A Phenomenological Walk in Nature

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Phenomenology offers a way to look at our environment that can help bridge the gap between companies like Gabriel Resources and the men and women who oppose them in Rosia Montana (and eleswhere on earth). This essay serves as an introduction to its potential for beneficial insight.

Essay: A Phenomenological Walk in Nature

An Experience
One late summer afternoon in the Catskills of New York, while walking on a quiet country lane, I came upon a small clearing in the woods where man had been grating the earth. It was Sunday, so no workers were in sight. I stood for a moment, breathing in the sweet smell of dogwood and pine and watched as the leaves of a nearby maple tree shimmered in the gentle breeze. I noticed how the movement of the leaves foreshadowed the approach of the wind a moment before it touched my face. Without consciously being aware of it, my mind was letting go of its plethora of thoughts as I took in more and more of the peace and beauty of the moment.

My eyes fell upon a small rock, uncovered by the previous week‘s work, and I stooped down absently to pick it up. As I turned this rock over in the palm of my hand, my mind largely free of thought, the veil of separation suddenly lifted and I became aware of the complete and unshakable union between myself and this artifact of nature. The river of consciousness that ran below my normal perceptions was the same exact consciousness that existed in this stone as it lay in my hand. And it was this typically hidden consciousness that I was now aware of and experiencing.

Shifting my gaze from the rock to the scene around me, I discovered that same sense of unity with all that I saw. Every tree and bush, each sprig of grass and the distant hillock; all creatures and objects were a part of me. Tears of gratitude and joy eased from my eyes and a deep, unconditional love filled my heart.

What is Phenomenology?
Respected phenomenology historian Herbert Spiegelberg once declared that the question “What is phenomenology?” cannot be answered since “the underlying assumption of a unified philosophy subscribed to by all so-called phenomenologists is an illusion.” In other words, any attempt to answer this question reveals a number of variations in approach, considerations and applications which makes answering it difficult. From Edmund Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology, where the process of reduction or bracketing is used to arrive at the pure experience of an object without presuppositions (prior mental conditioning of that object) to Georg Hegel’s dialectical phenomenology where the conscious experience of an object is held in deep contemplation in order to illumine the unseen spirit behind the phenomena, many approaches to phenomenology exist.

Adding to the difficulty is the influence from eastern philosophies that some researchers suggest is indicated in the views expressed by Husserl, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty. Heidegger’s concept of Da-sein (the Being of the lived experience) is thought to have been influenced by the writings of D.T. Suzuki and the year he spent attempting to translate the writings of Lao Tzu, although Heidegger, himself, was silent on this. However, of Suzuki’s writings on Zen, Heidegger was said to have remarked “If I understand this man correctly, this is what I have been trying to say in all my writings.”

Indeed, an examination of the eastern philosophies of India, China and Japan like Advaita Vedanta, Buddhism and Zen, which predate Western European phenomenological writings by a few hundred to several thousand years, show major similarities in their concepts of beingness, nothingness and existence. Should one include the likes of Ramana Maharshi, Nisargadatta and Hui-Neng in the list of phenomenologists, all of whom spoke so eloquently on existence, beingness and no-mind? Probably not, but a common ground does appear to exist between them, though large differences also appear.

Like the hub of a bicycle’s wheel from which emanate a multitude of spokes, the different approaches to phenomenology all begin from the same place and by using this point as a starting point, we can more easily see its usefulness in applying its principles to today’s environmental problems.

Phenomenology and the Environment
Einstein is said to have cautioned that common sense is the “repository of the prejudices of our childhood.” For most, the perception of objects is filtered through the impressions of our past. What is needed is a method by which one can disregard those impressions so that the essence of the object remains, unencumbered by the mental conditioning of the observer. Phenomenology attempts to do this through the suspension of conditioned observations by focusing on the experience of the observer.

Phenomenology, then, is “the interpretive study of human experience.” It is the study of the fundamental aspects of this experience. Moreover, any such study will naturally lead to an examination of existence, itself. It is about getting to the root of what it means “to be;“ about how the different objects in this world exist in time and place and about how they relate to one another while doing so.

At its heart and soul, phenomenology is an examination of the “known“ through the “knower;” in the action of observation, there is the observer and that which is being observed. Phenomenology is an attempt to come to understand this relationship so that humans can live in the world in the most beneficial way.

For this reason, phenomenology gives us a different approach with which to view our environment. Normally, we look at the world around us much like a shopper looking at the objects in a store. Walking down the aisles of our lives, we come into contact with various objects, becoming aware of their size, color, shape, smell and, most importantly, their personal usefulness. If an object is determined to be of use (and at the right price!), the object is “absorbed” into our daily lives. What is deemed useful is conditioned by prior knowledge of that object.

In much the same way, nature is viewed by scientists, environmentalists, business people and lay people as an object to study, protect, acquire, manipulate, use, develop and even destroy. The problem that arises, of course, is that each of these groups give different definitions to nature according to their own history of psychological development, education, cultural influences, etc., a characteristic shared by almost all humans. These personal events and its subsequent mental conditioning impacts greatly how nature is viewed. For example, a 3-year old child who wanders into a hornets nest while exploring the woods behind her house, may, as an adult, see nature as a place of fear and pain that should be developed and “tamed.”

But phenomenology asks us to go beyond our personal perceptions and at least attempt to see nature unadorned with our mental concepts. These mental constructs created from previous experiences tend to hide the “essences” of what we are viewing. Phenomenology urges us to see things as they are, rather than as we think they are.

Getting to the Root
A multitude of environmental problems face modern society. Air pollution, water pollution, destruction of habitat, loss of biodiversity, vanishing natural resources, desertification and climate change are a few of the these problems facing the world. Tackling these problems one by one poses a difficult challenge because of a limited amount of resources available to address the various issues. Governments have limited funds, institutions have limited researchers and the public has a limited capacity to sort through all of the calls for help. If our name happens to fall on a mailing list of environmental causes, we will in short order be inundated with pleas to save oceans, woods, wildflowers, animals, indigenous people and ourselves.

How advantageous, then, if there existed a root to all environmental problems. If such a root could be found, then resources directed at this root could have a far greater impact on solving the world’s problems than tackling individual issues one by one. The question is how do we uncover this root, especially in light of the fact that the issues facing our environment are so complex and so numerous. Most issues overlap one another making it exceedingly difficult to create a workable solution, let alone discover a common cause.

Nevertheless, this is where phenomenology can be of great help. Phenomenology helps us get to the root of things by examining our experience of those things. If we set nature to be the object of a phenomenological study, then our examination of our experience of nature should help us get to the root of environmental problems.

Let us examine more closely the story given at the beginning of this essay. This story tells of an incident that happened to the author many years ago while on an extended two year meditation retreat in the heart of the Catskill Mountains of New York (USA). It is an interesting incident to examine for the purpose of this paper because it began with a walk in nature and culminated with a feeling of complete union with the objects of nature.

What happened? At first, I entered into the walk with typical and not uncommon thoughts: “I need to be back in an hour to finish my work. How will tomorrow’s meeting be with Mr. Smith? Did I remember to turn off the stove?”

After awhile, I began to notice my surroundings and so my thoughts shifted more into the present: “I haven’t seen a car for quite awhile. The sky is very blue this afternoon. That row of trees is gorgeous. Look! There’s a red-tailed hawk being chased by a couple of sparrows!”

As my thoughts shifted to the beauty of the natural world around me, an interesting shift began to happen; my thoughts became less action and goal oriented and more passive. At the beginning of the walk, my thoughts were of what needed to be done and this carried with it a certain agitation. Once I became aware of nature around me, its beauty and dispassion gently pulled my mind into a place of peace, a place characterized by fewer thoughts.

Finally, by the time I reached the clearing, my mind had settled into the present moment where there was less mental conditioning and personal history. In the present moment, there is no past or future, no personal history in which to get entangled. Therefore, as I picked up the rock, I was open to an experience that went beyond any prior knowledge. Instead of saying to myself “This rock is pretty. This rock is plain. This rock is good for throwing,” I said nothing and so I was open to experience the rock as it was. And what it was, I discovered, was no different than me.

From a phenomenological perspective, what happened on my walk was simply a process of parenthesizing my environment until I was left with only being. Although not consciously aware of the process, nature’s effect on me was such that my mind became less engaged in thought. As this happened, albeit unconsciously, there was a process of letting go of my pre-conceived notions as postulated by Husserl in his writings on the transcendental ego. By the time I picked up the rock and looked at it in my hand, my mind was emptied enough of thought to allow for this process of reductionism to occur. In an instant, I unconsciously bracketed all that I had known about the experience of picking up a rock and holding it. Once this happened, I was left with the essence of the experience – pure beingness. I was the Da-sein of Heidegger‘s world. The rock had shown itself from itself “in the very way in which it shows itself from itself.”

More significant is what occurred next. As my attention left the rock and I looked about me, my awareness of being was not interrupted. Instead, I was aware of the same beingness everywhere I looked. This manifested as a feeling of unity and interconnectedness with all; a feeling of unmodified love.

Why is this important? Because it shows that the sense of beingness does not reside in any object; rather, the sense of beingness just is. Nature was the catalyst, but once I had the state the catalyst was no longer needed. Indeed, this is more clearly seen when one realizes that even the workings of man (i.e. the grating that had been done in the clearing) were regarded as part of the whole rather than as a scar upon the earth.

At this point, I would like to remind the reader of one of the fundamental differences between Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger and later, the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Heidegger was greatly influenced by Husserl but it was Heidegger who took issue with Husserl’s insistence that pure consciousness was something separate from the realm of human experience. Husserl believed that through the recognition and then letting go of the different aspects of what was being perceived, one could transcend normal human experience and become aware of an unchanging consciousness. This was the getting “back to the things, themselves” that Husserl urged when examining the phenomena of human experience. This transcendence of normal perceptions is why Husserl’s phenomenological method became known as transcendental phenomenology.

Heidegger, on the other hand, believed that Husserl’s ideas were too speculative being based on mental constructs rather than on the human experience of everyday life. In his highly regarded work, Being And Time (1927), Heidegger argued that consciousness was not separate from the lived experience. It was in this seminal work that Heidegger introduced his concept of Da-sein, the Being of the lived experience. Heidegger argued that it was only from this intimate, first-person view of the lived, everyday experience that beingness and what it means “to be” could be illuminated.

This is a crucial point that we will get back to in a moment. First, let us realize what this incident is telling us about today’s environmental issues.

The Root
The root of all environmental problems is that human beings have lost their interconnectedness and sense of unity with their natural environment. And this goes for people on either side of environmental issues: the land developer who wants to build a strip mall on prime wetlands and the “tree hugger” who has chained himself to a thousand year-old tree in order to halt advancing saws.

People use nature for their own gains. Some of these purposes are less destructive than others, but even the lone hiker who treks the trails is susceptible to self-interest. If that hiker does so only for entertainment, he has distanced himself from pure being and will be challenged to experience complete oneness with all. This is because objects viewed as entertainment tend to draw the observer deeper into separation (duality) built upon prior mental conditioning.

About two years after the aforementioned walk in the Catskills, I found myself driving down the Interstate to a city near my hometown. Being one to shun idle entertainment in favor of something more meaningful, the car’s radio was turned off and I was engaged in deep contemplation of a passage from the Guru Gita, an Indian scripture within a larger work called the Skanda Puranas: “He who knows, knows not; he who knows not, knows.”

For several minutes I pondered what this passage could possibly mean. I had tried to ascertain its meaning before without any luck. Was it like a Zen koan without any real answer, its only purpose to take one into the space of no-mind? Suddenly, as I looked down the road, a new state of awareness shone forth from within my being. It was an ecstatic experience whereby all definitions and pre-conceived notions about the things perceived were gone. What remained was an incredible state where everything was new, as if I had never seen them before. Actually, it was even more significant because all prior knowledge and experience with those objects was not available at a conscious level. Interestingly, this experience did not prevent me from interacting with the world in a normal fashion; only my perception of it was changed and the feeling of this was once again love – an unconditional, unattached love.

As I drove down the highway, I was ecstatic with love. The uninteresting highway drive with all its billboards, dilapidated buildings, strip malls and various remnants of human life became a garden of delight. Every telephone pole, every car passing by, every strip mall was a thing of immense and indescribable beauty. Still, I had the presence of mind that this experience was not dependent upon what I perceived; that it was, instead, emanating from within my own self. Somehow, I had been propelled beyond the normal conditioned thoughts of my mind and into a place of supreme contentment and total delight without any pre-conceived judgments or thoughts.

Now I understood the mysterious passage in the Guru Gita. One “who knows” by using his pre-conceived notions of things “knows not” because he uses his mind, only, and stays upon the surface of things missing out on their essence. However, one “who knows not” has given up his notions and though he is in a place of newness with all that he sees, he “knows” for he is intimately aware of the essence of all things.

It is from this place that human beings should interact with their environment. In this space, there is supreme contentment where greed, ambition, lust and desire is absent. It is from this place, then, that harmonious action can take place. How could environmental problems exist if the human population acted primarily out of love?

Taking it Further
Phenomenology is a powerful tool by which humans can embark upon a path that leads to a more harmonious way of relating to the environment. As human beings come to see their experience and themselves as part of an unbroken consciousness, the need to compete, to acquire, to pine for more than they have begins to disappear as surely as the night disappears with the rising sun.

But there is a need for more. The weakness of the phenomenological method as usually taught is in its reliance on the mind and the phenomenal experience as the vehicle by which beingness is experienced and understood. Indeed, Heidegger rejected the idea of anything laying beyond the phenomenal experience (i.e. Husserl‘s ideas of pure consciousness).

In the Yoga Vasistha, a discourse on enlightenment authored by the sage Valmiki in Vedic India, the sage Vasistha speaks to Prince Rama about the nature of consciousness. “This consciousness is not knowable,” he tells him. “When it wishes to become the knowable, it is known as the universe. Mind , intellect, egotism, the five great elements and the world – all these innumerable names and forms are all consciousness alone.” How can one know that which encompasses the mind with the mind? The mind is a limited tool that can only be used to move us in the right direction. At some point, the mind must be left behind. “You are the self, O Rama,” Vasistha proclaims. “Not the mind… between the experiencer and the experience you are the experiencing: knowing this, remain in self-knowledge.”

Saint Bonaventure (1217 – 1274) was a 13th century Franciscan monk who was canonized in 1482 by Pope Sixtus IV. In 1259 he wrote The Journey Of The Mind Into God, a treatise on the six stages of “the ascent into God.” This work is uncanny in its similarity to the phenomenological method in its use of everyday phenomena as a means of experiencing union with God. In the first stage, the aspirant focuses on the beauty in the material world as a means by “which we may pass over to God.“ In the second stage, the aspirant goes deeper into the experience to see God “in them as he is in them by his essence, power and presence.“ It is at this point that the aspirant takes the experience and begins to let go of its outer form and, instead, “we enter into our very selves” by focusing on the internal experience. With each succeeding stage, the inward focus becomes more refined until the final stage where the mind “sees man made to the image of God… it sees united the first and the last, the highest and the lowest, the circumference and the center, the Alpha and the Omega, the caused and the cause, the creator and the Creature, that is, the book written within and without, it now reaches something perfect.“

As in the phenomenological method, Saint Bonaventure uses the experience of being-in-this-world as a catapult into the divine. His six stages begin with embracing the material phenomena of the world; then, bit by bit, the attention is turned toward the experience itself. As this happens, the connection to the object is relinquished and a new connection is formed with the experience itself as we experience it internally. As one continues to be absorbed in the inner experience, one recognizes the unity of all things.

Practical Considerations
What is being offered here, of course, is not just a way to solve environmental problems but a way to enlightenment, a state of oneness with all things seen and unseen. Though this is the ultimate goal and ultimately, the most satisfying goal, it is still useful to remember that phenomenology offers us a way to harmonize our lives with our non-human neighbors as we journey towards spiritual perfection.

Having said this, what are the practical considerations in using the phenomenological method to address environmental problems? It is suggested, here, that phenomenology be used as a secular means to investigate our world and our experience of the world. And the best place to start, is with children.

In today’s educational system, positivism rules the day. In public schools in America, children are taught the scientific method early on and encouraged to probe and analyze things as objects separate from themselves. Through all of this, there is no philosophical study. Children finish  their twelve years without having had to examine their life through philosophical discussions in a classroom setting. Afterwards, unless the student goes to a liberal arts college or majors in philosophy, they will have successfully completed at least 16 years of study without once having to read and examine the works of beings like Socrates, Heidegger, Goethe or Kant much less Ghandhi, Rama Tirtha, Rumi or Hei-Neng.

What is lost? What is lost is an opportunity for our society to be populated with adults who have the capacity to look into their own lives and contemplate why they do the things they do. And this has a direct effect on the state of our environment. People who regularly contemplate the meaning of their own life will tend to make more meaningful choices, choices that are not influenced by the desire to consume unnecessarily, to clear cut forest stands because of fear, who will have the courage and insight to pause long enough to consider how their actions will effect their neighbors, both human and non-human.

A Final Story
Another two years after I had the experience of unconditioned beingness while driving down the highway, I found myself back at the meditation retreat in the Catskills. This time, I had just finished three days of intense meditation and was walking slowly and quietly along a path through the woods. The maple and birch trees were a deep green and the forest was thick with their canopy. Underneath their outstretched branches ferns and wood lily grew. I stopped on a footbridge and looked down into the small rushing stream below. The sound of the water moving across the rocks was reassuring, inviting. I found myself drawn down into the water, into the sound. I scarcely breathed.

Suddenly, the sound of the rushing water was all around me, enveloping me in an incomprehensible sweetness. It poured into my mind and filled me from within. In the next moment, I “heard” the stream speaking, not in words, but in a feeling that I intuitively understood. I stood mesmerized by what was happening but not surprised; rather, I was drawn into a place of stillness from which everything was understood. Somehow, the differences in our beingness had vanished and I was able to hear nature’s song and understand a deeper Truth about my life.

After a few moments, I lifted my gaze to the trees above and saw the sun’s light penetrate through the leaves in strands of brilliance. I felt united with all and a deep peace settled over me. There was no where to go, no thing to do. I was supremely content and at peace with all the world and all of life.

A while later, I crossed the footbridge and made my way back to my room. That night, I slept on a bed of joy, a deep satisfaction carrying me softly into sleep.

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