Posts Tagged ‘deep ecology’

When my son, Alexander, was a child we often took walks around the village of Alfred on Sunday mornings. We had no agenda, other than to spend some time together and to explore our surroundings.

Being closer to the ground, Alexander sometimes noticed things that I overlooked. On one April morning, he spotted two crumpled plastic cups near Seidlin Hall. They reeked of stale beer. “Who put those there?” he asked.

“Thoughtless people,” I replied.

A few weeks later, Alexander noticed some crushed soda cans in the Kanakadea Creek. “It must have been the Thoughtless People,” he concluded. In his imagination, I surmised, the Thoughtless People had become a band of feckless nincompoops, who roved the streets of Alfred, New York, dropping refuse wherever they went.

Perhaps he was not far wrong. But in retrospect, I wonder whether my response to his question, however fatherly, was all that wise. At best, it was incomplete.

If there are Thoughtless People, there must also be Thoughtful People. The one implies the other. In my eagerness to teach a moral lesson, I had created a moral duality, from which my six-year-old son had fashioned an image of his own. In the technical language of philosophy, he had reified an abstraction. On the one side were the Thoughtless People, on the other the Thoughtful People. People who know better. People like ourselves.

Twelve years earlier, Joni Mitchell had done something similar in her song “Big Yellow Taxi.” In that 1970 song Joni complained that an unspecified “they” had “paved paradise / and put in a parking lot”. In a subsequent verse she admonished farmers to “put away that D.D.T.” before it destroyed “the birds and the bees.” On the one side of her moral polarity stood avaricious developers and pesticide-wielding farmers; on the other, the trees, birds, and bees—and virtuous enviromentalists like herself.

To be sure, such polarities serve a practical purpose. Certain people, and certain aggregates of people, tend to be greedy, thoughtless, and destructive. For the sake of ethical clarity, if not also for the common good, it is sometimes necessary to call a spade a spade: to identify such people and such groups, using the familiar language of dualistic thought.

The danger lies in reifying our abstractions, which is to say, in mistaking our moral categories for reality. And one of the benefits of meditation, regularly practiced, is to reveal to us that in the flux of undifferentiated reality, prior to the imposition of moral concepts, there are no Thoughtless or Thoughtful People. There are only actions, our own and others’—actions that have an impact on the web of life.

In his book Coming to Our Senses, Jon Kabat-Zinn puts it this way:

In any given moment, we are either practicing mindfulness or, de facto, we are practicing mindlessness. When framed in this way, we might want to take more responsibility for how we meet the world, inwardly and outwardly in any and every moment—especially given that there just aren’t any “in-between” moments in our lives.*

Viewing the past in this perspective, we can recognize and regret our thoughtless and destructive actions without being held forever in their thrall.  But by the same token, we can no longer take refuge in images of ourselves as Thoughtful—or Mindful—People. At any future moment, our words and deeds may be thoughtful or thoughtless, mindful or mindless. And much will depend on the difference.


*Jon Kabat-Zinn, Coming to Our Senses (Hyperion, 2005), 71.

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As I look out our kitchen window, the most prominent presence in my field of vision is the fifty-year-old pin oak tree in our backyard. Embedded in its trunk, halfway up, is a red metal hook, which the bark has nearly concealed. Running up and down from the hook is a long, deep crack.

Twenty years ago, I screwed that six-inch bike hook into the trunk. At the time, I owned no clothes dryer, and it occurred to me that I might run a clothesline between the house and the tree. My notion was innocent enough, and, by today’s ecological standards, admirably green. What did not occur to me is that I might injure the tree.

As injuries go, the one I inflicted is less than catastrophic. Over the past two decades, the oak tree has thrived, and now it towers above our house, providing shade in the summer and a year-round habitat for birds and other creatures. It is, in fact, in vigorous health, as shown by the volume of acorns it dumps on our deck, the piles of leaves it deposits in our gutters.

Yet that red hook remains, as does the ugly scar it caused. And together they illustrate the principle of cause and effect, which in Zen teachings is known as karma. In popular culture, that word carries mystical associations, conjuring a chain of causation that extends well beyond the boundaries of this life. But the root meaning of “karma” is simply “action,” and, as used in Zen, it usually means just that. This is because that is. Our words and deeds have consequences. In the words of Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, what we say and do creates “our continuation, whether we want it to be so or not”.

To those of a reflective disposition, that is hardly news. Live long enough, and you will observe the long-term effects of even the most casual compliment, insult, reassurance, or rebuke. And that is to say nothing of our major actions, personal, social, and political—actions whose effects may ramify for generations. But in Zen teachings, as in the law, it is not only words and deeds that matter. So do the thoughts that gave rise to the words and deeds.

“Mind,” we are told in the first verse of the Dhammapada, a fundamental text in the Zen tradition, “is the forerunner of action. / All deeds are led by mind, created by mind. / If one speaks or acts with a corrupt mind, suffering will follow, / As the cart follows the hoof of the ox.” Conversely, if one “speaks or acts with a serene mind/ Happiness will follow, / As surely as one’s shadow.”*

Taken seriously, these lines have serious implications. We are responsible, they imply, for our thoughts and states of mind as well as our words and deeds. And we are also responsible for cultivating a “serene” mind, which is to say, a mind that looks deeply, sees clearly, and causes as little harm as possible.

As I look out our kitchen window in the early mornings, I am sometimes reminded of those admonitions.

March 12, 2009


* The Dhammapada, tr. Ven. Ananda Maitreya (Parallax Press 1995), 1.

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