Take a Walk: Meeting Nature from the Spiritual Heart
By Tasha Friedman
A long walk in the woods is a spiritual practice in itself.
Have you spent too long inside? Are you starting to believe your own stories? No worries, there’s an easy remedy: let’s take a walk together.
We can go anywhere, as long as it’s a bit wild and outside your familiar routine. There should be more trees than people by a high proportion. Leave your bag and your phone; you won’t need anything where we’re going.
Leaving Limitations Behind
Step out on the path, and immediately, something shifts. It’s as clear and refreshing as the difference between bright sunlight and the shadow of the trees. Your eyes are on the forest, your back to the world of plastic, concrete, roles, and agendas. You might still feel the pressure of this sphere behind you, but it gradually fades as you go further.
The first thing you might notice in the woods is that nothing is moving. No more hustle and bustle, restless human motion from one activity to the next. No more flashing screens or passing cars. The forest and everything in it are just quietly existing. The trees are standing where they have stood for years or decades or centuries. You already start to feel some release from time.
After that, you might notice that a lot is moving.
Leaves are trembling in a breeze so gentle that you have to stop and close your eyes to feel it on your skin. A squirrel plunges through the branches overhead. A bee buzzes at a flower. Unseen birds are chirping; the sound of wings marks their travel from branch to branch.
As you become quiet yourself, what initially seemed to be silence becomes a constantly undulating field of sound. And yet, if you can become even quieter, drawing your mind into the Heart, you may start to perceive that this sound is itself pregnant with a deeper silence.
Leaves wave, branches sway, with nothing to express but their existence.
Keeping this quietness, this centeredness in the Heart, we walk on.
You feel more like yourself in the woods—which is to say less like your personality, less like your problems and your to-do list, and more like emptiness, silence, and joy.
The forest isn’t interested in your plans and projections. Without external reinforcement, their hold on you starts to melt away. Without mirrors or other people reflecting your personhood to you, you may feel it, as well as the solidity of your body and mind, melting away. You become transparent, a blank canvas for the wonder of nature to paint its beauty over you, blossoming anew in every moment of awareness.
A Close Look at Nature’s Art
Let’s look closely at some of the things around you. Take your time—it’s okay if we don’t get very far on this walk.
St. Paul said, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”
Why wait? Let’s see clearly right now. The beauty of nature’s creations makes this easy. Every flower, every leaf, every stone or piece of moss is a work of art unique in time and space.
We can start with easier objects like a colorful flower or gently curling fern. Though by the end of this walk, I hope you will be able to examine with delight the strange patterns in a stagnant puddle of mud, or crouch by a rotting bird carcass and exclaim, “Ah, how beautiful! Blessings to you on your journey, brother or sister Bird.”
You are looking at a fern, its delicate patterns so intricate and mathematically pristine they could only have been dreamed up by some divine mind.
Now drop the you, drop the looking. Forget everything you know about ferns and their different types and how they grow. Can you feel that fern from within, vibrating its sweet green luminosity somewhere deep in your own heart? Can you feel it growing, pulsing with life from moment to moment?
Stay with it for a while, as long as your enjoyment stays fresh and silent. When another impulse comes, find something else to marvel at. Anything your sight lands on is a good choice.
Everything Changes, the Spiritual Heart Remains
One thing about life that you might observe here is that it fervently wants to exist. Anywhere you look, you will find it at every scale: trees, bushes, and animals, but also moss and lichen, fungal growth, and an almost incredible abundance of insects. The whole scene before you is made of life.
Another thing you may notice, if you look with clear eyes, is that everything in this living world is changing.
Nature doesn’t like straight lines, and it doesn’t like to be static. It never stops reinventing itself. In the forest, and all of nature, growth and decay is the only constant.
Even black holes, the most Shiva-like phenomenon our manifested universe has to offer, are in perpetual motion, spinning through the cosmic void, growing their unseen mass by devouring matter and evaporating themselves in Hawking radiation.
The matrix of space and time itself is fluid, bendable, and expanding even as we stroll through this forest.
“Ok, very good,” you might say, “but what about this big rock right here?” It’s only a question of time, my dear walking companion. See how soft the surface of that rock is, how its edges are worn down by wind and rain. See the moss growing on it, the little sprouts whose roots reach into its cracks and pry them open.
Objects appear stable only when we look at them at a certain scale: big enough in space that we can’t see the buzzing of atoms and sub-atomic particles, small enough in time that we can’t see them arise and decay.
But some things we can see. If you enjoy this walk, I invite you to follow the same route tomorrow, and the day after. I guarantee that if you stop by the same landmarks—the same blossoming shrub, patch of mushrooms, pile of decaying leaves—you will find them transformed from one day to the next.
In the forest, there’s always something new to enjoy.
With this impermanence as the rule of nature, why do we assume that we are somehow the exception? Are you the same day today as you were yesterday? Or from minute to minute?
If you look closely and sincerely, my guess is that you will find that your body, your mind, and your emotions have never been the same, even from one moment to the next. Yet, there is something that doesn’t change and never has changed. Something mysteriously the same as the ephemeral beauty of that fern, the dancing tree leaves, and the song of the bird fluttering just beyond the corner of your eye.
If this is true, you must find it for yourself.
Love and Compassion for All Beings
We keep walking. Let your intuition be your guide, moving when it’s time to move and resting when it’s time to rest, letting yourself melt into the pulse of presence that hums louder and stronger as you become ever quieter. The Present Moment, your heart, radiates love towards all that appears within it, radiates beauty into all forms that arise from it.
For no reason at all, you smile and fondly stroke the bark of a tree like the hand of an old friend.
After a while, especially if you take many long walks and spend a long time out here, the animals might start coming to meet you.
Step softly: they are curious! Animals are not as accustomed as we are to the chatter and divisiveness of the mind. This is what scares them off. They are not afraid of us but of our noise, the way we crash and blunder carelessly through their world.
For evidence, consider some of the great mystics, like St. Francis of Assisi or Ramana Maharshi. These people were very quiet, glowing with love, and animals loved them in return.
If St. Francis is too far away, too mythological, read the stories of Ramana and his friendships with animals. (There are enough to fill a book, literally: Bhagavan Ramana, The Friend of All Creation.)
With his words, Ramana offered the most direct, no-frills path to Self-realization that humanity has yet discovered. Go straight to the Self. Ask, “Who am I?” Nothing else matters; it will all be devoured by that singularity.
Yet by his actions, Ramana demonstrated that this unflinching commitment to Truth does not end in cold detachment or indifference to the world. On the contrary, it brings absolute love and care for every living being, a recognition of the presence of Spirit no matter what body it lives in.
Go Back the Way You Came
Someone once asked Ramana, “Which path do I take?”
He responded, “Go back the way you came.”
Well, it’s our time now. We’ve come a long way already, and when we’ve gone far enough, you will know it immediately. We turn around, letting our feet carry us back past the friendly tree, past the rock decaying at its own geological pace, past the dead bird, past the flower that blooms only for one day, and the fern that unfolds its fresh geometry to catch dappled light in the underbrush.
We’re getting closer to home now. At a certain point, you start to notice signs of human proximity again. First, just an old stone wall, a broken fence, heavy boot prints dried into the dirt. Then a house comes into view, then another.
Finally, your own house. Open the door, take off your shoes, say hello to your cat or your partner or your houseplants. Then close your eyes for a moment. Feel your heart, radiating that same beauty as always, lovingly dissolving ferns and houses and forests and black holes into itself. You are home.
Tasha is a Hridaya Yoga teacher and a frequent contributor to our blog. You can read all of her posts here.