TOWARD A NATURE-BASED SPIRITUAL PRACTICE

And every day, the world will drag you by the hand, yelling, “This is important! And this is important! And this is important! You need to worry about this! And this! And this!” And each day, it’s up to you to yank your hand back, put it on your heart and say, “No. This is what’s important.
– Iain Thomas

A PRACTICAL SPIRITUALITY

The previous essays explored core ideas for a revisioned spirituality of reason and nature. Now, in this last essay, we ask what does this religious naturalism look like in practice? How does one engage such a spirituality? What practices are available to help cultivate such?

To summarize, I’ve proposed rooting spirituality in evidential reasoning and relying on a conservative, humble, soft naturalist epistemology. Western spiritual thought must be updated and revised using the best of human learning and reason and we must justify our spiritual claims with evidence. An authentic spiritual life, one that can make us better persons and motivate us to improve the world, cannot be rooted in fantasy and emotion.

Let us now explore some basic and simple practices that can give expression to a meaningful spirituality.

The way is the path of life, and its purpose. More accurately, the content of the way is the specific path of life. The form of the way, its most fundamental aspect, is the apparently intrinsic or heritable possibility of positing or of being guided by a central idea. This apparently intrinsic form finds its expression in the tendency of each individual, generation after generation, to first ask and subsequently seek an answer to the question what is the meaning of life?
– Jordan Peterson

A NATURAL SPIRITUALITY

For many, spirituality implies the supernatural – spirits and things of an ethereal, other worldly nature. Given our inability to affirm supernatural entities such as personal god(s), angels, demons, spirits, ghosts – as well as our inability to affirm the power of magic, wishful thinking, spells, and the like – what is left that we could call spirituality?

Spirituality from a naturalist perspective is the human arena of questions of meaning and purpose. Spirituality implies the existential and those disciplines and practices that help us focus and probe such issues.

Therefore, spirituality is largely a matter of psychology – establishing an outlook on life, forming convictions, and cultivating mental-emotional states of awe, gratitude, love, and heightened or broadened awareness. Whether we are simply reflecting on our lives, mulling over ethical or social issues, creating or experiencing art, engaging in ritual, celebrating special moments, even meditating – it is the psychological effect of these activities and practices that change us and motivate us.

Given that spirituality is much a matter of psychology, imagination is vital for the spiritual life. Imagination is the human mental capacity to creatively form images and ideas. Today, imagination is often treated as a childish realm of fantasy and daydreams. Yet without our capacity for imagination, all works of fiction would be impossible. Further, so would most of science, since we must rely on imagination to help us visualize and comprehend the workings of atoms, cells, and stars. 

Imagination is also a significant arena for religion and spirituality, since the language of imagination includes story, symbol, metaphor, and poetry. Imagination is central to the religious consciousness. 

Our task must be undertaken in three parts- interpretation, spirituality, and morality.

By interpretive we mean asking the big questions of life through a philosophical/existential lens. How do our science-based understandings and best philosophy inform our experience of self? What do they tell us about free will? Death? Love? The search for the meaning of life? Why there is anything at all rather than nothing?

By spiritual we mean exploring religious responses including awe and wonder, gratitude, assent, commitment, humility, reverence, joy and the astonishment of being alive at all – moments of feeling connected to the world and everything in it.

By moral we mean personal and communal responses to the epic, including the core recognition of interconnectedness, thus elucidating our responsibilities to one another and the planet in terms of reducing suffering, protecting the environment, promoting social justice and fostering human cooperation.

Expanding Awareness Through Focus, Reflection, & Self Examination

Mindfulness – cultivating awareness of our lives and striving to live fully, rooted in the present moment and with awareness of our place within the lives of others, the world, and the larger ecosystem itself. Our tools here are meditation and various prayer forms, specifically understood. .

Meditation can take various approaches – following one’s breath, using a mantra, guided meditation, using texts and written prayers to cultivate our meditation time, chanting, bells, music – all these things can be aids to our meditation efforts.

Meditation can be themed or themeless. Using both forms can have benefits. Meditating and reflecting on gratitude, joy, love, connectedness – or meditating to simply still the mind – such exercises provide multiple benefits and can serve as the foundation for spiritual practice.

Prayer, which from an evidentialist perspective is simply another form of meditation, usually involves words that give sacred expression to the yearnings and hopes of the human heart. And these words can powerful tools for focusing and expanding awareness – individually and communally.

Silence and solitude – need also be part of our practice. Reflection deepens in the soil of silence. Our contemporary culture and experience is sound-drenched. To obtain genuine silence can require some effort. But the time spent alone and in silence can be enriching and nourishing.

Personal Study and Reflection – the positive, life enhancing power of living an examined life, deepening intellectually, exploring themes of meaning and purpose, reading, writing, and discussing and sharing these ideas with others.

The importance of reading philosophical, scientific, and spiritual works cannot be overstated. The engagement of ideas helps one form their own worldview and give expression to such. Activities such as writing, blogging, and sustained study on given topics leads to depth and understanding. Mature individuals become equipped to take responsibility for their own education and formation.

Community & Belonging

We are social creatures. Most forms of genuine spirituality aren’t completely internal affairs, there is a necessary outflowing of our personal convictions coalescing into a social vision.

The benefits of mutual support, engagement, dialog, communal learning and practice in spirituality are hard to overestimate. Some find meaningful community in small, informal groups of like-minded individuals. For others, social media and online groups provide beneficial outlets and connections. Still, others, prefer belonging to more establish communities and institutions. Blending these approaches to community is easily achievable and all of the above forms have benefits and drawbacks.

Individuals can engage various communities, groups, and organizations to see if they can find one that fits. Alternatively, individuals can look into creating their own, informal communities, be they discussion groups, communal gatherings, or slightly more formal attempts at home-based spiritual communities. These models are likely the way of the future given the shrinking budgets, numbers, and interest in most brick and mortar institutions.

Religious and spiritual trends are moving away from religious buildings and highly organized institutions. Smaller, more intimate group settings, in multipurpose spaces, people’s homes, parks, and outdoor spaces are becoming more popular. The cost savings and simplicity of not having the care of buildings that often go unused throughout most of the week allows groups to more freely focus on other matters.

Communal Gatherings be they small dinners, outside celebrations, group discussions, book clubs, reading groups, or joint service projects – all these can incorporate religious themes and meanings while cementing relationships and aiding authentic community formation. Groups, if so led, can experiment with creating liturgies – shared rituals.

The concept of a Circle – or small community of people dedicated to friendship and common spiritual themes is becoming more common. Lightly structured gatherings where individuals meet for conversation, meals, celebration, simple ritual, group reading – the possibilities are many and the opportunity for mutual support, service, and social bonds are priceless.

Creating a Spiritual Home

Creating sacred times and spaces – in this sense, the word sacred implies special, different than the mundane – times and places where the regular, routine concerns of the world are temporarily put aside in order to focus on deeper and more personal issues.

The notions of sacred time weigh importantly here. Establishing times that will not be like the normal, daily routine is important. These are moments carved out for rest, celebration, reflection, and time spent with others. Meals, special music, ritual activity, decorations – whatever helps distinguish and differentiate these moments from the more mundane ones.

Holidays offer this manner of leaving the routine of the mundane aside for a while. Christmas, Sabbath, Thanksgiving and other celebrations point the way toward understanding and experiencing stepping outside of our daily, work-a-day, lives.

Such special times need not be a holiday. Sunset and sunrise marks the time to stop, slow down, reflect or gather will loved ones. Maybe light candles, read a poem or text, have people over for a discussion or dinner. There is likely value in restoring the tradition of having friends and family for a leisurely Sunday afternoon meal, Our efforts for taking time away from our more mundane concerns may all be means of reconnecting with things sacred in our lives.

Having religious symbols in the home may serve as an ongoing reminder of our values. Having something of a home altar or spiritual focal point helps some individuals as well. These spaces can employ incense, candles, or objects with spiritual significance. The setting aside of a room or part of a room as a meditation space may also aid in these efforts.

We should not be afraid to experiment with creatively establishing meaningful, simple rituals that can mark an occasion as significant or even sacred – candle lighting, silence, shared readings, poetry, group art and craft projects, the possibilities are endless. Those that work can possibly become personal, family, or household traditions.

Rituals are repeated actions of significance made to convey meaning. Often rituals are used to make mythic narratives concrete and part of the present moment. Other times, ritual is used to alter consciousness, expand awareness, direct focus, and challenge our hearts and minds, consciously and unconsciously.

Psychologically rituals are capable of speaking to various parts of the human brain as well as being stimuli for various forms of human awareness. Well done rituals can provoke powerful and meaningful religious experiences of awe, gratitude, wonder, love, connectedness, and other forms of expanded awareness.

Rituals need not be held in churches or religious buildings and led by clergy. Family Sunday dinners are a ritual. Putting up a Christmas tree is a ritual. Making certain foods for certain occasions is a ritual. Singing Happy Birthday with cake and candles is a ritual. Our lives are filled and punctuated by rituals.

The good news is that no one need reinvent the wheel. Candle lighting, meditation-prayers, the sharing of bread and wine, celebratory meals, music, art making, storytelling and poetry reading – these, and other common religious activities can be augmented to create meaningful rituals of one’s own.

Creating a home rooted in hospitality is an important value in many traditions. The art of welcoming and sharing can produce powerful results, dissolving artificial boundaries, uniting people, and leading to authentic communities.

Social Action, Advocacy and Service

There is an inherent, significant social action commitment to almost any form of spiritual practice. Our inner transformation naturally has outward expressions and effects.

Granted, we are not all required to become social activists. But we are required to reflect on how our actions and habits have social effects as well as look for ways to serve others and better those communities we live in.

Voting, donating money and/or time, respectfully and intelligently expressing our views, engaging in advocacy for those in need, oppressed, or marginalized – doing what we can to create social opportunities for all to participate and benefit from.

We also have obligations to do what we can to reduce and eliminate suffering, marginalization, and illness wherever possible, both among humans and animals. Helping family, friends, and coworkers in need offers us opportunities to put our convictions into practice.

Service to others, especially the needy, is a hallmark of genuine spirituality. Whether these be one-off service projects or ongoing commitments, Working to overcome food insecurity, racism, marginalization, poverty, under-education, housing issues – all of these social justice commitments are worthwhile.

Concerns of compassion go beyond the human family and local concerns as interconnectedness implies. Animal welfare, sustainable farming, fair trade, prison reform, addressing racism, and ecological concern are all part of a holistic, genuine spirituality.

Nature as Sacrament

Nature provides the context of our lives. We emerge from nature and are sustained by it. Our lives play out in the interconnected webs of the natural world which undergird our communities and culture. The cycles, patterns, and rhythms of nature are seen in our own lives. Nature’s lessons are own. (Starhawk, The Earth Path, p.7)

We are all fully rooted in the ever-changing web of nature – interconnected to all things – this insight is foundational for an integrated spirituality of wholeness. Our own well-being ultimately depends on affirming nature and the well-being of others – to which we are interconnected. This interdependence and interconnectedness may value the unique aspects of ethnicity, tribe, and subculture, but ultimately calls us beyond them to recognize our unity as one family living on the same planet home. 

Denying our interconnectedness with nature puts us at risk of peril. If our culture and spirituality is out of balance with nature, everything about our lives is potentially affected; family, workplace, school, community – all risk eventually becoming unbalanced – because we are of the same stuff as is nature – neglect or abuse of nature is essentially neglect and abuse of self. (Bill Plotkin, Soulcraft, p. 15.)

Denying our connectedness to others also risks peril. Humans are inherently social animals who cannot exist without community; we engender culture with our very being. Interconnected/Interdependent, social cooperation make sense from a practical, evolutionary point of view – we can only truly thrive when others thrive, too.

Growing evidence abounds that time in nature – be it a forest or wooded area, a field, by water or a beach – away from human developments – is healing, promotes proper mental and physical functions, releases beneficial hormones, neurochemicals, and restores the soul, however understood.

Time spent outside – in a park, a field, a beach, a forest, or even simply our yards and gardens helps remind us of our rootedness in the earth. Our immersion in the natural world is akin to a form of communion with all living things and the creative, organizing forces of life.

There is also a human propensity for the liminal. Liminality refers to the spaces in between, the thin spaces, the borders of where things blend. Sunset and sunrise, the time when we first notice seasons changing, the edge of a forest, the seashore, the horizon – these are all examples of liminal places and times.

Various spiritual traditions have incorporated this human affinity for liminality into their own practices. Vigils, the Jewish practice of lighting candles at sunset for Shabbat, sunrise masses, and so on. Irish-Celtic spirituality has a strong emphasis on liminality – referring to such experiences as thin places or thin times – meaning there’s a sense of experiencing something mystical, the blending of the natural world and the world of meaning.

Our lives are woven from the fluid warp and weave of space and time. We flow with the river of life ever forward in time. While distinct from the river, we are still inherently part of it, like a temporary whirlpool in the stream. We emerge from the energy of the river, are sustained by it, and eventually fade back into it. Our stability is fleeting. Knowing this, one senses the wisdom of not clinging to ever-changing reality.

Ecological thinker, Thomas Berry, one of the earliest voices to articulate a spiritual ecology, writes, “We are not talking to the rivers, we are not listening to the wind and stars. We have broken the great conversation … all the disasters that are happening now are a consequence of that spiritual ‘autism.’”

THE LITURGY OF THE SEASONS AND THE IMPORTANCE OF CELEBRATION

Humans have a deep seated need to celebrate. Following the rhythms of nature through the seasons offers a way of understanding what it means to be human and helps us recognize our inherent place in the ecosystem and the world. Reflecting on the turning of the seasons, and engaging in sabbath – the deliberate ceasing of the work-a-day routine and culture to be with loved ones, nature, and ourselves is enriching personally and communally. Such things help promote awareness of the sacred rhythm of our lives. (See Josef Pieper’s Leisure the Basis of Culture and In Tune with the World.)

There appears to be a very deep structure to many of the holidays in Western culture. Many of our yearly celebrations today have roots and histories tracing back thousands of years. (See Ronald Hutton’s, Stations of the Sun)

The structural context of these celebrations are religiously mythic yet also rooted in nature’s cycles and rhythms. Our ancient ancestors marked the seasons with festivals that coincided with agricultural festivals and the movement of the sun. The holidays were closely associated with yearly patterns of planting, tending, and harvesting, and animal husbandry with yearly patterns of animal mating, birth, growth, and slaughter. Our ancestors had corresponding festivals and celebrations to mark these cycles and events. 

These same celebrations also had mythic content blended with them. Christmas being near the winter solstice with the common themes of the rebirth of light. Lent in late winter as we prepare for spring. Easter and the celebration of resurrection and new life with the emergence of renewed life in nature once more. All Saints and Souls day (Halloween), asking us to reflect on themes of finality and death just as the darkness becomes prominent and the growing season ends.

Attuning to the natural rhythms of nature can reconnect us to our place in the ecosystem and be a powerful tool for personal and spiritual transformation. There is growing awareness that we as a culture can benefit from re-rooting ourselves in traditional celebrations corresponding to harvest cycles, solstices, equinoxes, sun cycles, and phases of the moon. (Jason Kirkey, The Salmon in the Spring, pp. 101-102)

The holidays discussed below are well established in Western culture in various forms. They owe their origins to ancient peoples who celebrated the solstices and equinoxes, using wood and stone circle calendars as well as other means of observing the sky and the movement of the sun, moon, and stars.

The Celtic peoples gave us what is often called the cross-quarter days – the seasonal points between each solstice and equinox – liminal moments of seasonal transition. Midwinter (Imbolc) in early February, May 1 (Beltane), First Fruits (Lughnasadh) in early August, and All Hallows (Samhain) on October 31 into November 1. These cross quarter celebrations were particularly important to Northern European peoples, where the seasonal changes were more noticable and affected their daily lives and routines.

There is a pattern to all life – birth, growth, decline, death, and rebirth. These patterns are observable to those who take the time to notice. They are observable in the world around us, especially in the turning of the seasons. Nature unfolds on the unending wheel that turns through time. Human life echoes these same patterns. The enduring cycles of nature are the drama of life and death. These patterns and cycles are universal and experienced by all. They transcend tradition, culture, or worldview. 

Celebration – Food & the Table

It is difficult to conceive of a holiday or celebration that doesn’t feature food. Feasting and special foods are naturally entwined with human celebration. A shared meal is often one of the highlights and centerpieces of our holiday celebrations. Celebrating and sharing a special meal with loved ones can be a central aspect of our holiday celebrations.

Food symbolizes life, our bounty, a sharing of that which gives life. Group meals from community feasts to dinner parties are indicative and constitutive of social bonds and belonging. The sharing of food is one of the most basic and ancient forms of human relationship building.

Further, food connects us with nature and reminds of our dependence on the ecosystem. Granted, many have become so disconnected from the natural world and where our food comes from. Yet it only requires a brief moment of reflection and recognition to allow food to inform us of our interconnectedness with nature, ecology, and communal efforts at food cultivation.

Tables are one of the most important places of human connection. Sharing a meal at table together is an innately human act. Something very human happens at the table  – there’s an intimacy of the table – it’s a face to face, measured encounter. Eating together confirms the sense of belonging, being part of a community.

The table is a place of memory where we become aware of who we are and with whom we are. Around the table, all previous meals come together in every meal, in an endless succession of memories and associations. The table is the place where the family gathers, the symbol of solidarity.

The Liturgy of the Seasons

Below are some holiday and celebratory suggestions based on the progression of the seasons in much of the northern hemisphere. Individuals can choose to celebrate all or some of these, as well as other holidays. These holidays can be celebrated for one or several days, with the exact dates relating to the agricultural and seasonal realities of your region. Several of these celebrations already overlap with established cultural holidays such as Halloween, Christmas, and so on. Blend, add, adopt, mix and match, experiment – create your own moments of meaning.

The holidays proposed below can be simply celebrated with a shared meal with friends, family, and loved ones. Seasonal decor, special readings or poetry, particular music, perhaps a shared activity or craft – all of these can play a role in our celebrating.

Midwinter – early to mid-February – as winter for some reaches midpoint, while for others begins to fade, many contemplate simplicity, renewal, and reform. This season has traditionally meant preparation for spring and clearing away winter debris for many ancient cultures. In modern times, it can be used to rid our lives of that which hinders our progress, happiness, and health. It’s a natural time to reflect on simplicity and an occasion to reflect and rest in nature’s stillness.

Most of us in the northern hemisphere are starting to notice the marked increase in light. Evening is coming later each day. Soon, the cold, snow, and ice will be gone. The inward time of the year is coming to a close. Soon, light and warmth will be on the ascendancy. How will we prepare for the rebirth and renewal of spring?

Spring – March 21 – at the vernal equinox, nature begins to stir with awakening energy. As farmers begin prepping the soil for planting, so we too can reflect on our goals for the year and take the needed action. As we shake off winter, meditate on the new life emerging, on renewing health, and on questions of balance.

New and renewed life is everywhere as well as growing light. Who finds it hard to celebrate the increasing warmth and light of this time of year? Salads, greens, vegetables, lighter fare all seem appropriate.

May 1 – May Day/ Beltane – early May marks the start of the bright, warmer half of the year. It’s time to celebrate nature’s creativity and begin implementing our main projects and plans for the year. Fertility is also a theme of this time of year – the beauty and sensual regenerative power of life and nature is abundant now.

In most places, nature is blooming, flowering, and greening. The days are long and bright. Sensuality, sexuality, and fertility are definite themes as witnessed by the centuries old tradition of the Maypole and it’s dance of entwined ribbons. The pole is a clear phallic symbol, the entwined ribbons, representative of human coupling.

Even in some of the more northernmost areas, it’s finally warm enough to be outside. Indulge in nature walks, celebrate outside, get out in nature however you can.

Summer Solstice – June 21 – the sun is at its high point for the year and things are in full bloom. The days are bright and at their longest. With energy running high, it’s a great time to tackle projects and throw ourselves into making progress on our plans and goals. It’s also a great time to throw a festive dinner outside in the sun or to celebrate on the longest evening of the year. 

Midsummer, as some call Summer Solstice, is a popular Scandinavian and Northern European holiday. The long, dark winter is clearly gone. Nature is at its fullness. Feasting, games, getting outdoors are all natural responses. Make it a time to gather friends and loved ones to appreciate nature and the fine weather.

August 15 – First Fruits – at the middle of August, the earth is alive in full splendor, bearing fruit and with crops tall and robust. Preparation for the first harvest will soon be underway and it’s an ideal time for examining our own efforts for the year thus far. Take time to appreciate nature’s abundance and to celebrate the remaining days of summer with friends and family as the season wanes.

Cherries, pears, some apples, berries, and other fruits and crops are turning ripe. In most of Europe, August 15th marks the start of vacation season, with shops and businesses closing and people going to the beach and countryside until early September.

The Celtic peoples celebrate the month of August (Lughnasadh) as a time of games, gatherings, and communal celebration before the work of the main harvests began.

September 23 – Harvest Home – the end of September marks the start of autumn. As the shadows lengthen, we sense the slowly fading energies of summer, but also rejoice in the soon to emerge splendid colors. It is a time for giving thanks, taking stock of our lives, and cultivating gratitude. We reflect on the harvest of our own lives and reassess our personal projects and goals – what have we accomplished as the year begins to close? Now is a time for reflection on life’s direction and the opportunity to change course and turn again on a path of life and love.

In most regions, the end of September sees the end of summer temperatures. The air grows crisp. The days are shortening. The leaves begin to change. Various harvests are underway.

Harvest time is filled with meals of gratitude and appreciation for nature’s bounty. The traditional Thanksgiving meal in November need be only one of several such celebratory meals. Gather friends and family for festive dinners featuring pumpkin, fruit, bread, corn, and other seasonal foods.

October 31 All Hallows – many Northern European cultures celebrated final harvest time near the end of October as the New Year – the closing of the agricultural year taking precedence over the coming end of the modern calendar year.

The growing season is over, once green things are now brown, withered, and decaying. Nature goes still and dormant. For many, it’s a call inward and toward rest and simplicity, a fallow time reflected in the landscapes around us.

The Harvest is over and winter is quickly approaching. It seems natural to contemplate themes of life and death and weigh the results of the year gone by as winter approaches.

Halloween is one of the West’s oldest holidays, and one of its most popular. Nature sets the themes – death, the onset of winter, shadows – a liminal time as the seasons shift and the growing season ends. Things die back, fade, turn brown.

Our modern forms of trick o’ treating with monsters, witches, ghosts, and ghouls are more than appropriate as we engage the notions of death, the beyond, and the chthonian aspects of reality.

It is a time to ponder death, finality, and to remember and honor the lives of those who have gone before us.

Late November – Thanksgiving – almost every culture has harvest festivals celebrating nature’s bounty and prompting us to explore our gratitude for the positive things in our lives. The communal celebration with the traditional meal with family and friends is a powerful symbol expressing sharing, giving, and the giving of thanks.

Winter Solstice – December 21 – Yet is also a season of hope, to reflect on the light soon to be reborn. We take comfort in the dark and cold to celebrate and ponder the sources of the light in our lives.

Celebrate the return of the light and the start of lengthening days in the midst of darkness and cold. Mark the season with gatherings of light, love, community, and joy. For some, it is a slow, inward time of year, a season of reflection and recharging, but also of hope for the year ahead.

Many complain that the meanings of Christmas get lost amid the materialism and rushing around. This need not happen. With some planning, restraint, and expectation setting, the holiday season can be kept sane. Others complain that the current form of the holiday blends Christian and pagan motifs. Again, this is fine, as these symbols are fitting for a time of year that contrasts darkness and light, looking forward to the return of the light.

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Suggested Reading

The Salmon in the Spring – Jason Kirkey

SoulCraft – Bill Plotkin

The Spiral Dance – Starhawk

Pagaian Cosmology – Glenys Livingstone

The Stations of the Sun – Ronald Hutton

Atheopaganism – Mark Green

Care of the Soul – Thomas Moore

The Art of Ritual – Beck and Metrick

Creating Secular Rituals – Jelte Gordon-Lennox

A Religion of One’s Own – Thomas Moore





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