New Awareness in Nature

We can hold in our conscious minds somewhere between 5 and 9 bits of information, concepts, or currents of thought. These thoughts pass through our minds like a swift flowing stream. Under the surface of this current is our unconscious mind, the vessel for our instinctual and automatic processes.

We can become more aware of our consciousness when we are out in nature. The boundaries between conscious and unconscious awareness become porous. Our bodies are build for survival. The senses that inform become more attuned to the snap of a twig, the firmness of the ground, or the deep growl of a predator. 

The main difference now, between ourselves and a distant ancestor 10,000 years ago is the level of sensory awareness. We haven’t really lost any of the depth. What we have lost is the understanding. The feature that was heightened awareness, necessary for survival, has a new name. We call it anxiety now, and it’s considered a bug. 

What happens when we visit nature is similar to when we add water to a dried sponge. The stiffness of our natural awareness becomes fluid and flexible. Awkward clumsiness is replaced by an effortless balance between the heightened awareness of our instinctual minds, and the focused attention of our conscious minds. The drag of anxiety is discarded, and replaced with a surge of recognition. The body remembers its atavistic essence. We become part of the community of nature and perceive it from within rather than outside. 

This essence, this deepened awareness, is like a trail. The more we visit it, the more apparent it becomes. The traits that kept our ancestors alive reemerge and become part of our thoughts and movements. Conscious attention is no longer hijacked by anxiety. The gift of nature is the awareness that the energy of anxiety is really the heightened awareness of our survival instinct. Nature does not create traits that are not biologically useful. We can use our conscious attention to value and appreciate our natural experiences. We can reintroduce our physical bodies to the sensory stream of nature, and learn how to swim again. 

Branches

Over 500 years ago one of the most creative minds in the world made an interesting and mostly unverified observation. In one of his notebooks, Leonardo Da Vinci wrote: "all the branches of a tree at every stage of its height when put together are equal in thickness to the trunk.”  The concept is that if you measure the thickness of all the branches, and add up the values, they would combine to equal the thickness of the tree’s trunk. This can also be applied at branching points, and the width of the trunk below them.  

It turned out to be a mostly accurate observation, with only some odd trees that defy this description.  Nature's intent behind the design is to enhance the protection of the tree structure from winds and gravity. The tree balances itself while growing an ideal platform for the collection of sunlight. The tree, through its leaves, turns the light in to nutrition through photosynthesis. 

Leaves could grow from a tree’s trunk, but that would limit the tree's growth. The tree takes a risk by expending energy in to the growth of branches, but the payoff is very well worth the risk. The growth of a tree structure is designed around balance, stability and nutritional payoff. Branches in some trees make dramatic adjustments in direction based on new conditions. Or, trees grow new branches and cease giving energy to others. Geometrically, the patterns of the total collection of branches, known as crowns, are often shaped like cones. The cones are either right side up or upside down, and are the ideal structure for gathering light. 

The energy trees produce is reflected in their growth. Branches are structures of commitment for the tree. Thick, twisting branches represent years of growth. Branches balance each other and ultimately the overall structure. They weave and nod in the wind with grace and fluidity. They glide and arc to waves and influences seen and unseen. Trees that are isolated need to develop stronger structures than trees in dense forests with fewer structural challenges like strong winds.

With an understanding of this natural model, we can apply it to all kinds of human conditions. Nature reuses patterns. The physical structures of nature can inspire new thinking in our own mental planes. What if we applied branching to relationships? The trunk can represent our emotional core. We can understand that we need to balance our relationships to maintain stability and balance. Putting energy in to their growth will lead to more nourishment, as long as the growth adjusts to changing conditions. The more nourishment received, the more growth attained. With effort and commitment, we can build a balanced crown of love and connection. When branches grow, the mechanical stress from its weight remains constant as it grows. As the strength of our relationships grow, so does our ability to handle the stresses that may interfere with its ability to develop. 

A branching tree can also model the branching structure of our own energetic output.  What if we imagine work as a branch of our lives. Does the underlying structure support the branch? Is the branch adjusting to changing conditions? Is it providing the nutrition that stimulates new growth? Or, is it becoming outsized and unstable? The natural model is that branches provide the structure for nourishment, balance and stability. 

Trees are fractals, and a developing branch repeats the same patterns of growth as the larger part. This is known as “self-similarity.”  Our own branches of thought repeat the same patterns of growth of the larger unit. We create our branches and connections from our own source material. We can only expect to create that which matches the source material. We can create new source material within ourselves. The natural model is that branches provide nutrition to the source.  We can let that guide our own actions and intentions. How does our branching provide nutrition to the source and enable our growth?

Imagine that a scrub jay buried the acorn of your intentions on a beautiful hillside in northern California. Warmed by the sun, held by the earth, nourished by the rain, the acorn cracks and grows with energy and exuberance. Along the journey of growth, there are sunny days and storms, predators and benefactors, pestilence and peace. Countless generations of breezy thoughts flow through the branches, but the structure stays balanced. Gravity can be wearisome, and storms can harm, but all along the tree counts on the light to nourish growth. In the end, the beauty of your crown is revealed. 

Time is getting shorter and there's much for you to do
Only ask and you will get what you are needing,
The rest is up to you
Plant your love and let it grow

Let it grow, let it grow,
Let it blossom, let it flow
In the sun, the rain, the snow,
Love is lovely, let it grow

Eric Clapton - Let it Grow

A Matter of Degree

I often visit nature at sunrise, or sunset. It is the point where light transitions to darkness, or darkness to light. There is never a moment where I can see the transition.  There is not a time where light ends, and darkness begins. The scenes flow, and the change is a matter of degree.

The same is true for hot and cold. The trail can start out cold, but warm up. I can generate my own heat when climbing, or descend in to a cool valley and feel a chill. When does cold end, and hot begin? From these examples, we can understand that opposites are really the same thing, the differences being simply a different point on an infinite scale. 

By observing nature, we can understand this concept and apply it to our own emotional states. Our emotions manifest along a spectrum, like hot and cold, light and darkness. As we hike along the trail, we may notice different degrees of elation, awe, or joy. We may also experience degrees of physical change, and feel more or less fatigued or vitalized. We can understand that fatigue can be transformed to vigor through rest, refueling and hydration.  We make an effort to transform a physical state along the spectrum by first contemplation, and then taking action to move along the scale to the desired state. Fatigue becomes vigor through thought and action. Fatigue and vigor are the same thing, they just differ in degree. 

Dark becomes light by adding light, not removing darkness. Cold becomes hot by adding heat. Opposites move along their spectrum and eventually meet. Go far enough along any scale of opposites and you find yourself back at the start. Go far enough east and it becomes west.  So the difference between any opposites is simply a matter of degree. Everything has its opposite, and opposites are really the same thing. 

With that understanding, we can see that love and hate are the same thing. We can connect sadness to happiness by seeing them along a vast spectrum. All emotions have their opposites, and we are often swung wildly and uncontrollably through emotional states by being influenced through the thoughts and actions of others. But, by being aware of the polarity of nature, we can also understand and be aware of the polarity of our emotional states. We can take action to change our states by focusing on the opposite place on the emotional spectrum. Escape sorrow by focusing on joy. Eliminate hate by living in love. Slide along the scale of angst and depression by moving towards vitality and hope. Joy lives in nature. Love, vitality and hope exist all along the trail. Move away from the sources of dark by stretching and reaching toward the light in life.  Surround yourself with vitality and energy. Create the conditions of growth and contribution in the forest of your mind, and direct your thoughts and energy to become the sunlight. 


Hiking Meditation

It’s easy and very natural to meditate while hiking. Nature gives us many opportunities to connect with it, and ourselves. What is special about meditating in nature is that it is as simple as it is profound and impactful. Everything we need to balance the flow of our own thought is found in the current of moments along the trail. 

Jed Smith State Park

On a hike, we can allow ourselves to disconnect from the sources of stress. Even as we step foot on the trail, we can begin to notice the open sky. That’s an invitation to start relaxing and opening up. Let go of any tension by taking your first few steps slowly.

Sunol Regional Wilderness

Feel the terrain under your feet. Stay steady by paying close attention to the stability of the foot before you push off. Notice the natural curves and textures of the terrain. Step over roots and rocks, and keep your center of gravity balanced. Lift your chest up, and keep your shoulders back. Move through nature with strength, grace and respect. 

Marin Watershed

As you move, let your eyes follow the terrain around you. Become aware of the most compelling aspects of the landscape, and create an intention in your mind to focus on the beautiful and mysterious.  This intention tells the mind, “there are secrets to be revealed here, let me be open to them.” 

Mt.Rainier National Park

Follow the easy flow of your muscles as you move, and become aware of how your body is shifting to support your weight. Feel your heart pound in your chest, breathe deeply and take a moment to appreciate that. Our physical bodies are vessels of experience.  Nature brings our senses to alert. This gift raises our ability to appreciate everything around us.

Denver Glacier Trail, Alaska

Absorb the beauty around you in each moment.  Follow the root to the trunk, the trunk to the branch, the branch to the leaf. Watch the hawk glide and float on hidden waves. Listen to the symphony of nature, and follow each note to its source.  There are relationships everywhere, and we build our own with each sensory connection. We create our own invisible links with the focused attention on what we are seeing, hearing and feeling.

Golden Spike Trail, Redwood Regional Park

Learn how to scan nature by paying attention over time.  The lines, shapes and patterns tell a story of unseen influences.  Study the influences by seeing the flow of the structures.  Everything is changing right before our senses. We can observe a tree and watch it change with the light, the wind, the various creatures that visit it. We can lay in a meadow and watch the sky change. Things come and go, and movement is endless.

Huckleberry Regional Preserve

It is in this observation that meditation is born. We follow the movement in our mind without thought, and watch it come and go. We empty our mind by watching each moment of change as it happens all around us. Change is effortless, and following its process makes meditation the same way. We can focus on the experience and appreciate it, without diluting the vision with a flow of inner dialogue. The current of change becomes a cleansing stream that scrubs the banal and artificial, and fills us with the substantial reality of impermanence. This reality reminds us that the structures of form and thought that sometimes rule our lives have no real weight other than what we give them. 

Mt.Diablo State Park

The peace that comes from this process soon becomes evident.  Barriers drop, and we no longer feel separate from everything around us. We soon enter in to the current, and it guides us to new levels of understanding and awareness. 

Redwood State Park

With beauty may I walk.
With beauty before me, may I walk.
With beauty behind me, may I walk.
With beauty above me, may I walk.
With beauty below me, may I walk.
With beauty all around me, may I walk.

In old age wandering on a trail of beauty, lively, may I walk.
In old age wandering on a trail of beauty, living again, may I walk.

It is finished in beauty.
It is finished in beauty.

A Navajo Indian Prayer of the Second Day of the Night Chant (Anonymous)

Creativity is Blooming

All over the hillsides of Mt.Diablo, and across the foothills and valleys, the wildflowers are blooming. Reaching, stretching, twisting, they pursue only one goal: the complete fulfillment of their creative expression.  If there is any sense of awareness within a flower, or any concept of choice, then they uniformly choose to burst forth with the ultimate vision of themselves. If there is no awareness, or any contemplation, then we can conclude that nature’s design is to express the full creative potential of organisms. 

We expect flowers to unfold in the spring, and reveal their hidden beauty for just a moment. We know the oaks will grow, the redwoods will reach, the bees will buzz, the hawks will soar. Even if a flower is never seen by an observer, or sampled by a bee, it exists to achieve its peak expression. This expression is part of the vast display of nature’s creative force.

From the nematodes to the giant sequoias, every organism’s expression is a wisp of color on the canvas of creation. Every expression is the weight on a scale, evenly balanced by an opposite and equal force of creation.  Everything exists as part of the vast continuum of creation. The extremes of creation bookend a vast variety of structure and organization that fit together as the single force of life. We are bound by and descended from the same initial spark of creation, and all hold the energy of that spark within us. 

For all the reasons a flower blooms, the most important reason is that it is designed to reach the peak of its potential. The flower is driven to express, as are the twisted oaks on the hillside. The blades of grass grow according to plan, as do the fennel, and the manzanita. All natural things strive to reach the peak of their expression, before they withdraw and return to where they came from, taking with them the experience of their transformation. 

There are times when organisms delay their creative expression, simply because the right conditions do not exist. In nature, that might mean fewer flowers because of drought, fire, or some other environmental condition. But an unfulfilled nature is flat, dull and stressed.

The moment conditions return to a satisfactory level, the organisms carry on with their mission. There is never the desire or intention to stay in the state of potential. There is only the overwhelming desire to live and express, for as long as the moment lasts. 

If we look at the nature all around us and see the creativity in every leaf, wing, tooth and branch, then we can know it’s our nature too. Every cell and structure within us is the result of creativity on an unknowable scale. We are made, like all of nature, to express ourselves creatively. How can we look at a hillside covered with wildflowers and not know that we have that potential within us too?

Our thoughts and actions can create the landscapes that provide beauty and sustenance to others. Like all of nature, we are designed this way.  We are all balancing on the cosmic scale of life. On one side is our potential, and on the other side is our expression. We can choose to feel flat, dull and stressed. Or, we can set free the natural creative force within us and balance our scale. 

Photo Gallery: Mt. Diablo Fire Zone

These images were taken approximately 5 months after the Morgan wildfire in Mt. Diablo State Park

 

 

The Detached Observer in Nature

Nature is a beautiful place to detach and observe.

Detached observation means that we are watching the cascading molecules of thought flow in and out of our minds. We are allowing them to continue on, rather than pool in to an emotional state. 

When we become a witness to the current, we can observe that we are not the current. Thoughts can come and go without giving them meaning or emotions. We can become still, serene; a detached observer without blame or judgement. 

Observe the thoughts coming and going in your mind, and let them flow on in the current. Hold on to nothing. In this natural place, we can then open ourselves to the greater spirit of connection within the bursting vibrancy of life. 

Sanctuary

Our words and actions are the physical representation of our thoughts and intentions.

Mt. Rainier National Park

Mt. Rainier National Park

When we leave a conversation, or when we leave this life, what we leave behind can provide the structure of sanctuary.

We can also leave impediments and obstacles, which can irritate and linger like a pebble in a shoe.

Mt. Rainier National Park

Mt. Rainier National Park

The wise nourish new growth and contribution. They understand that the cycle is endless. New growth develops in to groves of potential, and contribution creates sanctuaries of the spirit.

Mt. Rainier National Park

Mt. Rainier National Park


Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail

Nick Kristof, New York Times:

So when the world seems to be falling apart, when we humans seem to be creating messes everywhere we turn, maybe it’s time to rejuvenate in the cathedral of the wilderness — and there, away from humanity, rediscover our own humanity.

And

The trails are a reminder of our insignificance. We come and go, but nature is forever. It puts us in our place, underscoring that we are not lords of the universe but components of it.
Transient

The Health Benefits of Trees

As I've known, and experienced, hiking under canopies of trees delivers significant health benefits. 

Transient

From an article in The Atlantic:

It is becoming increasingly clear that trees help people live longer, healthier, happier lives—to the tune of $6.8 billion in averted health costs annually in the U.S., according to research published this week. And we're only beginning to understand the nature and magnitude of their tree-benevolence.