Friday, 22 April 2011

Happy Earth Day

Today is Earth Day! This year, Earth Day's theme is themed after A Billion Acts of Green: a people-powered campaign to generate a billion acts of environmental service and advocacy before Rio +20.

The largest living system on earth…is earth. That is a simplified version of the Gaia hypothesis, first posited by scientists James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis in the 1970s. The idea is that both organic beings and inorganic matter have evolved to operate together as a single, living system that self-regulates, with the goal of allowing life to persist and thrive.

The Gaia hypothesis has gained credence with scientists in the intervening decades, and it has been "upgraded" from "hypothesis" to "theory", i.e., other scientists have conducted research and experiments to verify or extend its tenets. Whether Theory or Hypothesis, it's a beautiful idea with some hard edged consequences. Lovelock's theory challenges the world view, propagated by some faiths, that the Earth was put here for humans' use. Lovelock writes, "The concept of Gaia, a living planet, is for me the essential basis of a coherent and practical environmentalism; it counters the persistent belief that the Earth is a property, an estate, there to be exploited for the benefit of humankind. This false belief that we own the Earth, or are its stewards, allows us to pay lip service to environmental policies and programs but then continue with business as usual."

Buddhist Perspectives on Gaia; Gaian Perspectives on Buddhism

Since the early days of Gaia Theory, its connection with Buddhist thought has been widely remarked,
despite the fact that it is fair to say that Buddhism had essentially no influence on its initial formulation. The common thread connecting these two otherwise very different fields of thought is the concept of interdependence, and a certain shift in the understanding of the Self which is correlative to this idea. Interdependence is central to all versions of Buddhist philosophy, but especially to the philosophically sophisticated Mahayana view which arose in India during the first millennium AD, and was subsequently further developed in Tibet, China and Japan. According to this view, our entire experience is radically conditioned by an erroneous preconception which assumes the Self, as well as all other phenomena, to exist independently or inherently, when in fact all phenomena exist in thoroughgoing mutual dependence upon one another.

This false view of our own nature - often referred to as 'the illusion of separate identity' - gives rise to an endless succession of harmful states of consciousness, negative emotions such as craving, hatred, jealousy and pride, which in turn continually cause suffering to ourselves and others. All of these derive ultimately from ego-attachment, from the sense of 'I' as uniquely important and as the sole object of my ultimate concern. If I view myself as somehow self-existent, even self-created, rather than as inextricably dependent on and related to other beings and my environment, these can only be of instrumental concern to me. To the extent that I have this point of view, it is actually impossible for me to care about them in their own right. But the resulting compulsive pursuit of ego-gratification is deeply counter-productive; the more intently I try to attain happiness by striving to bring about the external conditions which are perceived as desirable by the ego, the more dissatisfaction I in fact create.

This is the fundamental predicament shared by humans and all other sentient creatures. The only completely effective solution to it is a profound transformation of consciousness in which the total interdependence of all phenomena is perceived intuitively and directly. It is this non-dualistic state of consciousness, known as Nirvana, which is the ultimate aim of all Buddhist spiritual practice. Nirvana literally means 'extinction' or 'cessation'; it does not however refer to the cessation of the individual's existence but to the cessation of the continual process of production of suffering, and in particular of the root cause of this, the fundamental ignorance which misconceives the Self to exist inherently. The individual continues to exist, but ceases to experience himself as fundamentally separate from and independent of other beings and his environment.

Gaia Theory is a beautiful example of the notion of 'interdependent origination' (pratitya samutpada in Sanskrit). Classical evolutionary theory says that the evolution of organisms proceeds by adaptation to the environment (linear causation); Gaia Theory adds that the environment is determined by the action of organisms (circular causation or interdependence). If this is so, neither organisms nor environment can be understood except in terms of each other. More poignantly, we have been in the habit of assuming that the unit of biological individuation is the organism (which term, bizarrely but significantly, we use to refer both to so-called unicellular entities and to certain kinds of aggregates of these.) From the perspective of Gaia Theory, the only true biological individual is the total biosphere, considered in the light of the inconceivably complex geophysiological organisation which confers upon it its ability to respond adaptively to internal and external change.

The systemic properties of self-regulation and self-organization are, from the physical point of view, the basis of the identity and survival of a biological entity. In these terms I think it is clear that Gaia has far greater organic integrity, more comprehensive and multi-dimensional organization and a far more self-sufficient identity than the most complex individual organism. Our relationship to her is strongly analogous to one of the cells in our body to the whole individual - and yet our supposedly sophisticated Western intellectual culture has until recently almost entirely failed to recognize her existence. It is as if an individual blood cell were to imagine that its activities were entirely self-determined according to its own purposes which had nothing to do with its surroundings, and were only accidentally related to those of other cells with which it had dealings.

What kind of shift in consciousness, then, might be produced if we began to think of ourselves not as separate beings but as one planetary organism? Is it, indeed, possible for us to experience ourselves in this way? Buddhism suggests that it might be, in that it possesses a vast record of documented cases of transformations of consciousness at least as radical as this. If we can create enough contemplative space in our lives to spend time reflecting deeply on the undoubted truth of the proposition that we participate in a Being far greater than ourselves, which has produced us and within which our existence has a definite function as surely as that of a blood cell has within our own body, it is indeed possible that our experience of ourselves, our environment and our fellow-creatures might change dramatically. Buddhism, along with the Shamanic traditions of certain indigenous cultures, has much to offer in terms of practical methods to make such contemplation effective. Consider the following verse from the eighth century classic of Mahayana Buddhism, A Guide to the Bodhisattva's way of life:
In the same way as the hands and so forth
Are regarded as limbs of the body
Likewise why are all embodied creatures
Not regarded as limbs of life?

This verse brings out the deep connection between the metaphysical and ethical aspects of the Mahayana philosophy. The process of disidentification with the limited interests of the particular collection of physical and mental constituents I call 'me' is related to the development of a deeply altruistic motivational attitude. The idea of my hand and foot having competing interests is transparently absurd; according to this Mahayana view, the same is true for myself and my neighbour. Though we conceive of ourselves as separate and independent beings, in reality we are related as organs or cells of the same body. Therefore, if I become truly aware of my own nature, I will consider my neighbour's interests as no more foreign to my own than those of my hand and foot.

The metaphysical and ethical aspects of the mistaken self-perception which is the target of this critique, and of the meditational techniques which flow from it, are designated respectively as self-grasping (or self-identification) and self-cherishing. The former refers strictly to the conception and perception of oneself as existing separately and independently from others, the latter to the attitude of pursuing the perceived interests of this imagined Self at the expense of those of others. The process of meditational self-transformation is a two-pronged attack comprising, on the one hand, a set of analytical techniques designed to comprehensively refute the false view of Self, and on the other a wide variety of ethical meditations aimed at transforming the innate attitude of self-cherishing into one of cherishing others. The metaphysical and ethical aspects of the practice are mutually supporting; as one's sense of self-identification lessens, it becomes easier to identify with and dedicate oneself to the well-being of others, and likewise by immersing the mind in the sufferings and concerns of others self-identification becomes loosened and undermined.

Gaia Theory supplies us with a concrete focus for the Buddhist aim of transcending identification with the limited Self defined by the boundaries of our present body and conscious thought processes, and shows us numerous formerly unsuspected dimensions of our interdependence with the rest of the total system of terrestrial Life. For a variety of interesting and worthwhile attempts to merge the contemplative techniques of Buddhism with the ideas and perspective of Gaia Theory, see Dharma Gaia, (Parallax Press 1990, edited by Alan Hunt Badiner).

The essays in this volume well illustrate how these two approaches mutually reinforce one another - for me the most striking outcome of this cross-cultural merger is the vivid sense of the presence of an encompassing Mind, transcending individual consciousness but not therefore referred to a mysterious 'Gaian Self' which, again, would be separate from us. Rather, the individual consciousness is immersed in this greater Mind as a fish in water, and if we wish we can move about in this nurturing medium much more freely than we imagine, viewing the world from the point of view of a wolf, a tree, a forest or a mountain. Our habitual self-perception as a hermetically isolated consciousness imprisoned within the boundaries of our individual body is an illusion we can learn to see through, and the more we exercise this faculty of extending our self-identification to the rest of life the more we may be able to grasp the deeper meaning of the insight that we are 'cells in the body of Gaia'. Our ability to navigate the perilous waters that lie ahead may depend significantly on the extent to which we avail ourselves of this possibility.

David Midgley November 2004

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