Connecting to Nature's Spirit
Article and photographs by Sylvie Shaw

Every time we look up and see a cloud and understand it, we are closer to understanding ourselves. When we pick up a rock and admire it instead of heaving it at something, we are closer to some ultimate truth. When we hear a bird and stop for the sheer pleasure of that sound, we are nearer to real life than we were before. When we acknowledge beauty, we benefit from it most. (Caras, 1977 quoted in Swanson, 2000).

A couple of years ago I did an earth education workshop with Steve Van Matre. The exercise we did at the beginning of the workshop was deeply moving. It was a simple exercise about the inspiration that flows from nature.

Steve divided the group into three – the actors, the poets and the witnesses. He then asked the actors to place themselves at various vantage points around a magnificent gum tree – from standing at a distance from the tree and admiring it from afar to close up and personal, lying on the ground looking up at the sky through the leaves, touching the bark and smelling the leaves.

He then asked each person to suggest two qualities, attributes or characteristics of the tree which reflected their experience and asked the poets to write each of the qualities down. Their task was to write an ode to the tree using only these expressions with minimal linking words. The final result was then performed for the whole group. It was a way of seeing nature in a different light, a simple exercise that changed the way we saw that tree. It also made us more aware of the importance of trees in our lives in terms of processing carbon dioxide into oxygen and generating rain. Simple things that are easy to forget in the modern nature disconnected world.

Steve’s exercise opens up the senses. It shifts our perception about elements in the natural world. From my research, it is this kind of direct sensory experience with nature from childhood onwards that appears to make the difference about caring for the environment. Having knowledge and information about environmental destruction does not necessarily galvanize people into action. Instead it can lead to indifference, to a kind of psychic numbing, because of the enormity of the issue (Macy, 1995). What makes the difference is frequent, meaningful encounters with the natural world.
These encounters take on the meaning of the sacred, or of the spiritual through the process of creating relationship with nature.

The Sacred in Nature
I define spirituality as the process of creating relationship with what we hold to be sacred. By ‘sacred’ I do not mean something set apart but something inclusive of and interactive with the everyday; something held dear; something to be respected, revered, treasured and protected. In this definition the sacred winds through the ordinary and the everyday as an animating vital lifeforce or spirit.

But I wonder if there are perhaps two sources of sacredness. One is reflected in the notion that the earth is sacred through the animating lifeforce connecting the ‘mysterious’ and ‘infinite complexities of the natural word’ (Metzner, 1995:61). In this picture nature itself is the expression of the holy (Mills, 1994). An example of this understanding of the sacred is apparent in the observation from nature writer Barry Lopez (1986:228) who writes that “the land retains an identity of its own, still deeper and more subtle than we can ever know”.

Then there is the more human-centred position, where special places and symbolic objects become sanctified by creating relationship with them. Here Lopez offers an evocative image of relationship building. On his evening walks while camped in the Arctic regions of Alaska, he would bow in homage to the “intense and concentrated beauty”, to the birds and animals who revelled in the freezing conditions, and “to the serene Arctic light that came over the land like breath, like breathing” (ibid., xx). Here the outer landscape merges with the inner terrain and takes our breath away.

As Lopez describes, experiences of the sacred in nature can be deeply felt in wild places. Studies of spiritual experience in such places have found that people share a number of common elements in the way they experience their spiritual connection (Stringer & McEvoy, 1992; Fox, 1999). Being in wild nature engenders a sense of mystery about the world; a sense of awe or wonderment about the earth or particular naturescape; a sense of connectedness or oneness with the natural world; a profound feeling of transcendence (within and without); a belief in a power greater than oneself; and an appreciation of the beauty in nature. It sparks feelings of inner peace, hope, joy and empowerment; promotes physical and emotional well-being, and brings about ‘significant’ changes in attitude and behaviour (Fox, 1999:459. See also Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989; Hartig et al., 1991; Miles, 1993).

Wild Nature Encounters
My research (Shaw, 2001) has focused on the connection between nature connecting, spiritual practice and environmental activism. I spoke with a number of people about their nature connecting experiences in order to find out what makes them care for nature so much, they want to take action to protect it. I found that the foundation of their activism was spawned through their childhood adventures in nature, particularly experiences which were somewhat risky, adventuresome and often undertaken alone. So how is that experience channelled into their lives now?

Kirk is a landscape designer. His aim is to create sacred gardens and he ensures that every garden he constructs includes an area for compost and vegetables ‘so the clients will go outside and interact with nature like they haven’t done before.’ He also pursues his activism through Spiral Connection, a group which organizes regular drug and alcohol free dance parties where sacred ritual and flashy drumming are an integral part of the celebration. He also teaches yoga, studies Buddhism and is passionate about surfing.

“When I go surfing I enjoy the interaction with the environment. I enjoy the kind of primordial excitement, the sense that great big black shadow under the board could go 'boom boom' which reminds me how fragile I am as a human being. It is also the exquisiteness of nature. You sit there and watch a piece of water about a foot square, and the changes in the colour and the patterns and the textures. It's constantly moving and changing like some incredible science fiction ball that you'd get in a novelty shop, except it's happening right there, while at the same time, the board is rocking, and you're feeling the temperature of the water, and then you feel the wave and you paddle, paddle, paddle, and the board picks you up and it's total zen. You’re not thinking about your shopping, or your girlfriend or where you'll be going next week. You’re 100 percent focussed in that moment. There's no future, no past, it's right now. And I can't think of anything else that gives you that feeling. It's playing with something so much greater than myself in many ways. So much more powerful and extremely pleasurable and sensuous - it's wildly sensuous. It's warm and sensuous in summer, but in winter, it's ice-cream head cold. But I’m not thinking spiritually necessarily when I'm on the board. Oftentimes I’m going through a whole range of emotions - it's exciting but it's in awe of the beauty of nature.”

Kirk describes surfing in religious terms as ‘total zen’ where he is ‘playing with something so much greater’, and losing himself ‘in that moment’ between life and possible death. Other outdoor activists like climbers and white-water kayakers talk about their experience in similar ways. The sense of being totally immersed in the task, so much so that you lose your own sense of self and become totally ‘at one with’ whatever you are doing, is what Csikszentmihalyi (1990) refers to as ‘flow experience’. La Chappelle (1988:56) illustrates just how this process works for her when rock climbing.

Then the bliss takes over. It’s extremely difficult to explain this to non-climbers. It’s a state of total relaxation, total joy and incredible thankfulness that the mountain is allowing you to do this - to proceed so gracefully, beautifully down the vertical rock, always giving you something to hold onto in passing. It’s being "at home", totally completely "at home" like no where else. ... There’s no adrenalin when you feel so safe, so good, so flowing. It’s total relaxation (La Chapelle, 1988:56).

For me, rock climbing is like dancing with the rock. Some days it flows wonderfully as La Chapelle describes, but at other times, if I am stressed or anxious, I become glued to the rock, unable to move, fighting my own demons and my fear. On one occasion, I remember standing on a tiny ledge of a slab climb called Brolga at Mt. Arapiles; stuck about thirty meters above the ground, unable to move up or down. The handhold above me was way out of reach. I tried the move repeatedly without success and just as I was about to give up, I suddenly felt my fingers lock into the elusive handhold above. And I was there. I have no idea how I managed to do it. It was as if the rock itself had stretched my hands upwards and placed my fingers on the hold. As if the rock was climbing me. Outdoor educator Peter Martin (1993:12) also loves Arapiles and confirms my feeling that the rock ‘lives’.

I can’t find words to describe how Arapiles lives. I lack the language to describe the deeply personal knowledge I have of Arapiles. It’s missing because I grew up in a culture that treats humans as separate from all other beings … But I do know Arapiles "lives", just as I know my partner’s face in a crowd of a thousand others but can’t explain why. Polyani (1966, p.6) has called this knowing "tacit knowledge". I think it is important to recognize we can know and learn more than we are able to articulate (Martin, 1993:12).

Most people I spoke to who are involved with outdoor pursuits experience similar feelings. They have a tacit knowing about the aliveness of the nature that moves them toward feelings of self-transcendence, describing them as ‘epiphanies’ or ‘peak experiences’ - revelatory episodes of a transcendent or mystical nature (Maslow, 1964; Coxhead, 1985). Marcus, for example, began surfing when he was 37 years old and after catching his first wave, he was hooked.

“There are times when you go into the water, you stretch your arms out and you let the wave hit you straight in the full body and you go ‘This is it!’ It is such an unbelievable experience, such a blissful experience. And a spiritual experience, yes. It’s like an incredible love. It’s simply being in the wave, and riding the board is secondary. It’s cleansing you, washing all the cares and worries away. You come back absolutely cleansed.”

For Marcus, there is a sense of well-being in nature not simply a sense of being at one with nature. This fits in more with the notion of transcendent experience, as do the words he uses – ‘unbelievable’, ‘blissful’, ‘spiritual’ and ‘incredible love’ - to describe his experience. Coxhead (1985:48) comments that these ‘spontaneous mystic experiences’ of oneness with nature are so common they have spawned a classification of their own - ‘nature mysticism’. It is chactacterized by flashes of illumination, a feeling of unity, a sense of joy, bliss and peace, a transcendence of time and space, a sense of the numinous, and a change in attitude and behaviour.’ Bound up in these experiences is a sense of the magic of the unknown, humility in the face of something bigger than ourselves and a spiritual intimacy which Coxhead (1985) defines as grace. Birth educator and counsellor Rhea describes such an experience while out running one day. Her calling to that profession was stimulated by what happened on this occasion.

“One day, while I was out running, and it was in the springtime, a gorgeous spring day and I was feeling that fantastic feeling when your body is doing what it is designed to do and it’s doing it well. Like the body is singing. I was going through a field where there were a lot of sheep and I came across the moment when a ewe was giving birth to a lamb. And at that point I saw a halo spread right around this scene, around this mother and this baby. At first I could see this shimmering, a palpable energy that was around the ewe and her lamb. I felt a bit like an intruder but I could also feel this strong, strong vibration. This happened long before I had made contact with the spiritual group that I belong to, and well before my vocation came. When I came out of that experience, it was like a transcendent experience, I just burst into tears, tears of wonder and release. I was not really conscious of working out what it was. I had the experience and kept running. But then, later on, and again before I had my first child, when I first came into this spiritual energy that now sustains me in my life, I changed my name to Rhea. Now here I am doing this work and I think Rhea probably describes the essence well. Rhea was one of the Greek goddesses, she was the mother.”

This transformative experience happened ‘well before’ Rhea became a home birther as if it was ‘some sort of calling and an honouring of what the calling is about’. But the element of Christian religious imagery is also strong - the shimmering halo and the strong feeling of vibration and palpable energy. It was an encounter which changed her life.

The common theme among all of these examples is an expression the sacred in the outdoors. These spiritual experiences emerge through creating relationship with place or with elements in nature. They came about spontaneously but have a lasting impact, at least this is what Vivianne found when she encountered ‘the other’ in the wilderness. Vivianne teaches people about nature spirituality based on the teaching of the theologian Thomas Berry. In the following story, she was taught an important lesson about how to walk lightly in nature.

“It was in one of Tasmania’s wonderful national parks. I’d gone on a five day hike with my kids and I thought I'd die on the first day. Here I am, over fifty years old and with a bad back, and you have to carry all your food up this very steep mountain. When we finally got there, I was exhausted. But by the second day I had recovered enough to go walking through an old pencil pine forest, a wonderful old growth forest, and this is where my pride comes in. I found a really old tree that looked so amazing with branches hanging down to the ground, that I decided to sit under it. But as I sat down the tree rebuked me. It was so humbling. The tree said, "How dare you just blunder in and sit down without asking permission! Don't you realise there is a whole community of beings you've just sat on?" It was the most extraordinary rebuke for someone who’s supposed to be pretty ecologically aware. It was really powerful and immediately I jumped up and apologised to the tree and approached it again, this time properly. Then, very chastened, I went on with my walk. When I came back a few hours later, there was a hawk feather right there where I had sat. It was such a stunning lesson. Now I always ask permission. It was a sacred place, but in my delirium I just assumed I could go in there and be blessed.”

Wild spirituality, as Vivianne discovered, can be humbling as well as healing. Despite her awareness, she had to learn to be more respectful of the land. Asking permission of the naturespace becomes an important part of the outdoor experience. Building relationship with the natural world goes hand in hand with the outdoor challenge. The aim is to try to create an awareness of the friendship and partnership between people and nature.

Steps Towards Experience
While nature is the teacher, healer and inspiration, the role of the outdoor educator can be to help manifest these experiences – to guide the students along a pathway towards the possibility of touching the sacred. Several books list a number of exercises for building relationship with nature - James Swan’s Nature as Teacher and Healer; Ruth Baetz’s Wild Communion. Experiencing Peace in Nature.; the marvellous autobiography by Paul Rezendes entitled The Wild Within; and the on-line nature connecting courses of Michael Cohen – www. pacificrim.com; www. ecopsychology.com; and www.rockisland.com.

Most begin with simple physical exercises - something as basic as standing still and breathing. Beginning loose body movements and warm up exercises. Getting people to connect with their bodies in some way.

How do we feel in different naturescapes and ecosystems – is there a difference between how we feel in a dark rainforest or open desert, a cave or mountain top, an ocean or city park, a sunny or rainy day, the different seasons?

The next step is to explore the senses further – to awaken the smells, sounds, feelings, by touching, sniffing, looking (really looking!), listening (even to the silence and the sounds of your own body), tasting (if appropriate).

Find a special place in nature and spend time there. A place that calls you. Take a notepad and paper if you like. Write feelings, ideas, poetry. Be aware of the movements in nature – wind, spiders climbing, bees flying, waves lapping etc. What attracts you? What seems to call you? Reflect on the experience.

Find an object in nature. Describe that object in objective terms – its characteristics, colour, shape, smell. Bring the object into awareness and try to get ‘inside’ the object. Reflect on what its characteristics, particularly the words you use to describe it, mean for you. Does the butterfly have a symbolic meaning for you about transformation? Or the surging waves about the need to ‘go with the flow’? Attributes of ourselves are highlighted in the characteristics of the objects we are attracted to. What they tell us. What metaphors and messages they suggest may pave the way for personal transformation.

Watch the night sky. And reflect on your place in the universe. Look at the patterns in clouds. Watch the sunrise or sunset and notice the colours, the patterns of shadows, the sounds, the intensity of the light, how does it affect you?

Look at a tree. Then ask permission of the tree, asking the tree if it has a message for you? Do any words or feelings come to you? Is there a difference between the experiences? Ask permission of the place where you are going to climb, kayak, surf etc.

Devise a ritual of thanks to the place for allowing you to do the outdoor activity. Select an object that attracts you in nature asking permission if you can bring it to a central ‘altar’. Swanson (2000) says rituals are formed by weaving together words, sounds, gestures, movements. The focus of the ritual could be the creation of a sculpture in nature, a sand painting or mandala using the objects from the local terrain; you can read from poems or something you’ve written; tell stories; sing; dance; chat; drum and make other forms of music or stand silently.

Nature connecting for some people comes naturally. For others it requires practice. Enjoy them and don’t forget to have fun and play too.

References Cited:
Baetz Ruth (1997) Wild Communion. Experiencing Peace in Nature. Center City, Minnesota: Hazelden.

Coxhead, Nora (1985) The Relevance of Bliss. A Contemporary Exploration of Mystical
. Hounslow, Middlesex: Wildwood House.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1990) Flow. The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper & Row.

Fox, Rebecca (1999), "Enhancing Spiritual Experience in Adventure Programs", in John C. Miles & Simon Priest (eds.) Adventure Programming. State College, PA: Venture Publishing, Inc.

Kaplan, Stephen & Jane F. Talbot (1983), "Psychological Benefits of Wilderness Experience", in Altman, Irwin & Joachim F. Wohlwill (eds.) Behaviour and the Environment. New York: Plenum Press.

LaChapelle Dolores (1988) Sacred Land, Sacred Sex, Rapture of the Deep: Concerning Deep Ecology and Celebrating Life. Silverton, CO: Finn Hill Arts.

Lopez, Barry (1986) Artic Dreams. Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape. New York: Bantam Books.

Macy, Joanna (1995), "Working Through Environmental Despair", in Theodore Roszak, Mary E. Gomes & Alan D. Kanner (eds.) Ecopsychology. Restoring the Earth. Healing the Mind. San Francisco: Sierra Club.

Martin, Peter (1993), "Outdoor Education: Practical Implications of a Deep Ecology Philosophy", The Outdoor Educator, Sept. pp. 10-16.

Maslow, Abraham (1964) Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press.

Metzner, Ralph (1995), "The Psychopathology of Human-Nature Relationship", in
Theodore Roszak, Mary E. Gomes, & Alan D. Kanner (eds.) Ecopsychology.
Restoring the Earth. Healing the Mind
. San Francisco: Sierra Club.

Mills, Stephanie (1994), "The Wild and the Tame", in David C. Burks (ed.) Place of the Wild. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Rezendes, Paul (1999) The Wild Within. Adventures in Nature and Animal Teachings. New York: Berkley Books.

Roberts, Elizabeth J. (1996), "Place and Spirit in Land Management", in B. L. Driver et al. (eds.) Nature and the Human Spirit. Toward an Expanded Land Management Ethic. State College, PA: Venture Publishing Inc.

Segal, Fran (1997), "Ecopsychology and the Uses of Wilderness", Ecopsychology-On-Line, www.csuhayward. edu/ALSS/ECO/1097/segal.

Stringer, L. Allison & Leo H. McAvoy (1992), "The Need for Something Different: Spirituality and Wilderness Adventure", Journal of Experiential Education, 15, 1, p. 13-20.

Swan, James A. (1992) Nature as Teacher and Healer. How to Reawaken Your Connection to Nature. New York: Villard Books.

Swanson, John L. (2000) Communing with Nature. A Guidebook for Enhancing Your
Relationship with the Living Earth
. Unpublished Manuscript.