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Green Scene: Mindfulness and Sustainability

by Paul Salmon and Jennifer Altman last modified Dec 02, 2013 10:59 AM

In “The Peace of Wild Things,” poet Wendell Berry writes,

When despair for the world grows in me,

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake rests…

Nature surrounds us, quietly offering itself to our awareness in times of stress and need.  Yet how often do we accept this offer, turn our attention to the natural world, and rest in its embrace? Most of the time we are too caught up in personal affairs to pay much attention to our surroundings, ironically even when what we are seeking is, as often the case, a sense of peace and tranquility.

One reason that this happens is, for many of us, nature is fading from everyday awareness and progressively becoming invisible, as Kenneth Worthy observes in his book, “Invisible Nature.” Our technological prowess has allowed us to increasingly live in a protective cocoon of a manufactured world that isolates us from the broader environment, shielding us from the many facets of the natural world encompassing everything from tranquil sunrises to raging storms. We lose sensitivity to the pulse and rhythm of the natural world, being intent on imposing our own sense of how things “should” be, as opposed to how they are actually unfolding, moment by moment.

Further shielding us from things as they are is an additional, more personal psychological cocoon that we spin from the constant flow of thoughts, memories, emotions, and other objects of consciousness that occupy our every waking moment. The result is a personal ‘virtual reality’ not based on computer simulations, but rather a cognitive byproduct of our efforts to make sense of the world and our place in it.

Bringing mindful awareness to our surroundings is to awaken to the possibility of re-connecting with the rhythms of life on this planet, and emerging – at least periodically -- from the personal and technological layers of insulation that obscure a view of the world in its natural splendor, power, and awe-inspiring mystery. We may or may not like what we see; we may wish to impose a certain order on things that aligns with our personal inclinations, such as wanting an awe-inspiring sunset to somehow be prolonged, or a raging cataclysmic flood to cease on command. Only when we can begin to let go of our constructed sense of reality does the world truly begin to come into focus.

A simple inquiry: How do your personal rhythms contribute to the cycles and rhythms of the planet? Is there a sense of harmony or cacophony? Consider the everyday task of raking leaves, as we mark the passage of the seasons. Is it simply a task to rush through so you can cross it off your ‘to-do list’ and hurry on to the next activity? Or could it perhaps be a time to simply become immersed in the present moment? A time to really notice the kaleidoscopic colors that distinguish each leaf; to discover with a sense of delight the tiny green embryonic life forms that may have sprouted underneath the leaves; feeling the body working with each rhythmical stroke of the rake; and perhaps connecting with neighbors who are also engaged in this annual marking of the passage of time, the seasonal cycle, the passing of the years.

Everywhere we turn, we are surrounded by opportunities to practice being mindful. The quiet but incessant call of the natural world and its rhythms beckon to us, if only we can remember to take the time to notice and pay attention.

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