From "The Mindfulness of Natural History"
by Thomas Lowe Fleischner
Natural history is a practice of intentional, focused attentiveness and receptivity to the more-than-human world, guided by honesty and accuracy. Simply put, it is paying attention to the bigger world outside our own heads. As Zen Roshi (and contributor to this volume) Robert Aitken noted, attention is prerequisite to intimacy. Natural history, then, is a means of becoming intimate with the big, wild world. For some, this involves watching birds visit a feeder outside a city apartment. For others, it’s an annual pilgrimage to witness the spring bloom of desert flowers. Flyfishers pay close attention to aquatic insect larvae, snorkelers gain joy watching the synchronized movements of reef fishes, and geologists trace the evolution of the Earth by following bends and folds in sedimentary rocks. The mind of a hunter is nothing if not attentive to nuances of animal movement and color. With some 30 million species living on this remarkable planet, across an endless variety of landscapes, and interacting in an infinite number of ways, there is literally no limit to the “nature” we can pay attention to.
Mindfulness, a crucial element of many spiritual lineages, is particularly closely allied with Buddhist traditions, which include it as one of the elements of the Noble Eightfold Path. Right Mindfulness involves cultivating a state of increasing clarity and intensity of consciousness, one that filters out illusions and projections. Recognition of the importance of focused attentiveness is common to most spiritual traditions. Christian monks spend long hours in contemplative silence, Hindu yogis focus their minds through breathing and body movements, Sufi dancers invoke unity with the divine, Tibetans chant sutras. By whatever name—mindfulness, meditation, prayer, zazen, contemplation—a process of quieting the mind and attending to the unadorned particularities of the world has been deemed an essential component of human spiritual endeavor across cultures, languages, continents, and time.
Buddhist scholar Nyanaponika Thera, in The Heart of Buddhist Meditation, notes that mindfulness begins with a “taking notice,” a “turning toward” an object (or, one could extrapolate—a bird, a flower, a dragonfly . . . ). Thich Nhat Hanh declared that “mindfulness is the foundation of a happy life” and that practicing it helps us “become a real person.” Poet (and contributor to this volume) Jane Hirshfield has noted that “in a state of open mindfulness, a broad subliminal attention is going out in many directions at once.” In short, mindfulness represents the mind on full alert, open to sensation and stimuli, eager to engage. Recently, psychologists have developed a keen interest in mindfulness due to its role in helping people maintain psychic balance and health. Shinzen Young, a Buddhist teacher, asserts that mindfulness training leads to greater clarity and equanimity, which he suggests are analogous to strength and flexibility in physical fitness training. In the last few years a professional literature on mindfulness has sprouted. The gist of these articles, largely buried in technical psychology journals, is that mindfulness revolves around openness to present-moment experiences. Such openness, say the psychologists, leads to acceptance and nonjudgment. As Buddhist teachers have long taught, enlightenment derives from full awareness of each present moment.
Natural history and mindfulness are two surfaces of the same leaf, a seamless merging of attentiveness outward and inward, toward the interwoven realms of nature and psyche. For some people, the window is clearer looking outward; for others, it’s easier to look within. But regardless of what is being attended, the practice of mindful attention is very much the same, and the two practices are fully complementary. That Gautama, the historical Buddha, had his original moment of awakening while seated under a tree is probably not coincidental.