Monday, February 11, 2008

Have you been outside today?

A strange question, you may think. But, a recent story on National Public Radio points out that the amount of time Americans spend in the great outdoors has steadily declined since the late 1980s. The decline could be as high as 25%.

This is an unsettling trend. The story only briefly speculates on the possible causes of the decline, but the obvious contenders are the rise of the world wide web, electronic gaming, and online virtual worlds like Second Life.

The trouble is that we are becoming more and more disconnected from the very ground of our being. I recall that during the very height of the dot-com bubble, serious economists actually put forth the curious notion that the global economy no longer depended upon material production (as if human beings could actually eat bytes and kilobytes!).

Not having learned any lessons from that fall-out, we, as a global culture, seem driven to deny the material and natural roots of our being. Not spending any time outdoors, in nature, we have no understanding of it, no appreciation of it.

Then, when more and more species go extinct, no one will even notice, let alone care.

Close to 2500 years ago, the Greek philosopher Plato wrote a wonderful parable about a cave. This cave was inhabited by a community of people who were chained to their seats, with heads constrained to only look straight ahead to the opposite wall. The shadows and flashings of objects paraded behind the audience were projected onto this wall. Having been chained in this fashion since birth, the people had no idea that what they saw were the mere shadows of true reality.

Plato goes on in his story to describe how one person manages to get loose and then eventually learn about the true nature of things.

Other philosophical and spiritual traditions have similar parables. In the Lotus Sutra, a foundational text of Mahayana Buddhism, there is the parable of the burning house. In this tale, a very wealthy man has a fabulous but dilapidated mansion. While he is away on business, the mansion catches fire. His children are inside. They are so engrossed in their various toys, games and diversions that they do not notice their own impending doom. The father must devise some way to coax the children out before it's too late.

It seems that now, in 2008, we are more attached to our caves and burning houses than ever before. It's curious how humanity has hardly changed at all in two and half millenia. In fact, matters seem only to have worsened. We need to be intimate with the world, with the basis of our existence; this intimacy can also be a great source of relaxation and re-creation, in the true sense of the word. And, if we actually know the world, and pay attention to it, we won't be so quick to toss it away for the sake of a fleeting pleasure.

So, now that you've read this: TURN OFF THE COMPUTER AND GO OUTSIDE!

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