Musing on Nature’s Mysteries as a Pathway to Mindfulness

Early in the year, many of us are in the initial phases of enacting out our New Year’s resolutions. We might be at the gym several days a week, cooking healthy food at home, or doing something specifically to improve our inner state, whether it’s meditating, switching off technology more often, keeping a gratitude journal, or practicing the difficult yet surely rewarding art of mindfulness.

Nature lovers may already practice what is a less held resolution for the new year, but one that may offer us the most opportunity for self-improvement, in the form of mindfulness. It could be described rather esoterically as connecting with the innate mystery of nature in order to experience a state of inner calm. It sounds complex, to connect with nature’s mysteries. How exactly do we do this? And how does this lead us to a state of peace?

David E. Cooper, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Durham University, has long mused about the place of nature in our lives. In his book, Senses of Mystery: Engaging with Nature and the Meaning of Life, he prefaces his exploration with an anecdote of his own walk through a garden in Sri Lanka.

In the early evening, before sunset, he witnesses simple yet beautiful, restful scenes, such as the dappled light filtering through thick foliage which he notices is reflected in the surface of a pond, and on the scales of red fish he sees swimming just below the water’s surface.”

He listens to the subtle sounds of the fish and the various bird calls heralding from the tops of the trees. As he retreats from the garden in the fading light, he notices the sound of birds has been replaced by the rustling and rasping of animals that emerge only at dusk. Cooper’s observational writing on nature at play is soothing to the reader. We feel as if we are accompanying him on his walk, seeing and hearing the sights and sounds of a garden at twilight. Cooper’s intention in describing his walk in nature is to muse upon the philosophical. His walk, he writes, was an ‘occasion for a quiet, undramatic sense of something I want to call a sense of the mystery of things.’ Everything in nature he observed came together ‘to provide an opportunity for attunement to the mystery of existence.’

Cooper argues gently that opportunities like his quick garden walk ‘… are ones to seek out and cultivate. First, because there is a compelling case for regarding the way of things – reality – as being mysterious, ineffable. Hence, to experience a sense of mystery, to be attuned to it, is to be in the truth. Second, because it matters to the quality – the flourishing or otherwise – of a human life whether it is led in appreciation of mystery.’

In turn, Cooper laments the scourge of modernity that has sought to eradicate the value of mystery in our lives. He notes that we have replaced a sense of wonder of the unknown ‘…by a hubristic subordination of everything to human instruments of understanding and measure.’ Instead, it is suggested that we follow the example of Zen Buddhists and Daoists, who cultivate a sense of mystery in their lives by seeking the simple through gardening, walking, watching animals, listening to the sounds of nature, observing the play of light and shadow. We do not need to seek visions of the occult or paranormal to experience nature’s mystery, instead it is in the gentle observation of the goings on of nature around us, that is in operation all day and night, that exists without our input, that can lead us to an inner state of peace.

Observing nature is seen as an opportunity to enter a mind state of gentleness, of oneness, belonging, a foregoing of absolute control over the operation of our lives, simply by being reminded that we are indeed not in control over nature, and beyond this, that nature operates perfectly, in balance and harmony and beauty, without our hand.”

We are not always called to move and amend, to fix or to improve. Perhaps part of a harmonious human existence is also to observe rather than manipulate, to appreciate what is already there rather than construct anew. 

I consider David E. Cooper’s treatise on nature as I contemplate how I view mystery in my own life. It’s a position I’ve never considered – that musing upon nature’s mysteries is a Zen-like practice that leads us to dwell in the truth of existence. Considering the mysteries of my own life has an instantaneous effect; it alters my perspective. I am mindful by accident; grateful by accident; blissed out by accident. I walk past my dog and pat her, thinking about the mystery of her – how she was born, how she came to live in our house, how a canine has been bred to live contentedly amongst humans; how her loyalty to me as her owner knows no bounds. I listen to birds outside my window in the inner city, appreciating the natives that are so resilient to harsh urbanity.

I dwell on the unique mystery of my experience as I woke up a few hours before. I felt the first flutter of movement in my belly as my baby moved, sensed by me, its carrier, for the first ever time. The kicks were gentle and loving. I then remember an opposite experience, but one no less mysterious. The moment I watched my mother die, the speed of it, seeing her breath fade, watching her choose her moment. The mystery of the calm and peace that flooded the entire room. The seeming ruthlessness of reality was, for that day, pushed aside in favour of and surrender to mystery.

I realise that mystery is enacted everywhere: in our gardens; in our big and small life moments. That it’s a natural part of life – that arguably, it is the truth of life.”

Cooper would tell us to step out into our nearest source of nature if we lose step with mystery. To listen to the birds, observe the sway of the trees, the green of the leaves, or watch the tidal movement of the ocean. I think I’ve found my (albeit belated) New Years’ Resolution.