Maybe this has happened to you: You’re on a hike through a grove of trees and the sunlight comes through the branches in beams, warming your skin, and all of a sudden you know you are a living thing, part of the ecosystem around you.
Or you reach a mountain peak and are in total awe of the view below and how nature reveals itself to be a metaphor for life, over and over again—you have to endure physical and mental challenge in order to shift perspective and see transformation; there is no constant except change, whether that’s the weather or the people you are in relationship with.
Or, you plant seeds in your garden, water and tend to the soil, and witness growth, harvesting the final product with gratitude and reverence for the earth that made your meal possible.
If you’re seeking spiritual connection without religious dogma, nature provides the perfect sacred space. And it can be found everywhere—in Muir Woods or the herb garden in your kitchen.
But before you jump into the river for a nature-based baptism, or sit in silence under a tree like Siddhartha, here are a couple things to consider, about the roots of nature-based spiritualism and how you can practice it without appropriation and harm.
The Roots of Western Environmental Spirituality
During the 17th and 18th centuries, explorers in the West found sublime moments in remote wilderness. They wrote about it, shared stories, or painted iconic, ethereal works of places like Yosemite Valley.
But their impressions were still infused with the ethos of John Calvin, René Descartes, and other philosophers and religious leaders who believed the natural world was full of sin (like the Garden of Eden) and separate from us—something to be tamed and conquered or observed from a far.
Then in the early 19th century, author and naturalist Henry David Thoreau, who was heavily influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism, introduced the idea of immersion and lived experience in nature as a way to connect to something bigger—something spiritual.
Thoreau and other transcendentalists—artists, writers, abolitionists, and activists on journeys of self-exploration and self-transformation—were redefining the Western relationship with nature and making spiritualism much more accessible. You no longer had to go to church to commune with God, the universe, or a divine presence.
In the mid-20th century, beat poets, including Gary Snyder, picked up the torch, drawing on creation stories from various indigenous communities to emphasize our non-dual relationship with nature (an effort he won the Pulitzer for).
There was a fascinating and beneficial fusion of religion, Eastern philosophies, and the natural world, but there was also one very blatant and damaging omission: the acknowledgement and naming of the indigenous peoples and practices that came before colonization.
Indigenous Lands and Cultural Appropriation
Thoreau, Snyder, and many others with influence in the West neglected to discuss the true roots of nature-based spiritualism in America—the ritualized practices and relationships indigenous people held with the land.
The transcendentalists and beat poets rarely, if ever, acknowledged that Walden, Yosemite, and nearly every object of their nature-based reflections was on unceded land.
While the Buddhist and Hindu traditions Thoreau and Snyder found inspiration from were in touch with nature, the people who came before them on American soil were fully integrated into a non-dual existence with the natural world.
“As wonderful and inter-religious and transnational as it is to have Eastern religious traditions provide a lens onto the Sierra Nevada, it amplifies a problem,” explains Dr. Devin Zuber, an associate professor of American Studies, Religion, and Literature at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. “It reflects the inability to perceive the presence of the indigenous people who have lived here for millennia.”
For example, when John Muir encountered Yosemite Valley he felt he had rediscovered a lost Eden, says Zuber. The valley was green and lush, full of old oaks. He was oblivious to the thousands of years of forest gardening and indigenous cultivation that had created that landscape. “To Muir, it seemed like pristine wilderness, but rather it was carefully created by a belief system interpenetrating with nature,” says Zuber.
In fact, indigenous communities like the Southern Sierra Miwok were removed from places like Yosemite Valley, violently pushed out by settlers to create pioneer towns and in some cases the American national parks system.
Decolonizing and Unlocking the Benefits of Nature-Based Spirituality
Responsible nature-based spirituality starts with acknowledging the unceded territory and history of the land you’re on, says Dr. Rita Sherma, the founding director of and an associate professor at the Center for Dharma Studies at the Graduate Theological Union. From there, you can become more aware of the divine ancestral presence in nature and how it connects us all.
If you don’t have access to wild landscapes, you can still honor indigenous peoples and find spiritual connection by growing indoor plants or sitting in city parks.
“Growing things in gardens can be grounding and honor those who have been on the land for millennia,” adds Zuber. “That sense of being given the gift of food or the beauty of a flower you have tended yourself, or remembering that you are entangled with the beings, animals, and plants around you, can be a conduit. You don’t have to march to Yosemite and treat it like a climate gym to have an epiphany.”
It is the shared connection that is key to spiritual experience. “If we can move beyond individual dreams to shared visions, then the theology of the land and spirituality of the wilderness can become beacons—moving us toward a sense of belonging to the beauty of America’s geography and a sense of purpose that gives meaning to life,” says Sherma. She believes this connection to nature has the power to transform us internally and externally, creating the hope we need to change the world.
Learn More About Greening Spirituality
To learn more about nature-based and environmental spiritualism, listen to Sherma on the Talk Healthy Today podcast [LINK] and take the Graduate Theological Union’s four-part, online learning offering Greening Spirituality. Instructors Rita Sherma, PhD, and Devin Zuber, PhD, will walk you through the detailed history of Eastern influence on American environmental spirituality, including its connections to Hinduism and Buddhism and its relationship with indigenous cultures in this country.
This course explores the varied ways in which the natural world has been imagined and experienced through embodied practices and creative acts throughout American history, including consideration of Native American and Dharma traditions, the elemental potencies of wilderness (and wildness), and the way that the sanctification of natural spaces has come to resemble a form of civic religion.
Visit gtu.edu/x to discover and sign up for learning opportunities on topics like justice, spiritual care, theology, ethics, and more.