Dana Visalli | Seeing through ecological eyes

Dana VisalliA friend commented recently that she was walking along “thinking about food and sex and the other favorite subjects of the human mind,” when she was startled out of her reverie by a wild animal. Surely the human mind is the all-time great Storyteller of the universe. It gathers its initial material from the physical world, transforms that material into airy conceptual imagery (known as “thought”), scrambles the ever-growing mental files a bit just to keep things interesting, and then moves into and inhabits this thought-full world as its primary residence. There is little time left over to ponder the pesky physical realm that gave birth to the conceptual one.

There are some options for how the mind is used. One that seems to be beyond the ability of most of us is to live for certain periods of time without thinking at all. This hypothetical non-thinker would be left with just “being”; in fact we might identify this person as a “human, being.” It is striking to realize that such a state of mind would, in the blink of an eyelash, put an end to all belief, all faith, all religion, and all history, because these are all constructs maintained by the image-making capacity of the mind. We don’t know what we would be left with because none of us have had the experience.

As unlikely as it may seem, a few people seem to have lived in this “thoughtless” manner. One famous student of the mind, an East-Indian named Jiddu Krishnamurti, was asked once what he thought about during his long walks in the sun-drenched mountains near his home in Ojai, California. In pondering the question he realized that at times he would go for hours at a time without a single thought. His mind was less like a word processor, and more like a window that the sunlight shone through. He spoke of a deep feeling of joy that he experienced when in this state of active observation of the world around him.

For those of us who seem to be stuck with word processors for minds, one option would be to train the mechanism to function as a useful and helpful tool, rather than an erratic, noisome storyteller. One way to do this would be to put on our “ecological eyes” when we are out in nature, asking ourselves questions about the natural environment that allow us to see things that would escape us when we were “lost in thought.”   Ecology is the study of relationships (the word comes from the Greek ‘oikos,’ household, and ‘ology,’ the study of; ecology is the study of the earth household and how its inhabitants relate to one another).

For example, all ecosystems need energy to function, but they do not create their own; energy is imported from outside the ecosystem, flows through it and somehow animates the life within, and then leaves, usually as random heat drifting off into space. Another thing that has to be imported into terrestrial ecosystems is water, because it is continually flowing downhill and away to the sea. On the other hand, most of the nutrients critical to the living creatures in a given ecosystem do not flow in from the outside; they were put place long ago and no more are being delivered (referring here to essential elements like phosphorus, potassium and sulfur). If they flow out the system in the water or on the wind or in the back of a truck, they are lost to that ecosystem forever.

Knowing these basics, we can start to look at any ecosystem with new eyes and begin to penetrate its inner workings with our retooled and newly sharpened minds, quieting for moments the eternal newsreel that runs between our ears. On the following page there are a series of questions that we can ask ourselves that will help us see the world around us in new ways. This process works best if the explorations are ‘felt’ as well as thought. For example, when observing the energy from the sun spill onto the outstretched leaves of a forest of trees, one can entertain both the rational observation that sunlight is powering photosynthesis, creating food and biomass “out of thin air,” and the sensory pleasure of the energy from our own personal star spilling across the earth. Try responding to one or more of the questions in this multidimensional way. If we find the physical world adequately intriguing, we may decide to re-inhabit the real planet.

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