Walking in the Dark: a comment on the eco-crisis

(from a talk in Brighton, England in October 2019)


Lately, I’ve been reflecting on the environmental crisis we’re now experiencing on this planet. And I’m kind of in the darkness, as I imagine we all are on several levels. And that says something – something we shouldn’t brush aside or try to make go away. This is a place for sharing truth … and the truth is darkness. I sometimes reflect on how I’ve been practising meditation, morality, restraint, generosity, sharing and simplicity for more than forty years with as much integrity as possible. I shouldn’t have to feel this bad, this hopeless, this helpless, this guilty. When I look at this topic, I’m in the dark.

Recently I’ve been on retreat in the woods at Cittaviveka Monastery. Back in the 1970s, we were very fortunate to have been gifted about 150 acres of woodland to look after. Much of it had been commercially planted with non-native trees for coppicing, so it had been void of wildlife. Consequently, we’ve been attending to it, trying to rewild it, and taking out invasive species. It took at least twenty-five years, but the woodland is making a comeback. The trees are growing, the birds have returned, and there are otters in the water. That makes me feel good: that’s something I was part of. The feeling is more than an idea; it arises because I can smell the fresh air and hear the life around me. I realize: ‘That’s where I belong. I’m on this Earth.’ There’s love or respect for the natural world, as well as an attitude of restraint towards it. These mental qualities happen  naturally through knowing where  we are. We’re all in, and form a part of, a living system – it’s not just decorations, or a theme park, or a screen saver. It’s the real thing: it smells, it breathes, it’s messy …   Something in me lights up at that.

This morning, as I was leaving my little hut at 5:00 am to get here on time, it was dark so I had to switch on a headlamp to find my way through the woods. The headlamp has various settings on it, so I thought that I’d turn the setting down … just keep it at ‘Dim’. ‘Bright’ is too harsh, too invasive. You don’t need to see that much apart from the little piece of land where your feet are walking. That’s all the light you need. After a while, I thought: ‘Why not switch it off altogether? There are animals out there that live without headlamps.’ So I turned it off.  It was very dark at first; but after standing there for a while, and getting used to it, the darkness softened into dimness. I could hear and smell the world around me,; my skin started to prickle. And the my feet  began to find their way. So, like this I fumbled along … ‘Oops. Careful … careful.’ What I am felt different. Now I’m alive in the darkness, rather than keeping to nice, clear, straight lines with instantaneous bright lightning to indicate the way forward. But in that artificial brightness, where and what am I, and how do I sense the  world? And how does it sense me?

As   I was coming through the woods, I could sense I was approaching the lake. I heard the ‘Quack … quack … quack …’ Better not walk into the lake! So I switched my headlamp on. ‘QUACK! QUACK! QUACK! QUACK!’ The sound rose in intensity: the ducks – and all the other creatures –  knew ‘Here comes “human”. The one who switches on the shining, hard light strapped to his head. The one who sticks his head out of Nature, looks at it, decides what he wants to do with it, manipulates it, and destroys what isn’t convenient for him.’ So everything runs away from us … as it should. Like this, we’re an enemy to the planet.

Individually, we probably don’t think of ourselves in that way. We regard ourselves as ‘animal-lovers’ and so on. But this view ignores the causes and conditions that have made us such a threat to the survival of the planet and its various life forms. The light of our civilization is so brilliant and so clear, that we assume we know how things are and where they’re at. The light enables us to move much faster – but we can’t fully see where we are, since the brightness blinds us to what’s outside our main beam. Moreover, it’s stuck on our heads.

That’s modern, industrial civilization – with all its amazing stuff and conveniences and our longer life expectancy… But do you think we’re living better lives? I don’t know. European society, in particular,  has moved very far ahead with this light. It was during the 17th century that the arrival of newly-invented machines and devices began playing an important role in the day-to-day lives of a good number of people. And we’ve been increasingly dominating and exploiting everything ever since. For a long time, of course, there seemed to be sufficient resources for us to get away with it. After dominating the natural world,  we  got round to dominating other humans: conquest, colonialism, slaves – and so forth. We’d take over other people’s lands all the while telling ourselves: ‘These people are inferior, they don’t count,’ or ‘They’re not fully human anyway.’

We’ve been following that domination-exploitation paradigm for centuries in a trance induced by this clear, rational, narrow beam of light. And now the animals are gone or going, the forests are gone or going, the air is not so good, and a lot of the water is undrinkable. Much of the earth’s topsoil is disappearing because it’s been drenched in fertilizer. Land is also being lost as the water levels rise. Insects – those nasty little bugs that we used to dislike – they’re vanishing too. And now we realize that these insects were important for the welfare and reproduction of plant life –  including crops and fruit. So we’re eliminating those aspects of life which cannot speak – the earth, the trees, the animals, the air – as well as those who can speak … the tribespeople, the people of the land who’ve been pushed off or killed so somebody could get their minerals, their timber, their land.  It’s  our society, our culture, that has been doing this.

This is a lot to take on, isn’t it? We’ve come to this crunch point, when suddenly we can’t breathe the air or drink the water – when our cities start getting flooded and vast tracts of forest burn. As the Himalayan glaciers melt down, the rivers that they feed will eventually dry up – and about two billion people don’t won’t get their water. They’re not going to be very happy, are they? What do you think they’re going to do? So … massive social problems. And so on … Eventually, it’s too painful to think of the consequences. But you do realize that powerful wheels have been set in motion – and that a rolling-on momentum is being generated. And society is more or less baked into this model. The economy matters more than quite a few humans. The economy matters more than the planet. It doesn’t make sense. And still we tend to think of pieces of land like Britain, or France, or America as separate places that we can protectively exclude from the disaster ‘over there’. But what about the air, the water and the climate in these places? We can’t say ‘ This is British air only for British people’ or ‘… a British climate that stops at Calais or Dover.’  So we discover that we’re connected – we’re connected in a crisis. At this point we turn the headlamp off and it ALL opens … And we sense the enormous loss.

I think that for many of us, this feeling of loss is far-reaching. Earlier this morning, as we’re coming into Brighton, we look for and find a car park. Years ago, when I drove a car, there used to be a person who would take your parking fare and give you a ticket. Now there’s no one there – you need to dial something on the internet to get a parking number. Then a message comes on saying that you’ll be fined if you don’t pay such-and-such an amount on your credit card. What the …?! It’s the system. The machine, in all its aspects, tells us what to do and we follow. And if you don’t follow, you’re punished in some way. Or you’re left out, left behind. This is called ‘progress’. I think I’d sooner just fumble in the dark, find my own way. I can survive. And at that level, in that mode, I meet people who are helpful. When we meet nature, we find real human nature.

My life as a ‘doer’,  is centred around teaching ‘Dhamma’. Or truth, realization, and people’s personal well-being. And people often ask me to talk about meditation so they can experience a bit of calm.  So, yes, I can offer some classical systems for calming the mind . But people don’t necessarily stay calm for long. And when I listen to why they’re not feeling peaceful – whether it’s because of childhood abuse, alcohol, violations, grief, anxiety, despair –  focusing on the breath doesn’t cut through that for long. You need a more integrated approach to resolve the wide-ranging effects of the domination-exploitation paradigm.

And yet without the stabilizing influence of meditation, where do we even begin to find a place to stand and speak the whole truth – even if the truth of suffering and its origin doesn’t find a ceasing  on the socio-cultural level right now?  But  through meditation, through directly accessing the heart, one can at least see and speak the truth of how suffering isfeelsright now. Speak it where you experience it in your heart and body. Otherwise, all you have is a good idea … or a theory about what to do.  A  way of action can evolve from that; but the first step is to speak truth, feel truth, live truth.

This is what, by and large, the leaders of the power system do not speak. They do not speak the truth, do not feel the truth  and do not live the truth. And the fundamental extinction that we’re now facing is the extinction of truth. All the other forms of extinction come under that. The amount of sheer lies, duplicity, and distracting waffle that one  is expected to listen to from apparent leaders is staggering.  For  the most part, very little is said that’s associated with integrity and compassion and mutual concern. Do any of these leaders ever get their feet on the ground to feel the earth?  The earth is now treated as dirt – as something we can mine and frack and douse with chemicals. And as the earth becomes dirt, we become dirt. That’s what it comes down to. Although things aren’t expressed in this way, that’s how much human life is worth to the power system. Refugees, asylum-seekers, migrants, the homeless, the disempowered, and so forth – are just collateral debris on the margins of the Great Way Forward.

So as we speak the truth, maybe we can seek truth from the darkness. And that truth, I suggest, will be spoken in a voice that knows what outrage and grief and fear and depression feel like because they’ve been felt in the heart. And that voice will also have experienced sensitivity, concern and a willingness to sacrifice some time or money or convenience for the welfare of the planet. However small the sacrifice, the gesture of giving up part of what’s mine,  must be the gesture that’s made over and over again. On different levels: in the personal, in the community, in the village, in the town, in the city … We have to learn to share with each other, and with the rest of planetary life; allow space for natural habitats; and extend resources to the biosphere that we have abused. This must be the direction that we as individuals encourage ourselves to follow.  And  this is supported by the view that meditation offers: all things are not me, not mine; to hold them as such is the cause of suffering.

With reflection, one can also review the current predicament we’re in in terms of the Four Noble Truths: selfishness brings us suffering. And selfishness is not something we can claim to be immune from. But through meditation, we can begin to put aside the view that supports it.  For instance, I learned as a child that my species is the only one that really counts. Everything else is just creatures that I can play with or maybe eat. I’m the most important – we’re the most important. We’re better somehow. Why? No need for a reason … we just are. We also learned that we have the right to take whatever we want from the Earth. And we have a place called ‘away’ where we throw all the things we no longer want. So all that discarded stuff isn’t my problem.

But there’s no ‘away’: it all goes back into the Earth where we originally took it from. We didn’t pay a cent for what we appropriated. We didn’t negotiate … we didn’t ask. We just took it. And we felt we had the right to do that. Not even a gesture of thanks was offered to the Earth. And we just keep taking more.

For most humans, that’s a normal way of behaving. Who gave us the right to do that? What fiendish God? What makes us so superior? If our species died out, I imagine the Earth would probably breathe a sigh of relief. As far as this planet goes, we’re less important than a bee or a worm.  Without life forms that benefit our ecosystems in critical ways, we’re finished. As it is, every material thing we make use of, however smooth and refined, has originated from the Earth. It can’t come from anywhere else. And we’ve taken a lot from the Earth, and not paid anything back. So is there something we could produce by ourselves that perhaps no other creature could do so well? We could produce vast love and compassion. We could extend it beyond our skins to the people around us, to the people we don’t know, or feel frightened of, and to all other creatures. We could offer that … we have that possibility.

The Buddha himself was said to live with a heart trembling for the welfare of all beings. He would not deprive even an ant of life. For example, once he and some of his monks were travelling and found themselves in a place where food was hard to come by. So one of the monks made the offer: ‘There’s food under the earth we can eat. I can dig it up.’ The Buddha promptly replied: ‘Don’t do that. Don’t disturb the creatures or the Earth just for the sake of satisfying our bellies. We’ll starve instead.’ Now, that’s respect, that’s compassion. We could do that. Imagine if we looked at our human world with compassion and respect? What would happen to foreigners? There wouldn’t be any ‘foreigners’. What would happen to our defence budget of billions or trillions of dollars? There wouldn’t be any need for that. So can we generate more compassion in ourselves? This must be our way forward – our small step in the dark. Along with the mutual respect that we call ‘morality’: ‘to you as to me.’  This  is how we create an environment of non-abuse. We could also feel blessed by this step, since with that the heart is no longer constricted by indifference and selfishness and blaming. Then we could see animals not as objects of our desire or fear, but as beings with remarkable intelligences that we’re privileged to share the planet with. The profound intelligences of a bee, a wolf, a tree … we could learn from them. We could at least honour and respect them.

We could also produce wisdom so that we’re turning on the heart-light, and not just the headlight.  Then we can become more aware of our moods, attitudes and impulses. Much of our madness, our dysfunction, is clouded over  because we’ve learned to cloud the heart with selfish attitudes and blind beliefs. We learn  to be   disconnected from heart, from each other and from truth,  – it’s something we’re susceptible to. And we can become mad when we get disconnected from our hearts, and our thoughts are just whirling in abstract space. But on acknowledging that, one can decide: ‘I’ll be aware of selfishness, egocentricity and bias and investigate this as a cause of my suffering and your suffering. And then I’ll take the risk to let go of that cause, even  a  little.’  This  means being wise about the fundamental imbalance and dysfunction that condition domination and exploitation and bring about so much misery and death. Breaking out of that must be the way out of suffering.

Taking hold of that potential, we can collaborate in terns terms of wisdom, rather than in ignorance. That might to be the turning point for the survival of life, at least as we know it, on the planet.  If we use and share our human resources, I don’t think that we need to live in abject misery and poverty to resolve the environmental crisis. There are tons of resources around. We also have enough intelligence to photograph one of Pluto’s moons or land a machine on Mars. We can stick a man on the moon. So what about this planet? Is it so difficult to look after this one? Couldn’t our immense intelligence be made to serve our well-being and aspiration for truth rather than our pursuit of power, wealth, self-advancement,  and destruction?

Unfortunately, the power system that largely determines the fate of our planet is hard-baked. And it’s not human. The system is a machine that is set to a ‘domination-exploitation’ program. And machines don’t have hearts.  Rather , there’s a demon  in charge of the system . But the demon is also starting to break up because the system is based on a model that can’t be sustained. As we know, fewer and fewer people are getting their share of the goodies from it, so eventually the margins will grow so wide that the centre begins to crumble. This is the turning-point, the twilight zone we’re in.

As I was saying, I recognized this morning as I was walking along in the dark that things are not absolutely dark. Even at nighttime, there’s some light that allows you to distinguish the shadows of the trees and the deeper darkness of  the sky. The vague starlight makes it more like dusk. Dusk is a wonderful time of transition, when the certainties, the straightforwardness and the instantaneousness of our daylight lives are moderated. When we can’t go so fast. When we have to listen more closely to what’s around us. When it’s twilight, you can no longer blindly follow your own will. You have to be more aware and alert. Because I can’t see clearly, I can’t go at my normal speed. But where am I going anyway? Isn’t it as important, or more important, to go well –  to  live with integrity and respect? So maybe this twilight time is an opportunity to switch into having more attentiveness and respect for what’s ‘here’. Just as when I turned off my light because I didn’t want to disturb the animals and the birds, I found myself wanting to apologise to them for disturbing their terrain,  and  for the even greater disturbances that have transpired and continue to transpire on our planet. These are the attitudes that can arise in the time of dusk. And that’s where we seem to be at this time.

So what happens now? The science has been clear about the threat that our current lifestyle is creating for the last twenty years or more –  and this was ignored. The evidence concerning pollution, climate change, animal extinction and so forth has been circulating for decades. But it’s not sinking in, is it? The papers from the Nobel laureates were just filed away. The prognosis was too inconvenient, and so it’s ‘business as usual’.  So  ordinary people have to take a step forward to support the Earth and its inhabitants. Let’s be kind, let’s be compassionate, let’s be moral – and truthful. Let’s accept our fear and work with it, accept our grief and regret and be guided by it. Let’s also accept our rage – but moderate it into quiet strength. And come together. I don’t think there need be a manifesto here, or a great ‘this-is-the-way-forward idea’ here. Just be natural. If you’re looking to support nature, be natural. Let light from the heart guide you, because  we  can gather together around that light.  Then  it doesn’t matter if you’re Conservative, Liberal, Republican, Mexican, Japanese … So this time could be a turning point for humanity as well as for the planet. It could mean that we learn to accept differences and cooperate with one another in order to protect the Earth from further devastation. And that’s a wonderful thing in itself.

You’re probably seeing the news reports of the climate change presentations and demonstrations taking place across the world. You see all kinds of people, elderly, middle-aged and young,  non- conformists and businessmen – people who previously wouldn’t have met or shared dinner with each other. I’m heartened to see people rising up to ask for truth, and to present truth . And most of the presenters are not professional speakers. So it’s simply the unprofessional, straight-to-the-point truth they express. This is a different voice: there’s no waffle, no promising, no blathering in it – it’s just direct. And it has courage, and the right to speak the truth.This is the light of the heart. And in this light, maybe civil disobedience and disruption are justifiable and necessary. I mean, what is ‘civil disruption’ anyway? When the floodwaters are rising around our ears, and the soil can’t produce food – that will be pretty disrupting; more so than a delay in getting to work on account of a demonstration blocking the street.

However, it’s also important to get into what’s left of nature. Really get into it, walk across a moor  for an afternoon – be open to it whatever the weather. Let yourself be affected by it. Because when you feel nature and adapt to it, when you  let  it adjust the way you walk, your speed and directions, and plans  – then you love it. This is your teacher or your mother and you love it. What you love deeply, you’ll sacrifice for. You’ll also realize that you didn’t need all the things you’ve been accumulating over the years. We’ve had too much for too long; we’ve been living in a dream, and it’s turning into a nightmare. Consequently, we We have to sacrifice, joyfully, because this is going to make us whole, and truthful.  There’s  nothing better you can aim for. So may this time wake us up.  so that we hear truth –  the  ancient truth: that we belong on this Earth and we have to look after it, and honour it.














Would you say that city-dwellers (who have almost no access to the natural world) are also in this living system that smells, breathes, is messy, etc.?  It could be that a lot of city folks who live on paved streets amid concrete buildings don’t really feel that they’re part of this living system . . .

Antwort auf Anne (17.01.2020, 01:33): “…”

Long time ago, when after living out in the sticks of South America, I came back to Hamburg, I had a ‘nature-epiphanie’ when I found out how much wildlife there was in my native city. In a city like Hamburg the density and variety of song birds is bigger than in the German country site as it is such a varied habitat for then, rich of food sources (and with plenty of humans feeding them). Erm, I still prefer to be in the woods though… (Abhinando)

Personally, I prefer having this two-paragraph forest narrative unfold in the present rather than past tense at this point in the talk. In my opinion, it feels more immediate and alive that way. As a reader, you feel like you’re actually in the forest with the narrator. However, I know that it’s a bit problematic to switch from the past to the present tense mid paragraph, but I think this naturally occurred as you were relating this scene to the meditators in Brighton.

For the sake of consistency, should this read ‘my feet’ since you just wrote ‘my skin’?

If the previous para was set in the past tense, this one probably needs to be as well.

Well, well – actually the duck will probably run towards you, if it believes you might have some food for it…and will attack it’s fellow ducks which are in competition for your attention!

Here at Tisarana the dear are far more afraid of coyotes than of humans. Not entirely clever so, because there are not only those humans who feed them…

This  reference to European society in particular may lead the reader to conclude that it’s primarily Europeans who comprise the dominating/exploiting group in this transcribed talk.

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I like that! Dark humour. “British weather for British people”! Perhaps the British climate should be included in the World Heritage Catalog! Would muster some extra resources for climate preservation!

This opening sentence feels a bit like a non sequitur to me. In your talk in Brighton, you began this sentence with ‘My “doing” bit . . .,’which connects nicely with the ‘helping’ reference in the previous paragraph. I wonder if you should revert to your original wording here. You’re call!

This wording feels a bit awkward to me.

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Maybe some do? (Is ‘by and large’ referring to all three elements of the following sentence? Grammatically not quite clear to me.

The lies and waffle are not new, are they? To me the whole history of humanity is a “permanent catastrophe” (Walter Benjamin’s term) underpinned by random and organised lying and disinformation. Has never been different. So I am confused as to what truth is being extinguished.

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This para seems a bit short. What if you were to include it after the ‘We also learned that we have the right . . .’ sentence in the previous para, which can mark the beginning of a new para?

Yes, maybe. Would seem so. Don’t know really. But perhaps in the long term we could become a truly protective agent for Earth, like protecting it from further devastating asteroid impacts that would threaten to wipe out life more efficiently than we can (See below)

It sounds a bit like we could agree to starve like the Buddha. Maybe you could say something like “So we could wholeheartedly develop those qualities.”

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I wonder if ‘clouded over’ could be replaced by another word or phrase, since there’s already a ‘cloud’ in this sentence. Also, this verb could imply that our dysfunction is concealed to some degree, while one might argue that it’s quite out in the open!

Should this be ‘We’ve learned’?

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I don’t believe our destructiveness is really challenging the survival of the planet, not even the survival of life on this planet; but the survival of our species and many more that we are extinguishing already. Just read an article about the impact of the asteroid that hit Yucatan 66 million years ago, thrusting apparently 25 trillion metric tonnes of stuff into the atmosphere, burning near all the forests on the planet and wiping out 99.9999% of all living organisms on the planet in a very short time. It managed to halt the carbon cycle. And, as we are here to witness, even that didn’t manage to finish life. Scientists now specuate, it might even have spread life all the way to some of Jupiter’s moons. (Apparently several 10th of thousands of tonnes of impact rubble made it all the way to land on those moons, possibly with still living microbes on them which might have found a non hostile environment on some of them). Puts our capacities into perspective. No reason not to care more for life on our planet of course.

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I wonder if you should mention what this demon represents (i.e. which human qualities, etc.).

Which demon? Greed, hatred, delusion?

In my experience usually the shadows of the trees are of a deeper darkness than the sky.

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I added the subsequent passage from your Brighton talk as an experiment to see if contributes something of value to this piece. Please excise this text if it doesn’t seem like a good fit.

Oh, the British moors…at least the high moors I could never walk across without grieving for the forests that once thrived there, before humans felled them all. An apocalyptic culturescape to my typically German forest-loving preferences. I think those moors even need to be actively ‘protected’ from ‘invasive’ trees through grazing or burning. One of my conflicts with Nick Scott when we were discussing the ‘rewilding’ of Hammer Woods.

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Talks, Essays, Reflections