BLOG: Nature Connection
What might it mean in our day, to live a balanced, holistic spiritual life – whether or not you are part of a religious institution? Institutions tend to provide their own structures and can be more or less flexible and more or less prescriptive in the way they offer them. But if I were judging for myself the value of what was on offer, or, even more, if I was trying to cultivate such a life outside an institution (which I am) then what would it look like? What would be the elements which made it feel balanced, healthy and whole?
These are the questions I have been exploring for many years both inside and outside religious institutions. And the conclusions I am coming to, which I have been seeking to share in these pages (particularly articulated in my last blog), are that such a spiritual basis for life would need to include three things:
- Some form of daily reflective practice
- Some kind of intentional commitment to community relationships
- Some form of heart engagement with the rest of nature
I have written quite a lot about the first – especially how mindfulness can be the basis of a very healthy and on-going reflective practice. I have written more recently about the second, especially as we have been developing our own small community.
But, though I would not have prioritised it 15 years ago, the third, nature connection, has increasingly seemed like an absolute essential (as well as a delight and joy) if our spirituality is to be truly holistic since it completes the picture of the work of re-connection: with ourselves; with others; and with the rest of nature.
So, first a couple of reflections and then two simple nature connection practices to share.
As I have suggested before, all our spiritual practice is really about connection – or re-connection – or, more accurately, becoming aware of how we are already connected – with everything that there is. And the key word here is ‘how’ – in what way we are connected. Because there are spiritual traditions which have suggested that we are connected in a hierarchical way to the rest of nature – with the implication that we ourselves are not really part of nature but are somehow a little bit above it. I’m hoping that this, as a bald statement, will sound all wrong to most of us. But the trouble is that it has for such a long time been part of our cultural thinking that we may need to work a little harder to really let go of it and of how it affects our instincts and leanings.
So, in this sense, this aspect of spirituality really needs to be more than going for a walk in the woods or keeping pets. But rather we will need to bring to bear a particular attitude, or quality of attention, to our walk and to our pets. And this will be the attitude of what I will call egalitarian belonging to replace the utilitarian exploitation which has been the mark of our culture’s attitude to nature for so long.
And this will necessarily be a deep work of the heart rather than just an assent to an idea. It will need as much perseverance as our meditation practice and our community building because it will be a work of overturning deeply rooted attitudes and instincts.
And the reasons that this is such essential work are really quite simple. One is that we humans will never find our true sense of our humanity in isolation from the rest of nature – we are not an island even as a species – and we will ever be the poorer if we try to be. And the other is that (you may have read!) there is a climate and ecological crisis of unimaginable proportions which, in the end, is largely rooted in humanity’s isolationist attitude to nature.
And I say all this conscious that I am a beginner myself in this territory. I see others for whom this is so natural. Whereas for me it is still very much a work I need to persevere with.
But here are two ways I seek to practice as often as I can.
- Animal connection.
We have two dogs in our household and I have more than once been questioned for not referring to them as part of our community venture, because of course they are – they affect our relationships, our moods, our activities, everything. One of them even joins our meditation sessions. I am, of course, aware of this on one level. But I have sought more recently to intentionally pay more attention to each of them: to their needs; what they seem to be communicating; to share in simple affection; and to talk to them without then making my own mind up as to what their reply might be. And most of all seeing if I can bring this attitude of egalitarian belonging to these beings who share our home.
- In the field.
The other thing I have been doing for quite a long time and which seems to me so simple and yet so profound is simply sitting, and paying this same kind of egalitarian belonging attention in the midst of nature. And this is what I mean by it being more than just going for a walk in the woods – because the quality of attention we pay is everything.
So what I do is this:
half way round one of the local fields where I walk my dog there is a bench; if it is free I sit myself down on it and settle myself for a 10 or 20 minute session – sometimes longer;
I will start by closing my eyes (if I feel safe to do so) and bringing gentle attention to my own breathing and the physical sense of my body siting here – I might count four or more breaths after I feel I have settled;
and then, whilst as far as possible retaining the sense of my own body breathing, I will take time to listen to the sounds, feel the air and smell whatever the breeze is carrying in my direction;
then I will open my eyes and shift my attention to the smallest of aspects of nature in front of me – usually this is a blade of grass;
then I will expand my vision to the patch of grass around it;
then the whole field (trying not to hurry this process but lingering with each stage);
then I will expand my vision to all that is around the field;
and finally I will take in the vast expanse which seems to contain it all. And all the time, as far as possible, retaining just some small amount of awareness of my own body breathing in the midst of it.
But the key to this practice is this: to gradually let go of the conception that I am the centre of it all (which my cognitive mind tends always to want to suggest) and gradually to allow the awareness to arise that I am simply a part of this vast, glorious and wonderful whole – and, in fact, really quite a small and relatively insignificant part.
Interestingly this is quite a liberating experience. All my me-centred thinking falls away, just for the moment and my neurotic self-survival kind of thinking fades. And I can relax and rejoice that, actually, it isn’t all about me after all – and that this landscape is looking for nothing much from me other than a degree of humility and respect – and a sense of mutual fellowship and belonging.
And, just in case you’re wondering how these sorts of practices will have any kind of effect on our ecological crisis, what we are sharing in and cultivating here is the profound shift in consciousness that the crisis will require of us. If our action to change our effect on the world is to be sustainable it must be accompanied by such a consciousness shift otherwise it will always be in danger of running out of steam in a muddle of moral and intellectual argument. So, beware! Such practices may lead to vegetarianism and eco-activism – as they did in my case.
For more, though, see Bruce Parry’s film ‘Tawai’ described in the resources section.