“Shall I not have intelligence with earth? Am I not partly leaves, and vegetable mould myself”?–Henry David Thoreau, Walden
As I wrote this in the Summer of 2012, acres and acres in 13 states of the American West were on fire. Now, in the Fall of 2012, the floods have swept through the American Northeast.
Recent fires and floods can force us into the arms of fear. However, in the face of the destruction I seek and have discovered striking and comforting similarities in the traditions of seemingly unrelated and geographically separated peoples: Buddhist and Native American.
The Buddhist practice of mindfulness and meditation, their belief in interdependence of all beings—from stones to humans, and respect for the great mystery of our illusions of separateness, these principles can also be found in teachings of numerous, if not most, Native American leaders and mystics. Each of these wisdom traditions emphasize our oneness with earth and its creatures. Each cautions us to engage in more silence, more listening and looking.
My own Buddhist practice is inseparable from the natural world and it’s there I go for answers. It’s there that I am advised to look by Buddha, the Native American, the poet, the naturalist philosopher, and my own elemental knowing.
At 6:30 AM from my balcony, behind the palms and under the oaks, the sky is deep orange and pink. The trees look black in this still-soft rising light. Out here there are no problems– only trees, birds, breezes and flowers. This is true no matter what problem I was keeping alive indoors.
Once I step out into the world, letting go simply happens with no effort on my part. The air, the rising sun, the plants, and trees absorb my anxiety, coax me to breathe again, to open my heart and drop my mask. The energy coursing through everything, endlessly, is silent. The only sounds that come and go at this hour are mockingbird songs, doves cooing, parrots and crows squawking, an occasional car growling down the street.
The air is exceptionally cool for this time of year in Florida and this would be an ideal time and place for meditation. But I have my coffee cup in my hand and still feel groggy. It occurs to me that I could keep my eyes open for this mediation and use the sky as my meditation focal point.
Eyes open, thoughts tumbling over and upon each other in my mind, I know the answer is to look up and remember the sky—just the sky. Wide open and silent—such relief. I watch my mind: thinking, thinking, sky, thinking, thinking, sky…: cluttered mind, open sky. Filled, crowded mind, empty sky. That peaceful spaciousness that the Buddha talks about is just outside my door. Large view, calm heart. Is more necessary?
Everything humans needed was once just outside their shelter.
Even now after we have carved up the land, depleted its soil, paved it over, built buildings that dwarf the remaining trees, and still “dream” of owning what land that remains and still build yet more structures to “protect themselves from the “wilderness” from “the elements—even now we need windows, French doors, bay windows, open floor plans, walk-in closets, “more room”seems to be our battle-cry.
Why do we so long for more room, a vista, a view? Maybe we long for home: the space, the spaciousness of sky and earth and shoreline where life flows, with no effort on our part.
Perhaps we are homesick. We cannot breathe deeply in these closed spaces.
the sky, the birds, and the open plains of grasses. Native Americans tried to tell us: the space is complete and filled with only what is real and needed. The place that is everywhere, filled with the knowledge of water and fire, of animals and insects.
“Knowledge was inherent in all things. The world was a library and its books were the stones, leaves, grass, brooks and the birds and animals that shared, alike with us, the storms and blessings of the earth. We learn to do what only the student of nature ever learns, and that is to feel beauty. -Chief Luther Standing Bear, Ogala Sioux 1868-1937
any place with a view. We pay top dollar to see mountains or ocean as if they were pictures in a museum—not live, not real. We “enjoy the view” before we return to reality paved over with concrete.
in our offices or our living rooms and long for what we call “vacation.” W call it “recharging our batteries” —not such an exaggeration since we have forgotten the source of our energy. Where do we go to “recharge”? Outside. Out to breathe again. Out to be quieted by mountains and lakes.
We return to
what we say is “full” of life: commerce, chatter, control, capital and terror. We fear what is empty because even as we yearn for it, we have forgotten what spaciousness really is.
There are no such things as emptiness in the world. Even in the sky there were no vacant places… The world teemed with life and wisdom; there was no complete solitude for the Lakota. —Luther Standing Bear
Luther Standing Bear (1868–1939), a Native American writer and actor (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
for what we destroyed—our true selves, our true home. We did not know we were destroying selves that share our atoms with every other living thing.
to the beaches and forests to bask in simplicity and non-doing. We rush to what is left of the wilderness to “get away from it all,” but not for long. We set aside so little time for our return home; we give it so little meaning. We “use” the earth and then “leave” it behind—as if we can leave nature until we visit it again, as if it is a museum.
The Native American and the Buddhist knows her/his body was of the soil, the water, the fire, the air. The Buddhist Forest Monks in Thailand sit in the charnel grounds watching the body’s elements fly into the air, float to the ground, settle back into the soil. They sit on the ground meditating.
The man who sat on the ground in his tipi meditating on life and its meaning, accepting the kinship of all creatures and acknowledging unity with the universe of things, was infusing into his being the true essence of civilization. —Luther Standing Bear
Except for environmentalists, most of us don’t think we have much in common with a boulder, a cactus, a pine, or chipmunk. However, if we decide to be “good” citizens, we support the Sierra Club and the Wildlife Conservation. Our good intentions all the while are for earth as the “other,” outside of us.
Earth’s body and creature’s are harmed, and we are harmed. Most of us still don’t know this. Not in our hearts and bones. We look at the earth as if we are viewing it from another planet. From a distance we pity what we have done to the forests, the water, the air. So, we think we must fix it, repair it like it was our car or our house—still believing in the illusion that we are the stewards of our “inferior” wildlife and its habitat.
“Fear, separation, hate and anger come from the wrong view that you and the earth are two separate entities, the Earth is only the environment (italics mine). You are in the centre and you want to do something for the Earth in order for you to survive. That is a dualistic way of seeing…So to breathe in and be aware of your body and look deeply into it and realize you are the Earth and your consciousness is also the consciousness of the earth. Not to cut the tree not to pollute the water, that is not enough… “ Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist teacher and writer
Most of us still hold earth at arm’s length like anthropologists: earth as us, we are earth… hmm…an interesting idea held by indigenous folks and spiritual types.
Speaking for myself, aside from moments of reading poems by Mary Oliver (who knows what a snake wants upon waking), or essays by poetic naturalists like Chet Raymo (who knows what the stars say), or novelists like Louise Erdich (who knows what the green grass teaches), except for those time, I know that I have held this dual notion of earth being “out there” and not a part of me.
‘We believe that the spirit pervades all creation and that every creature possesses a soul in some degree, though not necessarily a soul conscious of itself. The tree, the waterfall, the grizzly bear, each is an embodied Force, and as such an object of reverence.” –Chiyesa (Charles Eastman) Santee Sioux, 1858-1939
The East drowns and the West will burn again. A lightning strike ignited the parched trees. The melting icecaps raise the ocean levels. Nature, we know, is responding to our hundreds of years of abuse. The earth responds to cause and effect as do humans. Buddha called this phenomena karma. Native Americans knew our karma would result in nature’s pained response.
The East drowns and West will burn again. First, face ourselves, our terrified minds. See ourselves mirrored in the water and the sky, in the eyes of a dolphin and a dove.
“We are part fire, and part dream. We are the physical mirroring of Miaheyyum, the Total Universe, upon this earth our Mother...” —Fire Dog, Cheyenne