Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Meditations on Nature

I've always been close to nature. Or, at the least, closer than most other people of my social cadre. It started when I was a kid and would hop the back fence to go scramble around the oak-wooded hillsides. Sometimes I went exploring with the neighbor boys, but more often than not I went out on my own, sometimes wandering up to a mile from the house. This was before cellphones, of course, so even in that short bit of journeying I felt like I had truly disconnected from civilization and was a part of the nature around me, rich in sights and sounds and smells. The only tenuous link back to the "real world" was the sharp peal of a ships bell my dad had bolted to the back porch and my mom would ring if she wanted me to come home. Looking back through the lens of today's world, it seems amazing that my parents let me wander on my own into the wild (a wild that, in retrospect, I realize had a non-zero chance of having mountain lions present). But it was a formulative experience for me; even as I have migrated slowly away from such rich natural exposure in my daily life, I still feel comfortable and connected with nature the minute I step back into it.

But part of me still yearns for more connection with it. Part of me still marks the changing of the season by the changing of the birdsong, by the shifting of the color palette of the hillsides, and can pick these things out even when drowning in the noise and colors of the urban city.

A recent post by Mark Sisson at Mark's Daily Apple spoke to this topic; our deep-seated connection with nature, both implicit and desired. He lives in Southern California, so I imagine his time spent wandering local hillsides has many commonalities with my own as a kid. In the article, he said some things that made me think a little deeper about this connection with nature that has persisted throughout my life. One quote in particular stood out to me:
"Over the course of a day's hike or in a sudden wonderstruck moment, many of us have felt the edges of our selves dissolve into the wild that surrounds us. We become without intention truly, unconsciously 'of' our environments. Shedding the insular, constraining cages of our everyday hyperrationality--the mental chatter, the rigid expectations, and the inevitable tension and failures that accompany them--identities and desires evaporate into the senses. For a time, we become raw awareness."
This statement jumped out at me, and spurred a new epiphany in my mind. To understand this connection, first a little backstory:

Since going paleo, I've found a deep yearning for peace and tranquility in my life. My job and most of my being depends on being wired in and connecting with people and gathering and processing lots of information. All of a sudden part of me just wants to pull away from all that, at least every once in a while. The problem is, I don't know how. To that end, I have tried to learn more about meditation. A few months ago I went to a couple very nice classes at the San Francisco Buddhist Center in the Mission but I have found it hard to make it over there for more since.

More recently, I stumbled across a book on meditation at a used book store. It's called The Wooden Bowl and it's an absolutely fascinating, simple, direct discussion of what meditation is and how to achieve it in everyday life. The author, Clark Strand, is upfront about the fact that the best understanding of the practice is the simplest understanding, that there is barely enough material to fill even this small book, but people do tend to expect more out of it so very well, let's provide more discussion and anecdotes to help illuminate things. At the start of the book, he describes reaching meditation in the following way:
"At that point, nothing further needs to be done, because I am no longer distracted--not by thoughts, not by worries, not by other people, or by the world. And yet, paradoxically, I am more with myself, more with other people, and with the world than ever before, because I am finally present. Right here. Right now. There is no other time."
It was immediately obvious to me that, intentionally or not, Mark and Mr. Strand were essentially describing the same experience. It gets even better. Later on in The Wooden Bowl,  Mr. Strand tries to describe a specific technique to help one find a way to get outside of one's own head:
"Pause for a moment to consider your daily life and ask yourself in which activity are you most fully present, without even trying to be, without even making a special effort to be here and now. The answer could be anything: bowling, using the calculator, cooking, or rocking your child to sleep...Take a few minutes to run through various activities in your mind until you come to one that fits. Don't get the idea beforehand that you know exactly what it is, or what it ought to be. You may surprise yourself."
Mr. Clark then describes that for him, one of these moments is simply the time everyday when he turns on his computer and looks out the window at his yard while he waits for it to boot up. In those 40 or so seconds, he doesn't busy himself with itemizing priorities or straightening his desk. He just sits, observes, and is.

When I first read this, sitting in the outdoor patio of a coffee shop on a bright morning, I quickly put down the book as instructed and mentally ran through a plethora of tasks and activities I do daily. I spent almost ten minutest thinking and could not find an activity where I wasn't overly obsessed with planning and commitments, order and accomplishments, success and status. I despaired, thinking I was too mentally wound up to ever settle back down again. But then, as I sat there sadly gazing at the garden around me, a young house sparrow hopped out of the bushes, and boldly started scouting around the foot of my table for crumbs. I watched it, idly amused at its fearlessness, but mostly just enjoying the small movements and inquisitive pecks.

And that's when it hit me. My present moment was Birdwatching.

When I look at birds, so much of myself melts away. Sure, I might cognitively identify the species of bird, or evaluate some interesting behavior it is doing, but more often than not I am focused on the essence of the bird: the grace of its movements, the softness of shape and color. I feel like I become absorbed in the gestalt of the bird, even if only for a moment. And since the bird is so much more connected to its environment and present moment than I am, by default I can achieve that state of presence as well.

We strive to meditate, to lose ourselves in the moment. We also strive to connect with nature, to feel a sense of ourselves as part of the greater whole. It seems, perhaps, that these desires are one in the same, and the act of working toward one will bring us closer to the other.

I see no better example of this idea than the following video which has been making the rounds lately. It is perhaps appropriate that this example is one of birdwatching:


  1. Beautifully written. The first thought that comes to my mind is when I am with horses. I have to be present and aware because I've been kicked in the cheek by a mule and stepped on, and frankly these guys are huge and could totally mutilate me if they wanted. Generally, though, they don't want to. They want to be scratched and to smell you and ask for treats. When I am with horses, I let their sounds, smells and feeling fill me up. I like the smell they leave on my hand or the snot trail on my shirt from a nudge for more scratches. I have to let go of everything else- and not even really consciously- rather- it melts away. I am excited to go to the farm this weekend to see if I can spend some time with the livestock and get a bit of this feeling. :)

  2. Awww, yeah I miss horses so much, I havent been around one in...wow, seven or eight years :( Im so jealous of your guyses awesome farm club, i would honestly LOVE to have the chance to get up early and go muck some stalls and haul shit around a barn and shit. :D