My days as a zoologist, canoeing through the jungles of Central America, gave me a unique perspective of how living in a wild area affects the perspectives and perceptions of people. Living in my canoe or in a small tent set up by the edge of a river made me feel like just another animal among many. The villages I visited were just a few huts clustered together every few miles at the river’s edge. The human presence was small compared to the overwhelming intensity of the jungle – its colors and shapes, its humidity, smells and rhythms of life.
As soon as I arrived in the jungle, it “grabbed” me. There was an instant transformation in the way my mind perceived and understood my relationship to the surroundings. By travelling back and forth from New York to Central America, I could feel the effect of each environment on me. I could also see and understand how the people in each area were very different because of their respective environments.
This experience, plus my life-time of training in several types of traditional healing, has led me to several conclusions. The first is that the natural tendency of our minds, (our consciousness – or what I call “attention”) is to expand into the environment and connect with it. This means more than looking at something. It means that each of our minds, in order to operate properly, cannot be locked up inside of us. The mind is not just a by-product of brain activity. It is the biological glue that connects us to the environment.
One of the effects of modern life is to “lock up” our minds into our thinking process. In this way, mind is no longer connected to the body. The body seems to be “down there”. The mind is no longer biologically connected to the environment, except in the sense that we think about our environment.
I have found a fundamental difference in human nature in those societies in which the mind is “locked up” as compared to those in which the mind is not locked up. Stress levels, for example, are higher when the mind is locked up, as if it were soda in a bottle that was shaken. Warmth and humidity have the effect of making the mind more fluid so that it is like watercolor ink dropped onto the wet rice paper.
Notice how you feel inside your home in the winter as compared to lying in an open area on a warm summer day. We have designed our environment to be disconnected. Our shoes and our floors disconnect us from the ground. Our cell phones and computers disconnect us from other people, even as we try to communicate with them. Our packaged, prepared foods disconnect us from picking food from trees and plants.
Our single celled ancestors gathered together in colonies and eventually formed multi-cellular animals that are now considered to be a single animal. Each cell became more and more disconnected from the “natural” environment. In the same way, we are now creating super-organisms, disconnected from the natural environment.
But there are many people who don’t feel comfortable giving up their individual, biological identity, in a sense handing over their very minds to the “hive”. These people require a direct connection to nature, balancing their membership in society with their membership in the living earth.
One of the things I have noticed is that the more removed you are from nature, the more you are addicted to the “drama of life”. The people living at the edge of the jungle certainly had their interpersonal dramas, but their joy of life came mostly from simpler things. On my first trip to Panama, my hosts sat at the edge of the river every evening, staring at the river. They weren’t looking at anything in particular; they were just participating in the world around them. Even when I was young, people would sit in chairs in front of their houses in Brooklyn, “participating” in life.
Things have changed drastically since then. Now we have our televisions and computers to look at. Our activities are less communal. While our society is becoming more isolated from nature, we are becoming more isolated from each other, even as our society as a whole is becoming more condensed and interdependent.
When single celled animals formed into multi-cellular animals, each cell lost much of its function and became specialized (muscle cell, gland cell, etc.). They were no longer whole organisms within themselves. I am reminded of our educational system, no longer emphasizing a “classical education”, but just teaching students to pass tests.
It certainly seems like we are witnessing the birth of a new type of organism which requires a new type of “mind”. This new mind is not whole and balanced. It is not aware of the whole history of humankind, to serve as the backdrop to understand what is going on now. It is designed to be only a piece of a person that is useful for one particular function of the society.
The goal of many philosophies and religions is to acquire a natural type of mind. When Buddhists speak of Buddha, they aren’t only referring to the person, but to the state of mind that he attained and that we can also attain: The same for Christians who use the term “Christ”, really meaning the Christ type of mind. When Taoists speak of “no-mind”, they mean a mind not filled with excess of any kind.
I consider each to be a rebellion against re-shaping the natural human mind for use in the new societal “machine” of each time period. With the natural mind, each person is a whole human, directly connected to the living earth. Relationships are between two whole people rather than between two parts of a machine. Each person is allowed to grow and develop into a mature, full person, rather than be molded into just a piece of a person.
If we believe in developing whole people, connected to nature, then I believe that a well-rounded education is the place to start, an education that emphasizes creative thinking rather than memorizing answers to tests. Growing your own food is another place to start so that your food is healthy and nutritious and so that you have a feeling for where your food came from.
I cut and split wood for my wood heating stove. If I figured out the amount of labor involved in getting wood and taking care of the heating stove, I’m sure it would be a lot cheaper just to use the furnace. But heating the house by my own efforts keeps me connected to nature, especially in winter. On the one hand, I could just consider how to be the most efficient to amass wealth. On the other hand, I could consider how to be the most efficient to maintain the natural mind. I try to balance the two, willing to sacrifice wealth in order to hold onto the wholeness of my life.
What is the balance of these two factors in your life? It is especially hard to maintain this balance in tough economic times. Putting food on the table – any food – is pretty important. But let’s remember that if we put off the health of our bodies and minds, we are more prone to disease and we feel miserable. If you can find one thing to do that re-connects you to nature, such as cooking your own food, or growing it, that will go a long way to keeping you healthy and happy. Meet someone face to face, rather than texting. Sit in the back yard, or at a sunny window, and watch the sun set. Doing one natural thing each day can help us to maintain our humanity in the face of a more and more machine-like world.