By approaching the night sky with fresh eyes, you become more intimate with the world.
By Mark Coleman (originally posted here in Yoga Journal)
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.
Read more here in Yoga Journal
Excerpted from Awake in the Wild: Mindfulness in Nature as a Path of Self Discovery, by Mark Coleman.