Updated: Aug 25, 2019
Has it ever happened that a moment found you outside, maybe watching the sunset, maybe watching the bees or the fireflies, maybe the lightning, and you just trusted it? You didn’t use the moment to doubt or judge or deny its seemingly innate truth; you just let it take the reigns; and somehow, it wordlessly comforted and reassured you?
I have found that these moments happen frequently in nature. More than that, this special form of attentiveness seems to be present specifically when we are interacting with nature on some level.
I call this sensation a “natural meditation,” but also acknowledge that nature itself can be a tool as a means for meditation.
I have this theory that if you spent enough time in nature, you would learn everything you need to know. From how things grow and die, to what makes up each and all of those things and that it would be through the described experience and easy contemplation that you could gain that knowledge. People thousands of years ago had it before technology came along, as we can tell from indigenous beliefs and knowledge that have been passed on and are eerily similar to findings from modern sciences. I believe that this ability to attain the knowledge we need is due to the discrete yet deep connection we have to the natural world and our inability to lose it. Some people may be less aware than others or less open to what is happening, but the connection and experience is easily there if it is nurtured.
This past spring break I went camping for the first time in a long time and as always when humans go out of their comfort zones, hilarity ensued. We had already hiked for a few miles in the heat, eaten lunch, and now it was time to carry our shit-ton of stuff about a mile to our campsite. So we split up the load, and started making our way. There were a few technical difficulties (everything was really heavy and awkward to hold and it was a million degrees outside), yet as things grew progressively harder, I found myself starting to list things I was grateful for. The funny part is, I didn’t even begin this on purpose. I was sweating a ton and walked by a huge rock blocking the sun and I felt myself cool, as if a cave had just swallowed me up. I let out without thinking about it, “Oh, thank god for that rock,” then, realizing what I just did, I started thanking everything. I became thankful for my strength and the training I do to be able to hold heavy shit. I expressed gratitude to my shoes and feet for continuing to carry a lot of the load. The trees for shading me. The air coming in and out of my nose so I can keep breathing and going. And somewhere along the line, everything I’ve ever done started making sense, and I was grateful for it all, as well as its sensibility. Now this may sound like an exaggeration, but truly, I felt that way. In nature everything made sense. The reason I work out the way I do is so that I can do certain activities to the best of my ability, without hurting myself. I can carry an awkward sleeping bag, a backpack, pillows, a crate full of stuff, whatever it may be, and notice where in my body I’m throwing the weight and how I can throw it (in a circle) *ahem* in the right direction - ;). I wake up when the sun is shining because that signals my body that it’s time to. I sleep a little after sunset because I can no longer do what I have to do in the night time. I eat food that gives me energy, move enough to get me hungry again, then eat more because I need more energy. It was all so clear being there.
Everything in nature has a rhyme, reason, and rhythm to it, and we are an active part of it, so it’s no wonder we feel that deep connection and that sensibility. Along with that, it demands us to be attentive to what's there (this is part of the meditative aspect). If you feel hunger you eat. If you are tired you rest. If there's a rock in your path you dodge it. If you're hot you seek shade, and so on. There is not space to be worried about trivial things. I read an article a while ago called The Beast In Me, in which Maxim Loskutoff claims, "We tend to forget we're animals, until we become prey." In one section, he describes his and his partners sighting of a grizzly bear and realization that the bear was following them. As the two are sprinting in the opposite direction of the bear, he says, "Every other thing I’d been worrying about that day, from whether I’d worn enough sunscreen to whether my partner really loved me, fell aside. I had one concern: to get us away without being eaten." Whether it's a grizzly bear or a sunset beautiful enough to demand full attentiveness, nature requires this from us and as humans who are socialized to worry about the most trivial of things, it's refreshing and often, calming.
Another way nature helps us reach this space is it's ability to consume us, and I don't mean through a grizzly bear, though that may happen as well, and it may not be the most calming or meditative experience.
In the past year, in my Environmental Ethics class, we read an article about a Scandinavian philosophy called Friluftsliv: the philosophy of outdoor life. “The word translates to “free air life,” meaning “a philosophical lifestyle based on experiences of the freedom in nature and the spiritual connectedness with the landscape.” (Gelter, p. 78). The reward of experiencing this connectedness is expanding ones consciousness and spiritual wholeness. This described experience is the same one that I often know to occur in nature and one that I find is silently communicative of exactly what I need to hear. The most vivid and interesting part of the paper is how the author moves away from connecting with nature in the sense that we are such and such while nature is something else, and toward the complete inseparability of humans and nature in these friluftsliv moments. He says, “This landscape absorbs me so completely, entering through all of my senses and directly touching my limbic system. This gives me a sensation of a total integration with this land; a strong feeling of being at home in a place I have never visited before. Sensing myself as part of the landscape I experience the processes and evolution of this place unfolding itself inside my consciousness. I get a strong feeling of knowing the ways of things around me.” (Gelter, p. 78).
Moving from connection to integration. It explains more deeply what happens in these moments of reassurance or ease with nature. Often, even as we are observing some natural phenomenon, we begin to lose our sense of control over it. We allow it to unfold before us, and in some way, allow ourselves to unfold before it and before ourselves. We allow our thoughts to happen as they do, ideas to come and go, breath to be freely moving, and eventually, we lose even the sense of observation, or of an “observer.” THISis when we are truly reintegrated. Tree, river, and Izzy are not three entities, one experiencing the other two, but one whole experience unfolding.
I would argue that this experience is one of our most natural states, as we can access it through nature, but also by doing things that put us in a “flow.” Often, these are things we love, physical practices, quality time with friends, concerts, etc. There’s a reason people say they get “lost in the music,” or “yoga/runners high,” and I promise it’s not just the acid or vitamins they may be taking, though I don't discredit the affects of the two. When we lose ourselves, the doer, the seer, the observer, we gain an entire experience and often indescribably. It feels like it’s simply plopped into our brains, bodies, and memories. We just have the feeling of it because there is no more separation. We know such and such, and we may not be able to communicate the feeling, knowledge, or understanding of the experience to others.
So as we move forward, I believe it’s important to reintegrate as frequently as possible. As nature is the easiest route for most of us, let’s all spend a little more time outside! Walk, swim, get dirty, touch a tree, follow a butterfly, allow yourself to lose yourself. Allow yourself to become an experience. Allow yourself to gain the rhyme, reason, and rhythm of nature. To find a new rhyme, reason, or rhythm, even if just for a little while. See what it's like to let that happen. And by all means, pick up your fucking trash!