THE RAINFOREST AS TEACHER
This interview by Wes Nisker ran in the Spring `92 issue of Inquiring Mind, Volume 8, #2.
Wes wrote of this piece that it "remains the most requested piece for quoting and reprinting in our history."
P. O. Box 9999, North Berkeley Station, Berkeley, CA 94709.
A second interview may be found in the Spring 2000 issue of Inquiring Mind on Dharma in Relation to the Social and Environmental Crisis (also available on this site).
THE RAINFOREST AS TEACHER. An Interview with John Seed.
"Inquiring Mind" publication details There are many gates to the gateless, and many ways to learn about the Way. John Seed gave up his practice of insight meditation after the rainforest suddenly took over as his teacher of truth. In the last decade, since hearing the call of the wild, Seed has become a leading environmental activist as well as a theoretician and teacher of deep ecology.
He travels around the world organizing and leading groups called Council of All Beings, a workshop he developed with Joanna Macy based on her Despair and Empowerment work. The Council of All Beings uses ritual, visualization, movement and breath work to help people overcome their narrow anthropocentric views, and to actually experience interconnectedness with the earth and other life forms. According to Seed, this radical change in human consciousness is required if nature is to survive. John Seed's own story reveals that the natural world will teach us all the dharma we need to know, if only we listen deeply enough. The following interview was conducted by Wes Nisker.
Inquiring Mind: Begin by telling us about your background in Buddhist meditation.
John Seed: I did several meditation retreats in Bodhgaya, India in 1972, two with S.N. Goenka, and one with Tibetan Lama Yeshe. Then I went back to Australia and continued to practice, and meanwhile began looking for people to join me in forming a meditation community. We built a meditation center near Lismore in New South Wales, and I began organizing retreats. Just after a retreat led by Christopher Titmuss in 1975, we organized Bodhi Farm, which was a meditation community. From 1972 until 1979, I did several ten-day meditation retreats every year, and kept up a regular daily practice, and that was the foundation of my life.
Then in 1979, although I had no knowledge of, or conscious interest in, the issue, I got involved in a demonstration to save a rain forest located about five miles down the road from where I lived. Somehow I found myself involved in what turned out to be the first direct action in Australia - or in the world for that matter - in defense of the rain forests. All of a sudden, the forest was inside me and was calling to me, and it was the most powerful thing I have ever felt. Very soon after that I stopped meditating. My practice just dropped away. I wasn't looking inside anymore. And I didn't have any particular explanation for this. I must say, at first it caused me quite a lot of anguish, and for awhile the only reason I was sitting was some kind of vague dread or guilt that if I stopped something terrible would happen. Butt all the other motivation to meditate had gone, and pretty soon the guilt was gone too, and then I was just out there in the world of direct action. I was getting a very strong message from the rain forest and I followed it.
IM: So now the rainforest is your practice?
JS: Definitely. I receive great spiritual nourishment from the forest itself. Furthermore, I have the scientific understanding that we humans spent 125 million of the 130 million years evolving within this rain forest, and that our cells and our very psyche are infused with the intelligence of the forest. The fact that the forest communicates so strongly to me is not surprising.
What also turned me toward the forest were the statistics I began reading from the United Nations Environment Program and from various ecologists, which indicate that we are the last generations of human beings that are going to be in a position to turn this thing around - to prevent the destruction of complex life on earth. That kind of information burnt away all the distractions in my life, the kinds of things that at one time had been obstacles to my meditation practice. But again, it was not so much the intellectual knowing as it was just being in the forest. That experience was what made it possible for me to apply myself to the environmental work with a kind of urgency and commitment that I was never able to apply to my sitting practice.
IM: Do you feel your meditation practice had anything to do with your subsequent involvement in environmental work?
JS: I have no doubt that it was the same warm current that lead me from LSD to meditation, which then picked me up again and took me into the forest. My sense is that I'm not getting lost from the path. This is what I'm meant to be doing. Perhaps one day that current will pick me up and I'll start meditating again. I haven't lost confidence in the practice. It's just that I was led somewhere else.
IM: Do you find any correspondence between meditation and the environmental work you are doing now?
JS: I think I developed some qualities in mediation that are very useful in environmental work, such as being able to focus on the process rather than the goal. That is very useful, since the fruits of environmental action can be pretty bitter at the moment. For every forest we save, we can't help by notice that a thousand forests disappear. So the sitting practice taught me how to work joyously without seeing any sweet fruits to my action.
There is also a definite correspondence for me in the realization of no-self. I find myself surrendering completely to the rain forest. The closest thing to meditation practice for me now is to lie down in the forest when it's dry, cover myself in leaves and imagine an umbilical cord reaching down into the earth. Then I visualize myself as being one leaf on the tree of life, both as myself personally and as a human being, and I realize that the sap of that tree runs through every leaf, including me, whether I'm aware of it or not.
I don't believe this to be a mystical notion. It's very matter of fact. In reality, every breath of air we take connects us to the entire life of the planet - the atmosphere. I feel it very physically. I'm part of the water cycle. The sun lifts the water up into the atmosphere and then it comes down, lubrication and giving life to everything. Eighty to ninety percent of what I am is just this water.
I help organize and lead gatherings called the Council of All Beings, and the exercises we do at these gatherings give us a sense that we are not so much a personality as an intersection of these great cycles. We begin to break the illusion of being separate from the rest of creation. I can lay on the ground and feel the vibration of this earth which gave rise to me and which has sustained my ancestors and everything else for four thousand million years in incredible intelligent harmony.
It's only recently that I as a human being have lost the ability to dance to that tune which promises hundreds and thousands and millions of years of continued evolution. I started creating my own tune, the human tune, which has become so loud in my ears that I can't hear the sound of the earth's cycles or the music of the spheres. We need to check into those other tunes through ritual and ceremony, or else we sing our own death warrant and the death warrant of everything around us. We can't replace the life support systems. We can't destroy the atmosphere or the water or the soil with impunity.
IM:It sounds as though these exercises and rituals you've created for the Council of All Beings are designed to give people a visceral feeling or actual experience of being a part of the earth and the various cycles of nature.
JS: That's right. And when I first started doing this, I felt so separate from nature that I thought it was going to be a huge undertaking; that it would be a vast voyage before I could reconnect. But to my amazement, I found the illusion of separation to be very flimsy, and that there are just a few conceptual filters that prevent us from reuniting with the earth. Just hold your breath for two minutes and you will understand the illusion of separation. There's no separation possible. We're constantly cycling the water and air and earth through us. Furthermore, we don't walk on the earth. The air is part of the earth. We walk in the earth. It really helps if we realize these things.
Recognizing our connection with nature is very simple and accessible regardless of where we are living. We may think we're surrounded by concrete and plastic, but then we think a little further and realize that the concrete is sand and the bodies of shellfish. The plastic is a product of the rain forest laid down during the carboniferous era 130 million years ago and turned into oil. Look just under the surface and the unnaturalness of things starts to disappear.
That's what we work on in the Council of All Beings. We present a series of rituals and ceremonies intended to dispel the illusion of separation and alienation. All indigenous cultures have, at the very center of their spiritual life, similar kinds of ritual and ceremony that acknowledge and nurture human interconnectedness in the larger family of life. What has happened to modern humans is that we have become arrogant. It stems perhaps from the Judeo-Christian idea that we are the center of it all, the crown of creation, and the rest of the world is just resources. We look at the nature rituals and ceremonies of indigenous people as nothing but primitive superstition and pagan mumbo jumbo. We think we're enlightened, and that means we are above nature, and out of that arrogance we are threatening to destroy ourselves.
Everything about our society is based on this idea of us as specially created apart from the rest of nature. We don't have to believe this intellectually to be completely enthralled by it. As long as we think of "the environment" we are objectifying it and turning it into something over there and separate from ourselves. Even if we don't believe in any particular theory of economics, our whole life is conditioned by an economic system based upon the principle that the earth has no value until human labor is added to it. The earth is just a bunch of dirt, and we are so clever we can mold that dirt and turn it into spaceships and into great long electric wires to carry our messages. We think we are the miracle, and we've refused to recognize the miracle of the dirt, which composes us. Any miracle that we have is only miraculous because we are made of this incredible dirt - miracle dirt that will agree to do everything we ask of it. We refuse to recognize any of that. All that we know is "aren't I fantastic?" That's our downfall.
IM: You know, you're like an instinctual tantric. You take the energies of the world and transform them, and then use them to transform yourself.
JS: I've never made that connection, but you may have something there.
IM: It also sounds like the Council of All Beings is a kind of therapy group for existential despair.
JS: It's interesting that you mention therapy, because I've recently met a couple of therapists who share similar attitudes, and we're going to write a few articles for the community of therapeutic professionals. We will start with the assertion that most therapies don't work, and the reason for that is because the self they are trying to heal is a fiction. It's a social fiction. There's no such thing as this "self". It's an illusion, and you can't heal illusions. The actual self that requires healing includes water, air and soil. And if we think we can conceptually deny that reality and remove a piece of it and heal it, then we are bound to fail. We are ignoring the fact that we are polluting and destroying they cycles which, in a very fundamental way, compose and underpin the very personality we are trying to heal. My experience is that when people have a profound awakening of their interconnectedness with nature, the healing of the personality just follows. You don't have to concentrate on that anymore because you are engaged in the larger concern of evolution. A lot of the things that troubled me so much about myself while I was meditation don't disturb me any longer. I don't know whether I've solved anything. I've even forgotten what was troubling me. I can't remember what it felt like to have any kind of interest in personal enlightenment. But now I feel very happy and alive. I feel like I don't care what happens to me.
IM: Perhaps nature is teaching you the same thing that meditation proposes to teach.
JS: And maybe the sitting made it possible. I feel very supported by the fact that people like Gary Snyder and Joanna Macy, who have a much more solid Buddhist practice than myself, also share my feelings and concern for nature.
IM: Have you considered the extinction of the human species, or even the earth itself, as a natural phenomenon, a part of evolution?
JS: Of course, everything dies, and we're going to have to let go of this planet sooner or later. The sun is going to go into nova in four thousand million years, and then the earth is going to fry up in a crisp. So what am I going to do about it? Tear my hair? Once I was swimming at sunrise on the coast of New South Wales when I was attracted to a rock that was covered with incredible life: sea weed, crabs, shellfish. And as I began to embrace this life, all of a sudden I was embracing the living rock underneath, and I could feel the molecular continuity between the rock and the life it was supporting and my own physical being. I experienced that all of the molecules and atoms were the same, and that somehow the rock had the potential and,I would have to say, the desire or the propensity to transform itself into all kinds of soft stuff, like sea weed and human flesh. I realized that the sharp distinction between cellular life and what preceded it was actually just in my mind. The universe was miraculous and seamless. The miracle didn't start when humans came along or for that matter when life began. When a bolt of lightening fertilized the bowl of molecular soup, it was ready and waiting. I have a visceral understanding of this process, and a deep feeling of connection. Therefore I don't have a great deal of anxiety about the result.
I was afraid to accept that realization at first. I struggled against it. I was afraid that I might lose my motivation by letting in the good news that everything was all right whatever happens. The atoms, which had done this before, for whatever imponderable reasons, were obviously capable of doing it again. And nothing I did could touch those bigger processes. But my motivation to save complex life was undiminished by this realization. Somehow I have surrendered the interests of my poersonality. I say regularly to my DNA, "Just tell me what to do. I'm working for you now." I'm not working for "the man" anymore.The music that evolved me for four thousand million years - I can hear that again. It says to me, "Save the planet. Save complex life. Protect biological diversity. Try and deep gene pools intact wherever possible. That's what I want you to do." Then I think, well, maybe the earth is dead already, and we're the decomposing bacteria or the maggots, and it's our job to eat the corpse; to multiply until the corpse is totally consumed. What if that is the case? Then here I am, this reluctant maggot, not doing my job of consuming the resources of the earth as fast as possible. It's actually the James Watts and Ronald Reagans who are doing their job properly. And I'm just some kind of a demented maggot that refuses to fulfill its role because of some weird ideas that have come into my head, So, maybe it will take five minutes longer to consume the corpse because I am dragging my heels. But maybe the final decision hasn't been reached yet.
Maybe it's in our hands.
Meanwhile, what I notice is that when I live committed like this, my life is full of joy. I was sitting on a train in Tokyo on my way to do a Council of All Beings and I looked around at the people on the train, the wealthiest people in the world, and saw that they were so unhappy. I don't want that life. My life feels very joyful and exciting to me right now. In this day and age, if you end up with a joyful and exciting life, feeling at one with all things, you really can't complain, regardless of the outcome.
For information about the work of the Rainforest Information Centre, some of John Seed's writings and a schedule of his forthcoming workshops see http://rainforestinfo.org.auschedule.htm
A videotaped interview with John Seed conducted by Ram Dass is available by making out a check for $25 to the Rainforest Information Centre and sending it to: RIC, 9009 Fairview Rd, Silver Spring, MD 20910 USA
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