INTENT

Nature-loving, Part 1: Hug a Tree (literally)

Though the INTENT framework comprises six interdependent dimensions of wellbeing (physical/mental, social, material, community, environmental, and existential), being nature-loving is quite likely the keystone of them all.  We can fully understand this by looking at its absence – the pervasive disconnect from nature that characterizes modern society. 

Western culture has long celebrated mastery over nature – bringing it under full control to serve the desires of humanity. The mindset and methods of domination are epitomized by the industrial revolution, when our economies shifted toward mechanized extraction of resources and routinized production of ever more goods to drive profit that benefited industrialists and depleted both laborers and the land. For a startling representation of this mindset, I would show my students Metropolis, the 1927 German sci-fi dystopian film, in which workers were fed to an underground machine to power the city’s elite business magnets in the skyscrapers above. This Marxist critique unit might be a bit esoteric, but we can still appreciate the damage done by such alienation, at least from an environmental standpoint. Scientists now recognize this geologic age as the anthropocene, when human activity has been the dominant influence on the environment and climate. Now 75% of the earth’s land is degraded, threatening the lives of 3.2 billion people as well as vital biodiversity, and the rate of global warming threatens even more if not curbed to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels within the next decade.

The damage occurring at the personal level has only been recently made explicit. Journalist Richard Louv coined the term “nature-deficit disorder” in his 2005 best-seller “Last Child in the Woods” to underscore what current generations have lost by spending increasingly less time outdoors, and in doing so, coalesced a movement to correct the human-nature disconnect. An ever-expanding body of scientific evidence suggests that nature-deficit disorder (not an actual medical diagnosis – yet) can result in diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, obesity, and higher rates of emotional and physical illnesses. This is the downside of the digital age, in which time on devices far outweighs time spent digging in the dirt.

The way to reverse this damage on both the planetary and the personal level is simple on the surface: spend more time in nature, with consciousness and care. Jacques Cousteau famously said “people protect what we love,” so if we love nature, we will naturally protect it. Yet like the other wellbeing dimensions, the difficulty is actually doing it. The rest of Cousteau’s quote gives some insight into how to proceed: we only love what we understand, and we only understand what we are taught. That sounds like a clear call for an intentional approach to nature-loving that involves learning not only how to be conscious of our true relationship with nature, but also how to regenerate it in a way that produces both immediate and long-term benefits.

Turning to examples from the Asoke group, it is admittedly easier to connect with nature when you live intimately with it…say, in a small agrarian community in rural Thailand. In fact, before they could move into their community, they had to create it by regenerating a barren, abandoned cemetery so that it could once again support life. This regeneration has a clearly pragmatic, instrumental, means-to-ends feel to it.  You might ask: how is this different from the mastery-of-nature-for-human-purposes mindset? As Buddhists, the difference lies in their perceived embeddedness in the natural world and their practice to generate consciousness of it. This mental development is perhaps the key to a cultural shift that would allow us all to live well together on this one small planet.

I. CONSCIOUSNESS

Since the Santi Asoke movement is first and foremost a Buddhist reform movement, I would be remiss if I did not take up the topic of a core Buddhist concern: samãdi. This term is often translated as meditation, but it more accurately refers to a state of consciousness in which our sense of self merges with our universal nature –or more glibly, “we become One with the Universe.” Achieving this state requires intentional concentration so that we heighten awareness of ourselves, our surroundings, and our inherent, embedded existence within the natural world.

When most people think of Buddhist practice, we imagine sitting cross-legged with our eyes closed, monitoring our breath; but this is only one method. Several Srisa Asoke residents astutely commented that the peace generated in stillness and isolation is lost as soon as one reenters the world. Instead, Asoke members practice “open eye” meditation continuously as they work and interact with others within their community. This approach shows the influence of the premier Thai monk, Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, who was in turn influenced by Zen Buddhists. Than Buddhadasa explains the concept simply: “Dhamma sweeps the heart while the broom sweeps the ground.” In the Asoke approach, daily activities provide countless opportunities to practice general awareness, a calm mind, concentration on tasks and interactions, and control of feelings such as anger, jealousy, aversion, and pleasure. 

Full disclosure here: I am not a fan of traditional sitting meditation. During my research, I made a trip to Wat Suan Mokkh, which Than Buddhadasa established decades ago. Besides having a library where I could access hard-to-find writings by Than Buddhadasa, Wat Suan Mokkh regularly holds meditation retreats that are conducted in English. Eager to learn more about traditional meditation as it is practiced in Thailand (to compare to the Asoke approach), I attended a 10-day silent retreat as my introduction to Buddhist practice. Afterward, I joked that I enjoyed everything but the meditation. Perhaps I had (have) an utterly unruly “monkey mind” (i.e., thoughts that run wild, knock fruit out of the hands of tourists, and steal their shiny jewelry), but I simply could not endure the hours of sitting still, doing nothing. So the Asoke group’s “open eye” meditation had an immediate logic and appeal for me.

The most thoughtful explanation of the Asoke approach to samãdi came not from a studied monk, but from Ah Jaenjop, a former street vendor with a 4thgrade education hailing from the impoverished Northeast:

When we work, our heart is with our work. Like [this morning] when I was sitting soaked in muddy water pulling weeds. My heart was not somewhere else. Then we look at our thoughts. It is similar to looking into a glass. We see the glass itself, and then we see the water in the glass. We can see if the water is swirling and when it stops. We can see if it’s different colors—green or red—or if it is clear. If we can develop mindfulness, it brings about knowledge and understanding. The heart sends the body to stay. That is samãdi. While we are working, we have awareness, wisdom, and knowledge of the work we do.

In that moment when the water stops swirling – when the heart, mind, body, and surroundings come together – we catch a glimpse of sublime oneness that is the pinnacle of Buddhist practice; a.k.a, enlightenment; a.k.a., nirvana. Maybe my aversion to traditional meditation comes from my sense that consciousness is achieved not from separating ourselves from the world but from appreciating being right down in the mud.

Of course, it is difficult to tell if people are actually developing consciousness while they work, as it is largely an internal process. The Asoke members say that the outward signs of good samãdiare harmonious human relations, fewer mishaps, and high-quality products of work. While I could never fault their work for being shoddy and I heard few serious quarrels, it is not clear whether the latter is due to good samãdior Thai cultural norms. Thais commonly krengjai; that is, they act in consideration of others, are reluctant to impose, and, by implication, avoid conflict. And although monks do roam the community to observe and advise residents while they work, samãdimay be something that occurs on a sporadic rather than continuous basis. Still, intention and effort are half the battle.

What’s the connection between the Buddhist notion of consciousness and nature loving? Extending from our perception of the nature of reality as universal one-ness – as our selves as being one with nature, we could adapt the Golden Rule here as “Love nature as you love yourself.” More explicitly, Than Buddhadasa identifies Dharma (the Buddha’s teachings) withnature, and being attuned with the lessons of nature as tantamount to at-one-ment with the Dharma. In fact, the Thai word for nature (thammachat) has Dharma (thamma) as its root. From Buddhadasa’s standpoint, then, the destruction of nature is the destruction of Dharma itself. Consequently, the good of individual parts is predicated on the good of the whole and vice versa.  

Lesson: Practice consciousness to comprehend our one-ness with nature.

Meditation practice continues to grow in popularity among Americans, likely due to increased recognition of the mind-body benefits (such as reducing stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia, blood pressure, and the likelihood of heart disease, while increasing attention, focus, memory, and energy).  In 2017, a CDC report documented that 14.2% of US adults meditated in the past 12 months, up from 4.1% in 2012.  While this trend is positive, research shows that the benefits of meditation come from consistent, long-term (10 plus years) practice, yet most people just don’t stick with it. For example, a 2018 studyof a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program showed that 61% of participants dropped off by year six. Researchers (such as those cited in this 2017 literature review) are trying to identify the predictors of success for implementing a routine meditation practice, like lived experience and personality factors, but little is yet known about what works for whom and why. So for those of us who “like everything but the meditating” at meditation retreats but still want the benefits, we might take the Asoke approach and look to the world around us. 

As it turns out, spending quality time with nature offers many results similar to meditation while being far more accessible – just about everyone can find some sliver of nature to experience.  A growing body of epidemiological evidence indicates that greater exposure to natural environments is associated with better health and wellbeing (at least among populations in high income, urbanized societies) including these listed in a 2019 article published in Nature

lower probabilities of cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, asthma hospitalization, mental distress, and ultimately mortality, among adults; and lower risks of obesity and myopia in children; […in addition to] better self-reported health and subjective well-being in adults, and improved birth outcomes and cognitive development in children.

There’s also ample research (like this 2012 study from the University of Utah) that documents how exposure to nature prompts changes in the brain that boost memory, attention, and creativity and other brain activity– perhaps just the motivation our techy, productivity-driven society needs to get outside. 

While we have a growing body of research that demonstrates whathappens when humans spend time in nature, it is less clear howit works – the mechanisms by which nature exposure improves individual health, wellbeing, and neurologic functioning are not well understood – or even whyhumans seem to need nature so much. To address that last question, evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson introduced the biophilia hypothesis, which suggests that the affinity humans feel for other life forms is rooted in our DNA – humans evolved as ecological beings with great capacity to perceive, ponder and protect other living species. In fact, in the field of anthropology, there’s increasing interest in multispecies ethnography, which foregrounds organisms whose lives and deaths are linked to human social worlds. A variety of life forms including plants, animals, fungi, and microbes that were once featured as simply landscape or food or symbols are now central to accounts depicting more-than-human life. This academic recognition for multispecies interactions will shed new light on the importance of the natural world for humans (and vice versa). In the meantime, we can still get the benefits of spending time in nature while the scientists work out the specifics.

It would be helpful, however, to know how much orwhat kindof nature exposure will produce the desired results. Florence Williams set out to provide answers to such questions in Nature Fix, in particular looking at three “doses”: the immediate affects of quick exposure to “nearby nature;” more consistent, long-term exposure like the Finnish 5-hours-a-month model; and deeper dives into the wilderness, like a 4-day backpacking trip. While we can get some benefit by looking at greenery out the window, Richard Louv prescribes Vitamin N to help heal nature-deficit disorder, which we get from more immersive experiences that extend beyond the visual exposure. Louv asserts in The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Agethat the more digital our lives become, the more Vitamin N we need. 

 An immersive nature experience doesn’t necessarily require expensive backpacking gear, but it might be helpful to have a guide…perhaps one certified by the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy. Nature/forest therapy is a research-based framework to promote wellbeing through immersion in natural environments that engages all our senses, and it isinspired by the Japanese practice of shinrin-yokuor “forest bathing.” According to ANFT, “It is a practice of developing a deepening relationship of reciprocity, in which the forest and the practitioner find a way to work together that supports the wholeness and wellness of each.” This approach to reconnecting with nature comes closest to the Asoke practice of consciousness, both in terms of its meditative qualities (generating awareness of natural surroundings and our place within) and its ethic of care. Thus the human-nature relationship promoted through nature therapy is not a repackaging of the modern exploitative one, in which we still seek to extract benefit from nature, but a regenerative, mutually beneficial one.

Ultimately what we need for the survival of our species is this very nature-loving mindset – as Cousteau would say, “we protect what we love.” But before we start to get all instrumental in our thinking about how nature-loving leads to conservation values and behaviors, let’s just appreciate its intrinsic value. Go sit under a tree, take a deep breath, and enjoy the moment.

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