Christopher Ives is a professor of religious studies at Stonehill College. In his teaching and writing he focuses on ethics in Zen Buddhism and Buddhist approaches to nature and environmental issues. He is on the editorial board of the Journal of Buddhist Ethics and is serving on the steering committee of the Religion and Ecology Group of the American Academy of Religion. He is the author of Wisdom Publications’ Zen on the Trail.
The following is an excerpt from his new book, Meditations on the Trail.
Here is a tree older than the forest itself;
The years of its life defy reckoning.
Its roots have seen the upheavals of hill and valley,
Its leaves have known the changes of wind and frost.
When I hike, or simply go about my day, I tend to view the space around me as empty.
I take it to be a void through which I pass when I wander in the woods, walk into our condo, or drive down the road. I’m oblivious to the gases around me. Even when I feel the wind on my face I don’t really get that what I’m sensing is gases hitting me. I know something is impacting me when a bug brushes against my forehead—but not when a breeze does.
On your hike, stop in a spot that strikes you as beautiful or comforting.
Take stock of the things around you—trees, bushes, flowers, boulders. . . whatever is there.
Feel them as fellow beings occupying space in the forest.
Now, scan your surroundings again, this time attending to the space between those objects.
Notice where there are volumes of open space around you, and how they wrap around the rocks and trees.
Take a few breaths, and feel how you’re breathing in gases.
Though the air doesn’t have much mass, each time you inhale you’re pulling stuff inside you, like an eyedropper sucking in liquid.
Recognize that what’s out there beyond your nostrils is not an empty void but space filled with nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide, argon, and methane.
Take a few breaths to savor these gases in our air.
Then ask yourself whether the air you’re breathing has any smell.
Is it cool, or warm?
As you breathe in and fill your lungs, imagine the air nurturing you, keeping you alive. (After all, without it you would pass out and die in a couple of minutes.)
See if you can conjure up some gratitude for this essential support of your existence, something we often take for granted.
"Stay with this for a few minutes, taking in this offering from the trees around you."
There’s one other thing about which we’re often oblivious. When we’re on the trail or simply outside in a park, we may walk right past trees, barely aware of them, as if they were fence posts or telephone poles. (Granted, that may be their fate in the future.) But make no mistake, trees are living beings, too.
Though they can’t walk or talk, they calmly do their thing—pulling water and nutrients from the soil; bringing it up through their roots, trunk, and branches; pulling in carbon dioxide from the air as they do photosynthesis; growing upward and outward. As scientists are now discovering, trees communicate and collaborate.
They do all of this quietly, without effort. They’re unassuming, humble—no ego, no hype, no harming.
With these attributes they exude the kind of calm dignity to which we aspire. And some of them have been doing this—doing their thing in their suchness—for longer than I, or any person currently on the planet, has been alive.
As you stand there on the trail surrounded by trees, see if you can view them as fellow beings, supportive friends, elders.
Now, pick a tree that catches your eye.
Look at it carefully. How high up does it extend? Does it have leaves, or needles? What color are they?
What is the bark like on the trunk?
What is distinctive about this tree? Its shape? Its roots extending across the trail? A broken branch?
The angle at which it’s growing? Some Spanish moss hanging from its limbs?
Next, as you breathe in, feel the air coming into your lungs.
Imagine the oxygen permeating your body.
Each time you inhale, imagine the oxygen coming out of the leaves or needles of the nearby trees and drifting to you.
Stay with this for a few minutes, taking in this offering from the trees around you.
Next, as you exhale, feel your breath passing out of you. Much of it is carbon dioxide. As you exhale, offer it to the trees. Do this for several breaths.
Now, when you breathe in, take in the oxygen from the trees, and feel it nurturing your body.
When you breathe out, send carbon dioxide to the trees.
Imagine the leaves taking in that carbon dioxide and then releasing oxygen back to you.
Keep doing this for a few minutes. Breathe the oxygen in, and the carbon dioxide out.
Settle into this awareness of your breathing as part of a larger cycle of gases, circulating here in these woods: through the trees, out into the air, into your body, back out of your body to the trees.
Feel yourself connected to the trees, dependent on them for oxygen.
Notice how in return the trees benefit from you, as you offer them carbon dioxide. Feel yourself in this dance of breathing and photosynthesis, in the complex system of relationships and processes that make up the forest and keep you alive.
Feel how you’re part of this living forest.
Feel yourself embedded in nature.
"Feel how you’re part of this living forest. Feel yourself embedded in nature."
Breathing is central to this and other practices here.
Like the beating of our hearts, breathing happens multiple times each minute we’re alive. This is probably the source of the connection between breathing, or respiration, and spirit. Both “respiration” and “spirit” derive from spiritus, a Latin word with both of these connotations. When ancient people encountered a corpse, they likely noticed immediately that the person’s breathing had stopped, and together with this stoppage the personality and living energy of the person had disappeared.
The spiritus of the person had left.
The primal, rhythmic activity of breathing oxygen from trees is not the only cycle in which we are embedded. Out on the trail we can direct our attention to the hydrological cycle: drinking water, peeing, offering salty water to the soil, and then water getting filtered out of your urine by the dirt, seeping into a stream, flowing into the ocean, then evaporating up into the air, riding atmospheric currents back to this region, falling as rain, draining into streams, being caught in our water bottles, getting drunk by us, then flowing out of our bodies again as we urinate and sweat.
When we are hiking, our sense experience, physical exertion, breathing, drinking, peeing—our embodiedness—help us realize our connection to our surroundings. Again, our embodiedness is a gateway to realizing our embeddedness in nature.
We realize this embeddedness in both senses of “realize”: to become aware of and to actualize. That is to say, out on the trail we become vividly aware of our embeddedness and actualize it through our bodies when we breathe, walk, drink, sweat, spook other animals, and get spooked by them. And with the practices here, we can enhance this awareness of how we are interconnected with other events and processes in nature.
Though getting above the tree line or onto a summit can be a valuable goal, offering us stunning views or a sense of accomplishment, the deeper goal here is tapping in, not topping out. Strictly speaking, though, this is not a matter of tapping into nature as something apart from us, for we are never disconnected from it.
We’re always embedded in nature, even when living on the fortieth floor of an apartment building in New York.
It’s just that we forget this fact of embeddedness.
Buddhism, however, encourages us to remember this fact, to attain insight into it.
"This is not a matter of tapping into nature as something apart from us, for we are never disconnected from it. "
Meditations on the Trail offers a rich array of do-anywhere meditations that will help you explore and deepen your connection to nature, and yourself, in new ways, making the most of your time on the trail.
This small book—perfect for throwing in a daypack or a back pocket as you head out for the trail—is filled with practices to take you into the heart of the natural world and uncover your most vibrant self. You’ll return home grateful, more aware of interconnection, and maybe just a little wiser.
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