we don't need to change how we do conservation, we need to change why we do it

The Journey Part 5 – Humans and Nature, and The Watcher

Thur. Aug. 9/07    When You’re Not Lost
To tell your own story
As if it’s real
Is to be lost.
This is allowed
When you and your audience
Both know when you’re lost
As well as you know when you’re not.
Only stories can have such endings.
Not knowing.

I have argued this point many times in these posts: “… it’s our knowing what it means to be human in the Natural world, not our fear for the loss of ecosystem services, that will save the ‘mother tree’.”

In the book, Darwin, Dogen, and the Extremophile Choice, as the title promises, Dogen’s ‘bodymind’ approach to Zen practice (zazen) occupies many pages, pages on which I try to provide a foundation of intimacy for this argument. But on this website I have downplayed the importance of intimacy, the importance of the body, in hopes that reason alone might convince my readers. This hasn’t worked out as well as I hoped. ‘The Journey’ posts are my attempt to fill out the argument in the way I, a Soto Zen lay practitioner for twenty years, originally ‘convinced myself’. (Yes, mental constructions should always be tentative, but they can also be ‘persistent’ if the evidence stays sound.) So let’s take the next step. Let’s make the orthogonal shift back into ‘reasoned argument’, but now with an unflinching appreciation for how our bodies, in their primordial undying wisdom, ‘in-form’ us.

When I said, in the last post, that “humanity’s capacity for mental construction was born only yesterday in the long story of gene-constructed Life on Earth”, I was implying an equivalence, one that puts evolutionary ecology in the same category as human mentality. So, is Natural selection really in the same category as the thinking mind? Maybe now we can investigate this proposition fairly, by bringing intimacy into the conceptual ‘picture’.

Mindfulness practice teaches us, directly, that our thoughts about past and future, good and bad, and conversations we’ve had that are still playing out ‘in our heads’, are not necessarily ‘intentional’. That is, they seem to come out of nowhere even as (or especially as?) we are ‘trying’ to hold our attention on the object of meditation — usually this is the breath. If we simply notice the thoughts arising, without getting ‘caught’ up in the narrative our-‘selves’, then they will also just ‘pass away’ again. And so, very early on, as we directly experience our thoughts as a flow of undirected ‘propagation’, it doesn’t take long for those of us familiar with biological evolution to see the similarity between the two processes. Just being aware of our thoughts, without attaching to them, is the beginning of a long road towards their better ‘fitness’ to our non-judgemental experience in the whole.

But what is awareness? Or in more intimate terms: who is doing the ‘watching’ here? Sometimes language isn’t even involved, so can this non-verbal state of awareness be an analogue for ecosystem ‘consciousness’? Can we say there is also a ‘watcher’ present when organisms arise and pass away within an evolving ecosystem? Suppose we argue: “Even without words we are ‘imagining’ the details of a thought, but how can ecosystems ‘imagine’ if they don’t have eyes like their constituent organisms do?” Ok then, what form do our non-verbal ‘images’ take? If they’re not eidetic dreams (clear and involuntary ‘visions’), then what are they? In all honesty, do you regularly dream ‘in colour’? The body itself seems to be involved because the subtle ‘internal movement’ is nothing if not intimate. So perhaps intimacy itself is the ‘watcher’?

Of course, entire ecosystems, unlike the organisms that make them up, don’t have bodies do they; so if Mind is intimacy, and intimacy is a bodily condition (at least for the purposes of this discussion) then how can evolutionary ecology as a whole be Mind?

I’ve also noted previously that intimacy — my love for a little chihuahua named Daniel for instance — seems to involve “the whole body”; and feelings of wholeness (for me anyway) are strongly associated with feelings of intimacy. So if The Watcher is watching the body, then The Watcher, in the still and silent sense we’re talking about here, can’t also be the body; can it be ‘wholeness’ itself which is doing the watching? (Or is it wrong to speak of wholeness as ‘self’?) Can we say the wholeness of an ecosystem also ‘watches’ that which it ‘selects’? Not just with its many eyes of course (plants and fungi don’t have eyes), but with it’s wholeness? It’s only our own wholesomeness that can settle the question, so let’s resolve never to leave this out of our conclusions. This is the ongoing exercise we’re committed to in these ‘Journey’ posts.

We can take natural selection to mean that selection is being done according to ‘natural law’, and in fact this is the generally accepted meaning. But we can also take Natural selection to mean Nature, a coevolving system of species, is doing the selecting. It depends only on the boundaries we draw, on our range of intimacy.

Mon. Aug. 20/07  Swept Away
At Polly’s funeral
We were awash in tears.
As if we were all sailors
Who'd become accustomed to a balance
Of stepping to and fro,
Side by side,
Upon a heaving deck;
And, looking into each other’s eyes,
We'd hardly noticed the waves
Until we were swept away
From one and other
Into our common deep.

So can we withhold our disbelief then, that an ecosystem might be, like our own minds, more than the sum of its ‘conceptions’? Is an ecosystem like a person, in its wholeness, watching a ‘body’ of passing organisms the way a wholesome man and woman might watch their thoughts? Then we might now want to answer the naturally arising question: do our minds too outlive their personal organisms?

But this is a discussion for the next post.

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