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Living in dynamic harmony with nature

July 31, 2013

Nature is a co-creative receptive-responsive improvisational dance.  How on Earth do we attune with it?  Here is a guest blog by Nadine Andrews of Culture Probe to explore this question.

Just as a muscle needs exercising, living in harmonious relationship with nature in modern Western culture requires attending to. Without cultivation through training and disciplined practice, the relationship tends to weaken and wither. I know this from my own personal experience and professional work.

It’s not easy to maintain because in this culture the interdependent relationship between humans with the rest of nature is de-emphasised, under-valued, obscured and distorted. Complex supply webs distance us from the raw natural materials and functions that allow us to live as we do. Where does our food come from? How were the products we use produced? How do the day-to-day choices we make impact on the natural world? The answers are not always obvious, not immediately transparent. It is easy to live unaware, as if unplugged from nature. Even the most fundamental relationships, such as the movement of the earth around the sun, are lost to many people leaving them unable to read the signs that reveal time of day and direction.

nadine 1

Another reason is that balance and harmony are dynamic – there is always movement even if tiny, so it is not simply a case of achieving balance and then that’s it, job done, no further effort required. Rather, maintaining balance and harmony is a constant on-going process, unfolding moment by moment. The skill is in finely attuning to the movements, and in knowing how to move in accord with the patterns inherent in nature. It is in the following of patterns of our own inner nature and tuning in to the inner nature of other things that we can live harmoniously. It is how we can flourish and fulfil our potential, just as the acorn follows its inner nature to grow into an oak tree. If we are not in dynamic harmony then it’s likely we will act in ways that are ultimately destructive to our selves, other people and other living beings.

In my work I help people gain a sense of harmony and balance, teaching practices to heighten awareness and sensory acuity, and to develop the skill of close observation of one’s inner and outer worlds. Through attending, we create connection with our selves and with others. These connections enable us to detect feedback signals alerting us to changes in dynamics, and it is through this feedback that we can self-regulate our actions creating order and balance for the wellbeing of ourselves and of other living things.

The approach I take draws on my interpretation of Daoist philosophy from the study of texts and personal practice of Lishi, a Daoist physical arts system, integrated with bushcraft and the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) model [1].

nadine 2

Daoist thinking developed through the close study of natural phenomenon in order to discern their patterns so they could be followed. These natural patterns form the basis of physical arts like tai chi, chi kung and kung fu. Biomimicry and permaculture design follow in the footsteps of this Daoist approach in observing how nature solves problems and copying those design principles.

This weekend at Edge of the Wild – a yearly UK gathering of ecopsychologists and ecotherapists – I am running a 2-hour workshop on Daoism, mindfulness and connecting with nature through physical practice. Last weekend I led a 3-day nature mindfulness retreat with a small group in the Lake District.

A key theme that I emphasise in these sessions is about nonduality – the interplay of opposites. Daoist philosophy teaches that everything has a yin and a yang aspect for they are like two sides of the same coin, and that for every action there will be counter movements. It is a dynamic relationship where the duality is relative. jungle2

As shown in the Yin-yang symbol there is always an element of each in the other, and one attracts and evokes the other.

These themes are illustrated through various exercises; it is an embodied experiential learning. We practice connecting through energy, or qi, for we are in relationship with nature, with the world, through the giving and receiving of energy.

One of the first exercises I like to do is ‘unbending arm’. Here, person A tries to keep their arm straight using muscle tension whilst person B tries to bend it. After a while, the arm bends. Next, person A relaxes the muscle tension and imagines water flowing down their arm and out their fingers. It is much harder for person B to now bend the arm using the same amount of force. The key point here is how softness is stronger than hardness because energy can flow more freely. It is important to do the exercise slowly so that each person can feel what is going on. People are amazed at how this works, and it has worked each time and with every person when I have done this exercise.

nadine arm2nadine arm1

Relating this to everyday life, we notice how we often react to a disturbance by going tense, or by exerting force. The aim is to be like water, soft yet immensely powerful, capable of moving boulders and shaping landscapes. Watching how a stream flows downhill over rocks can be very instructive and inspiring.

nadine 3

A standing exercise shows how in stillness there is always movement and counter movement to keep the body upright and balanced. Breathing into areas of discomfort in mindfulness meditation reveals the reverse is also true: that even in the midst of physical or emotional turmoil and intensity we may find a sense of spaciousness and stillness.

Paradox is at the heart of Daoist thinking, but it is certainly not unfamiliar to Western traditions, as evidenced by many paradoxical proverbs:

  • No pain, no gain
  • You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs
  • No larder without its mice
  • Every cloud has a silver lining
  • Without darkness there is no light
  • Roses have thorns
  • Every path has its puddle

Daoist philosophy holds that the natural world is already in harmony, and that it is the exerting of our ego-driven will that disturbs this harmony. It is only in acting in accordance with the inner nature of things where we have let go of desire for power, status, or financial reward that we can live well and impact lightly.

nadine 4

What is most Interesting is that this Daoist understanding of human behaviour fits with the findings of empirical psychology research that extrinsic goals and self-enhancement values concerned with gaining power, status, financial success and external reward make you less likely to care about nature. Intrinsic goals and self-transcendent values on the other hand, are associated with empathy for others, concern for human rights and the environment [2]. Intrinsic goals and values are inherently satisfying to pursue as they meet intrinsic psychological needs of autonomy, competence and relatedness, whereas the extrinsic goals and self-enhancement values are to do with external rewards, praise and evaluation by others. As extrinsic goals are pursued as a means to some other end or to compensate for a deficiency in capacity to satisfy intrinsic needs, they are less likely to be inherently satisfying and maybe even insatiable [3]. Intrinsic goal orientation is also associated with mindfulness, higher subjective wellbeing, lower consumerism and materialism [4].

Connecting mindfully with nature (our own inner nature as well as that of the physical universe) through the approaches and practices discussed above helps us flourish, enhancing our own wellbeing and that of other living things. The greater the quality of connection, the greater capacity for regulating and harmonising. This is what makes following our own inner nature and tuning into the inner nature of things an art, a discipline, to be practiced and cultivated.

For more on my work visit my website or follow me on twitter @cultureprobe

References

[1] Kabat-Zinn 1990

[2] Schwartz 1992; Grouzet et al 2005

[3] Deci & Ryan 2000; Grouzet et al 2005

[4] Brown & Kasser 2005

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