Thursday, January 10th 2013
“You are sitting on the earth and you realize that this earth deserves you and you deserve this earth. You are there—fully, personally, genuinely.”
~ Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche
For the majority of my childhood, I grew up in Valley Center, California. It is a rural town in the northeast of San Diego County. If I had to pick one thing to be thankful for, from my childhood, it would be this – that I had the opportunity to fall in love with nature at such an early age.
Even as I write this, I feel moved to express my gratitude to my parents, yet again. What a gift it was to fill my days with hands in dirt, running through fields, sitting and watching lizards, insects, and squirrels. I was given the freedom to just sit – listening to birds in song and the wind dancing through the great oak trees. These early experiences began in me a journey of appreciation, respect, and love of nature and this tiny blue planet we call home. It was in these early experiences that I began to see the sacred, the divine. If philosophy is in the head, then Spirituality is in the heart – it is experiential. And for me, the most spiritual experiences I have had have been in the presence of nature. Nature, has for me, been a Sacrament. A window into what is Sacred, what is Divine.
I miss the days when I allowed myself such freedom. At times I long for the great oak trees, their strength, their music. So much so, that when shopping or running errands, I even find myself subconsciously picking the parking space with the tree, if there is one, rather than not. I long for these experiences for my nephews and niece. “Play outside” I remind them, maybe too often, because I know that love grows in experience and in time and space.
Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful – very grateful for technology in all of its embodiments. I use my iPhone, maybe too often (it’s sooooo wonderful!) I know that much of my life is dependent on computers, that I enjoy computers (they are sooooo wonderful!) But they don’t inspire my heart to sing, my hands to open – to reach out, my feet to dance, or that deep breath that I instinctively know to take when I see a vast blue sky. I like technology. But I love nature.
So I worry a bit, for my nephews and niece. Though, they too have a fondness for nature (especially the oldest), as long as they’ve known nature they have also known video games, iPods, and DVD players. Nature has so much competition. And although it is certain that all of this technology has benefitted humankind in a myriad of ways, there has been a cost – a shadow side to this great revolution.
We have in a way been distanced from nature, in very real, tangible ways. We have been distanced not only in geography as we use up land for resource and move closer to cities for work. But also in our psychology as so much of the resources nature provides are manufactured, packaged and then put on a shelf for us before we consume. This applies to almost all we purchase in the West, from materials to food. There is a distance, a disconnect that develops with a life thus lived. We forget how deeply we are connected to nature, when are so far away that we don’t see the source of what we consume, we just know the store names. We have even manipulated our religious practices, perhaps unknowingly – conveniently, in such a way to support this disconnect.
“The entire cosmos is a cooperative. The sun, the moon, and the stars live together as a cooperative. The same is true for humans and animals, trees, and the Earth. When we realize that the world is a mutual, interdependent, cooperative enterprise — then we can build a noble environment. If our lives are not based on this truth, then we shall perish.”
~ Buddhadasa Bhikkhu
“…then we shall perish…”
This isn’t a judgment, it is our reality. If we are of nature, if nature is where life is to be found – then as we are distanced from nature, we are distanced from life. I see this not only in our environmental changes, but also in our psychology – our increased anxieties and depression. Not that playing in dirt will end all anxieties and depression, but feeling connected and whole would – I believe – go a long way in healing many of our wounds. In my experience, being close to nature has been a grounding force in my life. And as we find ourselves grounded in nature, we find ourselves connected to all life. To paraphrase Neil Degrasse Tyson – we are connected to each other biologically, to the Earth chemically, and to the entire Universe atomically.
I think there is great reason for hope, when contemplating our future. For one thing, the Earth and nature itself is supportive of Life. The Earth has seen a lot of destruction and extinction of many species, even as it has also promoted healing from such destruction and supported the evolution of new species. The Earth and life on it, most likely, will go on. But will we? If we begin to see ourselves not only as consumers and benefactors of the Earth, but as partners and co-creators with the Earth, with nature – then yes, I think we will.
And this is why I see reason to hope. Even as over time, we have strayed away from the connected – grounded practices of indigenous and native culture, and from the ancient earth/nature-based spiritual traditions, there is now a resurgence and the beginnings of such awareness and (I believe) a rich desire to reconnect.
I believe we are beginning a new age, a return to nature as Sacrament. I see it in the new movement of integrated contemplative Christianity (which is, perhaps, actually a return to a more original – less corporate Christianity) and also in Engaged Buddhism, a term of which Thich Nhat Hanh has said, “was created to restore the true meaning of Buddhism.” And perhaps, our brothers and sisters from the indigenous, native and nature-based spiritualities will lead the way. I think those of us not from these traditions, would do well to listen and learn from their reverence for and relationship with nature.
One of the most iconic images of The Buddha, is of him sitting under the bodhi tree, his left hand palm up on his lap, his right hand touching the Earth. It is said that on the night of Siddhartha Gautama’s enlightenment and realization of being The Buddha, he was attacked by the demon, Mara. Mara, proud and jealous, challenged Siddhartha’s right to sit there, claiming enlightenment to be his. Mara’s soldiers shouted out, bearing witness to Mara’s great accomplishments and right to be there. When Mara then asked Siddhartha, “Who bears witness for you?” Siddhartha sitting there, calm and grounded, reached out with his right hand and touched the Earth, at which point the Earth itself answered, “I bear witness.” It is at this point that Mara disappears and as the morning star rose in the sky, Siddhartha realized his enlightenment and becomes The Buddha.
The Earth has indeed been bearing witness for us, for all life, as long as it has existed. It is now, perhaps, our time to return the favor. It is our time to return to nature as Sacrament. And it is up to each of us to find the practice that best helps us to do so.
I have a practice I do every morning as part of my meditation. It is a practice I do to realign myself – to remind myself of my connection to all Life. I use the mantra “Om Shanti Shanti Shanti Om”. Om is said to be the primordial sound of Life itself and Shanti means “peace”. Sitting, I place both hands on my heart. I allow myself to feel my heart beating as I breathe in and breathe out. I then while breathing in, with both hands over my heart, say in my mind, “Om”. In between the breath, I say in my mind, “Shanti Shanti Shanti”. As the breath leaves my body, I say in my mind again, “Om”. I repeat this with one hand on my heart and one hand touching the Earth. I then repeat it a third time with one hand on my heart and one hand resting in space.
I then end this practice with hands together, as I bow my head in reverence and gratitude to Life. I have started my day establishing first, a wish for peace within my own heart, that I may have peace and be an instrument of peace for the world. Then a wish for peace to all who share this ground, this Earth with me. And then a wish for peace to all who breathe this same air and share this same space with me. And finally a bow to ALL of it. Then as I go about my day, I try to recognize the Divine in all I see, greeting Nature as a relative rather than stranger, as part of me rather than an other, as Brother Sun and Sister Moon, as St. Francis would say.
I think it is imperative that we all find a way to do this. Not only is it necessary for our survival, it is necessary for knowing who we are. So when out and about take some time to sit and watch the ocean, to lay in some grass watching clouds move across the sky, look out at the vast canopy of night – dotted with light as you hold your lover’s hand, to hug a tree, or talk to ants marching. Connecting with Nature is connecting with You.