Noticing Nature

In July 2020 Dr. Alexis Shotwell invited Paul give a talk on the topic of noticing nature in a course offered by the Ottawa Shambhala Centre. This was one conversation in a series called Meditative Arts of Noticing, which explored the sacred nature of human perception, and its role in Buddhist meditation overall. The talk (30 minutes) is followed by a discussion (28 minutes). We thank the participants for their willingness to record the discussion.

Paul talks first about paying attention to our interior landscape. When we pay attention to our inner world, we experience thoughts and emotions. Often these are interwoven with personal dramas. Some of these emotions may not be just personal, or based in our childhood experience, but rather are baggage inherited from ancestors. In this case, the word ‘ancestors’ means not just our recent family ancestors, such as grandparents, but shared ancestors stretching back in time to the Mesozoic Era when dinosaurs were dominant on Earth. Even some 500 million years ago, familiar emotions like fear and aggression already occurred in the biological world. Although we often consider ourselves modern people, we are all still carrying more primitive emotional states and instincts that might be called ‘Mesozoic baggage’. Hence, emotions that we may find troubling in our day to day lives may seem less troublesome if we regard them as ancient emotions rather than personal drama.

Midway in the talk, Paul then turns to the importance of noticing our exterior world. When we pay attention to the living beings around us, we naturally expand our view of the world. When we appreciate other non-human beings, such as birds or frogs, the experience of noticing them cuts through some of our interior dramas. Interior dramas tend to trap our attention by placing us at the center of the universe. The human ego likes us to think that we are quite important, whereas, in reality, we are just one of countless millions of living beings experiencing sense perceptions and struggling to survive. By noticing and relaxing into the exterior world, we can reduce the intensity of our own drama and anxiety.

From this perspective, simply noticing nature may be a useful complement, or even in certain circumstances, an alternative, to sitting practice. Instead of being seated and noticing the breath, we explore a wild place and appreciate the sense experiences arising in our field of perception.