For thousands of years, humankind as built cities to escape the hardships of nature, but has turned to nature for spiritual nourishment. The rishis (seers) who wrote Hindu scripture lived in the wilderness. Old Testament prophets sought God on mountaintops. The Buddha and his disciples sought enlightenment in the forests. After taking their vows, Hindu and Buddhist monks go into the wilderness to meditate. After his baptism, Jesus “was led by the Spirit into the wilderness.” (Luke 4:1) Jesus repeatedly took solitude in nature. (See e.g., Matt 14:23, Mark 6:32, Mark 6:46, Luke 5:16, Luke 6:12.)
Why has nature drawn spiritual seekers to it for thousands of years in all parts of the globe? Why do so many people feel the presence of “the divine” more closely in nature? Perhaps the answer lies in both scripture and science.
“You Are That”
It is believed that roughly eight hundred years before Christ, an Indian rishi named Uddalaka recorded his teachings to his son, Svetaketu. Those teachings, known as the Chandogya Upanishad, contain a theory about humankind’s relation to the natural world that has endured ever since: that everything and everyone is part of one great whole (which has been translated as the One, the Self, or simply, Being), that everyone and everything is a temporary manifestation of the One, and that all will eventually merge back into the One.
“So through spiritual wisdom, dear one,
We come to know that all of life is one.
“In the beginning was only Being,
One without a second.
Out of himself he brought forth the cosmos
And entered into everything in it.
There is nothing that does not come from him.
Of everything he is the inmost Self.
He is the truth; he is the Self supreme.
You are that, Shvetaketu; you are that. . . .
“As the rivers flowing east and west
Merge in the sea and become one with it,
Forgetting they were ever separate streams,
So do all creatures lose their separateness
When they merge at last into pure Being. . . .
You are that, Svetaketu; you are that.”
I died as a mineral and became a plant,
I died as plant and rose to animal,
I died as animal and I was Man.
Six hundred years later, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:
“The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister, is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and vegetable. . . . Its effect is like that of a higher thought or a better emotion coming over me, when I deemed I was thinking justly or doing right.” (Nature, 1836)
“We Are Made of Starstuff”
Modern science has taken great strides down the path illuminated by the mystics and sages of old, bringing scientific confirmation to the idea that everything is an expression of one great whole: the Universe. Uni-verse literally means “combined into one, whole”.
“You and I are all as much continuous with the physical universe as a wave is continuous with the ocean. You are a function of this total galaxy, bounded by the Milky Way, and this galaxy is a function of all other galaxies. You are that vast thing that you see far, far off with great telescopes.”
As Carl Sagan explained:
“We are the local embodiment of a Cosmos grown to self-awareness. We have begun to contemplate our origins: starstuff pondering the stars; organized assemblages of ten billion, billion, billion atoms considering the evolution of atoms; tracing the long journey by which, here at least, consciousness arose.”
“We are a way for the Cosmos to know itself.”
Sagan and Watts’ statements echo that ancient refrain found throughout the Chandogya Upanishad: tat twam asi, “you are that”. We are not conscious beings experiencing the Universe, we are the Universe experiencing consciousness.
Transcending the Illusion of Separateness
“A human being is part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to enhance all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
For nature mystics like Ralph Waldo Emerson, immersing himself in nature was a means to transcend his apparent separateness and merge with what he called the “Universal Being”:
“In the woods too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life, is always a child. In the woods, is perpetual youth. Within these plantations of God, a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years. . . . Standing on the bare ground–my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space–all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball. I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. . . . I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty.” (Nature, 1836)
Temples Made Without Hands
I have noticed something about myself and many others who have left the LDS church: we tend to spend more time in nature than ever before. Something draws us there, some inner yearning. Putting behind us the temples made by man, we find spiritual nourishment in the temples made without hands.
When I am in nature, I often feel like I’m walking on sacred ground. That feeling puzzles me, because I don’t hold any religious or metaphysical beliefs that would deem one place more “sacred” than another. When I’m walking in the woods, surrounded by life in a thousand forms, I feel as if I can sense the energy radiating from it all, though I cannot explain how or why. Standing in the shadows of stone towers in Bryce Canyon, or on the rocky coastline near my home, the thought often arises that if God were to build temples, this would surely be one of them.
If you haven’t already found a spiritual refuge in nature—a place of natural beauty where you can enjoy solitude often—I strongly recommend finding one. It doesn’t have to be an exotic location or National Park; any nearby meadow, forest, mountain, stream, lake, or beach will do. Enter the temples made without hands. Immerse yourself in the endless forms of matter, life, and beauty. And remember You Are That.