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Susan Murphy Roshi:
Minding the Earth, Mending the World

The transition begins in a rebellion of the heart
& the waking up of awareness that is inherent in us all...
When the stakes are life on Earth, all else is a diversion.


It was the mid-sixties and I was twelve years old. The kitchen table was oak, old, round and honey coloured, probably about eighty years old, bought for a song from the St Vincent de Paul shop that had furnished most of our house. All our family meals were eaten around that table, and it was the scene of much talking, arguing, laughing, reading, homework, breaking of bread and drinking of wine—in short, it was our communion table.

My older brother and sister and I had sat around the kitchen table late into the previous night—our parents must have gone out somewhere—and talked our way deep into the intense environmental pressures that were already being felt in the world.

Paul Ehrlich and others were already portending what would become known as ‘the limits to growth’, predicting nightmarish overpopulation and mass starvation scenarios for the seventies and eighties, many of which were deferred, though not solved, for several decades by the short-term agricultural successes of the oil-fuelled Green Revolution. Rachel Carson was already under fierce attack from the chemical industry for daring to point to the stark early warning signs of far-reaching environmental degradation by pesticides, and the avalanche of extinctions that would form its wake. The incremental climb in global temperatures due to the hothouse effect of carbon emissions had been underway since 1950 but was not yet part of public discussion, despite having been clearly predicted a century earlier. The more pressing climate threat at that time was the Cold War nuclear winter that would potentially extinguish most life on earth following any extensive nuclear ‘exchange’—the preferred way of referring to the release of hundreds of intercontinental ballistic missiles armed with hydrogen-bomb warheads.

Around the kitchen table that night our hearts were rapt in wonder as we consciously stared one by one at the spectres stalking our world—the mounting industrial assault on a shrinking and collapsing natural world; the effects of exploding human population upon environmental sustainability and biodiversity; and the deepening cycle of exploitation, injustice, poverty and hunger the ‘undeveloped’ world was apparently expected to bear in support of our own relatively easy lives. Our childhoods had been spent almost entirely barefoot, exploring lush Queensland rainforest, swimming in clear creeks, floating over brilliant coral reefs. The thought that we might be the last generation to live on a planet with seas full of fish, tigers roaming free, a vast intact Amazon forest, was intolerable. Even our sheer good luck in living lives less impacted than most by the slow avalanche of ruin was painful. All of this was caught up in an unstoppable rush of words and feelings that night.

We talked on and on in a state of terror curiously mixed with intensely alive excitement, weighing up the fate of the world during our lifetime and our possible part in that. I think each of us sensed that facing the terror together was an act of love, forming deeper bonds between us. When we finally went to bed around three or four in the morning, I felt flattened, crushed. My mind was reeling but also filled with new capacity. My whole being was large and alive with the thrilled sense of having taken on a little of the mantle of adult awareness.

I remember the next morning as very bright—perhaps a shade too bright after the latest night of my life thus far. I had heaped cereal into my bowl, and milk, and walked to the same high-backed chair of the night before. The extraordinary night lay inside me as a kaleidoscope of amazing pieces of knowledge, sharp to the touch and overwhelmingly complicated, but strangely precious. I set my bowl onto the table. I took hold of the back of the chair and pulled it out. I sat down and put my hands on the table.

That was the moment of the tidal wave.

It washed through me and left nothing as it had been before. I found myself swimming in a sea of marvellous awareness that all was well and completely at ease. This fact was utterly undisturbed by the equally plain fact that I chanced to be alive at a time of slow-burning catastrophe for the entire life system of the planet. ‘All things are well,’ was how the anchoress Julian of Norwich put the same realisation, ‘And all manner of things shall be well.’ The clear knowing of this flooded my body and seemed to live vibrantly right inside every terrifying complication of the rider, ‘And so much is wrong.’

I was astonished, and yet it seemed more like the astonishment of remembering something I had always known, something very deep lying and fundamentally fearless even in the face of matters of overwhelming concern. In fact, it was intimately and completely at one with that concern, stirred to life by it.

I felt immensely reassured, without being pacified or soothed. Concern was never more clear and alive. Everything—the chair, the kitchen table, the sitting-down and the placing of my hands either side of my willow-pattern bowl of cereal—bestowed this blessing: that we must rely on what is happening in order to learn how to proceed, that we can dare to meet it fully just as it really is, and that what is so urgently being called up in us flows naturally from daring to welcome a hard reality.

‘Just as it really is’ cannot possibly hide the suffering and ruin and awfulness of things; and yet that is exactly what opens the way for the deep reassurance of all things to reach us; and with it the possibility—the fact—that we are not helpless at all, that we all actively make this mysterious and wondrous world, and that every-thing we do counts.

I was bruised by wonder. A course was set. Don’t miss anything. Everything, everyone counts. Find out what this means, do what it wants of you. Emily Dickinson said, ‘Life is so astonishing, it leaves very little time for anything else!’ At that moment, I was Emily.

Wonder is perfectly aware that we are all caught in a ridiculous posture right now. The posture of living ‘normally’ as we destabilise climate, trash seas and earth and atmosphere and decimate species, while chanting a mantra of perpetual growth and unrestrained human population increase and watching all these accelerate in runaway chain reaction. It is ridiculous to pretend it is not happening, and almost equally ridiculous to mention it, since no one can personally hope to change its course, and no one much wants even to hear about it. Our position as a species is now so untenable that it verges on rudeness to mention it in polite company.

But wonder does not stop at ridiculousness. For a start, it’s nothing new. Were we ever not at least partly ridiculous, we smallish, frightened, mortal, highly conscious mammals, with our opposable thumbs and opposable minds? And have we not always been at the mercy of forces—natural and human—that appear to lie far beyond the scale of any personal action in response? Wonder just uses that as an energising and even humorous prompt to wake up a little more imagination and awareness. ‘Let’s see!’ it seems to suggest: ‘Don’t flee. What about discovering more of what you are, instead?’

We are all in this emergency together, all answerable to the terms of one great biosphere. And it has no boss. It just has each of us. Carl Jung addressed that fact, saying, ‘Each of us must remember that we are the make-weight that shifts the scale.’ Small acts mount up. Drops of water carve mountain ranges. Small is not powerless. William James said:

I am done with great things and big things, great institutions and big success, and I am for those tiny invisible molecular moral forces that work from individual to individual, creeping through the crannies of the world like so many rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, yet which, if you give them time, will rend the hardest monuments of man’s pride.

And he was writing a good hundred years before the Occupy and Indignado movements began to surge through a thousand global networks—at last!—as the second decade of the new century opened.

This book is an enquiry into why change has seemed so hard to initiate, why we have been stalled so long in senselessness, and what must move in us in order to break free of a too-narrow frame. It asks what might be a whole response to the telling signs of planetary emergency, given that not one of us can ‘save the planet’ like a Hollywood action hero straight out of central casting? Such a whole response must start with clearly seeing the nature of the frame our culture has created for conceiving of reality, then move to see beyond the frame.

We need to change the story. We need a story that is able to conceive of where and what we are right now, and encourage a practice of awareness that can rouse and recall the vastness within us, less easily clouded by fear and self-defeating views that would make us each too small to be of value.

The industrialising world set in motion by the West has no bedrock story to help explain the looming environmental crisis with climate change at its heart. The ancient stories that underpin our sense of reality held warnings—about a dualistic splitting of consciousness; about greed that consumes the world and our selves at the same time; about the danger of overreaching inherent in each ambitious new technology; and about apocalyptic collapse of the human world. But the deep imperative of industrialised civilisation—to ‘go forth and multiply and subdue the earth’—remains founded in an unquestioning human-centred and human-entitled cosmology formed several thousand years ago as one small Semitic tribe in the Middle East coped with vulnerability of the transition from nomadic pastoralism to settlement in small city-states.

That world could not possibly conceive of the universe and earth in which we now come to understand ourselves. Born in fire thirteen and a half billion years ago, it gave birth to innumerable galaxies, including the minor but remarkable one we call the Milky Way that eventually formed a small, finite but remarkably productive planet. That in turn gave birth to millions upon millions of life forms, including us—the strange creatures with a self-reflective consciousness. The mindset at the foundation of the West literally belongs to another planet and cosmos altogether. This has profound consequences for the shift we have to make to understand and take care of the planet where we find ourselves.

The ‘new’ story that can help usher in a healing consciousness to our world—healing meaning ‘return to wholeness’—is as old as the universe itself. It is the Universe Story, and the story of the earth, available as a reasonably legible whole at the exact moment in human history in which we have to face the possibility that our actions may be bringing us to the circumstances of our own extinction as a species. The story of the earth is not one headed for an End Time any time soon. It will go on without us to slowly return to wholeness if we can’t find the right shift of consciousness in time to join it rather than oppose it.

That invitation to join it comes with our bodies and first breath. It opens progressively to us as children in the adventure of crawling and then walking on the earth among its sights and sounds and smells, in the presence of trees and rocks and other creatures. And this engagement with the earth opens our minds. Childhood in contact with the natural world is a perfectly shaped crucible for a true meeting of earth, mind and imagination.

Thomas Berry called the Universe Story ‘the quintessence of reality’, since the universe is the one self-referential reality in the phenomenal world, the sole ‘text’ open to all and with no external, culturally relative context. There is no outside to the universe. This immense and ongoing revelation can ignite the imaginative capacity in human beings to take in what is being made painfully clear by the earth right now, and to respond by according in skilful ways with reality, instead of denying it and staying on course towards self-destruction. To deepen this capacity takes conscious intention and effort. It is a practice.

Practising full accord with reality is always, like the universe itself, a work in progress. It requires holding yourself and your consciousness open towards the unknown (in which we all dwell) in a curious rather than presuming way. Meditation is the act of paying reality the courtesy of wonder and friendly curiosity that is sometimes called non-judgmental attention, a process that never stops opening and revealing itself, and clarifying what is needed at this moment. The discipline and love required for this is its own reward—it eases what the novelist David Foster Wallace called ‘the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing’.

From the Zen tradition comes a unique way of easing this gnawing sense of displacement or loss. It’s called a koan. The word means ‘public case’, because while we seem remarkably able to hide it from our selves, the boundless reality a koan reveals is in fact in plain view for all from the beginning. It has always been so close that there’s no gap whatsoever, and yet we have to break the frame of ordinary thought to see this and heal our subtle self-alienation. It takes all that we are, to come down to earth to the liberating truth of all that we really are. But that’s also its gift. Koans trigger a healing of crisis in consciousness that closes the gap we had forced between self and all that is.

The crisis facing us all right now is a tremendous koan set for us by the earth, speaking to us plainly but in words we cannot yet fully comprehend, caught as we are in the frame of the past that cannot conceive of this emergency. To respond we need to free ourselves from a too narrow sense of self and an unquestioned assumption or self-entitled priority as a species.

So on every level, in every chapter, the intent of this book is to help break free of the old frame that has held us paralysed and silent in the face of the crisis: by listening to the earth and responding to the koan of this crisis; by looking at the way we have framed the earth and thus ourselves with the old stories that are still generating the thinking that created the problem; by exploring the implications of an infinitely older story that is now in all our hands, the Universe Story, which is also the story of earth and life; and by exploring a practice of full awareness that can bring our actions back from an alienated state into more full accord with the terms of the earth.

Do we have any choice but to fight our way to this? Are we not answerable to the life of the earth? At every moment of life, this extraordinary gift bestowed upon us by our magical planet, are we willing to welcome the difficulty as our great chance? Surely we have to live up to this unprecedented moment we are in, or else cover our faces and slink away into oblivion, deeply shamed.

Every crisis is the chance to see what we have been missing. This great, slow-building global crisis is our tremendous chance to see ourselves more clearly. Mistakes are our way of enlightenment; difficulty hatches our intelligence. A problem is needed to tell us what is missing, what we have not been seeing.

What the kitchen-table moment makes clear to me is that this dilemma we are in together is exactly the right dilemma. As Naomi Klein has said, climate change is not the issue. It is instead the unmistakable message that many of our most cherished ideas are no longer viable. And if we look and listen without preconceived ideas, it is also telling us exactly which ones appear to have been dreamed up on some other planet than this one. Climate change is intimating that we have some wondrous but as yet undiscovered ideas to learn to cherish, ideas that can teach us a little more about cherishing.

And if human beings are here on earth for any good reason at all, it is surely to learn about love. That is the great adventure, always worth the price of admission.

Medicine and sickness heal each other. The whole world is medicine.
Where do you find your self?

- Zen Master Yunmen, ninth-century China

The first time I heard this old Chinese Zen koan, I felt the night sky and the centre of the earth as my own bone marrow. Koans are like that anyway, but this one more than most. You will be gradually getting to know how to be around koans and, in that way, gaining some fellow feeling for what they are. But like black and white cats, spotted pardalotes, red kelpies, clumps of seaweed, river pebbles or perfectly humble potatoes, being with them in person is greatly more instructive than anything you could ever presume to know in advance about them. So let me go on without stopping to explain.

The first two parts produced the immediate feeling of ‘I know!’ followed by a fascinated wondering, ‘But I don’t know how I know, or what kind of knowing this is!’ The first sentence excited my thinking: medicine and sickness, not only inseparable but mysteriously each other! The second cut right through thinking, like an exhilarating bodily plunge into understanding, as if the natural outcome of how wondrous and beloved I found the earth to be when I faced it without flinching.

And the last part—well, it is the question that a self-reflexive consciousness continually asks of every human being, posed to us in every detail of what we perceive and experience in this life.

A powerful rebellion of the heart
The transition begins in a rebellion of the heart and the waking up of awareness that is inherent in us all.

Perhaps it begins in noticing a growing repulsion towards the very excess itself. Do we really need more i-gadgets, apps, accessories, fashion items, short-lived toys, supersize serves, outsize cars, huge houses, and double garages bulging with all the things we have grown tired of? A rebellious refusal rises in the heart towards such a shallow, narrow and essentially dull idea of what a human being is.

Or it may start in fury at the growing gulf between rich and poor, the behaviour of the banks in privatising every cent of their massive profit while nationalising their trillion dollar losses through public bail-outs by the same taxpayers whose life savings and homes they gambled and profiteered away. Or in the despair of being young, educated, saddled with a huge education debt, but with no prospect of work. Or in the grief of seeing old growth forests clear-felled for disposable chopsticks and paper packaging, or burned to make way for palm oil plantations, dispossessing the last orang-utans of their remnant ecological niche.

One playful Zen koan, shaped to kickstart our startling left-of-field heartfelt intelligence, goes like this: ‘Once, a woman raised a goose inside a bottle. When the goose was grown, she wanted to get it out. How do you free the goose without breaking the bottle?’

How do you break free of the human mindset that has trapped us, become toxic and begun eating the earth alive? Now that question is still too full of the thinking that created the problem. There’s a self-imposed barrier in proposing a problem of breaking free, since original freedom might well be discoverable as the very nature of the one who asks. To get down to that you have to first let go of all you think you know about ‘glass’, ‘bottles’ and ‘goose’. ‘So where do you find your self?’ asked Yunmen, so casually you might think he was not urging you to break out of prison.

How will we avoid shattering human life into post-apocalyptic shards of its former self? An immensely practical and important question, yet this koan is also asking us to rediscover our original undividedness, and the freedom it bestows, right there in the suffocating fear itself. It invites you to glimpse what the kitchen table moment revealed: that the crisis and salvation are inside each other. Or, as Yunmen put it, ‘Medicine and sickness heal each other.’

Change like this doesn’t come from a top-down approach. No living system has a boss. The boss is all of us, inextricably together, using the distributive wisdom of countless local actions occurring simultaneously.

At a practical level, ways of freeing the goose without breaking the bottle can be seen in some of the communal intelligence of nonviolent resistance emerging recently in the Occupy and Indignado movements. I have caught glimpses of the freed goose right there in the inventive energy of those recent uprisings. To be able to realise our real freedom within a sober, creative, playful awareness of reality is vital to get beyond the thinking that created the problem. Even if one in a hundred people begin to wake up to this degree, change ripples through, person to person, exactly like the Occupy Wall Street’s ‘people’s microphone’, created to pass words of a public address person to person when the right to using a public address system was denied.

As William James said, countless small acts wear down the mighty when they simply persist in going under, over or around every barrier placed in their path, or act from seeing right through them, in the spirit of the Zen koan. The ancient Taoist text, the Daodejing, which foreshadows and influences much of the character of Chinese Zen, says the same thing in the form of a fine koan for our time: ‘The softest thing on earth overtakes the hardest thing on earth.’

It is almost as though we need to relearn the fundamentals that once were natural to us, like someone recovering from brain trauma: what it means to be a human being, a member of society, part of a family and a community, and of the great community of life, in literally remembering what planet we’re on. Can we quiet our nerves and minds for a time, look deep inside our own humanity and our natures to rediscover the medicine to heal our collective madness? For we’re not dead yet, and the world is still alive to sensitive human touch, so long as we extend it.

And when the stakes are life on earth, all else is a diversion.

Biodiversity as a practice for human beings

It is now obvious that it is in our hands either to save or miserably squander the earth’s gift of life, revealed to us as an intricate weave of amazingly diverse life forms in an ecological harmonic that beggars—even while it creates—the imagination. Biodiversity is not just a quantitative inventory of species. Far beyond that, it is the revelatory communion event of life on the earth—the ecological principle that each life form implies both the whole and all the other lives being lived alongside it.

The human part of that communion involves the fact that a large proportion of the millions of life forms blossoming on the tree of life have been individually recognised and indeed named by us; that they then flower all over again in the minutely branching ‘tree’ of the human brainstem and cerebellum; and that these forms and styles of sentience are intimately observed, absorbed, embodied in mimicry, committed to memory. Which is simply what fascination and love demand in a human being.

To successfully defend this miracle of biodiversity from our own limitless predation, we have to recover personal awareness of the full nature of mind. To fail to make this effort of knowing our own mind is to agree to fail as a species, and to fail the particular call of the earth upon us as individuals and as a species. We alone among the species can catastrophically rip down the weave. And we alone can literally mind—hold in mind and consciously care for—this delicate, animated web of numberless relationships, and discover in its mysterious nature the self-same essential nature of our selves.

Such a conscious, disciplined, inquiring use of the mind is called a practice.

It’s called that because you have to keep doing it to discover it, and all the time it’s discovering you. It’s called that because it doesn’t ask you to take as a given a single thing that does not arise out of your own experience. It’s called a practice because the theory is to constantly test the nature of your self by working into it; there are guidelines provided only so that you may set out into the unknown with some likelihood of getting past your preconceptions. It is a practice of deeper awareness, a constant, conscious choice to live that way. It sees life itself as a practice of awareness, one that can either be unconscious and disordered, as if it is something that just happens, or can become a continuing series of conscious choices. Oddly, this power to choose your mental state grows out of a practice of choiceless awareness, paying close attention to what appears but withholding judgment.

To understand and practise such an awareness of mind, and to live from that ground of paying close and open attention, is not only a means of enriching intellectual understanding of a problem as vitally important as massive loss of biodiversity. It is actually to practise embracing biodiversity as our selves, our true nature, and to begin to want to actualise that mind. Not only does each of us, in our human consciousness, ‘contain multitudes’, as Walt Whitman put it, the practice of the mind of biodiversity recognises how greatly we are diminished, in person, with every species loss. A practice of such a mind means ceasing to live as if nature were a difficult, threatening force always somewhere out there, and starting to bloom into the awareness that knows nature and the earth to be inseparable from the very nature of mind.


Dr Susan Murphy is a writer, authorised Zen teacher & filmmaker. Her previous book was Upside Down Zen (2004). Film and television writing credits include The Midas Touch, Secrets & her own feature film as writer-director, Breathing Under Water. In 1997 she was awarded a five-year QEII Research Fellowship by the Australian Research Council in social ecology. This article features extracts chosen by the publisher from her new book, Minding the Earth, Mending the World (2012).


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