I’ve just returned from the beautiful U.S. Canyon country (some pictures below), which always rejuvenates and empowers me, so I wanted to do a post on nature. I decided to feature the lessons and spiritual gifts that mystics from various wisdom traditions have attributed to nature, including teachings on humility, divinity, beauty, balance, transience, cycles, power and more. I hope you enjoy, and please add your own favorite spots and experiences in the comments…
St. Francis of Assisi, Catholic patron saint of animals and ecology, is probably the most famous Christian mystic associated with nature. For him, nature offered profound lessons in humility. He was one of the first Christian writers to emphasize caring treatment of plants and animals as part of spiritual living, saying, “If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow man.”
Here in the U.S., the Transcendentalist movement of the mid-1800s profoundly impacted American Protestantism’s approach to nature, and laid the groundwork for the environmental movement. Writers such as Henry David Thoreau (who had a strong influence on one my favorite nature poets Emily Dickinson) saw nature as a doorway to the divine, saying “Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.”
In Taosim, nature is honored as an example of beauty and balance, offering us a glimpse of the radiance and wholeness within ourselves. Sun-Buer, one of the Taoist Immortal Sisters, frequently used images from nature in her spiritual poems, as in this one, entitled Autumn:
A springlike autumn’s balmy breeze reaches afar.
The sun shines on the house of a recluse
South of the river;
They encourage the December apricots
To burst into bloom:
A simplehearted person
Faces the simplehearted flowers.
In similar fashion, many Zen poems, particularly haiku, reflect on the transience of nature as it moves from season to season, or between different weather states, and the opportunity this offers us to recognize the impermanence of our own everyday thoughts and emotions. Consider this haiku by Matsou Basho:
and bring to men a chance to rest
from looking at the moon.
Of course the transience of nature mostly runs in cycles, and honoring and celebrating cycles is a large theme in pagan and wiccan traditions. Many festivals and rituals are tied to the equinoxes and solstices, as well as lunar cycles. I myself often use these cycles in timing my own teaching, retreats, or personal initiatives and projects. Here’s a list of pagan holy days within one tradition, as well as some info on how they were co-opted by Christianity as it evolved.
Ancient traditions, both Eastern and Western, and their modern descendants, also group natural elements by energetic and healing properties, and use them in both spiritual rituals and healing remedies to address vibrational issues. Although there are many such systems, in general:
Water cleanses and balances
Fire purifies and prepares
Air clears and initiates
Earth and rock grounds and centers
Trees hold a special place in so many traditions, both as symbols and as spiritual protectors and guides. The Buddha attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree and modern Kabbalah organizes its knowledge (both estoeric and exoteric) around the Tree of Life. In one of my favorite occult books, The Sorcerer’s Crossing, the author lives in a tree for weeks to rebalance her energy after dramatic shamanic experiences threaten to throw off her entire energetic and perceptual system. And I believe it was Gangaji’s teacher Papaji that said trees are one of our best teachers of compassion. (Just sit under a tree for awhile when you are in pain of any type, and you will know what he meant.)
Also common to many spiritual traditions is the idea of sacred or power spots – which I view as chakras on the earth – where seekers can go to access another level of knowledge, or even other mystic worlds. Ramana Maharshi (Gangaji’s teacher’s teacher), perhaps the most revered Indian spiritual master of the modern age, spent his entire adult life at the mountain Arunachala, which he viewed as his spiritual home and particularly conducive to his teachings. Tibetans consider Mt. Kailash to be a sacred mountain (along with many Hindus and Jains) and thousands travel every year to circle the base – many in full prostration. (Here’s a site dedicated to sacred and power spots around the world.)
Although many traditions speak of these power places, and often have strict guidelines for visiting and accessing them, I think some of the most interesting writing on this is in Carlos Castanada’s books (I’ve recently been re-reading A Fire from Within, but always suggest starting with Journey to Ixtlan.) His ‘teacher’ Don Juan, takes him to specific desert locations to give him certain occult lessons, noting that Carlos will only be able to let go of his everyday mode of perception, and shift into the states of awareness necessary to absorb these lessons, if they travel to locations compatible with them. These places are each like doorways, offering special access to different energies and planes of attention. (This is exactly how the Tantric traditions view chakras, which is different from how healing traditions view them.)
This is perhaps closest to my relationship with my own ‘spiritual home’, the U.S. desert southwest. I particularly love the Colorado Plateau, which includes the ‘Grand Staircase’ of the Grand Canyon, Zion Canyon, and Bryce Ampitheater. To me they are navel, heart and third eye chakras of the earth, respectively representing dimensions of power, compassion, and insight. Although pictures can never do places like this justice, here’s one of each (my husband took the last two just last week on our vacation):
And of course as the saying goes ‘God is in the small things’ too, so here is one of the first desert cactus blooms of this season in the Zion area. These flowers always feel like a miracle, as they are never certain to come in this harsh climate:
What are your favorite spots in nature? How does time in nature rejuvenate or enlighten you? Who are your favorite nature mystics or quotes about nature? I’d love to hear…
And if you liked this post, you may also like its counterpart Poetry, Art, Music and the Mystic Experience.