6 Ways to Deepen Your Spiritual Relationship to Nature
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If so, you’ve probably had a wide range of experiences. If you’re like me, on some days, you go for a walk or run 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 emanates from it and 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’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 (with a capital “N”). 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 our culture exerts tremendous pressure to prioritize the appearance of things rather than the spirit of things, we revert to exercising or socializing, using nature as a sort of a grand gym or café that 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.
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.
I know, because after a few of these accidental encounters, I accepted the invitation. It was a time in my life when I was in tremendous pain. My relationship had just ended, and it felt like I had a gaping hole in the middle of my chest that could not be filled; 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 to Nature to an intentional one. I began to spend time in Nature and consciously connect with it. 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.
So, if you have 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 on how to start, read on.
1. Make a commitment to connect with Nature
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 a clear intention to connect, you give away your power to build the relationship.
To illustrate, 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!” She or he would 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 commiting 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 in particular are taught to focus on what other people are feeling and to take care of them, at the expense of being aware of our own authentic 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 an hour 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, and 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 talking to 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!
Kris Abrams is a nature-based psychotherapist and shamanic practitioner with Cedar Tree Healing Arts. You can follow her work on Facebook here.
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The coronavirus has isolated many of us in our homes this year. We've been forced to slow down a little, maybe looking out our windows, becoming more in tune with the rhythms of our yards. Perhaps we've begun to notice more, like the birds hopping around in the bushes out back, wondering (maybe for the first time) what they are.
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1. Choosing the Right Binoculars<p>Binoculars are a relatively indispensable tool for most birders – but, for those just starting out, it might not yet be worth the several-hundred-dollar investment. If you aren't able to scour the attics of friends or borrow a pair from a fellow bird watcher, some local birding and naturalist groups have <a href="https://vashonaudubon.org/all-about-vashon-birds/binoculars-check-out/" target="_blank">binocular loaning programs</a> for members, allowing you to plan ahead for a day (or week) of birding.</p><p>When you're ready to take the plunge, choosing a pair or binoculars should take some careful deliberation based on your needs and preferences; some <a href="https://www.birdwatchersdigest.com/bwdsite/explore/optics/top-10-tips-buying-binoculars-bird-watching.php" target="_blank">major considerations</a> might include size, ease of use, <a href="https://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/binoculars.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">magnification</a>, and price. While professional binoculars can easily run north of $1,000, there are plenty of perfectly suitable entry-level binoculars under $200. You might not get the perfect precision and clarity of more elite models, but a less expensive pair will allow you to strengthen your birding skills while deciding if you're interested in investing in a premium pair.</p><p>For a budget-friendly option, check out resale options on eBay, Facebook marketplace, or neighborhood yard sales: you might find a nicer pair whose retail price isn't within your budget.</p>
2. Know What Birds Are in Your Area<p>When I began to pay more attention to the birds just outside my apartment building, I started to learn what species have always been around me: European starlings, house sparrows, blue jays, black capped chickadees, and the occasional red-bellied woodpecker. They had always been there, but I hadn't ever taken the time to identify them. Once you learn to <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/get-know-these-20-common-birds_" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recognize common birds</a> in your area, you'll be able to identify the typical species right outside your window and in your community. Of course, permanent residential birds in your neighborhood will <a href="https://nestwatch.org/learn/focal-species/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">vary by region</a>, as will those migrating through it.</p>
3. Get Out and Explore<p>Venturing elsewhere might allow you to spot some different species beyond those frequenting your backyard. Anywhere with water or greenery offers a place for birding; as an urbanite myself, I've found that even small- and mid-sized parks in New York City allow me to find more elusive birds (although Central Park takes the crown for an afternoon of urban birding).</p><p>If you are able to travel a bit further from home, <a href="https://www.fws.gov/refuges/" target="_blank">national wildlife refuges</a> and <a href="https://www.americasstateparks.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">state/national parks</a> are excellent places to explore bird habitats and perhaps log some less-common sightings. The American Birding Association also lists <a href="https://www.aba.org/aba-area-birding-trails/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">birding trails by state</a>, and Audubon and BirdLife International identify <a href="https://www.audubon.org/important-bird-areas" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Important Bird Areas (IBAs)</a> across the country – important bird habitats and iconic places that activists are fighting to protect – where birders can spot birds of significance.</p>
4. Finding a Bird: Stop, Look, Listen, Repeat<p>The National Audubon Society recommends the "<a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/how-find-bird" target="_blank">stop, look, listen, repeat</a>" mantra when seeking and identifying birds.</p><p>First and foremost, spotting birds requires attention. Stopping – getting out of the car, pausing on the sidewalk, trail, or in the backyard to look up – is the most important step.</p><p>When looking for birds, try to avoid gazing wildly around; rather, scan your surroundings, focusing on any odd shapes or shadows, trying to think about where a bird might perch (power lines, fence posts, branches), or keep an eye on the sky for flying eagles and hawks. In open areas like fields and beaches, you might have a more panoramic view, and can take in different sections of the landscape at a time. Look around with the naked eye before reaching for the binoculars to hone in.</p><p>While it can be hard to sift through the noise, listening for birds is perhaps an even more important element of bird watching than looking. Once you spend more time in the field, you'll be able to parse apart the racket and identify specific species, especially aided by Audubon's Bird Guide app or by learning from their <a href="https://www.audubon.org/section/birding-ear" target="_blank">Birding by Ear series</a>.</p><p>Repeat this pattern as you continue on your way, stopping to look and listen for birds as you go, rather than waiting for them to come to you. </p>
5. Identification<p>When you head out for a day of bird watching – especially when you're hoping to spot some new species – you'll want to be armed with the tools to identify what you see. <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/how-identify-birds" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Major considerations when identifying birds</a> are their group (such as owls, hawks, or sparrow-like birds), size and shape, behavior, voice, field marks, season, and habitat.</p><p>The <a href="https://www.sibleyguides.com/about/the-sibley-guide-to-birds/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Sibley Guide to Birds</a> and the <a href="https://www.hmhbooks.com/shop/books/peterson-field-guide-to-birds-of-north-america-second-edition/9781328771445" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Peterson Field Guide</a> are widely considered the best books for identifying birds in North America, although many <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/what-bird-guide-best-you" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">specialized guides</a> focus on specific species or regions as well.</p><p>Plenty of <a href="https://blog.nature.org/science/2013/05/27/boucher-bird-blog-apps-smart-birder/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">bird identification apps</a> have popped up in recent years – including National Geographic Birds, Sibley eGuide to Birds, iNaturalist, Merlin Bird ID, and Birdsnap – which are basically a <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/the-best-birding-apps-and-field-guides" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">field guide in your pocket</a>. I'm partial to the Audubon Bird Guide, which allows users to filter by common identifiers, including a bird's habitat, color, activity, tail shape, and general type, adding them all to a personal map to view your sightings.</p>
6. Recording Your Sightings<p><span>As you deepen your commitment to birding, you might join the community of birders that track and quantify their sightings, building their </span><a href="https://www.thespruce.com/what-birds-count-on-a-life-list-386704#:~:text=A%20life%20list%20is%20a,which%20birds%20you%20have%20seen." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">life list</a><span>.</span></p><p>While a standard notebook noting the date, species name, habitat, vocalizations, or any other data you wish to include will suffice, some birders opt for a more <a href="https://www.riteintherain.com/no-195-birders-journal" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">structured birder's journal</a> with pre-determined fields to record your encounters, take notes, draw sketches, etc.</p><p>Many birders also choose to record their sightings online and in shared databases (which include many of the field guide apps), often pinpointing them on a map for others to view. Launched by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Audubon, <a href="https://ebird.org/home" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eBird is one of the largest databases and citizen science projects around birding</a>, where hundreds of thousands of birders enter their sightings, and users can explore birds in regions and hotspots around the world. Users can also record their sightings on the <a href="https://apps.apple.com/us/app/ebird/id988799279" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eBird app</a>.</p>
7. Attracting Birds to Your Own Yard<p>Feeding birds is a common phenomenon: more than 40% of Americans maintain a birdfeeder to attract birds and watch them feast.</p><p>Not all birdfeed is created equal, however. Many commercial varieties are mostly made with "fillers" (oats, red millet, etc.) that birds will largely leave untouched. After researching what birds to expect in your area – and which ones you want to attract – you can create your own birdfeed with <a href="https://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/types-of-bird-seed-a-quick-guide/?pid=1142" target="_blank">seeds that will appeal to them</a>.</p><p>Beyond filling a birdfeeder, <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/eco-friendly-lawn-2651194858.html" target="_self">transforming your yard into an eco-friendly oasis</a> is by far the best way to attract birds. Choosing to forgo mowing your lawn, planting native flowers and grasses, and ditching the pesticides will bring back the bugs that birds feed on, and provide a safe haven in which birds can happily live and eat.</p><p>While it's widely considered acceptable – and even beneficial – to feed birds with appropriate seeds, communal birdfeeders often <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/to-feed-or-not-feed" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">foster unlikely interactions between different species</a>, who can then transmit harmful diseases and parasites to one another. Maintaining several bird feeders with different types of seeds might keep different species from coming into contact, and feeders can be <a href="https://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/how-to-clean-your-bird-feeder/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cleaned to prevent the spread of infection</a>.</p>
8. Inclusivity and Anti-Racism in the Birding Community<p>Like all outdoor activities and areas of scientific study, birding communities are subject to racist and discriminatory ideologies. Black birders have long experienced discrimination and underrepresentation in outdoor spaces. The work of organizations like the <a href="https://www.instagram.com/birdersfund/" target="_blank">Black & Latinx Birders Fund</a>, <a href="https://www.instagram.com/birdability/" target="_blank">Birdability</a>, and <a href="https://www.instagram.com/feministbirdclub/" target="_blank">Feminist Bird Club</a> highlight the contributions and importance of birders of color, birders with disabilities, and women and LGBTQ+ birders to the birding community, as do activists and naturalists like <a href="https://www.instagram.com/hood__naturalist/" target="_blank">Corina Newsome</a> and <a href="https://www.instagram.com/tykeejames/" target="_blank">Tykee James</a>. The work of <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/its-bird-new-comic-written-central-park-birder-christian-cooper" target="_blank">Christian Cooper</a>, <a href="https://camilledungy.com/publications/" target="_blank">Camille Dungy</a> (read her poem <a href="https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/58363/frequently-asked-questions-10" target="_blank">Frequently Asked Questions: 10</a>), and <a href="https://orionmagazine.org/article/9-rules-for-the-black-birdwatcher/" target="_blank">J. Drew Lanham</a> – including his essay "<a href="https://lithub.com/birding-while-black/" target="_blank">Birding While Black</a>" – are a great place to start.</p><p>Getting involved in birding means educating ourselves on these issues and taking meaningful action; the work of <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/its-bird-new-comic-written-central-park-birder-christian-cooper" target="_blank">Christian Cooper</a> and <a href="https://orionmagazine.org/article/9-rules-for-the-black-birdwatcher/" target="_blank">J. Drew Lanham</a> – including his essay "<a href="https://lithub.com/birding-while-black/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Birding While Black</a>" – are a great place to start. Just as birders are activists for protecting habitats and natural areas, we must also be active and aware of inclusivity in these spaces.</p>
9. Get Involved<p>To learn from and enjoy the company of other birders, check out local birding groups in your area to join. Many Audubon chapters host trips, meetings, and bird walks for members. The American Birding Association even maintains a <a href="https://www.aba.org/festivals-events/" target="_blank">directory of birding festivals</a> across the country.</p><p>Volunteering for birds is also a great way to meet other birders and take action for birds in your community; local organizations might have opportunities for assisting with habitat restoration or helping at birding centers.</p><p>Like all wildlife, climate change and habitat destruction threaten the livelihood of birds, eliminating their breeding grounds and food sources. A <a href="https://www.audubon.org/climate/survivalbydegrees" target="_blank">2019 report released by the National Audubon Society</a> found that two-thirds of North American birds may face extinction if global temperatures rise 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. Staying informed about and taking action for legislation designed to protect birds and our climate – such as the recent <a href="https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/5552/text" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Migratory Bird Protection Act</a> – is important for ensuring a livable future for wildlife and humans alike.</p><p><em>Linnea graduated from Skidmore College in 2019 with a Bachelor's degree in English and Environmental Studies, and now lives in Brooklyn, New York. Most recently, Linnea worked at Hunger Free America, and has interned with WHYY in Philadelphia, Saratoga Living Magazine, and the Sierra Club in Washington, DC. </em><em>Linnea enjoys hiking and spending time outdoors, reading, practicing her German, and volunteering on farms and gardens and for environmental justice efforts in her community. Along with journalism, she is also an essayist and writer of creative nonfiction.</em></p>
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