Nature as a Bridge to the Divine
Ananda member Joseph Bharat Cornell is the founder of Sharing Nature Worldwide. His books on nature awareness have sparked a worldwide revolution in nature education and have been translated into twenty languages. In Japan alone, there are 30,000 trained Sharing Nature leaders.
Q. Bharat, when did you first realize that nature was important to you?
A. When I was five-years-old. I was in my backyard and looking intently upward into a thick fog when all of a sudden, bursting through a gap in the fog, came a flock of pearl-white snow geese. It seemed as if the sky had given birth to them. Seeing the snow geese thrilled me deeply, and ever since I’ve wanted to immerse myself in nature.
By the time I was twelve, I was waking up at dawn to run through the wildlands near my home. I took such delight in everything I saw that I often ran right through the ponds and marshes.
Q. When did you know that your career path lay in doing something connected with nature?
It was when I was a student at Chico State University and majoring in international relations. In one of my courses I read a statement by a 19th century European leader who said, “I don’t want war, but I want my country to get what it wants.”
This was during the Vietnam War and I, like many others, felt a deep desire to bring peace into the world. But after reading that statement, I realized that the self-interest of people and nations made it very difficult to achieve world peace.
I had been spending many days in the wilderness and feeling at times a joyous sense of stillness and expansion. Recalling these experiences, I thought, “This is real peace. This is something true that I can share with others.”
So I changed my major to Nature Awareness. I was the first student to be accepted into Chico’s special major program, where a student could create a non-traditional degree. I also started a meditation practice to try to experience more regularly the joyous serenity and expansion I often felt in nature.
Q. After you graduated from Chico State, did you find a way to share with people the peace you experienced in nature?
A. By then I knew about experiential nature activities, which I had immediately recognized as a way to imbue nature encounters with a dynamic sense of joy and receptivity. After graduating in 1973, I began developing my own nature activities and sharing them at outdoor schools and camps.
Both children and adults enjoyed them immensely. The activities became very popular among educators and youth leaders, and soon nearly every Boy Scout camp in the western United States was using them.
Q. You later presented many of those activities in your first book, Sharing Nature with Children. What prompted you to write it?
In 1975 I joined Ananda and soon entered the monastery. I was under the impression that monks should not be involved in society, but knowing how much people loved the nature activities, I decided to write them down for posterity. I thought I was writing the book as a last gift to the world.
Swami Kriyananda, however, had other plans for me. After Sharing Nature with Children was published, he suggested that one of the senior monks begin arranging autograph events to promote the book. It was due to Kriyananda’s encouragement that I began making public appearances.
Q. Sharing Nature with Children has been widely praised as a landmark book. What distinguished it from other nature books?
A. Most nature education books then available engaged only the intellect. I wanted to engage people’s hearts and intuition so they could deeply experience nature. The book was also practical, with easy-to-use activities and inspiring stories that captured people’s imagination.
Paramhansa Yogananda said that rather than explain things to people, we should help them put out the kind of energy that brings them onto the wavelength of what we’re trying to teach. Each nature activity in Sharing Nature with Children is a little discipline that helps children and adults become more sensitively aware of nature and their higher Self.
Q. Why did eight years pass between your first and second book?
A. I was planning to write a sequel to Sharing Nature with Children when Swami Kriyananda asked my wife, Anandi, and me to become leaders of the developing Ananda Palo Alto Center. He said, “The work you’re doing in nature is wonderful, but you’ve come to Ananda to find God and I have to honor that.” So I suspended all of my nature work for the three years we were in Palo Alto.
Kriyananda’s words were really about following God’s will and embracing divine opportunities. Serving in Palo Alto was very helpful to me spiritually and also gave me the understanding and tools to write a much better book. From teaching the meditation classes at the Ananda center, I gained a deeper understanding of the importance of stillness and inner receptivity, not only for meditation but also for deeper nature experiences. Through prayer and meditation, I later found ways to apply what I learned in writing my second book, Sharing the Joy of Nature. *
Q. Can you explain how you were able to do that?
A. I created a system called “Flow Learning,” a way of sequencing nature activities to awaken in people a strong flow of energy and open them to an experience of absorption and expansion. An experience of absorption is the key to deeper nature experiences.
The great naturalist, John Muir, would become so absorbed in the natural world that he would lose consciousness of his own separate existence and feel himself merging with the totality of nature. His great love and reverence for life came from his experience of oneness with everything around him.
For Flow Learning to work, I also had to create many new nature activities. I would think of a spiritual principle from Paramhansa Yogananda’s teachings, hold it in my mind, and pray: “How can I create a way for people to easily experience this principle?”
“Expanding Circles,” for example, is based on one of Yogananda’s meditations where you expand your sense of self. In this activity, you sit quietly in nature and gradually, in stages, expand your awareness to encompass everything you see.
One woman who did this activity said, “At first I felt like I was composing a picture. After a while I found that I’d stepped inside and become the picture.”
Q. What has been the response to Flow Learning?
A. Very enthusiastic. Our Sharing Nature leader in Brazil gave a workshop based on Flow Learning for Amazon tour guides. They were skeptical at first but after several activities, one person approached her and said with deep emotion, “You are helping me find the forest inside of me! We don’t know the forest in this way!”
In Switzerland, the professors at a teachers’ college were so enthusiastic about Flow Learning that right after my speech, one professor eagerly asked me, “What was life like before Flow Learning!”
Flow learning shows people how to awaken energy and direct it upwards for superconscious inspiration. For most people this is a revelation. Today Flow Learning is widely used by educators and corporate trainers throughout the world.
Q. Have Flow Learning and the new Sharing Nature activities caused people to become more interested in the spiritual life?
A. Yes. Through the experience of absorption, people achieve a deep level of peace and joyful expansion. Often they become interested in forming a meditation practice to cultivate and enhance the feeling they had during the workshop.
Often people are caught up with the mundane realities of life and fail to appreciate life’s underlying unity and harmony. But the understanding that we are a part of something larger than ourselves is Nature’s greatest gift. As people experience their larger reality, they become inspired and their life priorities change.
Q. You have offered sharing Nature programs in countries like Japan, China, Brazil, and Greece — places where the spirituality varies. What is the response of people who are Taoists or Buddhists or follow other spiritual paths?
A. When people experience divine qualities like peace or love, they become deeply appreciative, no matter what their culture or spiritual tradition.
I recently gave an “Inner Nature” workshop at a Zen community in Devon, England, and the leader there told me, “We wanted to include environmental awareness in our programs, but didn’t know how to do it and stay true to our spiritual calling. The Sharing Nature activities are perfect for us.”
Sharing Nature is based on universal principles. In Greece people said the Sharing Nature program was just the way Plato taught, and in Japan they said it was very Japanese.
Q. Sharing Nature has triggered a consciousness revolution based on direct experience through nature activities. It has changed the consciousness of millions of people and given them the tools to change others. How can someone receive training to lead Sharing Nature programs?
A. In May 2009 I’ll be offering a five-day training and retreat at Ananda’s Expanding Light Guest Retreat. People new to Sharing Nature as well as Sharing Nature leaders from around the world will be attending. The program includes nature meditations, nature activities for children and adults, Flow Learning, and much more. It’s going to be a wonderful week.
* The name was later changed to Sharing Nature with Children, II.
To read the inspiring story of Sharing Nature around the world and to learn more about the upcoming May 2009 Sharing Nature Training & Retreat Week, go to: www.sharingnature.com
Bharat Cornell is a Lightbearer and longtime Ananda member. In addition to his nature activities, he works in the Sangha Office at Ananda Village as Meditation Support Coordinator. His many books on nature awareness include, Listening to Nature.