Chopping Wood

It is a cold morning in late January. Since wood is the only source of heat I use at this time of year I need to grab my hat and coat and head out to the woodpile in order to warm my home. As I feel the cool air I pause momentarily, realizing my relationship to the cold, the warmth of the fire and the wood. It is a relationship as old as the first humans who gathered by a fire to keep safe and ward off the chill of the night. Now, as then, if I don’t go out and return with my sling of wood, it will be a long cold day. In this simple relationship, my actions have a direct and immediate consequence.

Yet this is a relationship that we in much of the Western world sought to eliminate in the last century, when we brought central heat into our homes. No effort need be expended. No pause to acknowledge of our relationship to the world. Just a spin of the thermostat and the inconvenience of experiencing cold is eliminated. No wonder we respond like petulant children when our link to the blandness of perpetual comfort, the global oil pipeline is threatened.

As we seal ourselves into our climate-controlled wombs and our air conditioned malls where Musak drowns out the life beat within us, we deaden our capacity to see, to really Be. Yet, we innately seek desperately to break through the numbness and feel. We take drugs, seek out vivid portrays of violence and horror, ravenously consume vast quantities of unsatisfying genetically engineered pseudo-foods, shop endlessly for the next thing, and the next; vainly hoping that we can break through and be reminded of what it is to be human again.

In our numbed-out state we remain oblivious to the plight of world outside of the bubble that we think is reality. As creatures that are removed from relationship with nature we think only of gratifying our own needs in the most expedient manner. Global climate change, the mass extinction of species, the pollution of our oceans, the poisoning of our soils; these are catastrophes that only flicker briefly in our consciousness. Even the annihilation of our fellow humans through war, famine, and disease barely warrants our attention as we channel-surf ourselves back into our somnambulant state. It really doesn’t matter as long as it doesn’t come too close to home.

While this sounds like the description of lives in a dystopian futuristic society in a science fiction flick, it is a depiction of our lives. For our sake and the sake of the planet, we need to wake up. And, it is so simple… what we seek has always been right there. Nature has not abandoned us; we are the ones who have turned away from the relationship. There are very simple elements to this process of awakening again. We can learn and draw inspiration from three figures of the past whose lives and cultural contexts were different in almost every way, except for their deep connection to and affinity for the natural world.

The first of these persons is Henry David Thoreau. In this context, what was remarkable about Thoreau was his understanding that a truly human life was not lived in the pursuit of commerce and disingenuous social discourse, but in simplicity, a degree of solitude and with rapt attention to the nature that surrounds us. For Thoreau, a simple minimalist existence was his means of disengaging from the necessity of endlessly pursuing a living, in order to have the time to truly live.

Freed in this way, and endowed with the luxury of periods of time when he was undistracted by his fellow humans, Thoreau became a careful observer of the pond, the woods, the seasons, and the animals as these intertwined intimately with the gentle rhythm of his life. This act of careful observation alone can profoundly change the way we relate to the world.

The second of these inspiring characters is Calvin Rutstrum, a 20th century American who spent much of his life traveling in Canada’s remote wilderness. Rutstrum wrote of his journeys across that vast frozen expanse by dogsled; of the joys of simple elemental living in a wilderness cabin; and of his visits to the Cree and Eskimo. Like Thoreau, he found simple elemental living and deep solitude as the gateway to observation, delighting to each moment and each shifting nuance of snow, woods, ice and animal life.

As you can imagine, this life in the far north, traveling on foot or with dogs was extremely physically demanding. However, Rutstrum found this exhilarating. He felt remarkably alive in the cold and snow. In fact, he came to realize that his well-being depended on it. Returning to his home in Minneapolis, Minnesota, as he did after each journey north, Rutstrum resolved that he would get outside every day, regardless of the weather. A large and imposing man, he must have been quite a sight donning his mukluks and duffle parka with its wolf-fur ruff to walk about the streets of the city. Rutstrum saw that with the proper clothes, a human being had the means to adapt to the harshest physical circumstances and therein to find health, vigor and deep psychological well-being.

The third figure from whom we can draw deep insight about our relationship with nature is a 12th century Japanese monk, Myoe Shonin (Holy Man of Clear Wisdom). While it might seem strange, Myoe had very deep relationship with an island on which he had resided. For Myoe all distinctions had broken down. In this island, the inanimate, he saw the Buddha and all creation. There were no distinctions, no limits, no boundaries, all creation was deeply connected. He was so deeply moved by the island that he wrote it a letter and had a messenger deliver it.

Like Thoreau and Rutstrum, living alone on the island Myoe undoubtedly experienced silence and solitude. Myoe’s powers of observation were also probably deepened by long periods of meditation, repetition of mantras and the other spiritual practices of his Shingon Buddhist sect. When observing in this way, subject and object dissolve and all is revealed as One Body. Realizing this One Body is the fundamental experience of Buddhist realization or enlightenment.

Realizing the One Body, one also sees that the entire universe is intimately connected, with each element relying on every other. This is depicted in the image of the Diamond Net of Indra. At every point of connection in this net is a diamond. Each of these diamonds reflects every other diamond in the net. When we see in this way, it is clear that there is no thing that is unimportant. It is all precious, worthy of our respect and protection.

One of the most important moments in the history of Buddhism occurred when the first Dharma transmission, from Shakyamuni Buddha to Mahakashyapa took place. At that moment as hundreds of the Buddha’s followers gathered, the Buddha held up a single flower. Mahakashyapa alone smiled and the Dharma was passed on. How remarkable, a single flower and yet Mahakashyapa understood that flower was the whole universe.

Ecopsychology is a relatively new field of inquiry, which hypothesizes that we need to have a psychological relationship to the natural world if we are to truly value, protect and preserve it. It also supposes that this relationship is essential for our sense of psychological and emotional well-being.

As we look at the high incidence of depression, anxiety disorders and substance addiction in this disconnected society, this seems to make sense. The United States is about 6% of the world’s population and consumes 60% of its illicit drugs. Furthermore, since mind and body are inextricably connected, it is also reasonable to assume that our physical health would benefit as well from a deeper relationship with nature.

The methods of restoring and revitalizing this relationship are simple. The path has been shown to us by Thoreau, Rutstrum, Myoe and many others. We must get out into nature on a regular basis. Much of that time should be spent in silence and solitude, focusing on close observation. These are the beginnings of connection, of intimacy. Furthermore, meditative practice can deepen the way in which we are able to enter this experience. Ultimately, through a contemplative spiritual practice such as Zen, the firmament of our conceptually structured world of subject and object begins to soften as we open to a relationship that is truly profound.

A number of years ago, I read some of the literature on ecopsychology. At that time at least, there was a focus on trips into the wilderness as the means of reconnecting with nature. Wilderness trips undoubtedly provide many wonderful experiences, but they are only accessible to a few. However, even in the city, trees grow outside our windows. There are parks and paths and even silent spaces where nature can be directly encountered. COnnection with nature is accessible to all of us, no matter where we live. Like any relationship, though, this one requires time, energy and commitment. If we are willing to invest that, the rewards can be boundless.

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