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David Nichtern

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Contemplating Our Relationship to the Natural World

Posted: 04/06/11 02:27 PM ET

Some people would say we human beings are the custodians of this planet Earth and the natural world. Many ancient traditions (Asian and European) have held the view that the role of the leader (king, queen, etc.) includes harmonizing human life with the rest of the natural world.

In ancient China, for example, the emperor could be held accountable for famine, plague, blight, pestilence, droughts, even natural disasters. The leader's role was to harmonize or join together 'heaven' (a vast or higher vision) with 'earth' (a grounded, everyday reality).

Of course to some of us, the assertion that we can influence the course of nature through our actions might appear to be the ultimate hubris of the human race. But in the Buddhist view, in many traditional cultures, and in synch with modern physics and science, the interdependence of all phenomena is considered to be a fact, including our minds, our emotions, our society, our politics and our environment, not to mention the full range of our actions with their inevitable consequences.

It appears that we live as part of a greater network, and it is all interconnected and interactive -- pretty much no matter what philosophical or religious view we might hold. By studying even a small eco-system, like a tropical fish tank, it is possible to see the effect of every individual action that occurs on the whole system.

You can see on YouTube a story about a floating island of plastic refuse that is twice the size of Texas. If we wonder how it got there, and feel no connection to that situation, we are unarguably asleep at the wheel as far as understanding its cause and effect. If we think of our environment and eco-sphere, at every level, from our individual room, household, neighborhood, town, city, state, nation, continent, world, solar system and universe, we can and will develop a different outlook for how to be mindful and care for the whole situation.

This mindfulness falls into the category of what we used to call, back in the day, consciousness raising. Consciousness raising has been, and still is, one of the primary roles of media. The other, of course, is entertainment -- but maybe we have overlapped these two functions too much in our modern world.

The term 'disaster porn' seems to have emerged from the recent Japanese natural and man-made catastrophes. Watching the powerful effect, in awe and amazement, of the recent earthquakes and tsunamis looks shockingly similar to various Hollywood "disaster" movies we have all seen. Possibly the effect is numbing us to the actual reality of these situations.

Even so, I'm sure we all can and will think about how to work more creatively with:

  • minimizing the causes and conditions for such horrific circumstances to arise (difficult to contemplate with earthquakes and tsunamis, but maybe more possible in relation to nuclear plant meltdown threats etc.),
  • reacting effectively and compassionately when disasters do happen, and
  • using the whole picture to actively stimulate contemplation of our relationship to our natural world, at the individual, group, regional, national and global level.


Your thoughts? What is your relationship to the natural world like?


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