The Issue at Hand


Chapter 17: Being a Naturalist

As a bee gathers nectar
And moves on without harming
The flower, its color, or its fragrance,
Just so should a sage move through a village. 

– Dhammapada 49


In mindfulness meditation we learn to be present for things as they are. In doing so, it can be useful to assume the attitude of a naturalist. A naturalist simply observes nature without interfering or imposing his or her views. If a wolf eats a deer, a naturalist watches without judgment. If a plant produces a stunningly beautiful blossom, a naturalist leaves it alone, not succumbing to the desire to take it home.

In meditation, we observe ourselves much as a naturalist observes nature: without repressing, denying, grasping or defending anything. This means that we observe our life with a non- interfering presence. We can see our anger, depression, fear, happiness, joy, pain and pleasure directly, as they are, without complications. The naturalist’s perspective is one of respect for what is observed. The word “respect” is a nice synonym for mindful- ness practice because it literally means to “look again.”

Often we complicate our observation of ourselves by taking things personally. Of course we can’t deny that our sorrows and joys, challenges and blessings, emotions and thoughts are happening to us. But when we take them personally we let ourselves be defined by them: the presence of anger means I am an angry person. A generous act taken personally is proof that I am a generous person. While the common tendency of taking things personally may seem innocent, it often unnecessarily complicates our relationship with what is happening. We can easily become muddled in confusions regarding such issues as personal identity, image, and expectation.

From the naturalist perspective, one does not see “my anger” or “my generosity.” Rather, they are simply observed as “the anger” or “the impulse of generosity.” Such a switch of perspective can be particularly helpful with physical pain. When taken personally, “my pain” can easily lead to burdensome feelings of responsibility and entanglement. When we see it as “the pain,” it tends to be easier for us to remain disentangled and lighter.

Another way we complicate our lives is by assigning values of good and bad to our experiences. For a naturalist there is no good or bad; the natural world just unfolds. During mindfulness meditation we do not need to judge our experience as either good or bad. We simply watch how things are and how they unfold.

By cultivating a naturalist’s perspective during meditation, it is possible to develop a capacity to be non- reactive. From this non-reactive perspective, we can more easily explore how to respond wisely to whatever circumstances we find ourselves in. Once we have seen clearly, there may well be a need for action or involvement. For example, a naturalist may decide to remove a non-native plant from a delicate eco-system. Likewise, through non-reactively witnessing our anger or greed, we may decide to uproot them.

Because of our wonderful powers of observation and reflection, human beings can be both observer and observed. We can be both the naturalist and the nature. We are nature seeing itself. Through our capacity to see clearly, we can be nature freeing itself.


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