Tag Archives: Observation

Deep Observation

Observations lead to interaction. We need a deep sense of observation to perform healthy interactions; and more observation to  fuel reflection and further action.

The Buddha talks about penetrating the objects of observation; diving into them and observing the body in the body, the perception in the perception; only so we can know the object. From observation comes insight; from insight comes knowledge. In the end it is deep observation that leads us to an interaction based on understanding. The interaction closes the loop; an interaction based on insight or true understanding creates meaning.

“When you practice deep looking and master yourself, you dwell in peace freedom and safety.”~Thich Nhat Hanh

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Observation – the Core Element of Permaculture Design

The permaculture design is the designer’s chance to enter into cooperation with the Earth. He/She steps into a natural space and becomes an integral part of a complex system of interconnections and living relations. The permaculture designer wants to work in accord with the laws of nature in order to make best use of available resources. Wanting to design a garden, organise a group of people or plan an activity, he/she might become part of an intact or a defective environment. In any case, the designer, being an element of the respective system, must be aware of his/her influence and potential to enhance or harm his/her surroundings. Therefore, it is his/her first duty to be a careful observer.

The designer has to be well aware of different influencing factors that are part of the environment he/she is operating in. These factors may be located inside but also outside of the actual planning area. Firstly and of major importance are social factors: the local culture and society, the economic and political situation as well as governmental and legal support. Secondly, the designer records site-related factors such as history, geography, water supply, soil properties, topography, climate and plant and animal availability. Thirdly, energy-related factors are cleared: the designer has to understand the available site-structures, resources, local skills, technologies and infrastructure to base the design on. Fourthly, abstract factors, such as time management, deadlines and project related facts, the client’s wishes or requirements and general ethics are considered. The observation and analysis of the site and the collection of data constitute the initial steps of any design and enable the designer to create a useful connection between the different factors.

Through these observations the designer determines boundaries, limiting factors and available resources. The area boundaries for a design should exceed the actual planning area and integrate the effects of outside influencing factors. In a garden, this might be the neighbours tree casting shade on the planning area – in the case of planning an event, the designer has to regard public transport or parking possibilities around the site. The social context, natural conditions, the legal framework, the clients wishes or financial or timely resources can all present limiting factors that restrain the designer’s freedom of self-expression. The actual usable and available local resources and skills are identified and sustainably integrated into the design. From the evaluation of the collected data, the designer will formulate ideas, realistic aims and compare his/her interests with those of the client and the expected users or participants. He/She will identify key functions to be fulfilled and possible elements, systems and patterns to apply to reach the desired results.

Three of the main permaculture planning tools are sector, zone and elevation planning. They all follow the principle of energy efficient planning. Sector planning is used for the detection and integration of outside energies such as winter and summer sun sectors, wind sectors, flow of cold air, flood or fire danger, pollution, people currents, views, etc. The visualisation of these energies will help the designer to create interconnections and to select design elements that enable their moderation: capitalise on shortages and ameliorate or use excesses. The method of zoning is based on the idea of optimising the internal management of resources and minimizing human energy expenditure. Starting with the core zone around the house, elements and systems are placed in zones from 1 to 5 according to the amount of visits, inputs and maintenance they need. Elevation planning makes sure the designer uses slopes and elevations to facilitate efficient energy flows. The most obvious example here is the downward flow of water, but also nutrients in the soil and cold air move downwards while warm air is rising. A good designer understands and integrates these forces of nature into his/her design.

Natural systems and processes are characterised by a high complexity that is hard to understand for the conventional human mind. Therefore the permaculture designer makes use of a high variety of tools and methods that he/she compares in overlays and analyses. They help him/her to better understand the interrelations of different elements. These tools are all instruments designed to enable us to work with natural processes and stand in cooperation with them.

For an article on Permaculture click here.

Raja Yoga and the 8-fold Path

Raja Yoga, one of the four main paths of Yoga, is considered the royal path, the Yoga of the mind or of self-discipline. It is a more integral and scientific approach to Yoga.

Raja Yogis believe that the mind needs first to be tamed in order to be purified. Patanjali, composer of the Raja Yoga Sutras writes the famous description of yoga which says ‘yogah chitta vritti nirodhah‘: chitta – thoughts; vritti – thought waves, modifications of the mind; nirodhah – to find tranquility, to control; a common english translation is ‘yoga is the slowing down of the modifications of the mind‘. If we slow down our thought waves we become able to observe them and acknowledge our mental patterns. This is the first step towards consciously changing them.

Every thought that comes up in our mind leaves a lasting impression, called sanskara in sanskrit. The more we repeat a thought, the deeper this sanskara becomes ingrained in our minds, so that it forms a thought pattern, a habit. You can imagine this like a river, the water flows down the same lines over again and leaves a valley. The deeper the valley, the harder it is for the water to find a different flow next time. When we here the name Michael Jackson, we think of music and when we hear the name James Bond we think of movies – these are our thought patterns, categories that are put together by the self-organising function of the mind. We use these categories in daily life to work more efficiently. In the same way however when we buy a piece of delicious cake at a bakery, we create a sanskara. Next time we walk past the bakery we think of that piece of cake. We buy it again and the sanskara becomes deeper. With repetition it becomes a habit, habits form our character and the character determines our destiny.

To free ourselves from these pattern, to look into the categories and consciously reorganise them, we need to slow down our waves of thought. For this purpose Patanjali put together the eight limbs of Raja Yoga which compromise elements from all of the main yogic scriptures.

The eight limbs consist of four points that deal with the external and then four that deal with the internal:

The Yamas represent the code of conduct and are practices of self-restraint, like Ahimsa, non-violence, Satya, truthfulness, Asteya, non-stealing, Brahmacharya, abstinence from sexual misconduct and Aparigraha, non-covetousness or non-possessivness. These Yamas are behavioural norms and are said to be essential to slow down the movements of the mind. If we are possessed by greed or violence our mind will not be able to concentrate.

The Niyamas are the five observances and are more of a spiritual practice to train the mind and control the emotions. They are Saucha, internal and external purity, Santosha, contentment, Tapas, austerity, Svadhyaya, study of scriptures and self-reflection, Ishvarapranidhana, self-surrender to God.

Asana is defined as a posture that one can hold effortless for some time observing calmness and breath. 84 asanas are considered to be the main ones while the most important one is padmasana, which is the lotus pose and helps us in meditation. The practice of asanas effects us physically (blood circulation, flexibility, inner organs, glands, muscles and nervous system), psychologically/emotionally (developing emotional balance and stability, inner harmony), mentally (improving our concentration, memory) and on a consciousness level (purifying and clarifying our awareness).

Pranayama is the control of prana, the life-force or energy which we achieve through regulation of the breath. The breath is what harmonises the mind, the prana and the physical body. Pranayama and asanas, often referred to as Hatha Yoga,  are the external practices that prepare the body for the internal following four practices.

Pratyahara is the control of the senses and teaches us to go inside ourselves and not be disturbed by what is going on outside of us. It is considered a prerequisite for the further practice of concentration and meditation.

Dharana means concentration. This is where every meditation starts, in focusing the mind, becoming-one pointed and not being distracted.

Dhyana is meditation, it goes beyond concentration. It is here where we are able to consciously alternate our mind and mental pattern, being awake, free from distractions and desire.

Samadhi is the final stage, blissful awareness, the superconscious state.

Participation and communication pt. two: the stages of community building

The main reason for communities to break apart is conflict; conflict mostly caused through a lack of communication. When people get together and discover their freedom, they feel like there is new meaning in their collective but also individual lives. They mostly experience some kind of deep harmony. Scott Peck in his book ‘A different drum’ names this the first stage of community building, where we discover and live our similarities and common interests and goals. He calls this stage however ‘pseudo-harmony’ because during the phase of discovering new individual and collective meaning we tend to oversee each other’s vices.

Therefore the stage of ‘pseudo-harmony’ is mostly followed by the second stage, the stage of chaos and conflict. Most of us probably know this from relationships that seem so perfect in the beginning; often only until we start discovering each other’s differences. When conflict arises however, community often falls apart, because peaceful communication based on understanding and compassion is not something we’ve learnt or are acquainted with and therefore fails. This ends up in disappointment, defensive talking, assumptions, accusations which in turn end up in a lot of the early ideals losing their meaning.

So what is it that makes communities succeed when others fail?

According to Peck, the second stage should be followed by a third one: the stage of emptiness, introspection and self-reflection, trying to understand the other side as well as looking for the fault within ourselves. It is here that we realise the dimensions and the depth of the levels on which we have to work together. In conflict resolution, communication and self-observation are put to the test. If self-reflection is not achieved in a way that encourages participation, social sustainability is not achieved. Often parts of a community fall into a false acceptance, letting decisions just happen, not complaining to avoid further conflict; however with parts of the group staying emotionally unsatisfied.

The ideal of equality and the potential of collective wisdom are both lost through a lack of communication. Little communities that were looking to make a change in society end up mirroring that society that they wanted to change; structural hierarchy, authoritarian organisation, majority vote – structures that put one on top of the other and create winners and losers in a system of inequality.

If a couple, group or community reaches over that third stage of emptiness and goes towards an integrated harmony as a forth stage, they have completed the cycle, effectively dealing with conflict and setting up an organisational structure that is free and dynamic enough to be successful, sustainable while engaging every member in participation and fulfilling its up to highest potential. Any day, it might start the cycle anew.

Defragment a fragmented reality

I ve learned a lot during my five years of university; however the vertical thinking approach that is used predominantly in the academic world has slowly built up a wall around my creativity. I can do research, analyse literature, write scientific papers; I mean I can add one to one and get two… no one however teaches us to think out of the box, generate alternatives or even question given concepts. That is something that has been neglected and is probably not wanted by our society; to understand the system, to be a “good citizen”, we shall think like the system.

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” –Albert Einstein

In my environmental studies, we had people choosing landscape architecture as their focal point, others specialised in plant ecology, or soil or water ecology, others preferred to learn about environmental law or something called sustainable development; rarely however was the architect interested in ecological matters, the new development activist in architecture and the environmental lawyer in plants or soil; mostly it even seemed as if the one saw the cooperation with the other as a burden, each on constraining the others ideas and actions.

It took me five years of studying ecology related topics to discover permaculture, attend a permaculture design course and become part of a movement that is pulling all of these elements together to represent a wholistic, positivistic science. Permaculture is a post-modern approach to gardening, building, communicating, governing and living which builds on the ideas of systems or design thinking. It puts emphasis on the fact that every thing depends on every other thing and provides us with a tool that suggests to observe the existing systems and the relationships, to dive into them and discover our place in them. Permaculture initiates us to interact and create strings of connection using available elements and patterns to create environments that are serving to the human society without disregarding the complex ecological systems they are built and rely upon.

System thinking has shown us that the interconnection and diversity of elements in a system create resilience; however they can enable small events to cause large unpredictable changes as well while a change in one area most probably affects other areas. A good example for this is the human body. In this regard, system thinking and permaculture propose that a sustainable change can be achieved by changing the system rather than a single unit of the system.

‘A Rose is not a Rose’

The Buddha said to Subhuti: “In a place where there is something that can be distinguished by signs, in that place there is deception. If you can see the signless nature of signs, then you can see the Tathagata.” – Sutra 5, Prajnaparamita Diamond Sutra

The other night, full moon on the Thai island Samui, my family and I saw a more or less informal fireshow. Afterwards, we sat with the artist who turned out to be a slide of hand magician. The morning after, I woke up, realising I dreamt that I was present in a Sufi prayer ceremony; something I had never (at least not knowingly) witnessed before.

I don’t know how the slide-off-hand magician and the Sufi ceremony are interrelated, but yet the two incidences have something in common: they are both showing aspects of our minds; limitations and creativity resp.

The slide of hand magician uses his finesse to deceive our perception of reality, bringing us out of our usual thinking patterns: our minds, conditioned in a particular way is unable to classify these new experiences into one of its pockets and leaves us marvelling with wonder. Once we realise what is actually happening it feels like a leap in consciousness when in reality it is a simple insight, a quick restructuring of the patterns. In the dream I must have found refuge in a part of myself that hides in the subconscious and is far more creative and sophisticated than my mind in the waking state; still, in the end it must have been my mind that reorganised, restructured, or reinvented available patterns to reconstruct a conception of an already existing perception.

The Buddha in this little verse from the Diamond Sutra talks about the ‘signless nature of signs’. What he mentions is the emptiness of our preconceived concepts and ideas (signless nature) in the perception of objects, people or experiences (signs). Only by seeing this emptiness in all things, we ‘can see the Tathagata’ (‘coming from nowhere and going nowhere’). Our mind however is used to categorise all different perceptions according to previous experiences. The language that is used verbally or by the thinking mind is a static one, simple, insufficiently sophisticated to describe an ever-changing world of process, complexity and interrelations. (Rosenberg 2003)

In different situations, we call people lazy, stupid, bad or good; all judgements that say very little about who the persons really are and have little relation to the situation that made us cast this judgemental evaluation. In the same way we call people cooks, maids, diplomats or policemen; some of these generalisations like the latter one are often connoted with negative judgements that don’t need to be said, but are often heard. What these static labels, or the expression of these apparent signs don’t do, however, is express the totality of another person’s being. (Rosenberg 2003) In this regard, Thich Nhat Hanh describes, in his commentary on the Diamond Sutra, our perception based on signs as inaccurate and erroneous. The reason why they lead us into deception is the conceptualisation that takes away from reality and fails to describe the interrelations, the interbeing of everything. When we evaluate our observations or our perceptions, people tend to hear criticism instead of the intended message because they don’t feel sufficiently or rightly represented in our expression. (Rosenberg 2003)

Looking deeply into another person, we see that he/she is not self-existing. He/She is the environment, the culture, education and heredity that he/she was born in. There is an uncountable number of things that contribute to someone’s being. Only when we are able to see all of these interconnections we can say that we truly know a person. (Nhat Hanh 1992)

When we observe what we see, hear, or touch in the spirit of signlessness we are able to confront people and situations without evaluation them; then we can express clearly what affects us in a descriptive way based on time and context; say what actually happened instead of deliberately labelling perceptions; we can protect and cultivate the good qualities in us and in others. The slight of hand magician can leave us in wonder but not deceive us and the reality in the dream becomes the wonder of reality.

‘When the Buddha sees a rose, does he recognise it as a rose in the same way that we do? Of course he does. But before he says the rose is a rose, the Buddha has seen that the rose is not a rose. He has seen that it is made of non-rose elements, with no clear demarcation between the rose and those elements that are not the rose. When we perceive things, we generally use the sword of conceptualisation to cut reality into pieces, saying, “This piece is A, and A cannot be B, C, or D.” But when A is looked at in the light of dependent co-arising, we see that A is comprised of B, C, D and everything else in the universe. “A” can never exist by itself alone. When we look deeply into A, we see B, C, D, and so on. Once we understand that A is not just A, we understand the true nature of A and are qualified to say “A is A,” or “A is not A.” But until then, the A we see is just an illusion of the true A.’ – Thich Nhat Hanh, The Diamond that cuts through illusion – Commentaries on the Prajnaparamita Diamond

Observation

Facing North, I’m calling the element Earth into the circle, asking for groundedness in the forces of nature, the foundation of our being. I’m thankful for the wisdom of the elders incorporated in everything around us and am asking for its revelation to us. May abundance and growth, understanding and expression be with us on our paths.

Finding a few minutes every day to silently observe the surroundings creates new strings of connection with elements, energies, plants and animals. You start building new reletionships that open up new worlds.

Choosing the same place to observe nature everyday, by nature awareness practitioners and teachers called sit-spot, allows you to observe a space over time, through seasons and to become familiar with it. As you become familiar with your spot, the spot becomes familiar with you as well and will accept you. Animals start appearing more frequently as they see you as a peaceful part of the space; every here and there details appear in the patterns and patterns in the detail; energy flows, systems, guilds, connections, relationships, sequences, all will slowely reveal themselves to you.

You can play observation games in changing your perspective every other day. Looking through the eyes of a child and asking yourself with curiosity the most simple questions: Why is this plant climbing up the tree? Does it hort the tree?How come that the ground vegetation is more on the edge of the forest than inside? I wonder how those patterns got on that rock and why the river never runs empty? Where is it coming from and where is it going? You might chose to be an electric engeneer and observe the energy flows within the system: What makes plants grow? Where do they go when they die? Why? Where is the sunlight blocked and what effect does it have? What creates the flow of the river, the hum of the bee? There are many questions – asking questions is part of the observation while the answers will reveal themselves after time. You can observe detail, patterns, light, relationships, edges; you can use eyes, ears, nose, or touch; you can be a scientist, a turtle, a rock, a painter or a tree; doing these exercises will increase your awareness and sharing your experiences with others will open up new ways of seeing and understanding.

In some old earth based traditions people have a much deeper connection and communication with their environment. When they observe, they dive into, become one with; they realise the earth as their larger body and as an integral part of themselves. As we build up new relationships we become part of something bigger.