Rudeness in Polite Company

by Ray Grigg

Illusions of all kinds are incompatible with the relentless search for the just-so-ness that Zen calls satori or enlightenment. So an environmental book written by a recognized Zen teacher should be a disquieting and illuminating confrontation with ourselves, an experience that is starkly honest, uncomfortable and liberating. This is the effect of reading Susan Murphy’s book, Minding the Earth, Mending the World: Zen and the Art of Planetary Crisis. Indeed, so many insights explode from its first few pages that ranking their importance seems like an exercise in futility. But a useful place to begin is in the Prologue with an interconnecting quotation and paragraph.

The quotation is from the American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), a single line that in itself should initiate an illuminating flash of awareness. “Life is so astonishing,” she writes, “it leaves very little time for anything else.” Try recovering from this statement before venturing into Murphy’s following paragraph — one that deserves to be quoted in its entirety.

“Wonder,” writes Murphy in reference to Dickinson’s quote, “is perfectly aware that we are all caught in a ridiculous posture right now. The posture of living ‘normally’ as we destabilize 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 mention it, since no one can personally hope to change its course, and no one much wants to 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.”

The ideas in this paragraph explode with a naked clarity that scatter the wreckage of our pretences across a traumatized planet. We now know too much about the relationship between our behaviour and the degradation of Earth’s environment to attempt to hide evasive explanations under the transparent excuses. This is precisely the kind of confrontations that Zen fosters. From Zen’s perspective, the issue isn’t the disclosure of uncomfortable insights but the journey to profound honesty. We can only expand our awareness to the reality of things by perceiving beyond our illusions. Is this who we are as a species? Is this how we treat the astounding reality of life that fills and surrounds us with wonder and amazement? Is our behaviour now so rude, so destructive and so untenable that we are even an embarrassment to ourselves?

Embarrassment is a promising beginning. Unless we subject every facet of ourselves to the test of penetrating honesty — unless we learn to detach ourselves from our own sense of self-importance — we will not find our proper place in the great design of things. Honesty always comes coupled with humility. This means a brutal examination of our values, intentions, assumptions and identity, “Think twice before thinking,” is an old Zen aphorism. Filling can only occur after emptying. Until we are willing to discard every rationalization for our sense of self-importance, Murphy suggests, we cannot experience the freshness of a new awakening. A deflated sense of ourselves is a good place to begin.

“Were we ever not at least partly ridiculous,” Murphy asks, “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 energizing and even humorous prompt to wake up a little more imagination and awareness.”

The awakening of imagination and the expansion of awareness in a proper human being seems to be endless process. And wonder, of course, comes with a belittling effect. It reveals awe. And hiding behind awe is a subtle admission of being ignorant, “smallish”, vulnerable, and poised on the edge of fear.

Admitting to our weaknesses, failings and fears is the only way to overcome them. We can’t deepen and strengthen ourselves without journeying “fearward” into the dark corners of the secrets, lies and vulnerabilities that want to remain hidden. Awareness is both miraculous and terrifying, requiring both an open trust and a resolute bravery.

So, “Minding the Earth” — to return to the title of Susan Murphy’s book — is really about minding ourselves. “Mending the World” is really about mending ourselves. We can neither mind nor mend the planet if we can’t mind and mend ourselves. This is the theme that keeps emerging in Zen. As it asks in its traditional teachings, “If you do not get it from yourself, where will you go for it?” The condition of the world depends the condition in ourselves. We can only change the world if we can change ourselves.

This may explain why conversations about the environment are not appropriate in “polite company”. Our collective conduct as a species has been both amazing and deplorable. In the process of becoming the planet’s consciousness and conscience — as we proudly like to believe — we have also become its most invasive and disruptive species, a dominant animal that bends everything possible to its own purposes.

Now our incredible ingenuity seems to be turning against itself. Our successes are becoming the source of our failures. And our planet’s unfolding ecological crisis has become a stark reflection of ourselves. Any uneasiness about the condition of our outer world now reveals our inner character. Anything anxiety about our deteriorating environment becomes an affront to ourselves, an admission of our own intemperance, covetousness, selfishness, smallness, inadequacy, insecurity and fear. No wonder then, to repeat Susan Murphy’s incisive assessment, “our position as a species is now so untenable that it verges on rudeness to mention it in polite company.”