Human beings who long for time in Nature because Nature (mother? lover? teacher? friend?) stirs passion in them, relaxes and restores them, paints beauty all over their days and tempts them to seek wider and deeper truths…these are the folks ripe for an eco-spiritual group.

A handful answered the call. Social media and word of mouth were the heralds that reached out. The host of the land where we would meet showed me how he used the land ceremonially—at a point in his life ready to share with more folks. Wow. I knew this was THE PLACE.

I’d been trying to catch up on how eco-spirituality had fared as a concept the last thirty years since I looked at it in graduate school, when the “greening of religion” was breaking news.  After twenty years of an environmental movement (since Earth Day, 1970), mainstream churches asked themselves what their response should be, if any.

The Old Testament instructs man (sic) to subdue the earth and to have dominion over all the animals. Humans are designated as the crown of creation—at best, benevolent stewards. At worst, the material world is a vale of sin, so the sooner the rapture the better–we are just passing time in prison here, seems the implication. Until then it’s ours to use, and use up . . .God said so?

Over time we’ve seen the “world religions” grapple seriously with environmental issues–thank you, Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama for speaking up about climate change! Meanwhile a separate, democratic, free-form reverence for nature outside of the church experience just keeps growing.

The labels for its sprawl are mostly construed by academics who want a way to study this growth. At first there were “new religious movements”: Earth-based spirituality and Neo-Paganism immersing in the paradigms of pantheism and polytheism.  At the time, hard-core environmentalism such as Deep Ecology wanted to keep itself out of the realm of religion. Now we have more nuance and more descriptors…religious naturalism, ecotheism, dark green religion, naturalistic spirituality, ecospirituality, Gaian spirituality, Buddhist animist, radical environmentalism, and nature religion.

Those who study this movement want to know: who and where is God, Godde (gender inclusive term), Goddess, the Gods, Great Spirit, the Divine, the Great Mystery…to the nature-religion crowd? Up there, out there, completely apart from, or “in” the Earth or IS the Earth itself spirit incarnate? How does He, She, It, They regard the this blue-green orb we live upon? Is the organism known as our planet in and of itself Divinity, the body of Gaia? Natural, or supernatural?

I grew up with this rule: “don’t talk about politics and religion.” You might offend! Well, what if the talking is to the point of building bridges instead of burning them? I’m so curious:  why would a Presbyterian (just to pick a random example) shy away from a Pagan, unless they feared the Pagan “believed” dangerously—and the Presby would be next in danger (of sinning) if they gave a Pagan the time of day?

One answer may be that the witch burnings—a murderous war against women courtesy of the Holy Roman Inquisition–didn’t end that long ago. A woman named Janet Horne was the last person legally executed for witchcraft in the British Isles, and it was 1727. An eyewitness called Europe a “forest of burning stakes” in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Whole villages were wiped out.

I think I know why a Pagan would avoid a Presbyterian—to avoid judgment and discrimination. When I was whole-hog Pagan I avoided Christians because I figured, hey, it’s a Christian nation steeped in the Christian story and I went to Catholic school–nothing to learn here.

But there is always something to learn, and interfaith efforts have the potential to be ever new and creative. They often consist of the representative from each tradition saying a prayer their way, a kind of taking turns in the showcase–nature religion isn’t very often represented. I propose that Earth Mystics can come from any church (or none) but we can co-create the new prayers and rituals we need. We are all do-it-yourself-ers when we stand beneath the sky in a circle of stones with trees leaning in. The Earth holds its breath: will humans manage to communicate?

Felice Wyndham is an ecological anthropologist and ethnobiologist who has noted that [Native] people she has worked with can intimately sense the world beyond their body. “It’s a form of enhanced mindfulness,” she says. “It’s quite common, you see it in most hunter-gatherer groups. It’s an extremely developed skill base of cognitive agility, of being able to put yourself into a viewpoint and perspective of many creatures or objects – rocks, water, clouds.”

There are some key words here. Mindfulness: despite religious backgrounds, mindfulness meditation has reached and taught 8% of the US population, 18 million people. That figure is 200-500 million meditators worldwide! A National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) report states:

Most meditative techniques started in Eastern religious or spiritual traditions, but today, many people use meditation outside of its traditional religious or cultural settings…(including) Mantra meditation, Mindfulness meditation, Spiritual meditation, and meditation used as a part of other practices (including yoga, tai chi, and qi gong). 

Mindfulness and cognitive restructuring are sustainable buzz words in the mental health field these days. Ecotherapy is a broad umbrella for all sorts of healing experiences in nature. Could the two combine to help us remember we have always known how to do such things?

Would the hybrid be the experience of nature religion? Could an ecospiritual group set aside dogma and doctrine, creed and canon, to deepen a mystic connection with the natural world? How might it be done?

You could start with a song. We did.

Chants really, to keep it simple. “Air I am, Fire I am, Water, Earth and Spirit I am.” You could sing it in a round, to spark the focus. Then another. “Oh Great Spirit, Earth Sun Sky and Sea, you are inside and all around me.”

Next, walk down to the ceremonial site with someone you don’t know. Now you do!

On the way, full stop to marvel at the monarch butterflies in the milkweed, the tremulous, bulbous, uniquely purple not quite lavender flowers. Note a pair of lightning bugs having sex beneath a leaf–with the lights on!

We walked into the forest, skirting the circle, saving it for last. On a high deck looking over Plum Creek, we talked. Passing the talking stick—lovers of Sufi, Pagan, catholic, Hindu, Methodist and unlabeled ways–telling our stories as it grew too dark to journey into the circle, aw dang. Next time for sure!

“We, as humans, have a remarkable sensitivity, imagination, and ability to be cognitively agile,” Wyndham says. “If we are open to it and train ourselves to learn how to drop all of the distractions to our sensory capacity, we’re able to do so much more biologically than we use in contemporary industrial society.” 

How could we accomplish this? In sacred, ritual space. Because something collective/consensual rises above the self-serving/suspicious when we explore ritual as art and mystic meetup. We human be-ins have done this for a long time.

A fledgling ecospiritual group may, if it follows the advice given above (mindfulness, cognitive agility, drop the distractions) reach our indigenous minds again, knowing the elements of earth and its atmosphere with our senses. We may not be doomed to being civilized, i.e., depressed and cut off.

And what if Nature hears us, feels us, receives us? Who can tally the gains, or even prove it’s a two-way exchange? We will know when we know. That’s gnosis: self-knowledge that is Self-embracing. We may come to it by the simplest, yet hardest things: applied forgiveness, lessons in loving-kindness, unleashing the courage to be that means stepping over the traps of resentment and self-absorption.

You may say I’m a dreamer/but I’m not the only one. –The Late Great John Lennon