11/14/2012 08:05 am ET Updated Jan 14, 2013

Confucian Thoughts on Nature

Apart from the numbing reading and rereading of election news, there appears to have been little else in our journalistic media for what seems far too long this election cycle. But if we can look beyond the political rhetoric, there have been several pieces suggesting the shear overload of not just election news, but more seriously the world of information, instant information, that has been created through the constantly advancing technological gadgets we seem ever more attached to and dependent upon. The suggestion has been made that we might be the victims of too much information delivered on too regular a basis -- victims of our gadgetry world.

A simple question emerges: Do we fulfill ourselves as humans by way of constant connectedness to more and more information or is there a fundamental necessity for reflection, self-reflection, to understand, define and develop who we are ultimately as human beings?

I find it interesting that recently the call has been made to separate oneself from all the communicative technologies -- from the 24/7 stream of constant information. Periods of separation, aloneness and self-reflection have been proposed as the antidote to a self defined largely by virtual connectedness.

Yes, take a moratorium from virtual connectedness -- the simple ones -- don't use your cell phone when in your car -- not just the danger of driving with the devices but as an opportunity to rediscover the world around you and possibly something about yourself as well.

And don't use your cell phone when you take a walk with you children, let alone a walk alone!

A greater commitment: take a moratorium on e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, texting and the web from say Friday at 5 p.m. until Monday morning.

And push it further! How about that walk alone -- with just Nature? When is the last time you stepped into Nature at all, let alone unencumbered?

Caution! You might be really bored with yourself and your immediate environment initially - but keep trying. You might find nothing less than yourself in the process and perhaps your loved ones as well! You and they can be more than a face on Facebook.

The New York Times has just featured a piece called "A Life Unplugged" suggesting that "for parents worried that their children might be spending too much of their young lives on line, Sandy provided a learning moment" (Nov. 11, 2012). The loss of the virtual connectedness of the grid in the storm has found an unintended consequence! Real time connectedness to others and to themselves -- and real priorities -- the health and well being of a person, not their virtual persona!

So what of Nature and of a Confucian view of Nature and what is its relevance here?

Even a tradition such as Confucianism, as focused upon societal and familial obligations, duties and responsibilities as it was, still saw the value of Nature as a deep and profound source for the learning and transformation of the individual.

And Nature requires the stillness and quietness of the individual -- complete absorption and thus disconnection from 'the grid," as it were.

I want to introduce the thoughts of one Confucian, Kao P'an-lung (1562-1626), a rigid follower of Confucius who nonetheless focused much of his attention upon Nature as the basis for his own self-understanding.

My quotes from Kao come from an essay he wrote in 1598, Shui-chü chi, "Recollections of the Water Dwelling," his thoughts from a small retreat he built for himself on a tiny island in the midst of an expansive lake. He is of course surrounded by Nature and it is to Nature he turns for his self-reflection, self-discovery and self-understanding.

"Dwelling here at length, the owner (i.e. himself), witnessing the risings and settings of sun and moon, the formation and dispersion of cloud and mist, the flourishing and perishing of trees and grasses, the comings and goings of animals and fishes, merged in turn into the same water of the four seasons and all things. In it all he no longer thought of himself."

"Dwelling here even longer, the owner, coming to rest in the vast silence of Heaven (T'ien), feasting upon the richness of the Primal Harmony (T'ai-ho), straddling the Flowing Forces (hao-ch'i), winging to and fro, ascended and descended through the Gate of the Inexhaustible (wu-ch'iung chih men). In it all he no longer thought of the water."

"Someone said, 'Your pleasures are so small and you are so isolated.' The owner ... said, 'It is the Creator most assuredly who retired me in this manner..." (Kao tzu i shu10/48b-49a, R.L. Taylor, 'Cultivation of Sagehood,' 1978)

I translated these words many years ago now, and yet their relevancy seems even greater to this time then when I first set to work researching his writings. There is much that is very technical about his thought as well as the language he uses and yet nonetheless his message is timeless.

Turn to Nature, he says, not as an escape or a shirking of responsibilities, but as a path of self-discovery and fulfillment. His words are those of a Confucian contemplating the significance of Nature in the path of learning. As stillness and quietude prevail in Nature, Kao comes face to face with himself and through that process he transforms himself toward the ideals uppermost to Confucius himself -- to become a moral person, a person of goodness, jen, and create a moral world for all of us.

And what about us then? Are we not more than the virtual connectedness our technology has created for us? Surely, we are more than our Facebook image, our texted message or our Twitter words. But when we are bombarded 24/7 with virtual realities, what chance do we have to peer behind the persona to the self as self? Therefore step back, step out of the mainstream, step off-grid -- take a path less traveled -- and discover a world awaits where Nature's path brings the self to the self. That is all the Confucian tradition is saying.