When I was in high school, the authors of biology and chemistry textbooks considered independent motion as the defining characteristic of life. If it moved on its own accord, it was alive—organic. Viewed under a microscope, cells and bacteria move. Minerals do not. Water moves, but it was not considered to be “alive,” except that it contained living microbes. Now we know better. Everything moves. At different rates certainly. Also, movement is always in accord with and relative to the motion and condition of everything else. To be is to be related.
Because the movement of an object, substance, person, system or society is propagated by the larger system within which it moves and has its being, there is no such thing as independent movement. Nothing of substance moves on its own. Not even galaxies. The picture that emerges of course, is that of nested systems within systems, wholes with wholes, holons within holons. The condition of life is cyclical interdependence. It’s why I chose the image of circles within circles as the masthead for this blog.
The image of a forest in the snow prompted a consideration of seasons and how they constitute a cycle. Winter, marked by overcast skies, bare tree limbs and snow, is one of the stations within a cycle of life on this planet, a period when we’re farther away from our radiating star. Motion begets change. At times the change can be random, but the pattern itself is constant and cyclical. Trees grow leaves in Spring and release them in the Fall. Fish and birds migrate. People change jobs and the jobs themselves change. There’s the rise and fall of rock stars and relationships, products and processes. Artists have preference phases and scientists alternate between breakdowns and breakthroughs. Effort and rest, the wake state and the sleep state. Eating and digesting. Hearts beat and rest. Political parties, governments and entire civilizations rise and fall. Likewise stars and galaxies. At every level the cycling in and out of form or condition is a kind of breathing.
Practitioners of insight meditation focus on the breath to quiet the mind and direct attention to the present moment. The sound of a distant airplane, an itch, odor or thought is less a distraction than an opportunity to focus, accept and appreciate what is. Perhaps less noticed in this process, the awareness of breathing in and out carries the added benefit of attuning the meditator to the cyclical nature of his or her being—of all being and being itself, the quiet experience of life happening. Flowing. Masters of this practice advise students to observe how it’s not just the breath that rises and falls—all matter and all its forms do likewise. As noted, it’s just that different cycles in the material world have different durations. Diamonds for instance, have value and symbolize “eternity” for us because on earth they are the hardest of rocks with the longest lifespan. Nonetheless, they are not eternal. They rise and fall like everything else.
One of the reasons for my attraction to native cultures has been their knowledge of and connection to nature. The ancients went to great, at times monumental, effort to observe the natural world and attune themselves to it through language, art, architecture, costuming and ritual. We moderns hear about the solstices but few of us understand that these calendar points mark the time in the yearly cycle when the sun does an “about face” when sighted along the early morning horizon. We have one word for “rain.” Rainforest dwellers have many. To us the chirping of chacalacas in the the morning is just a sound, perhaps an annoying one. To the ancient Maya it was an announcement that the sun god was making a new day—something they didn’t take for granted. Where we would cut down a vine that blocks our way, natives use the direction of its growth as a compass when the sun is not shining. NOTE: Greenpeace estimates that 150 million indigenous people still live in ancient forests worldwide.
In an attempt to better understand and connect to nature I have a number of practices. Besides reading, I watch the sky and the birds associated with each season. I used to observe the planets and stars through a telescope, but because city lights make it difficult, I do less of that. Still, I know when to look for certain constellations, planets and stars. And it’s always a delight to see them. One example is Sirius, a nearby binary star that’s twice the mass of our sun and the brightest star in the sky. Another is Betelgeuse in the Orion constellation, which is easy to spot in the winter months. I marvel at this red supergiant because its radius is a thousand times that of the sun. If it were placed in the center of our solar system it would reach beyond the orbit of Jupiter!
One of the mind games I play to become more aware of nature’s cycles is to guess the lifespans of familiar objects. It’s not that I look at a doorknob, computer screen, political party or cultural conflict and think about when it arose and when it will succumb to entropy. Rather, I note in passing that these substances, systems and events are instances along a continuum of change. That they, like me, are moving along a temporal trajectory. One of the benefits of these observations is a sense of being carried along on a gentle wave—a local experience of the universal ocean of motion—consciousness. It’s a perspective that evokes spiritual relaxation and confidence that all is well. I still struggle in some areas, so I’m not there yet. But I’ve reached the point where I want to “spend less time getting there and more time being there.”
Our minds are just waves on the ocean of consciousness. As waves, they come and go. As ocean, they are infinite and eternal. These are all metaphors, of course; the reality is beyond description. You can know it only by being it.
Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj
ABOUT THIS IMAGE
Title: Winter Forest
I like to photograph in the snow because it’s one of the few environments that allows for simplicity. Also, it’s very quiet and there are fewer people out and about because of the cold. This image was made on a three-day visit to Amish country in mid-state Ohio. Unfortunately, I didn’t record the precise location. But it’s typical of the area where hills are unobstructed by poles and wires.
In order for a camera to render snow as white—rather than the gray it’s electronics are designed to make of it, I changed the camera’s exposure compensation to plus 5. Shooting in RAW mode helps considerably, allowing control of more or less texture in the highlights. As you see, I made the sky slightly darker than the snow, not only to give some separation, but also to maintain the sensibility of an overcast day.