By Deborah McNamara

“To be alive in this beautiful, self-organizing universe — to participate in the dance of life with senses to perceive it, lungs that breathe it, organs that draw nourishment from it — is a wonder beyond words.” — Joanna Macy

Photo: Deb McNamara, Dubois Wyoming

While recently teaching an undergraduate course on Geography at a Buddhist-inspired university in Colorado, I set out to offer a different approach to relating with the natural world around us. Instead of considering geography as a study of set things or a collection of inanimate objects, I wanted to bring geography to life as the study of systems and processes unfolding around us. And I wanted to do it in a way that served an overall sense of well-being, with deep queries about our place on earth and how we relate and engage.

Rather than being merely an ‘observer’ to the places we encounter, how could we welcome a sense of mystery and cultivate an experience of interconnectedness? We pondered how it might serve us to feel our part in an interconnected network of relationships, rather than a tendency to perceive ourselves as separate from what surrounds us. How could we instead practice the experience of realizing our part in a dynamic, evolving whole? And how could we find more joy in the simple day to day encounters?

We opened ourselves to fresh perspective and found that fully engaging our senses and tapping into differing ways of experiencing the natural world around us offered up unexpected revelations. An alternate experience of the earth as a living system of dynamic patterns and relationships crystallized. Approaching our time outdoors from this perspective, a set of guiding principles emerged. And, putting these pieces into practice charted a pathway for new insights to unfold.

Practice #1. Fully engage your senses. Draw on multiple ways of knowing and experiencing.

Author and yoga teacher Loren Roche, Ph.D. translated the following from the Vijnana Bhairava, one of the early teachings on yoga and meditation from India. It clarifies so perfectly how our senses offer up ever-present pathways to noticing the subtle details of any given moment, and how “every perception is an invitation into revelation.”

“The senses declare an outrageous world —
Sounds and scents, ravishing colors and shapes,
Ever-changing skies, iridescent reflections…
Every perception is an invitation into revelation.
Hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, touching,
Ways of knowing,
Transmissions of electric realization,
The deepest reality is always right here.”

Consider how you experience your moments, and whether you rely on one mode of encountering the world more than others. For example, which senses are easier to access, which are more difficult? Which of your senses most strongly connects you to the world? Which of your senses do you least engage in experiencing the world?

And, beyond how you ‘sense’ the world, do you find yourself thinking as a primary way to engage? Or, are you guided more by feelings or intuition?

One of the books I’ve looked to for a broadened perspective on engaging science and geography is Animate Earth: Science, Intuition and Gaia, by Stephan Harding. He invites readers to strive for genuine participation with nature, and advocates for the practice of science that integrates the sensual, intuitive, and ethical aspects of being human. I love this, especially how it invites us to step out of the dominant scientific paradigm that has influenced industrialized culture for hundreds of years. Specifically, he calls on us to practice sensingfeeling, and intuiting in addition to the often dominant modes of thinking and rationalizing.

The invitation: Fully engage your senses. Draw on multiple ways of knowing and experiencing. Take time to smell, touch, and listen. Practice using each of your senses in encountering the natural world. Notice what you notice. Then, take time to practice feeling. Beyond an emotional experience, feel and sense outwards from your whole body. How are your feet placed? Rest a hand on your stomach and receive a breath. Feel your spine reaching upwards to the sky. Feel what is behind you just as much as noticing what is in front of you.

Beyond how we reason and make sense of the world, invite the capacity to feel love and appreciation for what is around you — and let your senses guide you into the sharpness and wonder of the deepest reality right here, now.

Practice #2. Take note of the relationships and interconnections at play around you.

Zen master Yasutani Roshi said, “The fundamental delusion of humanity is to suppose that I am here and you are out there.” Indeed Buddhism teaches about interconnectedness, with one of the Buddha’s realizations being rooted in this experience. What if an experience of interconnectedness is indeed our true nature? Each breath is like a thread connecting us with our atmosphere, the trees, and other living beings. Every time we receive sunlight on our skin, we are absorbing the heat and light of a distant sun.

Many of you reading may, like me, be conditioned to see what is around you as a collection of “set things” instead of a network of systems, dynamic patterns, relationships, and processes at play. Many of us have to work a bit to not perceive ourselves as ‘separate’ from the world around us. This tendency is likely rooted in what has been called the ‘Cartesian Paradigm,’ a way of thinking inspired by philosopher Rene Descartes, who was alive during the Scientific Revolution. Descartes said to know a thing one must go through a logical chain of reasoning and break things down to their simplest parts. Ultimately, the search for knowledge of nature occurred from the mind or self “in here” confronting a world “out there.”

With mechanistic and reductionistic modes of relating to the natural world dominant, objects can seem to matter more than the relationships between them. Unfortunately, the consequences of this way of relating have not only ecological impacts but also personal ones. We can begin to unravel some of this conditioned relating by considering the systems at work of which we are an inherent part. We can shift our focus from ‘objects’ to processes, interactions, and relationships — and consider the myriad ways in which life happening around us is in constant relationship.

Consider your experience as an ‘observer’ and what you are observing. Then, shift your frame. Notice how you are part of a living system: a dynamic, evolving ‘whole.’ Begin by taking a slow walk, or finding a place to quietly sit.

Reflect on the relationships happening around you and how you are participating. Notice your breath and how it connects you to the trees or plants around you through the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. Each breath is a reminder of this ongoing reciprocal relationship. Practice being open to what is happening through each of your senses. What does the air feel like on your skin? How do you experience light from the sun? Notice the ways in which you are not separate but rather in relationship with what is around you.

Practice #3. Shift your perception and see with fresh eyes.

During the geography course, each week my students were tasked with spending at least 30 minutes outdoors with specific assignments to relate creatively and reflectively with the natural world. When students weren’t reading about the composition of the earth’s core or crust, or learning about the atmosphere or global water cycle, they were undertaking studies in perception.

Assignments included practices for sensing the earth as round and feeling the earth’s rotation, witnessing the stars, or “swimming” through the atmosphere. You can try variations of these exercises in perception too. Step outside and contemplate the earth’s eastward rotation. Facing east, close your eyes and feel into this constant movement. Now, look to the horizon and imagine the earth’s curvature. What if the atmosphere was like an ocean that you could dive into and explore? Lie down on your back and look to the sky. Imagine you could dive into it much how you would dive into a cool, blue lake.

Notice which things in the natural world pull your attention. What are you drawn to? Close your eyes for a moment, and then reopen them focusing on something specific. Take a closer look at the patterns you see. You might choose to look more closely at a leaf or at the bark on a tree. Let your eyes refocus on the subtle details present. What stands out? Then, take time to reflect. Write down something new you have noticed. What insights want to emerge?

Practice #4. Imagine you are encountering this place for the first time.

Writer and activist Rebecca Solnit calls a sense of place the “sixth sense, an internal compass and map made by memory and spatial perception together.” She goes on to say, “When you give yourself to places, they give you yourself back.”

Indeed, when we give ourselves more fully to a place, we receive something in return. When we know and love our own place, we also grow local awareness, local culture, and local knowledge and solutions. We can choose to be in relationship with a place just as much as with a person — and, as anyone who has fallen in love with places on this planet knows, we can be infinitely transformed by these relationships.

Consider your own sense of place. Where do you feel most connected and at home in the natural world? What was your experience of connection to your places in nature as a child? How do you come to know each place?

Wherever you find yourself today, imagine you are exploring it for the first time. You can pick any place — a nearby park or trail, a small patch of green, or the view from your window. You might even record your impressions in a journal, or create a map as if you were the first person to discover this place. Each place has a story, whether it is a geologic or historical story or the stories told by the people who have lived here. Consider the processes at work to bring the shapes of this place into reality. Are there rivers shaping the land? Receding glaciers? Ancient volcanoes?

In my course, we took time to connect around ‘personal geography introductions.’ Who we are is informed by where we live and where we come from. What landscape greets you as you leave your home? What direction does your front door face? What body of water is nearest to your home and what is your relationship with it? What are your favorite places to visit and why?

Taking time to recall our wider community in the natural world can broaden our perspective and soften the tendency to be overly self-absorbed. With senses fully engaged and drawing on multiple ways of experiencing, we can be reminded of our inherent interconnectedness. This in turn stretches the limits of our knowledge and understanding, inviting new perspectives.

Next time you step outside, try something different. Take a deeper breath than is your habit. Open your eyes more widely, and sharpen your vision. Recall the countless ways we are invited into new revelations. Become an avid explorer of the places that greet you, and let yourself be surprised at what you find.