Thursday, October 7, 2010

Connected To Nature At Heart: Part one: Buddhism and Nature

Connected To Nature At Heart
Part one: Buddhism and Nature

A single raindrop hits the water and creates concentric circular ripples extending outward. Another drop hits as the rain begins to fall. More and more drops and now the ripples flow through one another. More drops, countless drops, and it is raining so hard that the ripples are hard to distinguish. Constant changing from still to active and back to still. Two raindrops interact and, like fault lines, smash into each other creating different ripples than existed before. Each drop separate, separate ripples, yet interact to become one body of water. In time, the lakes, and rivers and oceans dry up and form somewhere else. Mountains emerge and crumble; people die and are born; species exist and they disappear. I am the raindrop. I am the fault line. I am the earthquake. I dry up and disappear and reform somewhere else.
I see that I am only alive in the sense that my life, this ego, understands that I am alive now. I know I will die. I know that life will continue on and that I am part of that. So, what do I have to defend against? Why do the concentric circular ripples from other raindrops trigger fear and defenses? They can’t save me, my defenses. I am already dead. It’s important to me that I live now AND when I see the circular nature of time I know that it is unimportant that I live. Like an ant in a hive, “I” die, yet “I” that is one with the hive lives on. The raindrop is a single form until it hits the water. I am not separate from nature; I am a drop of water falling from the sky, heading to the pool, to my individual death, to my re-emergence as the pool, ready for the next transformation.
This is reincarnation. This is enlightenment. This is salvation. This is magic. This is nature.

(As a point of full disclosure, I am not a religious expert or an expert on Buddhism. I have spent a significant amount of time reading and practicing Buddhism, but I have never trained formally. I have an MSW, trained in self-relations therapy and generative trance – from Eriksonian hypnotherapy, and am in the PHD program for applied ecopsychology at the Institute for Global Education.)
Most all of the religious beliefs that I know of are fundamentally connected to nature. From Buddha to Muhammad to Jesus, it appears that humans are attracted to looking to nature as a guide. All of these religious figures spent significant time in the wilderness and describe the experience as a time when their spiritual beliefs took shape.
The way these religions practice can be very different and certainly the organizations that control these practices may have gotten away from nature, and even aligned their churches to be congruent with industrial culture that is focused on dominating and conquering nature. Yet, at the core of religious teaching of all kinds, it seems that nature is the main influence. Here we will see the ways that Buddism works hand in hand with ecopsychology and the practices of reconnecting with nature (RWN).
Buddhism teaches the idea that we are part of the cycle of life and death and that believing otherwise will lead to suffering. One definition of suffering as defined by Buddhists, is ignorance or a lack of awareness that all things are interconnected. The Buddhist perspective leads to a popular teaching of the Buddha, which is to “develop loving-kindness for the entire world”. This tenet of Buddhism leads to Buddhists having a “practical ethic of caring for our home”. The Dalai Lama, who is the spiritual leader of Tibet (a predominantly Buddhist country occupied by China since 1959) was included in the 1990 summit called: “Spirit and Nature: Religion, Ethics, and Environmental Crisis”. In his speech he describes many elements of Buddhism that intersect with the ideas of ecopsychology and the practices of RWN. One example is in his description of interdependence. He explains, “The meaning of interdependence is emptiness of independent existence. Precisely because things and events exist relatively and appear as having form, they are empty of independent existence.” He goes on to say that, “All things are heavily interdependent in creating our joy and happiness, in removing our suffering.” Certainly, we see here that the idea of interdependence, a basic tenet of Buddhism, is much like the webstrings described by Michael Cohen. In fact, Buddhists describe the lack of awareness of interdependence, or webstrings, as reality, leads to suffering. This lack of connection and experience with interdependence is the root of humanities problems. This idea is very different from the western cultural idea that we can and need to conquer nature and be independent from nature.
Independence, as an ideal, has become extremely prevalent in western culture. So much so, that dependence is now perceived as an obstacle to be overcome at any cost. Those who lose that battle are often considered a problem to be dealt with. There are people who have become dependent in this polarized way of living and, as a result, suffer greatly. Whether one is operating from an overdeveloped sense of independence and dependence, suffering occurs when we lose contact with the ever-present reality of interdependence. The issue of polarized independence/dependence is what Cohen describes as Isolated Delusion. He explains that, “In our nature-disconnected, mentally isolated state we convince ourselves that we are wiser than nature but the deteriorated state of the environment and society tell a different story.” Nature connecting produces good feelings of dependence and interdependence in each of us that leads to caring for our home (planet earth) and all of the natural things that live here. Interdependence is a reality that seems undeniable. Without the planet, all things that live here would perish. In the Dali Llama’s speech he states the Buddhist position on this issue. “We have no other planet, no other house, except this one. …Therefore, we have to take care of our own place. This is not something special or holy. This is just a practical fact.” It is becoming more and more apparent to humans that if we choose not to heed this practical fact, we will perish. Our lack of thinking in connection with nature is at the root of continuing down this suicidal path. Thinking in connection with nature is what applied ecopsychology teaches and is the essential element of RWN.
We are taught in Western and other nature-conquering cultures to believe that the way we live is the one true reality. We are taught to believe there is no other way to live and that this way of life is under attack by outside forces (people who believe otherwise, and nature). Unlike the ways that nature-conquering cultures think, Buddhism has a different way of viewing reality that leads one to nature connected thinking. This includes, at its core, the idea of interdependence, as well as being open to alternate ways of viewing reality that are not based on our cultural story. Buddhism invites you to “see for yourself”. There are many practices in Buddhism that open the possibility that reality is not what we were trained to think it was. What we thought was concretely real was really more of an act or drama that we were trained to believe was reality. It seems that when the words “everything is an illusion” are spoken by Buddhist’s, they lose some people in the translation. Alan Watts described this in a way that is possibly more relatable by describing that “when we say life is an illusion, it’s more like life is a play as in theater, like we are actors playing at life and when we understand that, we can see more clearly how not being aware of this causes suffering or ignorance of the true nature of reality”. Another way to describe this is that what we live with and create our story everyday. Nature conquering stories include the ideal of total independence and disconnection from the webstrings of life. Webstrings are the invisible connections that hold all natural things together. When this is applied to an ecopsychology perspective we see an intersection of ideas, in that, when we are RWN, we are contacting the true nature of reality, which is nature itself. Nature is interdependent. When we reconnect with nature, we can have an awareness of the cultural “plays” or stories that we are part of and how different that is from nature. We can become aware of how connected, or disconnected, we are to the web of life and the webstrings that unite us.
The human development of language has given us the ability to create a stories as a means of understanding what is happening to us. Creating stories can be a helpful way to understand our experiences as long as it is understood as a story and not a universal truth or the true nature of reality. Our stories, or constructs as they are sometimes called, help us remember what has happened and attaches meaning to the experiences we live through. These stories also become the lens through which we see the experiences that have happened, continue to happen, and will potentially happen. From birth, we attach meaning to experiences, which creates our personal and collective stories that influence our perceptions of experiences currently happening and experiences that have yet to happen. According to the Dali Llama, “In appearance, we see the world of existence and experience. In essence, all those things are empty of intrinsic reality, of independent existence”. This is to say, that in reality, like with nature, all things are interdependent and cannot be understood accurately from the viewpoint of independence.
As I write this, I am struck with the reality that I am creating a story to understand my experiences with Buddhism as they relate to nature and ecopsychology, which are both stories. From my perspective, these stories are to be understood as stories and are in no way a replacement for direct experience with nature. The only way to make direct contact with nature, or reality, is to be in nature, connecting and realizing/experiencing/sensing/feeling the webstrings that connect all things. This experience is what Buddhists call enlightenment.
Buddhist practices are about having direct experience with reality. This means that the meditative practices and the words that explain these practices are designed to inspire direct experience with what is in that moment. The practice of RWN is essentially the same. As one reconnects with nature, all else seems to fall away and direct experience occurs. This is often experienced as a trance state that offers the ability to learn directly from nature of which we are a part. An example of an intersection between Buddhist meditation and RWN practice is an experience I had doing a RWN activity:

“I did this activity at the beach. I am always attracted to the ocean. I started to name all of the Natural Attraction Senses that are connected to the ocean and in a few moments I felt this singular focus where everything else faded into the background. It is exactly like being in a trance. I could feel the connection to the ocean and all of its senses. I asked the ocean: “What do I do now?”
The communication came as an ineffable feeling, but felt something like ‘more of what you are doing’ and ‘use all your senses’ and ‘follow your heart’. It was all sort of saying: “you are part of me and I am part of everything, you have all my senses and I have all of yours, the outcome is not certain, live fully today.”
It is often the case that people feel a lack of support in the context of communication or that communication leads to feeling/sensing a lack of support or defensiveness. The Zen Buddhist, gestalt, and existential idea of phenomenology as the way humans experience life is similar to the ideas of RWN. Phenomenology is the idea that humans experience reality as “their story” that can only fully be known by that person. Phenomenology helps to illuminate the importance of valuing personal truth. When we attempt to connect across this seemingly great divide of personal experience, we seem to become ever more lost and misunderstood. One of the main reasons for this disconnection is the development and use of language and the limitations it presents for describing ineffable experiences. Zen Buddhism focuses its practice of meditation on quieting the mind, not being attached (clinging) or attaching to thoughts, and not speaking during meditation for long periods of time in the presence of other people. People who practice meditation in this way will tell you that they feel/sense a communication with other people in the room as well as nature. They often report that they feel more connected and understood in this context.
Connecting with nature is very similar to this, especially with regard to the importance of communicating non-verbally with nature, which does not seem to have a language like humans. Often people who practice Reconnecting With Nature will report that they feel more connected and understood when they are communicating with nature. More often than not this leads to feeling more connected to and understood by other people. Although language does not always seem to improve our connections with each other and can get in the way of connecting, when done mindfully and/or in connection with nature, it seems to have more satisfying results.
In addition to the phenomenological perspective, we can see that diversity is valued in nature in that nature seems to constantly create more diversity-- more complexity. It does not support or move toward monoculture or a fixed view of “reality”. This would lead one to understand that there are diverse ways for people to access the intelligence of nature. It seems that limiting the ways we think to a particular dogma that is not based on personal experience with nature can lead to the being disconnected from nature. As with Buddhism, nature-connecting practices encourages the individual to go out and experience for the world for themselves and not to limit their thinking to a particular dogma. Buddhism is grounded in the philosophy that the experiences that one has, when understood in the context of nature, will lead to enlightenment. Buddhism does not require a person to believe a certain version of “reality”. The practices of Buddhism will lead a person to their own truth. For example, if a person meditates (sits or walks mindfully and paying attention to their thoughts, feelings, and senses), they can have an experience that leads them to see and experience their own nature and find their own truth. Much like Reconnecting With Nature, the Buddhist practice of meditation was created to find personal truth and in this quest tend to find more universal learning. When we reconnect with nature, it seems to provide universal teachings on life that are shared by those who participate in this practice.
When we reconnect with nature, we understand our relationship with all things. According to Michael Cohen, “People's relationship to Planet Earth is like our leg's relationship to our body. We are ecologically a product and likeness of nature, sharing "one breath" with all species. In each immediate moment of our lives exists the unadulterated creation process of the natural world.” Conversely, when we live disconnected from nature, we only understand life through our cultural lenses. In this light, meanings we take from experience are understood only in the ways our culture has trained us to think. Buddhism also recognizes this issue with thinking and provides teachings and practices to go beyond thoughts. One Buddhist practitioner suggests that we view thoughts as clouds drifting by in the sky. Another suggests that we let our thoughts happen and then let them float away as the next thought comes, recognizing that they are only thoughts and not reality. Buddhism has a similar way of describing the issues with disconnected thinking that lead to misunderstanding reality as Steve Gilligan who said, “the issue seems not to be with the thoughts or feelings specifically, but more the disconnection between the mind and the heart. When connected the heart and mind are interactively flowing and informing one another like an elevator that can go up and down between heart and mind freely.” He goes on to describe this state as natural and that in this state the person is connected to all of their personal and inherent resources. This seems very similar to Reconnecting With Nature in that when we reconnect to nature we sense and feel a congruence of heart and mind that leads to contacting all of our natural abilities. This was written while doing a Reconnecting With Nature activity: “Have you ever noticed how trees sway in the wind at the top and are solid and planted, unmoving at the base? I find this to be an apt analogy for mind/body. My mind can sway this way and that as it's blown by the environment, while my body is grounded and planted in the earth.” This seems to be a good example of how RWN helps to enliven the mind/body(heart) connection. Buddhism often looks to the body as a way to reconnect with our senses and our senses can lead us to a balanced understanding of our thoughts.
In Buddhism, the body is often a starting place for placing attention and a place to come back to for regaining the sense of grounded-ness. In his article “Coming Home to the Body”, Norman Fischer, a Zen Buddhist teacher, says, “In the Adhidharma, the Buddhist psychological teachings, the body is called ‘the soil in which understanding grows’.” The body is important in Reconnecting With Nature because it is the physical manifestation of nature and holds all of our natural abilities. Our senses, including our nervous system that is connected to our skin and all of our nerves, are how we make direct contact with our environment. The body can teach us and help us understand many things in connection with nature. This is an experience that someone had while connecting with nature:
“I realized recently that I was attracted to running only on nature so I began to run on people’s lawns until I got to the park. Before that I had always had body aches and knee swelling that I was taking ibuprofen regularly to help with. Now that I run primarily on and in nature, I have very few aches and no knee swelling. I no longer take ibuprofen!”
This was an understanding and learning that occurred directly from connecting with nature and listening to the body. Another experience enlightened the practitioner to his deeper connection with the earth and ways that he had been trained by his culture that were not accurate. He described this by saying “I could feel the earth systems in my body and I sensed the truth of connection. I noticed peripherally the lack of congruency of this experience with industrial life.” Fischer goes on to say, “When the sense organs receive stimulation, a world springs into view as chemical and electrical reactions in the brain and nervous system give rise to thoughts, emotions, intentions, experiences. Without making any complicated or belabored effort, I can naturally desire, move, act in this world.” So, the body and all of its senses and abilities are utilized similarly in both Buddhist and Reconnecting With Nature practices.
Pema Chodron, one of the leading meditation teachers and a Tibetan monk, describes a Buddhist idea called Shenpa. She defines Shenpa as the experience of being hooked and then stuck by a feeling about experience. It is also described as the urge to do something that is harmful to you or anything that threatens your ego. It is not thought, but more like emotion or compulsion and even pre-verbal pre-emotion. Shenpa usually is something that we want to move away from, which is usually done by actively harming ourselves or others. This is very similar to the descriptions of being disconnected from nature. The response to Shenpa often produces ruptures in relationships, abuse of self or others, and these things are what lead to war, runaway garbage, lack of sustainable ways of living on the earth, and abuse. Shenpa leads to most of the problems we have in our way of living in the world today. Shenpa can be seen as clinging to desire and fear. In Reconnecting With Nature activities that are part of applied ecopsychology, we see how similar kinds of Shenpa come up and how RWN activities help to heal or reduce the negative effects of these Shenpa.
Like Natural Systems Thinking Process (the thinking process that is part of Reconnecting With Nature), Buddhism applies its principles and subsequent “therapy” or practices (meditation) to the human condition and seems to draw upon Nature’s intelligence as a guide. Connection with all things in an altruistic and compassionate way is one description of Buddha Nature or enlightenment. This is basically the same idea as being part of the Web Strings as is described in NSTP. Web Strings are the idea that all things in nature are connected by strings of energy and are interdependent. Interestingly, it’s called Buddha NATURE. The word Buddha is not a reference to a particular person per se. It refers to a state of being connected to all things, or in other words nature. It is no accident that the word nature is in the description used by Buddhists to describe enlightenment. Enlightenment is the connection to all things without clinging to fear or desire, in an altruistic and compassionate state. It is also referred to as emptiness or egoless-ness, which is like the felt sense of being connected to nature and the web strings.
Buddhism is highly concerned with interpersonal relationships in part because we are relational beings. Buddhism considers humans to be relational beings and therefore, highly social and concerned with relationships. According to Gregory Kramer, a long time meditation teacher, “We experience interpersonal suffering because we are essentially relational beings: our minds seek to grasp and hold, while the social life that touches us is full of uncontrollable changes.” Our interpersonal relationships go back all the way to our birth and lead to the creation of our sense of or understanding of self, whether it is a healthy or unhealthy sense. Humans are born dependent on others and will literally die if totally devoid of love. Therefore, the relationships that we have from birth are essential to how we become who we are. In the Buddhist tradition there are many practices that are designed to increase positive relational bonds between people and promote ways of healing from damaging relationships. This is also true of Reconnecting With Nature practices. Both utilize the interdependent nature of reality as a means for helping people to foster more compassionate relationships. Both practices also help us to see that when we are disconnected from nature and reliant on the ego, or independence, we tend to react to the environment and relationships defensively, which leads to all kinds of suffering. According to Kramer, ”Knowing this we are invited onto a path of discovery.” As the Buddha put it, “suffering leads either to derangement or to investigation’.”
One of the most prominent similarities Reconnecting With Nature and Buddhism share is that in exploring and investigating Nature (or, the true nature of things) we find that we are attracted to happiness and not attracted to suffering. The Dali Llama said, "Stemming from that innate sense of self, there is an innate desire to enjoy happiness and overcome suffering. And this is something that is innate in all beings. I believe it is a natural phenomenon." According to Michael Cohen, "We are born of Nature.” He goes on to say, “Our good experiences in nature demonstrate that all living things, including our planet and us, enjoy attractive optimums of life, cooperation, diversity and health when they are nurtured by the streaming and replenishing cycles of nature." People who share their experiences with Buddhism and Reconnecting With Nature most often discover the intrinsic attraction to happiness and attraction to reducing suffering. Both Reconnecting With Nature and Buddhism have developed practices that help the practitioner reconnect with our in-born innate sense of connection with nature. In the spirit of self-discovery, both Buddhism and RWN suggest and encourage those interested in these practices to simply see for themselves. How could it be destructive or harmful in any way to go outside and follow what is attractive to you in nature? How could it be harmful to anyone to have the intention of compassion and altruism to all natural things? These are the basic tenets of RWN and Buddhism. Best of all, you can decide for yourself.

By Randy Seals

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