Nature: Honoring Our Wisest Dharma Teacher

Like all animals we are programmed to go toward what is pleasant and to back away from what is unpleasant. Our chemistry is set up to flush our brains with a sense of pleasure when see something valuable for our survival – a brightly colored vegetable that will nourish our bodies or an attractive potential mate with whom we might procreate and continue the survival of our species. In the same way, we are set up to be flushed with fear when we come near anything that might threaten our survival, and programmed to run, hide or do battle with it.

This system has worked pretty well for most species. The fact that we are not extinct seems to imply that it is working for us humans as well. But when we look around we can see how much misery we as individuals continually cause ourselves and others, how our collective behavior, especially over the last two hundred years, has brought many species to the brink of extinction and beyond. We can see how many cultures we have lost, how much devastation and degradation to the environment we have caused. Given all of this, it seems that we have, in fact, lost touch with our natural survival instinct.

While few of us are proud of this course of events, many of us are so uncomfortable with the emotions that come up around this knowledge that we avoid it, push it away or deny it. We cling to what we have that tells us we are doing well. But we need to be with what is arising in our experience. We need to face it with clarity, compassion, courage, integrity and equilibrium in our words and actions.

This is not easy when we are coping with remorse, guilt, shame, disgust, dread, anger, wishful thinking and denial. So let’s look at how it is that we as a species got so off track so that we are in a constant state of fear and looking for every possible distraction to keep ourselves from effectively coping with what is arising in this moment, personally and globally.
Humans have a highly developed pre-frontal cortex, a more recent brain development that enables us to imagine the future and dwell in the past. With this addition to the brain, our species is uniquely able to remember, record, celebrate and sometimes even rewrite its complex history. We have created architecture that doesn’t just shield us from the elements but satisfies our longing for beauty. We have developed institutions for self-governing, education, edification and socialization. We have created literature, visual art, myths, beliefs, theories, science, deep understanding of the world we live in, all of which we are able to transmit from generation to generation through writing, and through audio and visual recording. We have created means to carry ourselves around the planet, and to communicate instantaneously with people in any part of the world.

Wow! One little tweak of the standard mammalian brain and we get all this! When you think how we humans start out the most helpless and naked of creatures, without the benefit of fur or feathers, claws, speed or strength, without even the ability to stand or walk until a year into our existence. And yet, through the two gifts we have – our opposable thumbs and our highly developed brain – we have compensated for all our other lacks. Perhaps we have over-compensated!

We not only can fly like birds, we fly to the moon and beyond. We not only can dig like moles and gophers, we dig deep into the earth, mining its resources. We not only can build nests, we build cathedrals and soaring skyscrapers.

In this over-compensation there’s been the creation of separation from wild nature. Many people in the modern world go from their insulated homes with interior garages by way of their cars – isolation chambers on wheels – into the basement garages of their workplace with its non-open-able windows, and never leave the building because there’s a company cafeteria for food and a company gym for exercise. At the end of the day, having returned home, they can go to bed without ever once having breathed fresh air or felt the natural outside temperature.

Cut off from nature, we get out of synch with the natural rhythms. We lose touch with the seasons, the tides, the phases of the moon, the myriad ways nature has always cued behavior in creatures.

The cost of being so out of synch with nature is high on a personal level and devastating on a global level. Out of synch with nature, we make misguided ill-informed choices that cause misery for us, the planet and the rest of the species who inhabit it.

Instead of the circular rhythms of nature, we have created a linear view of passage of time. We do this in order to accommodate our unique human ability to dwell in the past and imagine the future. But you can see how it gets us out of synch with the rest of nature. We have isolated ourselves, believing ourselves to be a species apart, and yet everything we do affects all other species and the planet. We have denied this connection, and deadened ourselves in that denial. Why?

Perhaps we think that in our encapsulated state we are protected from the vagaries of life. If we can set up a routine, a series of habits, and just keep them up, maybe we can keep the threat of change at bay. We don’t want our state of denial to be punctured, and we intuitively know that walking out into the wild will do just that. It will bring us to the basic truths inherent to life on earth. It will remind us of impermanence with every fallen leaf and every fallen tree. It will put us face to face with our own mortality, with the fact that our bodies are no different from those of any other creatures on the planet.

But if we stay in the wild a little longer, we start to understand that the fallen tree feeds the forest. We see the cycles of life with no moment in that cycle better or worse than another. We see creation, destruction and decay all serving the whole. We see that change is the only true constant, and that the natural rhythms of the earth and the stars bring a deeper comfort, a deeper sense of connection, than all the constructs we’ve created to ‘protect’ ourselves from this intrinsic truth.

Meditation, like a silent walk in nature, functions as a tuning fork that re-attunes us to the natural rhythms of our own nature. We learn to find a balance that allows us to use the gift of our highly developed brains without running amuck into seriously unskillful behavior. But it is not enough to meditate. We need to give ourselves as many opportunities as possible to be in nature. When we attend a meditation retreat, it may be hard to know how much of the value of the retreat was sitting on our cushion, and how much was the slow walks we took, communing with trees, grasses, lizards and birds.

In a couple of weeks Will and I are heading out on our annual camping trip up into the mountains. It’s not that I love pit toilets, going without a shower, dealing with mosquitoes and other potentials for discomfort. It’s just that my daily walks in nature get me into nature for short periods of time before I retreat back into my isolation chamber and check my email. Yes, in the summer we have a wonderful screen room where I can sit for awhile reading and enjoying the birds in the waterfall. I am so fortunate! But then I go back inside. So camping is like a forced nature retreat to get me outside my box. If I don’t occasionally take myself far from the comforts of home, my habitual nature sends me back into the house for something to eat, a more stable temperature or a whole slew of other reasons. When I’m camping, there is no inside to go to. And that’s the idea!

But after a few days I am ready to come home. Just as after a meditation retreat, I am ready to return to my regular life. I return with a more balanced, attuned understanding of my place in the natural world. The wild world has so many lessons to teach me, has so many answers to any question I might ask. It is an ever ready dharma delivery system, providing truth after truth, and requesting only a deep and abiding respect in return.

I had an employer once who was a devoted follower of the nineteenth century political economist Henry George, who believed that property should be taxed more heavily in its undeveloped state to encourage development and improvements. This kind of thinking, this seeing nature as a kind of blank canvas for human creativity to unleash itself, is still alive and well in the 21st century.

I was reminded of it last weekend when a dear relative of mine was visiting from rural Washington. She told a story of her neighbor whom she asked to stop driving his four wheel drive ATV all over her grassy meadow.
“But you aren’t using it,” he said, totally baffled by her request. After all, she had allowed his horses to roam the meadow without complaint. In his world view, an open meadow is not a rich vibrant network of living systems but a vacant lot serving no purpose until a human designates one.

Thank goodness there are people like Dr. Marty Griffin, a friend whose 90th birthday party I attended this week also. He put his well-developed brain, his deep sense of connection and any other resources he could find to good use to save wild nature, particularly the Marin and Sonoma Coasts. The Audubon Canyon Ranch, that amazing nesting ground for blue herons on the Bolinas Lagoon that he founded decades ago, has just been renamed The Martin Griffin Preserve in his honor.

Through spending time in nature in a meditative way — really being present for what arises in our experience, being open, receptive and curious — we start seeing and understanding the role of wild nature in supporting all life, including our own. And we start seeing our role in the natural world. When we insulate ourselves from nature we have a distorted view of the world and who we are in it.

So, what is your relationship with the wilderness? Are you muscling through it, focused on burning calories and building endurance or on getting somewhere? Are you talking with friends or listening to the music plugged into your ears, staying in sensory disconnect from the nature that called to you?

How many questions do you have that nature could answer if you opened yourself up and listened? About impermanence, about comparing mind, about judgment, about connection, about self-acceptance, about just about anything!

Over the coming week, if you haven’t already done so, add to your meditative practice at least a few minutes of being completely alone in nature. You could spend a few minutes star gazing before bed. You could sit in your garden and listen to the birds. You could ask your walking companion to participate, each taking at least five minutes to walk in silence at a distance from each other. The minute we are alone, that powerful energy field of another human dissolves and frees us to really sense our connection with the rest of nature.

While experiencing nature, let go of any sense of goal. The desire to capture nature in a photograph or a memory can deplete the power of the moment fully experienced. The hope to recreate a past experience or to make this somehow an ultimate experience gets in the way of simply being present for whatever arises. Noticing all the thoughts that pass through, and letting them arise and fall away too. Letting go of a need to judge the experience as to whether it measures up to your idea of what a moment in nature should be. This is not some romantic notion. This is simply the reality of this moment.

Unplugging, creating silence and solitude, breathing and releasing tension, opening to whatever is in this moment: What a gift!

I’ll end with the a poem by Li Po, titled Zazen on Ching-tnig Mountain:

‘The birds have dissolved into the sky.
The last clouds have faded away.
Here we sit, the mountain and I,
‘til only the mountain remains.’

Let me know your thoughts on this.

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