In the next hour, three species of life will become extinct. All beings of three particular types—maybe they have a distinct shape or coloring, a wiggly orange stripe down their backs or a certain size of mandible, a special call or way of sensing the world— whatever it is, all beings with those specific characteristics will have vanished. And by this time tomorrow, seventy-five more unique forms of life will be gone, presumably forever. In short, Nature’s handiwork is being decimated.
We are living through a major turning point in the life of our planet—one of the three or four biggest species die-offs in biological history. The last time this much life was dying was 65 million years ago after a comet is thought to have brought an end to the age of dinosaurs, and some biologists estimate that we are now losing species at a faster rate than ever before. Approximately 27,000 species are going extinct every year, and the main reason seems to be the burgeoning human herds (we won’t mention any names) spreading across the planet and consuming everything in their path like a plague of very large locusts. It’s the holocaust of the Holocene.
As an example of the species die-off, consider the case of the frog family. In the past decade, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found it necessary to establish an “Amphibian Crisis Committee” to monitor increasing reports from around the world about frogs disappearing or mutating. And they are not mutating into princes. Many scientists believe that the frogs are simply getting too much sun, possibly due to vanishing ozone. Others believe that frog species are dying due to the introduction of alien fish or other life forms into their habitats.
Disappearing frogs could have a great impact on humans. For one thing, fewer frogs means there will be a lot more mosquitoes. Also, if there are fewer frogs, the snakes might have to slither into the suburbs to find new sources of food. As those New Age folks say, “It’s all connected.” Some experts believe that mutating and disappearing frogs can be seen as an early warning system for those of us with hardier skins.
We could also take a “deep ecology” perspective, which values all life for its own sake and not just for its effect on humans. From this point of view, we see frogs as leading their own precious froggy lives, with mothers and children, good days and bad days. Just remember, “froggy went a courtin’. . . .”
If you find it hard to work up much sympathy for frogs, then how about birds? Biologists say that two-thirds of the bird species on Earth are in decline, including the canary, which isn’t even in the coal mine anymore. Many will be distressed to learn that the number of songbirds in the United States has decreased by 75 percent in the past half century, taking their songs with them.
If you want to get a sense of the enormity of the devastation just check out the Endangered Species List (available online or at your local library). The list reads like a “Who’s Who” of the natural world, covering the realms of both plant and animal, fish and fowl, page after page filled with the names of disappearing life forms. All of our favorite creatures from the television nature shows are on the list—lions, elephants, whales and eagles—as well as the cuddly and scaly beings that fill our dreams and nightmares. On the list are the stars of our fables and poetry—Brer Rabbit, the turtle that supports the world on its back, “tiger, tiger burning bright.” Among the endangered are bears, wolves, deer, monkeys, parrots, ferns, flowers, the giant sable antelope, the giant armadillo, the Mongolian beaver, the Mexican bobcat, the American alligator, the Jamaican boa constrictor, and the thin-spined porcupine.
So why aren’t the bells tolling day and night? The Endangered Species List should be read aloud in churches and schools, updated regularly on the front pages of newspapers. Whenever a species is added to the list, its picture should appear on milk cartons: “Missing!” How else will we know? Every time a species is officially declared extinct we could hold a worldwide wake, saying goodbye forever, and then erect a statue to this form of life that no longer exists on Earth.
When I hear about all the life that is dying, I feel sorrow, anger, confusion. What can be done? How can we make the issue real, or at least visible? As cosmologist Brian Swimme points out, most people aren’t even aware that this devastation is taking place. Evolutionary scientists say that the threats posed by the disappearance of other species, or of the ozone shield, are not easy to see, not immediately threatening, and therefore won’t set off the danger alarm in our brain that a wildfire, spider sighting, or roar of a lion might do. Even though a real danger exists—a threat to the survival of our children, our genetic information, possibly to the “experiment” of life itself—we are not reacting with any sense of urgency, or even much concern.
One question leads to others, such as, how do we respond to the eco-catastrophes without blame or counterproductive levels of anxiety? How do we hold the big, Buddhist perspective of a 3,000-fold universe and still arouse the energy to struggle for the survival of the frogs or any other form of life on this one samsaric planet? We might also ask, along with the Taoist sage Chuang Tzu, “Do you really think you can take over the universe and improve it?”
There are no easy answers, but I am convinced that a spiritual path, and meditation practice in particular, can help us find our way. A spiritual path can be understood as an examination of identity and the subsequent realization of our inseparability from the whole of creation, traditionally interpreted as oneness with a god, the cosmos or universal consciousness. In our time, we have rediscovered a forgotten aspect of our identity, one that can be equally self-liberating and deeply healing, and that is our oneness with Life.
I am giving Life a capital “L” because I am referring here to the totality of the process that occurs on Planet Earth and to all of its creations throughout biological history. As such, Life is as deserving of a capital letter as God or the Advaita Vedanta’s greater Self. When we see deeply, we find that just as we are not the self with a small “s,” neither are we life with a small “l.”
The Buddha points to this truth, telling us to investigate our breath and body, thoughts and emotions. What we will discover, he says, regarding all of our experiences is that “This is not I, this is not mine, this is not myself.” Of course, the question then arises, “Whose experiences are they?” One answer might be, “They belong to Life.”
We can feel Life living through us. One of my favorite experiences in meditation is to stop intentionally creating or doing anything and to notice that my heart keeps beating, my abdomen keeps moving air in and out, my nervous system continues to monitor signals from my torso and limbs, my eyes and ears keep registering signals that my brain then translates into sounds or images or even “meaning.” And although I cannot feel it directly, I am aware that my body is processing foods and stored fuels into heat energy, taking care of wastes and toxins, giving birth to millions of new cells every second, and constantly monitoring the inner and outer environment for possible threats to my life. All of this is going on within me—and without me!
The sciences of evolution have recently gifted us with the insight that a unitary process is taking place here on Earth, and that each of us is like a cell in a single living being. All forms of Life are made of the same materials and all have the same unique quality we recognize as “alive.” Meanwhile, the great being, Earthlife, is continually transforming itself; reincarnating; evolving new appendages, sensory abilities and types of consciousness.
Through careful study of our genealogy, we have also confirmed that every living being is quite literally a cousin: not blood-related, but gene-related. Our bodies and brains are made up primarily of inherited features and built according to instructions shared with many other life forms. For instance, the gene that directs the growth of fins on fish or wings on birds is the same one that directs the growth of our arms and legs—molecular scientists call it “the sticking-out gene.” Nature figured out how to build certain structures and then tinkered with the plans to meet new ecological requirements. We humans have much more in common with other life forms than we ever imagined, both in structure and behavior.
One behavioral quality that we share with all other beings is the determination to live. Built into each living cell on this planet is the survival instinct, with every gene determined to get its own information replicated and passed along. This realization led evolutionary scientist Richard Dawkins to accuse genes of being “selfish,” but before we condemn Life for producing so many unenlightened creatures, we should consider the importance of this built-in selfishness. If Life had not been programmed with such a powerful survival instinct innate to every living molecule, then it might not have found the resilience to endure through all of those natural catastrophes—ice ages, volcanoes, continents banging into each other. We can understand living beings as selfish, but we can also see that Life is selfish for the sake of Life. It is Life itself that wants to live.
It is perhaps no coincidence that we are becoming aware of our co-arising with all Life at the same time that we are noticing the threat to Life. The two understandings arrive together, and awareness of the wound is an essential part of the cure.
Internalizing our sense of Life living through us is the key—the process known as realization. The resulting shift of identity can serve our own liberation by depersonalizing our individual drama and, at the same time, building a sense of connection with all beings. Perhaps this realization will then activate the immune system, arouse compassion, or set off the survival alarm.
Which brings us to the next question: what can be done? It is wise to establish and maintain our feeling of co-emergence with all Life and let that be our intuitive guide. Which means we do our practice. Besides, it is subversive to meditate. When we aren’t producing or consuming, then we are sabotaging the economic system that is fostering the destruction of ecosystems and habitat, frogs and ozone. We might think of meditation as a personal sit-down strike.
As for other practical actions, everyone must decide for themselves what they need to do. One idea is to adopt an endangered species: find a life form that you feel fond of and see what you can do to save it from extinction. Protect its habitat, start a boycott of those who might destroy it, maybe even sit down and meditate in front of a bulldozer or surveying team. If you feel called to this Noah-like project, try to be lionhearted and foxy.
You might even want to stand up for the right to arm bears. If you just want to stay at home and meditate, maybe you could at least get up occasionally and howl for the wolf, or pray like a mantis. And one more thing: no matter what you decide to do, remember, ask not for whom the frog croaks. . . .