The winter rains came late this year in California. A series of storms this spring have made the land verdant beyond belief. Sitting on the lip of the narrow gorge in the expansive canyon beyond town, with achingly green, wildflower-peppered slopes stretching for miles before me, the mind is unable to absorb the beauty.
I see only two people in two hours. One person was fully a mile away, walking across a distant flat beyond the gorge. Another man, carrying a camera with the longest telephoto lens I’ve ever seen, passes on the trail behind me. He exuberantly exclaims, “Isn’t this amazing…I could spend four days here!”
We talk for ten minutes, and he shows me some incredible close-ups he’s taken of vultures and mallards in flight, as well as swallows and woodpeckers in trees. He’s visiting from Boston, and it is his first time in Upper Park. I tell him he’s picked the best day of the year to be here.
Barry Lopez has written two of my favorite books about nature—“Of Wolves and Men,” and “Arctic Dreams.” His descriptions are magisterial, and he comes as close to conveying mystical experiencing in nature as anyone I’ve read, with the exception of a few poets.
Lopez writes, “The physical landscape is baffling in its ability to transcend whatever we would make of it. It is as subtle in its expression as turns of the mind, and larger than our grasp; and yet it is still knowable.”
As beautifully drawn as that is, the second sentence misses the mark. The whole point of being in nature is to totally let go of the known, both as knowledge and experience.
The feeling, ‘I don’t know anything,’ doesn’t have to be the end-point and despair of the self, but the beginning of perception and opening of insight in the heart. Meditation means the complete, spontaneous cessation of the movement of the mind-as-thought.
Vultures soar by at eye level above the gorge, little more than an arm’s length away. I can see their eyes and feel their ceaselessly scanning awareness of their environment.
A pair of mallards flies about 50 meters above the turbulent, whitecapping flow far below. Two fat Canadian geese, flying upstream, come so close that one almost strikes me as it swoops over a rock on my right.
Watching every thought and emotion as they arise, memories, knowledge and associations fall away. The heart fully opens, and all separation ends. When thought is completely still, the human being is nature, and the sacredness that imbues nature and the universe flows through one.
What is the relationship between knowledge and experience, and the experiencing of the immanence that imbues nature? There is none. Knowledge has to be consciously set aside, and experience has to be effortlessly negated, for the experiencing of sacredness to be.
To a much lesser degree, it’s like listening to classical music, and realizing, as a classical musician recently said, that you can “hear more than you can name, and that the very point of listening to great music is to be moved, not to put names on what moves you.”
Naming does not enable or enhance perception; it precludes and prevents it. It’s only when words, images and memories spontaneously cease operating in the act of inclusive, undirected attention that we actually perceive anything, whether in nature or with a human being.
Yesterday, on Earth Day, I heard someone say, “What the natural world is experiencing is a bottleneck.” That is absurdly anthropocentric. The natural world isn’t experiencing a bottleneck; human consciousness is experiencing a bottleneck.
The writer went on to quote Churchill at the beginning of World War II: “In casting up this dread balance sheet and contemplating our dangers with a disillusioned eye, I see great reason for intense vigilance and exertion, but none whatever for panic or despair.” That’s right, another war metaphor, subconsciously affirming man’s barren conquest of nature.
The Churchillian bromide was prescribed as an antidote to the widespread despair many people feel in the face of climate change and man’s destruction of the diversity of life on earth. But as any physician knows, a disease cannot be cured unless it is correctly diagnosed. This is not a crisis in the natural world, but a crisis of human consciousness.
Therefore the bottleneck is not outside us, but within us. And the breakthrough is potentially within each of us as well. And the breakthrough is when perception and the movement of the heart are one.