Much as entering a church or temple prompts attention to the divine, encounters with nature can shift focus from daily life. As they offer lessons and reminders and affect our focus and mood, encounters with nature can elicit a personal sense of something spiritual/religious.
Tracing back to ancient hunting rituals and gatherings in sacred groves, encounters with nature have long been parts of religions. Attention to nature was rekindled in the 1800s (described and inspired, in part, by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and John Muir). More recently, Donald Crosby, Mike Comins, and others have described aspects of religion that can be based in nature and an approach called “forest bathing” is increasingly being recognized as contributing to physical as well as psychic well-being.
Gerald May described “the power of the slowing” where nature can slow us down to its pace. The sound of waves and patterns of light can lead to a meditative state. (One form has been described as the “hunter’s trance”.) As Nirmal Kameth put it, “There is a deep sense of quiet we experience in nature. When our mind is quiet we can experience God in that silence . . .”
Encounters with nature can also prompt a sense of connection and belonging, and at times can provide types of satisfaction or comfort that may not be available in social life.
“I am a forty-two-year-old woman. I’ve never received a love letter, never received flowers from a man. I have attempted suicide and have contemplated it many times since. And yet these wonders I have known: a maple tree in autumn, each leaf exactly the color of gold; a weed-like microcosm whose perfect petals are no bigger than the head of a pin. The dawning of each season with its own unique perfume, spring and autumn bringing the strongest scents. These and many other moments of grace have kept me going.”*
E.O. Wilson used the term biophilia to describe an affinity with nature that he feels is based in evolution. (Being descended from ancestors who, for millennia, lived near lakes and streams, we feel something right and good in natural settings.) Some feel that the modern absence of natural environments can cause psychic disorientation, and the term “nature deficit disorder” has been coined.
Activities as simple as gardening, gazing at stars, watching birds, or a walk in the woods may be parts of personal spiritual observance. Some people have special places they like to go to. Ways of watching or interacting can also contribute, as in David Fleming’s views on encountering another. But, as occurs in services in churches and temples, the extent to which an encounter may be experienced as spiritual is often related to the attitude of the receiver. Some encounters with nature may be planned; others can occur by just stopping to notice.
E.O. Wilson. Biophilia.
Donald Crosby. A Religion of Nature.
Carl Von Essen. Ecomysticism: The Profound Experience of Nature as a Spiritual Guide.
Mike Comins. A Wild Faith: Jewish Ways into Wilderness, Wilderness Ways into Judaism.
Richard Louv. Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder.
Stephen Chase. Nature as Spiritual Practice.
David George Haskell. The Songs of Trees. (review)