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The Issue at Hand

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Chapter 18: According with Nature

Who once was inattentive
But now is not,
Illumines the world
Like the moon set free from a cloud. 

– Dhammapada 172

 

All spiritual practice involves change, or a wish for change: to go from a state of suffering to a state without suffering, to go from agitation to calm, to go from a closed heart to an open, compassionate heart. When people first come to a spiritual practice, the desire – even the need – for change is often quite clear. Conversely, in some advanced Buddhist practices the desire for change may be so subtle that it may go unnoticed. For example, one may learn the practice of simply accepting things as they are, without wanting change. But even here there is change-from a state of non-acceptance to a state of acceptance.

It is important for us to reflect on our relationship to the process of seeking change. Are there healthy and unhealthy ways of bringing about change? One way to think of this is to look at the distinction between change that accords with nature and change as an act of ego.

Consider how a skillful gardener supports the growth of a flower. The gardener doesn’t tug on a seed sprout to help the plant grow or pull open the petals to open a blossom. Rather he or she nourishes and protects the plant, and so lets it grow and flower in line with its nature.

In the same way, much of what sustains our life occurs with- out our needing to intervene. For example, the body knows how to take care of itself in a way that the mind could never possibly understand. The conscious mind cannot control everything related to the pumping of the heart, the circulation of blood, and the workings of the immune system. What our bodies do with- out our conscious awareness is simply astounding! Our main role in these processes is to nourish and protect.

In contrast to this natural unfolding, there is change imposed by the ego, out of our insecurity, fear, hostility, greed, or ambition. And because of our phenomenal ability for abstract thinking, we easily impose our world of ideas on top of nature rather than patiently allowing nature to show us what is needed and how we can come into accord with it. One concept we often impose on our experience is an assumption of permanence, which can put us at odds with the inherent impermanence of all natural processes. Another concept that can inhibit the expression of our nature is a fixed image of ourselves, which can easily propel us to conform to “shoulds” and “should nots.”

I believe that spiritual practice unfolds most smoothly when we find how to accord ourselves with nature. A useful metaphor for this is a river. To enter the spiritual life fully is to enter a stream that eventually carries you to the great ocean. All you have to do is to get into the river and stay in it. Trust, persistence, mindfulness, clarity and insight help us float in the river. Once we are floating, the nature of a river is to carry us effortlessly to the ocean. If we fight the river, if we fight against the current, we can exhaust ourselves trying to go against the natural flow.

The river metaphor is quite different from the popular metaphor that likens the spiritual path to climbing a mountain- which suggests hard, constant, and willful uphill effort, and can lend itself to an ego-driven spirituality. The trek is hard, suggesting that not everyone can make it. The mountain peak may be quite narrow, suggesting it can only hold a few people at a time. In contrast, the ocean is big enough to hold everyone.

The river metaphor is expressive of a practice of according with nature, with truth. This does not mean that spiritual practice requires nothing of us. A fast river may require our attention and navigation to stay in the current, off the rocks, and out of the eddies. Practice requires mindfulness and investigation, support- ed by calmness and inner stability, to discover nature and how to accord ourselves with it. Often this entails learning how to leave ourselves alone, how not to interfere with the natural unfolding and healing that will occur if we give them a chance. Our conscious mind may not know what is supposed to unfold. Like a flower that needs water and fertilizer, our inner life opens in its varied ways when it is ready, if we nourish it with attentiveness, compassion and acceptance.

To work with nature we need to study it thoroughly. One way to do this is to investigate all the ways we work against nature by being judgmental, hostile, demanding, hurried, unkind or ungenerous.

Another important way to study nature is through mindful- ness of the body. Our bodies are, after all, a clear expression of nature. The body is perhaps our most intimate connection to nature. To be mindful of the body is to be interested in what wants to move within the body, what wants expression. Many of our volitions, desires, fears, aspirations, understandings and emotions reside in the body. To resist nature is to keep these frozen within the body. But the opposite, to act on them blindly, also goes against nature.

To accord with nature is to discover that you are nature. In Buddhism, there is the saying, “Those who practice the Dharma are protected by the Dharma.” Another way of saying this is that those who practice in accord with nature are protected by nature. Those who practice the truth are in turn protected by the truth.

May you all be protected by your nature.

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