Many insight meditation teachers in the Thai Forest tradition, including those in Luangpor Teean’s lineage, often describe insight practice as observing nature. They say that to observe one’s own body and mind, is to observe nature. This may seem like a mundane and throwaway sort of statement, but it is actually challenging us to a profound shift in how we see ourselves. It is an expression of right view, both in terms of how things actually are, and how we ought to engage with our practice.
We don’t normally see our bodies and minds as parts of nature. This body and mind is seen as “me.” Nature is what’s out there. Things like trees, grass, wildlife, changes of season, rain showers, and the movement of the planets and stars, these are what is recognized as nature. This body and mind is different – it’s “me.” This false dualism between “me” and nature is part of the core delusion that lays the foundation for all of our suffering. The mind separates out certain phenomena and personalizes it, trying to own it, but in the end it can’t, because it’s not possible to own nature.
If we bring awareness, in a consistent and dedicated way, to what is happening in this body and mind, we can confirm that the idea that body and mind is anything other than nature is an illusion. We will see that physical and mental phenomena are simply occurring and passing away based on natural law. To be part of nature means just this – that everything that is happening within our body and mind is occurring according to the causal laws of nature. Our hopes, thoughts, fears, and anxieties are all part of the natural world. They are phenomena arising and passing away according to the laws of cause and effect. There really isn’t a separate me that is controlling it. There is also intentionality of course, but that intentionality is also arising and passing away, and is itself part of nature as well. The movement of the mind is like the movement of the wind. Meteorologists know that the wind moves according to natural laws of cause and effect. The movement of the mind is the same. This might not sound like something you would be excited about seeing, but it is really very wonderful. Although you are nothing but nature, you are a very special part of nature. You are the part of nature that can be aware of itself.
Viewing body and mind as nature is part of right view, it is how things actually are, and it allows one to let go of suffering. Suffering happens because the mind tries to personalize experience. We are challenged to observe the actions of body and mind in the same spirit that we might bring to witnessing a display of nature such as a passing storm – with openness and nonjudgmental curiosity. If anger or sadness arises, view the arising with present moment curiosity. “Oh, there’s anger here; how interesting.” Notice its passing away with this same curiosity. Viewing it with curiosity doesn’t mean analyzing it, only being aware and interested in it in a nonjudgmental way. This is really the only duty we have in regards to this practice. Your job is not to prevent things like anger from arising. You can’t really do that directly. After all, you didn’t actually choose for it to arise in the first place. Nobody decides to become sad or angry. Our duty is simply to be as consistent as we can in bringing curious observation to the laws of nature expressing themselves in our bodies and minds. This is enough. When we don’t personalize the experience of anger, or other afflictive emotions, then they don’t have the fuel to proliferate.
Normally, we don’t observe mental and emotional experience in this way. We know we’re angry, but we don’t see it with the same open curiosity as we might bring to the observation of the natural world “out there.” We identify with the anger, fueling a cascade of thought, which carries the anger forward. The proliferation of angry thought is the current that carries the anger along from moment to moment. We personalize the experience of anger and often wind up trying to defend the anger by justifying it, or by feeling shame and beating ourselves up about it. Often we do both – first defending and self-justifying, then feeling shame later as we look back on it.
We can avoid all this by simply being curious about what is arising in body and mind from moment to moment, rather than personalizing it. We spare ourselves the emotional sequelae to the anger, and we deprive the anger of the fuel it needs to proliferate. We also develop wisdom and understanding. We can experience phenomena without owning it. When the owner goes away, so does the suffering. Over time, afflictive emotional states will naturally arise less and less frequently, as the conditions that support them diminish – all according to the laws of nature.
One might think that viewing the actions of body and mind as nature, is a relinquishing of responsibility for managing the behavior of body speech and mind, but this is not so. This is not an argument for passively going with the flow of whatever comes up. This is an active practice. We are challenged to step out of the automatic habit of personalization and observe with curiosity what is happening in the present moment. It takes energy and intention to do this. And, it actually really is a way to manage behavior, but in a less direct, though more skillful and sustainable way.
One of the defining characteristics of Buddhist thought is the way in which it approaches resolving problems. That approach is to first identify the problem, then identify what sustains the existence of the problem, and then remove the sustaining conditions for the problem. So one doesn’t just run at the problem head on, like we usually try to do in the West. There is more wisdom involved. Instead, one looks at what is sustaining the problem and then addresses that sustaining factor. This formula is inherent in the Buddha’s teachings of both the Four Noble Truths, and of dependent origination, and it is what is advocated here. In bringing awareness to body and mind as nature, we are managing our behaviors in a wiser and more sustainable way. We are bringing awareness to the present moment, and dropping the personalization of experience and the proliferation of thought, which are sustaining factors for the afflictive mind states.