Updated: May 24, 2020
Last night in my writing class, all of the participants wrote about nature in some way-- about being in the forest or being a butterfly or comparing themselves to a seed in the earth. For each of them, there was an element of finding themselves in nature. As I listened to them read, I could sense a feeling of peace as they each recalled their experience of being in the beauty and simplicity of the natural world. It was so serendipitous and magical. I myself had been working on clarifying, through writing, my own recent experience being in nature the day before. On Monday I was walking along Lake Washington at about 6:00am. Every Monday morning I offer an online guided meditation, and that day my plan was to focus on the inner resource, the internal respite we can train ourselves to connect with in times of stress, struggle and dis-ease. The lake was still and there were just a few boats quietly anchored in Andrew's Bay. The air felt just the right amount of cool and there were only a handful of walkers and runners at that hour. It's my favorite time of day. Thinking about the meditation I would lead in a few hours time, I was contemplating what my own inner resource looks like these days. In that exact moment, I noticed two little beaver heads slithering across the surface of the still water. They were close in, maybe four feet from the shore. I stopped to watch them for a moment, but as soon as they sensed me, they dove under the water, safe from my towering presence on the shore.
"That's their inner resource," I thought to myself, "they have such an immediate, uncomplicated response to a potential threat. They know how to find safety and security right away." They just dive down into the deeper water, safe from the predator on the shore. I imagined their slithering bodies gliding down, down, down into safer waters and emerging further away from the shore, away from my curious stare. In that moment I wished it could be that easy for me-- to dive under the blankets of my bed or hide in my closet-- to elicit a sense of safety and well-being when I feel overwhelmed by commitments or filled with shame for some stupid social faux pas. But we humans are complex, maybe too complex for our own good. Even when there is no imminent physical threat, our advanced brain structure makes it hard to calm the mind. While the body may be safe and protected physically, too often the mind is on its own journey of memories and experiences that seem to have very little to do with the moment at hand.
When we are infants things are different. In infancy we are more like the beavers. In those early days, we respond reflexively, from our reptilian brains. Then, as we grow, experiencing and internalizing different life events, we move away from those innate impulses and become overloaded with response possibilities. We essentially bury our intuition, that innate knowing. Instead of diving into clear water, it can feel like we're mucking through the milfoil, unsure of when our feet will find the sandy bottom of the lake again.
My teacher Astrid says that our intuition, our deepest, perhaps most innate knowing emerges when we can get everything else to quiet down. She says that intuition is patient and it will wait for stillness before it shows up. I imagine it like the calm after a storm where the light is clear; the air strangely soft and electric at the same time. This moment when we just know our truth. This wisdom about intuition has been an important and enduring lesson for me; it is one of the reasons those early morning walks in nature have become a vital part of my day, and really of my life.
Being in nature is restorative. On the most basic level, it makes us feel good. The very oxygen we take in when we walk in the forest is healing and rejuvenating. But it's more than that. Being in the simplicity of nature is a clear reminder to our overly complex psyches that things don't have to be so complicated. It helps reconnect us with quiet, with a stillness that invites in this inner peace, the one that is so obvious to the beavers in the lake.
We all started from that effortless place, that baby place where we are simple-- we eat, drink, sleep, suck, pee and poo. And we've become these complex, multi-faceted, constantly processing organisms that get lost in the muck and the milfoil. There's a lot of stress these days, a jigsaw puzzle of ways to worry and despair. Sometimes we can't physically get to a forest or a lake, but we can sit quietly, look up at the sky, close our eyes, listen for the birds. Or we can go within, to a memory or an image. We can get quiet,