‘Rewilding’ refers to the efforts that people make to allow Nature, the biosphere, to re-establish itself by removing industrial side-effects and infrastructure and minimising human interference. You may have heard of Oostvaardersplassen, a 6,000 hectare polder about 20miles/32kms from Amsterdam that, having been set aside for forty years, has seen wildlife return that had disappeared in the Netherlands in the Middle Ages. Now the largest herd of wild horses in Europe thunders across these wetlands while huge white-tailed eagles soar overhead. It’s one of several projects in Europe and America that bear tribute to the resilience of Nature and its ability to renew – if we give it a chance.
The country I’m in now, New Zealand, has its own rewilding projects. Namely, to prevent the unique birdlife from becoming extinct, offshore islands (and some onshore fenced-off enclaves) are cleared of rats and stoats, and threatened species are introduced. Of course it’s not so dramatic as introducing bison or wild oxen – there are no herds of kiwi thundering through the bush – but on the occasion that I visited one of these islands, it was quietly wonderful to have a glossy blue takahe (once thought extinct) poking around my feet as I ate my sandwiches. Beautiful to share space with a wild animal, a creature of the woods, rain and sky, that was regarding me with steady eye rather than running away in justifiable fear.
Rewilding also represents a paradigm shift, in that in general, the relationship of humans to the rest of the biosphere has been competitive. We had to defend ourselves from predators and feed on other creatures; and we learned to progressively mould the local landscape (i.e. other creatures’ habitat) to our liking. As we grew beyond mere survival, from the 17th century C.E. on, the aim has been to dominate Nature and exploit it to our advantage. This mentality has made us ‘supreme’, clear winners in the contest between humans and other creatures; and conversely the losers too. Because the domination-exploitation paradigm that characterises our life-style is not only on course to render great swathes of the planet unliveable, unfarmable and with inadequate drinking water, but also deprives us of the joy and wonder of being in an environment that is teeming with a life not of our making.
Nowadays most youngsters in the developed world will spend more hours in front of a screen than rambling through woods or splashing around in the local stream. As over 50% of humans now live in urban settings, (80% in UK and USA, 95% in California) there may not even be a local stream. Apart from any health issues in such an inorganic lifestyle, with ‘denaturing’ the mind loses the opportunity to explore and negotiate with other living, responsive beings. That non-relationship then conditions the way that people interact with each other: we become objects within a convenient but anonymous system, rather than mutual subjects who respond, negotiate and grow through contact with each other. Even in terms of mental balance, denaturing is harmful too: Nature is that which is not fashioned by our own minds, and to lose touch with it consigns us to a world that is one-dimensional and lonely, one that can’t go it’s own way, confound and delight us. The denatured human lives gazing into a mirror of their own images.
Nature is that which we cannot control. Even as we exterminate other animals and decimate tree-cover, Nature hits back with invasive pests (that the creatures we killed were feeding on) droughts, hurricanes and floods. Not because Nature is a goddess that is giving us a spanking, but because it is the responsive system of the life that we’re part of. ‘Nature’ means both that which is born and that which gives birth: mess it up and we mess up the system that’s keeping us alive. Really alive: by not fitting into our schedules, working rhythms and convenience-based values, Nature breaks the chains on our minds; and if we are willing to be in it on its terms, it draws us out of our thoughts and into a vast and dynamic reality.
Years ago, when I was walking through a wildlife park in Bihar, India, I saw a tiger. Someone in our small group hissed the word ‘Tiger!’ and we froze. The tiger was reclining on a rock about ten- twelve metres away, looking at us. In that frozen moment, its gaze and mine met. There was no movement, no reaction. The tiger didn’t care about my B.A.(Hons.), my understanding of Dhamma, where I was going, or the state of my mind. And as my attention was held, and any intentions to do arrested, plans, concerns, memories and self-created significance instantly evaporated. There was just the ineffable tenderness of a mind rendered naked. It was a presence beyond any achievement or need; and hence beyond failure. Held in the seeing. And then the tiger was gone. I didn’t see it move, get to its feet, or slink off; it was just suddenly, immediately and beautifully, not there. Traceless. And how long was that seeing? Four seconds…? Five? It’s not easy to measure how long when time stops. Perhaps it’s not even relevant. One has been seen in a way that disbands the self. The vast space of mind is revealed, and although it gets buried again, the dressings never fit in the same way, or seem that important. Seen through the eye of nature, the world of self is so small; and restless – with its needs to get things done, wonder if it has done enough, is good enough, and what next, etc, etc. The endless whirlpool.
You won’t see tigers in the wild very often; if at all. But rewilding remains possible, and it is rooted in the intent that makes the efforts to prevent such creatures from becoming extinct. This intent is attuned to life, so it respects life. And most immediately it checks the extinction of our own heart-mind, our citta. Because the domination paradigm extends beyond the way we relate to the external world. The citta is relational, affective and responsive; how it relates to the ‘external world’ becomes how it relates to the ‘internal world’ of our thoughts, emotions and energies. Actually for the citta, there is no internal/external; all that it experiences are impressions and feelings – whether those are attributed to a tree, a memory, another person or an impression that it may have of ‘me.’ So if its intent is conditioned into ‘cut down what you don’t want’ or ‘extract whatever you want out of this and dump the rest’ or ‘hurry up and get a result’ or ‘watch this for as long as interests you, then switch off’ then that’s the way we are with each other and with ourselves. The truth is that we’re in a holistic cosmos: aims, attitudes and responses with regard to the social or biological world will play out on the psychological, emotional and spiritual domains as well.
So a well-developed intent turns consciousness around from wrong view; from being driven and clinging, to participation and wonder. If we meet Nature with respect rather than control, with mindfulness rather than exploitation, it can support that development. It can teach us that meeting life with mindfulness brings joy. And, as in it’s fullest sense, Nature is not something ‘out there’ but the process of arising; conditioned, but not created by self, this is a precious teaching to take within. Rewilding the mind is then about coming out of the domination paradigm and allowing a more joyful and ‘at home’ reality to arise by itself.
The tricky task is to bring around rewilding in the socio-domestic sphere of organisation and duties. Most of our organising intentions and structures don’t seem like domination; they manifest as setting things straight, or creating a system that works and then fitting people and activities into it. It’s what we do as social creatures. But with clinging this tip over into a scenario whereby the system – the custom, the law, the procedure, the structure – takes precedence over what is directly and immediately sensed, or even sensible. The mark of a domination system is that although it may express regret over what it has to do, it is implacable. It’s the financial system that while trying to improve the Greek economy has sacrificed the needs of the people for fiscal propriety to the extent that an estimated 11,000 Greeks have taken their own lives rather than continue under its regime. It’s the need to devastate the biosphere for fossil fuels because this is the ‘only way’ to meet our energy needs. It’s the regrettable snooping of unaccountable agencies into our personal data. And all this is supposed to be necessary and good for you. Just like one of those relationships where the other is trying to tidy you up, or tell you how you should be: it’s domination wearing a veil. This gets more obvious in the wider social sphere, where to a large degree there is no direct relationship; we are steered through a web of systems, laws and procedures by anonymous technology. Notice how it steadily pushes you to fill in forms and fields on websites that won’t let you proceed until you type in your date of birth, address, PIN and password – all to make your life more convenient. ‘Resistance is futile, have a wonderful day.’ But, having created these cyber-sheepdogs, to where are are being herded? Where is the great, ultimately convenient, universal-access, broadband-connected paradise? Or doesn’t all that lead us round a few more turns of the self-whirlpool to ‘what next?’ And this process makes us old and tired, because it’s just business as usual: it consigns us to a world that is systematic and unresponsive, with the view ‘there is no alternative’. A living death.
In the reality of Nature, of arising and passing, there are always alternatives. Where the law is of change and response to change, nothing is predictable. Rivers change course, mountains crumble; species migrate, modify, die and are replaced. Everything adapts to the law of change and response. This is nature: dynamic; no regrets and no apologies. The ‘regrettable, but no alternative’ view is the force of human clinging.
Clinging converts dynamic processes such as feelings and desires into structures. If craving is for taste, clinging creates a mouth and paints its lips with ‘I’m in need; I need to have what I don’t have.’ Nature says, ‘You are not a mouth; you have one and sometimes it’s empty and sometimes it’s full.’ If craving is for status, esteem or self-image, clinging creates a person who says, ‘I want to be what I think I need to be.’ Nature says ‘You can take a position for a while, if you want.’ If craving is for security, clinging creates a system and says, ‘I am in this system; organisation is needed.’ Nature says, ‘There are systems that are quite useful some of the time, but nothing works all the time.’ Clinging fixates and says, ‘Without this you’ll be miserable, a failure and everything will fall apart.’ Nature says, ‘It’s all arising and passing.’
Clinging to systems and structures (sīlabbata-parāmāsa) is one of the main fetters that the Buddha pointed to. It’s not that we cling to it, rather that when the mind is captured by its promise of security and efficiency, a pushy self starts to form that needs to organise; and when there’s nothing to organise, it starts to organise the heart-mind. When it gets you hopping through the loops of techniques and systems, even meditation can be like that. As we try to control the mind, we get dominated by the signs and judgements of self-view. ‘Not bad, but not as good as…’ ‘Cut that thought out, and hold the space more firmly.’ Domination by systems and structures; it’s the rule of the known over the direct knowing of arising and passing.
So our ongoing responsibility has to be to stop the human mind from becoming wiped out by ‘no alternatives, cling to the known.’ To create some spaces in the routines and mind-set; to go a week without shopping; to let the house be uncleaned for a day; to switch off the gadget and the internet; to get up early or lunch outside; to pause, be with breathing and recognise you don’t have to get what you want, and you don’t have to be who you think you are – and are tired of. You don’t have to be that which clings and is clung to. In fact not getting what you want or being who you’re supposed to be is a key to freedom.
Having this marvellous and tedious opportunity of being in a forest monastery with no duties and no schedules, I work at easing out of my patterns. For example, I apply myself to tasks that I’m not good at, that aren’t my usual thing; and as it’s a monastery, many things don’t work as quickly or smoothly as I want. So there is the struggle with the ancient sewing machine; the leaks in the shower that send me down to the workshop looking for sealant, finding and using the wrong kind, then finding the right kind - which is all gummed up, then finally getting it free and smearing it over my robes ... then I can’t get the fax to work when I need to send medical documents to the UK – and so on. The opportunity is to review the attitudes around getting things done, with the emphasis on meeting the way things are and letting it all pass. To fail today and begin tomorrow like it’s the first time. And there are also the hours of nothing to do, or meditating; hours that I preserve from accomplishment. So there is a bearing witness to the attempts to achieve; to the measuring mind; the ‘how long should I sit for’; the ‘don’t waste your time’ and ‘am I developing or declining or what?’ And all these forces and energies, if allowed to move through, return to Nature. I feel fresh, alive and unknown.
I like to come out of sitting meditation just around dawn; open the door and stand in the crisp winter of the southern hemisphere. Dawn is the time of renewal and return, when the trees change their breath from drawing in oxygen and sending out carbon dioxide to the reverse. There is the daily oxygen rush, and the return of light, with the arousal of life and all that that brings. I stand breathing in its freshness. It’s always new, always tireless, beyond goals and accomplishment; it embraces all. I stand in that, dropping the sense of time, purpose, and result. Just being seen. The mind unravels a few tape loops of moods and half-formed intentions: ‘What should I do, how long do I stand here?’ But when the attention and intention, the sankhāra that drive consciousness, let go, there is the return to that ineffable tenderness, and all that arises is the wish to praise.