When we spend time in the wilderness, it can be tempting to focus our awareness on "doing" something: taking pictures; getting a certain amount of physical exercise; traveling from point A to point B; naming all the species of birds we encounter. While nature photography is a lovely craft, and we need to exercise for good health, and understanding what lives in our environment is a valid part of deepening our relationship with the land, these activities can separate us from a more intimate experience of the natural world. It is all too easy to forget to actually experience with all our senses that which we are busily capturing and identifying.
The natural world invites us out of our world of fixed concepts and into a closer proximity with reality—what Buddhist teachings call "nonconceptual awareness." Experiencing the natural world with nonconceptual awareness means that, rather than seeing a [small] black bird and thinking, "That's a starling, a nonnative bird introduced from England several centuries ago," we stop and see each particular bird's incandescent blue-black velvet feathers, piercing amber eyes, and delicate, wiry feet. Instead of encountering the world through a filter of ideas, memories, and labels, we connect deeply with the unfiltered and vital pulse of life in that moment.
If we're not mindful, intellectual knowledge can easily cloud our direct experience. When we're guided through life solely by our intellect, by our ideas of what we know, we're robbed of a sense of discovery. A nonconceptual awareness allows us to approach each moment as fresh and new. A depth of wisdom can arise from such immediacy, and lead to greater wonder about the mysteriousness of life; we may realize just how little we can ever know.
Whatever we experience most often provides us with an excellent opportunity to cultivate nonconceptual awareness. My garden sits in the shade of an old California oak tree that has a wide trunk, deeply veined and wrinkled. The gray-brown bark has deep, dark, vertical grooves intersected by thinner lateral lines——on some days it looks to me like a lopsided checkerboard. Where limbs once grew, there are large knots on the trunk the size of dinner plates. The tree curves gracefully skyward, supporting branches laden with young, shiny, dark green leaves holding their palms to the sun.
When I look at this oak without any preconceived ideas, it is a "different" tree each time I encounter it. My awareness or mood may be slightly different, altering how I see it. Depending on the time of day or time of year, shifting light changes its color. Gentle breezes and strong winds bend the tender limbs into different shapes. From this perspective I forever see it anew. Instead of relating to it solely through a static concept of "oak tree" or failing to see it in all its living, breathing aliveness, I can take it in with fresh eyes. This tree is my constant mindfulness companion, mirroring to me how present and open I am to the freshness of the moment.
The challenge is to be present to all of our experience with such wakefulness. Our concepts of time, of good and bad, of right and wrong can easily distort our ability to see the world clearly. Abiding with nonconceptual awareness allows us to observe the natural world, as well as the people and opportunities we encounter, without the lens of our fixed concepts, views, and opinions. Similarly, we can begin to look at ourselves with a fresh perspective in each moment, without any preconceptions or predetermined limitations.
The following meditation is a way to cultivate a nonconceptual awareness. It works best on a relatively clear night, preferably away from bright city lights.
Find a place outdoors where you can lie down on the ground and view the night sky. Gaze up at that vast ocean of darkness that sparkles with infinite stars until you find the cluster of stars known as the Big Dipper. Officially part of Ursa Major, the Great Bear constellation, the Big Dipper consists of seven stars broadly spaced apart. Four stars make the shape of a large rectangle, and the other three splay out horizontally to the left from the top of the rectangle, so they resemble a large dipper, or a saucepan with a long and slightly curved handle.
Once you locate this constellation, try to let go of any preconceived ideas you have about it, and look at the cluster of stars without fixating on the shape of a big dipper. Allow yourself to see seven bright dots amid black space. Notice each star individually. Notice the stars in their context in the sky, within the vast field of shining lights. See how the stars are located in relationship to other stars not in this particular constellation. Observe the spaces between each star.
As you continue the meditation, notice if you go in and out of being able to see the stars themselves, without the idea or image of the dipper. If in moments you find it difficult to let go of seeing the Big Dipper, shift your focus to other parts of the night sky. Try looking at just part of the constellation, along with other stars outside the constellation.
Close your eyes for a moment, relax your body, and then open your eyes and refresh your attention using a soft gaze. Let your vision be broad and spacious, and look at the stars without thinking about them, yourself, or anything else—just rest in open awareness. Another approach is to stare at the Big Dipper for a long time; after a while, the concept or memory of a dipper may fade and the stars will return to just being individual lights in the sky.
Once you practice this meditation, you can apply the technique to other constellations—seeing the stars without their associated imagery, taking in the simple reality of what is, and experiencing the vastness of the night sky. Try doing this meditation for up to half an hour, taking time to alternate between simply resting your awareness in the vastness of sky, and noticing whether you get caught up in concepts about specific constellations. You can also expand this practice to include other objects and people—you might try looking at a rose bush without the concept of "rose."
The more you do this, the more you'll begin to see how using only our preconceived concepts to approach the world can limit our experience and our awareness. Simple concepts can in no way describe the fullness and complexity of any experience or thing, including something as simple as a single, unique maple leaf or mushroom, or something as vast as constellations in the sky.
This technique can also help us approach people with a fresh awareness every time. Try looking at an acquaintance or a loved one without fixing on a preconceived idea about who they are, what they are like, or what they will do. We often get stuck in our concept of who someone is, which limits both people in the relationship.
A dear friend of mine sits his teenage daughter down every year, and they do a playful exercise in which they look at each other, and he says, "I am not your father," and she says, "I am not your daughter." This attempt to break down the narrowness of the concepts of "father" and "daughter" allows them to see each other more completely as people, rather than seeing only the parts of each other that relate to the roles they know each other in.
So when you look at someone, notice what concepts arise about them—man, woman, parent, child, waitress, taxi driver, lover. See how your approach to them changes based on your ideas of what it means to be old, young, sick, cute, shy, loud, extroverted, or smart. See then if you can let go of the labels and look at them without these concepts interfering with your perceptions of who they are. Notice their form, movements, and expressions, and try to get a sense of their essence beyond their surface appearance, movements, and expressions. When we look at people or anything in this way, we get to see the world anew, with fresh eyes. We come closer to experiencing the truth of how things actually are, undimmed by the concepts in our minds
n. a moment that seemed innocuous at the time but ended up marking a diversion into a strange new era of your life—set in motion not by a series of jolting epiphanies but by tiny imperceptible differences between one ordinary day and the next, until entire years of your memory can be compressed into a handful of indelible images—which prevents you from rewinding the past, but allows you to move forward without endless buffering.
n. the realization that the plot of your life doesn’t make sense to you anymore—that although you thought you were following the arc of the story, you keep finding yourself immersed in passages you don’t understand, that don’t even seem to belong in the same genre—which requires you to go back and reread the chapters you had originally skimmed through to get to the good parts, only to learn that all along you were supposed to choose your own adventure.
The things to do are: the things that need doing: that you see need to be done, and that no one else seems to see need to be done. Then you will conceive your own way of doing that which needs to be done—that no one else has told you to do or how to do it. This will bring out the real you that often gets buried inside a character that has acquired a superficial array of behaviors induced or Try making experiments of anything j^
Try making experiments of anything you conceive and are intensely inter¬ ested in. Don't be disappointed if something doesn't work. That is what you nations of things. Some combinations have such logic and integrity that they can work coherently despite non-working elements embracpd hv tu^it- cvetem can work coherently despite non-working elements embraced by their system.
Whenever you come to a word with which you are not familiar, find it in the dictionary and write a sentence which uses that new word. Words are tools—and once you have learned how to use a tool you will never forget it. Just looking for the meaning of the word is not enough. If your vocabulary is comprehensive, you can comprehend both fine and large patterns of experience.
You have what is most important in life—initiative.
Life is an act of endless creativity. With all its simmering tragedy and occasional catastrophe, a human life is an amazing thing to contemplate and experience. None of us had any special plan laid out for us when we were born. By abandoning the idea that and say, "What's done is done. Now how can I make the best of the here and now?" Life is never static. Despite catastrophic tragedies, life has persisted in evolving new varieties of unimaginable forms. I find comfort in the narrative of evolutionary history. When I create, I feel that I am a participant in the grand pageant of life, a part of the ongoing creative engine of the universe. I don't know if that feeling is enough to replace the solace of religion in the lives of most people, but it is for me.
Man is no new-begot child of the ape, bred of a struggle for existence upon brutish lines—nor should the belief that such is his origin, oft dinned into his ears by scientists, influence his conduct. Were he to regard himself as an extremely ancient type, distinguished chiefly by the qualities of his mind, and to look upon the existing Primates as the failures of his line, as his misguided and brutish collaterals, rather than as his ancestors, I think it would be something gained for the ethical outlook of Homo—and also it would be consistent with present knowledge.
Science enhances the moral value of life, because it furthers a love of truth and reverence—love of truth displaying itself in the constant endeavor to arrive at a more exact knowledge of the world of mind and matter around us, and reverence, because every advance in knowledge brings us face to face with the mystery of our own being.
The scientific method is a potentiation of common sense, exercised with a specially firm determination not to persist in error if any exertion of hand or mind can deliver us from it. Like other exploratory processes, it can be resolved into a dialogue between fact and fancy, the actual and the possible; between what could be true and what is in fact the case. The purpose of scientific enquiry is not to compile an inventory of factual information, nor to build up a totalitarian world picture of Natural Laws in which every event that is not compulsory is forbidden. We should think of it rather as a logically articulated structure of justifiable beliefs about nature. It begins as a story about a Possible World—a story which we invent and criticise and modify as we go along, so that it ends by being, as nearly as we can make it, a story about real life.
Man has been here 32,000 years. That it took a hundred million years to prepare the world for him is proof that that is what it was done for. I suppose it is, I dunno. If The Eiffel Tower were now to represent the world's age, the skin of paint on the pinnacle knob at its summit would represent man's share of that age; and anybody would perceive that the skin was what the tower was built for. I reckon they would, I dunno.
A plain, reasonable working man supposes, in the old way which is also the common-sense way, that if there are people who spend their lives in study, whom he feeds and keeps while they think for him—then no doubt these men are engaged in studying things men need to know; and he expects of science that it will solve for him the questions on which his welfare, and that of all men, depends. He expects science to tell him how he ought to live: how to treat his family, his neighbours and the men of other tribes, how to restrain his passions, what to believe in and what not to believe in, and much else. And what does our science say to him on these matters?
It triumphantly tells him: how many million miles it is from the earth to the sun; at what rate light travels through space; how many million vibrations of ether per second are caused by light, and how many vibrations of air by sound; it tells of the chemical components of the Milky Way, of a new element—helium—of micro-organisms and their excrements, of the points on the hand at which electricity collects, of X rays, and similar things.
“But I don't want any of those things,” says a plain and reasonable man—“I want to know how to live.”