Spirituality and Nature

Photo by Hannah Reding on Unsplash
Photo by Hannah Reding on Unsplash

Going out into nature can be a transforming experience. If you’re willing to give yourself over to being in a natural setting or wilderness environment, free from the distractions of our usually busy lives, extraordinary things can happen.

Donald M. Friedman, MD
Donald M. Friedman, MD

Henry David Thoreau, the famous New Englander who lived in the woods to discover and learn about life and himself said, “The salvation of the world is in the wilderness.” Rabbi Mike Comins in his insightful book, Wild Faith – Jewish Ways into Wilderness, Wilderness Ways into Judaism, talks about the non-religious Jew who nonetheless finds “something profound and moving in the wilderness. He senses the natural world as meaningful for its own sake, ethically commanding, and sacred – in short, holy.” (p.5)

Rabbi Jamie S. Korngold in her illuminating book, God in the Wilderness – Rediscovering the Spirituality of the Great Outdoors with the Adventure, observes, “Today in our frenetic lives – where it seems impossible to get off the grid – wilderness, and nature in general, overflows with opportunities to deepen our spirituality and enrich our relationships with self, community, and God.” (p.124)

The most striking thing for me about being in nature and/or the wilderness is the sense of connection it engenders – connection to one’s self by encouraging us to look inward, connection to all humanity through the realization that we are part of something larger than ourselves, connection to our ancestors (be they Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, since major events happened in each of these religions in the desert or outdoors in some natural setting), and finally, if so inclined in one’s belief system, connection to God or Spirit. Why does all of this have some relevance to health and well being?

I think that having a connection to something, be it other people, the natural environment, the world in general, and/or God or one’s conception of a higher power, is so important for a sense of self and meaning. Without that sense of connection we wither and wander aimlessly. Without connection, it is hard to find purpose and meaning in life. By connecting to natural surroundings, one can, in a sense, connect to the whole universe and the universal experience of all living things.

There are many other ways that nature can foster a healthy approach toward living one’s life. Nature can be a great teacher in showing us how to be in the world in a way that supports our growth and brings us satisfaction. Sir John Lubbock, an English naturalist of the 19th century, said, “Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters and teach some of us more than we can ever learn from books.”

Of great importance is the way nature can foster a sense of being present, of being in the moment. It’s no secret that in our technologically-oriented society, we are constantly distracted. For many, it is hard to notice what is right around them, be it other people, occurrences, a moment of natural beauty, a chance for human connection, or a lesson to be learned from one’s environment. Buddha said, “The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, nor to worry about the future, but to live the present moment wisely and earnestly.”

Henry Miller, the author, said, “The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.” If we don’t notice what is in the moment, we can’t learn from and be enriched by our experiences. Nature gives us the opportunity to be present not only to the moment, but also to what is inside us and what we feel.

Rabbi Jamie S. Korngold summarizes the possibilities of nature so beautifully when she says in her book, God in the Wilderness, “Removed from the distractions of everyday life, of cell phones, emails, and to-do lists, we are able to immerse ourselves fully in the moment, in each step, in each breath. As we leave behind the safety of homes and cars, and we step fully into the wilderness to meet nature, we also meet ourselves. As we look outward to the wilderness, we look inward and reawaken to what is essential in our lives, to the core of our being.” (p.4)

Rabbi Korngold has a very interesting chapter on Moses and the burning bush. If it were today and Moses happened to be listening to his iPod or talking on his cell phone as he walked by the famous bush, he may have noticed the fire peripherally, but not given it full attention, and he may even have walked on. The history of the Jewish people might then have been totally different. What is even more significant, Rabbi Korngold points out, “is that he (Moses) takes the time to notice that the bush is burning, but not being consumed. It takes patience to notice that something is on fire but not burning up, because you actually have to sit with it for a while to observe the changes, or lack thereof.” (pps 23-24 God in the Wilderness)

Furthermore, it is not until Moses has “turned aside to look” (Exodus 3:4), meaning that he actually noticed, that God addresses Moses. Rabbi Korngold postulates that this was actually Moses’s test — “Will Moses notice? Will he take the time to stop and observe this peculiar sight?” (p.24) Rabbi Korngold goes on to conclude, “Perhaps the spirituality many of us experience outdoors is created by the simple fact that we are less distracted so that we are able to be deeply attentive to what is around us as well as what is inside us.” (p.24).

Nature can also give us a healthy perspective on our place in the world. So many people today are very self-absorbed, totally focusing on their own self-importance. Our society is plagued by a sense of entitlement, where few people will say “thank-you” if you hold the door for them. And many feel that everything should be coming to them, whether they try to positively affect their life situation or not. Being out in nature reminds us that we are not the center of the universe and in fact, are just journeying through in a finite period of time. I have always found being out in nature to be a very humbling experience. When I went to the Muir Woods in California and looked up at those giant redwood trees that had been there for centuries, I felt like a speck.

Along these lines, I find Rabbi Korngold’s discussion of the Job story so enlightening. After all the horrible things that happen to Job, he questions what did he do to deserve this, the “Why me?” question that I’m sure most of us have asked at some time in our lives. As Rabbi Korngold points out, “God does comfort Job, but not with an explanation. Rather God takes Job on a tour of Creation, from God’s point of view…God shows Job the ocean…God points upward to the vast evening sky…God shows Job soaring eagles and wild beasts…God shows Job the far edges of the earth…” (God in the Wilderness p.117)

Job comes to realize that since humans are not a part of this picture, he and all of humanity are “not the center of the universe.” (p.117) Rather, Job comes to the comfort in knowing that he is very much a part of the world and connected to it, but his time is finite. Realizing that we as humans are limited and imperfect and not all-powerful is such a healthy recognition that can make our lives more meaningful and less stressful This perspective on who we are encourages us to be more self-accepting. And realizing that we are part of something larger than ourselves can be a great source of comfort.

Being in nature and the wilderness can encourage self-exploration and personal insight. As Rabbi Korngold astutely comments in God in the Wilderness, “Sometimes it takes the stark wilderness to help us face our truth and become our true selves.” (p,12) She discusses the Jacob wrestling story. There has been much discussion over the ages as to who is Jacob’s opponent – an angel, God, Esau, or Jacob himself wrestling with who he was vs. who he was to become? Whatever the case and whatever you think, the point that Rabbi Korngold makes is that the episode takes place by the river Yabok, out in the wilderness away from civilization where Jacob can be alone. The wilderness can provide a great opportunity to go inside oneself – there are few distractions of the modern world, assuming you “turn off all electronic devices,” and there is peace and quiet so you can look at where you are, how you’re feeling, and where you want to go in your life. You might be inclined to even struggle a bit with the issues you’re facing. This can be so rewarding and so revealing. As Rabbi Korngold comments, “I need to rush less from place to place, and go deeper into the place I am.” (p.109)

Rabbi Comins in Wild Faith noticed that the more people “concentrate on outer geography, the more aware they become of inner geography – their emotions, feelings, and yearnings.” (p.60)

Nature can also reflect back to you and offer metaphors of your life experiences, giving you insight as a result. A few weeks ago I was sitting in a park in Philadelphia eating a muffin and having coffee. Some sparrows gathered at my feet looking for crumbs, which I gladly shared with them. I noticed that one of the birds, who was full grown, could not see the crumbs at its feet. I soon realized that the bird was probably blind. When this bird sensed the other birds around it, it opened his beak, and one of the birds picked up a crumb with its own beak and put it in the open beak of the blind bird. I thought it might have been a fluke, so four more times I threw crumbs at the blind bird”s feet, and each time one of the birds would deposit a crumb in the blind bird’s open beak. What an example right in front of me of the power of nurturing. I started thinking of how we all need to be nurtured no matter who we are. I immediately thought of the many teachers and mentors I have had over the years, whose wisdom helped shape my life and nurture me along. So nature helped me to think and feel and sense a warmth inside myself at a time I didn’t expect to have anything profound happen.

Nature and wilderness can also offer us balance in our lives. When we are in nature, there is no pressure to be busy and accomplish something. As Rabbi Korngold notes, “In our culture being busy is a badge of honor and a source of pride…We are achievers not slackers. If workdays and weekends are busy, it mean that we are experiencing life to the fullest.” (God in the Wilderness p.65)

But that’s not really so. We all need time for rest and recharging and unproductively for our own health. Otherwise our physical and mental systems will break down. We are told in the Ten Commandments to remember the Sabbath as a day of rest so that we don’t work all the time. Nature can give us the chance to relax and chill and nourish our souls by “being’ instead of “working and doing.” Rabbi Korngold emphasizes how the cycles found in the natural world are important to Judaism – night and day, full moon and waning moon, activity and rest. We need that balance of ebb and flow in our lives as well. Sigurd Olson, an American writer and conservationist, summarized it well by saying, “Wilderness is a spiritual necessity, an antidote to the high pressure of modern life, a means of regaining serenity and equilibrium.”

Being in nature can also help us foster a sincere and powerful sense of gratitude. I have heard it often said and experienced it myself that gratitude has so many positive effects on how we sense the world, live our lives, and interpret what happens to us. One of the healthiest feelings being in nature can inspire is a sense of gratitude. Rabbi Marcia Prager in her book, The Path of Blessing: Experiencing the Energy and Abundance of the Divine says, “Imagine if at every moment we each embraced the world as the gift it is: An apple is a gift; the color pink is a gift; the honeysuckle is a gift…We are called not merely to notice casually now and then that something is special and nice but to sustain and deepen a profound and sustained gratitude. Indeed, the more we acknowledge our gratefulness, the more we temper our tendency to be users, despoilers, arrogant occupiers.” (p.15) This quote is cited in Rabbi Mike Comins book, Attitudes of Gratitude: How to Give and Receive Joy Everyday of Your Life""” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”>Attitudes of Gratitude as a source of information about this. In the book, Ryan comments, “It is impossible to experience gratitude when your heart is closed. Rather, it immediately opens us up to the beauty of the moment, welcoming rather than fearing the unexpected. Gratitude is the antidote to fear, bitterness, and anger. The more grateful you are, the easier it is to give and the more you love. When we are grateful, we feel connected to that for which we are grateful. Gratitude makes us feel at home in the world.” (p.5) All this can’t help but have a positive effect on one’s health and sense of well being. In this time of economic uncertainty, gratitude for what one does have can be healing.

One can also have a sense of awe and mystery in nature and the wilderness. But awe and mystery can be difficult concepts and may induce people to run away toward certainty. Yet even one of the greatest scientists of our time,

Albert Einstein, said, “Try and penetrate…the secrets of nature…and you will find…something inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion..” Our society does not encourage us to embrace awe and mystery in our lives. Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D. astutely addresses this issue in particular and the value of a sense of awe and mystery in general in her CD “The Will to Live and Other Mysteries.” She observes that “We’re a society of control. We trade mystery for mastery and lose sight of wonder and awe.” Dr. Remen goes on to say that everything doesn’t have to be solved or understood to have meaning. But “In our culture, the unknown is an insult that requires action. Mystery requires attention and not action…People who wonder never burn out.” (The Will to Live and Other Mysteries CD)

When we go out into nature, there are mysteries everywhere, and wonder and awe can abound. One has to be willing to look and see. Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great Jewish thinker of the 20th century, could look at a sunset and describe it as a miracle; he practiced and encouraged what he called “radical amazement” which enabled him to cultivate a sense of wonder. Awe can also make us aware of our humanness. As Rabbi Comins says, “Awe is a response to beauty and grandeur, a recognition of mystery, an expression of humility.” (A Wild Faith, p.23) But as the Rabbi also points out, besides providing beauty and grandeur, nature and the wilderness can also be dangerous and require risk. He comments, “One cannot see wildflowers or moose calves without passing rotting tree trunks, the remains of fire, or unburied bones. The grandeur and fragility of our world, the immediacy of life and death, are all around. It’s hard not to feel awe in wilderness.” (p.25) This is all part of learning our place in the wilderness and growing from what we observe. So as Rabbi Korngold advises, “Cultivate the patience to see burning bushes. You will be amazed at the wonders you discover. When we marvel at the world around us, we prepare to meet the miracles that await us, around almost every corner.” (God in the Wilderness p.30)

All of the above aspects of nature – the connection, the awe and mystery, the power of presence and gratitude, the perspective, balance, and insight one can achieve – make it a very spiritual experience to be in a natural setting and can help one develop a spiritual life. One of the most spiritual aspects of nature, however, is the opportunity to experience the Divine presence. I realize that many people do not believe in God or may prefer to use the terms Spirit, Indefinable Force, the Universal Power when talking about Divinity. Believing in God is such a personal matter, and, in the case of many, a constantly evolving process where ideas and concepts change as one ages and gains in life experiences. But from a Rabbinic and Judaic standpoint, God’s presence is in nature, and it is up to us to find it. Maimonides felt that if you thought about the works of nature and all the creatures on the earth, you could get a sense of Divine wisdom. Jewish Mysticism teaches that God is in everything; thus, that simple blade of grass has great significance. As Rabbi Comins suggests, “Wilderness is helpful because the felt presence of God is readily and reliably available…Wilderness matters because it is an optimal place to work out a personal, unscripted, fresh relationship with Divinity.” (Wild Faith p.6)

Rabbi Korngold talks about feeling “part of the Divine energy that courses through the universe” (God in the Wilderness p.60) when we stand in awe in a natural environment. Many people feel a sense of “something outside themselves” when surrounded by nature’s beauty and/or the wonder of the wilderness. Rabbi Korngold points out that “Rabbi Heschel taught that we access God through awe, by going to natural places, like the high peaks, which take us beyond the confines of words to that purely emotional and spiritual place that allows us to feel connected to something larger than ourselves.” (God in the Wilderness, p.9)

If you look at Jewish and Christian texts, many of the important moments when God became revealed took place in the desert or wilderness. Maybe it was because the wilderness was a more likely place to have a spiritual experience, because it was free of the distractions of an urban environment.

I think there are two things to keep in mind, if one is to have a “God moment” in nature. The first is that this is an active process – we’re the ones who have to go looking for it, be open to it, and willing to notice and be aware. Rabbi Korngold points out that in the Red Sea story, God does not part the waters until God sees that Nachshon ben Aminadav has walked into the Red Sea with the water up to his nose, while the rest of the Israelites are on the shore bemoaning their fate and complaining that God is not helping them, as the Egyptians are rapidly approaching. Rabbi Korngold points out that “there are many times when we are more like the Israelites, standing on the sidelines waiting for something to happen, for someone else to take care of the situation (God in the Wilderness p.37) Rabbi Korngold is talking about taking responsibility for our actions and for what happens to us. But I also feel it applies to taking responsibility for how we interact with nature, not only in caring for the environment, but also by taking the first steps of being aware and open and willing to look for a spiritual experience and connection with the Divine. The possibilities are endless in nature, but we must find them.

The second point to keep in mind relevant to having a “God moment” in nature is the need to recognize that small observations and small experiences of discovery and revelation are extremely important. Rabbi Korngold points out that the age of the big miracles is over, when dramatic revelations of God’s presence occurred. Rather, today we can rejoice in the small miracles that happen daily. Rabbi Comins insightfully states, “How long I looked for God in the wrong places! So often we expect to meet God in some dramatic fashion…A mature spirituality, like a long-term love, needs to find its power in the small things of everyday life…I just need to open my eyes. I need to adjust my expectations and look for God in the undramatic, everyday routines of life.” (Wild Faith p.55-56) These miracles are not only what happens to us in nature or what we observe out in the wilderness; they are also the small wonderful miracles that can happen in daily positive human interactions we have with each other.

Along those lines, I’ll share a story of an experience that happened to me at Iguacu Falls in South America 1½ years ago. The Falls are breathtakingly beautiful and consist of 275 actual waterfalls over 1.7 miles at the border of Argentina and Brazil. As I was standing in front of one of the waterfalls, I was so taken back by the splendor and beauty of the place that I spontaneously had the thought, “How can people not believe in God?” Again, I am not sharing this as a judgmental comment on those who don’t; it was just what came into my head at that moment. After thinking this thought, I became so imbued with a sense of gratitude that I had that total body sensation of warmth I’ve mentioned before. It was powerful and stirring. Minutes later I walked to a railing that overlooked one of the rivers going down to the Falls. I noticed a small white butterfly moving among the plants beneath me. As it got closer,

I noticed it had two red stripes on one wing and an infinity sign on the other. I felt the urge to talk to the butterfly telling it I found it beautiful and asking it to come closer to me. The next thing I knew, the butterfly landed on the railing close to my right hand and then proceeded to climb up on my hand where it remained for the next 10 minutes. A man with a huge camera came close to me to photograph the butterfly from different angles. I was afraid this intrusive activity would scare the butterfly away, but it remained on my hand fluttering its wings. I had to get back to my tour group and started walking slowly. The butterfly continued to stay on my hand for another 5 minutes despite the motion of my walking. When I got near a crowd of people looking at some coatis (a relative of raccoons) in the woods, the butterfly flew away, probably frightened by all the activity. My rational medical mind immediately thought that the butterfly stayed on my hand for 15 minutes because it was attracted to the insect repellant I had generously applied before entering the buggy environment of Iguacu Falls. But then I realized it was unlikely that a butterfly would be attracted to a material noxious to insects.

Was the butterfly some acknowledgement of my recognition of God in the world or my gratitude for the beauty I was so lucky to see? Would the whole experience have happened without my recognition or my gratitude occurring first? Who knows? I never will. But I found the whole experience of a butterfly on my hand for 15 minutes transforming, and since then, I’ve been more aware of how the universe can respond to you, if you put yourself out there.

So how can one go out into nature and the wilderness and have an enjoyable and meaningful spiritual experience? Rabbi Comins has helpful suggestions throughout A Wild Faith. Some of these include going into the woods or other natural environments silently without talking, music, or any other sounds other than the crunching of your feet on the earth below you. You will be able to notice more around you and how you’re interacting with your surroundings. Try meditative walking where you focus on your breath, feel your feet on the earth, and concentrate on what’s before you. Pay attention to your senses – the sounds around you, the smell of the woods and/or flowers, the way it feels when you touch a tree or plant or the soil. Notice patterns on a leaf or on a tree or in the whole forest. Find what Rabbi Comins calls a “Soul-O-Mate” (p.66), a spot that feels right to your whole body.

Spend some time there just being. You can also try to experience the Divine life force of some parts of nature – a tree, a rock, a plant (p.126) It’s amazing to feel the energy in a tree by holding its trunk between your hands. Try journaling in the woods. Ask questions about issues in your life and see if some answers come out of the silence. There are many other exercises, outlined by Rabbi Comins, some involving prayer, blessings, and ritual, which can enhance your experience out in nature. Pick what suits you best and be adventuresome and open to what is in front of you. Also, Rabbi Korngold and Rabbi Comins each have founded and run programs that provide rich experiences in Jewish Wilderness Spirituality. Their websites are www.adventurerabbi.com and www.torahtrek.org respectively. Check them out for some wonderful opportunities and information.

And so, there is much to explore out in nature and the wilderness. The possibilities are endless, the discoveries potentially transforming. There is the spiritual opportunity, available to everyone, to connect with the universe while also delving deep to connect with your soul.

Donald M. Friedman, M.D.
Spirituality and Healthcare
Philadelphia, PA


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