When I walk through the woods, I’m often amazed by how beautiful nature can be. In particular, I’ve always wondered how that is so no matter how misshapen and disorganized it all is. For instance, the trees one encounters in the forest are often twisted and broken to some extent. And they are of all ages – from small saplings to the very aged to the hollowed out remains of trees past. Yet when viewed in nature, they all contribute equally to the beauty of the forest. On the other hand, if those same broken trees were in my yard, I might not look at them quite the same way. I might find myself wishing that tree had a nicer shape and wasn’t so lopsided. It is interesting that it is when we regard something as belonging to us that we begin to put expectations on it, and our perceptions of beauty become conditional upon those expectations.
When we are in the forest, that old misshapen tree is perfect just as it is. I don’t think I would really enjoy walking in a forest where all the trees were perfectly healthy and symmetrical. I think the misshapen or dying tree in the forest is beautiful because we can see the hand of nature that is behind it. With our insight meditation practice we are learning to witness this hand of nature in the unfolding experience of our own bodies and minds. When we observe the body and mind in a way that allows us to see the hand of nature, that painful and aging body, or that storm that is passing through the mind, can be witnessed with equanimity or maybe even appreciation. On the other hand, when we see body and mind as being separate from nature, equanimity and appreciation tends to give way to suffering. A broken tree in the forest is seen as beautiful. That same tree in my front yard becomes problematic.
To see the hand of nature expressed in our own bodies and minds is to see the law of cause and effect, and the law of impermanence playing out in these bodies and minds. All things are impermanent. All things arise and pass away according to the coming and going of causes and conditions. This is how nature works, and it is how these bodies and minds work. When we continually observe physical and mental phenomena unfolding in the present moment – not thinking about it but seeing it directly – we gradually disabuse ourselves of the illusion that body and mind are anything other than nature. It becomes clear that we didn’t decide to grow old or sick or injured. Perhaps more importantly, we also see that we didn’t decide to be angry or sad or worried, or to start thinking about this or that. Those mental phenomena arose based on causes and conditions, and if we don’t cling to them, they pass away. We also experience intentions, of course. We naturally experience intentions to care for this body and mind, and the bodies and minds of others, but those intentions are also part of nature – part of the forest.
To see with complete clarity and acceptance that body and mind are simply part of nature is to end suffering, because to see and know this is to relinquish any attempt to own them as either me or mine. This is why observing body and mind as nature is a central teaching in the Thai Forest insight tradition. When we are able to stop perceiving the broken tree as being part of my yard, it can go back to being what it truly is – part of the beauty of the forest.