Spirit/Nature/Self Connections
byNick Alsop

Part One: The Role of Water
I have always had a close affinity with water. From the age of eight I first learnt to sail. I was never good at racing, but preferred to spend the Sunday afternoons sailing under my own rules, exploring the bay and letting the tide take me where it would. I remember being considered a ‘loner’ by the other sailors my age, and I guess they were right (A friend from that era still best sums me up as a person who ‘dances to the beat of his own drum’- his biggest complement to me). I would enter into my own world on the bay, time would become irrelevant, as I let my imagination take over. My daydreams were only punctuated by the introduction to sea creatures, such as penguins, seals and fish.

To say this is an experience uniquely my own would be wrong. The sea has always been a focal point for the male side of my family. Both my brothers sail, and my eldest brother nearly lost his life in the 1998 Sydney to Hobart yacht race. My father recalls times spent at the same beach, also at a young age, sailing the same type of boat. So did his father. The intergenerational theme I would suggest works both on a pragmatic ‘my father handed down this interest to me’ as well as something deeper. A strong spiritual tie to the water and the sea runs in our bloods, and helps bind the generations. To separate out the spiritual side from the practical doesn’t really work, as its really an amalgamation between the two. My father wanted to pass on the experience of sailing, but it’s also the spiritual experience of it that he wanted to awaken (not install) in me. Of course, he wouldn’t express it like that!

Now, as I have emerged into my mid-twenties, I am returning to the sea and to the common sense of sacred shared both by my father and myself. I sail with him every second Sunday, on our new 30 foot yacht. Being an experiential learner, dad has had to show amazing patience, as I make just about every mistake you can make on a big yacht; dropping the spinnaker overboard, not folding it properly, and trying the wrong knots, just to name a few. However it’s the reconnection with the spiritual aspect of the sea that also reconnects our relationship. As a man who does not easily show his emotions, or talk about himself, we are now cursing, laughing and drinking together. Little gems about his experiences on the sea are emerging all the time.

Over Easter I went on a holiday to Port Stephens, north of Newcastle on the New South Wales coast. Every morning after breakfast we would head down to the surf beach and go body surfing for two hours. Complete immersion in the water and in its power installed a wonderful sense of wholeness within me. This wholeness would have been partly the result of having to let go of the need for control, as the larger powers of the waves swept over me. You can’t fight it. Sometimes they would dump me, and I’d accept that, and get up afterwards and do it all again. In a sense, its empowering, as trying to fight the natural power of the wave restricts the ability to let go mentally of the idea that you are being controlled in all levels of your life.

On the last day at Port Stephens, we got up at 5am for the long drive back to Melbourne. For some reason, I was insistent that we visit our beach like we had done every other morning, and ‘say goodbye’. This initially evoked some laughter, but they agreed. The final swim was one with a different feeling to it, that I’m sure the others fel. I didn’t look on the event from an eco-spiritual perspective until we were back in Melbourne. And I’m glad I didn’t. It’s something that came from the heart, and wasn’t forced by intellectual or theoretical mechanisms.

Photo by Ed Kleingeertz

Part Two: The Place of Mountains
In my life mountains have been a sacred and spiritual focus. Although the final destination of this essay is the mountains, the journey to the mountains is long…

In Part One I talked about immersion. Immersion in the power of the waves whilst body surfing. The activity has two important aspects to it. Firstly, immersion in the waves and the water is an intimate experience that blurs the body/environment interface. The stimulation of all senses, and the total surrounding by the water and its power, leads to closeness with the waves, as the body responds to the rolls and crashes and lets the energy of the wave flow though. This then translates into something deeper, but that can’t be separated from the body. The spirit is also involved, and the energy of the wave flows though that as well. The energy of the waves is transformed into a force that mixes, wears out and eventually calms the spirit, as it does the muscles, bones and tendons. Hence there is a strong sense of tiredness but calm; mentally, spiritually and physically when one leaves the water and trots back to the beach towel on the shore.

The second important aspect is that of letting go. You cannot fight the waves; if you do you will 'lose'. You have to let go, as the physical power is too strong for the feeble body to combat and control. Can this then be translated to the need to let go emotionally and spiritually, to transcend the dualistic struggle in a spiritual sense as well? The role of letting go leads to a shift from the control/submit, or win/lose relationship to one of more substance and deeper connectivity. This was demonstrated in the experiences of the night in the forest shared by class members whilst on camp at Moora Moora, the intentional community high on a mountain on the outskirts of Melbourne. The stories struck a chord for me as many highlighted the role of complete vulnerability, which many felt while being in the forest. The reservations, fears and preconceptions brought to the forest by many, enhanced by the cultural baggage of 'deep dark forest' and all that it symbolises, set up a mentality of 'me against the forest' that was manifested in fears of the unknown and worries of a physical nature such as insect bites, sharp sticks and strange animals. The forest is a powerful place- the trees tower over you and have an essence of power, nobility and might that creates a humility and reverence for that that experience them. This power is so much stronger than we are, and we cannot fight it. It is no surprise that the tree is an important symbol in indigenous cultures around the world.

Once the realisation was made that the power of the forest is so great, people were able to transcend beyond their fears to a relationship with the forest by which they were 'cradled' by it, and were privileged to be allowed into its presence. Hence, letting go of any need to protect oneself or 'keep watch' lead to a realisation of complete vulnerability, laying oneself bare. This was empowering. In a way this complete vulnerability can lead to a deeper and more powerful level of invulnerability, as the individual on all levels of existence, feels 'at one' with the place.
This is an important point when discussing the ability for one to deal with pain, loss and trauma. In a society where the extended family ties are not as strong as they could be, and the nuclear family itself is under threat, the desire to search for other ways of healing is increased. Hence the rise of external healing services such as social workers and counsellors. But even these services are under threat by the dominating economic rationalism and corporatised world we live within, which looks for a 'quick fix' solution, and often misses the mark by focussing only on the symptoms of a problem, and ignores its cause. The role of nature in healing, restoring and rehabilitating the self is one that can restore the spirit and enhance the healing process. It needs to be affirmed in the suit of tools available to society when dealing with pain, loss and trauma.

In 'Ecopsychology' (Roszak, Gomes & Kanner, 1995), Terrance O'Connor (1995: 152) in his article 'Therapy for a Dying Planet’ talks about the his retreat to a cabin in the wilderness:

I hiked in with a stack of books. For a week I sat on the porch and watched a blacksnake lying in the rafters and the chipmunks scurrying between the rocks…I read about the state of the world. I cried… When I had enough of reading and crying I went for long hikes. I followed a magnificent stream…I came back to the porch and read some more, and sometimes I cried and sometimes I raged, and sometimes I looked up at the ancient stones and beautiful trees and the abundance of life around me and I loved it so fiercely I thought my heart would burst.

When reading this recently, O'Connor's cabin in my mind suddenly became a particular mountain hut that I have visited often. It sits in the heart of the Victorian high country, nestled on the side of an alpine plain, at the edge of the temperature-inverted treeline. The two wooded hillsides on either side of the tundra plain cradles it and the hut, and conjures up a sense of sacredness and awe within the heart. This image has always been in my mind and heart, and is often the first place I think of when I think of the mountains.

I cried when I read Terrance O'Connor's passage. There was a strong similarity to what draws me to the mountains. It calls me. It cradles me when I am there, allowing me to lay myself bare, in all levels of existence. It is a way, maybe the only way that I can continue to work and strive at restoring the earth. Working on something so close to the heart and connected so closely to life itself, requires that the battle weary spirit, as well as the mind, be rejuvenated and healed at the same time. This is what the mountains do for me. They restore me and help me recover from the pain, loss and trauma that often comes from caring and working with the environment.

O'Connor, Terrance, 1995, Therapy for a Dying Planet, in Theodore Roszak, Mary E.
Gomes & Allen D. Kanner (eds.) Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the
. San Francisco: Sierra Club.