Nature Way – Casey’s World View

Nature Way – Casey’s World View

Casey’s world view: an introductory essay he wrote for a class he taught in 2000.

I am a philosopher, I do it for a living, but I also do it for a life. I began my career and focus on whether there is a reality out there, and if the truth about it is just my self-generated thoughts in here and now truth. These abstract speculations have been of constantly decreasing interest to me over the years. My interest has been decreased in proportion to the realization that my speculations were rendered pointless by my fundamental picture of reality. The picture of me locked in the cave of my mind, with reality and truth out there, creates a gulf that cannot be bridged. Since mainstream Western speculation about truth shares this mind-cave picture, it’s no wonder that its history is that of a bunch of guys repeatedly butting their heads against their own assumptions, like maniacs trying to get out of a padded cell.

I’ve had another reason to devote more effort to concrete problems. Whether in here or out there, the world of my experience has some really ugly aspects. We humans do some ugly things to each other and equally ugly things to the animals, plants, and rocks around us. So I have to wonder why we act as we do, especially, since we seem increasingly aware of the consequences of our actions. Why do apparently rational creatures continue to foul their own nest? And destroy each other. My answer was revealed to me by speculations about truth.

We act as we do because of our picture of reality. Each of us has, at some level of consciousness, a picture of reality, a set of paradigms which govern our understanding of our own experience, and the ways we think about that experience. The way we believe the world must be fundamentally be determines the form, and filters the content of our experience. Believing is seeing. Our world view, our picture of the framework of reality also governs the sort of relationships we allow between the constituents of our reality and the categories of our existence, the sort of thing that we allow to exist in our world.

Some alternative views suggest that I just need to be one with all that is. If this is another formula for feeling good without an action, I reject it. But if this is the beginning of a new picture of reality which recognizes relationships besides cause and effect, which insists that we cannot escape our connection to all that is, and that the suffering of others is our own, then this picture holds some hope as a source of a whole new way of being in the world. Of course, oneness is just an abstract idea.

What does oneness look like? It does not really help to draw a circle or a web of life. These are just more abstractions. What is the concrete picture? And why should I suppose that it is the picture in accord with which I should live? These are important questions.

We need to find a concrete picture of a world that works. That guides its adherence to act in beautiful ways. And good reason to believe that it will work for us and our world. There is one view, which I believe so elegantly and simply fulfills these needs, that it has become, for me, the standard against which all other views are measured—Philosophical Taoism.

Philosophical views are often used to launch importantly different religious views, which bear the same name. It is Philosophical Taoism as offered in the Tao Te Ching that is my exemplar. The most straight forward character for character rendering of the title of this work is “Nature Way.” That’s basically all there is to Philosophical Taoism. The concrete picture of a world that works is nature without our corruption of it. The guidance for our actions this picture provides us is to do what non-human nature does. Follow the nature way. What recommends the picture and the way to us which shows that it could work for us is that it once did.

It is not some foreign picture imposed on our world. It is our world working right again. The view even suggests the return to that beautiful world. Do nothing. We screwed it up so much by doing. By forcing nature to provide only for us just as we expect machines to. We thought we would be better off for it. Perhaps we know better now. We regain our beautiful world by being the nature way.

Another concrete problem that has long bothered me is that being fully present in nature has given me new paradigms to govern my behavior. I’ve learned the value of humility. For example, by noting the power water gains by seeking the low places that the Tao The Ching says I may. And though I have not yet practiced it much, I can imagine what being humble would look like in my life.

However, most of what I’ve learned about fitting into the balance of nature is much harder to imagine as a life. How does one live lightly on the land right here in the Swannanoa Valley? How much is enough? Taoism has proved too mental a list for some. For Daoist nature is sacred in the fundamental sense of being worthy of veneration. But Philosophical Taoism is not a spiritual view, it has only one category of existence, the category that contains water, rocks, plants and animals. What we call physical. Taoism is a oneness view, so it has no room for another category of existence, such as the one we call spiritual—either as a realm separate from nature or as a separate part of nature.

As I understand, the religions imported into this country identify the sacred with spirit. Something is worthy of veneration if and because it is spirit and was created by spirit or has spirit in it. Many of those who make this identification and also want to make nature sacred have hit upon Native North Americans as their model. As they understand it, nature is held sacred with Native North American spirituality. Native North Americans believe in a Great Spirit over nature with the help of lesser spirits associated with natural events like thunder spirits. There are lesser yet spirits, which are like the souls of plants and animals and lower spirits stuck in human bodies. The reason this spirituality is so appealing as a world view should be obvious. It’s a close match for the hierarchy of the spirits found in Judaism and Christianity. The reason it is appealing as an alternative to the Jewish and Christian world is because it moves humans out of the center of nature. This view is also appealing because there’s reason to believe it will work. Native North Americans are thought to have fit quite well into their natural setting, at least until European invaders messed things up.

I know a lot about the day-to-day lives of Native North Americans. So their lives might provide some concrete guidance for ours. This is an appealing suggestion, but it is deeply flawed. The Native North American is a fiction. If you came across a land bridge onto the northern part of this continent you are native only because you preceded Europeans. North, South and America are words only on invader’s maps. Lumping together the ideas of all the Indians in the area, now demarcated as North America, and thinking that it will yield an intelligible single view is dominator thinking, too. It rests on an assumption that Indians are too limited and their thinking too primitive to have evolved the diversity of thought evidenced among Europeans.

There’s only one hope for avoiding these mistakes, and yet having a chance to learn from people who once did live the nature way. Pick a single tribe, learn their language and translate the earliest original sources available. Attempt an empathic understanding of what you are reading with a conscious effort to identify your own assumptions and the effect they are having on your understanding. Get some first hand experience of what life was like before extensive contact with Europeans. Do ceremony. Have Indian friends or relatives that are sympathetic to your quest. That has been my path. I entered upon it because of a personal connection to the Lakota and western Cherokee, but I’ve recently magnified my efforts for philosophical reasons.

I began experientially. I used the methods I learned from Indians to periodically live exclusively off the land. I found a Lakota Medicine Man to guide me in a vision quest. But out of fear ignored the implications of my vision. I did some ceremony off and on. When new information about the Lakota became available I read it. I also read what I could about Taoism. I have meditated every day for years. And I think of myself as struggling to be natural. But somehow, what I learned from Lakota and Taoists was on different tracks in my mind, until I first taught Alternative Philosophies.

As illustration of a point in Taoism, I found myself telling a Lakota story. The potential connection should have been obvious all along. Perhaps this is just an excuse, but I think the connection was obscured by the people I have read who wanted the Lakota to be Native North American, with a spirit based view. Suddenly in class, I saw Taoism as a different interpretation of what I had learned from Lakota thought. I realized I had to free my understanding from missionary translators.

So I learned both the every day and sacred language of Lakota. I rounded up original sources and began translating them anew. I overcame my fear of what it meant to have lightning and crows in my vision. I got them tattooed on my body. I began to take seriously my sacred responsibility to nature. Ceremony became as important in my life as meditation. And I found ways to intimately involve nature in the events of my days. I still have much to learn. But I do have a better life through understanding my place in nature and the basis for a new understanding of ancient Lakota thought and some good evidence to support it.

I think that the interesting question is whether religions, sciences, and the more liberal arts can be revised to give nature its proper place in them. And return humans to their proper place in nature. I sure hope so. The prospect of everyone having to accept a complete paradigm change is daunting. But some of us might do so, and putting pressure on the mainstream is already happening. I admit that it is the revisionists who change the world, but it is the revolutionaries who force that change.

As the final assignment for this course, you’ll be asked to write a paper like this one, in which you describe the path that has led to your current understanding of Nature and your place in it. I hope that where you are in your thinking at the end of this course is not where I am at the beginning of it. I hope that I am not still here either. I hope that we can both move much further along our paths. I hope that we can help one another. Although in truth, we each have to recreate ourselves.