only an obstacle to
spiritual perfection, or merely a means to the end of financial gain.
From the moment we awake to the
moment we fall asleep, our minds are busy worrying,
planning, remembering, analyzing, criticizing, complaining, stating opinions,
and most important of all, comparing what is new to what is already known. All
this activity creates a sort of virtual reality of the mind: the world as we
know it. We are mesmerized by this mindscape, and have been for millennia.
and ideas and dreams have tremendous power. To believe one's own thoughts and
opinions, to repeat them over and over and act as if they are true, is to enter
a world in which anything seems possible, at least within the self-referencing
mindscape. We have become so captivated by the infinite possibilities of what
thought can imagine, that thought has taken over. Thought has become our
dominant reality, overtaking that which is actually, physically real. We feel
more at home in our thought worlds than we do in the living world of forests
and rivers and animals and oceans and earth, and pain and death. More and more
we really do live in a virtual reality. All of us, not just those of us plugged
into our iPhones and Xboxes. The mind is its own virtual reality machine,
constantly inventing its own image of reality.
is how we live now, in our idea worlds - which often stand in violent
opposition to the living world. It is shocking to see. We are absorbed in a
mental fabrication, a mindscape that has very little to do with the reality of
the living world. This has been true for a very long time, but it is getting
more and more so as we inundate our two dominant senses, our eyes and ears,
with the output of our electronic devices. Our horizon is narrowing. Our felt
sense of living and breathing seems to be getting more and more remote. We have
now deeply alienated ourselves from the physical, social and spiritual
realities that we require to survive.
have essentially been living within the nightmare of our own thought patterns.
We have devoted more life energy to our thoughts and beliefs about the world,
than to the living world itself. And although this has been going on for
millennia, only in the last few decades, as we have run headlong into the
limits of the Earth to sustain the damage, has it become obvious how our idea
about the world is out of step with the living world itself.
are more comfortable in the "virtual" world that exists only in the
mind than in the real world that includes other people, other creatures, other
life kinds -- mountains, rivers, oceans, soil communities, forests, prairies,
airspaces -- and our own bodies. The living world, with all its magic and
beauty and incomprehensible interconnectedness, is what remains when the mind
becomes still. The living world shines with its own brilliant luminosity when
it is no longer shrouded by the net of thought and concept and belief. It is
is the real world? Where is it to be found? It is everything, everywhere, and
not any one thing alone. We experience it as the fullness of this that is right
here, right now. It is the stuff of life. It is
silence-birth-death-life-love-whale-bird-snake-human-river-ocean-forest-rain-sun-heat-cold-soil-insect-rock; It is earth-heaven, body-spirit,
matter-energy. It is what the Rev. Billy of the Church of Life After Shopping
calls "The Great Unknowable." It is what actually is, beyond any idea
or image that we can have of it. It is entirely out of reach of our concepts,
but it is what we are. It is what everything is. Reality is the intricate,
irreducible dance of everything.
living world is profoundly intelligent, organized, self-sustaining, open,
unified, spontaneous, creative, interdependent, fearless, and incomprehensibly
comparison, the mind-made world is confused (but awfully clever), confining,
defensive, agitated, limited, self-absorbed, mortally afraid of the unknown,
fragmented, and deeply unsatisfying. And yet we have devoted the bulk of our
life energy to this mind-made world and have acted as if that is the real
life emerged in the form of an animal with a brain capable of getting lost in
its own thought maze, I do not know. It seems that we have about one generation,
maybe less, to find our way out of the maze.
The Insurrection of the Real
The root of the whole problem is that we have forgotten who
we are. We have settled for living in a mind-created prison of falsehoods, when
the open air of the real is our true home. We view life, and think about life
and react to life from the perspective of our minds. So the mind appears to be
the center of our being. But in fact the mind is but one small aspect of the
totality of life, even of the life of this body.
We have the whole thing backward. We think we are a mind
understanding the world, when in fact we are the world expressing itself in
part through a human mind. We think the mind tells us who we are, when in fact
we are the whole movement of life. Because we have it backward, nearly
everything we do and think, and nearly every solution to our problems that we
concoct, is still a movement within the confines of those prison walls, the
walls of separation created by the mind, and therefore merely perpetuates the
If we really want the truth, and if we really want to
survive as a species, we must flip the perspective. Start living from the
perspective of life itself, from the perspective of what actually is right now.
Step out of the prison.
Which is eminently doable, since we are the builders of the
prison walls, and all we have to do is stop building them. But to stop building
them, we have to see very clearly that we are building them. We have to see
that the image of the world we live by, is not the world itself, is not
reality. And we must see that the image of the world is distorted and
destructive. We must see all this, and then we simply stop. We simply withdraw
our consent from the story-telling of the mind, and we re-enter the real world.
The living world. What the world actually is. What we actually are. Living then
becomes more important than understanding. And trusting life becomes more
important than controlling it. And accepting the trajectory of our lives,
becomes more important than trying to manage it.
solution is an Insurrection of the Real in two parts.
Part One is to stop believing in
the exclusive dominion of the mindscape. Stop believing that the mind gives an
accurate representation of reality. Stop being a slave to whatever thoughts and
beliefs and opinions happen to appear in the mind. See how the mind creates
illusion, see how destructive those illusions are, and stop believing in those
illusions. Belief here means simply a thought or a complex of thoughts that is
repeated over and over until the mind becomes committed to it. Committed to it
means that it feels threatened if that thought complex is challenged in any
See this in yourself through
direct observation of your own thoughts and your own behavior. See which ideas
you hold that are easily threatened. If your immediate response is to defend
your idea, rather than listen to what is being said, you are in the presence of
one of your deeply-held thought patterns. It is very important to see this in
yourself and not take anyone else's word for it. Taking someone else's word for
it is merely adding another book to your library of ideas about the world.
Either we each see this at work in ourselves, or it has no real meaning.
For the whole organism, including
the brain, to withdraw its unquestioning devotion to the mind-made world is a
radical shift in orientation, a non-violent revolution of the deepest order.
This revolution happens in an instant, the moment the mind's illusions are seen
and understood. No blood is shed. No lives lost. The mind simply stops
believing in its own illusions.
That doesn't mean it is easy.
Facing oneself in this way requires absolute honesty. It requires watching the
mind at work as it spins its tales, trapping the actual in its web of opinions,
excuses, justifications, hopes and dreams.
Part Two of the Insurrection of
the Real is to re-inhabit the beauty, the mystery, the magic and the essential
goodness of the living world. In practical terms this means opening all our
senses to the world. What does it feel like to walk down the street? Where in
the body do doubt and anger and happiness reside? What does it feel like to be
cold, or hot, or hungry, or full? Not to be able to describe it, but to know
the feeling of it. The sound of the singing bird. The rustling of wind. The
rushing of a brook after a rain. No labels, just the sense of it.
Do you know how life feels? How it
sounds? Do you know how it feels to dig in living soil, or get tangled in
blackberry bushes? Do you know what it feels like to be approached by another
animal much larger than you are? Do you know how your life fits in with the
natural community in which you live and move?
At times I suspect the whales of
being instigators of this insurrection. Meeting a whale is a great way to have
your ideas about whales blown to pieces. You are faced with an incomprehensible
presence that simply has to be met on its own terms. And as you get to know
whales, you realize that the more you think you know, the more likely you are
to be wrong.
Whales are infinitely surprising,
but this is simply the way life is: endlessly creative. Only ideas become
fixed. Reality continues to invent itself.
Dwelling In Silence
In my experience, the quickest,
and perhaps the only way to come to a true understanding of this, since it can
not be captured in an idea or a word, is to dwell in silence.
Silence has a way of forcing
confrontation with what is real. In silence there is a heightened sense of
being present to what ever is happening. Stepping aside from the mental voice
that is constantly labeling, commenting, criticizing, demanding, or trying to
understand, the senses open. Alertness dominates. Thoughts, images, and sensory
experiences come and go, each one vivid, alive, and fleeting. The silent
alertness endures. Thought becomes like a tool that is taken up and set aside
as needed. Flexible, like life itself.
Spend a little while in silent
contemplation of all experience as it comes and goes, and the mindscape
dissolves. For all its apparent ability to eclipse reality, the mind-made world
is so fragile and insubstantial that it requires a strange combination of
constant maintenance and deep inattention to keep its illusions intact. Silent
alertness instantly unmakes those mind-made illusions, which is probably why we
allow so little silence in our lives. We do not want to be reminded of what is
real, and how devoted we are to our illusions.
It becomes obvious that our sense
of who we are is derived almost entirely from the mental activity of the
commentating voice, the voice that judges and criticizes and keeps score of
rights and wrongs, and wishes for more, and sorts and categorizes and decides
what it likes and what it doesn't like. Very little of our sense of who we are
comes from our raw sensory experience of the world. Even less comes from our
alertness to that experience. And hardly anything comes from a sense of being
an expression of the actually real, all unseen and unknowable, that resides
behind and within the living world, everything that is, and everything that we
Dwelling in silent alertness,
being as fully present to the whole movement of life as possible, makes this
apparent. The mindscape is a deeply inadequate representation of the real. And
yet, when the mind is very still and alert, there is a feeling of the whole
movement of life that is going on beyond the reach of sight and sound and
thought. There is an echo of that in which we are moving, and which is moving
through us, all out of sight and out of mind. That is the real world, unknowable
though it may be in its wholeness.
If the exploration of silence is
followed to the end, it leads back to the body, back into nature, back to
Earth, with a subtle but significant difference. What changes is the locus of
identity. The sense of "who I am" shifts from "me alone,"
to "everything together." Maybe for some people the shift is
complete. For me it tends to flip back and forth. But once you have dwelt in
silence for even a moment and felt who you are in the dance of everything,
nothing ever looks the same.
Silence invites seeing the world
in this way, in its order, beauty and goodness. Seeing the world this way
invites living this way. No longer held in the trance of the mind's distorted
image of the world, we can let the real world live and breathe, through us,
through all things, through everything together.
Oh, to stop, to give up
everything, all belief and all seeking and all understanding, for one moment,
and be launched headlong into the dynamic, unpredictable wonder of being here,
of being this, this particular unfathomable life.
Oh, to be this deep well of
silence, and everything pouring out of it into the utter perplexity of being.
Oh, to be so perplexed, so undone,
so tossed by the waves of being.
What will you do when your search
for understanding eclipses the living of that which you cannot understand?
Which will win your heart? Hell or Heaven? The known or the unknowable? The
noisy chatter of self-perpetuation, or deep silence? The predictable and rather
shabby entertainments of the mind, or life itself in all its wild, dancing,
utterly mysterious actuality?