Natural Spirituality

March 2008 owlwink

Natural Spirituality without God:

The Heart of Life After Faith

(Excerpt from Chapter Ten)

For the Love of Nature

Along the same path as Booker T. Washington, the freethinking teacher “heretic Henry” Thoreau kept up his insatiable curiosity toward the near earth of Concord and his neverending travel in the far earth of ideas through his intense love of reading.  Picking up a copy of a book by John Ruskin, Thoreau was surprised and irritated to find someone who showed a kind of “infidelity” to the times, who questioned the value of an intimate relation with Nature herself.  Instead of being faithful to Nature the writer seems to have run off to the Church of England.  Our heretic completes his “review” of Ruskin with these incisive lines:  “The love of Nature and fullest perception of the revelation which she is to [humanity] is not compatible with the belief in the peculiar revelation of the Bible which Ruskin entertains.”

What Henry, and all like-minded heretics, was identifying, and what irritated him enough to draw out his wit, wisdom and wonder, was a persistent propensity in each age to be unfaithful, to lose faith, deny faith—faith, not in God or the Church, but faith in Nature.

When I joined the Mountaineers in Seattle while still in high school I quickly gained a deep appreciation for the challenges of the wild places.  Roped to my uncle Warren and cousin Scott I scaled peaks in the Cascades and Olympics, slid on my backside over icefields and hidden crevasses, stepped backward over sheer cliffs, bounded mossy boulders over cold clear streams and saw some of the most incredible natural beauty in Washington State.  I learned how important it is to take great care in preparation before venturing out to hike, climb and camp in Nature.  One of the more critical lessons concerned “the ten essentials.”  Everything from matches and compass to maps and water, these essential things were never to be neglected in our packs.  I never did learn to handle a compass well, though I am certain one would have come in handy on more than one occasion of lostness (“I’m not lost—just not sure where I am.”).  There have been times when, even on a simple day hike, I should have brought a map.  A few times I have ventured out in open spaces and wished I had brought along some water, so I went dry (friends have joked that I’m part camel).  Hiking with friends I sometimes forget an essential or two in favor of a few extra books and a flask of scotch—both of which can once-in-a-wild seem essential!

These many years later, as I continue my pathfinding explorations, there are particular items I have come to feel are just as important, equally as necessary, as the basics.  It is difficult to think of hiking along without a journal to scribble in.  Writing notes, poems and reflections in a tree or meadow, on a mountainside or beach is a good way to catch, or at least cup in my hands, the lessons of Nature.  I am happy to have my binocs along, especially appreciated at those moments when a hawk or owl swoops low or a whale spouts by, and my pocket lens brings me up close and personal to the small, overlooked things.  For the past few years my digital camera has been a welcome companion, as long as I remember to leave it in the pack sometimes and “be the lens.”  I have been grateful to have remembered a bit of tp on a saunter or two, and now and then I like having my pipe along for those contemplative moments where smoke soothes (or in some cases, keeps the “squitos” away)  *Author Note:  I no longer smoke

All these “essentials,” packed and carried along the trails, remind me of the necessities for a non-supernatural, spiritual saunter as well.  What are the things never to forget when walking into the unknowns of the sacred path, traversing the tracks of one’s journey into the wilderness places of the soul—the deeper self?  No doubt there are diverse requirements among diverse people, yet the natural way presents opportunities for each of us to draw out of our spiritual packs the essence of our essentials; whether light or heavy, some things must be carried and utilized or we may find ourselves lost unnecessarily or at least more often than we wish to be.

Lessons from Nature’s Scripture

When we choose to “leave be” the faith traditions of our past, where do we find the guidelines, the scripture texts for the way forward?  As I have said, Nature freely provides all the instruction we need for any meaningful spiritual path that is intrinsically rational and wise.

The famous inventor and freethinker Thomas Edison once said in an interview, “Nature made us—nature did it all—not the gods of the religions.” Not surprisingly, with comments like this, the great scientist was accused of atheism, a charge to which he replied, “There is no such denial [of the existence of God]; what you call God I call Nature, the Supreme intelligence that rules matter.” This man, holder of thousands of patents, had read and admired Thomas Paine from the age of thirteen.  Raised as a freethinker, he came to feel that the so-called Golden Rule was the best principle of life and that all other elements of the “old order of things” would soon look “ridiculous” in the face of education, information and science.  One could argue that the timeless gold (or silver) rule—ruled by the “Supreme intelligence”—is a natural part of being human, at least our “best” part.  One needs not be religious or even “spiritual” to follow a principle of reciprocation.

On a short walk passed the pond near my cabin one cedar-scented morning, the ducks sounded like barking dogs.  Then, I met some barking dogs.  Always glad to have my sturdy walking stick.  Down the one lane road I veered off into the dense forest on a favorite path.  Not far along I was stepping around a sharp turn in the trail when a large bird was startled from the underbrush and flapped into the thick branches of an old fir a little way in the woods.  Startled myself, I stood still and stared into the tree.  There was an old friend, the barred owl, staring right back.  Anyone who says owls only hunt at night hasn’t met the barred owl.  Its grayish-white and brown feathers and large oval head give this sixteen-inch-tall forest hunter the good camouflage needed for the night’s, and day’s, work.  I gave my respects with a smile and sauntered on thinking of Nature’s lessons.  In my hour-long walk I easily identified a whole list of teachings I continue to receive from the wild, untamed natural world I enter each day.  And these lessons are entirely sufficient for my spiritual path.

Be Startled

Be Curious


Quiet Down and Listen Up

Life is Short

We are Not Alone

Slow Down

Pay Attention

Notice the Circles and Cycles

See the Small Things

See, hear, touch, taste, smell what is most often missed


Give up Destinations

This is It

There is really No Separation

Appreciate the Beauty

This short list is only the beginning of what I am learning.  It isn’t necessary for me to explain each of these lessons (I’m not sure I would do a very good job anyway).  They are part of the curriculum in my pursuit of higher education and you can check the course listings yourself.  Add to this all the explorations and findings of science, of biology and zoology, of ornithology, entomology and every ology you can think of (except perhaps theology), and the class electives are endless, the field trips are continual, the lectures are non-stop, professors too numerous to count.  What an amazing, wondrous, intriguing and delightful world, and universe.  Either, as the most problematic ology—theology–says, this only makes sense under the watchful Eye in the Sky Who is greater than all of this transient and flawed life, or, we are getting the best education money can’t buy everyday of our lives.  Robert Burns expressed it well, “Riches denied, thy boon was purer joys; What wealth can never give, nor take away.”  The treasure is priceless and joy-full.

Where is the spiritual in all this?  If you have to ask, I’m afraid you’ve missed the whole point of this viable story I have told.  I’ll have to send you back to the beginning.  After all, that is the point in all I’m saying.  It is always about starting, not ending; not having the right answers but knowing the right questions and starting again.  Life beyond faith is not about spending one’s time being anti-god (atheist) or anti-religion or even anti-faith.  It is about an opening to the pro-life, the pro-nature, the pro-interesting-as-hell (heaven) way of life that is by nature spiritual if anything can be called spiritual.  We don’t need a leap of faith to leap into this beautiful sanctuary classroom whenever we choose.  Maybe this is why the word “startled” came to me first on my walk this morning, the adjective startling meaning “causing momentary fright, surprise or astonishment.” The owl leapt, I took a little jump, and I was suddenly brought face to face with a feathery creature, along with the wildness of the moment, the silence of the forest, my own breathing and heartbeat, and a contented sense of meeting a new friend.  There were no expectations, no divine voices, no miracles, no prayers or praises.  There was only the grateful moment of being alive in the presence of another life, of the owl and the forest, and of life itself.  It’s a startling way to live.  I want my life to be full of these “starts,” these moments of astonishment, even with a tinge of fear to get the heart and blood pumping with life.  But it will never be a fear that will incapacitate or cause me to fall to my knees in adoration, to build a dogma, creed or religion around it—never a fear that will overwhelm (to turn over, cover up), a timidity to freeze up or melt down my energy or wonder.  As that one lesson, “Life is Short”—which slapped me awake when my parents died—echoes in cycles back to me again and again, I sense I have no time to stop for fear, only to be startled in my spiritually wise saunter along the trail, for an hour, a day, a life (a shoreline walk brought to mind the old song “On A Clear Day”: “rise and look around you. . .the world still astounds you.”).

Essentials of a natural spirituality

A short running definition of “Natural Spirituality” is called for.  Natural Spirituality is being enrolled as a full-time student in the University of the Universe, learning the lessons Nature has to teach, participating in the liveliness of direct experience and growing a pragmatic livelihood from the roots up.  Practicing a Natural Spirituality has everything to do with nurturing a participatory relation to Nature and Spirit (another honorific name for Nature) in a practice that integrates lessons from the natural world of which one is a part in order to see and experience a wider wisdom while working for the greater integration and inter-relation of the greater good.

I offer a practical example from my Pathfinder trail work.  I was sweating and straining one day in the warm spring sun, pulling up blackberry vines by the roots.  While I was aware of the harm (and often apologized even to the bladed whips scratching me head to foot) I pulled out a lesson or two drenched in blood and sweat.  This was my “participation in the liveliness of direct experience” with Nature as I could “see and experience a wider wisdom” while working with the land where I live.  My natural spirituality was literally “at work” digging down in those roots with my mattock.  The deep holding on of the network of tendrils was impressive, and fully exhausting.  The loop of a trail I opened through the forest was a related project for the day and reminded me that wherever we live we displace some living things, and sometimes this displacement appears to open up new relationships with the land and the community of living things.  When I am in this close contact, covered in earth and leaves and sticks, lifting slugs, beetles, treefrogs and worms out of harm’s way, I see what I have never seen before and though I am always aware of the disruption I am causing, I am even more encouraged with the thought that my work will bring me, and I will bring others, closer to this earth, this land.  My labors are my way of introducing one species to another.  This is especially true with people who have never seen large parts of their own land (not that every square inch must be revealed to human eyes).  To me this means they are never fully rooted themselves.  Their appreciation is clear in their exclamations of wonder and sometimes in their tears of enjoyment and silent awe.

With this working definition in mind we can move on down the twisted trails to an appreciation of what is at the heart of Natural Spirituality.  Here are some “roots” (arteries) that I have identified for any participant in relation to the earth—living vines of wisdom for those of us who are delighted and startled by life.

One: A deep respect, interest and feeling for Nature as matrix for one’s life and a Teacher and Guide; the growing, greening world, earth, planet, world-wide ecosystems, universal context; a love of the wilderness near and far and commitment to preserve the living, wild sources and resources.

Two: A deep respect, interest and feeling for Spirit (the non-supernatural “Presence” of Nature; an honorific title) as the interconnecting whole encircling and interweaving all things on the planet and beyond; the vision of the “higher purposes” or “deeper meanings” that set life in motion and call to stillness.  A sinking in.

Three: A recognition that Nature, the natural world that includes the nature of the human person, is the first and primary “Text” for reading and mapping out the way, for seeking guidance and for sacred knowledge. At least a basic familiarity with the sacred texts of the world’s wisdom traditions (the Old Maps from which to draw the new outlines for encompassing navigation).  A plan to learn more.

Four: An understanding that Nature is chapel, church, temple, mosque and synagogue, and yet is more; that the spiritual life transcends any particular structure, belief system, geographic limitation, intellectual bias or community; it is organic and sustainable; it is a grounded, and grounding, grove, meadow or mountaintop in constant stillness, consistent motion.

Five: A working knowledge of the fundamental teachings of the major wisdom/religion/spiritual traditions (the Old World from which to embark on voyages of discovery).  A respect for those teachings that are respectable (those that can be, so to speak, downloaded and run without a virus).  A plan to learn more.

Six: A delighted curiosity and questioning attitude in general (not necessarily a skepticism) and a desire to learn and grow in understanding of the world as it is and as it could be.  An explorer’s heart, an inventor’s mind.

Seven:  A “Work” that provides the central environment for an active, practical and natural spirituality.  Seeking to integrate one’s work (to earn money for living) with one’s Work (to act consciously with the meaning of living).  An openness to new ways of livelihood. A commitment to research and be involved in current projects touching natural spirituality, inter-working with local, regional, national and global projects as needed.

Eight:  A philosophy and practice of caretaking and caregiving as these relate directly and vitally with the natural, secular world particularly in the causes of environmental justice and human rights.

This list of essentials shapes the essence of natural spirituality, at least in my mind.  They are much more organic and sustainable than those commands hammered into stone.  These guiding notes to carry in our mental pockets as we sit or walk deeper in the natural world will grow and expand with each fresh and nurturing participant who grows in conscious appreciation of the practice.

Chris Highland



One thought on “Natural Spirituality

  1. Pingback: Natural Spirituality without God | Secular Chaplain

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