Writings

Wilderness Spirituality


Wilderness Spirituality

©CCAR Journal
Winter, 2006

by Michael Comins


(This article was written for a Rabbinic journal. Lay readers
may not be familiar with the Hebrew terms. A glossary
with translations appears at the conclusion of the article.)

Does wilderness matter?

Ask a person where they feel God's presence, in a sanctuary or on a mountain, most will prefer the natural setting to even the most beautiful of buildings. Ask whether they are moved more by a synagogue service or a day walking in Yosemite, most will choose the latter. Of course, the comparison is unfair and does not rule out a positive experience in shul. Nevertheless, the Jewish people suffers when its leaders do not understand the implications of these facts.

Hundreds of thousands of North American Jews spend time in nature every year; tens of thousands hike, climb, ski and kayak in wilderness. Many understand and express their love of the natural world as something spiritual. Consciously, and often unconsciously, they seek an avenue to express the emotions they feel in nature. When that path is not found (or worse, when the path found is not Jewish), the result is a dis-connection between a person's deepest, spiritual moments and Judaism.

The damage is two-fold. We miss the opportunity (for many Jews, the best opportunity) to educate towards Jewish forms of belief and religious practice in a place where the question of God is not contrived. The power of a trip to Israel to make Judaism and Jewish history relevant is well-known. In contrast, with precious few exceptions, the world's greatest classroom to teach about God and prayer is off the mainstream, Jewish community's radar screen.

But worse is the implied message that is broadcast every summer day to thousands of Jews in wilderness. When they do not know how Judaism might help them to interpret the powerful emotions they experience in nature, and when they have no idea of how their wilderness experience connects to a synagogue service or a Passover seder, the inevitable conclusion is that Judaism is irrelevant to their strongest moments of God's presence.

Community is a benchmark of Jewish spirituality, and indeed, the Jewish God-moments of my youth were at camp and other communal settings. But our prayerbook and Jewish piety in general assume an individual relationship with God. Yet, personal, spontaneous prayer was never taken seriously in my Jewish education. Rather it was in wilderness – leaving community, civilization and Jewish educators behind – that I found a spiritual voice.

I emphatically support a traditional Jewish education, particularly Hebrew language. In the wilderness forays of my youth, the tradition came with me. I prayed the siddur while backpacking and gained insight into what inspired the psalmist and liturgist, who often wrote with an intimate knowledge of nature. Certainly, the quest for God might not have been an issue if not for my Jewish education. But for me, and I suspect most people, if there is no relationship with God outside of a minyan, there won't really be one within, either.

Wilderness matters because it is an optimal environment to work out an unmediated, direct relationship with God.


Yirah


Why is God so available to so many in wilderness? A. J. Heschel was surely right in teaching that the experience of wonder and awe is antecedent to faith in God.

Awe is more than wonder, beauty or grandeur, although it includes them, because danger is involved. Indeed, yirah also means fear. Many of life's awesome moments are liminal situations in which death is never far. However, awe is different than fear in that we are attracted rather than repelled from awesome things. When lightning strikes, we want to see it. I think of child-birth as the paradigmatic, awe-filled event. Wonder, mystery, danger, beauty, fear, attraction – it's all in awe.

In the backcountry beauty is commanding and pervasive. So is danger and risk. Yet, one “feels alive” from more than adrenaline. The grandeur and fragility of our world, the immediacy of life and death, are all around. Just as Judaism has been dubbed the path of “normal” mysticism, wilderness is the gateway to “normal,” everyday awe.

And the experience of awe makes divinity a real issue. We can validate the insights of Protestant theologian Paul Tillich. Ultimate questions and liminal situations sensitize a person to God's presence.


Devequt


An important dynamic of spiritual living, one that serves as an organizing principle for me, is the interplay between teshuvah (repentance) and devequt (in the Hasidic sense of “cleaving” to God).

It is our stories, embedded in the story of the Jewish people, that inform our personalities and provide the unique content of our selves. The work of teshuvah involves the utilization of one's analytic capabilities to critique one's story. We scrutinize our past with an eye to the future. This left-brain activity is essential to moral refinement.

If teshuvah is about improving our ongoing stories, however, devequt is about getting beyond them. Stories are necessarily self-centered. If my story carries the best of me, it is also the repository of my bitterness, pettiness, neurosis and arrogance – all the things that blind me to God. Devequt is possible when we lesson the grip of past and future on our minds and create a space where we can be aware of our souls. Focusing perception on the present is not only psychologically liberating. The practice of mindfulness, in transcending rational mind, literally makes room for God.

In our society, analytic skills are essential for success and this is reinforced by the traditional, Jewish emphasis on study. We may or may not be very good at teshuvah, but it is consistent with our usual emphasis on good thinking. On the other hand, giving our tumultuous minds and ambitious personalities a rest – the work of devequt – is like pulling teeth. I can't think of anything more difficult than the long hours I spent on the meditation cushion, trying not to breathe but to be breathed. How different in nature, where living in the here and now is easy and effortless.

Mindfulness is the great gift of wilderness. Because of the risks, paying attention is not optional. There are serious consequences for getting lost in thoughts of the ‘to do' list back home.

Much has been written about mindfulness as a path beyond ego. Less known is the calm, spaciousness and heart-opening that come with living in the present – and this leads to trust in God's world. One can feel more certain, more safe and more at home in the backcountry than in the city.

Wilderness teaches one how to live fully aware of danger without anxiety. Nothing is riskier to the outdoor enthusiast than the denial of risk. Statistically, I am much more likely to die from a car accident than a grizzly attack, but I'm constantly aware of potential hazards when I'm far from a hospital. Outside the human comfort zone called civilization, I am less prone to falling into routine.

In the city, I employ a different strategy. I avoid anxiety by “forgetting” what I know about accidents. And when I drive, I'm rarely thinking about driving. Neither wilderness nor the freeways are forgiving, but in the city, I deceive myself and act otherwise.

In nature, the awareness of mortality is constant. One cannot see wildflowers or moose calves without passing rotting tree trunks, the remains of fire or unburied bones. Unlike the sanitized world of the supermarket, birth and death are encountered together in the natural world. Yet most of us see beauty, not terror. One knows without reservation that God's world is good, including the mosquitoes and the lightning storms. If one learns to listen well and acts in sync with the rhythms of season and habitat – the sweet lesson of informed surrender – one feels safe, even protected, despite the risks. An instinctive trust in oneself and in the universe is acquired. In these circumstances, a spontaneous, naïve, organic faith arises; leaps are unnecessary.

(The role of the outdoor, Jewish educator is to name this trust – the emunah of the Hebrew bible.)


Body


I have resonated both to Martin Buber's description of I-thou encounter with a tree and to Rabbi Nachman's claim that every flower and shrub has its own melody – melodies that carry our prayers.

For me, the doorway has been something that Judaism doesn't deal with very well: the body.

Focusing primarily on breath and other body-sensations, 24/7, during a six-week silent, meditation retreat, showed me that the body has its own wisdom independent of my frenetic mind and neurotic personality. I saw how emotion and thought interact with the body, and vice-versa. I learned that while the mind has many ruses, the body does not lie. And I saw how the body reacts directly to the physical environment around it. Of course, a spring day in the Tetons feels different than a December night in the Mojave desert, but through body awareness, I now understand this in a tangible way. I know that each induces or supports different states of consciousness, and these can be related to one's spiritual practice. Some places, some times, some climates are better for prayers of praise or petition; others for introspection and silence.

Nothing prepared me for what I learned from repeated solo-retreats, loosely patterned after the native American “vision quest.” The practice involved sitting alone in wilderness for several days in a small circle, fasting in silence and engaging in focused listening, chant, prayer and chi quong – a Daoist form of body-meditation. The body is like an antennae that physically feels all around it, and when one fasts from food, its powers are magnified ten-fold. Granite feels different than limestone; an organ pipe cactus feels different than a ocotillo, let alone a redwood tree. And water. Oh my, water. Perhaps one needs to spend serious time in the desert to know its powerful effect on the body, and the soul. What radiates from the natural world affects me viscerally.

The opposite is also true. Now I know why the sense of holiness in synagogues, monasteries and mountain-tops, where prayers have been offered over and over again through time, is so real. Prayer has changed them. When I feel their sacredness, I'm not projecting; I'm responding.

I disdained Kabbalah during my rabbinical studies and even today I resonate far more with Martin Buber's description of the encounter with God than the mystic's attempt at divine union. I don't know what to make of the certainty and detail with which various mekubalim have presented their physics and meta-physics. But I have learned something important enough to share even though I will be attacked by some as a New-Age fool. Kabbalah claims that there is a life-birthing, life-enabling, intelligent and moral force emanating through the universe. The River of Light. My mind thinks it far-fetched and unreasonable. My body knows it's true.


Teshuvah


In the end, the purpose of mindfulness is not to circumvent one's story. Rather, it is to make it better. Central to the task of teshuvah is the ability to critique oneself accurately and honestly. Invariably, this involves a change in perspective – a new vantage point to see oneself with some dispassion and objectivity. This can happen anytime one breaks their routine and has some time to reflect. To some degree, any vacation will do. But wilderness supports the work of teshuvah in powerful ways.

Enter the backcountry and one does more than break their routine; one leaves civilization behind. Away from the constructs that support our usual lives, we enter a world not only devoid of job, traffic and advertising, but also without people, sports, restaurants, gardening, chores, movies and NPR. Yet, in the very conditions that we would normally find boring, we have never felt more alive. It is readily apparent just how much of our “civilized” lives are based on human conventions and inventions. And with that realization comes its corollary, the fundamental assumption of teshuvah: what has been constructed can be deconstructed.

As our social selves become transparent, our personalities are exposed. No longer in the environment that elicits our habitual responses, with little to defend, we see how easy it is to be a different kind of person. I have always marveled at the fact that I rarely encounter a selfish, mean-spirited person while backpacking. It could be that backpacking selects certain personality types, but I'm convinced that wilderness brings out a person's virtues rather than their shortcomings. One sees how much we humans subconsciously invent ourselves. So much of what seems to be immutable habit is really a choice.

Wilderness demands surrender, yet infuses one with the sense of infinite possibility.

This change in perspective is not a simple breaking of routine, of changing one story for another, but the fruit of mindfulness. It is the perspective that comes from recognizing the limits of one's thinking, living in the body and dwelling in the present.

I do not mean to belittle the narratives that inform our selves. Our stories – the stuff of our personalities – are crucially important. We cannot live without them. But nothing has helped me more with teshuvah than the knowledge that my story, in the end, is just a story. There is more to me than my personality. Another part of me – the divine part – can break through the shackles of my story at any time. My body/soul bears wisdom, not only my thinking mind. Living in mindfulness, I can see the self-serving strategies of my mind for what they are.

Add this to the exhilaration of experiencing so much beauty, then wonder, then awe… In the end, what inspires teshuvah more than nearness to God?

The process of teshuvah is different when living in wilderness trust. I used to ask God to help me change in ways that I feared I could not. (Indeed, I didn't.) Now I sense that if I can connect myself to God's good world, physically as well as spiritually, the grip of my bad habits loosens as I am drawn to the person I need to be in order to live in devequt. Teshuvah is never easy, but it is more possible than I ever knew.


Conclusion


For these reasons, I have come to think of “wilderness spirituality” as a useful term that denotes a field worthy of greater exploration and inquiry.

I have engaged in “extreme” spiritual practices that will never be part of a mainstream, Jewish education. This was necessary for my own growth, and to achieve the level of articulation presented in this essay. But it would be wrong to think that only intense experiences bear educational fruit, particularly in wilderness. I have learned that even an hour's walk in the woods, when properly framed in the prayer-vocabulary and God-talk of our tradition, can strongly impact a person's understanding of themselves and their world. Because such teaching sensitizes a person to the already powerful emotions evoked by wilderness, and then articulates them in ways full of personal and communal meaning, the result of this cause-and-effect feedback loop between nature and tradition is an invigorated relationship with the siddur and Jewish theology.

As one of the small number of Jewish educators who teach in wilderness, I know that it is still early to draw broad, educational conclusions. Too little attention, academic and otherwise, has been paid to Jewish, nature education. However, I can share the insights learned from personal experience and the experience of my students on trails, in kayaks, on skis. There is no other place that I would choose to teach about prayer and God. As a NFTY guide, I brought American teenagers to the Western Wall for five years, and found it a superb environment to teach Jewish history and identification. But when the dynamics of prayer and personal piety were on the educational agenda, I was more effective in the mountains above Eilat.

The stereotype of Jews as exclusively urban and physically frail has been eroding for some time now. Increasing numbers of rabbis and Jewish leaders know the enormous pull that wilderness has on a large and growing number in our community. Nevertheless, even educators who regularly think “out-of-the-box” have trouble thinking “out-of-the-building.” Those of us involved in Jewish nature education often feel that mainstream, Jewish institutions, desperately searching for relevant ways to teach prayer and theology, are looking afar for what is already lying at their feet. We would be wise to change that situation as quickly as possible.


Translation of Hebrew Terms


devekut: cleaving (to God)
emunah: trust, the Hebrew word for "faith in God"
mekubalim: kabbalists, the Jewish mystics
minyan: prayer quorum of 10 Jews required for communal prayer
shul: synagogue
siddur: Jewish prayer book
teshuvah: turning to God, the Jewish term for repentance
yirah: awe