For me there's no spiritual practice more vital than communing with the spirits of nature. But what does it mean to commune with nature? How do we begin to interact with the spirits of trees and stones, rivers and birds?
To begin, we must go outside. What good does love do us if we don't spend time with the beloved? If our only interaction with the earth is a glimpse through a window or a photo on the internet, our claims to love and revere her seem hollow.
Let's put down our pagan texts, turn off Practical Magic, and step out into the world. Let's go to the woods or the shore if we can. If that isn't possible, let's find a park or a back yard, a community garden or a bench under a tree, and come face to face with what we claim to hold sacred.
Next, we greet the spirits. Whether or not we can sense them, they are present. In time, with practice, we can learn to be aware of them. If we desire this awareness, we must make the first gesture by respectfully acknowledging the presence of those we can't see, and by declaring our intention of peace. Some places have suffered so much at the hands of humanity the spirits are reluctant to communicate with people. It takes time to establish a connection with such a place, and the spirits might not ever grow warm and welcoming. Such places need healing. We can be part of that, if we persevere in approaching them with reverence.
After we greet the spirits of place, we begin the work of focusing on nature/spirit by putting away all distractions. There are tools that help us with this focus: cameras, sketch books, journals. We can use these until we find ourselves feeling calm and focused. But in time even these should be set aside, and our senses engaged in the act of communion. Our feet on the ground, our hands on tree bark or leaves or flowers, our eyes taking in the forms of trees or the motion of the waves. We breathe in the scent of sand and saltwater, or of soil and tree bark. We taste the air, we listen to the movement of the wind. In this way, we stretch our awareness. Later, we can record these impressions in our journals, but right now we are doing the work of paying attention. It may seem the opposite of spiritual work to notice passing cars and shouting children, but if we cannot even take in the concrete, physical world, how will we perceive the more subtle manifestations of spirit? Paying attention to the world around us strengthens our love for nature, and trains us in the art of perception. It also, sometimes, forces us to learn to focus in the midst of chaos and distraction: a less pleasant, but equally valuable lesson.
When our attention is engaged, we add metaphysical exercises to our communion. We practice earth walking (a.k.a. walking meditation)--feeling the energy of the earth on the soles of our feet as we walk slowly and attentively. Or we find a tree to lean against, to breathe with, to listen to. Or we visualize ourselves as a tree, feeling our roots descend into the earth, feeling the wind in our branches. Or we sit on the ground and hold an herb or a stone, and focus on the images and sensations that come to us. Such practices sometimes require patience and dedication to master, but they can help us deepen our connection with the sacred and are worth the time and energy. I suggest choosing one to begin with, and practicing it frequently over several weeks or even months.
Finally, we make offerings. An offering is more than just leaving an object under a tree. There should be something of ourselves in the offerings we leave, and our offerings should benefit the earth spirits in some way. They likely have no use for coins and faery statues, and such things can even be damaging to the ecosystem depending on what materials they're made from. Offering our time and energy to pick up trash would be a much better offering, though it might seem less glamorous. If we are lucky enough to connect with pristine, litter-free nature, then strands of our hair for nesting birds or clean, blessed water during dry times would be a precious offering. Even healing, loving energy given to the earth is a kind of offering, as is a prayer or poem. With each offering we express our gratitude to the earth. Practicing these steps allows us to be truly nourished and restored by our time in nature, even if it isn't as frequent or prolonged as we wish.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
From "The Summer Day" by Mary Oliver
Does this post look familiar? It once appeared on a different blog, which I'm in the process of dismantling.