How to cultivate a spiritual experience
Many people remember their childhood times in nature often filled with adventure, mystery and wonder, yet most of us tend to lose this innocent perspective as we grow through and beyond adolescence. As I have found, however, nature harbours numerous wonders for people of all ages in ways that revitalise and uplift the soul. I have grown back into the mystery of nature as I have moved through middle age. In a sense, I have returned to nature to explore the yearning for meaning that once, as a child, I discovered daily in my innocent wanderings within natural places.
You, too, are surely able to recall meaningful experiences during visits to natural places. Various psychologists have argued that these experiences — particularly spiritual experiences — are of value for human development and psychological wellbeing. Many studies have found that direct exposure to natural areas can increase positive emotions and mental capacity, and reduce stress and negative states of mind. More profound benefits arise when you not just encounter but intimately connect with nature; that is, you feel an emotional attachment to a particular place or empathise with an animal or plant, and that leads to a more expansive sense of self.
By being fully present you will be able to tune more intimately into things such as flowers, trees, birdcalls and rocks.
Like many readers of this magazine, you may be interested in not only your physical and mental wellbeing but also your spiritual grounding, a sense of meaning in something beyond your immediate personal and social contexts. In Western societies, more and more people are experiencing a gnawing need for a spirituality that transcends the institutionalised, formal, religion-oriented expressions of spirituality.
Despite the marginalisation of spiritual discussions in the public sphere, despite the increasing competition from religious ideologies for people’s religious sensibilities, individuals are choosing to explore the spiritual in a secular, flexible, private manner. As theologian Sallie McFague describes, “We do not live in a sacramental universe in which the things of this world … are understood as connected to and permeated by divine power and love. Our experience, our daily experience, is for the most part non-religious … If we experience God at all it tends to be at a private level.”
Each of us is, in our own private sphere, our own path, exploring this world, this lifetime to create and to learn and, within a more unconscious sphere, attempting to discover a more expansive meaning within our lives. One of the most important physical contexts or mediums for this search is the natural world, those natural refuges away from home and society, away from the illusory natures of our social identities. Many people seek the solitude of nature in order to be nourished during their journey and to expand their understanding of who they really may be.
Aspirations for spiritual experience
Humans once took nature to be inhabited by spirits and/or an expression of the divine, a sacred living and aware source of all life, including human beings. Indigenous peoples all over the world attest to this once-taken-for-granted knowing by Western cultures that spirit/divine inhabited and flowed through all beings and places, that there exists a deep interconnectedness between landscapes, wildlife and plants and humans. This expression of spirituality or the sacred within and through non-human nature can be referred to as naturalised spirituality, as compared to a more structured, ecologically disconnected religious expression of spirituality.
Throughout Eastern and Western cultures across millennia, writers have expressed how nature brings greater meaning to life:
“To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.” ~ William Blake, Auguries of Innocence, 1863
“There is pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is rapture on the lonely shore
There is society, where no one intrudes
By the deep sea, and music in its roar.
I love not man the less, but nature more.” ~ Lord Byron, stanza from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage
“What shall we do with a man who is afraid of the woods, their solitude and darkness? What salvation is there for him? God is silent and mysterious.” ~ Henry David Thoreau, journal entry, 1850
The current global crises have in large part arisen over the past few centuries, particularly in the past 50 years because of weakened relations with spirit/Divine, within and between communities and the beings and ecosystems that sustain us. Transcending this limiting consciousness and conceptions of what it is to be fully human requires in part that we explore the spiritual dimensions of our lives, especially our connection with the Earth and life that sustains us. Spirituality can be viewed as an inner experience and/or belief that provides deeper meaning to your life, an experience of connection to something greater than your own life that breaks the ordinary boundaries of the day-to-day ego self.
So what is a spiritual experience in nature? It can be many things to many people, just like the ideas of beauty and virtue. In essence, it often arises when feeling a deep connection with or wonder toward something in the non-human environment, a landscape, mountain, animal or tree, for example, in which there is an expansion of the ego self and an awareness of some greater non-physical force, a consciousness, all-pervasive intelligence underlying reality.
This form of connection arises when you become fully present to your experience of reality by being fully attentive to and perceiving what is around you. It requires getting in touch with your true nature by going into nature, by stepping away from your normal roles and responsibilities and becoming infused by nature in its infinite expressions. It is part of the process of cultivating your highest potential, of responding to the ultimate question, “Who am I?” A deeper sense of spiritual connection and understanding of identity arises as you increase your circles of engagement. As poet Rainer Maria Rilke beautifully expressed it:
“I live my life in widening circles
which spread out to encompass all things.
I may not bring the last one to completion,
but that will be my attempt.
“I circle God, the ancient tower,
circling and circling for thousands of years,|
And don’t yet know — am I a falcon, a storm, or
an immense song.”
In coming into a relationship with the spirit/divine when encountering nature, we interpret our world from a higher or wiser perspective that is inclusive, tolerant and accepting. You are more likely to become more caring about the world you inhabit when you hold something as sacred or meaningful or sentient. As author Stephanie Dowrick has similarly written, “As we engage more deeply, any sense of disconnection from others, or from the sacred within life or ourselves, diminishes; we are freed to care.”
Experiencing a deeper, more meaningful relationship with nature does not just improve your psychological health; it also helps you become an inquisitive, humble explorer of the landscapes you inhabit, and a more likely protector of the natural world.
Experiencing spiritual connection with nature
Experiences of a spiritual orientation can arise spontaneously as well as through practice. As Blake implies in his prose, we may with the right perception and attention perceive a hidden world in a grain of sand and heavenly Beauty in a wildflower. In other words, the sacred can be intuited within all things — if you can perceive it in a way that opens you up, that in a sense “intimises” you. The sacred through intimate connections is yours to be explored.
This down-to-earth spirituality is experienced not by leaving the world behind but by becoming physically and psychologically immersed in the world around you. By becoming more present to the wonders of this world, wonders that lie not just in exotic places and beautiful sunrises but within the mundane and taken-for-granted landscapes in your daily life, you can enter into a more conscious relationship with the divine, the sacred.
But how can you create the situation where such experiences may arise? You may be thinking that you go for a walk every day along a river or coastline, through a forest or park, and nothing “spiritual” happens. There may be no sense of the spiritual at all. That’s fine, of course, because there are other benefits you get while being in natural areas. But spiritual experiences are there for the taking, a sliver of consciousness away; you just have to shift your mental perspective and begin to perceive the world anew.
Seeing with fresh eyes
To really know something closely requires a direct, relational experience of that thing. As you spend sufficient quality time in a place or relating to something, such as a tree or animal, you begin to connect with it, to relate and deepen your awareness of it. The I/it divide becomes permeable, diffuse. You become intimate through opening up and fully engaging.
If you want to increase the chances of having a spiritual experience that by its nature is not subject to your conscious control, you need to cultivate your awareness so the seeds of spirit or the sacred may germinate and sprout into your consciousness. So why not, during one of your walks or outings in nature, take time out to cultivate a spiritual experience? Here is an outline of the approach I use and instruct my participants in during nature connection sessions.
Becoming more aware of both your surrounds and your inner states requires a state of mindful consciousness, which I have described in a previous article (Walking the Inner Landscape, WellBeing 150). Bring your focused attention to bear on your state of mind and body, what you are doing, on the rhythm of your breathing, on your perceptions and the flow of inner experience, such as thoughts, feelings, observations and past and future imaginings.
You need to become fully present, which occurs when you deeply look or hear or touch another being (“deeply” referring to moving from the surface or obvious to the subtler depths of a perception). Within the depth of encounter you’ll find a sense of oneness or union with the numinous, with spirit. It’s difficult to be quietened and fully self-aware if you are “lost” to the external world. Just observe your inner and outer worlds without judgement and experience nature like a child might: in the moment, with a touch of enchantment and open-minded curiosity. Remember: be patient, without expectations.
Engage with mind & heart
When you are in nature, express an affirmation of your love of the Earth, life and the place you are in. This opens up your mind and heart to the possibility of emotions and feelings that may arise during your walk. It also establishes a more meaningful purpose for your nature time. As you walk or sit, do it with a quiet joy and appreciation for being present here and now. You may be surprised by how much a warm, open-hearted disposition contributes to both being fully present and creating an atmosphere of spiritual and emotional possibilities.
Experiencing the sacred, the divine, the sentience of life and landscape arises when you fully attend to what you observe and feel. If your mind is absent or elsewhere and your heart is closed or distracted, it’s unlikely that spiritual experiences can be cultivated. To see afresh is to perceive the world lovingly, respectfully; to let go of normal modes of being or, rather, doing.
During your time in nature, find a quiet, peaceful place where you won’t be interrupted. It’s during these precious times, whether they be brief stops or of longer duration, that your imaginal capacity can help you tune into the nature of perception: “To see a world in a grain of sand, and a heaven in a wild flower. Hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour.” Whether you meditate, imagine a flower’s aura, visualise the roots of an angophora tree reaching into the sandstone escarpment, daydream of being an energy spirit flying between plants or reflect on being a part of this place, imaginal engagement will open up new vistas and cultivate meaningful experiences, including the spiritual.
And so, to you
Spiritual experiences in natural places provide down-to-earth opportunities to transform your concepts of individuality and what it is to be human, especially in these times of global crises. It offers a portal into a world of greater purpose, meaning and reflection through simply paying mindful attention to what is before and within you. We all need a stable inner foundation to dwell in harmony, but it can only be created layer by layer, step by step as we traverse and explore the inner and outer landscapes of our lives. It’s on this foundation that you may realise your potential and quench any thirst for spiritual meaning. In feeling the love, joy and contentment when connecting with nature, you will allow the spirit to flow into and sustain your being.
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