«Annick Hedlund-de Witt Worldviews and the transformation to sustainable societies An exploration of the cultural and psychological dimensions of our ...»
Whereas some people explained such experiences in a more physicalmaterial sense, others interpreted it in a more spiritual or religious way. For some participants, a scientific understanding of the intricate, interrelated systems of the natural world made them realize how interconnected everything is, thereby facilitating the more intuitive experience to be part of nature. More generally speaking, participants seemed to actively relate their experiences in nature with what they knew from science, and they often combined that with philosophical ideas stemming from different religious and spiritual traditions in 169 an attempt to form a coherent worldview. Some participants for instance pointed at the knowledge that “we’re made up of the same stuff that’s out there” to explain the interconnectedness they feel with nature, and related that to insights from, for example, Indigenous (or First Nations) cultures and Buddhism.
Other participants described profound experiences of oneness in nature, experiences that made them feel that “there is something bigger than just me,”
touching on a dimension that is distinctively spiritual:
This feeling I got occasionally […] where you just have this energy that goes through you, that you can't quite describe—it feels so alive. And I think that's similar to what mystics for thousands of years have felt when they thought they had a connection with God—that power running through you. And I'm not religious. […] Everything became one huge functioning thing. And it was all moving together, and fitting together piece by piece. […] As if everything was working as it was supposed to work, moment by moment. I could see everything in detail and the big picture at the same time. […] And in that moment I understood the oneness of everything. [spiritual practitioner] Participants also reported that experiencing this interconnectedness helped them to realize that they do influence the world, that their actions have consequences.
Generally, this realization seemed to result in more environmental awareness and behavior. When people “feel part of nature,” or feel that “nature is not separate from me,” they were more inclined to identify with the interests or wellbeing of nature, for, in the words of a participant, “what we are doing to nature, we are doing to ourselves.” This often deeply felt sense of connectedness might therefore result in a high level of involvement with the environment. In the
words of this participant:
I know that I'm very disturbed by environmental destruction; it makes me very sad and very angry, just very emotional. And for me that is proof that I'm connected to anything else. That I'm able to cry when I see a rainforest being cut down. It really
Moreover, realizing that one is participating in an interconnected whole can also make one more aware that one can influence the world, that individual actions are changing the world (for better or for worse). The resulting feeling of
power and responsibility may be important for becoming environmentally active:
nearly all environmentalists expressed that the belief in their own ability to make change was an important driving force in their motivation and commitment.
The third key-theme was a sense of self-reflection and self-expansion.
Many participants reported that in nature they often started to experience themselves differently. Some participants described that change in terms of feeling “more myself,” “more real,” “stronger” and “more aware.” Others described to gain access to parts of themselves that were neglected in the business of daily life—such as a sense of inner peace, empowerment, beauty,
meaning, and joy:
Sometimes in the city I don't have time to think about who I am, what is important to me, what goals I have in life, but when I'm out in nature— that’s where I feel most like myself. It just gives me the time to see the ‘better’ sides of me. [environmentalist] Participants also spoke of the expansion, the openness, and the freedom they often experienced in nature: how they “get out of their selves” and become totally immersed and absorbed in the beauty of nature (see also McPherson Frantz, Mayer, Norton, & Rock, 2005). In the words of one participant: “The beauty of it is that you forget I. For me the dominant experience is the decreasing importance of yourself.” This “getting out of oneself” often went along with a sense of expansion, and sometimes even with a phenomenological sense of an opening up of one’s personal boundaries, as this participant
I was absolutely convinced that my skin was not a boundary between myself and other life. […] My physical experience was 171 one of flow. […] the body sensation [one of] porousness, the barrier had somehow opened up. Emotionally I felt very calm, peaceful, content. But also at the same time a sense of wonder, awe and curiosity. […] To me it is a sense of transcending this ordinary existence that many of us in the Western world experience most of the time. Transcendence of that, to a place of deep connection, and perhaps moreover awareness […] And I don't even remember me being in the picture at all. But I felt, if I had to describe it, like I was a huge eyeball, watching the whole thing. [spiritual practitioner] Such an expanded experience of self often seemed to have the potential to put life back in proportion. Many participants reported that worries from daily life disappeared and trivialities were revealed for what they are. As one participant explained, “it makes you sometimes feel that all your worries are some kind of silly, in the sense that you realize that you are part of this bigger picture, which is the world.” A sense of smallness in the midst of a great and amazing universe was frequently accompanied by the feeling to be part of, and participating in it.
Yet instead of feeling tiny and threatened, several people described to feel empowered and uplifted through seeing this “bigger picture.” As one participant
You feel small. But it's not like a bad small; it is a very powerful small. It doesn't make you feel like your less worthy. It's like you know you have a great responsibility—you can't just think about yourself. You're called to do something more. [spiritual practitioner] In the experience of these individuals, the beauty, purity, and vastness of nature have the potential to make one think in greater, even universal terms. A starfilled sky on a bright night or the overview gained from climbing a mountain seems to have the potential to give the individual a glimpse of something larger.
This can result in a different perspective on life, on oneself, one’s capabilities, and on what is truly important. More than just rethinking their lives, 172 participants described to sometimes have “a deep felt sense” of what their life is all about and what place they want to fulfill as a vital participant in this intricate, larger whole. In such experiences, frequently an innate sense of purpose and meaning was encountered, and often such experiences were interpreted in explicitly spiritual terms. These experiences seem to resonate with Naess’ (1989) influential, ‘deep ecological’ notion that the more we expand the self to identify with "others" (people, animals, ecosystems), the more we realize ourselves, and the more we will spontaneously have moral consideration for those others.58 5.4.5 Potential pathways to a sense of environmental responsibility Based on the data as gathered in these interviews, there seem to be three potential pathways to a sense of environmental responsibility.
First, the results show how individuals, through their more profound experiences of nature, may be sensitized to the beauty, value, and importance of nature, thereby opening them up to a different way of perceiving and relating to nature. As participants explained, they tended to see nature as alive and animated (and frequently even sacred), and commonly described their relationship with nature in terms of reciprocity, care, and companionship.59 Moreover, the sense of presence in nature appeared to evoke an increased awareness of, and appreciation for the natural world that individuals frequently felt to be oblivious to in daily life. The sense to be part of, or connected to nature made participants frequently feel more responsible for, and identified with the needs and interests of nature. It also tended to attune them to the fact that as a part of this larger whole, they are necessarily of influence, for better or for 58 Plumwood (1993) criticized Naess’ notion of self-expansion because “the widening of interest is obtained at the expense of failing to recognise unambiguously the difference and independence of the other. Others are recognized morally only to the extent that they are incorporated into the self, and their difference denied” (p. 180). However, the data from this study do not seem to support this criticism. In contrast, the sense of self-expansion as these individuals describe it seems characterized by a reawakening to one’s one qualities and value, as well as recognition of those qualities in others and the world at large, rather than an incorporation of the other into the self.
59 However, the data seem to suggest that the relationship between profound experiences of nature and one’s perception and understanding of nature is reciprocal rather than onesidedly causal, and can perhaps be better described and understood in terms of co-arising than causality. This issue will be further discussed in section 5.5.
173 worse. The sense of self-expansion appeared to bring participants in touch with their “better sides” and capabilities, generally making them feel empowered and inspired. Simultaneously, as participants explained, it frequently put life back in proportion—reminding them of “what life is all about,” and calling them to stand up for what is truly worthwhile to them. The majority of participants evaluated
such experiences in nature as having had an important impact on their lives:
informing their worldviews, their sense of environmental responsibility, and for some their career choices. For example, several participants explained how such experiences had inspired them to become active in the environmental movement—which is in line with results from earlier research (see e.g. Chawla, 1998). Such encounters with nature thus appear to have the potential to elicit a sense of environmental responsibility in the individual, potentially leading them to step up and work for the preservation and flourishing of nature, the environment, or the ‘Earth community.’ Moreover, as a result of such profound experiences in nature, individuals may also be awakened to a deeper dimension of meaning and/or spirituality in their lives. In figure 1, these relationships are portrayed by the arrow running from ‘profound encounters with nature’ to ‘a sense of environmental responsibility,’ and by the arrow running from ‘profound encounters with nature’ to ‘contemporary spirituality.’ Second, the research shows how understanding and cultivating a contemporary spirituality may lead to a sense of environmental responsibility.
Participants tended to endorse a natural, evolutionary, and this-worldly form of spirituality, in which the divine gets relocated in nature, and even in the world at large. This tends to result in care for nature and the world, and a sense of kinship with other creatures, since, as one participant put it, “we’re made up off the same stuff that is out there.” Moreover, their spirituality seemed to provide many participants with a sense of meaning and purpose, and the motivation to strive for a “bigger cause,” “contributing to the whole.” Also, because a sense of meaning and fulfillment in life was frequently sought for in the inner or spiritual domain (or at least not exclusively in the material domain), a spiritual orientation seems to have the potential to discourage a more narrowly materialistic lifestyle, which frequently is detrimental to the environment. Earlier research has indeed shown that people embracing the extrinsic goal of materialism tend to consume more and have bigger environmental footprints (K. W. Brown & Kasser, 2005).
174 Lastly, such a contemporary spirituality may activate the potential for a (more) meaningful and participatory understanding and experience of nature, relating to it as alive, animated, and intrinsically valuable. In figure 1, these relationships are portrayed by the arrow running from ‘contemporary spirituality’ to ‘a sense of environmental responsibility,’ and by the arrow running from ‘contemporary spirituality’ to ‘profound encounters with nature.’ Third, the research thus also shows that both pathways—of profound encounters with nature as well as of contemporary spirituality—have the potential to reciprocally enhance each other, coming together in a spiritual experience of nature, which can be conceptualized as a third potential pathway to a sense of environmental responsibility. According to some participants, this sense of environmental responsibility is augmented, precisely when these two pathways converge in an unmistakably spiritual experience of nature. Other participants pointed out that it is the convergence of their love for nature and their sense of spirituality that compelled them to become environmentally active.
As this participant explains: