We choose the image of an ancient water wheel because its exemplifies some of the themes Charles Scott touches on in the article. The water flows, turning the wheel, which in moves whatever the wheel is geared to, often a milling stone. As the wheel turns it drops off the water that drove it and returning it to the stream that is its source.
Attuned: Attentive to The World that Flows Through, In, and Around Us
Sean Esbjorn-Hargens and Michael Zimmerman define integral ecology as “the mixed methods study of the subjective and objective aspects of organisms in relationship to their inter subjective and inter-objective environments.” We obviously need to do the outer work of engaging objectively to address our environmental concerns: reducing carbon emissions, reducing various forms of pollution, enhancing biodiversity and increasing habitat for various species—at both the individual and collective levels.
My thesis here is simple: to address climate change we also need to work in both subjective and inter subjective realms. On a deeper level, I suggest focusing our attention on both action and being: being or becoming green.
It is unlikely that we will care for the environment if we see and feel it to be separate, even alien from us, if we objectify it or take a reductionist approach to it, failing to see its wholeness, its relatedness. Objectification of our environment is an example of what Martin Buber referred to as an I-It relationship, one that is solely instrumental or transactional in essence.
On the other hand, when we develop an I-Thou relationship, we see the other (including nature in all its elements) as Thou. A Thou is whole, sacred, boundless in its essence, and connected to everything. To realize Thou in the other is to know these things in our very beings. Even more, it is to know that we ourselves come into being through our relations. Thou comes into the fullness of being through our relations to it as Thou; I come fully into being through the relationship of the Thou with me. In its fullness, I-Thou becomes a new state of (relational) being.
Gary Snyder, poet of all things ecological, in his poem “By Frazier Creek Falls” from his classic collection Turtle Island, writes:
This living flowing land
Is all there is, forever
We are it
It sings through us
The “being work,” the work of becoming that we might need to do, is the work that allows us to come to know and to say “We are it.” It is to have a wholly ontological connection to the world.
Becoming Green Through Contemplation
And one of the ways of enacting this “being work” is through contemplation.In his book The Blue Sapphire of Mind: Notes for a Contemplative Ecology, Douglas Christie writes: “However one understands the precise focus of this awareness, the question of what it is to become aware of oneself as alive in the living world and how to cultivate this awareness for the sake of that world remains one of the most pressing spiritual concerns of our time.”
Christie asks how we can come to apprehend and address the various ecological crises currently facing us; he asks how can we live differently so that we both address the current crises, but also prevent them from occurring in the future—to live in harmony with our natural environments. As Raimundo Panikkar puts it: “No ecological renewal of the world will ever succeed until and unless we consider the Earth as ourown Body and the body as our own Self.”
A contemplative awareness of self, others, and the world is one of the ways forward in an integral approach to the crises we face. Christie writes: “… the ecological crisis (which is also a cultural, social, and political crisis) we are facing in this moment is at its deepest level spiritual in character, and … our response to that crisis will require of us nothing less than a spiritual transformation.” His argument is that contemplative orientations and practices must be part of this spiritual transformation.
I define contemplation as those inner or inter subjective reflections that address the fundamental questions “Who am I?” or “What is my purpose?Where, if anywhere, can I find happiness or contentment?”
I see contemplation as an integral form of inquiry that is spiritual in its nature and focus. It includes both a disciplined practice (or practices) and way/state of being (or becoming) that involve focused, attentive, open and receptive, steady consideration of or longing for something (a subject, idea, person, other, process) such that it is regarded, beheld, even participated in respectfully and devotedly.
In this process of contemplation, the essence and relations of the other are made more manifest. Contemplation is to behold and become both Self and Other. In this process of contemplation, the nature of the self is transformed such that boundaries between what is ‘self’ and ‘other’ become less distinct, by degrees; the boundaries between knower, known, and the act of knowing disappear, by degrees. Thomas Merton suggests that contemplation is not philosophical or analytical but “reaches out to the knowledge and even to the experience of the transcendent and inexpressible” an “awakening to the Real within all that is real.” Elsewhere, Merton refers to contemplation’s ability to reveal what Buddhists refer to as Tathātā, “suchness.”
In its fullest manifestation, contemplation is a state of being, both a process and an end, a practice and a state of being. Contemplation contributes to what Thomas Merton referred to as the “integrated person.” In The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation, he writes that contemplation requires that you “try to recover your basic natural unity, to reintegrate your compartmentalized being into a coordinated and simple whole and learn to live as a unified human person.”Later, in Contemplation in a World of Action, having studied the work of a Persian psychoanalyst, Reza Arasteh, Merton focuses on the connections between contemplation and personal integration. An integrated person “apprehends his [sic] life fully and wholly from an inner ground that is at once more universal than the empirical ego and yet entirely his own. He is in a certain sense ‘cosmic and universal’ man [sic]. He has attained a deeper, fuller identity than that of his limited ego-self which is only a fragment of his being.” Such an individual has a “transcultural maturity” that manifests as an ontological connection with everyone and everything. This‘integration within’ predisposes us to more fully appreciating and connecting to the ‘integration without’; we can better understand and experience Barry Commoner’s first law of ecology: everything is connected to everything else.
The Core of Contemplation
The central practice of any form of contemplative inquiry is focusing attention and developing awareness. We are familiar with various meditative practices that centre on developing attention, including mindfulness, observing the breath, focusing on a spiritual thought, prayer, mantra, or visualization. There are also many somatically based practices incorporating our senses and the experience of the body that can develop attention and lead to that phenomenologically felt sense of connection. Regardless of what form it might take or what wisdom tradition (if any) it might emerge from, the heart of contemplative practice and the key to its success is attention. Learning to pay attention, to develop awareness, is sine qua non of contemplative practice.
Douglas Christie points to John Muir’s descriptions of the Sierra Nevada forests in California, and the exquisite details to be found in Muir’s notes—the distinctive qualities of the various specimens of yellow pine, Douglas spruce, the silver firs, and of course the sequoias. He notes hues of colour in the bark, the “grand tasseled cones” of the sugar maple, along with its “magnificent out-sweeping, down-curving feathery arms forming a crown always bold and striking and exhilarating.” Muir concludes “Every tree calls for special admiration. I have been making many sketches, and regret that I cannot draw every needle.”
Annie Dillard, in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, suggests seeing becomes an act of love. She writes:
“Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery, like the idle, curved tunnels of leaf miners on the face of a leaf. We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here. Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise.”
Mary Oliver focuses on emptiness in her contemplative encounter with nature.“When I walk out into the world, I take no thoughts with me. That’s not easy, but you can learn to do it. An empty mind is hungry, so you can look at everything longer, and closer. Don’t hum! When you listen with empty ears, you hear more.”
Dillard gets to the heart of contemplative practice with the following comment on coming into silence through dispassionate attention and surrender, worth citing in full as it points to the subtleties of focused attention.Here, she is touching on the subjective and intersubjective realms of contemplative inquiry.
“All I can do is try to gag the commentator, to hush the noise of useless interior babble that keeps me from seeing just as surely as a newspaper dangled before my eyes. The effort is really a discipline requiring a lifetime of dedicated struggle; it marks the literature of saints and monks of every order East and West, under every rule and no rule, discalced and shod. The world’s spiritual geniuses seem to discover universally that the mind’s muddy river, this ceaseless flow of trivia and trash, cannot be dammed, and that trying to dam it is a waste of effort that might lead to madness. Instead you must allow the muddy river to flow unheeded in the dim channels of consciousness; you raise your sights; you look along it, mildly, acknowledging its presence without interest and gazing beyond it into the realm of the real where subjects and objects act and rest purely, without utterance.”
Oliver brings in the other essential to contemplative practice, one often missed or omitted: “And this is the core of the secret: Attention is the beginning of devotion.” Devotion arising out of clear attending. Devotion to the subject, devotion to the practice, and devotion to one’s intentions. That devotion to the more-than-human world that we require as part of an integrated approach to our environmental challenges. In his masterful collection of essays Living in the World as if it Were Home, Tim Lilburn writes that contemplation grows out of the “wreckage of other forms of knowing.” His essays consider what it takes to live in the world as if it were home. “My hunch,” he writes, “is that the way to do this is by the lunge of eros and by looking.”
My favourite poetic insight into attention is this poem by Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī. It is an exquisite analysis of a contemplatively ecological awareness.
Notice how each particle moves.
Notice how everyone has just arrived here
from a journey.
Notice how each wants a different food.
Notice how the stars vanish as the sun comes up,
and how all streams stream toward the ocean.
Look at the chefs preparing special plates
for everyone, according to what they need.
Look at this cup that can hold the ocean.
Look at those who see the face.
Look through Shams’ eyes
into the Water that is
In sum, devoted contemplative inquiry, of whatever kind, is a vital and necessary part of our integrated efforts to establish a more sustainable future. Christie writes: “… I wonder whether it is possible even to begin imagining our way out of our current impasse unless we take more seriously than we have done Muir’s challenge—echoed by so many contemporary writers, poets, artists, scientists, and religious thinkers—to notice and cherish the individual lives of wild beings. To do so will require opening ourselves to those wild beings, these Others, learning to take seriously their emotional, moral, and spiritual claim upon us.”
Keys to Contemplation
My observations through my engagement in contemplative practice since 1971 suggest two keys to its effectiveness. The first is regular, sustained practice. Contemplation is not a quick, five-minutes-within-eight-weeks fix; even a cursory examination of the writings on contemplation in the wisdom traditions make this point clear. Contemplation takes time. And effort. And letting go. The second is that a grounding of contemplative practice within a teaching that provides theoretical, moral guidance and perspective allows one to live well in the world and provides the foundation of a truly integral framework. We have, for example, the practice of mindfulness set within the Buddhist Eight fold Path; we have the eight-limbed practice of yoga—Ashtanga or Raja Yoga—set alongside the related contexts of Sankhya and Vedanta systems of Hindu philosophy; we have Centering Prayer set within a Christian tradition. There are more secular traditions that offer a comprehensive praxis. And, as Huxley used to observe, one begins where one is with what one has. Contemplation can arise, in an instant, at any moment in any place.
Contemplation helps us see and connect to the wholeness of our surrounding ecologies and act out of that state of awareness.At the end of his manuscript, Christie focuses on learning to see and live in paradise, suggesting that “a contemplative vision of paradise, whether it is rooted in a particular spiritual tradition or in a simple awareness of the world’s beauty, is always grounded in the hope that we might yet learn to retrieve and learn to live within an unbroken whole. Even amidst our continued and frenzied assault upon the living world, we dream of the whole. The tenacity of the dream has healing power.”
Buber, M. (1958). I and Thou. Scribner.
Christie, D. E. (2013). The blue sapphire of the mind: Notes for a contemplative ecology. Oxford University Press.
Dillard, A. (1974). Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Harper.
Esbjorn-Hargens, S., & Zimmerman, M. E. (2009). Integral ecology: Uniting multiple perspectives on the natural world. Integral Books.
Lilburn, T. (1999). Living in the world as if it were home: Essays. Cormorant Books.
Merton, T. (1972). New seeds of contemplation. New Directions Publishing.
Merton, T. (1998). Contemplation in a world of action. University of Notre Dame Press.
Merton, T., & Shannon, W. H. (2004). The inner experience: Notes on contemplation. Harper Collins.
Oliver, M. (2004). Blue iris: Poems and essays. Beacon Press.
Rumi, J. A. D. (1997). The essential Rumi(C. Barks, Trans.). Castle Books.
Snyder, G. (1974). Turtle island. New Directions Publishing.
Wilber, K. (2007). Integral spirituality: A startling new role for religion in the modern and postmodern world. Shambhala.
Charles is an Associate Professor in the Albright School of Education at City University in Canada and an Adjunct Professor in the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University. Research and writing interests include dialogue and relationality; contemplative inquiry and practice; curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment; and the aims of education.