Friday, September 7, 2012

Susan Murphy on Mending the Earth

 Writer and Zen teacher, Susan Murphy, bravely and beautifully addresses
how we might think about the earth - and our willingness to make right what is wrong.

I’m often asked how long it took to write Minding the Earth, Mending the World. As one who fell deeply in love with the earth as a barefoot child in North Queensland, I confess this passionate plea for remembering how to mind the living world is drawn from the whole of my life up to now.

‘As long as it took to overcome my own inertia,’ might be the more humble reply. Bach spoke of that daily fight saying, ‘God’s grace must be made anew every day’.  Who doesn’t privately recognize exactly what he is talking about?

It well may be that the willingness to fight with our own inertia is God’s grace.  However you contact that force of unconditioned love within yourself, it surely must be roused towards this crisis that now involves us all, whether we have fully admitted it to ourselves or not.

Getting past inertia, confusion, speechlessness, numbness, despair - terror that is often hushed up or dismissed the moment it spills into our consciousness – is the business of this book. To turn away and live numb would be suicide: literally the murder of who and what we really are, which embraces all the life of this marvelous planet.

When I talk about our terror I am not talking about the so-called ‘war on terror’, which has snatched so many of our rights and created a vast and costly diversion from the true terror of our time: the collapse of the biome that makes our lives possible.

It has long felt imperative to me to understand how the soul of a locust invaded the heart of our civilization. Sensing that the greatest terror well may be the unacknowledged shame that we are, as if helplessly, permitting and ever more deeply colluding with a mindset of living by profound damage, I set out to trace the lineaments of behaviour we know will destroy us.

I’ve been entranced by story since my sister taught me to read at the age of three.  The enduring stories tell us who we are and where we find ourselves. I combed them, looking for ones that might begin to fit the crisis and restore our confident belonging to the earth.

St Thomas Aquinas held that we are ‘capax universi’ – universe-capable. The fourteen billion year old Universe Story, which thrilled me as a child, grows ever more potent with the help of such as the Hadron Particle Collider and the Hubble Telescope.  Can this help us meet the threat of sudden, anthropogenic planetary warming, which obliges us to see at the most literal level how richly we are all in this together and reawaken the mind of interconnectedness?

To begin to live that thrilling reality as a species has become ‘the offer we can no longer refuse’. This is an intensely practical matter. It literally takes a conscious practice to break free from the kind of thinking that is part of the problem.

Which brings me to the tiny, profound stories called ‘koans’, each of which open a direct path into reality. These deceptively small deposits of mind-changing insight have informed my path in life for the past three decades of Zen practice, first as a Zen student, now as the kind of student called ‘Zen teacher’. Throughout the book, and especially in the final section, I explore a number of powerful ‘earth koans’ – not as a ‘take-home’ message for the book so much as a series of radical ‘transporters’ with the power to bring you all the way home to here, just as it really is, with a welcoming thud.

Here’s a taste of a koan. ‘The tiger fears the human heart’ is the first stage of a Korean Zen koan. The words may startle us a little, yet it is almost too easy to see why any creature under pressure of extinction, however fierce, may fear the blindness of a greedy, self-deceptive heart. But what has made the tiger and the human heart so painfully opposed?

‘Tiger’, of course, may stand in for everything we fear about the ruthlessness of nature, including discomfort, change, mortality itself. How did we come to fear our earthly self-nature so deeply?  What’s the way back to deeper agreement with reality, and to living within the terms of the earth?

But the second stage is more startling still, inviting us even further in.  It says: ‘The human fears the tiger’s kindness’. Well may we fear the onrushing crisis of our times but what if inside it, as with every major crisis that we ever face, is an uncompromising kindness: the offer to start to discover and inhabit our human selves at a level deeper than we ever dreamt?

Susan Murphy is a Sydney-based writer and Zen teacher. Her book is published by Pan Macmillan (2012). You can buy this book, and any other, from the affiliate bookshops on this blog (upper right!).  We welcome your comments and your engagement.
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