Is spending time learning from nature a good idea?
Yes. We need all the help to flourish we can get!
It is difficult to flourish, to live well. In fact, to some degree or other, nearly all of us are dissatisfied (discontent, disappointed, irritated, unhappy, hurting). It seems sometimes as if sages, those who are happy and wise, only exist in our imaginations.
If learning from nature is a good idea, what’s so difficult about it? Why not just observe nature and read off its lessons?
Since our observations are theory-laden, it’s not that simple. If we bring our theories and stories to nature when learning from nature, we will tend to find only what we expect to find. An occasional unexpected similarity or difference may surprise us, but it will lack what is required to help us to flourish.
On the other hand, it’s impossible not to bring our theories and stories to nature and simply observe it neutrally. When we try to bracket our preconceptions in order to set them aside, we fail.
So what can we do? Is learning from nature impossible?
No, but, it requires a certain mindset. Distinguish the two kinds of consciousness: Thought and Awareness. Thought is conceptual, judgmental and egoic. It’s our normal, everyday kind of consciousness. Awareness is nonconceptual, nonjudgmental and nonegoic. It’s the unusual kind of consciousness that comes from accepting the present moment wholly as it is. My thesis is that learning from nature how to flourish requires Awareness.
I’m not here thinking of what might be called learning about nature in the usual way that children or scientists learn correlations through observation of patterns. Instead, I’m thinking only of learning how to flourish from nature. Understanding that, for example, water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen is irrelevant to flourishing.
In his famous essay “Self-Reliance,” the American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson points out that it is possible to learn how to flourish simply by becoming deeply aware of a flower:
“These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God to-day. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence. . . ” [I’m grateful to Eckhart Tolle for pointing out this passage.]
We humans are capable of learning from nature that we, too, are perfect in every moment of our existence. There’s an antidote to dissatisfaction! Why don’t we get that? Because we allow Thought constantly to overpower Awareness.
“But man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy and strong until he, too, lives with nature in the present, above time.”
Thought is always temporal. We understand the world using concepts, and our concepts are at least implicitly always embedded in stories (narratives). Even seemingly abstract theories can be understood as stories.
There’s nothing wrong with Thought. It’s impossible to live without it. There is, though, a lot wrong with a compulsive addiction to Thought, namely, that it overpowers Awareness. All Thought and no Awareness necessarily creates suffering.
What’s the answer? It’s to practice Awareness regularly throughout the day. Doing so is what gives depth to our experiences. Since it’s the corrective for Thought, it’s necessary for flourishing. There’s no consciousness of the eternal without it.
(Notice how Thought is instantly bored with the present moment! It doesn’t get its depth and, so, leaps ahead or behind or elsewhere.)
It is not necessary to remain bound by the temporal. At least part of the time, let go of Thinking in favor of Awareness. Really learning from nature requires it. Flourishing requires a balance of Thought and Awareness.