mind and nature

In abstracting we imagine ourselves as outside of nature looking in and Forgetting the “as” we are left alienated and homeless.

The design on this 20th century New Guinea war shield – an organic response to the given shape of the wood – evokes the symbiosis of nature and thought.

In using a tool, the tool becomes an extension of our body. In use, the tool fades in favor of the task at hand. Yet we can readily stop and notice the tool itself. So it is with our selves. We can just do and who we are fades in favor of what we are doing. Or we can stop and notice our thoughts and actions, perhaps even contemplating what those reveal about who we are. Self-awareness and the capacity for using tools spring from the same source.

Self-awareness is based on the ability to live simultaneously as subject and object: In self-aware moments we live as the subject who, imagining ourselves as other, stands outside ourselves observing as we act. So it is that our relationship with ourselves is always at issue. We can live forgetfully, going to great lengths to avoid self-reflection. We can live the other half-life of relentless self-examination. We can move freely between immersion in activity and reflection.

The ability to imaginatively stand outside ourselves means we can also imaginatively stand outside nature. And, because we can imagine ourselves as separate from nature, our relationship with nature is always at issue. We can live as vagabonds forgetful of our roots and our environmental impact. We can live in self-condemnation as if we were an alien cancer to the planet. We can live as if we belong here.

Though we imagine ourselves as separate from it, it is nature that gave birth to we, who are capable of abstraction. It follows that abstraction itself is present in nature. Our seemingly Promethean capacity for abstract thought comes from nature.

The scientific quest for truth is based on the assumption that at the heart of the natural world are consistent principles/laws. This pursuit of truth would fail if it were not for two factors: nature itself is based on rational principles, and we, being of and from nature, share in that rationality. It’s ironic that the very rationality we are given by nature also invites us to imagine ourselves as separate from nature.

Certainly, when we wander too far from home, ideas can go awry and paradigms can be wantonly imposed on the facts. Our war shield above speaks the solution to healing the pursuit of truth: the path is the relationship of thought and nature as reciprocal dialogue.

On the evolutionary scale of things, self-awareness is relatively new. Our relationship with our own nature and nature itself is bound to be adversarial at times. And yet, after having spent so much time imagining ourselves as separate from it, there is an ongoing growth of awareness that we are of this world. In its healthiest forms this is no nostalgic longing for simpler time when we were one with nature. This is a call to continue forging a whole relationship with our roots – a call to be at home.

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