Waking up to paradise: Contemplative natural history in science education

Waking up

“It’s as if my whole life I’ve been asleep, and I just woke up to the paradise I live in,” wrote one of my introductory geology students in her final paper. She had chosen the contemplative project option, and had spent 90 minutes every week sitting in the presence of Mt. Rainier. This student credited her contemplative practice with increased creativity, greater understanding of geological processes—and with improving test grades throughout the term.

Science is already contemplative

Contemplative time is already a critical part of traditional scientific practice. Where does scientific insight come from, anyway? Einstein played violin and piano; Poincaré went for walks; Kekulé daydreamed. 

Of course you have to work, creatively and persistently, to provide the fundamental observations and initial analysis from which insight emerges. But for many scientists, intense analytical work alone doesn’t allow the expansiveness of thought from which the most creative insights sprout.

Standard descriptions of the scientific method, lacking this critical element, come across to students as dry and dull. Shouldn’t the courses that introduce students to science explicitly deal with important ways that scientific insight has been generated?

Slowing down helps you see better

It’s not news that we’re all in too much of a hurry these days. Natural Presence education counters this societal momentum by asking students to slow down. To study shy forest birds or to discover how a butterfly emerges from its chrysalis, you have to be able to take time. Your inner rhythm must synchronize with nature’s. You’ve got to be able to remain still for minutes to hours to witness natural events unfolding in their own time. And you might find yourself relaxing in your own time.

Nature approaches when we sit still

Contemplative study as a form of love

Even if a naturalist could hurry the events along, that can not only limit your learning about the natural world, it’s likely to harm the creature you’re studying. Buddhists might call the naturalist’s ability to sit patiently while witnessing a natural event “focused attention.” You walk slowly so as not to startle creatures who will use precious energy in escaping, working always from care for the Others you’re studying.

Something to try: Natural Presence at home

Do you have a garden, even a window box, or a view of a natural area? Try simply sitting and watching it for half an hour. See if you can gently keep yourself focused on your natural companions (plant, insect, bird, wind, cloud – look around!) for that time instead of getting distracted by your own thoughts. What do you notice? Does anything new come to your attention?


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