Month: February 2013

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity…” John Muir

Chan: a mountain is a mountain. A mountain is not a mountain, a mountain is a mountain.

What can this possibly mean?


As a young child, I loved the hymn, ‘I lift mine eyes unto the hills from whence shall come mine aid’. Makes sense, when you are brought up in the hills and mountains. There is a sense of deep serenity about being able to view things from above. John Muir’s right. Yet the more people who go to the mountains, the less wild they become. Everest is festooned with western shit, and the western habit of using paper to wipe it away is left in fluttering evidence on bushes and in streams. Shit is unpleasant but it is unlikely to cause serious problems (unless it carries pathogens as, unfortunately, it sometimes does), and much more detrimental is the effect of discarded non-biodegradable waste, like plastics. Their impact won’t be washed away by the next monsoon and what the snows cover in the winter will be laid bare in spring, ingested by the curious young of deer or wolf, eagle or gull. Accumulated plastics give a sensation of fullness in the belly and yet, obviously, they provide no nutrition.

There is a dreadful sense of deja vue as I write these words, knowing that my father was writing about plastics and their impact in the seventies and eighties. Yet perhaps that gives me even greater motivation: we must create a critical mass so that discussion of this and other matters like it becomes the foreground and we effect and avalanche of change. Mountains will outlive us all. A mountain, though, will become the sea, or desert, a valley, in the longer shifts that will see the extinction of our own species. A mountain is not a mountain. A mountain is a part of the dynamic.

The dynamic includes mountains shifting, erupting (as Etna did today!). A mountain is constituent. It is not a mountain. It is rock, and rock is not rock, it is sediment of animals, or compressed sand, or boiled inner Earthcrust, exuded. It is space, vibrating energy, forces attracted and repelled, waves and particles interchanging without observation. Think like a mountain, says Wendell Berry, galvanising voices against mountain top removal. What is it to have your head chopped off, to be reduced to rubble, to be denuded? A mountain is also the soft grey shift between animate and inanimate, supporting the filtration of water so that valleys have lakes and rivers upon which life depends, creating conditions for cloudbursts, driving the cycles of weather systems, stratifying life by altitudinal adaptation, creating conditions for that adaptation, responding to the changes that life, including human life, causes. Fracking has moved mountains and caused mountains spontaneously to shudder and erupt.

Mountains are not the solid concrete edges blocking the horizon. They are as fluid as the sea. As unpredictable. Mountains are, in the mind, the ultimate destination for those who seek to pit their sense of self, their capacity for suffering and endurance, against the rock solid barriers to the view from the top.

Tadasana, the mountain pose, is the simplest standing pose in yoga: stand up and you are doing it. You never think, if you have two more or less even legs, how hard it was to learn to stand, how often you fell over and even in the cushioning fat (if you were lucky) of babyhood, you never think of how much it hurt to fall, and fall, and fall again. Yet here you are, two legged, balanced on two limbs, standing impossibly tall for a monkey, in tadasana (which already sounds like a trumpet fanfare). A mountain is not a mountain. You are a mountain. Steady but always readjusting. Just as walking is a controlled falling, so standing is a balance. Mountains are balanced. They are as impermanent as you and I.

Revised Schematic

Self respect and the environmental crisis: a philosophical response

Two line abstract: This comparative study proposes that respect and self respect are identical, necessary and sufficient in response to the environmental crisis

Chapter One: Respect, Self Respect and the Environmental Crisis
A introduction and overview of main themes
(i) Respect and self respect as mirrors of one another
(ii) respect as a perspective that extends beyond the species
(iii) the implications of self respect as a response to the environmental crisis
B Introduction to the four fields that itersect at the mirror of respect/self respect
(i) dualism
a) introduction to dualism (dualism and the self, dualism and others)
b) dualism versus non-dualism: Zen, memes and non-memes
(ii) Soto Zen and Dōgen: respect, self-respect and ‘how to live’
a) comparing philosophies: how to live versus ‘what is it?’
b) moral philosophy versus pragmatism
(iii) The philosophical implications of evolutionary theory
a) life and the second law of theormodynamics
b) the myth of evolutionary morality
c) symbiogenesis and systems theory
(iv) Environmental philosophy
a) philosophical responses to the environmental crisis from the global North
b) the view from elsewhere: philosophical responses from the global South
c) inside the box: enculturated Nature
C respect and self respect at the intersection of the four fields
(i) respect and self respect as non moral and non dualistic
(ii) the relationship between respect, self respect and compassionate non-attachment in the work of Dōgen
(iii) respect as action and the spirit of self respect in evolutionary theory
(iv) respect, self respect and realisation: a particular understanding of agency in the environmental crisis

Chapter Two: a detailed overview of the history and literature at the intersection of the four fields
(i) dualism
a) the Greek divide
b) Judeo-Christian chronology
c) Descartes and the scientific method
d) the scientific method and the modern view
e) respect, self respect and dualism
(ii) the history, development and key ideas of Soto Zen:
a) the Vedas
b) Buddhism at its inception
c) Chan in China
d) Zen in Japan
e) respect, self-respect and Soto Zen
(iii) contextualising life: a chronology of the shifting perspective of evolutionary theory
a) Darwin, Wallace and the origin of the theory
b) evolutionary theory and the complexities of co-evolution
c) symbiogenisis and systems theory
d) physical systems and the activity of life: information, entropy and the second law
e) biodiversity and energy flows
f) human agency and rigid coherence: interfering with the flow
g) respect, self respect and reframing human agency
(iv) the chronological development of ideas in environmental philosophy
a) key figures, ideas and approaches in the nineteenth century
b) key figures, ideas and approaches in the twentieth century
c)shifting patterns in approach: an assessment of current theories
d)respect, self respect and a philosophy of the environment: freedom from the meme of ethics

Chapter Three: Context is Everything
A Idiosyncracies of history
(i) dualism and the dominance of the global North
(ii) Dōgen’s Zen and the delinkage from established patterns
(iii) evolutionary theory and the resistance to a decentred approach
(iv) the context of ethics as a response to the environmental crisis
B Shifting context
(i) respect and self respect in non-dualistic thinking
(ii) non-memes and paradoxical non-patterns in the flow of Soto Zen
(iii) respect, regard and reflection on agency in self-aware evolutionary consciousness
(iv) pragmatism and realisation in the biofeedback process: a motivation to compassionate, impartial effort in the environmental crisis

Chapter Four: integrating a response to the environmental crisis

A Non-dualistic response
(i) context
(ii) relationship
B Selective Zen
(i) reflective rites
(ii) practice enlightenment
(iii) the effort of awareness
(iv) compassionate non-attachment
C Science and empiricism
(i) the historical method
(ii) information as exchange
(iii) entropy and energy
(iv) agency and observation.
D Environmental pragmatics
(i) discrimination
(ii) compassion in context
(iii) the scale of individual agency
(iv) cradle to cradle

Chapter Five: Acting naturally

A Non-dualism and Zen
(i) patterns
(ii) memes
(iii) compassionate non-attachment
B Zen and evolutionary theory
(i) agency
(ii) observation
(iii) going beyond cause and effect for a response
C evolution and human extravagance
(i) the activity of reflection
(ii) realisation in action
D Dualism and environmental pragmatics
(i) responding non-dualistically
(ii) realising potential
(iii) compassion

Eggstra Eggstra!

OK, I have the bones of a schematic I can be moderately proud of. It’s on a separate page. I’ll have to go through it with my supervisor and no doubt there will have to be additions and subtractions but it’s now beginning to feel as though I have a definite direction to this thesis. If you have comments, please be respectful, and I welcome them then!


Schematic outline

It’s time to work on a new schematic. I seem to have an idea, now, thanks to WordPress and the feedback I’ve been getting online and elsewhere (OK, so I didn’t get much feedback online… never mind!) of how I can structure the thesis now that I have the focus as self respect and respect. I am still really uncomfortable about the gap that has developed between ‘ordinary language’ and the language I’m inclined to use when talking about the topics of the thesis. This is because it’s so important to be clear about what I’m trying to say, because the risks of being misinterpreted as some snake oil salesperson, or some jargon-laden pseud who’s saying nothing (yes, it was helpful to reread Orwell the other day) or even some frothing at the mouth ecowarrior, are considerable. The points I want to make, very simply, are:

1. that self-respect IS respect, and vice versa.

2. that perceiving the world primarily as boundaried entities rather than interacting relationships has created, among other things, the division between respect and self-respect.

3. that Dogen recognised the indivisibility of entities and the primacy of interactions, and therefore the importance of respect as an activity

4. that Darwin and the scientific understanding of evolution developed within a historical context and was understood as competitive and divisive, either/or development, until recently when more information allowed that evolution proceeds symbiotically and through the cooperative activity of systems

5. that our understanding of environmental ethics has been bound by our concern to show that we can locate qualitative measures for valuing within different loci, but that understanding ourselves as physical systems allows us to consider the environmental crisis and ourselves in terms of energy flows, facilitated or interrupted.

6. that the facilitation of energy flows facilitates the dissipation of energy whereas the reduction of flows, either through less biodiversity, or through the caught patterns of energy locked in plastics or radioactive waste, or even through the stuck patterns of reactions that fix us in resistance to relationships and create suffering, all interferes with it.

7. that this is not a moral problem: it is not right or wrong to live according to the Dao, or the Way. Suffering itself is not wrong. But if it is possible to ease suffering then it makes sense to do so, because our own suffering and the suffering of, or the locked patterns of, all existence, are interlinked, and our immediate patterns depend but also interact with larger ones. The only means we have to reduce suffering is through respecting ourselves, compassionately, and respecting the world, particularly the biodiverse world.

8. to say that we exploit the biodiverse world necessarily, and therefore cannot respect it, is to mistakenly liken ourselves to machines: we are not machines but responsive biofeedback systems that interact with ourselves and with the world around us. Respect itself creates space for compassionate, impartial activity that releases attachment.

9. So Dogen’s imagery and ideas illuminate those of science and vice versa. They are not saying the same thing and we need to contextualise and personalise our responses, so that we realise no principles can guide us. We can only practice respect and watch what happens, personally. We can actively speak about disrespect and its impact but without attachment, or emotional investment.

10. A critical mass can be created through this activity, but it can come about only through the elicitation of a response.

11. Humans can live with respect for themselves and the environment. It is not an easy way to live but it is possible. It is no more difficult than the way we live now, however.

12. This is not a choice, in the traditional sense of willing ourselves into a new understanding. It is the effort of practice-enlightenment, the willingness to become more aware of where respect is absent by drawing attention to it in ourselves.

Time lapse and perception

Perception is vitally important to the description of how our perspective alters. It is through the activity of relationships rather than through the activity of boundaried entities we might call agents that we operate. We can hold this in our consciousness and create an observational space – this is our only agency – but we are always reacting to the patterns that we could make sense of before. We are always looking over our shoulders to make sense of now. We are agents of the past, telling ourselves stories to weave our experience into a narrative. While it is happening, we have no frame of reference, though. We create a frame by reviewing threads and relationships and creating patterns.

Are we born to exploit?

Natural biodiversity exists in a state of perpetual flux, generating (and enduring) countless catastrophes and disruptions that radically reshape its own being. “Therefore centring respect on this idea of natural biodiversity is pure ideology. Human society is totally dependent on the exploitation of nature in some form or another. “ Ross Wolfe.

It is not ideological to centre respect on biodiversity, however, if respect is taken in the sense I’ve outlined in this blog, as a capacity to reflect. Then, the edges begin to dissolve and what is left is a sense of the dissipation of energy through systems of which we, as human individuals, are a part (and, potentially, a respecting part). 

Neither a panda nor a pond, neither a slug nor a field of gentians, shows any species specific signs of being moved to attain anything that resembles a human avoidance of pain or pursuit of pleasure. Yet every system, every living cluster – struggles to avoid annihilation.

Being human is being part of a biological irruption which, in the blink of an eye in evolutionary time, has jumped from a population of one million 10,000 years ago to a population of around 7.5 billion now. Within this evolutionary space we have developed the capacity to reflect upon our own impact, and we have developed the capacity to reflect on the kinds of creatures we are. This has allowed us to develop a myth of segregation. It has the potential, however, to allow us to develop a more accurate picture of how we fit in: as a part of, not apart from, the whole of nature.

We don’t know much about the level of sentience of other beings. However, we can be sure that there is much more of a common thread between our experience and theirs, based on our being much more integrated systems that include bacteria and other microbes than was previously imagined. It is our microbial selves, according to Lynn Margulis, that actually drive our understanding of the world we inhabit (and hence, one might conjecture, our sentience). This, in turn, implies that we have to get rid of the illusion that our agency is somehow of a different quality to that of other creatures. We can rule out the idea of free will in the traditional sense for the reasons I’ve give elsewhere in this blog, and we can agree, instead, that this places us much closer to the rest of existence. Our only qualitative difference lies in the reflective nature of our self-awareness that, itself, gives us only the ability to reflectively monitor what state we are in (although, as I’ve argued elsewhere, this monitoring may feed back and allow different kinds of states to emerge). 

We are totally dependent on the exploitation of nature if and only if we see ourselves as apart from nature. If we see ourselves and our activity within the context of the natural, then we can see that the only level at which our agency operates (if at all) is at the level of self-reflective awareness. I use ‘respect’ to describe this capacity to reflect with awareness on our current situation, physical, physiological (and since this is always changing) dynamic. When we respond to the situation respectfully, it opens up into different levels of potential activity. In Zen terms, it is realised, brought into reality. This realisation involves our relationships with one another and with the world around us, living and non-living. This is what it means to create self-respect, and this is the role self-respect plays in our response to the environmental crisis or, as I’ve called it elsewhere, the ecological emergency. We are both co-creators of our experience, and co-creators of what emerges around us. When we call this an ’emergency’, we mean that in the sense of a crisis, something that involves catastrophic change. Yet emergence is not in itself catastrophic, providing it brings with it increasing awareness, and developing understanding, and the response to it is contained in the potential that we have to hold our experience compassionately, but impartially, in the growing field of our reflection.