Uncovering Nature from Within

We live the experience of divine ecology because we are nature. We are of the earth and know ourselves through it, but many of us experience our sense of self as distinct from the natural world. How we understand and live that distinction is often inherited through systems of meaning mediated through language. The separation of who we are and what ‘nature’ is, is born of how we define that relationship. When human nature and the natural world are not understood in opposition but in relationship, known through each other to be separate and whole, we can truly appreciate what it means to be human. Our liberation lies in disidentifying with any concrete definition of ‘self’ or ‘nature’ and diving deeper into relational experience where knowing one’s self is reflected through nature.

By re-examining inherited Western systems of naming and knowing, and re-engaging Sāṃkhya philosophy (c. 2nd century CE) we can understand puruṣa and prakṛti, not by the limitations of their definitions, often translated as “spirit” and “matter” respectively, but by how they relate to each, and in doing so, reveal who we are. Participating in the dance of life without needing to define it, we find the peace of being with ourselves and one another, coming into our true nature.

Born as being, we learn self through language

We are born into intimate relation with the earth. We arrive and are inspired to tears as we cry out for breath, the fluid constant that will carry us until our last moments. Our senses then become the means of learning and growth as we decipher self and other. Sense perception shapes our nervous system and neural pathways, laying a framework of meaning and emotional tone for the rest of our lives. 

How we relate to sense perception is modeled for us over time and coded in language. We are not offered neutral means of interpretation. Instead, we are given value systems, world views, and ways of operating within a complex network of stories and systems via language. The process of definition is a constructive and creative one, where talking about something simultaneously creates separation from it. The primary relationship that gets shaped by language is our self-understanding which occurs at a preverbal stage. This reveals that our sense of meaning and emplacement is established through language long before we are capable of harnessing it. By the time we get a command of our respective language, our sense of who we are and where we fit, not just within a family unit, community, or society, but also within the natural world and the greater cosmos, has already been decided for us, manifested through the language we speak and the value systems associated with it. 

In order to retrieve that which we are born with, our relationship to (and as) nature, we must recognize what forces shape our self-understanding long enough to see how we shape the world around us. Our humanity depends on how we understand being human. We can come into greater intimacy with what is by challenging certain ‘given’ languages of self-understanding, thereby releasing the self-imposed sense of separation.

The limitations of definitional knowing

The question of divine ecology, of what nature and self are and how we know them, asks us to clarify our connection with nature, something that we have always been part of. How can we come into communion with something we have never been separate from? The idea of the natural world as something separate from human beings and the notion that human nature can be qualified reflects a theology that fails to account for itself or its origins. To explore this relationship then requires an investigation of how concepts of human, human nature, and the natural world are being broadly taught, learned, and lived. In order to foster a more authentic relationship with ourselves we must look to the unseen, as we uncover the contexts and frames that silently shape meaning. So far, this may seem rather involved, but hegemony functions so simply that it is often imperceptible. The dynamic power of language and the value systems it implies and perpetuates (by shaping self-understanding) are so complex, yet they can be eloquently exposed when we listen to children.

In my position as a preschool teacher, I have the opportunity to observe the behavioral and linguistic patterns of children. Recently at the snack table, a young student named Chloe looked over at me and said, “These are not apples, these are apple…,” she trailed off with an inquisitive look on her face. I could see Chloe was struggling to describe the cut-up pieces of apple she saw, to which I asked, “Slices?” “Yes,” she replied, “These are not apples, they are apple slices.” I was curious as to whether she was looking to distinguish or define, so I inquired, “Are they still apples?” “No,” she replied. Her friend Sunny quickly chimed in, “Yes they are,” but the question remained for Chloe, evidenced by the curious and slightly frustrated look she continued to express. This small, seemingly insignificant moment offers a window into how we know ourselves and nature. 

When Chloe labeled the apple on the plate apple slices, Chloe revealed that apple no longer meant the same thing to her. This was not purely because of the label apple slices, but the value associated with accurately defining what was in front of her. Chloe was expressing what she knew, a new word and an apparent deepening of her understanding through the greater complexity of her conceptual and linguistic ability. It would appear that Chloe knows more about the apple than the younger children who are unable to articulate this distinction because Chloe is able to identify and name something with greater specificity. Chloe was concerned with what the thing on the plate was, and for that, she needed the right word, the right definition, because that is what she is being shown it means to ‘know’ something. Unlike the two year-olds who were also invested in knowing what was on the plate, understanding the apple and its pieces through deep, relational presence (the smiles, sounds, tasting and occasional drool reflecting the ‘knowing’ of the apple), Chloe was learning to know the apple from a conceptual space, the space of language. Language as a tool of description via distinction can be a means of greater communication and connection, but language as a means of definition, rife with unacknowledged value systems, is limiting.

As Chloe defines the apple, she is also defining herself because she is in relation to it. In learning and naming slices, Chloe was attempting to know more about that which was on the plate, when in fact, she effectively disconnected the slices from the apple and distanced herself from them. In the process of alienating the apple slices from the apple, the apple became more ambiguous and so did Chloe. Chloe was not enjoying the apple in the same way some of the other children who were not actively thinking about it were because she was focused on ‘knowing’ the apple rather than being in relationship with it. She also wasn’t experiencing a level of relational knowing with regard to the apple, where she might also consider the life process of the apple or the people and places that helped bring it from seed to table. Apple slices were not apples to Chloe because the attempt to define the condition of the apple made them into separate entities. This is the divisive power of language.

The apple is not the slices, the apple is not the experience of eating it, it is also not the people, places or processes that helped bring it there. So, what is the apple? And how do we know it? We often turn to language to help us organize concepts and relate to them. When used functionally, language offers labels and expressions that allow for connection, collaboration, and creation. If, however, those labels aren’t driven to express as much as they are to define, the ‘knowing’ that is possible through language loses its potentiality. It shrinks to its own limitations where knowing becomes defining and the process of definition demands separation and encourages isolation. If, for Chloe, “apple slices” fails to designate the state of the apple, but rather the truth of what the thing on the plate is, there is a subtle yet significant break in connection. The apple slices are now an object to which Chloe is the subject defining and acting upon them. Before Chloe could tell the story of the apple in words, she lived it. Chloe knew apple by sense perception and relational experience. Who she was emerged in direct connection to the apple and although she acted upon it, they defined one another. Now that Chloe can conceptually define apple, she can change its meaning and determine its significance. If the ideology that underpins the language system to which Chloe belongs is one that seeks knowledge through definition, labels for label’s sake, not only does the apple change, but so does Chloe, statically fixing the position of both. 

This precarious relationship with the apple, mediated through language, is reflective of our relationship with self and other, a microcosm of the human/nature relationship. Human nature does not exist. Rather, understandings of human nature are reflected in the natural world because the conceptualization of nature is a reflection of how one understands themselves and their humanness. To know nature we must know ourselves, to know ourselves we must know via experience our true nature. This kind of reflexivity is why it is challenging to ‘know’ ourselves when knowing something means defining it. Neither nature nor human beings can be known (in this circumstance defined) in isolation because neither can exist without the other. Many of us have been taught to define the world around us in an attempt to know ourselves. If we limit nature to the identifiable and objectifiable we subject ourselves to the same constraints. Human beings and human nature shrink as nature is limited to the observable and recognizable. Nature is limited conceptually and experientially by the lens of a being who understands itself to be finite and separate. As a result, it has become something to be subdued and overcome as it represents a challenge to the survival of a species in a cosmology of hierarchy and dualism. How is it that so many of us have come to know ourselves this way? It has been written into the language of science, one of the greatest “definers” of nature.

Re-examining the language of science and its origins, we become more effectively emplaced

The language of science as the definitional framework to understand the natural world and one’s place in it, has some significant, albeit “invisible,” limitations. Today, many people look to science to define themselves and the world around them. In primary school many students are taught about the natural world in required courses like biology or chemistry which are often limited to the use of books and computers as tools for learning rather than direct experience. Science as a discipline is excellent at labelling, codifying and helping to define relationships, but often fails to make explicit the system of valuation in which it also participates, thus revealing that its functionality can become its limitation. I would like to reaffirm that in a world where science, truth, and fact are all under attack, I believe in the reality, power, and relevance of science. I also believe that when we fail to question the frames of meaning we are offered, these frames tend to fail us. We, as a global society, are being failed by the understanding that science is a framework of self-knowledge that exists in juxtaposition to religion. If we dig deeper, we find that modern science was partially born of religion. If we can better understand how they shape one another, we can better understand how we have been shaped by them. 

Darwin’s theory of evolution is just over 160 years old, while contemporary geologists suggest that the earth is 4.54 billion years old, give or take 50 million years. So, while biology has guided our lives for billions of years, our understanding of biology as a discipline has come to define contemporary perceptions of the natural world and our relationship to it. If we aren’t careful, the ancient and unknown facets of our biology become subject to the limits of biology’s disciplinary definitions as we outsource our self-understanding to perceived experts in the field. 

The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BCE) played a foundational role in the development of the discipline of biology and he believed that “life-forms could be arranged on a ladder, or scale, of increasing complexity, later called the scala naturae (“scale of nature”). Each form of life, perfect and permanent, had its allotted rung on this ladder.”[note] Neil A. Campbell and Jane B. Reece, Biology. San Francisco: Pearson, Benjamin Cummings (2005: 439).[/note] The idea of this hierarchical scale began to take greater shape when Swedish physician and botanist Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778) created a system of taxonomy to classify life’s diversity “for the greater glory of God.”[note] Carl von Linné and Carl von Linné, Systema Naturae (’t Goy-Houten (Utrecht): HES & De Graaf Publ., 2003) as cited in ; Neil A. Campbell and Jane B. Reece, Biology. San Francisco: Pearson, Benjamin Cummings (2005: 439).[/note] Linneaus’s system would then become an important influence on the development of English naturalist, geologist and biologist Charles Darwin’s (1809-1882) theory of evolution.[note] Campbell and Reece (2005: 444–46).[/note] Already, we can see that the natural world (and the human place within it) is being organized as a hierarchy and within the context of western cosmology. Darwin recognized Linnaeus’ organizational scheme as reflecting “the branching history of the tree of life, with organisms at the various taxonomic levels related through descent from common ancestors.”[note] Ibid, 444.[/note] For Darwin, this system of categorization allowed for organization where “groups (were) subordinate to groups” and this impacted and supported his newly developed theory. 

In an attempt to illustrate the pervasiveness of this relationship to nature and to biology and the unacknowledged impact of limited definitional knowing, I draw from the sources of knowledge commonly offered and accessed, either through a public school education or through a cursory search on the internet. In the textbook assigned during my high school biology class, I learned that “Scientific inquiry seeks natural causes for natural phenomena”[note] Ibid, 446.[/note] which suggests that science looks to define natural phenomena (the natural world) according to those which are deemed accepted or likely causes. If what is natural gives way the natural world, this raises the question, what is natural? As it should be very clear by now, the definition of these terms is highly dependent on the person doing the defining. In this case Darwin was defining what the natural causes for natural phenomena were and more presently, biology as a discipline does the defining. So, I looked to what would have been Darwin’s larger frames of meaning in an attempt to identify what guided Darwin’s interest to see  “groups subordinate to groups” as natural.[note] Ibid, 444.[/note] In 1832, Darwin was aboard the HMS Beagle, a British naval vessel where, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “the specimens and observations accumulated on this voyage gave Darwin the essential materials for this theory of evolution by natural selection.”[note] Keith S. Thomson, “Beagle | Ship,” Encyclopedia Britannica, accessed June 28, 2020, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Beagle-ship.[/note] Darwin’s theory, however, hinged not merely on isolated observation of definite species, rather, it was born of his experiences and observations as a whole. So, we look to the larger context within which Darwin was operating. 

According to that same biology textbook, “The primary mission of the voyage was to chart poorly known stretches of the South American coastline.”[note] Campbell and Reece (2005:441).[/note] If we are not careful here, language betrays us. Poorly known? Known by whom? Certainly not all of the people living along those stretches of coastline were unaware of its geography, depth, and importance. And what would it mean to come to know it? The Encyclopedia Britannica website reveals what the “fact finding” mission of the Beagle was really about, “A goal of the voyage was to obtain a complete circle of measurements of longitude, a feat requiring the use of 22 chronometers and accomplished within only 33 seconds of error. Fitzroy (the captain of the ship) also completed the South American surveys begun on the Beagle’s first voyage and returned three Indians whom he had taken from the island of Tierra del Fuego in 1830. In 1833 HMS BeagleClio, and Tyne helped the British to take control of the Falkland Islands from the Argentines.”[note] Thomson, “Beagle | Ship.”[/note] If the term “Indian” doesn’t point to an antiquated and colonial perspective, the “return” of those three individuals after being enslaved as scientific specimens certainly should. To know these people, places, and spaces then, was not to understand or relate to them, but to quantify, qualify, and own other human beings and places. Darwin’s process of knowing and defining the biology of the individuals, organisms, and geographies that he encountered was constructed, confining, and a direct extension of a larger colonial project. His means for analysis fit in ‘naturally’ within a system of hierarchy whereby othering people and places they could become objects within a ‘natural’ world order. 

The biology textbook states, “The power of evolution as a unifying theory is its versatility as a natural explanation for a diversity of data from biology’s many subfields,”[note] Campbell and Reece (2005:446).[/note] legitimizing the theory of evolution within parameters of scientific inquiry where there is a natural cause for natural phenomena. However, there was nothing natural about the hierarchy and power structures that stripped individuals of their humanity and reduced entire cultures and ecosystems to specimens ready to be defined and consequently commodified. The authors then highlight one of Darwin’s two main contributions, “that evolution explains life’s unity and diversity.”[note] Ibid.[/note] In a couple of pages, the origins of the discipline and its superiority as a means for understanding life is given authority within a self-referential narrative that fails to examine its own underpinnings. Implicit in the theory of evolution is the urge to understand the “unity and diversity” of life, which originates from structures that value certain forms of life over others as part of a “natural” hierarchy. This hierarchical organization often operates most effectively and discreetly through language. 

The practice of using definitions to understand concepts breeds isolation because we distance ourselves from that which we attempt to define, whilst we appear to become more intimate with it. We disconnect from the natural world and detach from those around us as we confine ourselves to self-definitions that limit relationship and prize conceptual knowing. We separate from our experiences, relating to them not as present and processual, but from a distanced objective and static known position. Once we have distanced ourselves and concretized self and other, our internal world is separate from the external. For self (now separate and concrete) to survive in an interwoven and ever-changing world, we must write stories to keep nature and ourselves the same, static and knowable. We succeed in recreating the very dynamic we hope to avoid. Running away from the perceived darkness of nature’s unknowable qualities, we opt towards a concrete understanding of the natural world and ourselves, disallowing ourselves from ever knowing our true nature. Just like the apple, part of our wholeness is in our pieces. All of what we know, comes from what we don’t know. The impossibility of defining self and nature does not keep us from knowing them. By fearing the unknown of a life of process, we guarantee that we will know the constant suffering of loss as the dynamic changes of nature continue. If we fear what we don’t know, we come to fear ourselves.

Knowing nature through relationship, we uncover who we are

In nature we are as we are. Emplaced, we sense simplicity and complexity in harmony. Spectrums of color, shapes, sounds and smells envelope us within the fabric of being. Standing at the edge of the ocean, your toes can squelch the sand while the waves lap at your ankles and somehow there is ease in simultaneously experiencing your smallness and your greatness. As you gaze at the horizon, standing at the edge of the vastness of the sea and your insignificance within the cosmos, the finite-ness of this being and the infinitude that we are meet and you are in intimate relationship with the creative flow of nature. If all we are is a complex of processes, it seems logical that it would be more comfortable to turn ourselves into something concrete, but as we can see this concreteness is confining. If we apply the same logic of self-knowledge that has been offered by certain scientific disciplines to understand nature and the self, we limit our capacity to experience deeper knowing by entering into the engagement with a dualistic and hierarchical understanding that will shape our participation. How do we engage then when the organizational logic of language, lived and unseen, continues to define in opposition? 

A cosmology that depends on a series of oppositions such as life and death, heaven and hell, savior and saved as the foundation of existence does not allow for the lived experience of process. We can look to engage life from views and practices that allow for greater dimensionality of being. When the natural world is defined in juxtaposition to the self, matter and spirit are at odds, this is often why we find that translations of prakṛti and puruṣa that attempt to distill them down, miss the dynamic of the relationship. If we look to understand one through the other, we come to know them relationally which allows for distinctions to be discerned whilst maintaining their connection. When we can live the separation of prakṛti and puruṣa, we are released from the limitations of our identification with a limited sense of self. Here, existence is born and released through the space of separation as we connect to non-separate wholeness by knowing the parts. 

All of what we know is prakṛti, the ground of all materiality. As Gerald Larson describes in Classical Samkhya, prakṛti is “an undifferentiated plentitude of being which implicitly contains the possibilities of all thought and substance.”[note]  Gerald James Larson and Īśvarakr̥ṣṇa, Classical sāṃkhya: an interpretation of its history and meaning. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass (2014: 12).[/note] As we try to assess what we know, Hariharananda’s translation of Patanjali’s Yoga Sūtra reminds us that, “The statement Puruṣa (or Prakṛti) “is” is an example of vikalpa” (a “significant or useful verbal concept or idea which has no corresponding reality, e.g. space, time etc.”)[note] Patañjali, Paresh Nath Mukerji, and Hariharānanda Āranya, Yoga philosophy of Patañjali: containing his Yoga aphorisms with commentary of Vyāsa’s commentary in sanskrit and a translation with annotations including many suggestions for the practice of Yoga. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press (1983: 153).[/note] So, although prakṛti is and defines all we know, it does not exist within space or time, so it functions as a useful concept, but in truth, it is not some thing at all. If we go on talking about puruṣa and prakṛti as objectifiable (spirit and matter, etc.) we are reaffirming a reality they do not exist in. To understand puruṣa and prakṛti with the hopes of re-engaging the dynamic relationship of self and nature, we must practice knowing these forces not as concepts but in process. 

Larson sets the stage for engagement with puruṣa and prakṛti not as things to be known, but forces to be understood by describing them in relationship to one another. Although Larson does define puruṣa in contrast to prakṛti, he does so while refining their engagement, describing puruṣa as “Pure consciousness which is different from unconscious being and yet by its mere presence renders unconscious being intelligible.”[note] Larson and Īśvarakr̥ṣṇa (2014: 12).[/note] Puruṣa needs prakṛti to see itself, it also joins or is near prakṛti so that it may be disidentified from it. “On the one hand, puruṣa provides the consciousness which render the process of emergence, (ie, creation) possible, while on the other hand, prakṛti by means of its first evolute, buddhi, provides the requisite knowledge which enables the realization to arise that puruṣa is absolutely different from prakṛti.”[note] Ibid.[/note] Prakṛti depends on puruṣa to animate it. Once animated it carries the realization that it is free and distinct from puruṣa. How can it be free and distinct if only through the process of puruṣa, prakṛti is animated and thereby able to know/witness itself? 

In knowing we are not, so we are. Puruṣa is the very force that allowed prakṛti to see itself through the recognition that they are distinct. When the ahamkara (“I” sense, evolute of prakṛti) is able to separate from the buddhi (intellect or will, pure “I” sense, also an evolute of prakṛti) and buddhi can then be isolated from puruṣa the illusion of separateness dissolves.[note] Larson and Īśvarakr̥ṣṇa (2014: 10–12).[/note] This means that by distinguishing one’s sense of “I” from what one seeks to define, “I” can be known by what it is not, but only in the paradoxical and dynamic tension of neither being without the other. Hariharananda’s explication of sūtra 1.17 explains that this “beginningless alliance between Consciousness and the object is the cause of the avoidable, i.e. misery,”[note] Patañjali, Mukerji, and Hariharānanda Āranya (1983:153).[/note] that happens when puruṣa and prakṛti are identified and fused with one another. When the essence of being is confined by the boundaries of matter, in identifying with either spirit or matter, even within the most subtle degree of thinking, the demonstrative power of both vanishes. In effect, by entering into deeper relationship with the natural world (being as prakṛti) one discovers that they are not prakṛti but exist through it because the distinction between the forces of puruṣa and prakṛti is what allowed them both to be known. If we can witness something, we are not it, but we must resist the urge to identify with witnessing where that which is witnessed is conceived of as concrete. When puruṣa and prakṛti can be known through perception as separate, the one doing the “knowing” (I, the self) disappears because it is no longer fused with either. The moment one identifies with either puruṣa or prakṛti, the truth of them both evaporates as potentiality is reduced to product. 

As Chloe enjoys eating the apple, she recognizes the apple is distinct from herself, but both her self-understanding and the understanding of the apple are dependent on their engagement with one another. Here, prakṛti comes to know itself through itself as the force of puruṣa supports emergence and the drive for self-knowledge. In eating the apple, Chloe and the apple both are, but they are not each other and neither of them are the things they could be defined as. Prakṛti knows itself by what it is not (puruṣa), while simultaneously not being any thing. If apple or Chloe must remain constant by being defined, then the true nature of their existence is stifled because their being is distinct but relational. Chloe cannot be without every other thing that is, but when she is relating with the apple both she and the apple can be known.

To know ourselves, we must end the need to identify as something, particularly within a paradigm where people, places, and spaces can become objects with the slip of the tongue and the slight of a pen. When we can allow self and nature to be as they are, we come into alignment with our true nature. When we are no longer looking to know self and nature, they can become known. What was conceptual knowing can become perceptual if we resist the urge to distance through definition and instead enter understanding by relating. This means walking deeper into the wilds of your nature because what lies within you lives around you. We can become intimate with experience, feeling so close and knowing it so well that we come to know we aren’t it. Living this self-knowledge allows for greater ‘knowing’ as we come into deeper intimacy with what is. 

We know the world around us when we know the world within us, where the dance of self and other, internal and external, spirit and matter, unity and diversity are in continual play. This means being willing to consistently relinquish your sense of self while remaining open to the potential world continually unfolding. Uncovering our true nature allows us to be in a more harmonious relationship with ourselves, each other and the earth, because we know through felt sense that we are not separate. We can live knowing that we are not separate from the natural world, but exquisitely woven into it, as it. Steeping ourselves in ecological environments reminds us of the truth far beyond our words where we feel the unity of diversity. We truly live when we die to ourselves, uncovering who we are and finding nature in the process.

Why does any of this matter? Because we feel we matter. When we can know and honor all parts of ourselves, including the parts that scare us, then the other or the unknown within no longer masquerades as the others we find around us. The shame, blame, confusion, hurt, fear and violence no longer exist as concrete entities part of a naturalized world order. Instead we are called to look at those forces within us as we can no longer understand them as separate from us. In this way, our nature, all of nature, changes. Nature is not something to be named, used, protected or defined, but rather, lives as everything and somehow so are we.