Nature as Guide

Nature as Guide
11-6-05
Douglas Taylor

In Hindu scripture there is a story of a student asking the master about the nature of the transcending reality that is often called God.  The student asked how it is we can know about the great mystery.  The master told the student to fetch a glass of water and a bit of salt.  The master then instructed the young one to stir the salt into the water and then asked, “Where is the salt?”

“Why, it is in the water,” replied the student.

“But we cannot see the salt,” the master said.  “How are we to know the salt is really there?”

“The water will taste salty,” answered the student.

“Just so!” said the master.  “In the same way can we know about the transcending reality of life, by experiencing it.”

Jesus extorted his followers to not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.  Indeed, he said, “look to the birds in the air” and “consider the lilies of the field, how they grow.”  He spoke of faith being like a seed and good deeds as fruit.  Perhaps the image that has struck deepest other than that of God being like a father, is the story of the shepherd and the lost sheep.  “Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven.  What do you think?  If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine one the mountain and go in search of the one that went astray?  And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray.  So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.”

There is a Buddhist meditation that I learned years ago now that reflects on the power pervasiveness of water, on its essential and humble qualities; suggesting that we, too, like water can move through life with a humble power.

The central metaphor we evoked last week during the Samhain service was that of the dying leaves of autumn.  Leading up to the releasing fire, I invited us to consider the lesson offered by these dying leaves and what we could let go of as we each journey into the deep winter time.

Annie Dillard writes, “I could very calmly go wild.”  In our reading this morning she suggest that the single-mindedness of the weasel is something lacking in human living and that we could learn something from those wild things out there.

Are you noticing the common thread here?  Time and again, religions turn to the natural world for guidance in how to live.  Time and again the metaphors we use in religion to describe life or God or faith, are metaphors from nature.  Time and again in the deep questions of who we are and how we are to live, nature is our guide.  Unitarian Universalism is heir to a remarkable tradition that held this focus on the natural world.  The Transcendentalists, most notably Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, were people who believed in the imminence of God in every person.  They turned to nature to for insight and understanding.

There is a reading in our hymnal from Ralph Waldo Emerson that is about roses.  The transcendentalists were generally quite skilled at recognizing in nature the secrets of a good life.  “These roses under my window,” Waldo wrote, “make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God today.  There is no time to them.  There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence.”  This is so common a statement from naturalists and transcendentalists.  It recurs in literature regularly.  The world of nature: flowers, animals, waterfalls; these do not tax themselves with preoccupations and worries.  One of the goals of Buddhist meditation is to become present to the moment.  A task which is so simple for a dog or a bird or an infant, is so very difficult for you and me.

As Emerson says, the rose under his window is ‘perfect in every moment of its existence.’  “But we postpone or remember.  We do not live in the present, but with reverted eye lament the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround us, stand on tiptoe to foresee the future.  We cannot be happy or strong until we too live with nature in the present above time.”  Think back to a time when you were fully happy.  Where you watching the clock?  Or was time flying while you were having fun?  Think back to a time when you were fully happy.  Where you multi-tasking?  Or were you fully present and enjoying the moment, ‘perfect in every moment of your existence.’

So many examples from nature lead us to the conclusion that single-minded attentiveness is highly valued.  So often, however, we hear appreciation and praise of multi-tasking; as if multi-tasking is some how better than being able to focus on one thing, as if having a fragmented attention is a good thing.  Multitasking only gives the illusion of creating extra time.  This and other behaviors like it work to divide our attention in too many directions.  We are in danger of becoming fragmented.

I had a fascinating experience this week that tied together much of what I was reading for this Sunday’s sermon.  I was invited to speak to a class of grade school English teachers in Elmira College.  The teachers were all taking a graduate level class in literature.  Their professor had them reading The Scarlet Letter and Moby Dick, and he thought it would be great to get either a modern-day Calvinist, Wiccan, or Unitarian in to speak with them because these were the faith traditions that came up in the books.  The professor found me and invited me over.  A few days before the class he sent me a list of questions they had brainstormed the week before.

The first question they asked was “Do you believe that contemporary America is a Puritan country?”  They had just finished reading The Scarlet Letter, so this was foremost in their minds.  My response was “No,” because the most predominant characteristic in our country today is the fragmentation.  We are too fragmented to have one characteristic such as Puritanism shine through as a dominant characteristic.  There are certainly pockets of it alive today, and pockets of anti-Puritanism as well which is really the same thing, just in the opposite direction.  American society holds too many sub-cultures for there to be any ONE dominate culture informing us.  Now, answering that puritan question with a little more time and a little more thought would probably yield a “yes” from me as well as my initial “no,” and that be make a good sermon down the road.

But my initial response lead right into their second question, “What, if anything, is wrong with American society?”  When my kids had seen that question on the sheet they had said “what do you mean, ‘if anything’?”  What, if anything, is wrong with American society?  I said, “Well, some people don’t think anything is wrong.”  “What?!?” they asked incredulously.  We could develop quite a list, I am sure:  incivility, greed, privatization, thoughtless destruction of the good earth, a political administration gutting our domestic infrastructure and crusading across foreign nations, excessive moralizing about sexuality while ignoring the poor, apathy; we could have a couple of months worth of sermons from that question and more importantly: how to respond.  My answer from earlier this week: ‘fragmentation leading to radical alienation.’

As a nation we are fragmented down into market groups, special niches, and subcultures galore.  As individuals we are also driven to distraction be multiple competing demands of our attention and focus, driven from integrity – from an integrated whole – into dis-integration.  We learn to juggle our calendars and to multi-task and to act like the dancing bear in the circus.  For whom do we perform?  What is gained by all that, and what is lost?  “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”  (Mark 8:35).

Can you imagine a tree acting like that?  Or a bird?  I can’t even imagine what that might be like!  Henry David Thoreau wrote,

Nature never makes haste; her systems revolve at an even pace.  The buds swell imperceptibly, without hurry or confusion, as though the short spring days were an eternity.  Why, then, should man hasten as if anything less than eternity were allotted for the least deed?  The wise man is restful, never restless or impatient.

This is not entirely true, but generally speaking this is how it happens.  Thoreau says nature does not hurry or get confused.  But strange behavior was noticed in the trees along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico last month.  People are saying the trees were confused, that they were “fooled by the wind, raid, and cold of the hurricane into thinking that winter had already come and gone.” (From a web log by Bishop Hope Ward)   This October the trees down there went into bloom and produced fruit out of season.  They call it a “Second Spring.”  It is not just a metaphor; there are photographs of a fig tree producing figs in October.  Now, I’ve learned not to believe everything I see and read on the internet, but NPR was reporting on this too so I’m inclined to believe the reports.

But I don’t think the trees are confused or fooled.  I think it is just an extra part of the natural system!  When devastation hits, the land responds.  There is a natural resiliency in the world; and in people as well.  So, while nature can be thrown out of her “even pace” as Thoreau calls it, it is still ill stated to say the trees are confused.

Confused is what we get.  Distracted and fragmented, that is our lot.  Emerson suggests we could learn something from the roses under his window.  Jesus thinks the lilies of the field could offer insight.  Annie Dillard, from our reading this morning, proposes the same concerning weasels.  “I might learn something of mindlessness,” she writes, “something of the purity of living in the physical senses and the dignity of living without bias or motive.”

“I could very calmly go wild.  I could live two days in the den, curled, leaning on mouse fur, sniffing bird bones, blinking, licking, breathing musk, my hair tangled in the roots of grasses.  Down is a good place to go,” she writes, “where the mind is single.”  She asks if we can really live that way, though.  “We could, you know,” she finally concludes.  “We can live any way we want.  People take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience – even of silence – by choice.  The thing is to stalk your calling in a certain skilled and supple way, to locate the most tender spot and plug into that pulse.”

And there is something in that last line, that line where she says “the thing is to stalk your calling.”  There is a clue there that also comes pouring out from the essays of the transcendentalists and the sermons of the messiah and the lessons of the Buddha.  There is a clue here that nature can be not only a guide to living well and living healthy.  The single-mindedness, the focused attentiveness, the ability to be here now is simply an underlying element to nature.  And it is something in the nature of you and me as well.  We can live that way.

In a world without end

May it be so