Mindfulness and Nature
The Peace of Wild Things by Wendell Berry
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Mindfulness is Natural Because We Are Nature
Mindfulness and nature are a natural pairing. I’ve written about this alot.
At its core, there is nothing more natural than being mindful – engagement with reality without the screen of admonitions and opinions from our thoughts is our natural state.
There is also something inherently calming about getting out into the world and realizing that there are things far beyond us that will continue no matter what happens to us.
I like to meditate on the fact that there are things that were here long before me and will be here long after me. I like that there are stars out there burning and planets out there spinning that never have and never will care about me at all. We are not as important as we like to think we are. There is a stability to the world and the universe whether we see it or not. A lot of the doomsday wailing and gnashing of teeth we hear so much of these days begins to seem silly when we consider things on a larger scale.
These tragedies and catastrophes are only such when we think we are the center of things or that we are needed for everything to work as it “should”. Nature always finds a way to survive and overcome, and I am not sure it cares if we are there to witness it or not. Nature is everywhere, all the time. It finds a way to survive and thrive no matter what is going on. The weeds in the sidewalk and the puddles on the ground are nature. Nature is with us everywhere we go because, no matter how technological and advanced we become as a species, we are nature.
This makes me happy.
These things being more significant than us and not caring about us are only a problem if we think we are above or separate from nature. One of the most significant sources of unhappiness and struggle for us as humans is the notion that we are above or apart from nature in the first place. Religion, the ego, and technology are the primary culprits in making us feel that we are somehow above or separate from the universe, though I am sure many things contribute to this idea.
Our PlayStations and iPhones and shoes and cars and air conditioning and pizza delivery all make it very easy for us to forget we are biological creatures, with actual biological needs.
We forget that a vast amount of human history was spent in very different conditions than what we live in now. Our technological and cultural evolution is outstripping our biological evolution (I for real don’t care how you want to define evolution here, we can just say that the world is moving way too fast if that is easier) and an epidemic of depression, anxiety, and alienation is the result.
Mindfulness and What We Can Learn from Nature
I grew up in the mountains, and I grew up outside. I think I learned from nature my whole life, apart from the years where drugs and alcohol and other assorted messes drug me into a different, less natural and less healthy, world.
One of the best times in the mountains is the spring when the snow is melting, and everything is muddy and rocky and soggy. There is a smell of dampness in the air, and you can see where trees rotted and fell over in the winter. A lot of things are dead, but this won’t last. It won’t be long before there is a layer of green everywhere, and flowers start to bloom, and new life takes root.
Because of this time, the idea of birth and death and rot and regeneration as being two sides of the same coin are lodged pretty firmly in my mind. The cycle of birth and death are intricately connected. They roll on and on and on, one leading to the other. It’s been this way for a very long time and will be this way for even longer. Way before us, way after us. Once again – much, much bigger than us.
We can see this in our lives as everything that ends is the beginning of something else.
Things that have reached the end of their time pass away if we let them, and something new moves in to take their place. We exist within and because of this cycle of birth and death, rot, and regeneration. It’s only a problem if we are trying to hang on to things that are cycling out, things whose time have passed.
Mindfulness of the Fact That We Will All Die Someday
One day it will be our turn. Keeping this in mind changes the way we see everything.
Nature stays rooted in much larger cycles than we can understand. We get caught up in a lot of stuff in life, and much of it can seem overwhelming and terrifying and eternal.
Issues with friends or partners, things at work, the news, our leaders, other countries. Don’t get me wrong, these are problematic, and they affect our lives, but I am not sure they are as big a deal as our minds make them out to be.
I like to think of the places I’ve been that are the farthest away from other people when these kinds of fundamental life issues arise. Alpine lakes, groves deep in the mountains, wind-driven plains out in the middle of nowhere. These places are as they are, and they have been this way for longer than any of us have been around. They change, but almost imperceptibly to us. Very little affects them in any real way.
These places help ground me, to root me in something bigger than myself and my problems.
I like the fact that they will be here long after me. I love that they will outlive Twitter and Facebook and job promotions and that thing someone said about me that one time.
A lot of the things we worry about are not.
Mindfulness is Natural, Animals Embody This
Animals are the embodiment of mindfulness. I like how animals just do what they do.
Dogs eat the same food every single day, and they are just happy to have it. Wolves kill baby deer, and ants eat butterflies. There’s no right or wrong to it, it’s just what they do.
I also like that, as humans, we do think about right and wrong and, for the most part, try to do the right thing.
No matter what the cynics and doomsayers proclaim, the vast, vast majority of people you meet do enough of the right thing that they don’t rob or kill you.
The problem with all of this is that our mind likes to generalize, and turns all sorts of things that are not matters of right and wrong into matters of right and wrong.
A lot more is neutral than we like to think.
The rain is just rain, seasons change and sometimes we are hungrier than we would like to be. It’s part of life. Complaining and focusing on how we wish things were does not help anything.
Both a mindful life and a life in nature are a constant reminder that much of what we center in on and sincerely believe are merely human constructions. There are a lot of things we put a lot of stock in that don’t exist anywhere outside of human social construction.
Think of things like fairness, beauty, niceness, charisma, manners, equality, justice, postmodernism, celebrity. These are not real in any sense apart from a human understanding of them. I am not saying they are not good things, or that they are good things, only that they are the result of human construction and nothing more.
I like to ask myself if something would keep a bear from eating me to decide if it is real or not.
Violence or speed or being better at hiding than the bear is at finding would save me, but concepts would not. Telling the bear that it is unfair to eat me because we are unequal in our ability to fight will get me eaten. Brad Pitt telling the bear not to eat him because he is too handsome and too famous to die will get him eaten. These are just concepts. They don’t mean anything beyond human agreement.
We are humans, living in a complex human world and human society, so these things are necessary, but we often get them confused as things that are inherently existent in the world when they are not.
This makes us think they are going to be more present than they are, or that they are inherently good things. Maybe some of them are, others maybe are not, but they are created by us, for us.
Mindfulness and Balance with Our Nature
We spent a great deal of our history as a species living in tribal groups and clans, but we do not have this anymore. Most of us spend our evenings in small boxes with our immediate families, if we are fortunate enough to have that. Many of us live alone, or with people we don’t really know. We spend our days surrounded by strangers in distinctly non-natural environments.
In the past, we had a much better chance of seeing how the work we did with our bodies actually fed and sustained our bodies. The work we do now has very little to do with actually maintaining our lives, it is rare to have a direct correlation between the hours you trade and what you receive in return. Everything goes through a layer or two of symbolic representation before translating into anything that helps keep us alive. In my job, every hour that I sit with someone brings X amount of dollars to my bank account, which then can be translated into cash or spent with a debit card. This is not a direct exchange for the things that keep my family and me alive. It is an exchange in which I receive a credit I can trade in for those things. I am always at least one step away from how my work feeds my people and me.
We spend very little or no time outside unless you count walking to our cars. We rarely see the stars. We are almost never in danger. Our food is waiting for us in the supermarket or the drive-thru, and it is often hard to actually even call it food. I am not onboard with the societal notions of beauty driving people to be unhealthily skinny or insanely defined and sculpted, but to say that we can eat whatever we want and still have our bodies operate as they were meant to operate is pure nonsense. We even apply fabricated ideas and ideologies to something as simple and basic as what we put into our bodies as fuel.
Our bodies are meant to move and work, but if we work our bodies at all, it is often in a building specifically designed for working our bodies. We earn symbolic representations that we exchange for being allowed into a building where there are manmade machines that simulate the motions and exertions of working as our ancestors did every day.
All this is to say that we are very, very far removed from nature. We have created layer upon layer of separation, some physical, others mental, and each layer alienates us from ourselves because we are nature. When we separate ourselves from the natural world and create structures to bypass and circumvent it, we are bypassing and circumventing ourselves. This can only lead to suffering.
Mindfulness and Modernity
This is not to say that the modern world is bad or that society is an adverse development. I am writing this in a house on a computer connected to the internet so that I can post it on my website later while listening to Brain.fm on my Bluetooth headphones. I’m not exactly an anarcho-primitivist. I am only saying that we have to remember that none of our progress and technological achievement can alter our essential and inherent needs and desires, and much of how we live now is difficult for us.
This stands whether you think we evolved or were created or some combination of the two. Does anyone really think we evolved or were designed to sit in front of a computer screen all day or to sit in a car for hours at a time? To eat microwave meals and Starburst and drink Kool-Aid? To spend 90% of our time indoors?
The healthiest (all-around healthy, not just physically) people I know push back against this creeping anti-nature. They ride bikes outside and pay attention to what they eat. They work on projects because they want to and remember that their jobs are there to provide a means to live, not as the reason they live. They still go out and do things and really love their partners and haven’t given up on life yet.
In short, they live mindfully.