With Earth Day upon us, I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of Nature. The idea of Nature and all things natural has infiltrated most every corner of our lives–from psychology (it’s “in her nature”) to our food (those “natural flavors” are the best, right?) to the genuine quality we describe in the “natural state of things.” Nature has become somewhat synonymous with an aspect of authenticity, and it’s no wonder.
Kabbalah teaches that the Creator is All, and All is the Creator. There is no “us” and “them” when it comes to the natural world. There is only the We.
And I feel this myself when I’m away from the city, or when I’m able to look past the traffic and the human-made structures enough to tune into the richness of life beyond. I feel less “me” and more “we” when I notice the clouds, the wind, the sounds of birds, the change in colors. When I’m optimizing my body and spirit, when I am honoring and using them in ways that feed them, I feel like Nature and I are working hand-in-hand! And I’m overwhelmed with gratitude.
In every moment, we touch the Earth, and it touches us back in ways we rarely consider. The breath you just took isn’t just air “out there”; it is cycling through your lungs and delivering oxygen to support most every function. And that’s not just the ground; it’s the point of connection where our homes are built, our cities are designed, our lives are grounded both literally and metaphorically. Every morsel of our nourishment depends upon the dirt beneath us… it is the foundation upon which all other dreams are built!
I sense this, too, when I’m running up a hill, traversing a mountain path, swimming in the middle of a rainforest, or hiking the Grand Canyon. I remember plunging my feet into the icy waters of the Colorado River some years ago. That same water had run through the veins of all the other rivers, streams, and oceans of the world. It had evaporated into the clouds and had fallen again as rain. That same water still pools in puddles and pours out of faucets. It continues to sustain us, just as it has sustained all other life on the planet. As ecology professor John Vucetich wrote, “Humans and nature are fundamentally one and the same.”
This truth has been scientifically proven right down to the level of our DNA. In fact, the DNA in every human is shared with virtually every other living creature on the planet! According to recent statistics in Sciencing, each of us shares a whopping 99.9% of DNA with every other person on Earth. So when we speak of the “human family,” we may not realize how accurate this is! And the commonalities continue through both the animal and the plant kingdoms. We share about 98.8% of our DNA with chimps, 90% with cats, 84% with dogs, 80% with cows, and 73% with fish, to name a few. Even a banana plant shares close to 60% of our DNA, and we and the trees share about 50% of the same code. So our kinship with all life lies at the very core of our existence. The more we realize this, the more we can grow our respect and love for our world.
Earth Day is one of many efforts to help spread awareness of our great interconnectivity. There’s been a steady global rise in the number of “forest schools,” a Scandinavian concept which moves learning into more natural settings. The Global Association of Nature and Forest Therapy uses nature immersion to help in healing. They assert that “the forest is the therapist; the guides help others open the doors.” Similarly, the Japanese practice of “forest bathing” (also based on mindful walks in the woods) is founded on research showing how breathing aerosols in the forest promotes healing.
Thousands of studies have demonstrated the health benefits of spending time in nature. Among these: decreased blood pressure and stress hormone levels, enhanced immune system and respiratory functions, increased self-esteem, and improved mood. One University of Exeter study found that just two hours spent in green spaces per week reaped tremendous health benefits among 20,000 participants. We can all experience this effect by simply getting outside more! For instance, rather than meeting students in my office, I sometimes suggest we go for a walk instead. The fresh air and movement have resulted in some of the most productive and beneficial meetings I’ve had!
In the Zohar, Rabbi Shimon explains how “our world was not created complete, for it would be man’s merit and responsibility to perfect creation through his actions and spiritual development.” With this in mind, my hope is we can all look at Nature through a new lens on Earth Day and beyond. Instead of seeing our environment as something outside our windows or something to be tapped for our purposes alone, let’s look at it for what it is: a mirror of ourselves.
Let’s be more mindful of our spaces, kinder to all creatures, and more grateful and aware of all the bounty around and in us. Because to love all life is to love ourselves… and that is the most naturally wonderful gift we can bring to the world!