Martin Buber said that the most fulfilling relationships are not I-It relationships, in which we relate to the other as an object, but I-Thou relationships, in which we holistically relate to the whole being of the other that we are encountering. Joseph Campbell recalls this idea in The Power of Myth, where he writes that First Nations people “addressed all of life [not as an “it,” but] as a “thou”–the buffalo, the trees, the stones everything. You can address anything as a “thou,” and if you do it, you can feel the change in your psychology.”
Buber made a careful distinction between relating to a being as an “It” and relating to a being as a “Thou.” When we encounter another being as an “It,” we reduce it to an object, or a means to our ends. When we do this, for instance, we treat the cashier at McDonald’s as a means of procuring food. We don’t relate to the cashier holistically, in the fullness of his or her being, but only in the shallow way that gets us what we want. The I-It relation, then, involves objectifying something, that is, reducing it to a few characteristics that are relevant to our goals. This process always involves leaving something out, never a full account of the being to which we are relating. That is to say, that in the I-It relationship, we only ever relate to a shallow part of a being, never all of what it is.
In contrast, when we relate to something as a Thou, we meet it in the fullness of its being. We cease to see it through the duality of means/ends or subject/object; instead, we are deeply present with it in the full richness and completeness of what it is. When I meet you in this way, I do not see you as a mere name attached to an image and a concept of you; I relate to you in the fullness of who you are at every level of you. This is not a meeting between a subject and an objectified person seen through the lens of ideas about them; rather, it is an authentic meeting of real beings.
When we encounter beings in the natural world as Thou, we do not reduce them to mere means to human ends. We do not say “there’s the forest — how much can we make by cutting it down for lumber and paper?” This is an I-It relationship. The same is true when we speak of “developing” land; of course, what we mean by “developing” land is shaping it to suit human purposes — the land is already very well developed for its own purposes. In the I-Thou relationship, there is deep mindfulness, deep compassion, deep presence, and even a sense of mystical wonder.
When I relate to a tree as a Thou, I don’t reduce it to the mere concept of “tree,” nor do I reduce it to lumber and paper. Instead, I put down words and categorizations and encounter it as a being that is just as alive as I am, just as interested in surviving and thriving as I am, and in fact, not separate from “me” at all. When I see that I, as a human being, and the tree are continuous, and that the being of the tree is prior to any purposes, words, or concepts, I may have about it, something marvelous happens. The mind calms. A sense of wonder enters into, and suffuses, awareness. With this wonder sometimes comes a deep, ineffable love centered on the recognition of shared being. There in the I-Thou relationship, the human and the tree are one. There is respect, love, compassion, understanding, and silent being-present-with in that moment and a profound beauty that stems from engaging in the most meaningful relationship of which we are capable.
This is what it means to relate to a being in nature as a Thou, and we can relate to any natural being in this way or even to whole landscapes or ecosystems. It is even possible to treat the whole universe as a cosmic Thou; in fact, this way of relating to the universe is the essence of the mystical experience. In the recognition of nonduality, for instance, there is a deep love, respect, reverence, wonder, and sense of compassion for all beings in the universe that arises.
The I-It relationship closes the heart and mind, but the I-Thou relationship opens it more widely than anything else can. The I-It relation reduces all things to less than it is, but the I-Thou opens up all things, revealing the vastness of being within them. It is the most authentic, powerful, and awe-inspiring way of encountering another being. For this reason, both Buber and Campbell recommended that we learn to relate to other beings, whether animate or inanimate, in this way; in my own experience, I have found that no other way of encountering the world has opened my mind more fully or touched my heart more deeply.