Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Earth Temple

Sylvie Shaw

Earth, The Forgotten Temple (2004) is the title of a book which addresses the deep religious connection that nature brings. Author Niki Collins-Queen was a counsellor but put her career on hold to explore her deepening relationship to nature and God. Her church is the outdoors, the mountain top and the backyard.

In an article called 'Author finds God and spirituality in nature', Collins-Queen talks about how she unravelled her life on a spiritual quest going hiking, sailing, canoeing, often on lone adventures in wilderness settings. Her quest was answered on a solo trip to the mountains when she called for God to reveal Himself. She says: 'There was no doubt in my mind. ...I had experienced the presence of God, ... a loving energy permeating everything.' Following that experience, she saw God in all aspects of nature, in rivers, trees, plants, and animals (Judd, 1999).

In much of the research on people's wilderness experiences an event such as a spiritual awakening, an epiphany, or a feeling of oneness with the universe and with all things, is a frequent observation (e.g. Frederickson and Anderson, 1999; John Davis, 2006). People report a heightened sense of awareness and insight, a sense of mystery about the world, awe and wonderment in the face of the earth's power or nature's breathtaking beauty, a profound feeling of transcendence (within and without), a belief in a power greater than oneself, and a deep humility.

Nature spirituality, or 'awesome' experiences in wild nature sparkle with feelings of joy, empowerment, inner peace and hope. They promote physical and emotional well-being and encourage changes in attitude and behaviour (R. Fox, 1999; Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989). Importantly, as the marvellous Native American author Linda Hogan (1995:3) reminds us, meaningful encounters in the wild can lead to ‘a change of heart, a change of thinking, a change in [the] way of being and living in the world’.

Wilderness is not the only place for such transformative events, in fact, epiphanies or deep spiritual transitions can occur almost anywhere and in everyday life. For transpersonal thinker Abraham Maslow researching in the 1960s, they were 'peak' experiences; Rudolph Otto in the early 20th century might have reflected they were 'ideas of the holy', while for psychology pioneer William James, they were, to use the title of his book, 'varieties of religious experience'.

James argues that the heart of all religious experiences is grounded in subjective, individual experiences of Divinity or God. This definition marked a distinction between religion, often defined in terms of doctrine, dogma, hierarchy, institution, and spirituality, a more personal expression of relationship with the sacred. It is from this individualised connection with the Divine that the myths, rituals, teachings, texts and religious organisation emerge.

South Australian academic and author of The Earth Bible project, Norm Habel has considered the import of spiritual and religious experiences suggesting they can be divided into two streams - the numinous and the mystical (Habel et al, 1993). Numinous experiences are bound up with awe-full feelings of 'the otherness and power' of the sacred deity, while within the mystical, perceptions of ‘otherness’ disappears leaving a sensation of oneness and interconnection.

But I wonder if this distinction between the numinous and the mystical is made a little too strongly. Rather than a division between them, there might be more of a continuum. Both can be religious, spiritual or peak experiences which can be seen and experienced as moments of supreme transcendence or powerful self-transcendence. Throughout my research on nature carers (e.g. see Shaw, 2004) and sea-carers (Shaw, forthcoming 2008), I have interviewed several environmental activists and other deeply nature-connected individuals who say they are atheist and yet describe the feeling of oneness from encounters in mountain and ocean wilderness. Some call these powerful experiences 'real epiphanies' as if, at least in this culture, we lack the poetic, lyrical, passionate or sensuous language to explain the sense of mystery or unity with all things.

Other authors, in explaining these feelings as self-transcendence or transcendent experiences in nature, also define the perceptual limitations of western cultural binary construction which splits human from nature. Instead they describe the permeability, movement and interconnectedness between people and the natural world as an expansion of body boundaries, or as a merging of body into body, the human body with the body of the earth.

This expansive sense of self or identity is termed a variety of expressions, for example, Joanna Macy (1995) and Arne Naess (1988) celebrate the ‘ecological self’, Roger Walsh refers to the ‘transpersonal’ self (Walsh & Vaughan, 1993); for Warwick Fox (1995) it's the ‘cosmological self’; deep ecologist Bill Devall (1988) suggests ‘Gaea consciousness’; Ted Roszak (1992) explores the ‘ecological unconscious'; Adrian Harris (1998) reveres the ‘Goddess consciousness’; Mathew Fox seeks the 'cosmic Christ', while Druid Priestess Emma Restall Orr (1998) simply links ‘spirit to spirit’.

All these terms emerge from varied discourses: deep ecology (Macy, Devall, Naess), transpersonal psychology (Walsh, W. Fox) ecopsychology (Roszak), Paganism (Harris, Orr), and Christianity (M. Fox). All share an understanding that we are part of nature not above or apart from it and all involve some notion of an expansive sense of self that comes about by connecting with nature. They might differ in emphasis but the underlying outlook is the same. If the earth is to be protected and healed, there has to be some recognition of the power of the natural world and our intimate connection with it.

Perhaps then, this blog's focus is to develop a river consciousness, river-self or river identity where the water's flow reflects the movement of our lives and the tidal shifts become a pattern for the changes we experience. An expanded sense of river-self brings a sense of kinship with the river, its creatures and surroundings. Being within the riverscape one finds insight and inspiration, personal renewal, and renewal of commitment to the earth. It is an embodied creative force that weaves and is woven through our imagination, through music, poetry, dance, dreams and experiences of the mystical, numinous and spiritual kind.

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Fox R, 1999, Enhancing Spiritual Experience in Adventure Programs”, in JC Miles and S Priest (eds.) Adventure Programming. State College, PA: Venture Publishing, Inc.
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Fredrickson LM and DH Anderson, 1999, A qualitative explorationof the wilderness experience as a source of spiritual inspiration.Journal of Environmental Psychology, 19, 21-39.
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Shaw S, 2004, Wild Spirit, Active Love, in L de Angeles, ER Orr,T van Dooren, (eds), Pagan Visions For A Sustainable Future. St Paul, MI, Llewelyn.
Shaw S, 2008, forthcoming, Deep Blue Religion, in S Shaw and A Francis, Deep Blue: Critical Reflections on Nature Religion and Water, London, Equinox.