By Lee Steppacher
[Doreen’s Note: We are living through difficult, uncertain, often incomprehensible times. There is no doubt about that. There is also no doubt that we as a species, along with so many other living species and the earth itself, are in peril. Yet the persistent earth is still holding us all––with what would seem like great spaciousness and equanimity––as we slowly come to realize that we are totally dependent on it for our very lives. This wonderful “guest essay” by Valley Insight teacher Lee Steppacher invites us to get closer to the support and the wisdom being offered in every moment by the biosphere that is our planet. She skillfully convinces us that mindfully and intentionally turning towards our world will enhance our well-being. Lee is a person well-grounded in “being in nature” and in mindfulness, and she knows intimately the benefits found in each. Serving as a compassionate response to the challenges brought by pandemic and political unrest, her reflections give us access to an important source of joy and insight, one that is right outside our door.]
If you have not seen the film My Octopus Teacher, I highly recommend it. Not only for the beautiful filming or for the opportunity to observe a reclusive creature up close and personal, but because there are so many dharma lessons woven throughout the narrative––Dharma lessons based on “being in nature” practice.
This is a film about South African filmmaker Craig Foster, who, feeling a bit burnt out by his work, decided to travel to the Kalahari Desert for a vacation. While on a safari, he was intrigued by the trackers’ remarkable skills in leading them to good places to see game animals, and he began to understand them as not just observing nature, but as “being in nature.” They can recognize even the subtlest of marks in the sand, small breaks in the brush, and so on––and from such evidence they interpret what has happened there and when. In awe of this ability, he noticed that, by contrast, in his own work he mostly observed and documented from a distance. He realized that it was this sense of being in that was missing in his work. Freshly inspired, he returned home to begin work on a new nature documentary.
While doing some exploratory diving in a kelp forest on the South African coast, Foster came across an octopus in its den. For each of 365 days, he returned to the den to learn about and eventually to become intimate with this remarkable animal. The gradual development of a connection with, and a deep understanding of and respect for, the octopus is revealed through the film. This is perhaps an example of what the Buddha means when he speaks of mindfulness being developed “internally and externally and both.”
External mindfulness or “being in nature” as an awake and aware presence, has always been an important aspect of Buddhist teachings. The Buddha himself traveled and practiced in the fields, forests, roadways, and jungles of ancient India. During the night of his enlightenment and in the days afterwards, he sat under the protection of a tree; and when he was profoundly challenged by doubts about his heartfelt endeavor to become free, he put his hand to the earth to steady himself and to bear him witness. For the rest of his fifty years of teaching, he encouraged his followers to sit under a tree to practice. In the Satipatthana Sutta, the basic teaching on mindfulness meditation, he said:
“Here, having gone to the forest, or to the root of a tree, or to an empty hut, the meditator sits down . . . and brings mindfulness to the forefront of mind.”
Many Buddhist monastics continue to hold practicing outdoors as central. In the Theravada Thai Forest tradition established by Ajahn Chah, for example, monks live and practice in huts and in their surrounding woods in England, Europe, and the USA, as well as in the jungles of Southeast Asia. In the Zen tradition, Thich Nhat Hanh imbues his teaching with deep interconnection to the natural world.
Over the centuries, much of our Dharma practice has moved inside, where it has become rooted in beautiful meditation temples and dharma halls, church parish halls, finished barns, living rooms––and now even virtual meditation halls! These have all been fruitful practice arenas, allowing rich and deep insight practice. At the same time, it is often beneficial sometimes to take our practice out into the world––especially to the natural world––as a complement to our on-the-cushion practice. Certain qualities of mind such as awe, interest, curiosity, and wonder may be more easily accessed in a natural setting. As we experience these qualities outside and they become more familiar, eventually we are able to cultivate these open-hearted qualities in other settings as well.
Nature practice can seem very different from indoor sitting practice. Instead of minimizing sensory stimulation, we put ourselves in the midst of it. Our senses––touch, sight, hearing and smelling (not always tasting)––are enlivened. With careful and intentional training, we are increasingly able to bring the balancing aspect of mindfulness to the experience. Perhaps we will sometimes focus on one sense at a time––hearing, seeing, etc.––but we welcome it all. There can be much wholesome joy and ease found in the rustling of leaves in the wind, the sunshine filtered through the trees, or even an unexpected rainstorm.
Here in the Upper Valley we live closer to nature than many of our fellow citizens, who live in more urban settings of our world. Some of us have the good fortune to look out at beautiful vistas from our homes; some hike in the woods and mountains. All of us walk among trees often, and many of us have a certain weird pride in navigating through harsh New England winters. Yet, I know that I can still feel disconnected and separate from the natural world when I am moving quickly through the responsibilities of my day, interacting with many people, getting weighed down in technology, and feeling distracted and stressed by the state of the world.
In these challenging times of a continuing pandemic, increased screen time, and post-election worries, “being in nature” becomes particularly appealing and more obviously beneficial to our well-being. Whether we just step outside our front door for a few minutes or take the time for a longer, mindful walk in nature, the practice of pausing to be in nature is accessible to everyone. As we touch its stillness and tranquility, we can let down, let go, and find a bit of ease. Our bodies relax, our minds grow quiet, and our hearts soften. We are more able to be present and settled into this place of here and now. Our senses open. We notice more, and we feel more connected to and interested in the world around us and all the many creatures with whom we share our lives.
The “being in nature” as portrayed in the Octopus film is an intimate and relational practice. It is when I am quiet, with no agenda as I walk in the woods that I get an inkling of being in nature. As I walk, surrounded by all kinds of life around me, I can begin to feel a part of something bigger than myself. The separation that I may feel dissipates. I am no longer walking with a destination or a specific purpose, but I am moving, fully awake and curious, as if I am a welcome part of this place. When I reflect on the elements––paying attention to the earth, air, water, and fire all around me––I know my own body as nature, and as totally dependent on it for my existence. Thich Nhat Hahn speaks of interbeing, noting the interdependence of all life. Often, we forget this; but “being in nature” can be a great reminder of our fragility and vulnerability––even even as it offers stability.
Meditation teachers Bill and Susan Morgan teach about creating a holding environment as the base of one’s practice. Such an internal environment––one that is grounded, safe and caring, and in which whatever arises can be allowed, known, and gently held––can be nourished by our practice in nature. When we find and cultivate such an inner environment, if something arises that knocks us out of balance, we have a resiliency and an equipoise that allows us, in a sense, to touch the earth and steady ourselves.
The hindrances will arise in nature too––desire, aversion, laziness, worry, and even doubt about our abilities and choices. I find, especially now, when my emotions––be they grief, anxiety, or confusion, may be running high––that being in nature is a safe place to let down. Nature can hold me, and anything I am carrying.
So, I invite you to go outside and include nature as part of your practice. Especially in these stressful times, rest into all that nature offers. Let it lighten your heart and help you find small moments of joy! It is really as simple as taking a walk, being quiet and noticing. Notice the outer landscape. Notice how that connects to your inner landscape. Go exploring, outside and inside, and make it a habit.
I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in. (John Muir)