We often speak of the importance of nature observation in our curriculum in Krishnamurti schools. How do we develop this sensibility in students and educators? The author grew up in a rainforest in Kerala and has, over many years of interacting with students, developed simple yet powerful exercises to facilitate processes of attention while in natural surroundings.
This article has been written in a question-and-answer format.
What, according to you, is the value of nature in our lives?
We need to relate to the planet we live on, somehow, as people. There has to be a deeper connect in all of us, as this alienation is destroying the planet. Apart from the personal or therapeutic value, so to speak, whether people know it or not, if we live without anything to do with our landscapes, there is something lacking in our lives. This lack may manifest in different ways.
In children, definitely, the value would be that if there is some contact with nature, and if the sense of care is more, then the chances of these children looking after the planet are also more. Our planet is in this state because we don’t care what it is that we are losing, we don’t see it and we don’t value it.
Maybe, if we were to give time and energy to paying attention to a place, then apart from care, there can be endless learning and appreciation because there is also such beauty, such diversity on this earth. This can happen in vast landscapes, or also in a small garden. There are so many worlds everywhere, there is life everywhere, life that is not only ours.
What do you think comes in the way of our relating with nature?
Let’s say we are, as people, alienated from nature. It is not only those who live in urban areas, this alienation is there among those who live in rural areas also. It seems we all lack a quality of appreciation, of care and understanding. This separateness creates distortions in our relationship.
We do relate to nature in different ways, as farmers, tourists, scientists, birdwatchers and so on. But is there something that is common to all these? Can a farmer see more than his crops? Can a bird-watcher appreciate something other than birds? Can there be a relating where it does not matter who we are? We always perceive through ideas so is it possible to suspend what we know? There is the romantic relationship with nature, for example. But these ideas blind us, like filters, stopping us from really seeing what we are looking at. This is not to disregard other ways of engagement or to belittle them—of course all of these too should happen. But these are not enough. We need to engage with nature regardless of fears, background, knowledge and purpose. We give importance to the particular. We like to tick-off on our lists—birds, butterflies, trees, flowers. We always define the scope of our engagement with nature but this is quite narrow, and it blinds us to the ‘whole’. Can we realise that we relate from created images?
How do we get past these filters?
Is there something like reaching out to a place ‘as a whole’, and what does that mean? Life is much more than these particulars and we can feel it. Is there a way of being connected to this feeling? A state of being where one is giving attention to the place, where categories of thought do not matter. Stored up ideas inevitably affect our present relationship.
Can we reach a state of only using the senses fully, putting aside all thoughts that do not concern the place, including thoughts that are about the place? Is it possible to be so present that it does not matter who you are? By this I mean taking energy away from the thought processes, to give attention and energy to the sounds and sights around one. We can try to put all our energy into just that, to be in a place with just that, without interpretation, not governed by memory and habit. There are moments when we are attentive to so many things all together, where thoughts naturally quieten down. When we are being aware of the body, the breeze, the temperature, the smells, the sounds, the colours and shapes around us, we are not so caught up with who we are.
How do we draw children into this relationship with nature?
It sounds like a paradox to say that to pay attention to the outer world, we need to begin with inner awareness. But it is not so in reality. To be able to get the imagination going, we need continuous exposure, regular time outdoors. But to begin with, we need to examine the fears, resistance, preconceived ideas (of beauty for instance). We need to be able to talk and exchange these views in a group.
Are children in touch with all this within themselves? The youngest ones walk, swim, climb, garden and look together at things. The older ones enjoy all this, and in addition, they can engage in conversations. There is also sketching, bird-watching, theatre, movement, adventure, exploring, studies of soil or rocks or plants, and so on. All these can be explored to bring children closer to the natural world.
Can you outline your guided attention programme?
There has to be a practice built up, which implies repetition over multiple sessions. I wouldn’t introduce more than one or two new suggestions in a single session. As we repeat the exercise over time, all that has been established will repeat, and new ideas can be brought in. At the end of every session, we gather to share our experiences.
It helps to be in a place where there is ‘natural beauty’, but it can be done anywhere where one can hear birds, feel the breeze, without an excessive disturbance of loudspeakers or traffic.
To begin with, there has to be a common understanding among us as to the purpose with which we are coming together. After having a conversation about it, and some basic ideas have been established, we can begin the process.
The first exercise is to close one’s eyes, as sight is our dominant sense, and tends to take over all other senses. With the eyes closed, we can go through a process of being aware of different parts of the body. We then relax the body so that it can become still. It would include consciously relaxing certain muscles that are tense, and resting our busy fingers.. This awareness of all parts of the body lays the groundwork for what follows.
Guided listening is the next exercise. I ask the group to be very aware of the ears, before beginning to listen—to have a sense of ‘opening out the ears’—as if they were partially closed till now. If there is a repetitive sound nearby, I ask them to reach out to that sound, become aware of the direction in which it is coming from, and ‘to listen with a lot of energy’. While listening to this sound, we bring attention to sounds coming from other directions. Then we slowly bring in distant sounds, paying attention to sounds that are close and far away. Maybe even reach out to spaces from where no sounds are coming. This is done over a period of five or ten minutes, to point out some of these sounds, and to examine what is happening in the mind as we listen. How long are we able to keep this listening alive, and when do we slip back into thinking unconnected thoughts? Knowing that this span is very short, it helps to remind the group to re-start the process over and over.
What is the intensity of this listening that is happening? What is happening while we are listening? Are there just sounds or is there a quick labelling? There are also connected thoughts, connected to what we are hearing: ‘sound of a bus, a bird flying, leaves rustling’. This is a more subtle tendency. Can we give so much energy to the listening that we are not analysing what we hear?
When repeating the exercise, we can encourage a greater scope of attentiveness, such as noticing the breeze blowing past us, or the smells in the air.
In a later session, after going through all the steps of body awareness, stillness and guided listening, I ask the group to open their eyes. They are told to not do it all on a sudden but to restrict the eyes a bit to begin with. The purpose is to just let the eyes be open. I would ask them to let the eyes rest on a space directly in front, whether somewhere on the ground or at a distance. This would immediately cause the ears to close, so the next exercise is to keep the eyes open, not looking around and taking in much, but to go back to being attentive to the ears and the sounds. In other words, we do the listening exercise with the eyes open.
In the next session, I gradually give attention to the eyes also. I separate the senses to go into each one for clarity, but they are all connected. In the same way as with the listening, I ask them to rest the eyes on something in front, and then to open out their focus to be aware of what is on the periphery, to guide them to be aware of the spaces above and below, to the left and to the right, near and distant, so that the eye can see a full circle. I also ask them to stretch this circle as much as possible, so that what is in front is no longer in sole focus. This is not done to give importance to anything that may be of interest such as a butterfly, a beautiful flower or an insect. We try to give undivided attention to the full circle. This may cause the whole scene to become out-of-focus, so we do not try to change that, but keep the energy on looking and being aware of any processing that our mind tries to do.
The next step is to ask the group to split apart and be alone for a time. To begin with, it could be for half an hour, when each person does the same exercises on their own. In these spaces, I always suggest something that they could try to do on their own, such as walking in open focus, noticing their own choices of paths and places, being attentive to what in the environment is drawing them. I then tell them to deliberately move away from these more comfortable paths and places to sit. I ask them to go out and look at small, near spaces, and larger distant spaces and to reach out and touch surfaces. They could then choose to do something with their hands, rearranging fallen objects, and notice the tendency to impose patterns and frameworks, rather than just ‘playing’ with the objects.
Through all these repeated sessions, does the place bring forth a response in each of us? There may be a feeling that we have to walk in a sedentary manner, sit meditatively and be quiet and dignified! But what are the other actions that the place can move us to do? Can the place spark an impulse in us to run, to crawl, to lie down, to climb, and to make sounds?
We may lack the ability for sustained attention, but we can try to put our energies to allow for moments of complete awareness. Is there something to be discovered, something new, operating in us at this moment?
Often we hear someone say, ‘I am not a nature kind of a person!’ What do they mean and what is your response to that?
But where do these images and attitudes come from? They are a result of our conditioning, and can we examine this? We have a sense of not belonging, of feeling separate, indifferent, having many fears and feeling physical discomfort when we are not surrounded by our comforts. One needs to first realise that there is this feeling, of fear or indifference or separateness. Then, realise that everyone has eyes, ears, and can sit quietly. We could ask the person who feels this way to “simply look and listen”. That does not take special knowledge or skill. It is not an interest-based activity; everyone can be encouraged to attempt this, it opens doors.