Ecological awareness

Thus the point I am making in all these essays is that civilised people, whether Western or Eastern, need to be liberated and dehypnotized from their systems of symbolism and, thereby, become more intensely aware of the living vibrations of the real world. For lack of such awareness our consciousnesses and consciences have become calloused to the daily atrocities of burning children with napalm, of saturation bombing of fertile earth with all its plants, wild animals, and insects (not to mention people), and of manufacturing nuclear and chemical weapons concerning which the real problem is not so much how to prevent their use as how to get them off the face of the earth.

We need to become vividly aware of our ecology, of our interdependence and virtual identity with all other forms of life which the divisive and embossing methods of our current way of thought prevent us from experiencing. The so-called physical world and the so-called human body are a single process, differentiated only as the heart from the lungs or the head from the feet. In stodgy academic circles I refer to this kind of understanding as “ecological awareness.” Elsewhere it would be called “cosmic consciousness” or “mystical experience.” However, our intellectual and scientific “establishment” is, in general, still spellbound by the myth that human intelligence and feeling are a fluke of chance in an entirely mechanical and stupid universe–as if figs would grow on thistles or grapes on thorns. But wouldn’t it be more reasonable to see the entire scheme of things as continuous with our own consciousness and the marvellous neural organisation which, shall we say, sponsors it?

Metaphysical as such considerations may be, it seems to me that their issues are earthy and practical. For our radically mis-named “materialistic” civilisation must above all cultivate love of material, of earth, air, and water, of mountains and forests, of excellent food and imaginative housing and clothing, and of cherishing our artfully erotic contacts between human bodies. Certainly, all these so-called “things” are as impermanent as ripples in water, but what life, what love, what energy is there in a perfectly pure abstraction or a totally solid and eternally indestructible rock?

Alan Watts – Does It Matter?

Consider The Veggie Burger

Last week I completed a mini personal challenge of 7 days without eating meat. It’s the second time I’ve done such a thing recently, both conducted mainly as experiments into how easy I would find it.

For a while now I’ve been considering my stance on meat eating. I’ve been a carnivore my whole life, and never really gave it much thought. I guess I started considering it when I started going out with a vegetarian, but she has never been preachy nor particularly interested in ‘converting’ me. I think the main influence from her has been that since we started living together I began to cook less and less meat until I stopped completely. It became impractical to cook separate meals so often, and as I began eating the same food as her I became exposed to the different ways you can prepare meals without meat. As such, I have bought and cooked meat about twice in the past 4 years or so.

My philosophical viewpoint on meat-eating first began to change as I explored Buddhism. It’s a common misconception that Buddhists = vegetarians, but there is no such ‘rule’ or ‘precept’ that forbids the eating of meat. It is true, however, that Buddhism tends to vegetarianism. The reason being that at the heart of the Buddha’s teaching is compassion for _all sentient beings_. We also have the first precept, which is “I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking life.” Now, this can be interpreted in different ways. Technically, eating meat is not the taking of life. The person at the slaughter house does that. But others argue that by eating meat you are creating the demand for that slaughter to happen.

As it is, there is no compulsion for lay Buddhists to abstain from meat. It is more common for monks and nuns, however, to do so. This isn’t so clear cut either, though, as with the myriad schools and sects of Buddhism ideas differ. It is often taught that monks and nuns should avoid meat, but if they are offered it, should not turn it down.

I practice in the Kagyu school of Buddhism, and recently the head of the Kagyu, His Holiness the Karmapa, ordered that Kagyu monks, nuns and their monasteries and centres become vegetarian. He has stressed the importance of abstaining from meat for Buddhists and has encouraged it amongst lay followers.

Last year I saw a series of talks by Drupon Rinpoche on the generation of compassion during which he spoke of the practice of contemplating that due to countless rebirths, everyone you encounter has at some stage been your mother. Or as His Holiness the Dalai Lama puts it:

the Tibetan Buddhist tradition teaches us to view all sentient beings as our dear mothers and to show our gratitude by loving them all. For, according to Buddhist theory, we are born and reborn countless numbers of times, and it is conceivable that each being has been our parent at one time or another. In this way all beings in the universe share a family relationship.

The Karmapa references this when advising on vegetarianism

If a Mahayana practitioner, who considers all sentient beings to be like their father or mother, eats the flesh of another being out of carelessness and without any compassion, that is not good. So we need to think about this and pay attention to it. All of us Mahayana practitioners, who accept that all sentient beings have been our mothers and fathers, need to think about this. For that reason, it would be good to decrease the amount of meat that we eat.

This is to be taken by Buddhists as a statement of reality but also a powerful practice for generating compassion for all beings. Animals included. As I pondered this, I couldn’t help but escape the fact that eating a beings flesh is not very compassionate.

This planted a seed in my head. This seed then spurred me to consider the topic from a non-religious direction, and to investigate the ethics of eating meat. This reoccured to me when I was watching the movie “Samsara” last year. There is a sequence in a chicken factory where you see a conveyor belt of chickens being sucked up into a machine alive. The scene hit me like a punch to the gut. The more you learn about how animals are treated before they get to your plate, the most you must face up to, and consider your opinion of those creatures.

I keep coming across more and more stuff which challenges my habits. There’s a great documentary called King Corn about two guys who decide to grow an acre of corn and follow it into the food system. The sequence on cattle feeding is disturbing, outlining how for quick and cheap meat, cows are fed corn which their stomachs cannot handle. They are fattened up and kept alive just enough to keep them going til slaughter. If they are not slaughtered, the damage the corn does will kill them anyway. They also barely get to move, so live their lives being force fed to the point of death.

I also discovered David Foster Wallace’s classic essay “Consider The Lobster” – ostensibly about the Maine Lobster Festival, but really about the ethics of boiling live animals for your pleasure. He writes:

Is it not possible that future generations will regard our own present agribusiness and eating practices in much the same way we now view Nero’s entertainments or Aztec sacrifices? My own immediate reaction is that such a comparison is hysterical, extreme—and yet the reason it seems extreme to me appears to be that I believe animals are less morally important than human beings; and when it comes to defending such a belief, even to myself, I have to acknowledge that

(a) I have an obvious selfish interest in this belief, since I like to eat certain kinds of animals and want to be able to keep doing it, and
(b) I have not succeeded in working out any sort of personal ethical system in which the belief is truly defensible instead of just selfishly convenient.

For me these two points hit home hard.

I am not a vegetarian, but intellectually I now more or less agree with the stance. Thus I am now attempting to wean myself off meat. The main stumbling block are occasions when I eat out and my own selfish and lazy tendencies. Most pressing is that I am somewhat of a picky eater (although a lot better than when I was younger), and in particular my distaste for cheese and eggs. These are problematic because from my experience of my girlfriend’s dealings with the world as a vegetarian, cheese and eggs are a common options. Again, these are only really issues when eating out – and more acutely when getting sandwiches for lunch (If there is a Subway nearby, however, this problem is solved thanks to their veggie pattys). The common response to this is “go vegan”, and that may be a long term option – but it still doesn’t solve my problems when trying to eat away from home. It also doesn’t help that Ireland is only slowly coming to offering decent options for vegetarians. I’ve seen numerous occasions where my girlfriend rolls her eyes at the bog standard veggie meals offered. I have noticed a sea change though, even pubs and the like getting in on the action with veggie burgers of various styles being offered.

To my end, I am following a few guidelines to help me significantly reduce my meat intake:

  • No meat at home. This is pretty easy, and I’ve become well used to cooking curries and stir frys and the likes without meat. I’ve also become quite fond of meat-replacements like Quorn and Cheatin’.
  • Making packed lunches more and more.
  • If I’m eating out and I like the veggie option, I try and go for that. Also, if I know there are veggie options nearby at lunch for instance, I go for that. This will mean putting my heart before my stomach. Even if prefer the chicken dish, if I like the veggie, dish I’ll order that.
  • Red meat is out. This is a common enough tactic I believe – to gradually reduce the meats you consume. Beef will be first.

I’m not trying to become preachy in all this. I mean, I’m not a vegetarian. But I have caught myself giving out about meat consumption, even whilst I am eating chicken. It’s a personal choice, but one which I am grappling with a lot now. But I am finding it harder and harder to justify eating meat. If I really think about what I am chewing, and I consider the life of that creature, it troubles me.

What the whole ocean is doing

The Irish Sea

I spent the first 28 years of my life beside this, and now I am grateful I live only a short distance from it. As I type this I can hear the waves crashing, accompanied by wind-chimes in my mothers garden, gusts of the wind that push them, and the odd passing car. I spent 30 minutes earlier sitting on a rock just looking at that horizon. I believe that beauty can be found anywhere; in the grimiest, darkest city-centre side alley, or in a cul-de-sac of an identikit suburban housing development. I don’t believe it resides only in remote places; in forests, mountain tops or by the sea. I try to find beauty every where. You have to: it’s the only way to stay sane.

But God dammnit, some places it just screams at you.

This Is Water

David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water” is one of my favourite pieces of writing ever, and someone has taken part of it, and made it into a lovely short film. I see this as a really important part of my world view and something I *try* to practice everyday.

Good Friday

We must see Christ as the great mystic, in the proper sense of the word. A mystic is not someone who has all sorts of magical powers and understands spirits and so on. A mystic is one who realizes union with God. This seems to me the crux and message of the gospel. It is summed up in the prayer Saint John records Jesus speaking over his disciples: “May you be one, even as the Father and I are one, that you may be all one.” May we all realize this divine sonship or daughtership or oneness, this basic identity with the eternal energy of the universe, the love that moves the sun and other stars

Alan Watts

“You do not belong to you. You belong to the Universe”

In ‘Cloud Atlas’ there is a repeated refrain which is part of a pivotal text in the plot. It begins:

“Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.”

In 1927, Buckminster Fuller, polymath, genius, and inventor of the geodesic dome (which inspired the classic soccer ball, the Bucky Ball), was backrupt, a new-father and depressed. He was contemplating the unthinkable.


One day, he was walking by Lake Michigan, thinking about, in his words, “Buckminster Fuller—life or death,” when he found himself suspended several feet above the ground, surrounded by sparkling light. Time seemed to stand still, and a voice spoke to him. “You do not have the right to eliminate yourself,” it said. “You do not belong to you. You belong to Universe.”

Cloud Atlas

When I saw the trailer for Cloud Atlas I knew it was something I had to see. When it finally arrived here it came with the baggage of having been a commercial flop in the States and dividing critics between those who proclaimed it one of the best of the year, and one of the worst. I can sadly appreciate why it flopped as its a hugely ambitious concept, taking David Mitchell’s complex interweaving novel structure of multiple stories across different timezones (stretching from the 19th century to the far, far future) and having different actors portray people of different genders, race, nationality etc, all packed in to a dizzying 3 hours. On the surface it probably feels a lot more complex than it actually is, its really much more straightforward.

It’s brilliant. As a friend who saw it with me said “I enjoyed every minute of that.” It never once felt slow or long, I was never once bored, the pacing expertly timed to introduce the characters and concepts before gradually pulling all the threads together, making the links between all the disparate elements clear. Parts of it reminded me of the finale of Inception as the different story lines converge (although, it must be said, Inception probably pulled off the big ‘convergent’ scene better, but it had less to do). The ensemble cast are excellent (although, as good as Tom Hanks is, his brief turn as an Irishman produced guffaws from the Dublin audience…his accent is up there with the all time great bad Oirish brogues from Hollywood), and its a technical tour-de-force (how it didn’t get Oscar nods for editing, effects or make-up is beyond me).

And running through it all is a central philosophy of interdependence and interconnectedness that is very dear to my heart. In many ways it’s a manifesto for a radical Buddhist-socialist-Wattsian revolution. I’m on for that.

I’ve described Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” as a glorious mess. “Cloud Atlas” is in the same spirit of adventurous, risk-taking, grand cinema. It is prone to over sentimentality, but I don’t think a film tackling these kind of themes in this way can’t be. And I guess in todays cynicism-as-default mode, anything like this can be dismissed as ‘sentimental’. But it works. It’s a glorious success.

The real living

‘Consequently our age is one of frustration, anxiety, agitation, and addiction to “dope.” Somehow we must grab what we can while we can, and drown out the realization that the whole thing is futile and meaningless. This “dope” we call our high standard of living, a violent and complex stimulation of the senses, which makes them progressively less sensitive and thus in need of yet more violent stimulation. We crave distraction-a panorama of sights, sounds, thrills, and titillations into which as much as possible must be crowded in the shortest possible time.

To keep up this “standard” most of us are willing to put up with lives that consist largely in doing jobs that are a bore, earning the means to seek relief from the tedium by intervals of hectic and expensive pleasure. These intervals are supposed to be the real living, the real purpose served by the necessary evil of work. Or we imagine that the justification of such work is the rearing of a family to go on doing the same kind of thing, in order to rear another family…and so ad infinitum.

This is no caricature. It is the simple reality of millions of lives, so commonplace that we need hardly dwell upon the details, save to note anxiety and frustration of those who put up with it, not knowing what else to do.’

Alan Watts – The Wisdom of Insecurity