In the West, our philosophy leans heavily towards theory. It is mental and often confined to the clever organisation and categorisation of abstract concepts. But this is merely one method of philosophising. One can also philosophise not through thinking, but through experiencing. To use an analogy, there are people who stand still and listen to music, and there are those who dance. They both experience music, but in radically different ways.
We can confine ourselves to the philosophy of Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer and Nussbaum as it is written and will surely learn a lot. But there is another philosophy teacher, one whose teachings are not found in books but in life itself. This renowned and undeniably wise teacher is nature itself and by living in it as well as with it, we might learn something entirely new, fresh, and altogether radically different.
Clouds have many things to teach us. Whispery membranes floating through the sky, forming poetic patterns of mist gleaming luminously against the sky. Yet, clouds never hold form. They manifest the lesson of ‘letting go’, of becoming but not being. A cloud is always on its way to something else; another shape, another form, another pattern. The cloud says to us that we need not worry, our boundaries are porous, there is no real distinction between you and me, any more than there is between one cloud and another. We should not fight this but simply let the wind carry us.
Rocks have their own philosophical teachings to impart.
The forces of nature and the flow of time are irrevocable. It is not something we can fight. Even the sturdiest among us will fall before the sword of the ineluctable flow of life. But, in the process, we become unique and in an utterly singular way, beautiful. Our spots cannot be replicated; our curves and crevices cannot be mass-produced.
- Rocks are elegant and upright in the face of forces far beyond their power; they can teach us to be brave in the face of adversity.
- Rocks furrow and brow, this does not dampen their beauty but enhances it; the furrows of our brow, the lines from our eyes, the wrinkles around our lips, these are signs of character and a life well lived.
- The channels on rocks show where time has left its mark and given them a singular beauty; time shapes us in unique ways and these are marks of distinction, not signs of deformity.
- The holes which allow light to pass through don’t betray weakness but allow light to illuminate their interior beauty; through our struggle, we grow and become stronger in different ways. The marks of past struggles cast us in a new light and show that we have changed.
A flower stem fluttering in the wind has an important lesson to share. As it flutters, suggesting it is moments from breaking, we begin to think that the stem is weak and fragile. But we are looking at the stem out of context. It is the wind and open space in combination with the stem which make it flutter. If we were to bring the flower inside, it would remain still and sturdy. Humans are similar. We may say a person is anxious, just as the stem was weak. But it is not the person that is anxious, it is the person in that environment that makes them anxious, that makes their heart and mind flutter. By changing the environment of the flower we resolve the issue of fluttering. So too, if we change our environment, what ails us might also be resolved.
One of the most important philosophical lessons we can learn comes from the garden. Its most important lesson can be summed up as it is not about you. You cannot act selfishly or single-mindedly in the garden without destroying it. Chickens will not lay eggs merely by commanding them to do so. You cannot demand a flower bloom without sun. You cannot force a tomato to grow without enough potassium. It is not for nothing that a crop of vegetables is called a ‘yield’; a word captured in essence by ‘giving in’. The garden reveals to us an indisputable truth of nature: things work together; and it teaches us that to be successful, we must give up the myopic focus on what we want, and begin to appreciate and deliver what other things need. Life is relationship; this is what the garden has to share.
Thoreau once wrote,
Students should not play life, or study it merely, while the community supports them at this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end. How could youths better learn to live than but at once trying the experiment of living?
Western philosophy has a lot to learn from Thoreau. Indeed, philosophy can be learnt from reading pyramids of books and entertaining abstract thought from the comfort of a study. But, there is another, different, and sometimes (especially for a gardener) more fruitful type, and that is the philosophy gained by lived experience, and there is no better teacher than nature herself.