August 2007 Issue --> Spiritual Article
Aging Well - Four Ways That Nature Can Turn Back the Clock
By: Stephen Ruppenthal


Aging can be a frightening experience for us all. This came home in a message I got recently from a reader, who says frankly: “No matter how many miracle products I buy, I feel my body is betraying me. It makes me want to give up. Just as I am beginning to figure things out, I feel it is so unfair that life is slipping away from me.”


These words touched me deeply, for I, too, see what formerly were lines on my face now turning into creases. But there is a miracle that does not come in any package which is all around us, ready to give us ample nourishment far greater than that which is slipping away. Whether we choose to work with it or relax amidst it, nature is infinitely larger than ourselves and never grows old. Here are four ways we can draw sustenance from nature that will help us feel a freedom from our body’s relentless clock:


1. Give yourself time to relax in nature. As you walk, hike, or relax at the seashore, take the time to breathe deeply and take the beauty of forests, mountains, and lakes into your heart. Such experiences give us all a sense of being grounded in something stable and yet magical, as we relax into nourishment and support from the greater universe.Ideally, this will bring back some of the pure freedom we felt as children.


The thing is to let your guard completely down; absorb into yourself the full beauty of the natural scene around you. You might lie down on your blanket in the park or meadow and watch the clouds passing over the blue sky. As worries dissolve, you will find in nature’s grandeur a corresponding ardor in the beatings of your heart. So even if the body is losing youth and energy, nature can resupply us with endless abundance and life. “As my hair grows white,” says the nature poet Han Shan, “I just journey to my deepest desire.”


2. Exercise in a natural setting: In nature, we can let go of the person who frets about aches and wrinkles and instead pulsate with the feeling of the land and the seasons. We can walk freely in the hills or on the beach, letting our bodies move with the natural rhythm they crave. Living in tune with the sun, stream, air, and trees, far away from all our individual worry and care, we can feel in our bodies a vastness hugely bigger than ourselves.


During that time, we no longer feel 45 or 60 or subject to any time at all. Like the small human figure in a Chinese nature landscape, we are a tiny speck in the vast world of forces much bigger than us. As we swing our arms in the bracing wind and the rhythm of our breathing harmonizes with our footstep, we perceive in our humble happiness an opening through which we can speak to our original self, the face of brightness we knew innocently as a child. We can actually walk through the gateway of nature back into that sweet innocence, which is a state and not a particular age.


3. Working the land: Gardening can also help bring us into harmony with nature and back in tune with our deepest self. In fact, the great horticulturist Alan Chadwick called gardening true religion: the epitome and mother of all true culture, where by devotion to working the soil, we once again see who we truly are.


Gardeners of all ages speak of only one thing, and that’s the magical growth, falling away, and rising up again of vines, vegetables, flowers and trees in natural cycles. “I am an old man,” a placard I saw today read, “But I am a young gardener!” Working with the earth can calm restless thoughts and help us feel a presence in ourselves that is not subject to age. The famous back-to-the-land gardener Scott Nearing, in fact, lived and gardened till he was 97 and never felt old. So get out your shovel and trowel—you will find nature right there, ready to finish what you do and give back fruits far beyond the strength of your labors.


4. Recognize its spirituality: Nature restores us. Wordsworth calls it “the anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse, the guide, and guardian of my heart and soul.” Spend time both in relaxing and in gardening, and you will see why Buddhist sages call nature Emptiness, the meditative cleansing of the mind. All of us can feel that purifying cleansing through Immersion in mountains, rivers, and forests, and our very own garden.


Let us drown anxious thoughts of aging in this bounty and find what is ours in abundance. Just as such nature lovers as St. Francis and of the Buddha found peace and enlightenment in the wilderness, we also can contact and feel in our bodies the harmonious spirit of nature, all around us, ever generous, supportive, and leading us back to sweetness and innocence. This peace is ours, if we only want it and ask for it.



Dr. Stephen Ruppenthal is the author of The Path of Direct Awakening: Passages for Meditation.. He is also the co-author of Eknath Easwaran’s edition of The Dhammapada and the author of Keats and Zen. He has taught meditation and courses on Han Shan at UC Berkeley and San Francisco State University. Dr. Ruppenthal is an international workshop leader in passage meditation and in courses for those looking for end of life spiritual care and for the spiritual step component of twelve step programs. Visit Stephen’s work at

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