True Nature

One day long ago, Zen master Gensha was travelling through the countryside with his disciple, Kyosho. As they stopped for lunch, the young disciple seemed troubled.

“Master Gensha,” he said with a bowing of his head. “How do I enter Zen?”

Gensha nodded but said nothing at first, and the young man’s impatience was almost palpable in the silence that followed.

“Do you hear the sound of the mountain stream?” Gensha asked.

The boy listened, and far off in the distance, through the torrent of his mind’s wild thoughts, he connected to the soft sound of  flowing water. He nodded with a smile.

“Enter there!” Gensha told him.

In this era of pristine wooden-floored air-conditioned Yoga studios, we easily forget that through the ages there has been an inextricable link between the practices of Yoga and the natural world. The Yogis of old lived in mountain caves and forests, and would no more think of living or practising in a sterile indoors environment than they would consider cutting their hair or changing their clothes to follow the latest fashion. Yoga has always been a practice of the wild in the wild.

The simple act of going into nature can itself bring about a shift in our being, with no further need for complex practices. There is a deeper energy to the wilderness that seems to bring about changes in us, almost without any effort.

Do you remember such times? Can you recall simply sitting in the forest listening to bird calls, the scent of eucalyptus strong in your nostrils? Or standing on the beach with your toes in the sand, sea breeze on your face and the taste of salt on your lips? How did it feel, the last time you spent any time in nature?

In Yoga terms, the shifts we feel by going into nature are a type of Pratyahara. One of Patanjali’s eight limbs of Yoga, Pratyahara is often described as “withdrawing the senses”, although such a description hardly does it justice. Pratyahara is learning how to use our senses (indriya) differently, and has many applications in not only the way we absorb information about the external world, but also in our habits of breath (prana), action (karma) and thought (manas).

For most of us, nature is not our usual environment. We live in towns and cities where we our senses are bombarded every waking moment (and sometimes in those “resting” moments too). We learn habits of switching off to certain types of “background” events (other people’s conversations, disturbing smells, road noise, etc), in order to prevent sensory overload. We also develop other habits of opening up to different strong yet unnatural inputs (emotion-provoking television, life drama, loud music, etc) in order to distract ourselves from persistent lifestyle stress.

When we go into the wild, everything changes. Even when the natural world gets loud, its sound has a different, softer quality that doesn’t grate quite like car brakes and roadwork drilling. The “civilised world” fills our eyes with straight lines and square edges, but out in nature we enjoy a fractal view, where curves and spiral abound. Smells are less chemical and abrasive, as if the very molecules of a flower’s fragrance find a better fit in the scent receptors of our noses. The very feel of walking on grass or sand alters how we occupy our bodies,(re)connecting with the earth and letting go our normal ways of holding tension in our frame. Sometimes in just a few minutes, our long-held habits of body, breath and mind begin to shift as we return to a more natural state, truer than our ways in everyday life.

For sure, a Yoga practice on the beach or meditation in the mountains is a beautiful thing, and takes us deeper than the same practice in the stale air and recycled energy of a city studio. But when it comes to nature Pratyahara, we don’t really need to do a thing except just be there and absorb what comes our way. The wilder the place, the better, but even a city park can be enough to shift our state of being.

The message from the natural world is clear. Just get moving, find the wildest place in nature you can get to, and enter Zen from there!