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Mar 24, 2021

The Forest Within Us

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Dawood Yasin

Zaytuna College

Dawood Yasin directs student life and experiential learning at Zaytuna College.

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Hakim Archuletta

Hakim Archuletta has worked within the healing arts profession for over 30 years.

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The Forest Within Us

Grizzly Creek Redwoods State Park; photo: Jason Hollinger

Hakim Archuletta, a homeopath and health practitioner trained in the Unani tradition, may be an unlikely person to caution us against understanding nature or even natural living as medicine, but he does so, offering an important caveat to our desire to heal ourselves naturally: until we first understand the nature of our own being, we will continue to suffer unease.

In this conversation (recorded before the pandemic) Hakim and Dawood Yasin, director of student life at Zaytuna College, discuss the modern maladies that accompany our forceful move toward increased urbanization, afflictions that harm both the soul and the environment. Many people, Hakim notes, want to recover a sense of self, believing themselves lost amidst the pulls and pushes of contemporary demands, but he questions whether healing is possible without a willingness to reconsider our fraught relationship with the divine. Their conversation has been edited for clarity. 

Dawood Yasin: Your studies led you to the title of “Hakim,” the title given to practitioners of Islamic medicine. What about the path of traditional Islamic healing interested you at a time when many Western Muslim intellectuals were studying Islamic law, Arabic, and other classical sciences considered more central to Islamic tradition?

Hakim Archuletta: Well, when I became Muslim: I was actually playing music professionally, and I’d been in theater, drama, fine arts, and so forth. One of my first teachers in Islam said to me point-blank, “You should do medicine.” He had the kind of insight that was pretty profound because I realized I had been interested in medicine from the time I discovered this natural medicine encyclopedia in the garage when I was in kindergarten and was just fascinated by that book. That fascination continued with the study of the body and science as a child and as a teenager. When I was thirteen, I would go out and gather wild plants and try to make salads and food for my family to try to get them to eat these things. Of course, they weren’t interested in it.

So, my teacher saw something or knew something that was inherent. Nowadays, it’s hard to find professions that we can even call professions because of the nature of the society and culture. Until recently, people were shoemakers, bakers, warriors, scholars, and medicine people. When I was told I should do medicine, I discovered myself, and then I just loved to study it.

And what I wanted to find in medicine was the same thing that I’d found when I became Muslim, the incredible sea of knowledge and wisdom of Islam. It took me a long time to find it; I looked everywhere. I looked in Morocco, the Middle East, but I did find it finally, in Pakistan, after a long search and after months of looking for teachers. I found my teacher who said to me, “I learned medicine in the forest with my grandfather.” And when he said that I knew, “Okay, this is the kind of medicine I’m looking for.”

DY: You mention that the hakim you learned from in Pakistan learned from his grandfather in the forest. What about the outdoors is so essential to your training as a hakim?

HA: Well, I think the outdoors is essential to our training as human beings, as human animals. People demean animals by saying, “They’re just animals.” The truth of the matter is that humans often sink much lower than animals, and animals remain noble within what they’re designed to be for the most part, unless we interfere.

DY: It’s interesting that when we enter back into nature, perhaps it reminds us of something. It reminds us of our primordial state as people. Two years ago, we did backpacking trips with some of the students here at the college. For one student, it was her first time out and first time ever in the back country, first time with a backpack on. We hiked down about three thousand feet; we stayed there for a day or two. And she stopped for a moment and said, “I want to share something with you.” She said, “I just realized that the perfection and the beauty of this place is that there is no disobedience to God here except for what we bring into it.” And I just thought that was so profound.

HA: Yes. There’s a quality to nature that could be terrifying for some people. But on the other hand, there is that thing you’re talking about, the primordial design of the law and its creation without interference and without obstruction.

DY: A friend of mine has a book called The Mindful Carnivore. He has a line about the impact of Disney on how we view animals. He said in the real world, the owl eats Thumper. The owl eats the rabbit.

HA: Including the bones.

DY: Right. And the rabbit returns in the cyclical process. So, it is really interesting that as we disconnect ourselves from that, we also project on it what we’d like for it to be.

HA: Absolutely. And that’s an extreme, very extreme, indication of that projection: turning animals into these characters that are personifications of our various selves.

DY: That’s right. In our tradition, in the Qur’an, the same word for verses, āyāt, is used for God’s signs. How do we read God’s signs in an increasingly man-made world, where nature is pushed to peripheries? What happens to people when they no longer possess the tools to actually read the signs?

HA: Well, and what are those tools? They’re within the selves of individuals; they’re states of being. The tools we have are within us. We’re talking today about nature and maybe our disconnection from nature even when we go out into the forest, but we have to realize that this—our own self—is the forest as well. In other words, this is it. What we want to be able to do is authentically connect with what we are, what we’re designed by God to be. There is this classic thing that people say, “You go out there to learn about what’s in here, and you go in here to learn about what’s out there.” That’s a great idea until it’s made real by the experience of discovering that, actually, the entire universe is contained in us, in our being.

They say about my teacher in Morocco that one Ramadan he gave a lecture every day. He began every lecture with, “What a wonderful thing the nafs [self] is. In it is composed the entire universe.”

What we want to be able to do is authentically connect with what we are, what we’re designed by God to be.

DY: On another backpacking trip, we were doing some work around trees. We blindfolded people and had them take off their shoes and walk blindfolded with a partner to a tree, feel the trunk and get to know the tree, and then go back to the starting point by another route, where they were asked to take the blindfold off and find that same tree.

During the reflection one young woman, looking around the forest, said, “The respect that I have now for the trees is different. I see them now as my elders. Imagine what they’ve seen.”

HA: And imagine that they’ve remained, with patience, within the dirt, anchored in the earth. The root of the word tree in English is from true. They stand true.

DY: They do. That brings me to another thought: the United Nations projects that nearly all of the global population growth in the next decade will be absorbed by cities, giving us more than a billion urbanites by 2030. That’s a short period of time, right? Do you believe our desire to connect with the natural world can be reconciled with the reality of rapid urbanization and everything that comes with it, such as widespread use of technology?

HA: Well, we’ll have to reconcile to some degree; I’m not sure how much is possible at this point. It’s way out of hand. Even Freud said his biggest fear for mankind was the disconnection from nature. One of my theses is we do not realize the degree to which we have offended nature and offended God’s design. And when we offend God’s design, it has repercussions. It’s become more obvious that this disconnection and this offending are playing a role in our physical health. A great number of diseases are just increasing; they’re not getting any better. Remarkable studies are coming out every day about the repercussions and the ramifications of the disconnection we’re discussing.

I was listening to a lecture about the Luddite movement in the United Kingdom. The Luddites’ concern wasn’t that they would lose their jobs, which they did with the rise of factories, but they were concerned that the fabric of society would be ripped apart. A lot of the Luddites were exiled and went to East Africa and became pirates—that’s another story—but from that time in history, humans moved into buildings in an unprecedented way. With factories, people began spending their entire day inside brick buildings.

So now we have this recent popular notion of being outside and the importance of getting vitamin D from the sun. It’s not just sunshine and what comes from it that are important—it’s being out in God’s creation. We lost that more and more to the point where we live inside buildings and cars. It’s going to destroy everything: it destroys our sleep; it destroys our ability to prepare; it destroys our ability to learn because we need sleep to learn. I don’t think we’re capable of taking in the consequences completely because it’s too overwhelming to really see, to be honest.

DY: It’s interesting you mention that. I have this idea that a lot of people don’t like the outdoors because we have this concept of “climate control.” It’s not climate that I’m focusing on; rather it’s control. We can control the temperature; we can keep it at 72 degrees, so when we go outside, it’s a little bit windy, it’s a little bit sunny, it’s a little bit cool. All of a sudden, we can no longer be in control, so that’s really what we’re pushing back against.

HA: I think it’s interesting because that concept is one you’d find amongst many of the homeopaths. We could say it’s a psychological analysis of what’s going on, that some people need to be in control.

DY: So, we’ve talked about this disconnect, but how can the natural world help us to become present in this age of distraction and disconnection? This is a word that we throw around a lot, the idea of being present. I want to ask, What does it really mean to be present?

HA: Well, learning to be present in the world—developing that aspect and quality of being alive, if you want to put it that way—is our nature; it’s our fiţrah. Whenever we’re in nature, of course, we have that reminder to be present; we have that purity around us. But we can go out into nature and not gain any of that. That’s the other catch: the tricky thing is, people can be in their bodies, but they’re not in their bodies at all. The teaching on purification of the self is the ability to be present and genuine. What does that mean? It means connecting to what God created in us and then, in turn, being able to see the awesome reality of this period of life on this planet. We don’t live to be present in the body, but [without that presence] we lose touch and perspective.

When we answered the primordial question “... am I not your Lord?” with an affirmation, God placed each of our souls in our mother’s womb, and that soul remained in our bodies as an embryo, a fetus, and when we came out into this world—it has been here in this place since that time. And it will be there until He takes it from us.

We can ask ourselves about our soul: How has our soul been doing? How is it now? How does it all look, and how is it all working? Or not? And if we can ask those questions deeply enough, we may find that it’s not working very well, to be honest. We’ve created a lifestyle unsuited for the health of our soul; but how do we remedy this? That may take commitment. If we have access to our deep and true selves, we can. That true self is vast beyond numbering. What’s taking place in you, right at this moment, is not a thousand different processes, not a million, not a trillion, not a quadrillion.

One of the scholars said, “Man is the little universe, and the universe is the big man.” My teacher said, “I learned medicine in the forest. We learn about the forest, and we learn about the Pattern, the Design of Allah, the nature of life, and the self. As we learn about the self, we learn about the reality of nature, and so forth.”

So how do we remedy being so disconnected from ourselves? That’s a good question, but I think God is generous and that He gives us teachers, and He gives us knowledge. Imam al-Ghazālī always said that if you’re sincere, God will send you what you need. It’s one of the miracles of the path. I believe our mandate as Muslims, and as human beings, is to learn how we heal ourselves and then others, so we can realize what’s going on here. And it’s happened to some degree. People are moving out into the forest, they’re creating, they’re trying to find a way. It’s little pieces in the midst of this great machine that just marches on, at the cost of everyone and at the cost of the environment.

The natural world remains, and we have to somehow wake up and become aware of what it means. To be able to see the moon come out, for example. To see the moon for what it is. If we could see, and if we could experience and be present with what’s going on at any moment, I think we would probably lose the ability to contain our natural response.

DY: Right. Honestly, just an idea of awe. During one of the last trips that I was on, we were talking about this idea, that awe. Somehow it’s been almost taken from us, perhaps because of the ability of science to explain every single thing that’s happening.

HA: True.

DY: So, we’re no longer in awe of the sunrise. I’m no longer in awe of a full moon, because I can understand scientifically what’s happening.

HA: Well, I think that’s part of our disconnection from what is real. Now we have abstraction. How many people have said, “I love animals. I watch Animal Planet all the time.” To see a wild animal, just a glance, is a blessing. God created the animals in a natural world of trees and plants and frogs and mold, all aspects of it, and He placed us, in this traditional point of view, at the center of it. In spite of this idea that we’re at the edge of some galaxy, He placed us at the center of it, and we have a responsibility in that center to be the khalīfahs, the protectors, of all these things. And it’s not a position of arrogance. It’s a position of responsibility that we have because we partake of all these things in some balance. In other words, we contain degrees of the wolf, degrees of the elephant, degrees of the plant, degrees of the stone, etcetera, etcetera—of everything that we see around us. And we’re at the center of it, not, as I said, in a place of arrogance or high position but of responsibility to care for it. We need to speak for the trees.

DY: In talking about the idea of being present, could you share some of the emotional and physical benefits of being in the natural world? Can experience in the natural world actually heal us from some of the ailments that we’re seeing in society: depression, anxiety, anxiousness, and the need for immediacy? Everything is here now. But it takes a long time for a tree to grow. It takes a long time for water to find its way to the lake from the mountains.

HA: Well, [being in the natural world] can heal us. The thing is, I’ve had people tell me, “Well, I’ve got this son and he’s basically behaving as a schizophrenic, and I don’t know what to do.” And I say, “Well, if nothing else, take him to the forest and take him to nature; that can help.” That doesn’t mean that that’s going to heal the illness. A person can go into nature and become more ill or schizophrenic, depending on how disturbed he is.

Part of the natural world is us, ourselves. We need each other. Again, we want to heal our natural world first. We want to purify that, and we want to get that in harmony. It’s not just that we’ve disconnected from nature; we’ve disconnected from the nature of our being. We need each other to know what we are; we need each other to heal.

DY: Is the natural world conveying to us how to better heal ourselves?

HA: Understanding the patterns of nature in God’s design is a clue to understanding how we manage and honor that design. We learn, for example, not to force things. But the forest alone is not enough; we also need people. We need people who are grown, who are contained, who have boundaries, who are present with themselves—and the more that person has presence, the more we can gain from her. It used to be that in a village there were people of various sorts. Most of us still have an auntie or an uncle or even a father or mother whom we can spend time with and actually receive a spiritual quality from them and their common sense and good human nature.

DY: In the growing field of ecotherapy, physicians and others are prescribing time in the woods. I read a physician who said, “If you hold moist soil for 20 minutes, the soil bacteria begins elevating your mood. You have all the antidepressants you need in the ground.”

HA: Beautiful. Let me say, in relation to that, the Japanese have been doing this thing called forest bathing, where they just stay in the forest. Stanford has done research recently on what happens in the body in a beautiful landscape. But somebody holding the soil, that’s a pretty dramatic, specific prescription.

DY: Yes. Florence Williams has a book, The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative. I’m going to close out with this question; it’s one about happiness and our relationship with the natural world: Drawing from your education and your experiences in teaching, can happiness be found in something as simple as intentional connections with the natural world? And do you see examples of hope in your work that make you believe that humans can reconnect with the natural order?

HA: I know in our discussion we’ve focused a lot on the “natural world” and on “living in the forest” and so forth. But I guess it’s pretty important to me to recognize the development of our inner state. We say, “What is our ĥāl [“state”], what is our ĥāl, what is our ĥāl?” And not only what’s our state, but what’s the sum total of those various states that we find ourselves in, the station we find ourselves in? Are there ways in which we can become more cognizant with our ĥāl and become more present in ourselves and therefore more present in the world and more cognitive and more aware of what needs to be done? Because when we are present in ourselves and have access to this self, it is enormous in terms of capacity and the vastness of what it contains. It’s also a degree of intelligence, of common sense—we used to use this term common sense.

On one hand, I’m saying yes, we can gain a lot from the natural world, and it is a medicine. I grew up in a very dysfunctional Southern California family, and the one thing I think that maybe saved us, as a dysfunctional family, is every year we’d go for two weeks and live in the forest, Sequoia Park usually. During that time, we left behind all of that dysfunction, and we’d fish from the stream, and we’d cook the food, with brothers and sisters and parents together. I think that was a great gift to me. So, we can gain a great deal, but we have to remember that the natural world is not just out there—it’s in here too.