Carla Brennan's Blog

Reflections and Photos from The Big Trip and Beyond . .

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As Spacious as Nature

Yellowstone National Park

As Spacious as Nature

Since people might feel a bit lonely coming out into nature by themselves, they tend to go out in groups. But often they just transplant their own little world out into the big world, and they still feel separation . . . It is also good to feel intimate with creatures around you—the birds, butterflies, and so on. Just as smoke from a chimney disperses into the air, we should disperse our sense of “group” or “family” and truly participate in the life around us.

If we go out into the natural world and just talk about the same things we talk about all the time, we may as well have stayed at home. When we visit nature we should put down everyday small talk, subjective mental activity, judging and discrimination, and just open up and observe nature. Starting from the time of the Buddha, it was almost always the custom for those who had left home life to spend some time practicing in the mountains. Generally the hut they lived in was made so that it could be put up and dismantled very quickly, so that the person could move on to another place. The purpose was to live a life that would not foster a group mentality, but rather cultivate a holistic attitude where one would feel at one with all lives and the universe. Originally Shakyamuni Buddha did not set out to form a defined group or stay in any one place, because that would promote exclusive thinking, distinguishing between inside and outside, big and small, yours and mine.

On our outings we should experience the greatness of nature. If we can truly open up to nature and nature accepts us, then we will be as spacious as nature itself.

– Master Sheng Yen
Adapted from “Opening Up to Nature,” in the Chan Newsletter, no. 16, September 1981.

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Intimate with Nature

Banana Slug

As a condition of our dharma practice, we should try to adapt
ourselves to housing that is closer to nature. Living in such a way
makes it easier to understand and to practice in harmony with nature.
We can learn to be contented and even enjoy such plain and simple
living together with nature. This will benefit and support our study
and practice.

The Lord Buddha is an excellent example in these matters. The Buddha
was born outdoors, was enlightened outdoors, taught sitting outside on
the ground, lived outdoors, rested out in the open, and died outdoors.
Clearly his life was intimate with nature. We take his example as a
standard and are thus content with a simple, natural mode of living.
We believe that the founders of all the great religions practiced
plain living as well . . .

By developing a lifestyle that is intimate with nature, we’re making
it convenient for nature to speak to us. If we are intelligent
listeners, we will hear nature’s voice more clearly than if we are far
away. Intimacy with nature can become the essence of our mode of

Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, from Mindfulness with Breathing

Yellow Crab Spider

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A yellow crab spider with its prey. These spiders hunt on flowers and grab the insects that come. They usually camouflage themselves on yellow flowers but this one chose a purple thistle. For those of you versed in color theory, you will remember that purple and yellow are complementary, meaning they are opposite in hue. The yellow stood out against the purple and caught my eye as I wandered by.



Orchids have a reputation for being finicky and delicate, of needing special care and unique conditions to thrive. They are also known for their dramatic and compelling beauty, the reward for the work and patience it takes to coax them to bloom. These qualities of the orchid are the inspiration for the term “Orchid Children”. It describes a child who is naturally vulnerable and sensitive to their environment, to both positive and negative influences. If given understanding, support and ongoing attention, they will blossom into an especially exquisite flower. But without this care, they may wither and harden from neglect and poor nourishment, never realizing their potential, often declining into lifelong difficulty. (For more on Orchid Children go to David Dobbs’ Atlantic article, The Science of Success.)

At the other end of the spectrum are the Dandelion Children, those whose natural resilience allows them to reliably bloom in vastly variable family environments, with either plentiful or meager care. And there are all the flowers in between, some more fragile, others more hardy. The dependable azaleas, the tender wildflowers of the forest floor, the robust dahlias and the delicate columbines.

In the end we are all Flower Children, feeding on inner and outer nutrients in the hope that we will have enough to fully unfold, to be ourselves without shame or hesitation, allowing our unique and universal beauty to manifest in this fleeting world for all to see. Until, in time, like all things, we are gone.

What happens to untended Orchid Children when they grow up? I can answer for myself. I was one of those many orchids who was not properly nourished. I am still pained by invalidating situations – feeling unseen and disconnected – and easily buoyed by genuine support – opening like a flower shot in time-lapsed photography. I have spent a lifetime trying to bloom properly, on a journey to find the care I always needed. Adulthood has been an ongoing course in remedial resilience. The early lack of reassurance and caring attention has left deep scarring that sometimes keeps the emerging bud hidden, even from myself.

My spiritual journey – through Buddha dharma, the natural world and other traditions –  has given me perspective on this, has taught me how to have space with the anguish and the delight. It has offered a refuge that both values and cultivates a sensitive inner nature.

Many years ago, I developed a similar metaphor to the orchid, the Harpsichord Human. An musician friend had in her home a beautiful hand-built harpsichord. This instrument lived in its own room and, as she explained, was very sensitive to humidity, temperature and other environmental influences. At times, it played poorly, out of tune, without the proper precision or familiar spirited tone. But if conditions were right, it was exquisite and strong, creating sounds that moved and amazed. I identified with this box of wood and metal, knowing I also had the conditional potential to either resonate with exceptional beauty or to be dull, depressed and discordant. Some of my psychotherapy clients – no doubt aging Orchid Adults – also fit this description and I shared the story of the harpsichord with them. We worked to call attention to the beauty of their bloom and we explored how to mitigate the conditions that cause it to wilt. Being an Orchid Adult is a bad news, good news condition, both news stemming from a depth of sensitivity.

What does all this have to do with The Big Trip? I, like most Orchid Adults, am an introvert, naturally quiet, reflective and easily overstimulated by social contact. The early and ongoing disregard for my orchid nature caused my introversion to degrade into shyness and social anxiety. Human interaction became an uneasy enterprise, with shame and humiliation always nearby, ready to pounce. I am less shy now – in large part from the healing power of meditation. But I remain an introvert in an extroverted job, frequently speaking publicly and working intensively with groups and individuals. You could say I am a sheep in wolf’s clothing. After years of this work, my inner orchid is depleted of resources, the delicate petals bruised and battered by the commotion and impositions of the extroverted world. (For more on introverts in society, I highly recommend Susan Cain’s book, Quiet.)

I need restoration through return to environments conducive to my sensitive and solitary temperament. For awhile, I want to solely follow the lead of my blooming flower instead of being stuck in fatigued and stifled in the holding pattern of the daily grind. More often, I need to quietly lift my face toward the silent sun and star light, feel the rush of open air on exposed skin and listen attentively “to the sounds old Mother Earth still makes — all on her own.”

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The world we’ve made

Badlands National Park

. . . the world we’ve made
scares the hell out of me.
There’s still a little bit of heaven in there
and I wanna show it due respect.
This looks like a good spot up here.
You can try me on the cell,
but most places I wanna be
it doesn’t work.
Sometimes you got to listen hard
to the sounds old Mother Earth still makes
— all on her own.

Greg Brown, from “Eugene”

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Pacific Tree Frog

Today I spied this Pacific Tree Frog taking cool refuge in the green funnel of a garden plant. Silent and still, about 1.25” long. In the wet winter, these guys are delightfully raucous, their calls resounding through the redwood forest. But now they are rarely seen or heard as they patiently wait out the dry heat of summer until they can sing and breed again.

I have included a Mary Oliver poem, Toad. Although not a toad, this little tree frog was just as unflappable.

I was walking by. He was sitting there.
It was full morning, so the heat was heavy on his sand-colored
head and his webbed feet. I squatted beside him, at the edge
of the path. He didn’t move.

I began to talk. I talked about summer, and about time. The
pleasures of eating, the terrors of the night. About this cup
we call a life. About happiness. And how good it feels, the
heat of the sun between the shoulder blades.

He looked neither up nor down, which didn’t necessarily
mean he was either afraid or asleep. I felt his energy, stored
under his tongue perhaps, and behind his bulging eyes.

I talked about how the world seems to me, five feet tall, the
blue sky all around my head. I said, I wondered how it seemed
to him, down there, intimate with the dust.

He might have been Buddha— did not move, blink, or frown,
not a tear fell from those gold-rimmed eyes as the refined
anguish of language passed over him.

— Mary Oliver