Excerpted from “A Relationship with Nature.”
Assume you are the last human being on this planet and will die shortly. When you are gone, the only life remaining will be the various flora, fauna, and microbes. Before you die, you want, for some reason, to destroy the last remaining Redwood forest and kill the last pack of lions. Would these actions be morally permissible? Would they be wrong? Such is the proposition of Richard Sylvan’s The Last Man thought experiment. 1 According to you, humans are the only entity that can imbue a kind of subjective value in an object—thus, it follows, this last human being determines what is valuable. If he or she determines that to commit this act of destruction is wrong, is it because of some kind of mental calculation involving intrinsic value. That is, he or she couldn’t say it is wrong to perform these actions on the assumption that it would hurt his or her chance of survival—saying this would assume that this pack of lions and/or Redwood forest has instrumental value to him or her. This assumption would be illogical. The human in question will face an indubitable and irreversible death any second—therefore, these actions will yield no resource with that could augment his or her chance of survival. So, what defines intrinsic value? We can look at another model of The No Man thought experiment. Let’s say there is some god-like figure looking down on a planet. This time, the planet only has flora, fauna, and microbes. There is no human variable. Since you are this exogenous god-like figure, you can drop a lit match on this planet and destroy all life on it. Again, there is no instrumental value to you, and this event would affect your survival and utility in no way. Would you drop the lit match?
If we consider what brought us to our real-life current state—a state defined by a profound failure to properly empathize and cooperate with others and, most importantly, the natural world—are we not left to conclude that it is our ego that makes ripe the conditions for not only behaviors that tend to degrade the health and beauty of an ecosystem, but a kind of fallacious legitimization of said behaviors? That is, we have perhaps convinced ourselves that the attributes that make us dissimilar from plants and animals make us superior and more deserving of care, but I believe this couldn’t be further from the truth. This is our self-centricity. At the core of eco-social behaviors is an inclusive—but meaningful—prosocial engagement with life. Primatologist Frans De Waal has found that it is these “non-egoistic” motivations that produce prosociality, and so it must be the ego which precludes prosocial sentiments from being widely felt. 2
I use the term ecolikeness here, as I contend that the closer we connect with Nature, the more our ego may be quieted, as the way of being that defines ecolikeness requires one to liberate oneself from one’s constructed identity and to become so consciously aware that one—along with all life—is simply Nature; nothing more and nothing less. In order to reach a state in which one can simply feel and act—guided by the naturalness of their intuition—one must separate oneself from ego, and this is done through meditation. In other words, mediation brings about ecolikeness, as it removes oneself from the conception of the self that has been engendered through marination in artificial society and thus brings one closer to an ecological self—a self defined by prosociality and utter cooperation, resolute presence, and an integration with Nature that is born from the understanding that all life is Nature articulating itself and so is deserving of compassion. This may also be understood as a primary feature what is means to have fully developed “egoless intuition.”
Before elaborating on the kind of meditation I speak of, I should make clear what I mean by this influence of artificial society. I conjecture that if one leads a life motivated by sensual or material pleasures, in the Aristotelian sense of Hedonism, one immediately commits oneself to a life defined by ego—as it is the habitual practices associated with these lifestyles that cultivates the ego. Moreover, I conjecture that as one engages with objects of non-Nature, one may not only separate further from their ecological self, and thus towards their ego, but too lose an understanding of what true Nature is. Once again, I maintain that relationship of meditation with Nature helps to bring one away from their individuated self, away from the illusion of the self and closer to the ecological self.
A 2011 study by Heidi Wayment, and her collaborators, makes clear the correlation between meditation and, what they define to be, the “quiet ego” (i.e., a minimization of the identified “self”). Wayment argues that “psychological mindfulness and meditation could be beneficial because these traits reflect individuals’ ability to lose their strong attachment to the self.” She states further that a “loss of self-focus or self-absorption has been long believed to be an important factor in health and well-being.” In this study, the term “quiet ego . . . [further] denotes a balanced recognition of one’s strengths and weaknesses that paves the way for personal growth and compassion for the self and others. [Psychologists] speculate that the major aspects of quiet ego functioning include greater levels of objective self-awareness (such as psychological mindfulness), compassion, and interdependence, coupled with lower levels of self-focus, self-protection, and defensiveness.”3 In sum, such a separation of the constructed “self” quiets the ego and, in this way, allows one to develop a less defended stance toward the “self”—allowing one to be open to deep alterations and integration. Based on my analysis of the connection between ego and prosocial behavior, I can extend the findings in Wayment’s study to conclude that meditation cultivates the soil for our natural prosocial tendencies by quieting the ego and attenuates self-centricity. We transcend the artificial desires imposed upon us by society and seek connection with the entity we know deeply to be the thing from which all life is simply an extension.
The integrated spirit is the body that acts only via egoless intuition—to imagine such a thing, we may turn to the behavior of the tree and understand the tree as a natural symbol of this integration. Certain species of tree are in perfect harmony with their environments, and, in this way, may be understood as a cooperative entity that has found balance in both its giving to and taking from Nature—within this scene, each the tree and the immediate environment are regulated by similar forces of Nature and are so beautifully codependent. Additionally, the tree is a both a thing that plants and animals seek in moments of suffering and support, and, if we may take a moment to personify its processes, the tree lives a life of subsistence, taking from Nature only what it needs to be content, not consuming to a point defined by harm to itself and others. In other words, a tree in this context is a living entity that only cooperates and cannot harm; it extends prosocial sentiments to all in its ecological format, and all life trusts that it will cause them no pain. The tree, too though, experiences suffering and requires the aid of other life to maintain its existence when such affairs arise.
This is the condition of ecolikeness that I feel we must aspire to, and inevitably will if we desire to participate with Nature. In the Leopoldian sense, the higher our quality of ecolikeness the more we may understand ourselves as part of the land, and not a conqueror of it. And so if we allow, at any given moment, the tree to be a living entity which has persisted through so many epochs—and through a lengthy and utterly complex trial and error process (i.e., evolution)—I believe we may come only to the conclusion that the tree is far more developed in its connection with Nature than humans are. We may look to the tree as a totem of a significant time-scale, representing one irreducibly incredible accomplishment of Nature. I should say that we are left almost to contemplate the notions of superiority and success in which we have been so thoroughly indoctrinated. Such notions are indeed specious and do a great disservice to Nature. All that humans seemingly possess as a unique and advanced species—cognition, rationality, and moral agency—have perhaps done us little good when placed in the time-scale in which Nature operates and when placed alongside Nature’s own accomplishments. That is, we have already, in our relatively short existence, caused so much harm, not only to other humans, but also to the natural animal and plant communities that compose the fabric of this planet. We have used the powers bestowed upon us by Nature in the most egregious of ways, largely against the interests of Nature, against the entity that gave us life. I feel that in allowing us to be in the presence of the tree, Nature gives us the thing that we must aspire to. For a moment, I ask you to imagine a world where all observed the tree, acquired knowledge about it, learned to respect its resilience, support, guardianship, and inner systems and so was able to empathize with the tree, perhaps in the universal matter of suffering; in such moments of closeness we would integrate the spirit of the tree in the self, feel its beauty, and hopefully adopt a mindset conducive to preserving the truth that we are all Nature.
If we so choose to continue on our path of separation with Nature, building upon relationships with mere semblances of Nature and non-Nature, not learning and feeling its majesty, there will become a time when Nature will continue on without us, as we will be so detached from its properties and way of being that we ourselves may be considered to be a mere semblance of Nature. Nature can adapt with such greatness, and so too can we when we preserve our natural connection with Nature, but if we continue to change the Nature external to ourselves, it will continue to adapt, as it is more wondrous, but we will not be able to keep up with the destruction that we are everyday imposing upon ourselves. Make no mistake that the human is so profoundly weaker than the body Nature; we are also so foolish, blind, and simple-minded, continuing, each moment we put relatively more worth in non-Nature, to fracture and make torpid our spirit.
Nature perhaps may only be experienced in near completeness if one embraces—and is humble enough to accept—the truth of their naivety, and thus allows such naivety to inspire a sense of curiosity. I would argue that it is curiosity that perhaps motivates one to enter into an essential relationship with Nature, and sets one down the path toward transcendental connectedness.
In the end, we must all be humble in the presence of Nature. Nature is simply too mature, experienced and complex. If we let ourselves be honest and vulnerable, I feel that we may only come to this awareness about Nature. Nature has given us the gift of life, faculties to think and feel, and created a world in which we may all experience all that we have.
- Schmidtz, David. “Why Environmental Ethics?” The Dawn of Civilization. Oxford University Press, 2002. Web. 12 Nov. 2013
- Waal, Frans de; Stephen Macedo; Josiah Ober (2009-01-12). Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved (Princeton Science Library). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition
- Wayment, H. A., Wiist, B., Sullivan, B. M., & Warren, M. A. (2011). Doing and being: Mindfulness, health, and quiet ego characteristics among Buddhist practitioners. Journal of happiness studies, 12(4), 575-589