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Micah Towery considers the links between spending time in nature and feeling joy and happiness, even in an anxious season. 

During anxious times, we retreat into our minds. It’s a defensive posture, the flight to a place we control. But as the Buddhist concept of “monkey mind” reminds us, our thoughts are restless, difficult to tame. 

Some argue that anxiety should lead us to dive deeper into the outer world. Consider the concept of shinrin-yoku from Japan, literally “forest bathing,” which studies have shown to have significant benefits for physical and mental health. As Wordsworth tells us, “To her fair works did Nature link / The human soul.” 

And yet, many spiritual traditions teach us that “turning inward” is the path to wholeness. As Saint Augustine put it, “you [God] were within and I was in the external world and sought you there, and in my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely created things which you made. You were with me, and I was not with you.”

So during anxious seasons, what is the path to wholeness? Inward or outward? I believe it is actually both.

Reflection is the capacity to move in both directions simultaneously. It is the ability to see not only the outside world, but see the halo of significance around it. In that inward/outward motion, we can find stability, meaning--even joy. 

I am reminded of a short poem meditation from Chuang Tzu (trans. Thomas Merton) called “The Joy of Fishes”: 

Chuang Tzu and Hui Tzu

Were crossing Hao river

By the dam.

Chuang said:

“See how free

The fishes leap and dart:

That is their happiness.”

Hui replied:

“Since you are not a fish

How do you know

What makes fishes happy?”

Hui Tzu poses a version of what philosophers call the problem of other minds. This epistemological question really is bedeviling because it can easily devolve as the poem itself does:

Chuang said 

“Since you are not I

How can you possibly know

That I do not know

What makes fishes happy?

Hui argued:

“If I, not being you,

Cannot know what you know

It follows that you

Not being a fish

Cannot know what they know.”

Clearly this debate goes nowhere, but Chuang Tzu is able to stop this cycle by reframing the debate: 

“Let us get back

To the original question.

What you asked me was

How do you know

What makes fishes happy?’

From the terms of your question

You evidently know I know

What makes fishes happy.”

The point is that Hui Tzu’s question short circuits itself. To put it somewhat abstractly, one cannot ask “how” one knows unless one knows “that” one knows. Chuang Tzu then answers the original question:

“I know the joy of fishes

In the river

Through my own joy, as I go walking

Along the same river.”

This knowledge is a kind of alignment between “out there” and “in here.” As the poet Robert Francis observed, “My outer world and inner make a pair.” Or as Wallace Stevens, another New England poet, stated, when it comes to drawing meaning from a snowman, “One must have a mind of winter / To regard the frost and the boughs / Of the pine-trees crusted with snow.”

In other words, reflection begins, appropriately enough, by a kind of mirroring. We become like the object we reflect upon, and therefore the object becomes like us in ways. Are fishes joyful in the way that we are joyful? Perhaps not exactly, but there is certainly an alignment between their energetic darts and free leaps and what it means for us to feel joy. And that alignment tells us something both about the fishes and about what it means to feel joy.

And when we are perhaps devoid of joy, we are able to take a stroll by the river and remember what joy actually feels like--even experience it vicariously through the fishes. And in receiving this joy from them, we see it in them. In other words, the act of reflection creates a sort of bridge between the inner and outer worlds, and we find--happily--that the sum is more than the parts. 

And isn’t this also what we really mean by health? Not simply the functioning of parts (though certainly that), but in fact the sense of wholeness that accompanies it. Not a machine that runs, but a body that moves and darts, joyfully, like fishes.


Micah Towery lives in Valparaiso and works in real estate. He has a book of poems called Whale of Desire and is working on translations of Petrarch.

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