Restoring The Waters

Category Archives: Vocabulary

A Vocabulary Lesson ~ Apophatic

Apophatic refers to the art of stripping away, the art of letting go. I used to teach freshman Writing at St. Mary’s College in Southern Maryland. Each year in September, I would explain to the incoming students that if they wanted to learn to write, then they needed to let go of pretty much all they had learned about writing in High School. Apophatic is the art of unbuilding, a far less common experience than building up, but no less essential.

The way into the space between . . . is the way of release, the apophatic way. In order to enter the space between . . . we have to release the things that have precluded the possibilities of true engagement with one another, human to human and human to non-human. I am referring to such things as doctrines, ideologies, opinions, self-interest, biases, attitudes, practices and habits. The writer David James Duncan refers to it as the art of “unsaying.” In his book God Laughs & Plays, he writes, “one of my aims as a writer of faith is apophatic. It is necessary to define words. It is also at times necessary to undefine them. Of all the words I have heard in my time, ‘God’ is the one most grievously abused by humans; the one most deserving of a careful unsaying.”

Think of apophatic as the art of unsaying. The art of un-doing. The art of release. We might think of it as the negative of a photograph or the experience of an ocean wave crashing over you even as it’s pulling the sand out from under your feet.

I think of it more as an art form, and the analogy that comes to mind is the carving of marble or granite. In my early twenties I had a tremendous urge to carve – chisels, knives, rasps – all of it. I found my way instead to ceramics and poured all my kinesthetic energy into hand-built sculpture. Now, years and years later, I am finding the opportunity to carve marble, and it’s a challenge! I experience a resistance in my brain wiring (I make no claim as to the neuro-science that might support such a statement). My brain simply doesn’t want to – or maybe can’t – rewire itself to the art and practice of taking away material. My brain wants to keep building up.

Western culture is similar, I think. We build up. We layer teachings upon teachings. We build more and more programming into our personal lives. We measure our GNP in terms of economic growth as corporately defined. We protect ourselves with words and ideologies, spinning them around ourselves like cocoons so that we need not consider anything other than what we already have opinions about. It’s my experience that we build and build so insistently, that the building up allows us to lose sight of what we long for. We have lost sight of what is real, and of what is of real value.

For Reflection

I think of apophatic as the process of unbuilding, unteaching. I think of it as the art of unsaying, the art of undoing, the art of release. To enter the space between . . . requires that we embrace the apophatic way, and one essential piece of the letting go process is that of deep listening. In fact, I would suggest that deep listening is not possible until we engage the apophatic process. Perhaps the most familiar experience is an interaction with a partner, or child, or parent, who uses a certain phrase or gesture or tone of voice which you interpret against the tapestry of your own experience. This is common enough, and often a very good idea. The question is, what does it cost us to interpret the behavior of another through our particular lens? Can we be certain we’ve interpreted correctly? On the basis of our interpretation, do we tend to stop listening for what lies underneath? The common description of this dynamic is that we tend to see what we expect to see, and hear what we expect to hear. What might we experience if we were able, in the moment, to release our expectation, for the sake of deep listening?

I suggest you take a walk through the woods, or along a stream, or through a meadow, even a city park. Find a tree, with leaves. What do you see? Maybe you can identify it. Maybe it’s just a tree like any other tree, and you walk on. But what if you take these words of the poet Mary Oliver into the woods with you? What is required of you to hear the song held within a single leaf? What must you release?

The leaf has a song in it. Stone is the face of patience.
Inside the river there is an unfinishable story
and you are somewhere in it and it will never end until all ends.

A Vocabulary Lesson ~ Biocentric or Biotic

How did it happen – that’s my constant wondering – that humans separated ourselves out from the rest of the living (biotic) community? I have an idea about this, and I would love to be in conversation about it. I’m going to begin with an observation that will show up in other blog entries that a philosophy of human privilege or human entitlement over all non-human life forms of the planet (what I have elsewhere named dominion and rule) are so basic, so firmly embedded, and have formed us so deeply that we are hardly aware that they are working on us at all. The words of dominion and rule may be biblical, but they have spilled over into the culture, and they have formed all of us.

As I think about how this might have happened (and flourished) I can’t help but go to the cosmology operative in the five centuries before the birth of Jesus, and the several centuries that followed. The universe (cosmos) was ordered in a hierarchical way. There was the highest heaven, where God dwelt, the lower heavens of angels and other quasi divine beings. Then there was the earth, and below the earth were the various depths of Hades or hell. The many variations on this theme notwithstanding, the cosmos was ordered hierarchically. It makes perfect sense to me that the earth’s life forms would be ordered hierarchically as well, with humans at the top. free domain name . According to the first biblical story of creation, last is best. In case you are wondering how I can say that, think for a moment about church processions. The most important (priest or bishop) comes last.

So, given the first Creation story recorded in the biblical book of Genesis – God created the world and all who were to inhabit it in six days –  the human family came last; ergo, the first family was the most important.

If we take that same hierarchical frame and drop it onto the organization of human society, we ought not be surprised that early cultures were organized in the same way. Men at the top, women and children, particularly daughters, ranked as property, kind of on a par with cattle and goats. Among the men themselves, royalty on top, tax collectors at the bottom.

Same with the moral code. The ten commandments written by God (as the story is told) on two tablets of stone, placed love and worship of God first, before they began to address cultural mores. The moral frame, like the known creational system, was organized hierarchically.

Here’s the problem. We know today, unequivocally, that the organization of the universe has little resemblance to the ancient understanding of the cosmos. We can and have described it with different words but are saying the same thing: a living web or web of life (Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Margaret Wheatley), a living, self-regulating organism (James Lovelock). Yet our creational organization, our cultural organization, and our ethics continue to derive from a first century and earlier hierarchical cosmology. How can this be?

We do know that the planet earth is a biocentric enterprise. Yet we behave as though we had progressed in our thinking and knowledge no further than a first or second century cosmology. If the patterns laid down in the earliest centuries of recorded history are to hold true, then we must ground our ethics, our cultural structures, our education, corporate life, and leadership in the operative contemporary pattern.

For Reflection

Given, then, that all life – human and non-human – is an interconnected, interdependent, networked web, what would it look like if we were to allow our personal, ethical, institutional, political, and spiritual lives to emerge from today’s understanding of the planet, emerging from within the web, rather than outside it? If this question for reflection interests you, my suggestion is that you take just one or two of the above named areas for exploration. You might find a conversation partner, pick up a drawing pad and pencils, write a poem, start a journal, or even take a walk. And if, upon reflection, you would be willing to offer your thoughts and ideas, the bigger conversation will begin.

A Vocabulary Lesson ~ Anthropocentric

(from an article submitted and just as quickly rejected by Mother Jones magazine)

We are an anthropocentric, or human centered, bunch. With few exceptions we believe that humans live outside the frame and laws of the natural world; that creation is the gift bestowed upon humans alone; and that said creation exists to serve humans who have been designated the planet’s overseers (stewards) with the biblically based license to dominate and rule, To subdue the earth, rule over the fish of the see, all the wild birds of heaven, and every living thing that moves upon the earth. The word which most aptly describes us as a species is anthropocentric; we insist on our place of human privilege and entitlement. What we have yet to acknowledge is the vast body of scientific evidence to the contrary, which states without apology that the biosphere is a complex and interconnected web of the living and the dead, and that humans live – not disconnected from it in any superior and overseer kind of way – but are intrinsic to it, of no more or no less value to the system itself than, say, a dung beetle or a coral reef. It follows, then, that all human behavior which harms the earth community, harms the humans whose proper place is within it and integral to it.

This is not new news, but our refusal to claim an appropriate human place within the greater earth community has had, and continues to have, disastrous impact. In the words of the late Thomas Berry:

The deepest cause of the present devastation is found in a mode of consciousness that has established a radical discontinuity between the human and other modes of being. . . the other-than-human modes of being have reality and value only through their use by the human.

In this context the other-than-human becomes totally vulnerable to exploitation by the human, an attitude that is shared by all four of the fundamental establishments that control the human realm – the political, economic, intellectual, and religious.

Until we know and can accept this, then reeducate ourselves as to the appropriate place of humans, not the biblical place but our place within the earth community, nothing we say or pledge to accomplish regarding the care of our natural world will have bite. Humans cannot care for the earth from the position of steward, or overseer, and the reason is simple. Growth in terms of human progress is valued more highly than the health of the ecosystem. We are not understanding that if the health of the ecosystem continues to deteriorate at our hands, there will be no growth in human progress. There is no way around this, and the state of the planet at present bears this out. In order to turn our attention to the healing of the planet, we have to redefine ourselves from a biocentric not an anthropocentric perspective.

For Reflection

Our sense of human privilege and entitlement blinds us to countless destructive aspects of our very ordinary behavior. Here’s a simple example: consider how our desire for green, weed and pest-free lawns leads to weed killers, bug killers, and lawn fertilizers, which then upset the very delicate balance of organic life, leech into waterways and contaminate them, and destroy habitat for many birds, small animals, etc.

Can you name – with specifics – the negative impact your own, often unconscious, sense of privilege and entitlement wreaks on the earth community?

This question might belong in the context of a group discussion, could be within a family,  although you certainly can tackle the question solo. As always, thoughtful commentary is not only appreciated, but enriches the ongoing conversation.

A Vocabulary Lesson ~ Environmentalism

Environmentalism . . . stewardship . . . going green . . . care taking . . . sustainability . . . these are good words, right? Well, yes and no. They carry a certain beneficence, I suppose. But often the beneficence they carry is illusory.  The thread that links them is their human-centeredness; the word is anthropocentric, roughly translated, regarding humankind as the central or most important element of existence. This section of the blog will illuminate and perhaps challenge each of the concepts above as we allow them to emerge from a human-centered or anthropocentric perspective.

When we speak out about environmentalism, for example, we might lull ourselves into thinking that we are talking of the health of ecosystems, or a single planetary ecosystem. Strictly speaking, we are not. To talk about the environment is to talk about that part of the natural world (as though the natural world were somehow other than ourselves) which surrounds, or impacts, or otherwise engages humans.

The Achilles heel of all environmental efforts is that they succeed or fail at the whim, the convenience, the perceived need, desire, or self-interest of the humans undertaking them. A specific example. In May, 2009, grey wolves in the Northern Rockies lost their endangered species protected status for the second time that year. The factors cited: farmers want to protect their livestock, hunters want to be able to shoot wolves; people are scared of wolves and other large predators; and contractors want to be able to build in the northern Rockies.  It was – and remains – all about the humans, and has nothing to do with healthy ecosystems.

I’m including the link from the Los Angeles Times, but this section makes the point.

When we exterminated wolves from Yellowstone in the early 1900s, we de-watered the land. That’s right; no wolves eventually meant fewer streams, creeks, marshes and springs across western landscapes like Yellowstone where wolves had once thrived.

The chain of effects went roughly like this: No wolves meant that many more elk crowded onto inviting river and stream banks. A growing population of fat elk, in no danger of being turned into prey, gnawed down willow and aspen seedlings before they could mature. As the willows declined, so did beavers, which used the trees for food and building material. white cloud . When beavers build dams and make ponds, they create wetland habitats for countless bugs, amphibians, fish, birds and plants, as well as slowing the flow of water and distributing it over broad areas. The consequences of their decline rippled across the land.

Meanwhile, as the land dried up, Yellowstone’s overgrazed riverbanks eroded. Spawning beds for fish silted over. Amphibians lost precious shade. Yellowstone’s web of life was fraying.

The problem is, environmentalism exists at the whim of humans. In other words, environmentalism, strictly speaking, is anthropocentric. I am not saying that environmentalism has no value; it does. But environmental commitment tends to have value only until the environmental action in question collides with human self-interest.

For Reflection

I am interested in hearing from you as to the ways in which our political battles – over protected lands and species, over Environmental Protection regulations, over environmental law, to name just a few – parallel the self-interests of the decision makers. How is it that our politics, particularly in the U.S., have lost their connection to what I want to call good earth citizenry. Are there times in our history that the call and commitment to responsible citizenry overrode what we see today as destructive and unmanageable polarity; are there moments that we actually considered the health of planet’s ecosystem as the tapestry against which human self-interest might be evaluated?

This is the making of a history lesson as it shapes the intersection of politics and ecology.