Over the last two hundred years, scientists have been finding more and more evidence to show that we humans are part of the evolutionary process, having emerged from the lifestream as descendants of a long lineage of beings. This is an extremely radical notion, contradicting most of what we believed about ourselves for many previous centuries—that we are specially and divinely created, the only ones made in the image of God and therefore the center and focus of the entire cosmos, separated from and given dominion over the rest of creation.
The evidence for human evolution is so overwhelming that it is now widely accepted as truth. Yet somehow the implications of that truth do not seem to have penetrated to the marrow of our beings. Knowledge of evolution does not seem to have significantly altered our sense of who or where we are in the scheme of things, or to have changed how we feel about our lives and the other species of life around us.
Vital to the growth of both a new spirituality and an authentic environmentalism is some method of planting the truths of evolution in the human heart. What is essential, as the deep ecologists and eco-psychologists are well aware, is to find a way to become intimate with our nature as nature, to somehow experience ourselves as part of natural processes, inseparable from the rest of creation. In response to this perceived need, as well as to a longing for inclusion in the web of life, some people have turned to indigenous religious beliefs, others to neo-pagan rituals, and still others to what might be called “interspecies group processing” (witness the Councils of All Beings, a workshop created by ecologists John Seed and Joanna Macy).
Fortunately, a time-tested manual of deep ecology practices is preserved within the Buddhist tradition. This is the meditation series known as the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, which is set forth in the Mahasattipattana sutra. These practices can be seen as an evolutionary journey, a way to explore what we might call our “nature karma” and to identify the biological roots of our current incarnation. What do we humans inherit from the history of life on earth?
As we progress through the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, we can systematically experience the most basic components of our being: the physical elements of the body; the process of breathing, which fuels our existence and allows us to survive as land animals, symbiotically linking us with the earth’s atmosphere; the nervous system that makes us sentient beings; and the mental life and consciousness that make us uniquely human.
During meditations based on the first foundation of mindfulness, focusing on the body and breath, a profound relearning of our true “natural” identity can take place. The practices take us into our very life-support system.
As we focus on the breath, we can immediately become aware that it functions automatically, as part of our autonomic nervous system. Without our conscious will or direction, breath comes in and goes out of the body. Even if we try to stop breathing, we can’t do it; eventually we will pass out . . . and breathing will resume. Descartes would have been more accurate if he had said, “I breathe, therefore I am.” After all, although we can breathe without thinking, we can’t think without breathing. Contemplating the breath, we experience the fact that in a very basic sense, we don’t live but, rather, life lives through us. “Breath happens!”
In the first foundation of mindfulness, the Buddha offers several additional ways to contemplate the nature of the body. One instruction tells us to become aware of the fact that our body is composed of four elements—earth, air, fire and water.
A method of contemplating the earth element is to sense the body’s solidity—its shape and weight—as it is seated on the floor or a chair. Become aware that your body is supported by the earth. You can actually feel the force of gravity that is holding you; you might experience it as a gentle tugging, a heavy anchoring, or even a fond embrace. The real shift of awareness comes, however, when you begin to sense how your body is not so much on the earth, as of the earth. You are literally composed of the same elements as earth—carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, sulphur, minerals. Your bones are made of calcium phosphate; they are the clay of earth, molded into your shape. Your blood is the earth’s blood, the salty waters of the ocean splashed up on shore and infused with fire.
To feel the fire element within you, become mindful of your body’s heat. You can easily feel that heat inside you and radiating around the surface of your skin. This heat is created by the fire of the sun, which warms the air you breathe and gives energy to the food you eat. All our warmth is derived from the sun’s fire, and when we explore this truth experientially we find ourselves deeply connected to the universe, or at the very least to our own solar system. Our warm-bloodedness is the sun shining within us.
Moving along on our evolutionary journey, we come to the second foundation of mindfulness, the contemplation of feelings or sensations, the source of all our experiences. The contemplation of sensations is actually a meditation on the workings of our nervous system, the existence of which makes us “sentient beings.”
According to some Buddhist teachers, meditation on sensations is of supreme importance since it focuses awareness on the place where craving and aversion start. When we experience a pleasant sensation, we automatically react with desire for more of the same; when we experience a painful sensation, we react with aversion. These built-in reactions are common to all sentient beings, but as humans we have the ability to free ourselves from this evolutionary conditioning. By becoming aware of the origin of our craving and aversion at the sensation level, we can gain some degree of choice over our responses. The Buddha showed us how we can break the chain of dependent origination at this very link, between sensation and craving.
The third and fourth foundations of mindfulness focus on the workings of the mind itself, on mind states and mind objects. As individuals we identify ourselves most closely with the mental life—heads are us!—while the other aspects of our being are either forgotten or regarded as less significant. A benefit of having first explored our identity through breath, body and sensations, is that it becomes much easier to see that mental life is also a natural process, emerging as the creativity of the life-force in another complex and fascinating stage of evolution.
Mind states are created by deeply ingrained habit patterns. Sometimes these patterns originate in early childhood experiences and sometimes they appear simply as the result of the biological structure of the brain and nervous system. By contemplating mind states we see their origin and how they function and affect us. We become aware of our impulsive fear and lust, the workings of the “mammalian brain.” The Buddha called these impulses “underlying tendencies,” and Sigmund Freud called them instincts. (They are commonly known as “animal instincts.”) We inherit these tendencies or instincts from our evolutionary ancestors (including ourselves in past lives?). When we focus on them, we can experience wonderfully complex adaptations, and at the same become “emotionally intelligent,” learning how to free ourselves from the dictates of the past.
Bringing mindfulness to mental activity also shows us how thoughts are created and feed off each other, triggering emotions, false concepts and delusion. We begin to notice how much of our thinking is centered on self-preservation and self-enhancement and that “personality” is largely an extension of the survival brain. As we contemplate the mind, most of us are shocked to discover that what we think of as “I” or “me” is simply the unfolding of natural processes.
The Four Foundations of Mindfulness include many important practices, and the series can be understood from a number of perspectives. There is little doubt, however, that by revealing the four foundations, the Buddha was acting as a great spiritual scientist, systematically examining all the components of the human condition. The conclusion he came to—as startling as Darwin’s—was that we are not the autonomous, self-created beings we so often believe ourselves to be. Our lives are the result of past causes and conditions, and they arise in conjunction with everything else that arises.
The Buddha called his own theory of evolution “the law of karma.” And although he said it was impossible to trace our karma back to its origin, we might think of evolution as a way of tracing back at least a part of it, especially if we consider evolution to be humanity’s collective karma. The emergence of new species then could be seen as a kind of reincarnation as earthlife takes form after form, engaged perhaps in a process of gradual awakening.
As we investigate our identity through evolution, we finally come to the Buddha’s great discovery about human nature—what we now call our “Buddha-nature.” This aspect of our being is our innate wakefulness, which allows us to know ourselves and to see our interdependence with all things, our “interbeing,” as Thich Nhat Hanh calls it. Love and compassion for creation emerges from that understanding, as does deep respect and active care for the environment.
The ability to recognize and develop our Buddha-nature may be the very power that evolution has offered us as a new adaptation, our next survival technique. Mindfulness is the opposable thumb of consciousness! The meditations of the four foundations will strengthen our Buddha-nature, and lead us to a more integrated sense of our “natural” identity. The four foundations are Buddhist deep ecology. And, who knows? Through their skillful use, we just may be able to give evolution a helping hand.