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Most participants characterized their sense and understanding of spirituality in terms of a “Higher Power,” “Spirit,” or “all-pervasive divine dimension,” often portrayed as a “benevolent,” “intelligent,” “loving,” “nurturing” or “mothering” power, force, or energy. Whereas for some the world appeared to be completely permeated with this power or divine dimension, others described the world as created and loved by that power or Spirit. It seems that in the views of most participants, the divine is closely connected to the world, either as a creator behind but not necessarily fully present in the world, to an all-pervasive spirit, manifest in all of existence. This understanding seems to signify a generally more immanent, or this-worldly type of spirituality. That is, many participants tended to see the world itself as a sacred, divine, or holy whole (terms that may also referred to as pantheism or panentheism, depending on the exact interpretation), and/or emphasized that a spiritual intelligence, life force, or higher power is animating the world (animism). These perceptions can be differentiated into more spiritual and more naturalistic understandings.
Several participants articulated their spiritual beliefs as follows:
I tend to be sort of an animist. I touch a tree and kind of talk to it, when I'm by myself. I know it is silly, but that is my sort of gut feeling. That we're all kind of one, you know. I think that that's the way philosophy is tending these days. That there is a spirit in everything. That we're more alike to rocks and trees and water and air than appears. What's in us, is in there. So that's the essence. [nature-lover] In some sense, this more immanent or this-worldly understanding of spirituality logically explains the close association between nature and spirituality, as experienced by most participants. Some of them explained that when they feel touched by the beauty of nature, they realize “this must be the creation of God—a God who is beautiful, and loves beauty.” Others described that feeling the energy of, for instance, a tree gives them a sense of spirituality.
According to many, “Spirit” is experienced to be more present or more easily accessible in nature, while human-dominated environments often seem to be devoid of that same spirit. Some people therefore detected an ambiguity, opposition, or paradox, in their own worldview. While they tended to claim that this spirit permeates the whole universe, they also recognized that they do not
necessarily experience it that way:
It totally pervades us. But then I ask myself the question: what about these parts of me that I don't like, or the parts of society that I don't like? A part of me wants to say that these parts are somehow separate from ultimate reality, these parts for some reason don't seem to fit with this all-pervasive reality, or essence,
164 or spirit. [nature-lover]
According to some participants, this (apparent) contradiction is a function of a limited perception, which potentially can be overcome through the development of consciousness. For some, this is why they were involved in spiritual or religious practices—ranging from yoga and meditation, church attendance and the reading of spiritual texts, to being in nature. More than half of the participants reported to be involved in such practices, and said to experience great benefits from it—including feeling more present and aware, feeling refreshed and restored with energy, and having a sense of meaning, direction, and trust in their lives. While participants generally held that the sacred or spiritual can be more easily experienced in nature, they also emphasized that it is not human presence or influence per se that obstructs their experience of the spiritual, but rather the extent to which these are “dissociated” and “alienated” from nature. For example, some participants explained that hearing a beautiful piece of music would give them a similar feeling as some of their nature-experiences. According to them, “human creation at its best is part of nature,” is “aligned” or “in harmony” with nature, and an expression of nature.
Generally speaking, scientific understanding seemed to play an important role in informing participants” notions of the spiritual. Although the spiritual dimension was often contrasted with material or scientific reality, they were, in general, not considered to be mutually exclusive. In the words of one participant, “the universe is a spiritual thing as well as a physical thing.” Though participants often explicitly acknowledged the value of science, they tended to refer to the spiritual as a domain “beyond what we know from science.” However, participants simultaneously often referred to scientific knowledge to argue for their spiritual beliefs and experiences (e.g., as in the case of the experience to be interconnected with the rest of nature) and they frequently claimed that all their beliefs had to be at least coherent with scientific knowledge. Some participants also expressed that understanding the science of nature made them more aware
of nature’s spiritual greatness:
It is so much more complex and beautiful than I had realized— that has increased the sense in me of this marvelous creator as
As this quote illustrates, creation and evolution were not necessarily seen as competing explanations for the origination of the cosmos. On the contrary, evolution often seemed to be conceptualized as a sacred, creative force itself.
Generally speaking, participants seemed to endorse a spiritual-evolutionary cosmogony—that is, an evolutionary origin story of the universe in which the process of evolution itself is driven by a creative spirit or divine force, rather than a belief in either a biblical notion of creation or a purely scientific understanding of random, unconscious evolution. In the words of this
[Nature] is this scientific miracle. But I do believe that there is more than science in nature. […] I believe there is some type of intelligent creator or energy that somehow created or at least sparked life. […] To me it is too unlikely, even for me as a scientist, with my physics background, that it is just unconscious evolution, from pure hard matter. [spiritual practitioner] In the understanding of these participants, spirituality also touches upon the whole dimension of meaning and purpose. According to one interview-subject, “spirituality answers the question of who we are to be, and what life is all about.” And according to another, spirituality is about “knowing who you are, and understanding your place in the world, and desiring to fulfill it the best way you can.” Participants often explained that their spirituality gave them a sense of meaning, and/or informed them with a sense of a “higher call” or a “higher cause.” This was often directly related to a worldview in which the universe is seen as a meaningful whole, in which everything has its own place, meaning, and purpose while at the same time being connected with everything else. This made 166 many participants feel that it is not “meant” to only work or strive for their own good; they described feeling “called” to “contribute to the bigger whole,” or to
strive for a cause bigger than oneself. According to one participant:
Spirituality is about having a sense of connectedness, for a bigger purpose. I think that a product of working on your spirituality is that you start to see what your purpose is. By purpose I mean what are you here to do, contributing to the whole. [environmentalist] Participants frequently also contrasted their sense of spirituality with the culture of materialism, which was often understood and experienced to be at odds with any genuine form of spirituality. Materialism was then roughly defined as the dominance of a materialistic, consumer-based way of understanding and living in the world. Participants emphasized that they were not “going for the money,” nor that they felt tempted to go along with the cultural values of materialism. Frequently they saw their spirituality as an alternative source for finding purpose, meaning, and contentment in life. However, instead of being critical towards the material dimension of life itself (which they clearly tended to love and embrace, notably in the form of nature), most participants tended to be critical to a reductionist materialism, which favors the physical-material world over, and at the expense of, other sources of meaning and fulfillment.
Thus, spirituality tended to be conceptualized by the participants in a natural, evolutionary, and this-worldly fashion, which appeared to support a sense of responsibility for and kinship with the rest of life in a general sense. They tended to see the evolutionary process itself as a form of creation, sparked by a higher intelligence or spirit, which seemed to result in a re-uniting of traditional polarities, such as natural versus supernatural, body versus soul, and evolution versus creation. Overall, this conceptualization of spirituality appears to be in line with Taylor’s (2010) observations of contemporary nature spirituality.
5.4.4 Profound or spiritual experiences in nature: Presence, interconnectedness, self-expansion While inquiring into what participants experienced when they were out in 167 nature, and probing them for detailed, phenomenological descriptions of their experiences, three clusters of themes emerged consistently, which I labeled presence, interconnectedness, and self-expansion. These clusters seemed to co-arise and mutually interrelate, rather than display a one-sided causality.
Virtually all participants described their experiences in nature as being very sensory: they reported to be fascinated by what they see, enjoy the warmth of the sun or the freshness of the wind on their skin, listen to the sounds or the silence, and love the smells. Many participants elucidated that in nature they feel invited to be sensory—that is, to perceive and appreciate everything—whereas
the bad smells and the noise of the city tends to have the opposite effect:
I can breathe; I can take in the sensations. I want to hear everything, I want to smell everything, I want to taste everything around me, I want to embrace everything around me. Whereas when I'm in the city, I'm trying to block out all the noise around me. There it is exactly the opposite. [environmentalist] Some of them therefore described their experiences in nature as “grounding:” they feel that going out in nature brings them back in touch with their direct surroundings and sensations. Some participants explained to “feel grounded to the earth again,” which is meant, in the words of one woman, “pretty literally—feeling the earth under my feet.” Another participant stressed the “immediacy, the textures, the feel of the wind, the warmth of the sun.” By experiencing the immediacy of the natural, living environment, participants felt that they “get in tune with their senses” and become more present in, aware of, and in touch with their immediate space-time-dimension, including their physical bodies and sensations. Some participants spoke of “a sense of being and
presence.” As this participant clarified this sense of presence:
Using your senses. Being more present in and out. Noticing the life around you. What is it that you are feeling at this time? I'm often too distracted by my mind, to take in my surroundings. For instance when I'm thinking about something in class—I don't catch what the professor is saying. I'm not fully present. You are
168 not really here. [environmentalist]
Instead of being immersed in more distant aspects of life and the abstractness of (conceptual) thought, participants emphasized that when they are in nature they tend to feel more present. Some participants explained that often in their lives they are on their way to get somewhere, while in nature they can allow themselves “to be,” to “relax and unwind,” and be aware of life inside and outside, in the present moment. The phenomenon of presence or mindfulness has been observed and explored in other studies as well (see e.g. K. W. Brown & Ryan, 2003; Frederickson & Anderson, 1999; Kaplan, 1995). Weinstein et al.
(2009) use the term immersion.
The sense of being more present in one”s immediate space-timedimension seemed to be related to an increased sense of being a participant in the world. A central theme in the data is that of interconnectedness—ranging from a recognition of how one is physically tied in with nature to a direct experience of “oneness with the divine.” This interconnectedness seemed to be an important ingredient in the nature experience of all participants. Participants explained that often, when spending time in nature, they increasingly start to feel “related” and “connected” to their surroundings. They become aware of how they are unmistakably part of and participating in this bigger whole. Some participants explained to have the sense of their physical boundaries soften and becoming more porous to the environment. Others described it in terms of a sense of “belonging” or “homecoming.” This sense of interconnectedness with nature, other life forms, and people has also been found in other studies (Frederickson & Anderson, 1999; Gosling & Williams, 2010; Hyland, Wheeler, Kamble, & Masters, 2010; Kaplan & Talbot, 1983; Williams & Harvey, 2001).