Printed in the Summer 2017 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Cesano, Juliana, "How Wolves Change Rivers" Quest 105:3(Summer 2017) pg. 26-29
By Juliana Cesano
In recent years, the excessive use of the Internet, and especially of social media, has become one of the greatest causes of inaction. In this era of scrolling down, which has given the index finger a power it never dreamed of, the amount of time we spend watching videos on food recipes, political statements, fitness routines, outdoor wonders, and so on has replaced much of the time we actually dedicate to these activities.
It is true, however, that the average person now has access to information that in the past would have required years of study and research. Unless we had a degree or a job in a particular field, coming across specific and in-depth information on a given subject was not the norm. Although, of course, this process requires a fair amount of discernment and fact-checking skill, we can safely say that the Internet has become an unparalleled source of knowledge and inspiration for most of humanity, and, at times, enhances the unbroken connection between us that remains beyond all superficial differences. Often we can find great beauty, wake-up calls, and profound values portrayed in these posts. And because we attract a certain type of thought that corresponds to our own state of being, the more we choose to read or watch illuminating, uplifting, or encouraging messages, the more they flood our way.
Among these inspiring messages, I recently came across an article and video about the fine complexity of our ecosystem. It showed how each species has an indispensable role in maintaining the balance and perfection of our planet. Although it is not news that nature’s intelligence surpasses human understanding, nevertheless the headline of the video struck me: “The Amazing Ways Wolves Change Rivers.” At first sight it seemed unreal. How could wolves change rivers? But it has happened.
In 1995, after about a seventy-year absence, gray wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park. Originally, when the park was established, wolves were rapidly killed off, because people feared their presence. Then, since there were no creatures left to hunt them, the number of elk increased disproportionately, considerably reducing the vegetation that was available to other life forms. As soon as the wolves reappeared, they began to have the most remarkable effect. They not only killed the elk, but radically changed their behavior. The elk started avoiding certain parts of the park, and immediately those places started to regenerate. As a first and most visible consequence, the size of the trees quintupled in six years. Because of this, and because of new flora growing around the tree, the birds started moving in, the number of beavers increased, and the dams they built in the rivers provided habitat for species like otters and muskrats. The wolves killed coyotes, and as a result the number of rabbits and mice began to rise, which brought more hawks and more weasels, foxes, badgers, ravens, and bald eagles. The bear population began to rise as well, and cougars came back to the area. As a less obvious consequence, soil erosion was reduced. The river channels became narrower, more pools formed, and the banks stabilized. This rebalanced biodiversity transformed the ecosystem all the way down to the river beds. In short, the wolves changed the behavior of the rivers.
The sociopolitical state of the world resembles an ecosystem that has never found balance. In each era, and for apparently different reasons, certain groups have discriminated against others, oppressed and abused the most vulnerable, or killed the ones that threatened the strongest belief system of the time. Up to this point our differences have not been our strength, and in fact have posed the greatest challenge we have faced. In 2017, as this article is being written, the number of refugees in the world has reached the highest level ever recorded. According to figures published by the United Nations, 65 million people worldwide have been forced to flee their homes—individuals whose lives will never be the same, even if they manage to adjust and survive.
Here at home we have our own scary numbers. Today in the U.S., for example, there are over 450,000 children in the foster care system. These are children who are, in many cases, being neglected or abused and who may not be fortunate enough to know what trust, safety, encouragement, or love mean.
In this scenario, a few of the most immediate questions for all of us may be: Do we truly understand the kind of society we are creating? How much longer will it take until we see that the extremely harmful causes we are sowing will be inevitably reaped as more suffering? And—probably the most important one—what is our role in this mess?
There comes a time in a person’s life when the suffering of others cannot be ignored any longer. For a while we somehow manage to look the other way, living almost oblivious to this thought, pretending that every other person’s life circumstances are as favorable as ours. Yet we hear a dim voice in the back of the mind at the oddest moments, whispering that there is something seriously wrong happening around us. We knew it was there all this time, but we told ourselves there was nothing we could do to help, perhaps feeling powerless because of the magnitude of the task. But one day the voice becomes the only sound we can hear. There is an inner wakeup call that cannot and should not be silenced.
In her book Dharma, Annie Besant describes a living law that interlaces an individual’s level of development with the necessary conditions for the next step. This is dharma: “the inner nature of a thing at any given stage of its evolution, and the law of the next stage of its unfolding.” She explains that it is our own inner nature that molds the conditions of the outer life. The situation in which we are born and the experiences of that particular lifetime are in accordance, not only with our level of awakening, but also with the potential growth that we are capable of at that time. Of course, this process sounds much more glamorous in theory than it appears in our own lives, with our blind stumbling into obstacles until we finally gain a few glimpses of who we are and what we are doing here. It is not an easy task to know ourselves, let alone to know what we are meant to do. Nevertheless, the existence of this dynamic law assures us that no matter the circumstances, there is always potential for more.
Besant’s definition of dharma raises a few issues that are worth looking at. In the first place, duty (as dharma is sometimes translated) is nothing but the use and exploration of something that is already ours. No matter how clueless we may feel about our role in the great scheme of things, it is quite possible that we are already fulfilling it. This does not mean that the search ends here. Rather it means that we can trust the process and that the more we wake up, the more our duty evolves. So our responsibility lies in finding greater clarity, in removing the veils that prevent us from seeing things as they truly are. Then nature follows.
In the second place, it is absurd to try to live someone else’s dharma. It is true that some roles within society appear more important than others. Some tasks within any given organization may be more visible or respected than others. But as we learned from the story of the wolves, each part is needed for the other ones to exist.
Moreover, it seems to be detrimental to our own development to try to perform a task that is unsuited for our particular nature. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna emphasizes that it is better to live our own destiny imperfectly than to live an imitation of somebody else’s life with perfection. There are often signs along the road that hint to us which direction to go in. We may not be expert at reading those signs, and often people around us can see them before we do, but sooner or later, we get the message. Of course, the signs that point out which way not to turn tend to speak a bit louder, and the clearest ones are those that feel like having a door slammed in our face.
A third fact, perhaps the one that stands out the most, is the beauty and the order underneath the apparent chaos; the perfection of life’s intelligence, providing the necessary opportunities for this moment’s unfoldment—whatever that means for each of us; and the reassurance that we all possess the power to take the next step.
From a certain perspective, it may seem that this scenario is a bit too rigid, that there is little flexibility in the possibilities that lie before us. But Besant makes sure we understand that the sky is the limit, as long as we uphold certain important virtues and keep a perspective that includes more than just this lifetime. She says, “I do not wish to lower by one tiniest fraction your own ideal; you cannot aim too high. The fact that you can conceive it makes it yours . . . Aim at the loftiest you are able to think and to love. But in aiming, consider the means as well as the end, your powers as well as your aspirations. Make your aspirations high. They are the germs of powers in your next life. Through ever keeping the ideal high you will grow towards it, and what you long for today you shall be in the days to come. But have the tolerance of knowledge and the patience which is divine.” With an ever-expanding aspiration to serve, we carve out our own future opportunities for doing so. We plant the seeds of altruistic effort, sometimes in the physical plane, sometimes in the mental, but none of them are ever wasted or lost.
There is no way of measuring how far we could progress in each lifetime, but we all know that we still have to confront our own unfavorable tendencies. If nothing else, we can at least try to eradicate them, to the best of our understanding, so that one by one, the obstacles that stand in the way of clear seeing can begin to vanish. Within this context we can ask, what if I could become the best version of myself at this very moment? Can I renounce, right here, right now, the limitations I already recognize, the tendencies that work to the detriment of being who I really am at this point in time? What would that take? In other words, how can this personality provide the best conditions in the present for the inner flower to bloom? From a certain point of view, we already are the best versions of ourselves that we can be, but this version has the potential to move forward every moment. It is a dynamic condition that provides new opportunities as we move along the way, when and if we do.
The answers to these questions are personal in nature. I believe that a combination of will, mindfulness, and the constant remembrance of God, of Brahman, within the heart can begin to dissolve the personal walls that prevent us from experiencing Oneness: Will, as a propelling inner fire for following a daily practice and a faithful companion as we make that practice a priority; mindfulness, as the linking thread that connects us more deeply with each moment as it is, without additional commentary; the possibility of listening to unspoken words and developing the capacity to see the impermanent as nothing but a passing cloud in the inner sky; and finally, a constant remembrance of the eternal flame, one and indivisible, untouched by any experience, as the sustaining power and guiding force of all action. We have the opportunity each day to become lighter, more spacious, and more curious.
Among the many profound truths that Buddhism has brought to the world is its compassionate view of suffering as the experience of humanity as a whole. There is no such thing as your suffering separated from mine. The moment I lift a tiny bit of your burden, I am lifting mine, and the world’s. As one of Thich Nhat Hanh’s poems beautifully expresses it, “You cultivate the flower in yourself so that I will be beautiful.” Paradoxically, our daily practice becomes lighter and more joyous when it is driven by the desire to alleviate every creature’s suffering.
With all this in mind, let us return now to the problem of the world ecosystem, particularly the oppressive current circumstances that are calling us to action. As has been suggested above, action will be necessarily different for each of us, because of our uniqueness. As Besant pointed out, what we do is in accordance with “the loftiest we are able to think and to love.”
Certainly what we choose to do as individuals does not need general consensus. But what about our collective efforts, when there are so many fronts that need urgent attention?
Looking into the Three Objects of the Theosophical Society, and also into old letters, articles, and speeches of the early Theosophists, we members of the organization strive to understand the Society’s role. A great loyalty to the original spirit of the Society has taken us to endless revision of its purpose—the blessing and the curse that has accompanied us from its foundation. All that has been written only offers guidelines subject to interpretation, and each of them can be put into practice in various different ways. Because of this, the Society varies greatly from lodge to lodge, and from country to country. It seems as if the collective dharma of each place has been the guiding force in responding to the inner nature of that place. In a less favorable light, we can also say that the Society in each place is made up of accumulated layers of conditioning. It is quite easy to fall into patterns and perpetuate the ways things have been done for decades.
If we examine the lives of the pioneers of the Theosophical movement, one thing stands out without exception: their courageous commitment to bring light and change to the social injustices of their time, with only a blurry line dividing their personal actions from the Society’s efforts.
So, as an organization, how can we further aid this suffering world? Our purpose remains relevant and necessary, but aren’t we falling short? There is so much work that is still undone simply in accomplishing our First Object, “to form a nucleus of the universal brotherhood of humanity.” We may continue to be a quieter influence in the inner planes, hopefully brightening and uplifting the collective mind, but I could see the Society being so much more visibly involved in promoting awareness and long-lasting change.
I do not claim to know the answers, but I trust that if we make the sincere effort, to the best of our ability, without conditions or expectations, to lessen the suffering of our neighbor, the powers of good awaiting to find vehicles of expression will not wait a second. Every next step is ready when we are ready. As H.P. Blavatsky writes in The Secret Doctrine: “The Universe is worked and guided from within outwards. As above so it is below, as in heaven so on earth; and man—the microcosm and miniature copy of the macrocosm—is the living witness to this Universal Law and to the mode of its action.”
We can never know how far right intention and action can take us. During World War II, there was an Englishman whose unusual mind played a pivotal role in cracking intercepted coded messages sent by Hitler to the German forces. His name was Alan Turing, and it has been said that his cryptographic discoveries shortened the war by two to four years and saved an estimated 14–21 million lives. Among his quotes, there is one that brings hope even to the smallest of us: “Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.” Sometimes, like the wolf, they can even change rivers.
Juliana Cesano is a second-generation Theosophist and has been actively involved with the Society’s work for over twenty years. She is a certified yoga teacher as well as the manager of the Quest Book Shop in Wheaton.