Nature’s mindset can save us: Have you tuned in to her wisdom?

The problem with being rational, is that what you think is reasonable depends on what you believe. You know science is reasonable and you think you’ve got it licked — but then you bump into quantum physics and find out there’s a liquid that can run uphill, or some other crazy thing like the faster you travel, the slimmer you get. Totally nuts, but true*.

These discoveries were not made by those who ignored or rejected the evidence because they couldn’t explain it. They were made by people who suspended their disbelief and opened their minds enough to see the possibility of something new.

I think the chaotic times we’re living in aren’t here by chance — they’re here because so many of our most popular and firmly held beliefs aren’t as reasonable as they seem. One of the main culprits is the big disconnect from nature. There’s a gulf between the views held behind the closed doors of board rooms with their corridors of power, and the reality of the world outside.

Joanna Macy’s Work that Reconnects is rooted in studies stretching back to the 1970’s, and this is my story of re-connection. It may not seem reasonable, but it is completely true, and it freed my mind to think in new dimensions. Here’s what happened…

In the year 2000, I was on a two year masters degree in ‘Responsible Business Practice’ which aimed to address “the challenges currently facing society as we seek to integrate successful business practice with a concern for social, environmental and ethical issues”.

Led by exceptional academics, this particular masters was cited in Harvard Business Review for its pioneering approach to taking an attitude of inquiry. We were serious about exploring the most challenging issues in business, and we were prepared to suspend disbelief to discover something new.

We did most of our studies at work or the university, but for one week we went and stayed at the Schumacher College in Devon. One of the things that lay in store for us was a ‘Council of All Beings’.

We were sent out into the countryside alone to pay attention to our surroundings until we were ‘chosen’ by something, and instructed to listen to what we thought it may have to say to us humans.

This was clearly going to test the freedom of our thought.

I wandered for a while before finding myself mesmerised by the view across a field to a forest. The trees, fixed in their place, were being buffeted this way and that by the wind. I started thinking about the wind — how it carries messages (smells) and delivers things (seeds, spores and spiders) — how it can be forceful but also very gentle, and the way it seems to be everywhere affecting everything, but from no single place.

My work at the time involved weaving partnerships together between different networks and it just felt completely familiar. It felt I’d made a connection — not just a feeling of attraction, but a feeling of identity — a real sense of bond. It felt like the wind had chosen me.

When we’d all returned, we gathered in a circle and with some ceremony, were each invited to sit in the centre and speak. What followed was a business meeting like no other. I can’t remember the detail of what was said, but that’s not what this story is about — the key point is that we were able to voice things about the outside world that we either couldn’t or wouldn’t in the boardroom. ‘Ancient knowings’ is the way Joanna Macy puts it, and certainly it felt like we’d tuned in to nature in a new way.

My thinking had been expanded a little, but it didn’t take me to a new dimension. It was the next episode that truly changed my mind.

Fast forward eight years, and I was once again invited to the countryside in Devon for serious business. This time it was a meeting of influential people concerned about Climate Change, and we met at a place called Embercombe.

Before convening the meeting, we were given an hour to explore. I watched people disappear in different directions, enjoying the thought that we can feel alone and yet stay connected. I decided to find a vantage point where I could see lots going on and stay in the sun. I definitely wasn’t going into the woods.

I then marched off out of the grounds in the general direction of ‘up’ and found I’d made a bee-line for some woods. I walked fast down the track, thinking I’d find a spot in the sun anyway and have a sit down. I noticed clear ground in sunlight on the other side of a thicket, so I decided to cut through rather than follow the path. A squirrel darted in front of me a little way ahead and we both froze.

After a while, it scampered away and I took a few steps forward onto a tree stump, where I watched it rocket up another tree. This is where things got very strange.

A feeling crept over me I can only describe as ‘taking root’, and I felt as though I had become a part of the forest. I don’t know what it feels like to be a tree, and yet I felt like one of them. I was aware of what I can only describe as a community of trees around me, and that our roots were subtly exchanging some kind of presence. My mind was almost entirely still. I felt a zephyr of breeze caress my skin with the gentlest touch, I absorbed birdsong, leaf rustle, dank woodland smells and watched the dance of midges. I was simply being.

Then the forest ‘told me’ most clearly “We are not immobile”.

That’s all. It felt like a patient correction. A gentle retort to the wind.

I stayed on my stump for around 30 minutes without really being aware of the time. During my stay, I’d faced in four directions, taking in as much of my surroundings as I could. As my time drew to a close, I remembered the four directions have significance in native american culture, vaguely recalling some kind of thanksgiving ceremony. It seemed right to ‘thank’ the forest for having me, so I bowed slowly in each direction.

As I completed my last bow, a tree bowed back.

The tree in question was thicker than my thigh. There was no breeze. The tree described a long slow arc far in excess of any normal range of movement — it would have taken a squirrel the size of a cow to have the same effect. I don’t take drugs. I stood stock still for several moments, staring at the tree, but there was not the faintest movement after the bow. I tingled from my head to my toes.

I returned to the gathering, but found myself completely out of sorts for the rest of that day. I was oddly detached, unsure of where I belonged, and unable to engage in discussions. It was confusing, because the part of me that had come to have important conversations seemed to be missing.

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When I awoke the following morning, I still felt a little dull. Telling my story over breakfast, I asked a colleague if he’d mind taking a picture of me on ‘my stump’ — I was sure I could find it. He agreed, and sure enough, I found it easy to recognise the spot. Everything seemed entirely normal — there was no magic in the air and it all felt like a bit of an anticlimax. Had it even been real?

But as we left the forest on the way back to the site, my energy level changed completely. It felt like a switch had been flicked, and I was suddenly fully alive again, ready to go and keen to engage. Odd as it may sound, I can only say that it felt as though some part of me stayed in the woods on the previous day and I had to go back to collect it.

So is there a rational explanation for all this — and why does it relate to work?

The Secret Life of Trees and The Overstory both show there is credible science that says there’s more to plant life than we normally assume. Quantum mechanics says highly improbable sounding things are true, and the philosophy of Panpsychism says what I experienced is possible.

Not long ago, the world of work was so disconnected from humanity that slavery seemed a reasonable thing to do. Today, business ‘as usual’ still sees nature in much the same way — a resource exploited without consequence.

Except that’s neither reasonable or rational given what we know to be true.

It seems our eyes have dimmed in the artificial light of spreadsheets, so I think we need to blow the doors off the boardroom — to really let nature in. The more we own the fact that we are just a small part of nature, made up of it, completely contained within it — the more bizarre it will seem that it was ever a good idea to exploit nature rather than care for it.

I think the way to do this is to tell our personal stories of connection. The more that get told, the less strange they will seem. We may have got distracted in recent years, but our roots have not forgotten us.

I look forward to hearing more stories of ‘knowing’ from this ancient dimension. Do send me yours…

*From ‘Quantum Theory cannot hurt you’ by Marcus Chown