Contemplative practice is a way to love God’s creation. Read this personal story on connecting to nature.
My Personal Contemplative Practice in Nature
Most mornings I get out of bed and walk into my front yard where I turn and face the four cardinal directions. I weave a circle of gratitude and praise as I turn and look in each direction, and I thank God for the day that is about to begin. As I celebrate the bounty of the good earth, I pray that I may be a person of compassion who lives in balance and harmony with his surroundings – even as the animals and plants around me perform their own important and complementary roles in sustaining the web of life. When I ﬁrst started this ritual, I didn’t know east from west or north from south. I didn’t know in which direction the sun rose; or where the migrating birds ﬂying above me were headed; or where the day ended in the twilight of summer evenings; or in which direction the ﬁrst blasts of winter originated. One morning as I spun my circle under a black walnut tree close to the edge of the yard, a squirrel dropped a large woody nut down on top of my head. A random mistake? A sign of greeting? A gesture of irritation? I wasn’t sure, but the feeling that I was connected to other life forms deepened my sense of relationship with the wider earth community during my morning ritual. I am a college professor, so I have a lot of facts in my head. But prior to beginning this ritual, there was not much music in my heart, or juice in my body; now this simple inaugural routine, sometimes accompanied by walnut fragments in my mop of early morning hair, has restored my sense of vigor and belonging to the life-giving ﬂow patterns that make my existence vibrant and meaningful.
This daily activity – an alchemy of Christian prayer of thanksgiving and Native American sacred hoop ritual – goes to the heart of the green vision that animates my life. I believe that earth and sky, human beings and other beings, everything that lives and grows in its own time and according to its own nature, is pulsing with a vital life force that is sacred, that is eternal, that is God. Reactualizing the power of this vital force in my morning contemplative ritual is a daily reminder to me that the earth is sacred and should therefore be protected as the place that God indwells and maintains for the well being of all of us, humankind and otherkind together.
We all need some way to experience a deep sense of belonging to the earth, whether or not we are denominationally religious. Indeed, unless we have that sense of relationship, I fear that the prospects for our continual habitation on this planet are not good. Without a spiritual basis for ecology – without a deeply felt sense of kinship with other life forms – it will be difﬁcult for us to feel motivated to exercise concern for the welfare of the planet and its inhabitants. Reawakening our spiritual relationship to animals, land, and water forges that primal sense of connection to the lifeweb that is necessary for long-term commitments to sustainable living.
When I travel out-of-doors in the early morning to perform my sacred hoop ritual, I express thanks for my wife and children, our two dogs, and the many life forms that populate the forest preserve where I live: wood thrush and red-bellied woodpecker, red fox and white-tailed deer, American toad and Eastern garter snake. My goal is to integrate my heart and my head, both in my devotional practice and my wider professional commitments, specifically, my role as a teacher. In this way, I also look for ways in my teaching to bring together practice and theory in order to inculcate in my students love for all of our earthen relations.
The Environment & Contemplative Practice
Trained in religious studies, I was mentored to avoid any contemplative practice in the classroom lest students confuse the academic study of religion with particular sectarian rituals. It is one thing to study Christian monasticism as an intellectual exercise, so the argument runs, but quite another to practice the daily office as a spiritual exercise. But I have found my students increasingly hungry not only for theological study but also for the actual lived experiences that underlie and shape such study. Now I use contemplative rituals with students as integral to their academic studies. These exercises affectively ground the analytically discursive work of writing papers and taking exams in my classes. These two modes of learning – heartfelt mindfulness and academic analysis – provide the sonic baseline that shapes the rhythms of my pedagogy.
In the early 2000s I first began to re-imagine my teaching vocation, in line with my daily practice, as a type of soulcraft, not just as a way of learning intellectual content but, moreover, as a form of knowledge acquisition fundamentally grounded in ritual formation. To that end, and, as luck would have it, on the day of September 12, 2001, one day after what we now call 9/11, I had scheduled to teach the second session of my class, “Religion, the Environment, and Contemplative Practice,” as an integrated head-and-heart class. I planned that afternoon for a three-hour class meeting in the Crum Woods, the forest preserve adjacent to the Swarthmore campus and my home where I do morning devotions. In addition to discussing the assigned readings I planned that class members would begin a series of group meditation and ritual practices that I had envisioned for this particular day in the semester. Under any circumstances, asking students to take the chance of practicing various meditation disciplines in an open classroom environment, in full view of their peers, is a risky proposition. But to ask them to take this risk immediately following such a traumatic event as 9/11 now felt to be especially ill timed. So I emailed the class before our meeting to see what they wanted to do, assuming they would prefer to cancel class for that day and make it up later. To my surprise the students wanted to go ahead with the class as planned.
We first met in our regular classroom and then, without speaking, we proceeded into the Crum Woods as a group, practicing a kind of silent walking meditation. Along the way I asked each member of the group to experience being “summoned” by a particular life form found in the forest – red-tailed hawk, clod of dirt, water-strider, flatworm, gray squirrel, red oak, skunk-cabbage, and so on – and then to re-imagine themselves as becoming that life form. After the walk through the woods we gathered in a circle, thirty or so students Your and me, within a grove of sycamore trees in a meadow next to a creek.
At this juncture I asked the students to use the first person in conveying a message to our group from the perspective of the individual life form they had assumed. I explained that this was a voluntary exercise; no one should feel compelled to speak if he or she did not want to. If you imagine yourself, for example, as a brook trout or morning dove or dragonfly living in and around the Crum Creek, with the creek threatened by suburban storm water runoff and other problems, what would you like to say to this circle of human beings? This group activity is a variation on a deep ecology, Chargers neo-Pagan ritual called “A Council of All Beings,” in which participants enact a mystical oneness with the flora and fauna in an area by speaking out in the first person on behalf of the being or place with which they have chosen to identify (Seed et al. 1988; Hill 2000). A ritual enables members of the group to speak “as” and “for” other natural beings, imaginatively feeling what it might be like to be bacterium, bottle-nosed dolphin, alligator, old growth forest, or gray wolf. Participants imaginatively shape-shift into this or that animal or plant or natural place and then share a message to the other human persons in the circle. The purpose of a Council is to foster compassion for other life forms by ritually bridging the differences that separate human beings from the natural world.
In principle, this sort of group activity seemed like a good idea for inaugurating a new class format that I had learned about from other colleagues, one that grafted Earth-centered meditation practices onto an academic religious studies foundation (Gottlieb 1999, 33-58). As we sat quietly, waiting for someone in the circle to speak “as” his or her adopted life form, it became awkwardly clear to me that no one was ready to take on this sort of task – at least not on this particular day. Shocked and traumatized by the previous day’s events in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington D.C., I silently wondered how I could expect my students to perform a strange ritual openly, especially since it appeared that some were, understandably, uncomfortable becoming other life forms in the first place. Some of the students were shy, of course, while others did not want to do or say anything that might embarrass them in a group setting. As the minutes went by I was certain I had been asking too much of them. After a half hour no one had spoken and I could feel the perspiration running down the inside of my shirt. I had been preparing this class for weeks, yet now I felt I should have proposed a more conventional alternative to a Council of All Beings ritual, at least in the light of the sad events at the World Trade Center and elsewhere the day before.
Then something happened. “I am blue heron,” said one member of the class, “I glide though the creek in the early morning looking for something to eat. I break the calm of the afternoon with my big wings as I take flight over the water and travel to new destinations. Humans, keep this watershed clean so that I can grace this place for years to come.”
Soon other life forms began to speak as well. “I am red-backed salamander. I live under rocks and deep down in the fertile ground. I need the protection of this forest to dig for food and raise my young. I am worried that contaminants in the soil will make us sick to the point of death. Please care for the earth so that I can live.”
“I am monarch butterfly. I migrate through the open meadows in your forest looking for the milkweed plant on which I lay my eggs and my caterpillars feed. I brighten your day with my beautiful orange and black wings; I help other plants grow and pollinate with my nectar here and there. Please do not pave over the meadows and cut down the milkweed that I need for my survival.”
“I am black walnut tree. I add to the protective canopy of this forest. My heartwood is favored for your furniture making. The large nuts I drop to the ground are food for squirrels and mice and other forest creatures. I purify the air by absorbing the carbon dioxide you produce, and I produce oxygen so that everyone can breathe. Protect this forest and all its inhabitants.”
And the litany of voices continued: “I am lichen….” “I am holly bush….” “I am crayfish….” “I am forest wildflower….” “I am worm….” “I am morning dove….” “I am furry caterpillar….” “I am tulip tree….” and so forth.
After that long silence, the members of the class shared their eco-stories in a polyphony of proclamations, soft-spoken entreaties, tears, and laughter. We discussed how to care for this forest. In turn, we were learning to care for ourselves. After the previous day’s violent attacks we were beginning the process of mourning – of mourning for ourselves, our endangered forest friends, and for the lives lost in the 9/11 attacks. I feared the initial silence had signaled too much unease with the group ritual. Now I realized that the time of silence at the beginning of class allowed participants to gather their thoughts in a new vein, and discern what they should say as they assumed the identity of the particular life form that had originally summoned them during our forest walk.
Like the pattern of puzzle-like pieces of bark flaking off the trunk of the sycamore tree next to me, I became encircled by a medley of voices that reminded me and the others of our obligations to care for the forest, and one another. Sitting cross-legged in the open meadow, amid the occasional yellow jackets buzzing low as they foraged for food, my skin felt warmed by the mid-afternoon sunlight; the low gurgle of the creek nearby provided background music for our ritual gathering. Soon the class would end and we would be back on campus, far from the forest. Yet for a moment here, we enacted our identities as fellow and sister members of this forest preserve in communion with the other life forms found there. We felt ourselves embedded in a sacred hoop greater than ourselves – much like the hoop I circumambulate each morning in my devotional practice. As human citizens of a wider biotic community – and as political citizens of a county at war with, and now victimized by, its many enemies, real and imagined – we found ourselves surrounded by a cloud of witnesses who were calling us to our responsibilities for preserving the woods, preserving ourselves, preserving the world.
Daily contemplative practice is the ground tone that shapes my life. As a Christian deeply molded by first peoples’ beliefs and practices; as a husband and father experiencing the joys and challenges of intimate family life; as a teacher who aims to inspire in students thoughtful and affective yearning for the health of their own, and the wider, biosphere, I regularly aspire to root my life in the deep soil of God’s good creation through mindful practice and living. This is difficult to do. I feel pressed by family struggles and workplace responsibilities. And it sometimes seems easier to go about the day without taking time out to practice my contemplative grounding exercise. But without this practice, as the day grinds on, I feel physically and spiritually exhausted. The Protestant Reformer Martin Luther said, “The less I pray, the harder it gets; the more I pray, the better it goes” (Luther 2012). Whatever one calls one’s day-by-day contemplative ritual – sacred hoop ritual, reciting mantras, labyrinth walking, obligatory prayer, sitting meditation, Torah study, or daily rounds – life cannot be meaningfully lived and maintained without some regular devotional practice. Now over a decade in the past, my desire to teach students the Council of All Beings ritual, the day after 9/11, welled up organically from my own circadian medicine wheel ritual. These contemplative practices are different in detail, but their goal is the same: to help us all rediscover for ourselves what we find to be the primal spiritual bonds to the wider community of living beings that makes our existence on earth joyously possible and sustainable.