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Noticing Nature

Despite the lip service paid to it, noticing nature (the natural world, other-than-human reality) is much more beneficial than seems to be commonly realized.

The underlying logical distinction is between simply singling out an object (paying attention to an object, being aware of an object, noticing an object, picking something out as an object of attention) and understanding an object (conceptualizing an object, making a judgment). If we use the variable “x” to denote an object and “F” to denote a concept (principle of classification), the distinction is between just x and x is an F.

For example, a young child may just notice this object, whereas an adult may immediately take it to be a lily. To understand an object is to take it to be of a certain kind, to have a certain essence or “whatness” that places it in a conceptual hierarchy according to relevant similarities and differences. To understand something is to conceptualize it.

Habitually using a conceptual system for many years makes it phenomenologically impossible to distinguish singling out from understanding. An adult just sees this object as a certain kind of flower (as opposed to merely noticing it and subsequently classifying it). Though in daily life we may not notice the difference between just picking out and making a judgmnet, the logical distinction is always there.

So being aware of the natural world is not the same as understanding it.

In fact, understanding nature can get in the way of noticing it! A botanist may become so enamored of labeling flowers that he no longer pays any attention whatsoever to noticing them. This is reminiscent of one of Marx’s examples of alienated labor, namely, of the mineral dealer who has lost his mineralogical sense and, instead of noticing the beauty and unique nature of a mineral, is wholly absorbed in its mercantile value.

What’s wrong with understanding the other-than-human? By itself, nothing. It’s often extremely useful to understand it.

However, the price we pay for becoming wholly absorbed in understanding is enormous. There are at least two reasons for this.

First, the more we become stuck understanding what-is, the more attached we become to how we understand it. Madness is being attached to a conceptual system. Why?  Even correct understanding is always only partial.  No conceptual system is reality. There are an indefinitely large number of ways to understand reality; an indefinitely large number of alternative conceptual systems are possible. Since alternative understandings are always possible, it is madness to attach to a single system as being the best possible system. Such attachment could never be justified. Attachment is always madness based on delusion.

Second, there are two domains of reality, which are sometimes called “the conditioned” and “the unconditioned.” Like two sides of a coin, it’s impossible to have one without the other. Living wisely or well requires living a balanced life, which is a life balanced between the conditioned and the unconditioned. Becoming wholly absorbed understanding nature is ignoring the unconditioned.  Ignoring the unconditioned is the paradigmatic human madness.

Noticing nature is one of the classic ways of curing that madness. 

Next time you see a lily, don’t automatically conceptualize it; instead, just notice it. Don’t think about it. Don’t classify it. Don’t evaluate it. Just experience the wonder of its being. Appreciate its stillness. Let it be. 

If you frequently practice just being aware of nature like that, your life will go better. It’s a better way to live. You’ll become less mad.

Please find out for yourself.

Posted in intellectual well-being

5 COMMENTS

carlo f - posted on 25/04/2011 10:33 am

I like the distinction between noticing and conceptualizing.

Bradford writes:

There are an indefinitely large number of ways to understand reality; an indefinitely large number of alternative conceptual systems are possible. Since alternative understandings are always possible, it is madness to attach to a single system as being the best possible system. Such attachment could never be justified. Attachment is always madness based on delusion.

I am not convinced that some conceptual systems are not better (from a point of view) than most others (from that same point of view). To see the flower as a lily and as white, is better than to see it as a mouse and as brown.

But there is obviously a lot more to be said here…

CF

Dennis Bradford, Ph.D. - posted on 25/04/2011 2:09 pm

I agree (and never meant to imply otherwise).

It’s unlikely that anyone would disagree with the claim that, for certain purposes, some conceptual systems are better than others. In fact, one system may be better than the alternatives for most everyday purposes.

My chief point, of course, had to do with the frequently overlooked value of getting outside or beyond any conceptual system.

D.B.

Mark Keicher - posted on 29/04/2011 10:39 am

I wholeheartedly agree. In fact, yesterday, while I was cleaning up the yard, I noticed a piece of cellophane being whipped up by the intense winds. Ordinarily one might bitch about the senseless littering by the nasty humans. Instead, I just watched it dance….nature’s ballet, if you will. It was glorious!

elisa - posted on 04/12/2011 9:30 am

I would like you to further develop conditioned and unconditioned, I would like you to tell me what you meant by that choice of words and how you define/conceptualize them and how you wished me to see you chunking them back to understanding vs noticing. Thanks!

Dennis E. Bradford, Ph.D. - posted on 04/12/2011 12:07 pm

Good question, Elisa. Thanks for it.

There is always a problem of terminology when talking about what I usually call “Becoming” (the conditioned, the manifested, the temporal) and “Being” (the unconditioned, the unmanifested, the eternal). Use whichever words appeal to you. I have a post on just that terminology: it’s 1115, The Bifurcation of Reality.

I have lots of posts discussing the distinction itself in the spiritual well-being category. (Please don’t confuse “spiritual” with “religious.” That’s another unfortunate result of there being no standard terminology.)

You touch on a critical problem: it is impossible to conceptualize Being. If to think is to conceptualize, then Being is the same as no-thought. Unlike Becoming that is always filtered through a screen of concepts, Being is directly apprehended nonconceptually. So neither I nor anyone else can tell you how to conceptualize Being. That is why, for example, the Buddha preferred to characterize it negatively. Although we all try initially, it’s even important to stop trying to conceptualize it.

That’s the purpose of any kind of spiritual practice or portal: to let go of all thinking in order to experience Being directly. (It’s natural to do it occasionally even without deliberately trying, but such glimpses are merely interesting and hardly seem important, much less life-changing.)

Yesterday’s post (Ordering Objects in the intellectual well-being category) has more on noticing or singling out objects.

I hope that helps a bit. Let me encourage you to submit comments or questions on anything you read here.

Peace, Dennis


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