The air was cold and crisp that afternoon in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, as is typical in early January. Yet, each breath filled my lungs with a soothing warmth and sense of admiration. The first step off the paved path and onto the dry, broken blades of grass hardly seemed to be the start of any sort of unique journey outside the confines of the urbanized society below. It was late in the day, so the beaten track – evidence that I was not alone in making these idyllic pursuits – had already soaked up the earliest drops of frozen dew. The lack of other nature “tourists” pulling off the parkway to take pictures and stare out to behold the beauty of the natural world gave the impression that the spot’s removal from a thriving town – only twenty minutes away – was much further removed than it really was. Nevertheless, admiring and immersing myself in the serene landscape that fell before me was enough to make all of those simplistic observations disappear. Thoreau famously confessed over a century ago that he had gone out into the wilderness, because he wanted to “live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life,” and to see if he “could not learn what it had to teach.” ((Henry David Thoreau, Walden: An Annotated Edition, ed. Walter Harding (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1949), 87.)) That afternoon, I was reminded yet again that he was correct in locating the “essential facts of life” in the serenity that the solitude of the woods has to offer. Escaping the confines of the mundane, and staring out into the mountainous landscape, breathing in the cold, crisp air, permitted the type of transformative realization that the artificiality of everyday life could not seemingly provide…
Reflecting back on that day, however, I am reminded of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings regarding interbeing and the five aggregates. The five aggregates, or “skandhas,” not only comprise each and every human being, but also contribute to the misunderstanding that each one of us is a separate, individual “Self.” Physical form (rupa), feelings and sensations (vedana), perceptions and cognitions (samjña), mental formations and impulses/dispositions (samskara), and consciousness (vijñana) all give us the impression that we exist, separate from each other, and more importantly, from the rest of the world around us. Indeed, it is this misconception that is understood to be the premier cause of our suffering in the world. However, fully apprehending the wisdom contained in this notion of the “Self” is impossible if only recognizing it as characterizing the interaction between human beings. To assist in establishing the magnitude of this understanding, Thay famously extends an analogy to a wooden table:
Consider the example of a table. The table’s existence is possible due to the existence of things which we might call “the non-table world”: the forest where the wood grew and was cut, the carpenter, the iron ore which became the nails and screws, and countless other things which have relation to the table, the parents and ancestors of the carpenter, the sun and rain which made it possible for the trees to grow. ((Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness (Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 1987), 47.))
The analogy is meant to demonstrate the fact that within each object resides things that would not typically be considered part of them: “in the table itself are present all those things which we normally think of as the non-table world.” ((Ibid.)) What happens when just one of these elements is taken away, though – if the parents and ancestors of the carpenter are removed, if the sunlight and rain are cast aside? Well, we would have one less table in the world. But, there is more to it. Meditating on this reality, and on the assembly of the skandhas, allows one to truly see the interconnectivity that permeates the universe. If just one of the aggregates were separated from its conglomeration – just as if the wood returned to the forest, or the roots from which those trees sprang returned to their seedlings – the “Self” would cease to exist. The point, then, is to understand that we are not as distinct or divorced from the natural world, and those beings contained therein, as would normally be assumed at first glance. As Muir once famously wrote, “Most people are on the world, not in it.” ((John Muir, John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, ed. Linnie Marsh Wolfe (Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1938), 320.)) It is precisely this orientation that needs to be remedied.
The experiential side of Buddhist thought is one from which the current environmental “crisis” can certainly benefit as well. Indeed, this has been Thay’s preoccupation for many years, and one of the guiding principles of Engaged Buddhism. Countless “solutions” have been proposed throughout the years, but many of these “solutions” approach the “crisis” in ways that are almost as detrimental to the climate change they seek to resolve. The typical Western response is constantly and consistently referred to as the “fight against climate change,” or as an attempt to “stop global warming,” and the like, usually framed from an anthropocentric perspective. However, this should not characterize the way we attempt to allay the detrimental state of affairs in which we find ourselves: out of touch with the natural world, and under the impression that what we do is divorced from an external reality that surrounds us. Muir expressed this insightful wisdom during his time spent traveling throughout the mountains of the Sierra: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” ((John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998), 157.)) Perhaps we are each in need of a similar, illuminating mountainous journey.
The reality behind this “fight” is that it is really a fight against ourselves. When we realize that we “inter-are” with the natural world, we realize that it must be approached and attended to – and thus, transformed – in the same manner we would approach our own transformation and mindfulness practice. “In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon,” Emerson wrote, “man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature.” ((Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, Nature/Walking (Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 1991), 9.)) Thinking back to the aforementioned analogy, we can see the need to avoid making distinctions between the “Self” and “non-Self”; there is simply no difference. Humans are composed of “non-human” elements, just as the table is composed of “non-table” elements. Protecting and living harmoniously with those “non-human” elements is protecting and living harmoniously with ourselves.
We must be mindful of our actions, thoughts, and speech, in order to discover the deeper reasons for our disgruntlement and pain, and the “crisis” that confronts us must be approached in the same way. Humans are just as much a part of the natural world as are the clouds floating by, or the flowers swaying peacefully in the breeze. However, to deny that nature can also be destructive and disruptive is to deny an intrinsic fact of life. We must approach this reality harmoniously – working with it, instead of against it. Our actions must embrace the relationships we have with other individuals and the natural landscape that continues to draw our romantic fascinations. We must take those moments of escape we so desperately seek to experience outside ourselves, and extend that sense of wonder and awe they inspire to our everyday lives.
I am again reminded of Muir: “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves…The petty discomforts…are quickly forgotten, while all that is precious remains.” ((John Muir, Our National Parks (Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1981), 56-57.)) On those mountaintops from which we so peacefully and momentarily gaze out into the haze of blues and greens occupying the majestic, earthen space painting the horizon, we can easily forget that these instances of profound beauty and “at-one-ment” can, and rightfully should, be extended to our everyday lives; they need not only take place during our escape from what we mistakenly call the mundane. We must learn to visit these moments of “at-one-ment” throughout ordinary tasks and experiences, not separate from the world we regularly embrace and occupy…
After a final gaze toward the highest peaks poking up across the sky, and a final attempt to capture the essence of the experience on film before re-immersing myself into the world from which I came, I could not help but feel something anew. Indeed, something profound and foreboding had occurred, and I was reminded of my own visceral existence. Romantic aspirations aside, it would be incorrect to assume the exclusivity of the power of nature: the “essential facts of life” need not remain tucked away, deep in the woods, underneath the comforts of contemporary life. They can be discovered throughout all contexts and circumstances. It seems my journey that afternoon had been unique after all. Stepping back onto that well-trodden path and exhaling one last breath of that crisp, cleansing air, I was reminded that…I am this air, I am these mountains, I am this path. And it was on that path that I took this realization home.
Spots of time.
The experience is described beautifully and reminds me of Wordsworth. He describes it in a famous passage near the end of The Prelude:
There are in our existence spots of time,
That with distinct pre-eminence retain
A renovating virtue…
Are scattered everywhere, taking their date
From our first childhood. (Prelude, XII, 208-210, 223-225)