floes clinging to river rocks in the shallows, unperturbed by the unseasonably warm temperatures for late December.
My daughter, Kate, remarked at how high the water level was, as we crossed the rough-hewn bridge our elderly neighbor erected years ago for his wife, just so she could ford the stream on her Arctic Cat during winter months like this. We made our way into the woods.
As we walked, I listened to the sound of the snow under my feet. There was a thin crust over the surface, my big boots crunched through it as I trudged up the hill, noting with sadness how somebody dismantled the tree branch fort where my kids and I would sit on fall afternoons,
looking at spiderwebs draping its rustic lean-to, hoping to catch a glimpse of the fairy folk we imagined might use it for their nightly revels.
I offered a challenge for the hike as we climbed further. “Whoever finds a crow feather gets a prize,” I said. “What’s the prize?” they both chimed. “I haven’t decided that yet.” My son inquired, “What if I find some other type of feather?” “What kind did you have in mind?” I asked. “What if it’s an owl feather?” “Well, that might just outrank a crow.” “How about an eagle feather?” he countered. “Ahh ... I think that would top the owl for sure, though I’m not sure that this is eagle country,” I said.
My daughter, who trailed behind a few paces, dove off into a cluster of bushes, emitting a sound of excitement, then came back empty handed. She said she’d seen an eagle feather, but it had mysteriously vanished. Two crows barked their benediction as we entered their sanctuary and my son stopped to point out some deer tracks while my eyes scanned the earth’s cloudy surface for that highly-
sought prize to add to my collection, but only pine boughs and cones were left for the taking. It seemed as though our feathered friends were conserving their downy insulation, wisely waiting for warmer weather to shed their winter cloaks.
We made our way through the evergreen giants to the abandoned farm, with its quirky graveyard of rusted machinery and musty, broken-down outbuildings, a veritable museum of a bygone era.As the kids began hunting for treasures in the dilapidated barn, I reminded them that this was someone else’s property and, besides, we were looking for Nature’s bounty, so the old tricycle wheel and the unidentifiable metal farm implements were left behind. We wound our way back through the tall pines where the crows roost at night, sheltered from the piercing and predatory eyes of owls, to emerge in the bones of a meadow that once hosted wildflowers and milkweed, now blanketed in a shimmering mantle of white.
The final leg of our walk took us down hill which Coe and Kate descended in somersaults, while I navigated on foot. I walked slowly along the ridge running high above the same stream we crossed just an hour before, recalling to myself how – during previous treks – I had the good fortune to happen upon crow feathers by the handful, like so many black bouquets. This day, sadly, offered not a single quill.
I eventually came upon my son and daughter, lying on the ground, looking up through the trees at the passing clouds, taking a little siesta.
It was then that I paused to take in the sound of the flowing water. The gentle rhythmic pulse was such a welcome contrast to the more insistent sounds of the holiday season that I sat happily and heavily, the snow giving way under my weight to create the perfect seat, a zabuton to cradle me on my turning inward.
I closed my eyes and inhaled, breathing deeply. That first deep breath was invigorating, the cold air penetrating my lungs, clearing my
head, igniting my senses anew, feeling a vibrant awakening within me. My skin was now alive with the cold. I could smell damp wood and evergreens, and my ears were attuned to the sounds of the water down below and the birds up above. There was this intense vibratory dance going on inside of me, but beneath that was a profound stillness that penetrated to my core.Within this feeling of aliveness, there began to emerge a sense of deep abiding serenity.
It felt vast, eternal ... all encompassing. It acted as a soothing salve to my senses, a tonic for my Soul. Every wisdom tradition holds some concept of The Soul, in one form or another. And of course, there are as many interpretations of what the soul may be as there are traditions, and it is referred to by just as many names: The Still Small Voice, The Inner Place of Knowing, The Higher Self ... or the Christ Consciousness. Buddhists name it Dharma; Jung called it the Seat of the Unconscious. When we take the time to consider the Soul in silent contemplation, prayer or meditation, we often ponder its “essential nature.” According to my copy of The Reader’s Digest Encyclopedic Dictionary, a relic I found at a library book sale years ago, the word “essential” is defined as, among other things, absolute, complete, perfect, and also the fundamental nature of something. And the word “Nature” is defined as the inherent tendencies, innate disposition, or
intrinsic qualities of something, and of course, Nature also means the sum total of all things in time and space, the entire physical universe and the powers, forces, and principles that regulate
So, the nature of the Soul, then, as I understand it, or what is essential to it, has a direct relationship – and an intimate connection with – everything in the Universe. In the Yogic tradition, we call this awareness Atman, which translates in the ancient Sanskrit as the Supreme Soul or Brahman, the all-pervading Spirit of the Universe. It is the Hindu belief that the Atman, or Soul dwells in something larger, it is a part of the Divine, the great “I Am” or Parusha, and therefore Eternal. If we accept this, then we would naturally see our Soul-selves as limitless, vast, and unbounded as the Universe itself. This we would understand as our natural state of being, our true essence at our core. We are indeed made of the same stuff as the planets, the stars, the oceans, the earth itself. Yet most of us are unaware of or disbelieve this, or if we ever did believe, we have forgotten this Truth.
We forget what we once knew so instinctively. If you have ever observed a baby or young child for any length of time you know this to
be true. They are fully open, trusting implicitly, blissfully unaware of boundaries. They are fearless. Children do not censor or discern. Anything and everything goes into their mouths, their ears, and their noses.And, of course, they are just as free with what comes out of their mouths. Or, as they say, “Out of the mouths of babes ...”
Children understand the world by experiencing it directly, no filters. Like sponges, they soak in their surroundings, extracting all they can from each individual moment, and experiencing each one exhaustively. Why do you think they sleep so much? You would too if
you were in a constant state of sensory overload. Do you remember what that was like?Well ... perhaps not.You see, over time, and often through cultural experience and social conditioning, I think we begin to shut down. We lose sight of that level of openness and trust we once had in our lives, especially as children. The slings and arrows of our everyday existence buffet and pierce our original awareness of the deep interconnectedness we hold with the Universe, the unlimited potential of our Soul selves.
As human beings, we too often view ourselves as defined merely by the parameters of our physical bodies; the limited envelope of skin encasing our muscles, bones, organs and a multitude of complex physiological systems.In Yoga, we refer to this as “Prakrti,” or the basic matter of our selves ... which also includes our minds, thoughts and feelings. It is our way of seeing, our perception of ourselves as separate from, rather than connected to, the Universe, the Cosmos, and the Earth with all her life forms, human and otherwise, that throws us out of balance, that knocks us off our center, and this disassociation with the Divine contributes greatly to our suffering. In the book Job’s Body Deane Juhan offers us a passage which suggests another, more holistic way of considering ourselves, in which he likens us to forces of nature, embodying the power and grace found in the elements of Fire, Water, Air and Earth. He says: “Indeed, since we have left the water and have become terrestrial creatures, subject now to special forces of gravity, we have become miniature earths, in the same way we
first became miniature seas: we have added more and more solid features to support our containers of fluid on the ground. We have river channels and reservoirs in our circulatory systems, meadows and forests in our hair: we are mountains of flesh riddled with the caves and
fissures of our pores and orifices: like enclosed valleys, we shelter our ancestral cultures, and like open hillsides and plains, we teem with a microbial bustle of new citizens and migrants. We have become an ecology of earth and air, as well as one of water.”
When we view ourselves as one with, or as a mirror of Nature, intimately connected to the Universe, our perceptions begin to shift and broaden. We begin to remember. We begin to reclaim our power, our primal creative selves who formed in the void of Parusha, emerged from the vast abyss of pure potential to find our places here in this Space and this Time.Still, it may not only be our concept of our physical selves that causes this disconnect from our essential nature, our Soul. We may also be limiting ourselves by thought and behavioral patterns, by the stories we tell about ourselves, the tapes that we play endlessly in our minds that reinforce false or negative beliefs about who we are.
Granted, these ways of thinking about ourselves may be useful to us at times in life. But just as the Universe is continually expanding and contracting and evolving into something new, so are we.Like the snake that sheds its skin, or as a tree may split and shed its bark, or the crow that casts off its old feathers, we too must change, if we wish to grow, When we cling to these old, outmoded ways of perceiving ourselves, we stagnate; we inhibit the primal call of our Souls to evolve, to progress toward a more enlightened way of being in the world.
But when we do that, when we find that we’ve forgotten how truly cosmic we are, how we have the same immeasurable potential as stars, or when we cease to grow out of fear or by choice, and find ourselves mired in either inertia or fast-approaching entropy, one of the surest
ways for us to remember our link to the Infinite and extricate ourselves from this dull torpor is to immerse ourselves in Nature.
It is here, on the profound majesty of Earth, within Creation itself, where we can re-connect, where we can remember. I am fortunate enough to have had an experience that provided me with just such an opportunity, one that served not just as a wakeup call, but as an enlightening glimpse into the very depths of my Soul self.
It happened on that very same Christmas Day walk I took with my son and daughter. No sooner had I sat in the snow and begun my inward journey than I was stirred from my reverie by a call from Kate, who got up just as I sat down. “Mom, come look at this!” I opened my eyes.
My son had already bolted on ahead, eager to get back to his Christmas gifts. Kate, on the other hand, had made her way down the hill to the stream. She was kneeling before the enormous root cluster of a fallen tree now spanning the fast-moving stream below it. Before I knew it, she had wiggled her agile self through the knotty tangle and out onto the large trunk, where she plunked herself down, straddled its circumference, and began to inch her way over it. I stood there, momentarily paralyzed with fear. She turned around and, with a big toothy grin shouted: “Hey Mom, aren’t you coming?’ Then she rose to her feet and glided the rest of the way across. I stood for a moment longer, not knowing what to say or do. I had just watched my 8 year old daughter – nimble as an equilibrist on a tightrope – effortlessly and instinctively sashay across this natural bridge, barely a foot and a half wide. I was humbled by the effortlessness with which she bounded across the brook with no hesitation. How was it that she could do it with no compunction? Suddenly a flurry of thoughts began to rush through my own mind. All of the stories of self doubt, all the limiting beliefs I have about myself flooded my consciousness: “What if I lose
my balance? What if I slip and fall in? I’m 44 years old, for God’s sake! I can’t do that!” Then this softer voice came into my head, just whispering, beneath all the shouting, and I strained to hear it.
Why are you hesitating? What is stopping you? Why are you fighting this? What is really holding you back? In that moment, I stopped.
I stood there, stock-still, and just began to breathe.I closed my eyes and I dropped beneath all the chatter, all the static and I envisioned
myself, as only a few moments before, sitting at the top of the hill. With each deep inhalation, I rediscovered that feeling of expansiveness and that deep felt sense of peace, the true essence of my being that exists there eternally, if I can just quiet myself long enough to sense it.
I smiled to myself. How interesting that my daughter could access that part of herself so readily. At the same time, how had I forgotten that I display similar balance and grace in my everyday life, in my yoga practice? That I am a dancer and was also a gymnast as a child?
As I continued to breathe, the Still Small Voice began to gain strength. I think I can do this.Yes, I can do this. Just like “The Little Engine That Could.”I know I can do this. I walked to the fallen tree. I squeezed through the snarl of roots and gingerly crept out onto the trunk.
I took the weight of my body with my arms, slowly lifting myself off the log, then maneuvering out over the brook. Halfway across, I could reach a branch, which I grabbed to hoist myself up.I found my footing and, with arms out stretched, I confidently walked the last few feet.
When I caught up to Kate by the neighbor’s outbuilding, I scooped her up in my arms and shouted, joy ringing out through my words as I shared my exhilaration with her.“Thank you!” I cried. “Thank you for challenging me to go beyond of what I thought I was capable! Thank you for helping me to remember!”The reason why it’s such a joy to remember is often because it’s so easy to forget. It is so easy to forget that we, like forces of Nature, have the stability of the Earth, the fluidity of water, the limitlessness of air, and the light of fire within each of us.
In the Yogic tradition, it is said that The Divine or Parusha – of which we are a part and that resides within each of us – is symbolized by a mountain, and that we, as physical, mental and spiritual beings, are a lake in whose reflection we can often see the majesty of its peak.
But if there are ripples in the lake, ripples not unlike the disturbances we create in our minds, the water will be too turbulent to view the mountain’s majesty clearly. We need to dive deep, down where the water is still, and center ourselves in our breath. When we rise back to the surface, the waves will have ceased and we will once again be able to see the reflection of the Eternal in ourselves...
So, while my children and I didn’t have much luck scouting for feathers during that Christmas Day, I did discover something else, a treasure equally valuable and precious.When we are in need of reconnecting with our deeper place of knowing, that same valuable remedy can be found in the natural world. Spending time in that solitude, we can reconnect with ourselves.We may not feel compelled to do so on days of sub-zero wind chill, but we might just surprise ourselves with what we find.And if the Earth does not offer up her riches for the taking, we will at least have the opportunity to unearth an even more precious prize, away from the cacophony and distractions of our daily existence. There we can fall back into the grace of that original awareness of our vast, unlimited, essential Souls.The greatest prize awaits us there, and we hold the map within ourselves.
So be still. Breathe.
Reclaim your treasure.