Nature as a spiritual path: Six suggestions for deepening your spiritual relationship to Nature
Accidental Encounters with the Spirit of Nature: Your invitation
Do you love spending time in the natural world? Do you love how you feel when you’re with trees, mountains, rivers and animals, even if you don’t know why?
If so, you’ve probably had a wide range of experiences. On some days, you might go for a walk and you’re barely aware of the world around you. Your mind runs along its usual channels and before you know it, you’re back at the car.
But on other days, something extraordinary happens. You’re walking along and all of a sudden you notice a tree – really notice it – and it’s a revelation. A deep peace settles into you. Or, you’re sitting in a secluded spot and you realize: I’m no different from that rock, that tree, that herd of deer. Everything feels right in the world. Then you become aware of the presence of Nature as a whole. You feel that Nature is not just a collection of trees and rocks and animals, but is a presence unto herself. And you know that you’re part of it. Call it God, Earth Mother, or by another name, but you felt it.
I’ve come to think of these moments of clarity, connection, and peace as 'accidental encounters with Nature.' You weren’t necessarily seeking a profound experience, but it happened.
Most of us never go further than this. We know we love nature, we know we feel great in nature, and we spend time in nature. But we don’t know how to connect with Nature in an intentional way. And so, because mainstream culture exerts tremendous pressure to prioritize the surface rather than the spiritual, we revert to exercising or socializing, using nature as a sort of a grand gym or café that just happens to make us feel especially good. No one encourages us to dive deeper. In mainstream Western culture, there are no models for doing so.
Because mainstream culture exerts tremendous pressure to prioritize the surface rather than the spiritual, we revert to exercising in nature, using it as a sort of a grand gym that just happens to make us feel especially good.
But there is so much more! These accidental encounters with Nature are just the beginning. They’re the doorway in. They’re an invitation to discover your own true nature and to live your life with Nature.
After a few of these accidental encounters, I accepted the invitation. It was a time in my life when I was in pain. My relationship had just ended, and it felt like I had a gaping hole in the middle of my chest; I felt like a ghost hovering around the edges of my own life. Eventually, I realized that this hole could never be filled by another person. Like a flower turning toward the sun, I felt my way toward Nature.
What I discovered is that it is possible to shift from an accidental spiritual relationship with Nature to an intentional one. I began to spend time in Nature and consciously connect. Nature became my spiritual path. The hole in my chest – which had always been there but had become unbearable with the heartbreak – filled in. I learned that I am never truly alone, and that, despite life’s fickle ups and downs, it’s possible to live with a steady baseline of deep joy.
Six suggestions for Connecting with Nature
So, if you've felt a connection to Nature and want to deepen it, allow yourself to turn toward that light! Allow your creativity to come forward and guide you. The rewards are immeasurable. If you’d like some suggestions for how to start, read on.
1) Make a commitment
Our lives our busy, and our minds are even busier. Even if you already spend time in Nature, your mind’s chatter can take over. If you don’t set an intention to connect, you give away your power to build the relationship.
For example, imagine you’re on a first date, and you get so lost in your own thoughts that you don’t hear a word your date says. Then, at the end of the date, you say: “I don’t want to schedule dates, I just want to see if they happen organically!” They'd be running for the door.
It’s the same with Nature. You need to listen and communicate, and if you were raised in the Western world, that probably doesn’t come naturally. So the first step to developing your spiritual relationship with Nature is committing to doing so.
2) Create time alone in Nature
When we’re with other people, we tend to talk to each other. Silences are experienced as uncomfortable. We’re also concerned about what people think of us, so we edit ourselves to ensure we’re behaving according to social convention. And women and girls are especially encouraged to focus on what other people are feeling and to take care of them, at the expense of being aware of our own inner experience.
All of these social patterns make it difficult to connect with Nature. That’s why I’ve found that communicating with Nature works best in solitude, unless you’re supported by a teacher or facilitator.
It’s not as hard as you might think to create solitary experiences in nature. You don’t have to go so far away from others that you’ll be scared of animals or violent people. If you’re on a popular trail, find a place where you can take a few steps off and be hidden by a rise in the land or a stand of trees. Bring a whistle if you’re still concerned.
If you’re spending the day hiking with a friend, ask to spend some time by yourself. You might be surprised to find that your companion appreciates this as much as you do.
You can even spend time in your garden or a park.
3) Find a good place
This doesn’t need to be a complicated process, and you don’t need the “perfect” place because all of nature is perfect. I tend to walk on the trail until I see an area or a feature that I’m drawn to, and then head for it.
4) Sit down
Can you have spiritual experiences while walking or running or climbing? Of course. But I’ve found it’s easier to connect spiritually while my mind and my body are quiet and focused. There’s something about the rhythm of walking and running that encourages my usual thoughts to accompany me.
You can help ensure you have a good experience with a little preparation. If it’s wet or cold, bring something to sit on. The cheapest and lightest option is a garbage bag, but if it is really cold, insulation will help. Crazy Creek chairs work well on snowy ground, and they’re easy to hook onto a daypack.
You’ll also want to dress for sitting rather than exercising. The longer you sit, the more your body temperature drops, so you’ll be grateful for the extra layers.
5) Relax & Observe
Take in your surroundings. Notice little details and the larger lay of the land. See, hear, smell, and feel, and allow yourself to enjoy it.
Then, try asking yourself: “What am I drawn to?” Is it a mountain? A creek? A flower? A tree? Allow your eyes to rest there, and focus your mind on it.
This is where it gets exciting. It’s also where your mind may rebel.
If you were raised in Western culture, chances are you’ve been taught that, while humans may have souls or spirits, many (or all) other animals do not. Certainly trees, rocks, flowers, and lakes do not! And certainly we can’t communicate with these animals or natural elements.
But you’ve already felt a spiritual connection to Nature, the rational, scientific worldview of the West can’t explain this. You decide: is your yearning enough to throw off this conditioning, even just for a moment, to try something new?
If it is, try it. Try communicating with the natural object that drew your attention. Questions are a great place to start. You might ask it about it’s own experience (“what’s it like to be a tree?”) or, you could ask if it has any insight into a problem you’re struggling with.
Sometimes, words just appear in your mind, and they sure don’t sound like ones that you’d come up with on your own. Sometimes, a quiet awareness or idea arises, and then you can try to articulate it with words to help you remember it better. Sometimes, you notice that your attention is drawn to a particular feature of the tree. Notice this feature, be with this feature, and you might comprehend a metaphor that sheds light on your question.
For example, let’s say you share a frustration with a tree: your colleagues or supervisor at work won’t allow you to pursue your ideas. Then, you notice that your tree looks like it was initially growing in one direction, but something got in the way and now it’s growing – and thriving – in another. It’s as if the tree is saying, “Grow where you can! Send your energy to where you will be nurtured!” A sense of peace envelops you as you lay down a fruitless struggle. Then a new creative space emerges as a more helpful question dawns on you: “Where can I grow?”
It can be hard to ‘hear’ nature in this way, but it gets easier with practice. The rewards are worth it.
When I communicate with individual elements in nature in this way, such as a tree or a flower or a mountain, I am then more easily able to sense, communicate with, and belong to Nature as a whole.
You’ll be amazed at how much wonder and joy this brings!
A version of this piece was published on Ecowatch here.