Jeff Warren calls ecology “the contemplative tradition of our time.” His Consciousness Explorers Club meets in Toronto each week for guided meditation and “collective wonderment.”
In this discussion, we talk about how people who care about the natural world have a kind of empathic consciousness that embraces other living beings, rather than just a small circle of humans; about how meditation can help you to be more focused and effective in what you’re doing; and about how he sees the future as we enter a time of mass extinction.
* * *
Michael Mountain: One thing you can’t help noticing in the animal protection world is that the people seem to have a more empathic consciousness than most other people. A colleague used to tell me she didn’t really see any difference between herself and other kinds of animals. “We’re all basically the same inside, just clothed differently.”
Jeff Warren: There is nothing special about human beings. When you get down to the root, this bare quality of consciousness, there is the same awareness looking out from my eyes as there is looking out from yours as there is from looking out from the eyes of a dog. There is the same quality inside everything that is alive.
I am not talking about mind or about the complexities of our nervous system, the things that are created by our unique configuration. I am talking about how there is something in life that always has an interior. There is an interior and exterior and it is always there.
M.M.: Some people just seem to have this understanding. They come into the world with that notion – like the person who sees a fly on the window and instead of swatting her recognizes her as another life and lets her safely outside.
J.W.: You can develop that level of openness, and many people do it through meditation. But there are lots of people who never need to meditate. They already have a quality of deliberateness and affection and openness in the way that they respond to the world around them. It’s constantly growing. You could say they have their own practice, even though they may never called it a “practice.”
That’s why I don’t like some of the spiritual language; it makes it sound like some rarified special thing. Really it’s just part of being human. You can become more open or less. There are people who are moving up on that scale and some who are moving down. There are only two ways to go.
If you treat nature as an insentient object, a set of objects, you will not have access to a much more deeply-felt relationality.Additionally, there’s a line of development that has to do with sensitivity. You may be quite open and have a generalized sense of empathy. From this openness a more refined sensitivity can be learned, trained. It’s not unlike a field naturalist who, over time, begins to discern all kinds of patterns and layers of information in the forest, patterns an amateur might overlook. The patterns I’m talking about in this context are felt patterns, intuitions, feelings and so on.
It begins simply. If I walked into your living room and saw you sitting in the corner reading a book and paying me no attention, I would nevertheless have a strong sense that there’s another consciousness in the room with me. Another point of view. Everyone has this capacity, it’s not exotic or mystical – it’s what the social world is built on, basic theory of mind.
You can learn to do the same thing with non-human nature. I walk into my living room and know there is a plant there with its own perspective. That it may be aware of me in some way – not in the same way, but in its own way. Many indigenous traditions talk about this: if you have this as a basic attitude or disposition, then, they say, nature responds to you in kind. It doesn’t if you don’t.
You can have that exact attitude when you walk into a forest. There are consciousnesses all around me. What begins as a simple perspective shift becomes much more. It sounds like such a small point, hard to describe, but it’s a radical reorientation.
If you treat nature as an insentient object, a set of objects, you will not have access to a much more deeply-felt relationality. What starts as an attitude or positioning on your part becomes a richer sense of otherness, of the interiority of the other.
M.M.: What is the nature of that connection? You’re not picking up sound waves or light waves. Does anyone have an idea what it is?
J.W.: I have no idea. I can give you an answer that might be directionally true. But I haven’t looked at the science, so I can’t say if it is factually true yet. It’s an idea that’s out there in the New Age ether. There is good and bad thinking in the New Age – you have to sort through the dross. Anyway, this has to do with magnetic fields. The whole body apparently has a magnetic field.. The brain has a magnetic field. The center of the magnetic field in a human being is the heart. Some people say there is a magnetic radius around the heart and that when you are connecting heart-to-heart with a human being, there is a synchronization in that magnetic field. You synchronize with another person when there is the sense of knowing you are on the same wavelength.
Some of these people say that everything that is alive has a magnetic field and that is there is some sense that two fields lock step. It’s like how a group of people marching across a bridge can mark step and start a very strong oscillation – there is some sort of resonance that happens.
M.M.: Are you also saying that this field would be wider in people who have a more empathic relationship with other living beings?
J.W.: Yes, they have a wide sense. They are also predisposed to be open, too. Partly what I am talking about is a shift in perspective. Instead of walking around and seeing the world as dumb objects, you are reframing your experience and saying “I am going to treat the world as a community of subjects.”
Instead of walking around and seeing the world as dumb objects, you are reframing your experience to treat the world as a community of subjects.At any moment you can have that change of perspective. It just means feeling your own being, recognizing your being, developing a kind of phenomenological sensitively to your own aliveness, your own existence, and the existence in what is around you.
M.M.: There may be millions of people who seem to naturally have that kind of perspective. But then there are billions more who treat our fellow animals and nature, and each other, too, as being simply resources that are there for their own benefit. Is there any way to focus the energy or consciousness or perspective of that relatively small number of people so that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts?
J.W.: Right now you have a diffused population of human beings, and a few people start to be more awake in the world. And that affects people around them and they wake up. And as you get more and more influential as a teacher, you can affect more and more people. It happens in an exponential way, and all the light bulbs start popping everywhere. A lot of people think we are at the beginning of that stage right now.
I see the whole environmental movement as actually the beginning of that – a globalized increase in human sensitivity. Forty years ago, people were not thinking like this. But now half the kids are being taught about the environment. Some people see this as an increase, that raising consciousness means the capacity for openness, for seeing more and more the shared kinship of life.
Ecology is the secular way in to a contemplative perspective that we are a community of subjects, all connected.I think that ecology is actually the contemplative tradition of our time. It is the secular way in to a contemplative perspective which is recognizing that we are a community of subjects, all connected. This sense of inter-connection is a lived experience, realizing that this old notion of the human at the top of some strange chain of being is completely the wrong way to go about it. That is something that a lot of people intuitively get – many scientists too, although they might not describe it quite that way.
This contemplative perspective is not something special to religion.
M.M.: How does the contemplative translate into action?
J.W.: Although it sounds unusual, there are people who no longer experience themselves in quite the same way as separate bounded individuals. They experience themselves more like an open process, in constant communion with the world around them. It is a different perspective, both deeply impersonal and also – paradoxically – deeply personal.
They have no desire to try to control the intermediate variables in their experience, yet they are constantly acting out of service. They have no agenda of what needs to happen to the planet or to a particular species or a particular person, and yet everything in their power is constantly being used to help in that end.
Because they do not have an attachment in that way they are much more efficient at actually being of service.
Your ability to do good in the world is directly related to the amount of equipoise and equanimity that you have in yourself. That is what creates a much more efficient and caring response. When you get too wound up in the fears of everything going wrong, which is understandable, you become much less effective at genuinely helping. The most helpful people I know are the ones who have the least agendas.
M.M.: Going back to the magnetic field you were talking about, and how it can connect and lock among people with a heart connection that’s generated among people who, for example, care about the animals and nature. As we head into a major extinction that will likely include all of us, is there something in that field that could take on its own form that’s separate from us as individuals? Something that could take on a life of its own, regardless of what happens to us and the other animals?
J.W.: It already has. It’s called life. It is life. It’s what life is.
Life is not in danger. The particular configurations are in danger on this planet, our own futures, more likely and the futures of people who are poor and living in coastal regions, many different animal species. There will be losses. I think it is tragic. But I also know life will go on. There will be losses. I think it is tragic. But I also know life will go on.
It’s like God and the Devil are neck and neck all the time. As the complexity increases the stakes get higher and the potential for catastrophe is greater and greater. But the potential for something really wonderful to happen is also greater and greater.
You take the best of human culture – wanting to create more acts of generosity, more acts of kindness, that can begin to refine the natural world, and even make it less tooth and claw, and that is the leading edge of nature. We are that. Whatever remains, even if it is not us, life will always move toward that. Life is a process of continuous refinement. The next place the refinement goes is ethically. It’s like it has to go there. There is nowhere else it can go.
When you come into contact with that source, which I think of as pure consciousness, it is not 100 percent neutral. It is slightly inclined on a one degree more toward positivity. Whenever a human comes in contact with it, what is released is an impulse toward more generosity. I’ve connected with that, and I know that life will be fine.
I know that the configuration will be different. I mourn the losses of those things, like I will mourn the loss of my family, the people I have lost in my life. I mourn them, but I know life will continue on and move toward a more refined and ultimately ethical relationship, whether it is we who express it or the next species in line.
There is not a smidgen of doubt about it for me.
* * *
Jeff Warren is the author of The Head Trip: Adventures on the Wheel of Consciousness and the founder of the Consciousness Explorers Club.
Among his many articles and posts are The Tourists of Consciousness, for which he won a gold medal in the Canadian National Magazine Awards, and Here Come the Animals – Animal Consciousness and the Expansion of the Human Imagination.