Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Power of Nature

The early Chassidic masters would often immerse themselves for hours in the natural world while meditating and communing with G-d.  This raises the question:  If G-d is everywhere, why such a preference for nature?  Also, it takes time out of one’s day to leave the confines of human society and travel to an “untouched” place.  How could these tzaddikim (saints) waste so much time just to sit in a pretty spot?  The answer is that nature has a lot to teach us about G-d’s might and wonder – and about ourselves.

Chassidic philosophy teaches that every person is born with what is called a yetzer hara (evil inclination).  That is, we each have an impulse to do what is base and low – greedy and hurtful.  We feel an absolute compulsion to engage in such unhealthy behavior when we give ourselves over to this shadowy aspect of ourselves.  The challenge of our lives – actually the purpose of our lives – is to struggle mightily against the yetzer hara so we can live in accordance to the wishes of our Creator.

According to Jewish tradition, we were given the yetzer hara at the time of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden.  Up until that moment, the first humans lived in natural accord with the world around them and fulfilled the expectations of their Creator with their every breath.  However, upon eating from the Tree of Knowledge they were removed from this state of innocence and burdened with the “curse” of self-awareness.  They were now outsiders looking in at the perfection of creation, as if it somehow did not relate to them anymore.  They no longer operated solely out of instinct, but rather, out of consciousness.

The yetzer hara is solely a manifestation of the human world.  A tree cannot “decide” to grow in a way contrary to its genetic code.  A lion hunts and an antelope flees because that is how they were made.  A frog croaks the song given to it by G-d.  Plants and animals propagate, the wind blows, the snow falls and gathers in drifts because that is what G-d wants.  When we travel into nature we are surrounded by a world perfectly in tune with the wishes of the Creator – which is in absolute contrast to the grating noise and confusion often found in human society.

There are deep lessons to be learned from nature.  For example, I was extremely despondent when my mother died and I went up to the mountains on several occasions to “clear my head.”  Watching the seasons’ transitions, with leaves changing color and falling to the ground, the cold winds of winter blowing across perfectly white fields, the first shoots of green pushing through snow, and then summer’s full climaxed glory transformed my idea that she was “gone” to an understanding that she was still very much alive and just moving through G-d’s cycle of life.

I already believed that life continues after death, but submersing in nature’s rhythm of death/rebirth brought it home in a way that an intellectual belief could not.  I was comforted and able to move forward again. 

There are other lessons as well.  Watching how a tree grows can teach us how we should grow.  Studying the way of water, how it is soft and flows to low places can teach humility.  Following an eagle in flight can show us the need for boldness and vision.  Realizing that all creatures are in symbiotic relationship to each other pushes one towards seeking that kind of balance as well.  

The lessons learned from a natural world untrammeled by the ways of the yetzer hara can quiet our own “evil inclination” and encourage us to stay in our “higher selves.”  So rather than following an impulse to behave in a hurtful way, or to fall back into unhealthy coping mechanisms designed to keep us safe, we can journey through the human world with the purpose of making it better – realigning it to the vision of its Creator.  By employing the free-will available to conscious beings we can perform a trick that the rest of the nature cannot – namely, repairing what has been broken, which will certainly lead to a more meaningful and healthy life.

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