Learning to love nature by looking inward

Robert Wright is heading to a meditation retreat, and because it’s his second, he knows what to expect. So he looks forward to it with a mixture of excitement and dread. In the natural course of being in sync with our restless society he has fallen out of sync with nature, including his own. Reapproaching his own consciousness in silence and in calm will be painful, he knows, then profound. He recalls an effect from his first experience of meditation that is of particular relevance to our Scorched Earth:
There’s a kind of weed that I had spent years killing, sometimes manually, sometimes with chemicals. On a walk one day I looked down at one of those weeds and it looked as beautiful as any other plant. Why, I wondered, had I bought into the “weed” label? Why had I so harshly judged an innocent plant?
If this sounds crazy to you, you should hear how crazy it sounds to me. I’m not the weed-hugging type, I assure you.
And as long as we’re on the subject of crazy, there was my moment of bonding with a lizard. I looked at this lizard and watched it react to local stimuli and thought: I’m in the same boat as that lizard — born without asking to be born, trying to make sense of things, and far from getting the whole picture.
I mean, sure, I know more than the lizard — like the fact that I exist and the fact that I evolved by natural selection. But my knowledge is, like the lizard’s, hemmed in by the fact that my brain is a product of evolution, designed to perform mundane tasks, to react to local stimuli, not to understand the true nature of things. And — here’s the crazy part — I kind of loved that lizard. A little bit, for a little while.
I appreciate the clue these paragraphs offer to an awakening that can help us preserve our planet, but I’m chagrined the author chose to bury that clue in so much concession to the “normal” thinking that’s destroying our planet. Wright awakens to the beauty of a plant and to his kinship with another kind of animal, but he knows he sounds crazy just saying so. And isn’t that exactly the problem? If it’s crazy to appreciate other creatures, is it any wonder our planet is in such a state?
In the last of those paragraphs he writes with confidence that he knows more than a lizard. But I’m not so sure that he does. He describes the lizard’s brain in the dimmest terms, as a machine that performs mundane tasks and reacts to local stimuli.
Although Wright’s language in that paragraph is scientific, his thinking is Judeo-Christian. The earth is our garden, according to this tradition, populated with inferior creatures that we can name and destroy as we please. “Be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth….”
I think Wright must know the tradition in which he’s writing. He is, after all, the author of “The Evolution of God.” But when he awakens to the weed and to the lizard he awakens out of that tradition.
Wright rediscovers nature as a result of approaching, in quiet and calm, his own nature at a Buddhist meditation retreat. It seems to me that in approaching himself he also approaches ahimsa, the Eastern principle of non-violence that recognizes the earth is not our garden, populated with inferior creatures that we can name and destroy as we please.
In that tradition, it’s foolish to describe the lizard as dumb or mechanical, because we all share the same consciousness, and that lizard, certainly, is someone we know.
I hope that after his second meditation retreat, Wright will stop conceding that it sounds crazy to value plants and animals and start insisting that we’re crazy not to. To preserve this garden, we need to modify the Judeo-Christian tradition just a bit, perhaps with an infusion of equally ancient ahimsa, and learn to do unto other species as we would have other species do unto us.

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