Over the last two hundred years, scientists have been finding more and more evidence to show that we humans are part of the evolutionary process, having emerged from the life stream as descendants of a long lineage of beings. This is an extremely radical notion, contradicting most of what we believed about ourselves for many previous centuries.
The evidence for human evolution is so overwhelming that it is now widely accepted as truth, yet somehow the implications of that truth do not seem to have penetrated to the marrow of our beings. Knowledge of evolution does not seem to have significantly altered our sense of who or where we are in the scheme of things, or to have changed how we feel about our lives and the world around us.
Vital to the growth of both a new spirituality and an authentic environmentalism is some method of planting the truths of evolution in the human heart. What is essential is to find a way to become intimate with our nature as nature, to somehow experience ourselves as part of natural processes, inseparable from the rest of creation.
Fortunately, a time-tested manual of deep ecology practices is preserved within the Buddhist tradition. This is the meditation series known as the Four Foundations of Mindfulness.
As we progress through this series of practices we can systematically experience the most basic components of our being: the physical elements of the body; the process of breathing that fuels our existence; the nervous system that makes us sentient beings; and the mental life and consciousness that make us uniquely human.
As we investigate our identity through evolution, we finally come to the Buddha’s great discovery about human nature—what we now call our “Buddha-nature.” This aspect of our being is our innate wakefulness, which allows us to know ourselves and to see our interdependence with all things, our “interbeing,” as Thich Nhat Hanh calls it. Love and compassion for creation emerges from that understanding, as does deep respect and active care for the environment.
The ability to recognize and develop our Buddha-nature may be the very power that evolution has offered us as a new adaptation, our next survival technique. Mindfulness could be considered the opposable thumb of consciousness! The meditations of the four foundations will strengthen our Buddha-nature, and lead us to a more integrated sense of our “natural” identity. The four foundations are Buddhist deep ecology. And, who knows? Through their skillful use, we just may be able to give evolution a helping hand.