Wrenzai’s Philosophical Spiritual Journey (in short)

I had my first “realization” when I was eight, as I was lying on my back out in a wheat field near our rented farmhouse in Aloha, Oregon. I sensed, I decided, that there was no god in the sky and no god perched over in the walnut tree and that the people, my parents and all the other people in the world, had made up all the stories about God, Soul, Heaven and Hell, etc., and that to believe as others do would be to become a blind follower of arbitrary human constructs. I didn’t have this realization in exactly these words, but the sense or sensation was there, sharp and clear.

Crows Walking on Water

This was a life-altering, perspective-founding experience for me, because in that moment I consciously penetrated the nature of human civilization and psychology. I knew I was alone in the Universe, and I knew I would always rely on my own view of “the nature of things.” I would never take anything at face value and always remain skeptical of the claims of humans. Seeing is believing. I would have made a great scientist. I settled for poetry.

Living in a Tree

From there I drifted along as a social agnostic till I was 27. It never seemed important or useful to me to argue about beliefs with others. And in those days, the mid to late 70s, people weren’t discussing such matters much anyway. One evening I was soaking in the tub when I had my second realization. I called my girlfriend to come into the bathroom and told her I just realized I had no real, conscious philosophy and that it was time for me to “get one.” As I was attending classes part-time at Portland State University, I began taking philosophy classes. When I took the class entitled “Existential Literature,” I knew I’d found my major affirmation. Perhaps my interest in Existentialism derived from a kind of nihilistic tendency to undermine all the structures, rules, and delusions of religion and even of some Western philosophies, but the real reason is my love of the potential in my fellow humans. I read Camus, Sartre, Gide, and de Beauvoir, mainly, which helped clear the psychic air for me. But I was irritated by the fact that humankind—thinking, reading, critical-minded humankind—found the conclusions of godlessness, soullessness, and afterlifelessness to be so unbearably negative. They couldn’t live with it; it was too bleak.

Nature

That’s when I began to meditate, reflect, think logically, and write in order to find the positive in Existentialism. Thus I coined the expression “Positive Existentialism.” In other words, I realized that only when the whole of humankind can come to realize that we’re “grounded in Earth” can we work together to create a better world. Sartre’s final words really helped here, that “with freedom comes responsibility.” Since we can’t depend on supernatural beliefs, beings, or practices to help us, then it’s up to us to take action to create a better world, here and now. My idea of Positive Existentialism has come in handy with students and others who come to me saying, “Why do anything? I’m just going to die anyway.” I’d reply, “Why not set out to do everything you dream of doing? Why not fulfill your potential, be the best you can be? You’re alive here and now, and this, for all you know, is your one and only opportunity. Besides, would living forever be reason for you to do everything you otherwise can’t bother to do because you’re going to die anyway? Sounds like a cop-out to me.”

Nurturing

A couple problems came up. One was morality and the other was free will. Larry Bowlden, who was the PSU Philosophy Department head and who was teaching the Existential Literature class in 1977, said that maybe morality is based on intuition, that we know intrinsically that’s it’s bad to kill one another. Ah, survival of the species, of course! Later, I found a page, which I used as a handout in some of my college intercultural communications classes to build unity, that translated and quoted fourteen versions of the Golden Rule, each from a different religion. The Golden Rule, religiously and secularly, is a universal. It was then that I realized that universals, principles, and ideals that no one can argue with and that can be found in all religions and practical philosophies is the answer that the Existentialists did not deliver.

Search for Universals

As for free will, I came to realize that even the humanist, secularist, iconoclast, and/or atheist must accept certain unknowns. Do we have free will? Or is it just an illusion? I choose to believe we do have free will and are not simply driven by fate or providence or mechanical chains of events in nature. Otherwise, the world wouldn’t be changing so quickly. Many strong free wills are in conflict. So I came to accept, as bottom-line in my thinking, that morality is inherent, that free will exists in humans, and that humans must inevitably make choices. And if we must choose between dying (or killing others) and living a productive life (and not killing others), we must choose the latter. Many years later I found affirmation for this idea in Plato’s concept that the Form (or Idea) of the Good is the ultimate object of knowledge. The human mind cannot compare seeking good and seeking bad without ultimately choosing to seek good. Good is shinier. Not that we don’t backslide now and then.

Most of these thoughts began to emerge in my 40s, as I was building a cabin in the woods.

Beauty Not to Be Accounted For

Zen Buddhism came to me first from my Grandma Glenda, who was into the esoteric (Rosicrucians, for one). There was an atmosphere of peace amidst exotica in her home. There were Buddhas and books on the Far East, incense and Chinese checkers. But it was reading and writing poetry, years later, that led me to ancient Chinese and Japanese Zen (Buddhist) literature. That was in the 90s. I was 45 or so. And it was Zen poetry that led me haiku. (Note: I should mention that I “killed the Buddha,” which is an expression referring to a famous Zen koan, some years ago, so now I simply refer to Zen.) Positive Existentialism was the perfect secularization to set me up for Zen. Once I had the philosophical reality in place (nature only), how could I find peace and purpose in that reality?

Play

Zen is psychology, all about the mind. Thus the emphasis on meditation. Some would call it self-psychology. And it is. It’s just not overly analytical. A good way to think about it is to focus on the idea of “universal mind.” This is why I like Buddha, because it wasn’t supernatural beings (who in his dream were merely tests of his enlightenment) by which he became enlightened; it was by transcending them and achieving a sense of universality in the face of the particulars of earthly existence, including the fact that we must die but just don’t know when. He realized that our fears and desires were our burden and that we need only to rid our fears and desires to be free. In Universal Mind, one can imagine one’s death, one’s not existing, and feel equanimous at the thought, even breathe a sigh of relief. This goes for all fears, desires, and other forms of monkeymindedness. One can let go of all these vanities.

Lifeguard on Duty

So there are different kinds of meditation, each of which may be related to different brain wave states. One says, Clear the mind; seek emptiness. Another says, Attune your five senses to your body or to the outside world. The last says, Observe your thoughts; notice them, but don’t argue with, chastise, or dwell on them. Simply let the mind observe the thoughts as they pass (the mind is not the thinker but the observer of thoughts). Without being analytical, the mind will note the trouble spots. Adjusting the mind will come naturally this way.

If only haters could observe and note their hateful thoughts they’d slowly fade away (the thoughts, I mean)!

Universal (meditate on this)

Two other problems came up: One is existence itself and the other is the human need to believe (in something or someone). I know Zen talks about nothingness, but I’ve come to think that this nothingness does not imply that matter, energy, space, and, by extension, life don’t exist. Nothingness can be conceived of, only by something, someone, a mind, and in relation to somethingness (think yin and yang here). So I choose to believe that, bottom line, we exist, we have free will and must choose good, ultimately, we are inherently moral, and we need to believe in something. These are my points of faith (but I eschew the word “faith” because the Evangelicals have monopolized and narrowed it). I was helped with the latter problem by Jung and Campbell. Jung said humans need to have a mythology to believe in. Campbell showed us that different tribes, cultures, religions, and stories contain many of the same elements, or archetypes. He posited the idea that these myths, symbols, patterns, and archetypes reflect the presence of psychic organs. While this idea may be helpful to account for common beliefs among diverse cultures, I’m not sure that this knowledge makes overcoming our worst inner selves any easier. If we have an incorrigible psychic organ called Trickster that regularly gets others into trouble, should we, or can we, overcome him?

Just because one doesn’t believe in the supernatural doesn’t mean one can’t have beliefs, healthy beliefs.

The Knave, the Foolish King, the Human Imagination?

As for the inherent need to believe in something or someone, I believe that beliefs themselves are completely negotiable. Thus my final thesis: I believe that the highest faith we can have is in our selves and one another, to become better human beings and create a better world. This is my belief that supersedes all others in my world. It’s a lot to believe in, and, considering the mess that is this dangerous world, a long ways off. Believing in a supernatural being about whom we actually know nothing is infinitely easier and may be a way of shirking our responsibilities on Earth.

Etna (volcano)

Did I mention “absurdity,” the “absurd hero”? Thurber’s moth, Voltaire’s Candide, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Chance the Gardener in Kosinski’s Being There? There’s a lot of cowardice in believing in the given paradigm; it’s much bolder and deeper to believe in the nearly impossible.

One With

Copyright 2017, by Rick Clark

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Positive Existentialism and the Importance of Birds

Recently, a fellow bird-lover sent me a link to Jonathan Franzen’s April 6, 2015 New Yorker article entitled “Carbon Capture: Has climate change made it harder for people to care about conservation?” which is concerned with how our apathy toward global warming extends to the extinction of birds and other species. Franzen suggests each and every one of us is implicated in global warming but that most of us feel impotent to do anything about it—and birds and other animals are the victims of the resulting apathy. The author goes on in his article to exhort us not only to act locally but also to think locally as well so that, as individuals or in smaller groups, we can make a difference where making a difference is most critical and possible.

American crow fledgling, with blue eyes

American crow fledgling, with blue eyes (all bird photos by Rick Clark)

But birds aren’t important only from the Protestant, New England Puritan, and Saint Franciscan points of view that Franzen mentions. Birds are also important from the Positive Existentialist point of view, which I suggest undergirds the most universal of value systems and which gives us a way to see all life on Earth as endangered and as worthy of saving.

American Robin in meadow

American robin in meadow

The Existentialist writers and philosophers of the 20th century—Sartre, Camus, de Beauvoir, and Gide, to name a few—posited a world in which there is no supernatural—no God or gods, no soul, no heaven, no hell, no “given” purpose or meaning. This point of view was experienced as so alien, pessimistic, and bleak at the time that most rejected it out of hand. However, I’d like to suggest that what many view as an agonizing dilemma might just as easily be viewed in a positive, redemptive light and that adopting the Positive Existentialist orientation might save the birds (and us) from extinction.

black-capped chickadee

black-capped chickadee

The problem with Existentialism is that, according to its view, nothing is more or less valuable or important than anything else, at least not from an extrinsic standpoint. This is the most troubling critique aimed at Existentialism: that the Existentialists failed to work up a system of values. But I think that’s because they failed to see that if the supernatural doesn’t exist, then we humans made up God, and if we made God up, then we’re the source of the values and morals we’ve projected on God in creating him. I might refer to this instinct as “the moral organ” (an idea I borrow from Joseph Campbell, who suggests the myth-making impulse is a kind of psychic organ). The relativism inherent in Existentialism applies to the value we put on human life in relation to the value we put on other animal life, including birds. Yet there’s no evidence without the created authority of an all-powerful supernatural being that one species is more valuable or important than any other—or that in the context of the universe anything whatsoever is important or valuable at all. It simply is.

Canada goslings

Canada goslings

The beauty of Positive Existentialism is that our view of the universe and our place in it becomes so much simpler and easier to understand. We humans are simply the most complex and sophisticated of some seven million species striving to survive (or thriving) on a relatively tiny star-lit ball of molten iron, rock, soil, water, and air rolling through space around one of trillions of stars in a universe billions of light-years vast. But not having a colossal supernatural being out there doesn’t mean we’re any less moral. It just means it’s up to us to act according to the authority we otherwise divest in “God.” If it’s we who conceive of God, religions, and moral systems, then it’s we who are moral to begin with. Morality is in our nature, much as the instinct to survive is in our nature. The Positive Existentialist orientation puts us in the driver’s seat, fully responsible for our own existence on this planet and in the universe. And if we returned to being a race of Nature rather than sycophants of the supernatural, there’d likely be a lot less conflict and fewer large-scale wars, since believing in different gods, differing versions of God, and contrary interpretations of “sacred” texts, wouldn’t be reason to kill each other off.

common loons

common loons

Once we get comfortable with a godless universe, we realize the world is ours to create, in our own best image, with all the goodness that we’ve created an all-powerful supernatural being to expect of us. We decide what’s important to us, to our individual selves as well as to the whole of civilization. We make our own meaning, we strive for the highest universal ideals and values, and we work hard to make our planet a paradise. Not to strive to make our planet a paradise is to fail as a race. Not to hold universal ideals and values is to fight and compete amongst ourselves till we destroy life on Earth as we know it. We know in our heart of hearts that we have the choice to become bad people and create hell on Earth or to become the best people we can become and strive to create Paradise on Earth.

eastern kingbird

eastern kingbird

While the Existentialists, especially Albert Camus, also posited Absurdism (the view that there’s no reason to exist in a meaningless world), the instinct to survive is not absurd. It is inherent. And to act to see that other creatures survive, including saving our birds, is heroic. Therein lies our meaning: In the context of our biological, ecological, economic, and spiritual imperatives, we need to create a world in which most or all peoples and species can survive and live together relatively healthily and peacefully.

American goldfinch

American goldfinch

As my philosophy professor, during my undergraduate years at Portland State University, suggested, the instinct of the survival of the species might in fact be the basis of human morality. I go a step further to suggest that recognizing other creatures’ instinct to survive as a species is just as important as recognizing our own need to survive as a species. We’re all Earthlings, so let’s extend the very secular Golden Rule to include other creatures, which is to say let’s have empathy not only for other human beings but also for other creatures on our planet (many of us do). We are arrogant to think our “ownership” of the land means that other creatures have no right to inhabit it. We humans created the once non-existent idea of property ownership, but plants and animals have no say about where the borders and property lines fell. This isn’t to say that property ownership is bad. Property ownership is natural, since most motile creatures on this planet are instinctually territorial, human property ownership being the formal extension of our territorial instincts.

great blue heron

great blue heron

As a longtime college English instructor, I copied and passed out a handout to my Intercultural Communications and Ancient Literature students that includes versions of the Golden Rule from sixteen different religions. The Golden Rule is, indeed, the first and most fundamental spiritual tenet, undergirding most if not all religions and spiritual systems and deriving, not from some external supernatural source, but from our own sense of one another’s vulnerability, imperative to exist, and longing for peace, fullness, and comfort. It is our highest empathic and compassionate means of relating to each other and to other creatures. The Golden Rule is an expression of our recognition that all creatures on Earth desire to survive, even thrive, on our shared planet. It is a universal, a sense we all have, or should have, in common. Live and let live.

gulls and moon

gulls and moon

I’m not advocating communism or any other system that doesn’t recognize Nature or human nature. I’m not advocating a Bacchanalian return to Nature, nor am I promoting anarchism or nihilism. Nature is very orderly, with territories, pecking orders, social structures, rites and rituals, symbiosis and mutualism, and, lest we forget, the food chain and its many fragile links. I’m simply advocating a heightened consciousness of and approach to our killing, exploitation of resources, destruction of habitat, mindless consumption, and ignorance of other creatures who might inadvertently be destroyed in the process of our exploitation and consumption, and I do so for the sake of the survival of our species and relative peace on Earth. It’s a matter of consciousness, empathy, intention, and, yes, action. True, we cannot achieve the ultimate ideal of a paradise in which there is no suffering or death, because, of course, we have to kill in order to eat and we all have to die in order for others to live, but we can lean toward some balance that enables most or all of our species to survive our otherwise careless destructiveness. If we believe in the human will and the ultimate good, then we are obliged to lean—heavily, at this late date—toward some sort of healthy balance between humans, other creatures, and Habitat Earth.

kildeer eggs

kildeer eggs

It’s impossible not to kill and eat plants and animals in order to survive. Life eats life. But we need to do it the way that some early peoples did, with respect, humanity, and even a kind of grief for being caught in the web of life in which we Earthlings must kill each other in order to survive. Many religions and tribal beliefs, in fact, are founded on this idea. Many rituals include sacrifices of animals emblematic of our taking of life to survive. Suddenly the taking of a life has the symbolic weight it deserves. But such rites don’t require that we believe in some obscure supernatural being—just that we treat all life with the respect that we seek for ourselves.

least sandpipers hunkering down in footprints

least sandpipers hunkering down in footprints

While there will always be those who set out to destroy others and the environment, we humans will always be most attracted to the brightest light, that of Aristotle’s “ultimate good.” As long as we can conceive of the light of goodness, we will always be drawn to it. Goodness shines its light on badness and shows it for what it is. Every clear-eyed, responsible, relatively intelligent human being knows this. Even dogs can learn the difference between good and bad. It’s when we know what good is and we choose to do bad anyway that amounts to the worst crime. Conversely, when we’re tempted to do bad and do good instead, we know we make the best choice, we confirm our belief in the human will, and we acknowledge our humanity.

mallard couple

mallard couple

I know there’s a degree of circularity in this logic, but it’s the best we can do without reconstructing the illusory authority of a colossal supernatural being, which, indeed, also involves a kind of circular logic (we exist; therefore there must be a God or gods to have created us). Ultimately, we must find our meaning and purpose in the context of our Earthly existence, in grooming the health of our planet and its many species.

peregrine falcon

peregrine falcon

Surprisingly, I’ve talked to relatively wise, intelligent, productive people who’ve told me they don’t believe in the human will. Some people can imagine a better world, or a better outcome for their efforts, but they say they’re helpless to achieve it. I, for one, believe in the human will. Not to believe in the human will is to suggest that nothing that came about on this planet came about as the result of human intention, and so much of what’s come about has come about in the last 120 years. 120 years of evolution and tumultuous change didn’t occur accidentally. If there’s one ideal that humans should believe in, it’s the human will. If we don’t believe in the human will, the belief that we can choose and create a better world, we may as well embrace the idea that there’s nothing that drives us but our basic animal instincts, that our bicameral brains and cortexes are for naught, that civilization is an illusion, and that the birds are doomed to perish, which is to suggest that this ever more complex world that we seem to be creating is nothing more than billiard balls ricocheting off each other, off the “bumpers” of the laws of nature into the bumpers of our idle constructions, physical and abstract.

red-necked grebes

red-necked grebes

Let’s face it, if we are conscious and have free will, then we are not innocent, unlike birds and other animals, who kill to eat and protect their young out of instinct (or so the theory goes). In fact, it would follow that the more conscious we are, the more responsible we are for our actions in the world, the less innocent—that is, the more guilty—we are for doing nothing to counter our own actions or the actions of others. How we live with our guilt, our remorse, I can’t claim I have no idea, because I too am as guilty as the next human being. I have killed—and killed for no good reason or without a second thought.

rufous hummingbird

rufous hummingbird

Some readers will argue it’s obvious that we humans are more important than birds and other animals because we’re more intelligent (according to our own standards and measures), we create and evolve technology, we have reason, language, religions, philosophies, countries, cities, governments, corporations, communication and transportation systems, schools, libraries, weather stations, and we’ve leashed the power of the wind, the wheel, metallurgy, plumbing, electricity, flight, space travel, and the atom. We may consider these characteristics and developments as indicative of how much more valuable we are than birds and other creatures, but our abilities and institutions are valuable only in our own eyes and according to our own value systems—intrinsically. There’s no great cosmic judge out there saying, “Wow, your technology is a clear sign of your goodness in the universe,” or “The high values to which you pay lip service are indeed the highest values in the universe.” They’re only valuable to us humans, not to other species, which have only been maimed, sickened, and killed off by our presence and our technologies. Certainly the pig wasn’t too thrilled about the invention of the sty, nor the horse the bit. The fact that humans can be viewed as more evolutionarily complex or sophisticated, or that we humans appear to have freedom of choice and can take responsibility for our actions—might make for good arguments, but complexity, sophistication, and freedom of choice are nevertheless human, species-centric values.

scrub jay

scrub jay

We can view ourselves as valuable and important only to the extent that we conceive and act on the highest universal values, ideals, and visions for the majority of people and species on our planet. This is what I think of when I think of Positive Existentialism. We can measure our goodness only within the context of our actions on Earth. War may occasionally be the only choice as far as we can see, but war is never good. We can’t say, “We’re a great people because we destroyed a country or a people and won the war.” Millions of people may be starving and dying due to disease on our planet, yet we are no better as people just because we’re not the victims. At minimum, we each—most of us—need to be self-sufficient. Beyond that, we need to contribute positively, in some small way at least, to creating Paradise on Earth.

shorebird flock

shorebird flock

We must choose to create Paradise of Earth. We must act on our choice to create Paradise on Earth. To do anything else is to succumb to apathy, inaction—or self-serving action—that is, to remain blind to, and even hate, Nature—a great sadness, indeed.

song sparrow

song sparrow

Animals, including birds, have every bit as much right to survive, to live, as we do. Just because we’re human doesn’t mean that other species don’t have a right to exist. Just because other creatures lack the technology we possess to kill them doesn’t mean we have the right to kill them meaninglessly or accidentally. This seems to be the attitude of humans for the most part: We think that just because we’re human we have the right to destroy other life and wildlife habitat (which amounts to the same thing). This mindset is not a sign of intelligence, but of ignorance, stupidity, arrogance, and sheepishness. It’s like a man stranded on a desert isle who cuts down the one and only tree that produces coconuts and upon which a parrot perches to keep him company and who cuts that tree down to make a raft to reach yet another desert isle with no palm or parrot on it. It doesn’t make sense to destroy this planet thinking we can simply go in search of and destroy another planet elsewhere. This is not a test we can fail.

spotted towhee

spotted towhee

Birds have been around since long before our hairy ape ancestors ever clambered down out of their trees and walked out onto the grasslands to scavenge lion-killed wildebeests. Birds may have evolved from dinosaurs, but I wonder what kind of dinosaur humans evolved from?

winter wren

winter wren

I take seriously the canary in the mine argument. The frogs, in the early 1980s and on, were the canaries in the mine when, due to human-made air pollution, holes opened up in the ozone layer and countless frogs died or were born deformed and dysfunctional. I’d like to suggest that, if we let bird species continue to go extinct (let alone cause them to go extinct) along with the pollinating bees, then we’re not too far behind them with our own demise (Endangered Species International lists 25 species of birds whom we humans have caused to go extinct since 1900). We are foolish to count our blessings when we think, “At least it’s not me dying due to global warming!” This is arrogant, short-range denial. And how stupid can we be to think we can simply move to another planet once we destroy this one! Or even to live under glass domes in order to survive the harsh climate and geological conditions that we helped create outside those domes. Are we so important as to deserve hell?

wood duck,male

wood duck

Beautiful, beautiful birds! What creatures besides birds lay eggs, sing, and fly? Insects lay eggs, and many fly, but none sing like birds (a few verge on melodious, such as the cicada). What other creatures display more brilliant and varied colors than birds (except butterflies and fish—other Earthlings whose species are endangered)? But even these criteria derive from a human aesthetic that values incomparable song, swift, soaring, and acrobatic flight, and dazzling plumage.

bald eagle

bald eagle

My favorite kinds of birds are the little ones that visit our house in the woods—the sparrows, finches, chickadees, thrushes, towhees, wrens, and warblers that typically dwell in forests, marshes, and meadows—the most apparently helpless, most childlike birds (except for those ubiquitous English sparrows, who, like the cockroaches, seem to be one of Earth’s ultimate survivors), the birds that for the most part seem not to eat human refuse. Many don’t eat the birdseed I put out for them because they’re not seed-eating birds or because they have an innate distrust of anything touched or created by human hands. They eat bugs—or seeds not supplied by the feeder. While I can’t really establish a relationship with an individual small bird the way I can with a crow, raven, or parrot, they’re always nearby, keeping me company while I work or entertaining me visually around the feeder, in the alder above, and in amongst the salal and rhododendrons at ground level. These birds are my personal canaries in the mine. Every year I participate in the Audubon annual bird count just to help make sure the numbers are still up and that none of the usual suspects have disappeared. The loneliness I’d feel without birds would be excruciating. I’m not sure I could go on living on a planet in which we humans have destroyed all the birds, where birds are merely the subject of ancient myths to which we hark with dreamy eyes and nostalgic literature, such as the beautiful passenger pigeon.

stellar jay

stellar jay

If we can’t save the birds and all or most of life on this Earth from which we were also born, then how important and valuable can we be? Having the ability to destroy life might make us feel powerful, but it hardly makes us “good.”

fox sparrow

fox sparrow

Hatred, destruction, and negligence of Earth are not family values. Letting one species of bird become extinct due to human causes is a failure of so-called human civilization. If the definition of civilization doesn’t extend to include other species, then either the definition needs to be reworked or the word needs to be thrown out of the lexicon altogether.

heron rookery

heron rookery

Copyright 2015 by Rick Clark