“Nature Keeps Us Mindful in the Now” Talk and Transcript

Nov. 14, 2017 Group Meditation Part 2 of 2

This talk happened November 14, 2017 at the Boundless Love Project’s Group Meditation. Before listening to the talk, we suggest you listen to this guided breath meditation, which preceded the talk. This discussion has been edited to improve its clarity, content, and for length

“Nature Keeps Us Mindful in the Now” Transcript

From 2007 to 2009, I was working in Columbus, Ohio, for the wonderful and deeply-beloved nonprofit, Mercy For Animals. At this time in my spiritual path, I was living most of my waking life through the false self of the ego.

Living from an egoic perspective, I regularly mistook delusions to be the truth. Due to these mistakes, my life was a regular cycle of deluded unpleasant and pleasant emotional states. Unpleasant emotional states such as fear, anxiety, stress, depression, and apathy were near-constant companions. These states would alternate between, less frequent pleasant, yet equally deluded, states of a swelled sense of importance, arrogance, and externally-derived excitement and hope about the future that was based on the conditions of my life being a certain way.

Given the law of impermanence of all forms, these highs, which I was delusionally attached to, were egoic-set-ups that caused more needless suffering. The highs required things to be a certain way, but when the inevitable difficulties and challenges arose, they caused the falls to be that much more painful. The ego in me was still looking for joy, peace, and meaning outside of myself in the world of form, actions, accomplishments, and achievements, where it cannot be reliably found.

Loving Friends and Nature Soothed My Soul

During this time of egoic living, I had two main, skillful sources of comfort and joy. You might think that one of those sources was meditation. Unfortunately, I was working long hours, and, at that time, I didn’t fully appreciate how vitally necessary meditation is to my life. As a result, I allowed my meditation practice to fall by the wayside.

What was left for me included first, time spent with my loving, nurturing friends, especially my best friend, Tyler MacDonald. Second, time spent in nature, which will be the focus of this talk.

When I moved from the District of Columbia to Columbus, Ohio in 2007, the idea popped into my mind that one way to get “a sense of place” would be to learn the names of five trees, five birds, and five flowers that grew in the area. At this point in my life, I could identify a robin and not much else. I bought three field guides and would take long walks alongside the Olentangy River which was surrounded by native trees, flowers, and birds, and only a few blocks from my house.

Little did I know that once I learned how to identify a few birds, tress, and flowers, I would want to be able to identify all of them, and know about how they all lived and related to one another.

Burnout and Quitting

When Tyler moved away to start work as a tour guide in Alaska, my biggest external support system was removed. I quickly spiraled into depression, overwhelm, burnout, exhaustion, and brain fog that would prevent me from being able to remember things or think clearly. Not wanting to harm Mercy For Animals, I told my friend and boss, Nathan Runkle, what I was going though, and how, in this current state, I was unable to give the organization what it needed and deserved from me.

I felt broken. I had no direction. Animal protection had been my life, now I was too damaged to do that. I had no plan B. I moved home to my parent’s house in Minnesota. Before I left Columbus, my friend, and a director of Mercy For Animals, Derek Coons, gives me the first two CDs of contemporary spiritual teacher, Eckart Tolle, reading his book, The Power of Now. At the time, most of what it said was confusing and made no sense, yet my body resonates very strongly with the energy of how it is being said. My body intuitively knows what he says contains great wisdom. The parts I do understand, I explore more deeply. Ultimately, this book radically transforms my life for the better.

But for now, I still feel like damaged goods. Not knowing what to do next in my life, I had an intuitive understanding that nature could heal me. This understanding is beautifully expressed by the words of a young woman:

"The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quiet, alone with the heavens, nature and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature."

These words hold greater power when we consider the context in which they were written. They were penned in the 1940s in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam, by Anne Frank, while her family lived in a secret apartment in an attempt to hide from the Nazis. For nearly two years, she was not allowed outside. To go outside would be certain death for herself and her family. Unfortunately, the Nazi’s discovered their hideaway, and because she was a Jew, she was sent to a concentration camp and killed at the tender age of 15. May we humans fully come out of our delusion so we never cause such needless suffering again.

Given my burnout and confusion, I was searching for healing and clarity. Given these goals, and, because of my newfound joy and love of nature, I decided to spend several months immersed in nature. I decided that I would take my savings and use them to thru-hike all 2,197 miles of the Appalachian Trail in 2010.

Preparing for the Hike

In preparation for the hike, I listen to and read The Power of Now several times, and started doing my best to apply its teachings to my life: being mindful, being present, noticing when I am not present, and so on.

In addition, I started reading field guides on trees, flowers, birds, clouds, and constellations. I listened to recordings to learn how to identify birds by their song. I read field guides for clouds, birds, and plants of the Appalachian Mountains. I totally nerded-out on all things nature.

I especially loved learning intricate details about nautre. For example, when I read Gavin Pretor-Pinney’s wonderful book, The Cloudspotter’s Guide, I not only learned how to identify all of the clouds, I learned how the cirrocumulus clouds, the high wispy clouds we see, are made up of ice crystals. Those ice crystals are mostly hexagonal plates. When the ice crystals are all aligned in the same direction, the sunlight can enter through one side of them, and be refracted at a 60 degree angle, crating what looks like a little sun or suns, 22 degrees to the left and/or right of the actual sun. These little suns are called “sun dogs.” How cool is that? You can bet that after reading about them, I was very excited to see one for myself. The book said it is one of the most common “halo phenomenon” produced, but it still took me many months of anticipation and sky-gazing before I actually saw one.

But I digress. My point is, a main goal of my hike was to connect with nature. I wanted to see it's vast array of diversity and beauty, and the Appalachian Trail did not disappoint.

Hiking Clingman’s Dome

It's April 7th, 2010, the 20th day of my hike, I am in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park in Tennessee. A group of us slept at Double Spring Gap shelter. Our intention is to wake up early, hike to the summit of Clingman's Dome, the tallest mountain on the Appalachian Trail, and arrive in time to watch the sunrise. We woke up in the dark at 4:30 in the morning, pack our gear and start hiking. It was a 2.5 mile hike with 1,100 feet of elevation to climb before we reach the summit. The trail is filled with rocks and roots and I have a difficult time walking in the dark. It doesn't seem to hinder anyone else though. They are starting to fear that we are not going to reach the summit in time.

My hiking partners get impatient and upset with me, because I am slowing them down. I notice that I am stressed, anxious, and fearful. I remember that Tolle says that when emotional disturbances arise, it means I am from my ego, that I am not being in the present moment. Turning my attention inwards, I see how I am aversive to my companions’ judgment, how I am attached to see the sunrise from the mountaintop. I also realize that I am hiking as fast as I safely can, but that my speed is definitely slower than everyone else. Seeing this all, wisdom arises: let go of the aversion; let go of the attachment; help my friends achieve their goals. I tell them to go on ahead without me, and I’ll meet them at the top, or at camp tonight.

Hiking in Solitude

They scrambled ahead, and within a few minutes, they are out sight and I was alone. Having accepted the fact that I might not reach the summit in time to see the sunrise, and by letting my companions go ahead, all of the stress and anxiety melted away. I hiked with an attitude of peace, calmness, serenity, and joy in the silence. The peace reminds me I made the right decision. 

As the sky started to lighten, I hear the emphatic, high-pitched, tinkling-stream song of the winter wren! This is the first time in my life I had ever identified a winter wren. My heart swells with gratitude as I stop and listen in awe.

This experience has an unusual feeling, that can’t be easily put into words. It feels as though nature is supporting me in my recent decision to be present by letting go. It’s as if nature is nonverbally telling me, “good job,” “keep it up,” and applauding me over that decision. I’ve never been “woo-woo,” and I’m left unsure how to interpret or understand what just happened to me. Hmmm…. Well, on with the hike.

Hiking along, I arrive at a developed area of the mountain for tourists. There is a giant parking lot, and curiously, it looks like my hiking party is several hundred yards away from me in the parking lot. What’s happening? We are clearly not at the summit. The way to the summit is a paved path going in the opposite direction. Hiking over to them, seems like a pretty far detour to find out if that is them, and why they are there, so I keep mindfully and peacefully hiking to the summit.

At the Summit

I reach the summit and am in perfect solitude. That had been my friends in the parking lot after all. I found out later that they didn’t want to miss the sunrise, so decided to watch it from the parking lot.

This means, I have the whole peak of the mountain to myself. At the top of the mountain is an observation tower, which I hike to the top. In every direction, I am surrounded by beauty, stillness, and a deep silence underneath the sounds of the bird calls and wind. To paraphrase Mother Teresa:

<<We need to find God, and they cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature – trees, flowers, grass – grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence… We need silence to be able to touch souls.>>

In the stillness, I feel that silence.

The sun is just now cresting the mountainous horizon, and the clouds are cast in brilliant reds, oranges, and royal purples. Purple mountains stretched off in the distance.

A robin is perched at the top a spruce tree, singing his little heart out. The strong, cold winds sway the tree this way and that, yet the robin was resolute and his song bristles with vigor and life. Juxtaposed to this life, is death. There are many giant dead Frasier Fur trees scattered throughout the peak. An interpretive sign on the lookout says they were killed by the invasive balsam woolly adelgids who have been ravaging the park for years.

This scene of life and death perfectly embodies a quote from Eckart Tolle, which I paraphrase:

<<Watch any plant or animal and let them teach you acceptance of what is, surrender to the Now. Let them teach you Being. Let them teach you integrity — which means to be one, to be yourself, to be real. Let them teach you how to live and how to die, and how [bold] not to make living and dying into a problem.>>

Despite the bitter cold and stinging winds, and the death, there is a stillness, a peace, a harmony and a beauty to everything. My heart wells up with an indescribably vast, all-consuming appreciation for all of life. I fell blessed beyond words. Every cell in my body is filled with joy.

As I looked back at the climbing sun, which has now cleared the horizon, what is it that I see for the first time in my entire life? A sun dog! Tears stream down my face and I am in an ecstatic state of joy that words cannot fully describe. It is as if all of creation is giving me a hug. It is as if the Great Spirit is lovingly surrounding me and telling me all at once: “I want you to be happy. I want all life to be happy. You are deeply loved. You are one with everything. All is well with the world. All is as it should be. Everything is more amazing, wonderful, and beautiful that you can possibly know. Have faith in this. Be peaceful and happy.”

One With Life

When spiritual or ecstatic experiences are translated into words, it feels as if they are cheapened or degraded, because words fail to fully explain and impart the deep, life-changing significance of the experience. This was the one-time in my life where I felt "at one" with all of life; where I knew we were all one.

When over a dozen of us had plans to watch the sunrise together at the summit of the mountain together, it felt like a lot of synchronicity had to happen for me to be at the top of the mountain in solitude to experience the sunrise. I doubt I would have had the same experience if I was with my friends. It was as if the universe was trying to really emphasize that my path of mindfulness, peace, and calm was the way to go: “Keep on this path. Go where it leads. Have faith in it.”

When you experience a deep truth like this, it causes shifts to arise in your being. It opens up one’s mind and heart, and through this opening, more light is allowed to enter. It calls into question a lot of rigidly held beliefs, shakes them up, and allows us to hold them less firmly, or drop them altogether. All of this helps us live with less delusion. Strangely enough, when you see it once, if you can open to it, you only need to see it once.

As Carol Wilson says, “A spark of truth burns up a mountain of lies.”

If, however, we believe our ego when it tell us, “that’s a strange anomaly, and an aberration,” or “I wonder if I’m getting sick, needing more sleep, or affected by the altitude?,” then we may have to see such things many times before get the full benefits from these moments of grace.

Nature Is a Refuge

I am not surprised this insight happened in nature. In the creation story of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, it was only human beings who ate the fruit from the forbidden tree and fell into delusion. All of nature, including animals, are still living in alignment with Life. Life is not only our deepest essence and fundamental nature, but the fundamental nature of all forms.

Because we are all one, when we are together, our energies harmonize with each other. You may have noticed how when a person who is angry, upset, or hostile enters a room, and you are not mindful, you may be triggered to become angry, upset, or hostile. Egoic energies seem contagious. We resonate with the energies of other people readily because of our oneness.

When we are immersed in nature, we also resonate with the non-deluded energies of the trees, plants, wildlife, sky and other parts of nature. That is why we feel so much more peace, ease, and joy when outside in nature. We start to harmonize our energies with theirs.

This sharing energies also works both ways. Those animals who have been brought into human-created environments harmonize with our egoic energies and start to behave in deluded ways themselves. This is seen clearly in many animals at zoos, factory farms, research labs, and even with some animal companions that we invite into our homes.

Tips for Benefiting From Nature

Here are some tips to help you deepen your relationship with nature and allow nature to benefit your spirituality.

1. Spend time outside.

Go for a hike, ride your bike, swim in a lake, watch the clouds, or whatever. Be quiet and notice the peace that immersing yourself in nature can bring.

2. Offer your love and respect to all of nature.

Be respectful and kind to all nature you encounter. Wish the trees, wildlife, flowers, skies, waters, rocks, and so on peace and happiness, health and strength. Do what you can to serve, protect, and care for nature for its own sake. Nature is an extension of yourself and all of humanity, so helping nature helps yourself and your family too.

3. Appreciate nature.

Thank air, rain, ground, winds, plants, and all parts of nature that provide the food, the clothes, the shelter, the tools, the beauty, and the peace for you, your family, and friends. See how nature, with every breath you take, is lovingly giving from its abundance for your health and well-being. Feel the love that nature has for you. Let that which is divine in you recognize, resonate, and appreciate the divinity that is in all parts of nature.

4. Ask permission to use nature.

This is a hard one for those of us who have grown up in a Western culture to understand. It comes from the spiritual traditions of American Indians who have a deeply intimate and spiritually-advanced relationship with the earth. When you need to use nature, in addition to thanking nature for its many gifts, ask for permission first.

This is a sign of respect. It shows that we are not taking their gifts and sacrifices for granted. After asking, be mindful and allow your intuitive wisdom to provide you an answer. If the answer is some version of “yes, go ahead,” then offer the trees, plants, water, or whatever you are using your love and kindness. Out of gratitude for what they have given you, look for ways to give back so that these aspects of nature will be cleaner, healthier, and stronger in the future.

5. Learn from nature.

Get into the habit of observing nature and watching how all aspects of nature move skillfully, gracefully, and easefully with the ups and downs of life. Notice how trees, clouds, and wildlife don’t create any additional drama around their life situations. Notice their peace, calmness, patience, and other beautiful qualities. All of this will help you deepen your practice. Also, when you tune into nature in this curious, mindful manner, you will start to resonate with the peace and calmness of nature.

6. When inside in built-up environments, connect with houseplants, animal companions, or the air you breath to remain connected to all of life.

The breath we breathe connects us to the billions of humans and animals who previously breathed the same air. The breath we breathe connects us to all herbaceous plants and woody trees that help oxygenate the air. The breath we breathe connects us to the winds, plants, lightning, rain, and sun that help to purify and clean the air.

We can also mindfully observe the playful antics of animal companions and houseplants. Through mindfully tuning into their peace, ease, and joy, we can resonate with them and feel their peace, ease and joy. In this way, these aspects of nature are always loving, supporting, and encouraging us on our spiritual path.

A gentle suggestion

This week, do your best to be mindful of all nature around you and try to resonate with nature’s many forms that surround you. If you get a chance, spend time immersed in nature. Then answer the following questions in your journal: What gets in the way of tuning into nature? What aids you in your ability to tune into nature?

I leave you with some wisdom from Albert Einstein: "Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better."