Even though there aren’t that many places I can go at the moment to enjoy the scenery, when I look out of my window there is still plenty of nature to observe. Connecting to nature has always been an important part of my practice. This year I have found observing the patterns of nature more important than ever.
Lockdown has an amorphous, timeless quality, it could be any day of the week or any month of the year. It is just one block of 24 hours after another, every day is the same. But when I look out the window I know that it is spring; the new leaves are bursting out on the trees; the song of the chiffchaff means it must be April.
For me nature and its cycles have always been a great source of teaching and reflection. This makes sense when you consider that our task in Buddhist practice is to see the world as it really is; so observing the world in its natural form is a great source of learning.
One thing that particularly cheered me last week was the first sight this year of the housemartins. They come here every spring from Africa, raise their chicks by feeding on insects during our long summer days, then make the long journey south again every Autumn. They are delightful little birds, always bustling and busy, fluttering high in the sky and chattering to each other; to me their chirupping is the sound of summer.
Their return filled me with joy, they are the sign of summer, that the seasons continue, the sign that the rest of the world continues as it always does even while our human world is on a temporary hold. Nature can have this kind of uplifting effect on us, both body and mind, and it can be useful to utilise this quality it has when we are feeling low or tired.
But it is important to remember that Buddhist practice is about seeing things as they really are; it isn’t about romanticising nature as good and real, and everything human as somehow false and synthetic. Buddhist practice doesn’t start from the perspective that we have ‘lost our way’ and we need to get back to something more pure and in tune with the natural world.
It’s very easy to get swept away by ideas like beauty, space, freedom, or majesty when we are in nature. So I when I am connecting with nature I am always careful to not let a romantic view take over my mind, because I feel that this creates a mindset where nature is ‘over there’ and I am ‘over here’ and somehow separate from it. Nature is all around us, even in the busiest city, and we are just as much a part of it as animals are.
Connecting to nature for me is seeing that I am always a part of it, and seeing that the other beings around me experience wanting and not wanting just like I do. If you watch birds hurrying around looking for nest material it is obvious that they have a plan, a task, something they want to get done. And I can relate to that, I know what it is like to hurry around trying to get everything I need for my plan, and stressing when I can’t. It’s not about anthropomorphising animals and believing that they think and feel in exactly the same way we do, but it is more about recognising that if you are able to experience the pull of wanting something and the push of not wanting something then you share common experience.
When you can break the mental barrier between you being a human and everything else being an animal, then suddenly you will find that you have an abundance of new companions, and your new friends have as much to teach you as your walking talking human ones.
If you ever go on retreat at Amaravati one sound will always be apparent to you – the call of the woodpigeons. The monastery has an open grassy field circled by mature trees and it is the perfect environment for male woodpigeons to make their dipping display flights to woo females, and you will frequently see them gliding on fixed wings from a treetop to the other side of the field.
Their call is loud and tunelessly melodious – a lazy but urgent do-DOO-doo-doodoo, and can be heard at almost all times. It’s a good thing that you get up at 5 am on retreat because even if you wanted a lie in the woodpigeons have got their own agendas!
If I am there on retreat on a Monday morning, the sound of the cars drifting up from the distant road sparks a reflection; years ago I was in one of those cars commuting to work along that road every day. Back then I could never have imagined Monday mornings could involve standing in a field meditating. Then I hear the woodpigeons cal,l and I reflect that 9am on a Monday means nothing to them right now either.
So the call of the woodpigeon is mindfulness reminder for me, it takes me back to the stillness of Amaravati, to the memory that there is more than one way to live, one way to be. But also it reminds me to keep challenging my perceptions; so much of practice is about finding ways to see through the illusions and delusions that our minds create that we should always look for the things that remind us that there are other perspectives.
Ajahn Amaro frequently starts a Dhamma talk by mentioning what day and date it is, then reflects on how this is just a convenient fiction. If you are sitting in one country, today might be Tuesday, but because of time differences in another country today it is Wednesday already. In the UK the year is 2020, but in Thailand it is 2563. It’s still the same year in both countries but we choose different numbers to name it.
These convenient fictions are fine when we understand that they are just conventions, just ways that we use to make sure we are talking about the same thing to each other. But our mind makes fictions all the time, and when we can’t see that our thoughts are fictions then it can all become quite inconvenient.
We have tendency in the West to go into abstraction and try to understand everything intellectually; we don’t want the details, we want to know the system so we can work out every detail from there. When someone tells us that our minds are working incorrectly our response is to ask well how can we get the mind to work properly then?
We habitually start to analyse and ponder, could it be this? Could it be that? No, it can’t be that because of this. Maybe it’s this then? But to understand the Buddha’s teachings this is the very thing we should not do, he even made the point that dhamma cannot come to be understood by logic. What we need to do is to experience the unreliability of our thoughts, because ultimately we don’t need to understand why they are incorrect, we just need to stop attaching to them as if they are. It is only by experiencing it that we will see what the problem is.
So when Ajahn Amaro points out that ‘today is Tuesday’ is just a convenient fiction, it gives us an opportunity to experience thinking something is true – ‘today is Tuesday’ – and then understand that the feeling of certainty and trueness was wrong, it was just our mind that created that feeling. The certainty was an inconvenient fiction, if you like.
Ajahn Chah went a step further and instead of only challenging these obvious convenient fictions he would question everything that came up in his mind. Whatever thought came up he would respond to it with ‘is that a sure thing?’, is that definitely true? Ordinarily we just accept all our thoughts to be correct but he systematically challenged this supposition with every thought he experienced.
Ajahn Amaro often says that Ajahn Chah would say ‘everything you think is garbage!’ It’s a typically bold statement from Ajahn Chah, and it really does get you wondering, surely it can’t all be garbage, there must be something useful in there? It is very interesting to watch how our minds react to this statement. Ajahn Amaro said that when he first heard it he thought ‘well maybe all of your thoughts are garbage but mine aren’t!’
Personally, I ended up getting drawn into analysing thoughts, looking for a way to somehow discern the different between the useful thoughts and the rubbish ones. But eventually I realised that trying to think about whether there were any useful thoughts was only creating more thoughts that weren’t useful. The point of reflecting on Ajahn Chah’s statement was supposed to help me to become less attached to thinking but instead I was thinking more.
So I turned it around and decided to see what would happen if I was prepared to allow the possibility that all my thoughts were in fact garbage and see what happened. What I found was that this approach made me less attached to thoughts, and the less attached to thoughts I was the less stressed and upset by them I was. So what I found out was that really it didn’t matter if any of my thoughts were correct or not, Buddhist practice isn’t about being correct, it is about developing a peaceful mind and heart. And I learnt that it was good to utilise everything that creates peace and lessens thinking.
The Buddha said that our habit of believing our thoughts is one that we have brought with us from thousands of previous lifetimes. Whether that is true or not doesn’t matter – the point he was making is that it is such a strong and long standing habit that it will take a lot of work to change it; so don’t be disappointed if you don’t get quick results, or even slow results, just keep working at it.
Because it is such a strong habit, we need ways to constantly remind ourselves that we want to do something different. We need post it notes (real or virtual) to trigger a memory for us when we see them – oh yes, I said I wasn’t going to believe my thoughts as much!
Nature acts as many of my post it notes; just watching the birds go about their business reminds me that the ideas I have about what is important right now are only the product of my particular human mind. If I was a jackdaw the most important thing to do right now would be to gather twigs to build a nest, and if the jackdaw could understand my mind he or she would think it was nonsense that I could think the most important thing to do right now is to find a delivery slot at an online supermarket.
Watching the robins and blackbirds poking around in my lawn for worms reminds me that the stress of trying to find a delivery slot online to have some shopping delivered is nothing compared to the stress of having to go out every day and find your own food, and reminds me that we humans used have to do until fairly recently in our long history. If my mind is telling me that online shopping is stressful, then I can reflect that it is exaggerating.
When I am busy rushing to get out of the door on a work day, the call of the woodpigeon reminds me that this rushing and busyness is only an issue that my mind has created, and only a problem because I believe it. I need to be there by 9am. 9am on a Monday morning means nothing to a woodpigeon, it is neither Monday, nor 9am to him.
So perhaps if you hear a woodpigeon cooing at 9am it might remind you that it is only the thought that you need to be somewhere at 9am that is creating any feeling of stress for you; the woodpigeon doesn’t have any meetings on his agenda this morning. In that moment try occupy the woodpigeon’s world without meetings or conference calls, and you might notice that your feeling of stress lifts.
Finding ways that you can experience directly that changing your mental perspective changes the way you feel will help you to gain insight into your own mind. But also they can give you relief from the tyranny of your thoughts. When something reminds you to not believe your mind your thoughts can be let go of quite easily, and when you let them go you feel the benefit of it almost immediately. Let nature be your teacher and remind you that your thoughts are only one way of thinking, and likewise go to nature when you need ways to be released from your thoughts.