Zen, Ecology, and the Inner Life

an Interview with James Thornton

           [EL #24, Winter 1996-97, pp 14-15, 21] 

Radical Confidence: Opening the Heart to the Living Earth 

THE CALL to go deeper - to explore ways of working, living, and being beyond those of the lives we create for ourselves - comes to most of us at some point along the way. Some of us answer that call and are brought into new ways of seeing, gaining insights that allow for an opening of the heart, mind, and soul. James Thornton is such a person. James was a top notch litigator for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), winning over 100 federal cases. Yet he came to feel that the tools he was using as a litigator and environmental advocate "were used up." He felt that beyond the changes in policy he could effect as a lawyer, a shift in consciousness on the cultural level was needed.
In the following interview with Earthlight Editor Kurt de Boer, James Thornton talks about his departure from the NRDC to follow his passions of earth and spirit, and how this led him to found Positive Futures, which teaches wisdom practices to policy-makers, social activists, and future leaders. The goal is to help heal humankind's relationship with the Earth by changing the world one mind at a time, by becoming confident and positive - radically confident - so that we make our minds available to long term solutions.

Kurt de Boer: Your departure from the NRDC eventually led to, among other things, your founding of Positive Futures. Could you speak a little about that process? 

James Thornton: It was a process that surprised me. I wound up staying in retreat for 14 months in Germany in a small village. What I was doing there was combining a very intense solo Zen-style retreat with visiting a Hindu teacher called Mother Meera. Each week she had sittings I would attend as well. In the middle of that year, I made a pilgrimage to India to visit the Dalai Llama and I had a very clear question for him - "how do I bring spiritual practice and environmental practice together?" He said, "you must become confident and positive. Out of angry mind, long-term solutions can never come. You must get over your own anger. Achieve a confident and positive mind. Then," he said, "help others to reach that place."

At the end of that interview, I had to begin to admit to myself that much of the work I had done as an environmentalist was based on anger. Because so much of my work was based on anger, a kind of righteous anger - what any person feels when they look at what our society is doing to the Earth - was that it had burned me out. I had to admit to myself that I hadn't gone beyond anger in my own thinking about the environment. Six more months of intense practice in Germany and one day I realized that I had become confident and positive and that it was then time to continue with the suggestion of the Dalai Llama - to share it with others.
I came back to the US and with a grant from the Nathan Cummings Foundation began a six month process of interviewing 100 environmental activists, a process that was very powerful for me - very surprisingly. I had assumed at some level that the anger that was motivating my work was largely my own thing. It turned out that it was widely shared among all these top activists - professional fulltime activists, lawyers, scientists, lobbyists. We investigated what their motivations were in their work, where they would go for vision and to refresh themselves when they got tired and burned out, and whether they thought that the environmental movement had a vision. Pretty much every person told me the same story: their work was motivated by anger. They had become an environmentalist because they were outraged by what we were doing as a society. But these very self-reflective people also said, "I know that I do not in fact have a positive vision of the future."
I'd then ask, "well look, if every thing you and your colleagues are advocating were put in place - which as we know is unlikely because of the way the political system works - would that be enough? Would we then be in a sustainable and harmonious relationship with the Earth? Everyone said "absolutely not. If everything I am fighting for were put in place, it would not be enough."
They felt that they were dealing in the realm of real politics and the types of large scale changes they would like to see were the ones they could not even advocate because of the political realities and the consciousness at play in politics. Genuinely fundamental changes were ones that required a change in consciousness. But they just weren't things you could discuss in Washington without being laughed at.
When we asked them if they were willing to try some kind of meditation or contemplative process to get beyond the anger and begin to experiment with a new consciousness in their life and practice, the immediate response was yes. What I found subsequently was that for these professionals it was a slow process to move that 'yes', which occurs in a conversation when they are looking at their own life in a deeply reflective way, to actually showing up to begin such an experiment. That's happening slowly, it's a big shift for people.

KdB: Is there a way in which Buddhist practice and other contemplative practices can contribute toward healing the alienation that has divided us from the Earth, our thoughts from our bodies, and us from other species? 
JT: My own sense is that some kind of contemplative practice - and it can be from a Christian tradition, a Hindu tradition, a Jewish tradition, or Buddhist tradition - is absolutely required. Simply being in the space of quiet mind in the natural setting and allowing the heart to speak allows a surprisingly rapid experience of intimacy with the earth of the kind that I actually thought took years of meditation and contemplative practice to achieve. Let me give you an example. Last summer I was teaching a group of graduate students with the Harvard Center for Psychology and Social Change. What we were doing there was using the conjunction of analytic and contemplative modes. We were studying Gaia theory, chaos theory, meditating, and having group council process - all very deep things. Combined, what it did was to give people a sense that the analytic and contemplative were both aspects of a single experience of consciousness, not divorced or alienated from each other, and that the mind and the soul could speak the same language.
On the fourth day, we had people spend some time in nature. This was a group of people who had never experienced any kind of contemplative work before. The instruction was to sit with one square foot of earth and simply be with it for an hour. The hope was that by paying total awareness to one square foot of earth, you're experiencing in the natural world what you do contemplatively when you give total awareness to the inner world - the "inscape."
One woman came back and told a story of how she had sat with her square foot of earth which was full of grass and it took twenty minutes for her to quiet down to the point where she noticed a small caterpillar that she had in fact been looking at for twenty minutes. She remembered the instructions that if a question was coming up from your heart, to simply allow it to come and in fact to direct it to the creature that you were sitting with. Out of her heart rose the question for the caterpillar: "will you teach me about metamorphosis?"
The caterpillar responded rather like a tough old Zen master: "Why should I teach you about metamorphosis?" She said, "because you will be going through complete metamorphosis and turn into a butterfly - who better to teach me about it?" He said, "you don't seem to understand - most of us don't make it to butterflies. Either we don't find the right food plants and die or we're eaten by predators. There's no guarantee at all that I'll become a butterfly. On the other hand, you, as a human being, experience metamorphosis all the time. If you want to know about metamorphosis, study yourself." 

KdB: The focused awareness and opening of the heart opened a dialogue that actually wound up teaching her something about herself. 
JT: At the most profound level. And that's what I see again and again - when people are given permission in a safe space to open in the natural world, they were having experiences like hers. What's lovely about it for me is that I see people having what is in a very deep way a contemplative relationship. They are speaking with their larger self, represented by the Earth, opening in a way that generally transforms them. And it comes in a way that is very gentle and very subtle.
Simply opening produces healing. When a person, as that young woman did, opens to that part of us, that which needs healing the most comes forward. There is a very gentle progression of material that emerges when we begin opening in this way, so that the things that would overwhelm us don't come up and things that need to be healed, that we can in fact deal with, are what come up first. Progressively deeper material comes up.
Part of my intensely deep practice in Germany was walking for several hours a day in the woods that surrounded the town. It was an integral part of the meditation. I began to think that meditation or contemplative practice that is divorced from the world is a little bit crazy. These practices in fact tend to have been developed in the natural world. Buddha sat under a bodhi tree. Jesus wandered and fasted in the desert. All of these practices are very deep in their origin, with a very deep connection with the Earth. You open so much that the Earth then teaches - the wisdom encoded in nature simply speaks. It's wonderful to meditate in a hall or to pray in a church - it's fabulous. But if that's the only place we do it, we're actually missing what the practices originally gave people when they were founded. 

KdB: Which was a felt sense of connection to the larger world, to the cosmos, to the Earth. 
JT: Yes. To the living Earth. The wisdom encoded in the living Earth. The wisdom very explicitly present in the natural world is encoded in the four billion years of its evolution. And wisdom, in a certain way, is learning to live together. There is a sense of connection to the whole cosmos which comes immediately when there is the sense of connection with the living Earth. To my mind, contemplative practice, at this point, has to connect us with the living Earth and the cosmos and each other. That's the level where healing has to occur. Once there's a deep sense of rapport with the living Earth, the sensitivity toward other human beings is automatically increased - they're not two different things. I know there are people who worry that tuning in to the Earth means you're not sufficiently interested in human problems, social problems. That's not my experience. My experience is that compassion grows in all directions simultaneously. For me the best entry point is this opening into the living wisdom of the Earth that simply starts opening itself once you get quiet in it and let the heart open. 
KdB:Would you speak about your work with Washington DC policymakers? 
JT: What we did there was to get together a group of environmental policymakers from the major federal agencies. What we found was that we had very highly motivated people, hard working people who said, when we met together in retreat, that they had never met each other except as adversaries. There was actually joyful weeping - the joy in simply being together in this positive context was so enormous. They said, my God, twenty some years of education, a professional life, and we've never been in a place where we could actually share our deep need for connecting with each other and with the Earth. It's never happened. The deepest thing for them was coming together in a purely human way. It was so nourishing that they then went on from this three day experience to their own get-together once a month over the last year - either to read poetry, to meditate, or to do something that would bring them into a contemplative space. To do that in a group is such a rich and nourishing thing. And when people feel it for the first time, they say, "why have I never done this before?" 
KdB:It's providing a sense of community within which they can bring contemplative practice to their work. 
JT: Yes. And they call each other with ideas, support each other in times of stress, and learn from each other in a way that just wouldn't have happened. There's a whole human dimension of richness they're willing to share once they see each other open and vulnerable in that community heart space. In a certain way, everything in our culture conspires to prevent people from doing that. 
KdB: There seems to be a sense in a lot of places that a wider evolutionary shift is happening. It seems like it's a phase of groping as well, where people are really trying to figure out another way. 
JT: My own sense is that we are on a cusp of human evolutionary history. Looking at our own experience as humans on the Earth in the last, say, fifty years, we've gone from being a species with generally localized impact to a species that has very significant global impacts. We've become the dominant species, we control much of the biomass of the Earth, and are beginning to change the climate, the atmosphere, and so on in a significant way. But we haven't had a shift in consciousness consonant with our shift in status as a species. My sense of how to bring about that shift is a simple and humble one - if enough people are willing to experiment and experience a shift in consciousness, then Earth itself, Gaia itself, as the superorganism that is the living Earth of which we are a part, can push on our consciousness, accelerate the process and a global shift in consciousness becomes imaginable.
These shifts have happened throughout history. Most people thought slavery was reasonable up until astonishingly recently. We're also seeing shifts in women's rights, gay rights, and issues of sexual abuse all in just the last couple of decades. The shift I'm thinking of is, I think, on a much larger scale, but these other shifts are evidence that such things can happen spontaneously when enough individual hearts have been opened and changed.
Groping is part of it and a wonderful open way to be, really. I can say from an environmental perspective that the problem we've had for so long is that we weren't willing to be confused. We thought we knew exactly what the answers were. And that's where you really get into problems.

KdB:It wasn't the full answer. 
JT: It wasn't even a partial answer. That willingness to be vulnerable to the truth is really what we need. So I see that groping is terrific. It's kind of a longing for more open and complete answers, and that longing itself is already being there. Because as long as you stay open, everything can move. In a way that's all that contemplative practice, even at the highest level, can ever do for you. It's simply staying open in the "not knowing," staying vulnerable to the truth. There's a Sufi story about someone who met a great Sufi master and they asked "what is practice." He said, "practice has four stages: the first stage is bewilderment; the second is opening; the third is awakening;; the fourth is bewilderment." I think our bewilderment at the cultural level is actually a very good sign. If we then are willing to go deep and follow the heart. Which is quite possible. 
KdB: So often I hear people ask "what can I do?" They feel the despair. They want to take action, and very often that notion of action is to "get out there and do something" - protest, resist - which is certainly important, too. But it seems that contemplative practice also is a kind of action. It's not simply a passive thing. It's taking action of a sort, isn't it? 
JT: It's certainly taking action. In fact, I think to meditate in our culture is a radical act. To reflect in this way is a radical act. And when you're doing it for the purpose of helping the world, it is a very deeply connected act. In no way is it a selfish removing oneself from the flow of things. It's staying in there with it. What I like to encourage people to do is to keep up their activities, whether it's protesting or whatever, and add the other component to it. Because then they begin to learn how to refresh themselves. People who stay in an activist role and open up in some form of contemplative work will have their activism enormously enriched. They'll see opportunities they haven't seen. The whole experience of doing contemplative work is very much a non-linear experience. You can't predict what insights you're going to have. You just know you'll have insights. That's what's guaranteed. 
KdB: You've been working on a book on the ecology of the inner life. What do you mean by an ecology of the inner life? 
JT: My word is "ecology of the inscape." I started thinking about the word inscape as all of the inner life that we have as contrasted to the landscape, or the outscape. The metaphor I've been working with a lot is that when we are confronted with difficult material - anger, and so on - the essential contribution of contemplative practice is that we are the landscape and not the storm. Anger, for example, will sweep through and the energy of anger can go ahead and move right through. Our mistake is to identify with the storm and forget we're the landscape. That metaphor is what opened the notion of ecology of the inscape for me. I began thinking of all of our emotions, thoughts, bodily sensations, traumas, and everything as the population of beings in our inner landscape, or inscape. When you start to think about it in that way, it's quite interesting because you can then see that natural selection occurs in the world of the inscape on those populations of thoughts, feelings and emotions, just as it does in the external landscape. And there is an evolution that goes on internally as well. You can begin to control your evolution toward how you want to be. That really is the notion of the ecology of the inscape - that you can begin to see evolution toward a more open, spacious, loving nature. And you can begin to control the natural selection with your intention and your practice. 

James Thornton's book, Radical Confidence: A Field Guide to the Soul, was published by Dutton Penguin in Fall 1997. Watch for an excerpt or review in the Summer, 1997 issue of EarthLight.

To contact Positive Futures, write to:

500 North Guadalupe, G360
Santa Fe, NM 87501 

e-mail to: 105164.2261@compuserve.com 

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