It's a Sunday afternoon in midwinter Los Angeles, the sun is sparkling, the temperature is perfect, I'm in one of the most beautiful settings anyone can imagine, and I'm supposed to be talking to God. I'm sitting alone in a lush, grassy field near a rustling brook, mountains surround me, birds are chirping, the smells of nature are excellent and all I can think of is whether I should eat that last bit of leftover lunch that I still have in my backpack.
It is an especially untimely moment to be pondering such a mundane question, because on this day, I've joined 14 adults on a daylong excursion in Malibu Creek State Park led by Rabbi Mike Comins, who runs Torah Trek, Spiritual Wilderness Adventures. Whether it's a one-day exercise for first-timers -- like ours is -- or a multiday meditative adventure, the idea is to spend time studying Torah, reading, thinking, meditating and seeking a "God experience," as Comins calls it. We are now at the ultimate moment of the day, the portion called "hitbodedut," which translates from the Hebrew as "to be alone."
So I'm on my own, tackling the task of connecting to God, and I'm doing just about anything but. The act of meditation, never my strength, seems particularly contrived for me on this day. Add God to the mix, and my sense of failure multiplies.
A soft wind blows across my face, ruffling my hair ever so slightly. Is that God? A blue jay flits, determined in its search for some unknowable purpose. Is that? I watch as a small biplane flies overhead, and I'm sure that its passengers are feeling more awe than I am, but are they having a close-to-God experience? Up in the sky, do we feel more spiritual? Is it easier to feel God's presence when we're above everyone else?
OK, I've got about another 20 minutes of solitude to go. So far, I must be completely off track.
I live in the heart of urban Los Angeles in a house that looks out on urban sprawl, with a view, too, of the much-utilized Griffith Park. There is no silence in the city, but I've grown used to that. There are trees and a little grass, but not much in my neighborhood. I appreciate the beauty of our Southern California climate, but I rarely feel the transcendence of nature in my daily life. In honor of Tu b'Shevat, in hopes of connecting to a greater sense of our natural world, I've come on this hike.
Comins believes that Jewish practice has lost its connection to our ancestors' roots, which lie, as we all know, in the Torah but also in the connection of the Torah itself to nature, even to the wilderness. Yet, for most of us, as Comins explains at the start of the day, the essential experience of Judaism has become a series of stories and edicts, rather than an experience or a communing. So, through trial and error, and in concert with a small community of fellow spiritual naturalists, he's attempting to connect the dots.
"If you ask people where they are likely to find a 'God moment,' they say in nature," Comins says in his introduction to the day, which began at 9:30 a.m. with the group of us sitting on dewy grass at the entry to the wilderness park. "If we have this arena where the issue of God is not contrived, and, at the same time, our greatest challenge in Jewish education is finding God, then one plus one is two."
Comins, 49, grew up in Studio City; he had a classic suburban childhood interspersed with regular family camping trips to Yosemite. When he decided to make aliyah and moved to Israel, he says, he initially considered his backpacking career a thing of the past. He studied to become a Reform rabbi in Israel, and as he sat in front of a library computer screen for days on end, working on his thesis, he says, "I felt less and less God in my life."
Reform Rabbi Mike Comins founded Torah Trek in 2001. Photo by Howard Blume
Then a friend took him backpacking in the desert. "I found that everything I was looking for in the library, I was finding outdoors," Comins tells our group.
That epiphany led him to become a desert guide, which led to Torah Trek, which he began in 2001. His goal was to help Jews -- often unaffiliated Jews -- connect the liturgy with the natural environs. He also began to weave his own biblical studies with elements from Native American practices, including vision quests and other forms of meditation.
After two years of fighting a decline in Israeli tourism, Comins moved back to the United States and landed in Jackson Hole, Wyo., where he connected with outfitters and led tourists on spiritual hikes for three years. The challenge, he told me in a later conversation, was that there was no Jewish community of any scale in Wyoming, and his clients were short-time visitors.
He moved back to Los Angeles about two years ago, where he has found a spiritual community at Shtibl, an egalitarian minyan with Chasidic davening often attended by rabbinic students. He's also found many clients in the large Jewish community here, both through organized synagogue programs and through word of mouth. His Web site, www.torahtrek.com, is currently his primary forum for advertising future trips.
"I left Wyoming for a social life, for Jewish women," he says. "I also missed a Jewish community. Whatever happened Jewishly in Wyoming was because I did it. You need to be nourished, and the place for me to work is a Reform congregation. My own practice is very traditional."
Comins, too, struggles with the need to find refuge in wilderness -- because isolation is not refuge -- and the desire for company, also an essential element of Judaism.
"Sharing silence with others is a political act. Silence brings us back to basics,/ to our senses,/ to our selves." -- from the poem, "Silence," by Gunilla Morris.
Our day involves very light hiking, mostly on the park's well-worn main path known as Crag's Road. I learn later that we traveled about four miles overall, but it's in short spurts, with stops for lessons, for chanting and singing, for prayer. We do this as others wander by, but we don't seem to attract much notice. California is a safe place for out-of-the-ordinary activities.
We start off walking and making chitchat. Our group is mostly early career adults and very educated. We have among us an astrophysics researcher, a clinical psychologist and a historic preservationist. There's also, among others, a yoga teacher and an attorney, two physicians and a public health student and a writer. There are no slouches.
Ten minutes or so of light conversation end, however, when Comins tells us that for the rest of the day, we'll mostly be in silence -- sharing space but not thoughts. As we walk down the road, I become intensely aware of the sound of our steps and that quickly we begin to walk in unison. It surprises me, because I knew only a couple of these people before this encounter. A group sensibility has clearly set in, perhaps through Comins' initial remarks. Perhaps it's the setting. Perhaps our shared intent.
Casual hikers, cyclists and equestrians pass us on the road. Chatting away, they seem in another world. Everyone is out for a good day, and the park is not crowded, but we are hardly alone. I find myself wondering about the trees in the park; I ask the rabbi about the flora. He doesn't know all the plant names. He's not your traditional nature guide.
We stop for an exercise. Paired off, we are instructed to become like photographers and cameras. One partner is blindfolded, the other finds the perfect "picture," silently guides the partner to it and then removes the blindfold.
My guide is Darcy Vebber, the writer. She leads me to look at a tree just above the rabbi's head and then, when we repeat the exercise, to a patch of dirt on the edge of a drop down to the creek. Having lost both speech and, temporarily, sight, I find myself highly sensitized to these revelations -- the mundane becomes a sight worth seeing. What I would otherwise overlook takes on a sharp focus.
We walk to a spot overlooking a deep canyon and join in reciting the "Morning Blessings," which for the observant are said every day upon waking. Comins tells us that the first blessing, when literally translated from Hebrew, is for the rooster that wakes us in the morning. The translation in my prayer book from shul, however, never mentions the cock; after all, what would blessing a male chicken mean in our modern world?
Comins explains that to an ancient people more connected with the land, the rooster's crowing unfailingly separates the night from day, restoring us to wakefulness, reminding us that we are yet alive and able to be and to do.
With renewed interest, we see our roots and perhaps begin to regret the loss. These prayers, Comins shows us, come from actual life experiences but have been codified. In many Jews' practice, the connection to the sense of appreciation and awe has been lost.
Much of Jewish practice is about awe, in the sense that incorporates wonder and even fear. Awe of God, awe in the face of the gifts our lives have afforded us. Awe as we watch our children grow up, our parents grow old, our own lives go through cycles. Daily routines inure us to that awe, even the routines of prayer. We have come to the woods to reconnect.
Lunch, after the Motzi, is also in silence, but post-Birkat, we are allowed quiet conversation, though Comins warns us to avoid topics that will take us away from the here and now. And then he introduces the concept of the hitbodedut -- alone time.
He tells that we shouldn't seek success, and if we don't have a connection with God, it won't be a failure. He tells us that there are two elements of his own meditations: teshuvah (repentance) and devequt (the Chasidic notion of "cleaving" to God). "We're just trying to figure out how to listen well." It's a matter of "mindfulness," he explains, referring to the writings of Martin Buber that elucidate an "I-Thou" relationship to God.
"Ask God to share whatever is going on with you," Comins suggests. And then he guides us to our beautiful sites. Which is where I find myself pondering what's left of that great mix of almonds and dried cranberries I assembled for my dessert.
So here I am, with 20 minutes of solitude to go, nearing the end of my hike to Hashem, and about as far from spirituality and revelation as I can imagine myself being.
Others of the group are nearby, just out of sight, and I'm certain they're doing a better job. I decide to read the texts the rabbi has provided.
"Silence is where God dwells.
We yearn to be there.
We yearn to share it."
-- Gunilla Morris.
"Master of the universe, grant me the ability to be alone; may it be my custom to go outdoors each day among the trees and grass -- among all growing things -- and there may I be alone, and enter into prayer to talk with the One to whom I belong." -- From the writings of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav
And for a few minutes, I lose track of time.
Was it boredom? Distraction? Transcendence?
A few days after the hike, I meet with Comins and reveal my struggle. I don't admit that I spent part of my time eating the rest of my lunch, but I do concede that God didn't feel very close. Comins says that this is not uncommon, and he assures me that he understands.
"I always talk about how we are contriving an experience that can't be contrived," Comins says. "All you can do is set up your end of it. Then there's an element of grace involved -- cheset -- and you don't have control over that. So what you can do is try to prepare yourself for what might happen, and it doesn't always happen. If you're judgmental about yourself, it gets very frustrating, and that's usually the beginner's experience. In my spiritual practice, the beginners who don't have an epiphany the first day think they're doing something wrong. But it's my job as a teacher -- and maybe some days I do it better than others -- to take that expectation away."
We don't expect to find God every day, but, Comins hopes, if we can reconnect somehow through this experience of silence, mindfulness and awe, we can return some element of ethereal godliness to our quotidian existence. "Sometimes, years later, someone who went on a hike with me will come back to me and say: 'I went and did that again three months later, when I was on such and such a trip, and it happened.'"
Meanwhile, Comins is writing a guidebook that outlines his theories for the rest of us. He's also making monthly trips to Joshua Tree National Park in the high desert to refine his own practice and his teaching. His Web site lists upcoming classes and hikes.
I have to ask what it's like when people find the "God moment." Can it even be scary or disturbing?
He nods: "A lot of people who are attracted to these things are having issues. I had a guy come to me the night before one trip, and he said to me, 'I'm really scared to go on this, I'm having a fear attack.' And because of my practice of meditation, I was able to help him, and the next day he came on the hike.
"It can be very very powerful," Comins said. "On longer trips, coming back into society is not an easy thing."
When we began our Sunday, Comins had us read together from "God in Search of Man," by Abraham Joshua Heschel. One passage stuck with me: "Mankind will not perish for want of information, but only for want of appreciation. The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living."
As I walked out of the park, with the city just over the horizon and dusk nearing, I remembered suddenly with striking clarity the tree Darcy had revealed to me.
OK, it was a "tree moment," not a God moment. Or was it something more after all?
For a link to Torah Trek, see this article at www.torahtrek.com.