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Awake in the Wild
Mindfulness in Nature as a Path to Self-Discovery
By Mark Coleman
Inner Ocean PublishingCopyright © 2006 Mark Coleman
All rights reserved.
AWAKENING TO NATURE
Try to be mindful and let things take their natural course. Then your mind will become still in any surroundings, like a clear forest pool. All kinds of wonderful, rare animals will come to drink at the pool, and you will clearly see the nature of all things. You will see many strange and wonderful things come and go, but you will be still. This is the happiness of the Buddha.
— Achaan Chah, A Still Forest Pool
Some time ago, I had the pleasure of listening to renowned wildlife researcher Jane Goodall in conversation with the Mestizo Indian people from the Peruvian rainforest. Knowing how close they live to the land, Jane asked the Mestizo Indians how they distinguish between healing and poisonous herbal plants. The Mestizo Indians looked somewhat perplexed and answered that they listen to the plants in order to sense which are healing and which are harmful. For them, that deep level of attunement to the natural world is so innate they don't realize how unique it is.
Developing such a finely tuned attention requires us to perceive with all of our senses and live with an acute sensitivity to life. In Buddhist practice, this quality is called "mindfulness." It is an ability to be profoundly present, which can be cultivated through meditation practice. In a mindful state, we don't just look with our eyes; we arepresent with all the senses. Listening with our eyes and seeing with our ears teaches us how to open our hearts and minds to a deeper level of receptivity and listening.
Awakening to nature necessitates mindful attunement. This understanding is often lost even on those who spend great amounts of time in nature. I often hear nature enthusiasts saying things like, "I did the Rockies last year," or "I did the Grand Canyon," as if "doing" in nature is the ultimate wilderness experience. While things like jet-skiing and four-wheeling may be interesting experiences, our connection to nature is disrupted by the loud noise of engines, which doesn't necessarily allow a deeper personal connection with the forces and elements of nature. Even while backpacking and biking in the deepest backcountry, we can still be unaware of our environment, lost in our thoughts, planning our next novel or vacation, absorbed in endless conversation, or worrying about what lies ahead.
In order to awaken to nature, we must also get out of our homes, offices, and cars. I have driven through spectacular mountain country many times, enjoying the stunning mountain views and vistas of snow-capped ranges. But when I step out of the car, a very different experience vividly unfolds. I remember a time when I drove over a beautiful pass in the High Sierra. At the zenith I decided to stop. I stepped out of the car and turned off the engine. Instead of just enjoying the view, I suddenly felt the coolness of the mountain breeze, the crisp clarity of the high-altitude air tingling my face. I could hear the wind whistling through the silver fir trees and a raven calling from across the profoundly silent valley. I felt the frosty crunchiness of the ground under my feet, not yet warmed by the morning sun. I opened to the rich tapestry of what it means to be outside, intimate with the elements. Instead of viewing nature as a passing scene in a movie, I felt fully alive and connected to it.
While we can enjoy nature through the windows of our cars or on television, that's not how we awaken to nature's gifts. We need to get out into the misty woods, open meadows, sandy beaches, snowy mountains, and silent deserts if we are to receive the blessings that Achaan Chah spoke of. In the outdoors, our mind can wake up and becomes as clear as the still forest pool, our heart opens to a profound sense of love for every living breathing thing, and our body comes to a deep rest. We reconnect with our sense of awe and wonder at the mystery and abundance of being alive. The teachings and practices of this book will come alive only if you leave the comfort of your home and explore the natural world, which is always beckoning, just outside your front door.
Waking up to Life
The Master is awake
He watches.... He is clear
How happy he is, following the path of the awakened
For he sees that wakefulness is life.
— The Buddha, The Dhammapada
Soon after the Buddha's enlightenment, a young man impressed by the Buddha's radiance and presence asked him inquisitively, "Who are you? Are you a god?" The Buddha simply replied, "No." The young man then asked, "Then are you a man, or are you a spirit?" Again the Buddha said, "No." Confounded by these answers, the man finally asked, "Then what are you?" The Buddha replied, "I am awake." The man, bewildered by the response, shook his head and walked away.
The title "Buddha" literally means "to be awake." The central aim of Buddhist practice is to learn how to awaken to life — to wake up from confusion and suffering and to live a life imbued with awareness, compassion, and freedom.
The Buddha attained enlightenment under a Bodhi tree, as he meditated through the night of the new moon. It is not insignificant that he "awoke" while meditating outdoors. In fact, all of his spiritual practice prior to his awakening, as well as the forty-five years of his teaching ministry, took place in the forest. His life demonstrates how nature is a perfect place to cultivate this awakened quality of mind.
It is impossible for an animal to survive in the wild without developing a keen awareness of its environment. Animals need to look out for danger, sources of food and water, and mating partners. Watch how a coyote stalks through tall grassy meadows alert to every movement in the undergrowth. Observe how a white-tailed deer delicately moves through the woods looking for sweet grasses, attentive to the slightest sound of a potential predator.
Likewise, when we are in nature, walking through a dense conifer forest or through tall meadow grasses where we know there are rattlesnakes, our senses are naturally more alive. We become more alert to sounds, aware that the rustle of leaves in the bushes may be animal footsteps, perhaps signaling the threat of a predator. Just by stepping outside our homes, we may notice the scent of bay trees and evening jasmine, or the warm moist air as it brushes against our face. Our eyes may be drawn to the play of sunlight dancing through a canopy of copper beech leaves. Our feet may feel the soft, moist grass between our toes as the soles of our feet touch the firm ground underneath. Whatever the stimulus, nature invites us to wake up to this extraordinary world in which we live.
Buddhist practice offers the same invitation. We have an innate capacity for being aware. However, for most of us, our quality of attention is like a muscle that has been long dormant. Buddhist teachings offer an array of techniques and practices that can help us nurture and strengthen this quality of awareness. The central practice is "mindfulness" — the art of being fully present to what is happening in our direct experience, unfiltered by thoughts, concepts, or preferences. Mindfulness is a nonjudgmental, noninterfering attention. Once we cultivate mindfulness through meditation, we can begin to bring this quality to all aspects of our lives, and in particular use it to enrich and deepen our experience in nature.
Most of the time we go through life half asleep, only half awake to ourselves, our lives, and each other. We do so many things on autopilot that we barely notice we are doing them. How many times have you arrived at your destination after driving for half an hour, unable to remember how you got there or what happened en route? Living like this, we let life pass us by, unconscious to all the joys along the way. David, an investment advisor and a student of mine, used to loathe his "wasted" commute time going back and forth to the city of San Francisco. After he'd been meditating for some time, he noticed that, by being more mindful, he was able to avoid getting caught in his negative moods while driving. Instead, he began to notice the moments of beauty and pleasure on his drive — crossing over a beautiful bay, seeing the aquamarine water sparkle and the misty fog roll in from the ocean. He traded in his old car for one that allowed him to take the top down and see vast blue skies and the leafy trees that lined his route. Mindfulness allowed him to transform something that he had experienced as drudgery into an activity that brought greater happiness to his life. Instead of feeling hassled and stressed, he arrived home refreshed and present for his four children, who waited eagerly by the front door for him.
* * *
Meditation: Mindfulness of Breathing
In Buddhist practice, a principal way to develop mindfulness is to meditate by focusing on one's breath. You can do this practice anywhere, but for the purpose of awakening to both nature and life, you'll want to find a quiet place outdoors — whether that is in a still grove of trees, a secluded cove by the ocean, a grassy meadow, or your garden. Once you've found a spot, sit on the ground on a cushion or a rolled-up piece of clothing, or on a log or smooth rock. Assume a posture that is relaxed and comfortable; your breath can flow easily when you sit upright with your back relatively straight yet relaxed. Try to find a sitting position in which you can be comfortable for twenty to thirty minutes without much movement.
As you take your seat, notice what you are attentive to in this moment. We are always aware of something — whether it's our thoughts or what we see or hear or sense. Awareness is like the sun, forever shining even when it is obscured by the clouds of our thinking, distracted mind. Mindfulness of breathing is a way to begin to harness this quality of attention, to be more fully awake to what is happening in the present.
Close your eyes and bring your attention into your body. Sense the posture of your body and feel the sensations where the body touches the earth. Sit with as much ease as possible, relaxing your shoulders, belly, eyes, and jaw. Breathe naturally, without struggle or strain, and feel the full movement of your breathing. Feel the cool air of the in-breath as it passes through your nostrils and throat, and feel the warm air of the out-breath as it again passes through the throat and nostrils. Simply be present to the breath without trying to change it, and notice whether the breath is short or long, relaxed or tense, deep or shallow; observe how this changes over the duration of the meditation.
Notice the movement of the chest and belly, expanding and contracting as the breath enters and leaves the body. Let your attention settle on a place where you feel the sensations of breath most clearly, either at the nostrils, throat, chest, or belly. Pay attention just for the duration of one whole in-breath, one whole out-breath, and then repeat. You are learning how to pay attention to just this moment, this single half breath.
As you pay attention, you'll notice how much the mind thinks. This is natural. Simply notice when you are thinking or have been lost in thoughts. Once you see this, take the attention from the thought and gently return to the experience of breathing. Sometimes you'll have to bring your attention back from thinking to the breath hundreds of times in a single sitting. The practice becomes one of returning again and again to the present moment, each time you space out. And remember, this is a training. It's like learning any art form — it takes time, practice, and more practice!
If you notice that your breath is controlled when you meditate, which is a common phenomenon, see if there is a way you can let go of that layer of control. Sometimes taking your attention away from the breath for some moments — listening to sounds, becoming aware of the whole body while breathing — can allow the breath to flow more naturally. Meditation is a microcosm of how we live in the rest of our lives, so if there is tightness or control around your breath, it may indicate that there are other areas in your life you may be trying to control.
As you become more aware of your breath, you may also begin to notice how your breathing happens by itself. It requires no conscious volition on your part. It is simply a fact of organic life. However much the mind might wish to control the breath, your breath has been coming and going for decades, selflessly providing oxygen for your body, in perfect balance. Attending to something as simple as the breath can turn our awareness to the intelligence and mystery within this physical world.
Opening Our Hearts
Love every leaf.... Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an abiding universal love.
— Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
Some years ago, in spring, I led the first nature retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, amid the rolling hills of Marin County, California. Our meditation hall was a grassy meadow nestled deep into the hillside, flanked gracefully by mature oaks and bay laurel trees. We sat under the generous canopy of an old California oak tree from dawn till late in the moonlit evening.
During the retreat I talked about the sense of love I felt coming from the life forms in that meadow. The way the tree accommodated our whole group in its vast, shady cloak was a perfect expression of love — the tree was not wanting anything yet giving itself purely. It reminded me of a haiku by the Japanese poet Issa: "In the cherry blossom's shade/there is no such thing/as a stranger." Sometimes we just need to be quiet enough to appreciate the life-giving shade of an old oak tree, or the beauty and mystery of daisies, shining unabashedly in a sunny meadow.
When we attune to nature with sensitivity, we can see just how connected we are. Falling in love with a meadow, a limpid stream, a young fawn, or a grove of oak trees does not happen without those things "reaching out" and touching us in some way. We are always in relationship; we just rarely notice it. From this perspective, everything on this earth, from the spring rains that provide fresh drinking water to the warmth of the sun, is an open-hearted, generous offering. To wake up to this idea is to realize how abundant our lives truly are, how we receive gifts of love from nature all the time.
We can reciprocate this love. Often, as the participants in this first retreat were sitting in silent meditation in the meadow, a deer with her young fawn would walk slowly by. Because we were sitting so still, the animals would come close enough for us to look into their deep brown eyes and see their moist black noses. We watched as the mother tenderly licked and groomed her fawn's brown, furry neck and head. Tentative yet relaxed, they lounged in our company, allowing us to feel the fullness of love and tenderness in our own hearts. It is hard not to feel love in the face of such vulnerability and grace.
Opening our hearts to this earth is not a solely blissful experience. When we open our hearts to love, we also expose ourselves to feeling the pain of the world. The more our hearts love this beautiful earth and everything within it, the more we feel the pain of the life that is currently being harmed on the planet. Though this experience is sometimes difficult to bear, it has a purpose. Our love can help kindle the necessary fire within to protect that which we hold most dear. As any conservationist will tell you, we protect that which we most love.
Excerpted from Awake in the Wild by Mark Coleman. Copyright © 2006 Mark Coleman. Excerpted by permission of Inner Ocean Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsForeword by Jack Kornfield,
PART I: AWAKENING TO NATURE,
Waking up to Life,
Opening Our Hearts,
Becoming an Engaged Participant,
Dissolving into the Sky,
Beginning with Possibility,
Observing Space Itself,
Attuning to the Song of the Land,
Resting at Peace in the World,
Glimpsing the Sky Through a Window with Bars,
Marrying Ourselves to Amazement,
Experiencing the Freshness of Every Moment,
PART II: UNITING INNER AND OUTER WILDERNESS,
Reflecting the Rhythms of Nature,
Practicing the Art of Stopping,
Remembering Our Place in Life's Matrix,
Finding Unity in Diversity,
Protecting the Earth,
Exploring Our Discomfort with Nature,
Extending Our Circle of Compassion,
Cultivating a Positive State of Mind,
Intuiting Our Interconnection,
Staying with Our Raw Experience,
PART III: EMERGING INTO OUR TRUE POTENTIAL,
Forgetting Ourselves to Discover Ourselves,
Freeing Ourselves from Thinking,
Feeling the Pain Within,
Cutting Fear at Its Root,
Deepening Into Silence,
Accepting Our Limits with Grace,
Resting in Natural Ease,
Dwelling in Joy,
Encountering the Forces of Nature in Solitude,
Part IV: TAPPING INTO THE SACRED,
Discerning the Winds of Change,
Abiding with Contentment,
Surrendering to Imperfection,
Realizing Our Innate Wholeness,
Embracing the Changing Seasons,
Weathering the Storms of Life,
Opening to Sacred Mysteries,