Let Nature Be Your Teacher
Come into the light of things, Let Nature be your teacher.
Our current society has become increasingly alienated from our primal roots in the natural world. We can see the repercussions of this fact on many fronts, from climate change and environmental degradation, to species extinction and the exponential growth in food allergies and autoimmune diseases in humans. In our children we have seen a dramatic rise in autism spectrum disorders and ADD/ADHD. The list goes on.
Many people, justifiably so, trace the roots of these changes back to our separation from nature in one way or another. As an acupuncturist I saw this everyday with my patients. Many, if not all, of the major health-related issues we’re dealing with in the world today, stem from this alienation from nature. This separation is expressed in many ways. It might be an issue with poor digestion or weight gain due to eating an unnatural diet. It could be an issue with aches, pains, and poor strength and mobility due to a lack of natural movement. It might be a stress related illness due to a lack of proper posture, unnatural breathing patterns, or the loss of our natural coping mechanisms for dealing with stress. The ways in which we find ourselves removed from the natural living patterns of our species are numerous. As a healthcare professional a good part of my approach to patient care was geared toward encouraging a re-alignment with a healthier, more natural lifestyle.
The aim of this book (Tao of Sustainability) is to offer some pathways toward reconnecting with nature, the primal matrix from which we all have evolved. There are two main reasons for this; for the health and wellness of each of us as individuals, and for the health and well-being of the planet as a whole. Of course this very separation between humans and the rest of the planet is at the root of our problem.
We do not realize that we are a part of nature till we begin to think about it. Our lives proceed as if we were two — humanity and nature — two great antagonistic or contrary facts, but the two are one: there is only nature.
— John Burroughs
We must encourage a change in consciousness, a shift in perception in which we no longer make this distinction. But until we do, it may be useful to encourage people to reconnect with nature for their own health and well-being as a starting point.
Dao of Nature
Condensed into a single phrase, the injunction of Lao Tzu to mankind is, ‘Follow Nature.’
— Lionel Giles
As many people even in the Western world know by now, the Chinese word Dao (Tao) means “the Way,” as in the way of the universe or the way of nature in its grandest sense, but it can also be used to refer to a way of doing something or the way of practicing something. For example a phrase like “following the dao of the buddhas” is not uncommon in Chinese Buddhist texts. As a general term, Dao is used widely in ancient Chinese philosophical and religious traditions. Most people associate its use with Daoism and of course, the Daode jing (Tao-te-ching) attributed to Laozi (Lao-tzu), Daoism’s most famous text, but it was also used in Confucian and Chinese Buddhist writings as well.
In the following pages, I draw on Chinese philosophical thought and the tradition of Chinese medicine. I also gain inspiration from the realms of taijiquan (tai chi) and qigong, as well as other movement disciplines from Asia and beyond. As the bulk of the philosophical inspiration for this book comes from Daoism and other traditions in tune with Dao, it provides the overarching framework. Just as ideas of Dao jumped the borders of China long ago and influenced other cultures in Asia and increasingly the rest of the world, I touch on useful ideas from many periods and places, from ancient Stoic philosophers to modern scientists. At the present time, it is easy to see how ideas can spread virally, as we can watch it happen in real time. In the age of the internet, things happen literally overnight. In the past, ideas spread in similar ways, but they might have taken years or decades to effect cultural change instead of days and weeks.
Dao refers to the way of nature or the natural course of things. This is most often thought of spiritually, as most people in our modern world seem to have difficulty thinking beyond the mind-body split. But in reality, and as recognized in some traditions, there is no mind-body split. They are connected. In reality is there even a split between ourselves and nature, or do we just choose to think so?
A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us.
Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.
— Albert Einstein
Many of the meditations, awareness exercises, and movement practices suggested in this book aim at reconnecting us to nature, but they also serve to reinforce our sense of mind-body connection. Ultimately I hope that, after reading this book and putting it to use, you experience a new level of connection beyond just mind-body to mind-body-nature and realize your identity as part of the universe.
One would think that as our scientific knowledge has progressed that our understanding of nature has changed. While this is true to an extent, it is also true that the simple, straight forward advice of Taoist sages, ancient Chinese physicians, and Stoic thinkers to “follow the natural course of things” has not really been changed by our refined understanding. The basic premise still stands. We do best as individuals, as societies, and as a world community, when we seek to follow nature, our source and our ultimate destination. As Zhuangzi says, “Life comes from the earth and returns to the earth.”
There have of course been other naturalistic or back-to-nature movements throughout history, which encouraged us to follow nature. One of the most recent is the Paleo or Primal movement. The Paleo diet falls within this as well. Paleo is often equated simply with a diet fad inspired by what our hunter gatherer ancestors ate, and for many people that is all it is. But some take that same inspiration and apply it more broadly to their entire lifestyle.
In many ways this is not so different than what the early Daoists were doing. Many of the early Daoists, especially those who left us texts, were scholars and intellectuals who retired from the various royal courts of the Warring states period. They left their city lives behind to learn from nature in the wilderness. Often they encountered more primal cultures which still lived in tune with nature, from whom they learned as well.
We can see this reflected in the story “Peach Blossom Spring” by Tao Qian (365–427 CE). This work relates the tale of a fisherman who stumbles upon a sort of utopian village in a hidden valley where the residents are so in tune with nature that all their needs are met without needing any contact with the outside world. This story was so influential that it has been retold or alluded to by later poets and writers in China ever since.
Other modern movements besides Paleo also seek to do this, under different names, such as Ancestral Health or Evolutionary Health. Critics of these movements, especially of Paleo, often oversimplify their methods and stereotype their advocates. Still they are actualized in the modern world in a wide variety of ways.
For example, there is a Primitive Skills movement which seeks to learn about the forgotten skills of our ancestors. Many of these are basic survival skills which could be useful to anyone should they find themselves stranded in the wild or the victim of a natural disaster. Many of these skills also offer us more sustainable, less energy intensive ways of meeting our needs.
Rewilding is another way of framing the idea that we have lost our connection with nature. We have become domesticated and therefore we need to get back in touch with our wild selves. As Erwan Le Corre, founder of MovNat says, we have become “zoo humans.” Just as we have come to realize the importance of providing captive animals with natural habitats to reflect their ecological niche so they can flourish, we are realizing more and more that humans too need exposure to our natural habitat to flourish.
Michael Cohen, an innovator in the field of Ecopsychology, calls this separation from nature “Bewilderment”, defined as “to detrimentally be separated from wilderness.” We might also think of this false sense of separation as becoming “de-natured.” Often changing our language allows us to reframe things and helps us think about life in new ways.
In an essay on rewilding our language, Frank Forencich has proposed replacing the word “wellness” with “wildness.” This makes quite a bit of sense if we think about the fact that what is best for us as a species, and every other species on the planet for that matter, is what we are best adapted to, our wild environment. As a species we are extremely successful due to our adaptability. We have been able to adapt to live under practically any conditions on earth. We have even figured out how to live in space for brief periods of time, but does that mean that we can, or should, disregard the environment of the earth?
Astronauts serve as a good example. It is true that they can live in space for short periods of time, but what we see with astronauts is that living so far removed from the basic conditions they are adapted to, especially the gravity of the earth, plays havoc with their biology. Our bodies have evolved to operate under the earth‘s gravitational pull and when that is removed we suffer. The ill-effects range from short term effects like vision changes and loss of proprioception (awareness of our body’s position in space), to bone and muscle loss and weakness. So far the longest anyone has spent in space is 438 days (this record may have been broken since this was written). In many ways what happens to astronauts is like an accelerated version of what happens to all of us if we remain disconnected from nature.
In our wildest dreams we might want to somehow magically turn everyone into rewilded eco-warriors, defending the earth and living idyllic, low-tech lives like indigenous tribes still do in many parts of the world, but is this even a realistic goal? It would be more realistic to encourage a shift in consciousness, to encourage everyone to think about the impacts of their decisions on future generations, as the Constitution of the Iroquois Nations: The Great Binding Law states,
Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and have always in view not only the present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground, the unborn of the future nation.
The truth is, we are all very different and are coming from different places, both figuratively and literally. In our attempts to shift the consciousness of entire societies toward more healthy, natural patterns we have to realize that we must also shift the consciousness of individuals. Doing that requires meeting people where they are and giving them options and ideas which seem realistic and doable in their own lives. Baby steps, if you will. At the heart of all these ideas however is changing our relationship with nature, for as Amos Clifford says,
All of our efforts to become an environmentally sustainable species must be rooted in a deep relationship with nature. Without this relationship, all our efforts toward sustainability will be subtly flawed in ways which will eventually be our undoing.
Realizing that people have different personalities and varied interests does not make the task of reconnecting people with the earth harder, it actually gives us more options. Trying to make everyone fit one mold is an exercise in futility. Acknowledging our differences allows us to see many possibilities for moving our collective consciousness in a more positive direction ecologically speaking. It gives us tools to bring people back into a closer relationship with the earth through a variety of means.
Some people seek a closer relationship with nature by realigning their diet and lifestyle with more natural patterns. Others are more interested in exercise, so they may take up barefoot running or natural movement practices. Some people are particularly upset by the environmental degradation and species extinction we are seeing around the world, so they may focus on activism. Some people find that nature inspires a sense of awe and feelings of spiritual connectedness in them, so they turn to nature-based spirituality and religion, or they may simply reinterpret the faiths in which they were raised in a way which places a greater emphasis on caring for nature. We saw this happen with Pope Francis’ Encyclical on the environment. There are many paths to our goal of reconnecting humans with nature. Many of these different threads come together especially powerful ways in practices like Shinrinyoku (Forest bathing), Nature Therapy, and Natural Mindfulness walks.
In The Nature Principle, Richard Louv asks, “What could our lives be like if our days and nights were as immersed in nature as they are today in technology?” I hope my writings can offer some paths to explore, so that together we can answer this question, for ourselves and for future generations.
(Adapted from: Tao of Sustainability, 2016, Three Pines Press)