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There’s a Zen story about an old zen master who was dying. All of the monks gathered – in a kind of restrained eagerness – around the deathbed, hoping to be chosen as the next teacher.
The master asked slowly, “Where is the gardener?”
“The gardener,” the monks wondered aloud. “He is just a simple man who tends plants, and he is not even ordained.”
“Yes,” the master replied. “But he is the only one awake. He will be the next teacher.”
Apparently there’s something about working in and being present to the natural world that produces a kind of “awakeness” toward Life. The famous painter Vincent Van Gogh expressed this same reality: “All nature seems to speak … As for me, I cannot understand why everybody does not see it or feel it; nature or God does it for everyone who has eyes and ears and a heart to understand.” (The Complete Letters, 248, I, 495)
There’s something spiritually stimulating about being in nature and allowing it to speak to your heart and mind and soul. There’s something powerful about getting close enough to creation to hear its song and listen to its rhymes. Every major religion in the world recognizes the spirituality of nature and provides various ways to become more “awake” to the voice of the Sacred that speaks from the world all around us. It’s pretty amazing what we begin to notice when we’re being more mindful and aware of everything we see, hear, and feel.
I was sitting in the waiting section of the oil change garage off of the busy Van Ness Ave. in San Francisco last week. My chair was close to the garage entrance so I could see the street. I was thinking about the upcoming spiritual retreat we were taking with my Second Wind spiritual community, the retreat theme this year being on the spirituality of nature. My initial response to what I saw and felt in the midst of my very urban environment was to heave a sigh of relief knowing that it wasn’t much longer until I was going to finally be out of the city into “real” nature where I could hear God’s voice and feel closer to the Spirit of life. But then, as I looked outside the huge garage door and saw the cars driving past, hearing the traffic sounds, I was suddenly struck by a significant reality: I was surrounded by “nature” right there in the middle of my huge city. It wasn’t just the green trees on the median of this busy boulevard, or the birds I saw flying overhead. The heart and soul of nature was also evident in the awe-inspiring creative spirit that went into the design and construction of today’s modern vehicles – the intricate, micro “creation” of computer chips and boards running the cars and trucks, the impressive design of the engines propelling vehicles toward their destination, the guys changing the oil in my car, running back and forth, using their appendages skillfully to service my amazingly constructed automobile (even though I kind of hate my old car these days and wish I could get a nicer new one). Even the sounds that we so much associate with “anti-nature” (car horns, exhaust pipes from loud buses and trucks, traffic, construction sites, loud voices) are in fact the sounds of life, all of which involve the divine spirit of creativity, artistry, invention, passion, desire for the best in life). And when that perspective hit me, I became aware of “nature” in the middle of my city in new ways that led to a deeper appreciation of God’s Spirit all around me. I had a very meaningful spiritual epiphany right there on busy Van Ness Avenue – I encountered the God of life in the sanctuary of Jiffy Lube!
Living with our “eyes” more open wherever we find ourselves, suggest the spiritual sages of all time, produces a deeper experience of life and an increased connection with God. Nature is where life is; and life is everywhere. I do realize, in addition, that being in environments that are more silent and quiet and environmentally natural is extremely conducive to spiritual depth and connection, as well. But it’s amazing how often even when we’re in those settings we simply don’t see or hear the Sacred Spirit of life very deeply – we’re too busy “doing” instead of simply “being” attentive. Intentional mindfulness helps make the connection.
The Hebrew poets in Scripture manifested this intentionality with nature so profoundly in describing their experience of God. Their poetic similes and metaphors were filled with an environmental awareness that opened their hearts to the Divine Creator. One pointed to the other. God was both in His creation and the Master of Creation. Looking at one was like looking at the other. They facilitated experience, one with the other. Notice this example:
“O my soul, bless God! God, my God, how great you are!
beautifully, gloriously robed,
Dressed up in sunshine,
and all heaven stretched out for your tent.
You built your palace on the ocean deeps,
made a chariot out of clouds and took off on wind-wings.
You commandeered winds as messengers,
appointed fire and flame as ambassadors.
You set earth on a firm foundation
so that nothing can shake it, ever …
What a wildly wonderful world, God!
You made it all, with Wisdom at your side,
made earth overflow with your wonderful creations …
The glory of God-let it last forever!
Let God enjoy his creation!” (Psalm 104)
There is a profound spirituality associated with nature that is accessed by developing a greater mindfulness or awakeness or awareness of what you’re seeing and experiencing. That’s why, at Second Wind, we value the natural world and desire to enjoy it, honor it, respect it, care for it, and share it often. And we also value the city we live in as a place where God’s breath blows and moves and stirs up life, too. As urban dwellers, we’re learning to feel the divine breath energize us and bring us to life in the middle of our urban “forests,” where the voice of God sings to our souls the music of life.
This last weekend, on our Second Wind retreat, our closing “ceremony” was to write a collective psalm of praise to God, each one of us writing two lines describing our personal experience of the weekend, and then putting them all together into one song. After taking a few minutes to compose our two lines, we stood in a circle and read our lines in one complete collective psalm. I’m telling you, it was a profound experience for me as I listened to the richly diverse and meaningful ways everyone had encountered God and experienced the depth of life through the retreat time, described in some wonderfully poetic tones. Our intentional experiences of heightened awareness and awakeness, including times for reflection upon and observation of those experiences, revealed a significant spiritual epiphany for all of us. The power of keeping our eyes, ears, hearts, spirits, and bodies open to Life!
As Van Gogh once said, “Oh! My dear comrades, let us crazy ones have delight in our eyesight in spite of everything – yes, let’s!”