Speaker contemplates empathy, nature

Elizabeth Allison offers meditation as a way to become one with nature

Elizabeth Allison was brought to Chico State by the Faculty Initiative for Transformative Learning and The Mindful Campus.

Elizabeth Allison was brought to Chico State by the Faculty Initiative for Transformative Learning and The Mindful Campus.

photo by Vic Cantu

Peace of mind. Oneness with nature. Freedom from harmful stress and worry.

These, along with a guided meditation adventure, were some of the concepts promoted and discussed by guest speaker Elizabeth Allison Tuesday night (March 1) in Holt Hall on the Chico State campus. Her inspiring talk to a room of approximately 40 people was titled “The Contemplation of Nature/The Nature of Contemplation: Strategies for Sustainability in an Age of Global Change.”

Allison, an assistant professor of philosophy, cosmology and consciousness at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, encouraged what she called “contemplative practices” to help calm the mind and foster a sense of empathy with people and nature.

“Contemplative practices reinvigorate, calm and still the mind. This brings about a sense of wonderment and allows us to consider new sources of information,” Allison told the group.

A key to engaging in these activities is having an open, relaxed and curious mind as well as remaining unattached to any expected outcomes. These practices can take many forms, such as meditation, singing, walking, yoga and Tai Chi, she explained. Even simply sitting in a natural setting and contemplating its majesty and splendor can give one a sense of wonderment and inspiration. Allison emphasized that many contemplation activities are very easy to do, such as breath meditations.

“If you’re alive and breathing, you can do it,” she said.

Allison offered an example of a contemplative practice, leading the audience on a guided-imagery meditation. She asked each person to imagine he or she was a molecule as part of a 300 million-year-old rock, which then becomes hot lava that shoots up through the sky, eventually settling back down to become a part of the earth again. Allison said that empathy is created through such practices and is sorely lacking in today’s often wasteful and toxic world.

Allison’s talk was sponsored by Chico State’s Faculty Initiative for Transformative Learning and The Mindful Campus, a new student organization dedicated to increasing greater awareness through the practice of mindfulness. The group’s director, Jennifer Christian, a senior psychology major, was also in attendance.

“Our goal is to encourage others to live mindfully and evoke empathy and compassion out of a greater sense of self with the planet,” she said.

In addition to bringing speakers like Allison to campus, the group offers many contemplative-practice activities and talks, such as daily meditation and yoga sessions in the Bell Memorial Union.

Allison has a doctorate in environmental-science policy and management, and is a social and environmental activist. Her talk was promoted as a discussion of how contemplation can help people form a more sustainable relationship with the earth.

Humans often have a selfish picture of the world, with themselves at the center, Allison explained. She called them “I maps.” Using contemplative practices helps to create what she called “we maps” that put a higher value on the welfare of other people and nature.

Some widely known historical figures from the 1800s espoused this same philosophy, she said, such as authors Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and naturalist John Muir. Thoreau emphasized the idea that children have a larger sense of wonder and curiosity about the world, which can lead to positive engagement and inspiration.

Beyond simply meditating or contemplating nature, Allison offered some ideas of how to personally become closer to nature, including meditating in nature.

To start, choose a tree, she said.

“Sit next to it, know it intimately, touch it, smell it and realize the air you inhale comes partly from what that tree exhales.”