I recently went on a wonderful five-day silent meditation retreat in the Pacific Northwest. On the final morning, I found myself with about 45 minutes of unscheduled time. It was after breakfast and before our final session, and the light drizzle that had sprinkled the landscape had given way to a patchy sunshine. As I discerned where my feet would take me, I found myself walking—mindfully, with awareness—toward the forest. There was a short trail there I had hiked each day after lunch. And there was a particular spot I knew I wanted to go to—a spot where I really just wanted to say thank you and goodbye.

My destination was a part of the trail dominated by a cluster of five great Western Cedars. These are enormous, ancient conifers that shoot up 150 feet or more in the sky. Their trunks are massive. They tell you, with a great quiet majesty, that they’ve been around a lot longer than you have. And in a number of cases, they have formed in such a way that parts of their enormous roots are visible above the land, almost as though they’ve grown a neck. (One of them, pictured above, reminded me of a giant giraffe.) These trees grow on the edge of a babbling brook, standing watch over the maples and birches, the ferns and the mosses, that grow beneath them.

What led me to this spot? I’m not entirely sure. But at the end of five days of silence, filled with sitting and walking meditation and silent meals in this vibrant ecosystem, I could discern something tugging at me to go here and connect with its vitality, its quiet, its timelessness. I stood there for a while in silent meditation, and then found myself slowly and lovingly singing Shlomo Carlebach’s song for this season of Elul:

Return again
Return again
Return to the land of your soul

Return to who you are
Return to what you are
Return to where you are born and reborn again

I said goodbye to the trees and headed back towards the meditation hall. And then something amazing happened: I encountered three banana slugs on the trail. I had been told that these creatures were a special feature of this landscape, but only now, with barely an hour left in the retreat, did I find them—a blessing brought about by the rains that had softened up the ground overnight.

If you’ve never seen a banana slug, you should look one up on google. They’re not big (in this case, they were more the size of a small pickle than a banana). They’re gooey and slimy. But most notably, they move verrrry slooowwwly. I mean, really, really slow. And here, after five days and a resultant slowness and fluidity in my own breath and being, I found myself enraptured at these tiny little creatures who embody taking your time. Our instructor on the retreat saw me squatting down to behold them and aptly said, “I think you’ve found your teacher.” I stayed there for about fifteen minutes just marveling at them and keeping them off the path (so as not to get squashed by people).

I think of the trees and the slugs as I contemplate the opening words of Parashat Nitzavim: “You stand this day, all of you, before YHVH your God”—from the chiefs to the water-drawers. No matter our station, whether the mightiest of the trees or the lowliest of the slugs, we stand in the midst of YHVH—the breath of life, the source of being, the animating force of the universe. We are all interconnected, made of the same stardust, here for a brief flicker in the span of cosmic time. And we, humans, are blessed with the gift of awareness, the capacity to be conscious of that interconnection—and thus the ability and responsibility “to work it and steward it,” in the words of Genesis.

Rosh Hashanah is nearly upon us, the day on which we commemorate the sixth day of Creation, when we humans were formed and placed amidst all these other creatures. In this week before that moment of renewal, I’d like to encourage you to deepen your own practice. In the midst of the cooking and cleaning and all the other preparations, make time for spiritual preparation too. Most importantly: Slow. Down. Spend some time meditating this week. Spend some moments in the natural world. Take the time to reconnect with the world, with yourself, with your breath, with the source of life. In doing so, we have the opportunity to return again to who and what we are, to where we are born and reborn again.