Nature-centred mindfulness is a great way to start meditation practice for a beginner, and also a beautiful practice for more experienced mindfulness and meditation practitioners. This extract is taken from the upcoming book, Nordic by nature. New voices on deep ecology; Arne Naess in the 21st century. If you would like to receive a free copy of this book please sign up to the Foundation of Contemplation of Nature’s newsletter here and follow the foundation on Facebook and @foundnature on Instagram.
The contemplation of nature for inner and outer resilience
Hi, my name is Ajay Rastogi and I live in the village of Majkhali, in the state of Uttarakhand in the Indian Himalayan region. It’s about 400 kilometres north of Delhi and we overlook the high Himalayas with many 6000-metre high peaks. I have been an ecologist and an environmentalist for a large part of my life. I used to work with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) as the organic programme coordinator for India. The basic drive to move back was to find a tool for the transformation of people from inside, so that they can connect deeply with nature.
The fact that we are unable to make big changes in society that are needed for sustainability means that we need to look again at the approach environmental movements have taken so far. For that reason, I was thinking that meditative practice, which can be done in nature, could be transformative in making us understand that we are an integral part of the natural world. Meditation is considered as a method for inner transformation.
Ajay near the foundation’s headquarters, in the foothills of the Himalayas.
Experiential transformative learning
We have a residential programme based out of village homestays. These are typical rural homesteads, structures where there is no running water and the toilet is outside. Participants are supposed to stay for a two-week programme and help their host agrarian families, doing the same work that they do. They learn about everyday work: taking care of the cow, getting fodder from the forest, getting enough drinking water from the springs.
Students on the Mountain Resilience Leadership course learn how a mixture of cattle dung and water produces biogas for cooking stoves.
The programme is based on three pillars. One is called ‘the dignity of physical work’ because, unfortunately, we are losing the connection to working with our hands. The second is ‘interdependence’ because sometimes we feel that if we are economically sound then we don’t need anybody else – ‘I just spend money and get whatever I want’– but that’s not how society is structured, that’s not how sustainability comes about. The third thing participants learn about is ‘interconnectedness’, which is more about the landscape and the elements, where the water is coming from and so on. It is about knowing that this does not happen by itself, there are trees and filtration is taking place, there is some soil which can absorb water. It’s not as if it comes out of thin air. It needs to be nurtured.
We have a structured programme now. It’s a three-credit course, with the collaboration of Western Colorado University, called Mountain Resilience Leadership. We have also worked with the National Outdoor Leadership School for the past nine years.
A short nature-centred practice group session before co-creation workshops and meetings can change the whole dynamic and outcome of the work.
Students from all over the world come and participate in these programmes.
Bring nature to our consciousness
The nature-based mindfulness practice that we call the ‘contemplation of nature’
is done in natural surroundings, if possible. It is a multisensory experience. It helps because we are biological organisms and we have an inherent need to connect with nature. It’s kind of how we are genetically wired, so the contemplation of nature is not as abstract as many people find other meditative practices to be. It is good for beginners to feel the interconnectedness of all beings.
People can start with the contemplation of nature and then go on to learn about other deeper levels of meditation. But the contemplation of nature is definitely an approach that can be done on a daily basis. It quickly brings us to a level of tranquillity that gives us all the benefits of the meditation: the compassion, the kindness, the deeper connection to the natural law as well as to the social community around us.
At about the 23rd minute of meditation, a response known as the relaxation response activates a deeper trigger in our bodies. The relaxation response allows the body and internal chemistry to function in a much more regulated and balanced way. This also brings other benefits, including a gentle detachment from the continuous flow of thoughts and emotions, and deeper awareness and insight into our interconnected being.
Three steps for contemplating nature So, all we do is sit and observe with a soft gaze. You can contemplate nature indoors with very simple objects from nature, following the three steps of nature contemplation that we have designed. The three simple steps of the contemplation of nature are: observe nature with a soft gaze, accept your thoughts, emotions and sensations with gentle detachment, and send love to the world with sympathetic attention.
By observing nature with a soft gaze, we bring nature into our consciousness, all the time accepting with gentle detachment our thoughts, emotions and physical sensations. We are not interested in finding details or drawing conclusions. Of course, our minds will wander here and there, but as soon as we realise this, we gently bring our mind back to simply observing nature with a soft gaze.
One very important element of any meditation practice is to let go of your thoughts. You do not do this by fighting them but just by observing them and acknowledging them without judgement. This is what sympathetic attention means. Be gentle with yourself and just remind yourself of feelings of gratitude and oneness with nature. We sit, we observe softly with a gentle gaze, and continue sitting with gentle detachment. No matter what thoughts come to mind, don’t make any judgment about where you are, or what you are doing or thinking. It is this step that is transcendental in nature, and therefore a fundamental aspect of the practice. Being able to sit quietly allows us to somehow transcend a call of judgment and ‘the thinking mind’, at least for a little while.
On the South of Delhi in Gurgaon is a technical college that has high ambitions to provide a new type of education within service and hospitality. Unlike others, this college has a strong focus on applied knowledge and circular economy within food, from ‘farm to forks and fingers.’
Food cooked and plated by first year students.
The Institute, called Vedatya, is still young but has already achieved so much. I arrived there on a sunny December day with Sanjoo Malhotra, co-founder of the platform and network Tasting India. It was towards the end of Tasting India’s 2017 symposium on food, where Sanjoo and his co-founder Sourish Bhattacharya, had collected some of India’s leading influencers and change-makers. The missing piece at the symposium, until that day, had been education; how to create a new integrated learning model for organic food businesses that would teach theory in a practical and experiential way.
Sanjoo Malhotra, co-founder of Tasting India on the grounds of Vedatya, December 2017.
From star chefs to culinary entrepreneurs.
I didn’t expect to find an organic farm on campus. Sanjay Sharma, Head Chef at Vedatya explains: “For a chef to be able to work effectively and maximize their creativity, they really need to know how food grows; what local ingredients are available, what is the seasonality, how are they grown, and which parts can be used.”
High tech buildings of the Vedatya Institute.
Vedatya currently has 4 acres of farmland, a herb garden, lots of fruit trees; mango, lychee, lemons, oranges, chiku, and papaya. And to complete the full ecosystem of sustainable practices, the institute is going to keep cows on-campus, for both compost and dairy and develop an 100 percent organic fish farm that can also create natural fertilizer. This integrated approach to applied learning allows current students in training, as well as industry professionals, to really value local, organic produce, and explore more sustainable culinary practices.
Vedatya chefs in the farm.
Amit Kapur, Managing Promoter of Vedatya explains: “India’s population is over 1,2 billion, almost 18 percent of the world, and yet we are a nation of mostly male engineers. 90 percent of those engineers are unemployed. We need to change our education system quickly and develop new types of skills. India’s education system is still in silos, and very gendered, and class divided.”
Amit Kapur, Managing Promoter of Vedatya.
Kapur continues: “We really wanted to create something that will last beyond our lifetimes.” Ved means knowledge in Sanskrit, and Aditya means Sun. Vedatya, therefore, is a coined name that sounds like ‘Source of Knowledge.’ Its goal is to become a model for higher education and a hub of interdisciplinary knowledge with industry – where scientists and philosophers can work alongside farmers, gardeners, artists, chefs – and even engineers.
Chef Megha Kohli, Head Chef at the restaurant Lavaash Delhi, holding a class on how cuisines are reborn.
At Vedatya, a chef isn’t just a chef anymore. A culinary student could work anywhere in India’s food business – from being a hotelier or restaurateur, to re-branding and distributing local products to support small scale farmers and communities. Students need to know about locality, seasonality, and heritage – as well as all the soft skills of service design. One of the Vedatya’s alumni, Preet Singh, went back home and became an organic honey producer, selling his brand across India and overseas in Singapore.
Alumni’s organic honey brand is sold across India and overseas.
Another way that Vedatya is promoting applied education is by partnering with different industry players through an industry-academic partnership model that is quite unique in India. Industry partners are potential employers of Vedatya’s graduates, and so they can be an integral part of student’s curriculum that is reviewed every two years. This initiative has led to partnerships with InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG), one of the world’s largest hotel companies, and with Columbia Asia Hospitals, one of Asia’s leading hospital chains, in the healthcare industry, to name but two.
Most of India cooks over traditional wood fire ovens.
Class inequity – a major challenge. “The Institute is in a rural setting, so every year we give 2-3 scholarship to young people from the neighboring local village,” adds Kapur. “Slowly we are getting young people interested in coming here to get an education but it isn’t easy.”
Vedatya has great plans for maximizing its land with organic farming.
India has huge inequalities and a very complex caste system. The villagers come from backgrounds where they have absolutely no exposure at all to rapidly changing urban life. It’s a huge sacrifice for a youngster get an education when they are expected to help their families survive.
“One of our scholarship students wanted to quit after only a few months,” Kapur explained. Eventually he told the director that the reason he wanted to quit was because he is being bullied by his friends about the formal way he is required to be dressed at Vedatya. Even his family teased him for looking like a ‘plucked chicken’ because he was following Vedatya’s dress code to be well-groomed and wear a uniform.
“It sounds funny to us, but he was deeply ashamed. There is a conflict and context that even we don’t understand. We are talking a difference of 20 kilometers. We need to support rural communities and give them a longer perspective. We also need to help these communities survive,” concludes Kapur.
Fresh organic produce grown on site.
When Vedatya and the Tasting India platform talk about food, they mean everything from the production of food, to food on the plate. Vedatya believes that organic food is second nature for India and it has the potential to be the new economic driver for a sustainable future, to getting people into the workplace and tapping into new industries such health tourism. Organic farming has the ability to feed India through new distribution channels, and offer solutions to major challenges, such as how to deal with food surplus, nurture cultural diversity within the vast continent, and create major export crops and produce that can take more than India’s current 1 percent of the growing global organic market.