Meditation and Relating to Inanimate Beings

Professor David Roemmele at McGill University sent me some wonderful questions recently.  He asked:

Do you meditate? Is your practice (as I’ve grown fond of calling it) primarily intellectual? How do you explore the path set before you?

One of my teachers reminds people to learn from the inanimate as well as the animate. From people as well as from things. He calls his meditation bell his girlfriend–which has caused much hilarious confusion. Does your practice of living deeply include treating the inanimate as sacred too?

Beginning with the first question, I practice meditation both in its seated and action-based forms.  In seated meditation, I sit with the spine upright and begin by resting my attention one-pointedly on either the breath or a piece of calming music.  As the mind calms down, I extend attention to encompass the clarity of awareness and the various content of the body-mind.  Then I simply rest in mindful awareness in this way.  In action-meditation, which I practice while walking, cooking, and engaging in other such activities, I focus fully on the action at hand,  and attempt to be fully mindful and present with it.  I calm the mind so that the attention does not divide between what is being done and an unrelated stream of thought.  In this way, the mind and the action are focused into a single movement and we are able not only to move, but to flow.  In this way, I find that action becomes fluidic, like that of a squirrel climbing a tree or a cat chasing a mouse.  This is how I understand the Taoist practice of wu wei or natural/effortless action.

Meditation is an important part of the way I “explore the path before [me].”  This is a non-intellectual and action-based component of practice.  When the mind is quiet, new insights reveal themselves, and even simply doing action meditation gives rise to valuable realizations, while also being enriching and fulfilling in itself.  However, I also include rational thought and deep feeling in my tools for exploring the path.  I believe that if we are to do anything, then we should do it deeply, thoroughly, and mindfully.  This includes the process of reasoning, and finding clear, precise words to express the insights that we discover.  Philosophy and ethics, therefore, come into play and enrich the meditative aspects of practice.

Your question about how I relate to “the inanimate” is a great one.  My own worldview  is based on a nondualist metaphysics.  I see all of the distinct beings in the universe as existing only in interdependent, contingent (whether unidirectionally, bidirectionally, or multidirectionally) relationships.  I hold that the ultimate reality is nondual and that all distinct beings are modes of that nondual reality.  This does not mean that all diversity is illusion.  I distinguish between ‘separateness,’ in the sense of self-existence, independently and apart from all other beings and conditions, and ‘distinctness,’ meaning having distinguishable properties and distinct being, but still existing in relationships of interdependence.

My experience suggests that ‘separateness’ does not hold of anything in the universe; if we deeply consider anything, we’ll find that it depends for its being on on other causes, conditions, beings, and systems of relationship; it does not stand alone.  On the other hand, ‘distinctness’ is a fact of our experience.  There are no separate beings, but there are distinct beings.  And all distinct beings are intrinsically valuable; they all add richness to the universe, which is poorer without them.  Moreover, as modes of the single absolute reality, which the Hindus call Brahman, they are all sacred.  The absolute is in the relative and the relative is in the absolute; they cannot be separated.  Furthermore, no being, whether animate or inanimate is separate from our own being; we all inter-are together, we all exist in relationship.

This metaphysics has implications for my ethical system.  Over the past few years, I have gradually moved from an anthropocentric, to a biocentric, and finally, to an ecocentric ethical perspective.  Since I see all of the ecosystems on our planet as ultimately dependent on the larger state of the solar system (e.g. the distance betwen the Sun and the Earth) and the larger galaxy and the galaxies beyond it that fill our universe, this ‘ecocentric’ ethics is ultimately ‘universecentric,’ if I may be permitted to coin the word.  This position follows naturally from the nondualistic metaphysics and considerations of interdependence and no-separate-self.  We must reflect on the way our actions affect not only humans, not only living beings, not only ecosystems, but nonliving beings and the larger universe itself.

I see inanimate ‘things’ less as ‘things’ than as ‘beings’ that are, like animate beings, embedded in interdependent relationships.  Only when we see inanimate beings as beings and not as ‘things’ can we understand what St. Francis meant when he called the sun his brother and the moon his sister.

Just as all animate beings have a dharma or set of unique lessons to teach, so do  all inanimate beings have their own dharma to offer to those who are prepared to listen and look deeply into them.  I have learned important lessons from inanimate beings; from the smoothe stones at the bottom of a river, for instance, I learned how to combine solidity with adaptability.  From the water in the river itself, I learned the value of flowing with life and being open to transformation, just as the river waters are open to changing states, turning into vapor and rain in the summer, spring, and fall, or solidifying as ice and snow in the summer.  Mountains and rivers teach the lessons of impermanence of all distinct forms, interdependence,  adaptability, flux, and many others.  I see them all as teachers and fell0w-beings and honor their intrinsic value.  I try to respect them as best I can by treading lightly, though I do need to use materials drawn from them to get by in daily life.  Still, when I do so, I try to be appreciative and mindful of their contributions; my life is nonseparate from their being, and I honor that fact.  This is part of how I practice cultivating I-Thou relationships with other beings, animate or inanimate.

Unfortunately, this way of relating to inanimate beings is very different from the way our culture and economy usually views them.  The common anthropocentric assumption is inanimate beings are dead matter to be exploited by humans.  This is reflected in the way we speak of natural landscapes; we say that a natural region that humans have not yet exploited is “undeveloped,” by which we mean not developed for human purposes.  It is very well developed for itself and its own needs.  This sort of objectification and reduction of whole ecosystems of animate and inanimate beings to mere means for humans to exploit and use as we please without care for the interests of the beings therein to at least exist and flourish is violent in the extreme.  It is also predicated on the assumption that we are separate, superior, and entitled to use the rest of the natural world as we please.

This assumption is in every way problematic.  The more we are aware of the interdependence that meditation, physics, chemistry, ecology, the Earth sciences more generally, geography, philosophy, and the other fields of knowledge reveal, the more we see that we are not an isolated Master Race lording it over the rest of the universe.  The ‘boundaries’ of our body do not stop where our skin stops; seen through the eyes of interdependence, our body is the Earth and the universe as a whole.  And just as we should take care for our own human body, so should we take care of our environmental body.  When we understand oneness and interdependence, then we see that, just as there are no borders to being, so can justifiably be no borders to our compassion and concern.


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