Nature as Teacher

It’s been a big week for weather. We’ve seen people swimming down Flinders Street in Melbourne, a so-called Snowpocalypse over the eastern USA, and hailstones the size of oranges cannoning off cars up here in the Blue Mountains.

The drastic and disruptive power of weather is a sharp reminder of something that humans are generally not good at acknowledging: that we’re not the centre of all things.

As ego-bearing creatures, it can be a serious blow to our self-esteem to realise that, on the global radar of life, each of us barely rates as a blip. We may like to think that as a species we’re the most powerful force in the world, exalted beings riding at the prow of the ship of evolution: masters of nature. Nature, however, likes to remind us otherwise.

And thank God it does.

Nature, when we choose to truly hear and notice it, can be our most profound teacher. If you want to learn about yourself and your place in the world, spending time in nature can be like fast-tracking your graduation at summer school. It nudges the ego out of the way and reminds us of our interdependence on absolutely everything around us.

As a teenager I once spent the better half of a day of my Christmas holidays deliberately getting dumped in the shore break. Tumbling along the sand under the power of the waves, I had a visceral experience of the pummelling power of the ocean. I walked up the beach gasping for breath, hair plastered across my face and sand in my eyes, feeling very very small.

Yet mixed in with this sense of my own puniness was a palpable sense of being part of that enormous natural power. I felt connected to the immensity, supported by the strength of… something. The closest thing I knew to call this something was God. But that felt a little unsatisfactory: wasn’t he busy somewhere up there doling out purgatory, heaven and hell?

The Yoga Sutras say that if we believe in a concept called Isvara, our yogic journey is likely to be infinitely easier. Isvara is most often translated as “God” or “lord”, but according to another old yoga text (the Ishavasya Upanishad) it can equally be understood as a vital creative energy, which not only puts the world together but flows like a current through everything in it.

(If you’re currently freaking out about the G-word, you’re not alone. The idea of “God” came with some pretty hefty hurdles for me and my Catholic-education-inspired hang-ups. My epiphany with Isvara came while hiking and camping in the backcountry of Yosemite.)

But what is the purpose of Isvara in yogic teachings?

As I said at the beginning, humans are a pretty self-centred bunch. It’s that old devil called ego again – constantly trying to assert its “rightness”, hollering “it’s all about MEEEEEEEE!”, and shouting “not my fault” when things go wrong. The odd thing is, for all the ego’s blustery self-belief, it actually leads a fragile existence. And when it’s under attack, it tends to bring out the worst in us.

It’s the ego that creates our sense of separateness – that idea that you are different from me, that their race is different from our race, that humans are superior to, say, ants.

Living with due regard for Isvara reminds us that we are neither the most important nor powerful beings in the world. We’re not always right. And the current of creation that flows through those ants is the same that gives us breath and birth.

Accepting that there are energies more powerful than ourselves makes it easier to put the ego back in bed. To flick off the “I know best” switch. To take a quick chill pill before we lash out when somebody else (there’s that separation again) challenges our “rightness”.

And here’s why it’s worth taking yourself out of the “me” world and into the natural world . When we’re out in nature, the blow to the ego as we learn our real position in the scheme of things is cushioned by a feeling of awe and wonderment at the world in which we find ourselves: the intricacy of the unfolding fern, the profundity of the web of life, and most importantly, our connection to it all.

Once we learn to notice and not just see, to hear and not just listen, nature does the rest for us. It allows us to be, without having to do anything at all. It helps to unfold many of life’s little, and not so little mysteries. Try spending some time in it.

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