Retreat, day two: Nature and the Five +1

– by B. T. Newberg

Today I’ll talk about spending time in nature, and exploring the Five +1 (fives senses, plus one introspective sense).  Befitting the topic, there’s extra sensory stimulation in this post: not only images but a video too (click play above).

Last night I drew an omen for today (see Day One for a discussion of naturalistic divination).  The card that came up was the Nine of Swords: Cruelty, which in the Haindl Tarot signals either suffering or inflicting oppression.

This morning I awoke at dawn to meditate and soon encountered cruelty of a kind.  Whereas yesterday I was aglow with excitement for this retreat, today I felt no such thing.  I had to drag myself out of bed.  Then, as I knelt before my statue of Isis, I thought to myself Why am I doing this? and This is stupid.  I looked out the window, and it looked so rainy out there.  Oh, greatSo much for spending time in nature today.  Pretty soon my fiance, unable to sleep, got up.  Suddenly I was filled with nervousness and embarrassment.  I usually do ritual alone, because I feel weird doing spiritual practices around other people who don’t share the same beliefs.  Even my fiance, who loves and supports me in this, puts me a little on edge.  I couldn’t concentrate because half my mind was worried about what she might think seeing me chanting in front of a statue of a goddess that I don’t even believe is real (see Day One for why I do nontheistic ritual).

That’s when I realized I was inflicting a kind of oppression.  It wasn’t cruelty toward others, but toward myself.  The voice of the self-critic was blaring away in my head.  From the moment I got up, it had been one vitriol after another.  Catching myself thus, I made a decisive decision to change my thinking.

Trees rippling in Quaking Bog

The mind is easily clouded with surface chatter. Spiritual practices like spending time in nature can help bring deeper thoughts and feelings to light.

photo by B. T. Newberg, May 9, 2011

Spending time in nature

Gazing out at the early morning rain, I decided to make the most of it.  I went out on the veranda with my camera and started filming.  Quickly I grew absorbed in the work.  Lightning forked across the sky, and the camera caught it reflected in a puddle forming on the patio table.  A rumble of thunder followed, and all my negative feelings disappeared. I stood entranced by the cool pitter-patter of drops on my head, and the smell of fresh rain.  When I finally went inside, I went straight to work mixing the clips into a video meditation, which you can see for yourself above.

I had expected the day’s nature experience to be a wash (no pun intended), but instead it turned out profound.  All it took was a change of attitude.  Spiritual practices seem to have the power to catalyze such changes – but I’ve already talked about that.  Now, I want to talk about the world of our senses: the Five +1.

Pondside trees at Wirth Park

Spending time in nature calms and quiets the mind.

photo by B. T. Newberg, May 9, 2011

The Five +1

Nature comes to us through five doors: the eyes, ears, tongue, nose, and skin.  By the proper application of these five senses,  empirical science has developed detailed knowledge of nearly every aspect of our world.  The five senses are the keys that unlock knowledge.

But there is another sense that yields knowledge, self-knowledge.  The power of introspection, which enables us to perceive feelings, emotions, thoughts, and mental images, can be thought of as a kind of sense.  We don’t normally think of it as such here in the West, although Buddhism made that conceptual leap some 2500 years ago.  The power of introspection amounts to an additional faculty of sensation.  I’ll refrain from calling it a “sixth sense”, lest it acquire psychic or magical connotations, and instead call it the “+1” in Five +1.  What I’m talking about is thoroughly ordinary.  The extraordinary thing is that we typically pay it so little attention.  Other than surface thoughts and gross feelings like hunger, most mental phenomena slip by unnoticed.  Further, what little consideration we do give mental processes is often biased or confabulated (see introspection illusion).  Often it takes a practice like therapy to help us realize what’s really going on deep down.  If, however, we conceive of introspection as a faculty of sense, then we are empowered to look inside and discover a new frontier of nature (yes, nature, for we humans are as much a part of nature as stars or toadstools).  Just as there are birdwatchers, we can be thoughtwatchers.  The value of such activity is self-knowledge.

I mentioned earlier that I caught myself thinking negatively this morning, and turned my attitude around.  Spiritual practices like meditation and ritual seem to aid in such introspection.  In this case, it was the image of last night’s tarot card that helped me see the cruelty I was inflicting on myself.  Another particularly helpful practice is spending time in natural environs.  Walking along a wooded trail, mountain path, or seashore seems to have the effect of calming and quieting the mind.  It is then, when the ordinary surface chatter is muted, that deeper thoughts and feelings can well up from below.  Insights may arise, or just a simple sense of peace.  Nature outside begins to sync with nature inside as the illusion of separateness dissipates.  Wholeness permeates the complete world of the Five +1.

Birch branch at Quaking Bog

Harmony is when outer nature and inner nature are in sync.

photo by B. T. Newberg, May 9, 2011

Responsibility, almost

After the rain stopped, I took my bike on a long ride out to Wirth Park and Quaking Bog, which are almost in the suburbs.  Meandering around the wetlands, I found myself getting off my bike and trudging around off-trail.  My senses were heightened as I carefully weaved my way around branches, thorns, and fallen logs.  A brilliant red cardinal sang above me, and a wild turkey shot through the bushes.  Beneath my feet the ground squished and slogged.  I had to weigh each step to make sure I  didn’t sink into the muck.  I felt my thought process slow, and my awareness grow, as I adjusted to the pace.

The wetland was littered with plastic bottles, and I started gathering them up as I went along.  I had no idea how I was going to carry them out, as I had no bag with me.  I just started making piles, partly for the fun of it.  Honestly, I actually enjoy picking up trash.  I call it trashmonking, because I have this ridiculous vision of monks walking along meditating and picking up trash.  In any case, after gathering plastic bottles for a while I came across some plastic bags and ended up carrying three full shopping bags of bottles out of the wetlands.

Feeling proud of myself, I headed home on my bike.  Unfortunately, I was a little too proud, and cruised through a crosswalk without noticing the don’t walk light.  A left-turning car honked and the guy behind him shouted, “Hey, don’t you know what ‘Don’t Walk’ means?”  So, I was a responsible citizen today – almost.

The value of responsibility is several fold.  Not only is it good for others around you, it’s also good for you.  The Humanist Manifesto III boldly affirms the greatest potential for human fulfillment lies in benefiting others.  If you don’t buy that, there’s the simple fact that people need to live together, so preserving the circle of good will and trust is in your own interest.  Environmentally, a similar relationship obtains: sustainable living keeps the planet livable for us and our descendants, so it’s in our interest to treat the planet well.  Finally, there’s the generally pleasant feeling that accompanies doing right by others and the world.

I felt a hedonist’s delight today as I was hauling trash out of Wirth Park.  And when I messed up at the crosswalk, I curtailed the anger I might have felt at the drivers.  Using the power of introspection, I was able to notice my feeling of embarrassment, acknowledge it, and gently observe it fade as I went on with my day.

Today began with a bit of cruelty, but a change of attitude opened me to a rewarding experience of nature – first in the rain, then in the park.  By the faculty of introspection I sensed awareness growing within, and a sense of peace pervaded the world of the Five +1.

Picking up plastic bottles at Wirth Park

It’s in our interest to do right by others, ourselves, and our planet.

 photo by B. T. Newberg, May 9, 2011
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3 Comments on “Retreat, day two: Nature and the Five +1

  1. Pingback: Is there a better term for the “Five +1″? « Humanistic Paganism

  2. First off I would like to say great blog! I had a quick question
    that I’d like to ask if you don’t mind. I was interested to find out how you center yourself and clear your head prior to writing.

    I have had a difficult time clearing my thoughts in getting my thoughts
    out there. I do enjoy writing but it just seems like the
    first 10 to 15 minutes are lost simply just trying to figure out how to begin.
    Any ideas or tips? Cheers!

    • Hi Voyance. Good question. I think the answer really varies depending on a person’s styles, habits, and personality. What works for one might not work for another.

      If you’re having trouble getting started writing a piece, it might be either because a) an overblown to write the “perfect” beginning, or b) difficulty organizing thoughts (or c, something else!).

      To help get started, you might try outlining your main points first. That’s how I often start. Then I gradually fill in the details. I might write the beginning of the article first, second, or even last. And I often end up re-writing the beginning after I finish the rest of the article. So, it’s quite a process for me.

      My only advice is, experiment and see what works. 🙂

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