Nature is transcendental

Most of us realize that spending time in nature is good for mind and spirit. A new study by researchers at Stanford University more or less confirms it, according to a paper published in last month’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences titled “Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation.”

Honestly, I was confused by the title.  I always thought nature enhanced rumination or contemplation. But I didn’t know that in psychology, rumination means to focus excessively on one’s problems and to brood on why you might be depressed. So,  nature reducing rumination is a positive.

The researchers say their study “reveals a pathway by which nature experience may improve mental well-being and suggests that accessible natural areas within urban contexts may be a critical resource for mental health in our rapidly urbanizing world.”

IMG_4821bEvidently, walking in natural areas simulates activity in a section of the brain that’s known as the subgenual prefrontal cortex, which is connected to negative mental conditions and a negative pattern of thought the paper calls “morbid rumination.” They sent study participants to various areas on the Stanford campus and when the participants returned, the researchers scanned their brains. The result: “Participants who went on a 90-min walk through a natural environment reported lower levels of rumination and showed reduced neural activity in an area of the brain linked to risk for mental illness compared with those who walked through an urban environment.”

In other words, walking in nature is good for mind and spirit, and walking in urban areas is not so good. As I suggested at the top, this only confirms what most people already know.

I have written a great deal about how the sages and poets of the East found nature to be beneficial in this way. Naturally, they are not the only ones.

Two prominent naturalists from America’s past, Henry Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, had connections to Eastern philosophy but their appreciation of nature was firmly in place long before they became interested in the teachings of Buddha and Lao Tzu.

Thoreau’s name is practically synonymous with Walden Pond, a lake in Concord, Massachusetts formed by glaciers some 10,000–12,000 years ago. The place itself is famously associated with Naturalism. Emerson also wandered around Walden, and in 1846 he bought a wood-lot there, consisting of “more than forty acres, on the border of a little lake a half a mile wide and more, called Walden Pond,” as he wrote in a letter to his friend, Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish philosopher.

In his 1836 essay, Nature, Emerson complained that far too many people do not recognize the full worth and beauty of nature. In the essay, Emerson also set down some of the fundamentals of Transcendentalism, the philosophical movement linked to both Emerson and Thoreau. In another essay, The Transcendentalist, Emerson wrote a phrase I like: “Nature is Transcendental.”

Emerson’s view of nature differed a bit from the Eastern view. He saw nature as something outside the life of the individual, “all that is separate from us . . . the NOT ME, that is, both nature and art, all other men and my own body.” The Buddhist/Taoist concept of “Not me” goes further and nature is viewed as profoundly  inter-connected with inner life.

Nature is transcendental (note the small ‘t’). And, when we use any of the forms of the word “transcendent,” we do not necessarily mean metaphysical. Transcendent can mean beyond the limits of ordinary experience, what cannot be expressed in words, or realization that “goes beyond,” which in Buddhism refers to Prajna-Paramita or Transcendental Wisdom.

I would suggest transcendental can also be “going back,” in that it we can recapture a quality of childhood, the innocence, the sense of wonder, the “original mind” we had before our brains became cluttered with all the disorderly and tangled notions we’ve acquired as adults. I think others have commented on the same child-like orientation connected with spirituality, and judging by this passage from Nature, Emerson would seem to have been one of them.

ralph-waldo-emersonTo speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Note Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child. The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood.”

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Out in the Streets

Look what’s happening out in the streets
got a revolution got to revolution
Hey I’m dancing down the streets
got a revolution got to revolution

Jefferson Airplane

Marking two months of protests, Thursday was declared a “Day of Action” by the Occupy Wall Street movement with demonstrations across major cities nationwide remonstrating against financial greed and corruption. In Southern California, the LA Times reported: “In what police called an ‘orchestrated series of arrests,’ nearly 100 police in riot gear moved in to arrest 23 protesters who locked arms around tents in the middle of Figueroa Street . . .”

Meditator arrested in Oakland

“Orchestrated series of arrests” is another way to say “civil disobedience.” More about that below, but first, the city of Oakland, California has taken a hard line against the protesters. There has been violence and then Monday, police forcibly evicted demonstrators from their camp in the downtown area. According to the San Jose Mercury News, “Oakland police arrested [Pancho] Ramos Stierle before dawn on Monday as riot police were clearing out the Occupy encampment at Frank H. Ogawa Plaza. He and two other activists had been meditating for hours in the plaza’s amphitheater as police surrounded the camp and ordered everyone to disperse.”

Criminal charges against Stierle have been dropped, but because he is an immigrant, the cops turned him over to ICE. As of Thursday he has either been released or will be released pending a hearing before a judge. In either case, he is facing deportation. His case has become a bit of a cause célèbre (Free Pancho).

I don’t know if Stierle is connected with any particular spiritual group or whether he’s just a guy who wants to meditate for peace. It doesn really matter to me, and I certainly support his aim and his actions as far as the protest goes. I am not, however, all that sympathetic to his status as an immigrant. Apparently Stierle’s visa expired in 2008, which, as far as I understand things, makes him illegal. I know this is an unpopular view, but frankly I’m not convinced that people who are in this country illegally should enjoy the same rights as citizens and legal immigrants.

That aside, when you engage in civil disobedience you have to expect some consequences. The authorities do not like civil disobedience. That’s an eternal truth. I wish Stierle the best, but I assume that he is an intelligent person and knew what he was getting into.

At the same time, I do wonder if everyone really understands what civil disobedience is all about.

Civil disobedience is the time-honored act of the “professed refusal to obey certain laws, demands, and commands of a government, or of an occupying international power.” (Wikipedia) In this current movement, we’re talking about multinational powers.

I think it is safe to say that a good majority of acts of civil disobedience are designed to provoke an “orchestrated” arrest. At the very least, those who engage in such actions should be cognizant of the possibility of arrest and/or persecution by the authorities. To put it in Buddhist terms, civil disobedience is Bodhisattva action. It invites suffering for the purpose of making a statement against suffering.

Gandhi, whom we can look to as sort of an expert on civil disobedience, called his revolution ahimsa (non-violence) and satyagraha (truth). His brand of protest was grounded in spirituality, and marked with the force of compassion and acceptance of resulting suffering. Gandhi wrote,

Complete civil disobedience is rebellion without the element of violence in it. An out- and-out civil resister simply ignores the authority of the State. He never uses force and never resists force when it is used against him. In Fact, he invites imprisonment and other uses of force against himself . . .

Civil disobedience means capacity for unlimited suffering without the intoxicating excitement of killing.”

Nearly a hundred years earlier, Henry David Thoreau, in his 1849 essay, On Civil Disobedience, put it bluntly:

Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison. The proper place to-day, the only place which Massachusetts has provided for her freer and less desponding spirits, is in her prisons, to be put out and locked out of the State by her own act, as they have already put themselves out by their principles.”

Gandhi behind bars

Thoreau went to jail for refusing to pay what he believed was an unjust tax. Gandhi was imprisoned in 1922, 1930, 1933 and in 1942. All together, he spent 7 years in prison. In the early days of Gandhi’s activism, in South Africa, he tried to organize resistance against the Registration Act. On September 11, 1906, at a mass meeting with some 3000 Indians, Gandhi warned the assembled to expect repercussions: imprisonment, beatings, fines, and even, deportation. He also told them,

I can declare with certainty that so long as there is even a handful of men true to their pledge, there can be only one end to the struggle, and that is victory.”

Goldman Sachs on trial

 

The OWS is calling their movement an “American Revolution.” Chris Hedges is an American journalist who has specialized in writing about the Middle East and is now involved with OWS. Last Thursday, Hedges, Cornel West and others held a mock trial of Goldman Sachs in Zuccotti Park. Hedges was arrested. Tuesday, he wrote on Truthdig,

Welcome to the revolution. Our elites have exposed their hand. They have nothing to offer. They can destroy but they cannot build. They can repress but they cannot lead. They can steal but they cannot share. They can talk but they cannot speak. They are as dead and useless to us as the water-soaked books, tents, sleeping bags, suitcases, food boxes and clothes that were tossed by sanitation workers Tuesday morning into garbage trucks in New York City. They have no ideas, no plans and no vision for the future.

I support the Occupy Wall Street movement. I only hope everyone understands what it really takes to engage in civil disobedience, what it means to be a revolutionary. I hope the mistake that was made in the 1960’s is not made again. The Anti-War movement disintegrated after the Kent State massacre in 1970. All of the sudden protest kids realized, “Hey, you can get killed doing this!” I think in our collective unconscious we decided it might be better to just stay home with Sweet Jane.

Both Thoreau and Gandhi would no doubt subscribe to the notion that it is every person’s duty to protest injustice. That also belongs to the eternal, ultimate truth. But in the conventional world, let’s face it, not everyone is going to join in, and perhaps some should not join on the front lines. Those who have a lot to lose by catching the attention of law enforcement maybe should think twice about putting themselves at risk as Stierle did. I would imagine there are numerous ways that someone can support OWS, and in the future, if the movement comes together and gains a measure of organization, some of the most important roles will be played behind the scenes.

The iconic revolutionary

But if you are going to take center stage, man the barricades, stand on the front lines, then you’d better know that, as CSN&Y sang, to find the cost of freedom, you must “lay your body down.”

Revolution is serious business. Che Guevara once said,

In a revolution, one wins or one dies.”

Find the cost of freedom, buried in the ground
Mother Earth will swallow you, lay your body down

– Crosby, Still, Nash and Young

 

Street photo: occupylosangeles.org
Stierle photo: occupyoakland.org
Hedges/West photo: occupywallst.org

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Independence Day Dharma: Thoreau and Sitting Still

Henry David Thoreau is the flip side to the man I made note of yesterday, George M. Cohan. Whereas the latter was loud, brash, and exuberant, Thoreau was quiet, reserved and reflective. Thoreau’s America was the same as Cohan’s, however, and in very different ways, they each celebrated the same boundless human spirit.

Thoreau called himself “a mystic, a Transcendentalist, and a natural philosopher to boot.” He was interested in external nature, in the quest for knowledge, and revered the gift and sustenance of inspiration. At the same time, he was absorbed in the discovery of the inner, spiritual nature of human beings.

Thoreau’s America was also the same America that Kerouac and the Beats found, some one hundred years later – seeped in materialism and conformity. Unlike the beats, Thoreau had an anchor, a refuge, on Walden Pond.

There, in 1845, Thoreau built a small house on land belonging to Ralph Waldo Emerson, where he spent several years. He “wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” At Walden, he would practice “sitting still” for self-purification, imitating Eastern meditation, although it is unlikely that he had ever received any formal meditation instruction.

In Walden; or Life in the Woods, he described his sense of contemplation:

Walden_ThoreauI did not read books the first summer; I hoed beans. Nay, I often did better than this. There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work, whether of the head or hands. I love a broad margin to my life. Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sing around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveller’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time. I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been. They were not time subtracted from my life, but so much over and above my usual allowance. I realized what the Orientals mean by contemplation and the forsaking of works. For the most part, I minded not how the hours went. The day advanced as if to light some work of mine; it was morning, and lo, now it is evening, and nothing memorable is accomplished. Instead of singing like the birds, I silently smiled at my incessant good fortune. As the sparrow had its trill, sitting on the hickory before my door, so had I my chuckle or suppressed warble which he might hear out of my nest.

My days were not days of the week, bearing the stamp of any heathen deity, nor were they minced into hours and fretted by the ticking of a clock; for I lived like the Puri Indians, of whom it is said that “for yesterday, today, and tomorrow they have only one word, and they express the variety of meaning by pointing backward for yesterday forward for tomorrow, and overhead for the passing day.” This was sheer idleness to my fellow-townsmen, no doubt; but if the birds and flowers had tried me by their standard, I should not have been found wanting. A man must find his occasions in himself, it is true. The natural day is very calm, and will hardly reprove his indolence.

I had this advantage, at least, in my mode of life, over those who were obliged to look abroad for amusement, to society and the theatre, that my life itself was become my amusement and never ceased to be novel. It was a drama of many scenes and without an end. If we were always, indeed, getting our living, and regulating our lives according to the last and best mode we had learned, we should never be troubled with ennui. Follow your genius closely enough, and it will not fail to show you a fresh prospect every hour.

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