Monday, 8 October 2012

Mindful Sitting: Joy in Nature

"Nature is our mother. Because we live cut off from her, we get sick. Some of us live in boxes called apartments, very high above the ground. Around us are only cement, metal, and hard things like that. Our fingers do not have a chance to touch the soil; we don’t grow lettuce anymore. Because we are so distant from our Mother Earth, we become sick. That is why we need to go out from time to time and be in nature. It is very important. We and our children should be in touch again with Mother Earth. In many cities, we cannot see trees—the color green is entirely absent from our view." - Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace is Every Step (1992), p106.
"Bird-song drowns me in feeling.
Back to my shack of straw to sleep.
Cherry-branches burn with crimson flower,
Willow-boughs delicately trail.
Morning sun flares between blue peaks,
Bright clouds soak in green ponds.
Who guessed I’'d leave that dusty world,
Climbing the south slope of Cold Mountain?" - Zen Hermit Hanshan (9th Century AD), Words From Cold Mountain: Twenty-Seven Poems by Han-Shan (Translated by A. S. Kline, 2006).
"Nature never deceives us; it is we who deceive ourselves." -  Jean-Jacques Rousseau
"Don't go outside your house to see the flowers.
My friend, don't bother with that excursion.
Inside your body there are flowers.
One flower has a thousand petals.
That will do for a place to sit.
Sitting there you will have a glimpse of beauty
inside the body and out of it,
before gardens and after gardens." - Indian Mystic Poet and Spiritualist Kabir (1440–1518)
"Many roads lead to the Path, but basically there are only two: reason and practice. To enter by reason means to realize the essence through instruction and to believe that all living things share the same true nature." - Bodhidharma (5th/6th century CE), Outline of Practice, The Zen Teachings of Bodhidharma.
"Be soft in your practice. Think of the method as a fine silvery stream, not a raging waterfall. Follow the stream, have faith in its course. It will go its own way, meandering here, trickling there. It will find the grooves, the cracks, the crevices. Just follow it. Never let it out of your sight. It will take you." - Zen (Chan) Master Sheng-yen, Zen Poem.
"As we sit down next to a stream, we can listen to its laughter and watch its sparkling waters, noticing the pebbles glistening and the fresh green plants nearby, and we may be overcome with happiness. We are one with the stream's freshness, purity, and clarity." - Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, The Sun My Heart (1988), p39

Like certain physical sensations during yoga, the psychological 'unfurling' which occurs during mindful sitting meditation can be pretty painful at times. This appears to be as necessary and unavoidable as the loss of a youthful physique, declining health as we age, or the passing away of loved ones. However, it does not seem necessary that one should primarily see the practice as 'facing pain'. As with yoga, there is an incredibly enjoyable potential to mindful sitting, and it seems available right from the start.

When I was a child I lived in the Welsh Mountains in an isolated old farmhouse - the fields, streams, and small forests were my playgrounds. I used to think it was an unfortunate situation compared to what I imagined city or even village life must have been like, but now, having lived in cities, I feel like I was one of the luckiest people on the planet.

This is the Welsh countryside where the author grow up until his teens.
My sister and I used to play at a special little place along a stream in a wooded area. We called it 'Paradise'. There was a tiny cliff over which the stream fell foamily into a mini plunge pool, at the bottom of a bucket-sized alcove enclosed protectively by mossy banks - it was like a kind of 'bonsai waterfall'.

Upon returning to that area of Wales a few years ago, I went back to the stream, and found, to my disappointment, that my childhood paradise had since disappeared. These days I feel I experience it in various forms in other places; at times, it seems, even within my own natural makeup. This is not any kind of deep insight - it is exactly what science tells us, and yet it is a perspective that is not often reinforced in our busy, technologically enhanced and office-enclosed lives.

The author and his partner, returning to the Welsh mountains in 2008.
The joy we feel when standing on a beach looking out to the ocean, appreciating a landscape from a mountaintop, or sitting beside a forest stream is a different kind of pleasure than that which, for example, we normally experience while intoxicated at a disco.

The former pleasure, rooted in a calm and grounding appreciation of nature, seems to affirm something deep within us - conjures up a sense of wholesomeness and humility. The latter kind of pleasure; excitment, as mentioned in the quote by Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki in my post about Mindfulness and Boredom, can easily make our minds "rough and ragged".

The author on an empty beach in Sri Lanka at sunset.
The powerful yet soothing ebb and flow of the tide on sand, the juxtaposition of vast empty space and the undulating peaks and troughs of hills and valleys, the musical chatter of a fern-lined stream - they all bring with them fresh air, an excuse to get some exercise, and an environment possibly free of tragic human disturbance. And yet maybe there are deeper, more subtle processes at play when we immerse ourselves in these classic natural environments.

A photo taken by the author during a journey down the river at Dragon & Tiger Mountain, SouthEast China. This is one of the places where Daoism allegedly began.
Richard Ryan, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, conducted psychology experiments to study exposure to 'nature' relative to peoples' sense of well-being. He reports via this article referencing the Journal of Environmental Psychology: 'Spending time in nature makes people feel more alive, study shows' (2010):
"being outside in nature for just 20 minutes in a day was enough to significantly boost vitality levels. Interestingly, in the last study, the presence of nature had an independent energizing effect above that of being outdoors. In other words, conclude the authors, being outdoors was vitalizing in large part because of the presence of nature. The paper builds on earlier research by Ryan, Netta Weinstein, a psychologist at the University of Hamburg, Germany, and others showing that people are more caring and generous when exposed to nature. "We have a natural connection with living things," says Ryan. "Nature is something within which we flourish, so having it be more a part of our lives is critical, especially when we live and work in built environments."
This seems almost instinctive to many of us - but probably not to a huge number of people who live in cities and may have never had the opportunity to feel the beneficial effects of being immersed in natural environments for very long. Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, in his book The Sun, My Heart (1988), says, p38-39:
"Prince Siddhartha retired to the forest to sit beside a stream for many years before returning to the world of people. Today we live in noisy and polluted societies, filled with injustice, but we can take refuge in a public park or along a river bank for a moment."

Since our organic human bodies are as 'natural' as plants and rivers, it seems exploring our own 'nature' should improve our sense of well-being. When we sit down to do mindfulness meditation, we are doing just this - immersing ourselves in something very organic and natural, as long as we are happy to consider it as such.

The first organism was apparently made automatically; as a natural product of our planet's terrestrial atmosphere and rocky surface. The mountains and seas, and the clouds and gases layered on top, apparently interacted through straight-forward chemical reactions to produce what we now label as our consciousness.

MBSR Mindfulness founder Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn draws attention to how we are connected to Earthly nature when he writes of seated mindfulness meditation in Full Catastrophe Living (2005), p126-7:
"We are sitting in stillness, just being what we are, just as a mountain "sits there," unmoved by the changing of day into night and the changes of the weather and of the seasons. The mountain is always grounded, rooted in the earth. always still. always beautiful. It is beautiful just being what it is, seen or unseen, snow-covered or green, rained on or wrapped in clouds."
And of the sky, Soto Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki writes in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (1995), p86:
"We should always live in the dark empty sky. The sky is always the sky. Even though clouds and lightning come, the sky is not disturbed. Even if the flashing of enlightenment comes, our practice forgets all about it."

The author near the top of HuaShan Mountain, China, at Sunrise. This mountain range has historically been famous for Zen hermits. There is a martial arts contest podium built into the side of the mountain.
The natural environments which incubated and moulded life on Earth left traces of their physicality within our bodies. For example, as, "the heart and science of birth", says:
"Salt, sodium chloride or common rock salt is dissolved in the same proportion to water in the Earth's oceans as it is in our blood, amniotic fluid and tears."
One of our most ancient aquatic ancestors is apparently the sea sponge. It's basic multicellular structure acts like one giant cell - sucking in fluids from it's environment and excreting what it doesn't want. We are just more complicated versions of this mysterious creature. Here is a video showing sponges pumping fluids through their bodies:

It is very soothing to watch a sponge living in it's own peaceful way, and amazing to consider that as a chemical process, our own organic forms are seamlessly connected. Here is an animated gif showing the evolution from sponge to man:

In the same way we can become engrossed and emotionally anchored in perceiving a sponge filtering the dyed water around it, ocean waves lapping on the sea shore, or clouds slowly drifting across the sky, it seems we can become similarly engrossed in our own breathing - taking in the fluid air from around us, and extracting what we need. This means we always have 'true nature' to immerse ourselves in wherever we go.

Even when we are in the starkest of 'concrete jungles' or deserts, if we can do seated mindfulness meditation there is always a natural and wholesome paradise to take refuge in - a kind of zen garden within which to sit peacefully. We do not need to change our experience of our natural existence to appreciate it as a sponge, garden, mountain, or stream - it has it's own unique, amazing 'natural nature' - to be enjoyed as we sit mindfully. As Shunryu Suzuki says in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, p122:
"You should just sit in the complete calmness of your mind and not rely on anything. Just keep your body straight without leaning over or against something. To keep your body straight means not to rely on anything. In this way, physically and mentally, you will obtain complete calmness. But to rely on something or to try to do something in zazen [mindful sitting] is dualistic and not complete calmness."

 The ideas presented in this post are nothing new of course; humans make comparisons between people and non-living natural phenomena all the time: "He's a mountain of a man", "Don't be a drip", "She is a tree of knowledge", "He is an oasis of calm", etc. With such a strong modern focus on offices, indulging in our houses, and controlling our environments, however, we can begin to become detached from nature - all the while not even noticing it is right under, and vibrantly within the very existence of our noses. We are never far away from it - we are it.

Unfortunately, as good and reasonable as all this sounds, it does not mean much if we do not regularly sit in mindfulness. Shunryu Suzuki points this out in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, when comparing witnessing our true nature to seeing the moon, p121:
"...when we see the clear moon without anything covering it, we do not feel that roundness the same way we do when we see it through something else. When you are doing zazen [seated meditation], you are within the complete calmness of your mind; you do not feel anything. You just sit. But the calmness of your sitting will encourage you in your everyday life. So actually you will find the value of Zen in your everyday life, rather than while you sit. But this does not mean you should neglect zazen. Even though you do not feel anything when you sit, if you do not have this zazen experience, you cannot find anything; you just find weeds, or trees, or clouds in your daily life; you do not see the moon."
In order to find the true nature within us, we need to integrate ourselves with the natural processes we rely on, as Thich Nhat Hanh writes in The Sun My Heart (1988), p99:
"Meditate on the sun in every cell of your body. Meditate to see the sun in plants, in each nourishing morsel of the vegetables you eat. Gradually you will see "the body of ultimate reality" (Dharmakaya) and recognize your own "true nature.""

No comments:

Post a Comment