After eight straight years of record-setting drought, the rain finally came to California. The Sierra Nevada Mountains are packed with snow, ensuring full rivers and lakes all summer long. The Giant Sequoias finally got the deep watering they so richly deserve. And the 40 million people who call California home can breathe a little easier after years of anxiety. Until next year anyway.
But it’s the way the rains came that really made a difference. A long series of storms kept the water falling for much of January and February. Not only were the wildflower seeds lying dormant in the chaparral germinated, but the young plants received a steady rain growing deep roots, wide foliage, and setting a record number of blooms. When those buds began to unfurl in mid-March the foothills of the Golden State burst into flame – the good kind – golden poppies, lavender lupine, yellow mustard, deep blue ceanothus, and a thousand other varieties scattered by region and elevation. Then came the butterflies.
Clouds of migrating Painted Ladies drifted over the many-hued landscape like fluttering prayer flags. It’s as if the flowers had taken flight.
But flowers and butterflies aren’t meant to last. None of us are. We are all passing through, and the ephemeral nature of all embodied forms is once again brought home to us with bold alacrity. The flower fields of March and April rise up from the ashes of last season’s fires, and in a blink of an eye return to the dust from which they emerged.
It is in our nature to look for meaning – to search the signs and symbols of the natural world for wisdom, wisdom that we can apply in our faltering, fumbling lives. Nature is a language to be read with the faculty of intuition, or so the Romantic poets claim. It is not facts and theories that flowers and birdsongs give us, but a just-as-certain resonance that defies conceptualization. Feeling in your heart the golden light of a California poppy field lifts you over all contradiction and paradox leaving you aloft in a knowing beyond the mind and its pedestrian definitions.
This is what draws us into nature: freedom from the tyranny of our own thoughts. We think and think and think, thinking that this next thought will set us free. But it never works. Thought only leads to more thought. Meandering out into a flowering field frees us from the wearisome charade that life is a problem to be solved, rather than a reality to be experienced.
Walking through the woods, or the desert, or the hills, or along the beach returns us to our bodies, and our bodies return us to our original relationship with the earth, our sacred Mother from which we and all forms arise and to which we return. Feeling her power and presence rise up through the soles of our feet and move through us like a wave realigns the scattered and fragmented bits of our psyche into an integrated whole – we’re too present now to drift into abstraction, too enthralled to argue. This beauty, this light, this scent, this sight, anchors us in something real – not lost in tired thoughts-about-things, but fully awake to things-in-themselves. This, finally, is the grounding reality we’ve been longing for.
Over-thinking is killing us. Instead, just be. In his longest lesson, The Sermon on the Mount, Jesus used the imagery of nature to lead us back toward groundedness. “Do not worry about your life,” he said. “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you? Seek first his kingdom…and all these things will be given to you as well.”
And what is it to enter the Kingdom of Heaven? Christians and other wisdom seekers have been wondering what to make of that for two thousand years. For many in his audience, the familiar Jewish phrase “the Kingdom of Heaven” meant a literal political kingdom – the reestablishment of the free nation of Israel and the end of Roman occupation. But many believe Jesus was pointing to something beyond nationalism. For him the phrase became a poetic metaphor for God-consciousness, a mind-body state of illumined realization characterized by peaceful loving kindness. And where are we to find this kingdom? “The kingdom of Heaven is within you,” Jesus tells us. And in the Gospel of Thomas he says, “The father’s kingdom is spread out upon the earth, and people do not see it.” Turns out we have a perception problem, not a proximity problem. The kingdom of heaven is here and now. Only we are not.
This is what the Christian mystic Meister Eckhart meant when he said that “God is always home – it is we who have gone out for a walk.” Entering the kingdom of heaven is not about going out there – it’s about going in here. And contemplating the beauty of nature’s fleeting forms draws us deeper and deeper into the eternity of the present moment, where all of the doors swing open. “What you look for has come,” Jesus said, “only you do not know it.”
With this in mind, it seems clear that we need to drop the idea of the search for truth and exchange it for a process in which we simply slow down, stop searching, and realize what we already are. And one of the best ways to do this is to leave your four walls and walk out into a field beneath a wide open sky.
In the beauty of a wildflower field, beside a seasonal creek, the puzzles, conflicts, and tortured logic of the discursive mind all unravel leaving in their place a soft, beautiful openness, a melodic indeterminacy, a timeless awareness beyond thoughts and forms. Enlightenment, awakening, nirvana, or the Kingdom of Heaven are not destinations, they are where we already are. As the twentieth century spiritual teacher Krishnamurti put it, “True spiritual practice springs from, not toward, enlightenment. Our practice does not lead to unity consciousness – it is unity consciousness.” When we meditate, pray, or walk with vulnerability, purpose, and open-heartedness the truth and presence that we already are wells up through the cracks between our thoughts and reveals itself as our essence, like wildflowers leaping from the dry earth in the spring rain.