Book review: Mindfulness and the Natural World, Claire Thompson

Claire Thompson is a Cambridge-based naturalist who has written this short book out of the Buddhist tradition on how to gain a better appreciation for the natural world around us through being mindful of it. The theme is simple: we originate in nature, and are still very much part of it despite our attempts to think otherwise. We are made of the same stuff, evolved together, consume food from nature, but the connection goes deeper, to the very heart of who we are.

Except that that is no longer how we think. The word “nature” itself is unhelpful as it implies an artificial distinction between the natural and the human-influenced. Our minds are capable of creative and abstract thinking, but this often cuts us off from who we are. We seek happiness, see it as a “problem to be solved” but the answers are never ultimately satisfying. And because we have lost touch with nature rather than relating to it, we are exploiting it and destroying it.

What should we do instead? In Buddhist language, seek enlightenment and practice mindfulness, which the author defines as follows: “Enlightenment … is a simple awakening to the nature of life as It is.” “Mindfulness is paying attention, without judgement and with acceptance, to where we are, how we are, what we are feeling, what we are thinking – in the present moment.”

Much of the book provides suggestions as to how to practice this: being aware of ourselves and of nature, taking time to appreciate it, perhaps through art, music or science, and ultimately deepening our relationship with it and love for it. One result of this is that we will treat nature better, or as Aldo Leopold wrote:

We can only be ethical in relation to something that we can feel, understand, love or otherwise have faith in.

It’s a beautiful book in which the author has put plenty of her own personal experience. How much can be transferred to others, particularly not from the Buddhist tradition? In common with what we’ve discovered from our other inter-faith discussions, a surprisingly large amount, despite the different philosophical underpinnings. For instance, a similar book written from a Christian perspective would stop short of declaring that we are the “same” as nature, but the extremely close relationship we are called to have with it means that most of our responses to it would be parallel. Perhaps more challenging are the core of the mindfulness practices themselves: the way I think we are being asked to treat our conscious thoughts is to accept them for what they are, that they are necessarily transitory and should perhaps be pushed aside, whereas the Christian meditative tradition permits a more critical reflection, and puts a focus (naturally) on God.

But the principle that we should step back from our busy lives, reflect and appreciate our surroundings is a good one. Perhaps the book is only a reminder of what we already know, but a welcome one to people like me who often seem to get sufficiently stressed about the amount of effort required to “save” our environment that we forget to go and enjoy it!

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