Engaging With Spirit

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

This is not simple, venturing into the obscure, formless realm of spirit. So, for comfort’s sake, I’ll ease in with a definition.

Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines spirit as an animating or vital principle held to give life to physical organisms – a.k.a., nature. Based on that definition, and recognizing that we are part of the natural world, one way to think of spirituality might be as the human capacity to engage with nature’s life force, its spirit.

To take it a step further, what does it mean to engage? If spirit is what gives nature life, and if spirit resides in us as well, then to engage implies a joining together, a merging, of our spirit with nature’s spirit. In other words, through spiritual engagement we experience our oneness with nature, and we experience this in what the poet Rainer Maria Rilke calls indescribably swift, deep, timeless moments.

It’s no surprise, then, that at such times we might be driven beyond the physical into other-worldly places. A woman is urged by nature to reach out and hug a mountain. A kayaker achieves instinctive understanding with a loon. A horse trainer enters a different dimension where he exists in a state of heightened awareness. The mountain tells a 4-wheel driver he’s where he belongs.

It’s as if at those times, in moments of spiritual connection, people willingly relinquish the rational and take part in their altered reality.

And here is where we touch on one of the most intriguing – and at times, one of the most challenging – aspects of engaging with nature’s spirit; contending with the emotions that well up inside and the feelings attached to those emotions.

As we saw in Iris’ story, the feelings can be difficult. Iris did not negate her spiritual experience. She recognized and accepted her emotions of awe and humility and the appreciation of the beautiful connection between animals and plants. But the amorphous feelings about her spiritual experience made her uncomfortable.

This makes a lot of sense. These feelings can be disorienting, scary. Like having the rug pulled out from under you.

Dr. Lisa M. Christie, adjunct lecturer in the Women’s Spirituality Program at the California Institute for Integral Studies, explained that some people have difficulty integrating mystical experiences into their lives because these experiences can radically shift our understanding of the nature of ourselves and our world. This feeling of disorientation can be frightening.

Further, because these experiences are often discounted in Western culture, people who have them sometimes doubt their  own sanity.   Or they may be censured by friends or relatives.

People can become more comfortable with this kind of experience, with this different sense of ourselves, said Christie. It takes time. It requires a shift from seeing oneself as separate in the world to being part of everything. Connected.

And then there is beauty, a physical aspect of nature that touches us deeply. We marvel at her loveliness, her majesty. When we behold something in nature we consider beautiful, however, our spirit can be stirred beyond an appreciation for the physical.

Marine biologist and philosopher Andreas Weber refers to beauty as aliveness felt.

Nature is about beauty, according to Weber, because beauty is our way to experience aliveness as inwardness. Those awe-inspiring, wow moments that seize us in the face of something beautiful tell us we are alive, engage us with all of life, with spirit.

This reminds me of a story told to me by a backpacker friend. She arrived at dusk at her campsite after a day of hiking. After setting up her tent she went and sat at the edge of the canyon at the periphery of the campsite. The sun was setting behind her. Suddenly, a ribbon of color lined up along the crest of the mountain across the canyon. Like a rainbow lying down, resting in the waning day, is how she described it. As she sat there, a sense of awe washed over her, then utter peace. She needed nothing.  She wanted nothing.  It was a perfect moment.

The words of psychiatrist Carl Jung captures the essence of the backpacker’s experience: One looks out and surrenders all self-importance.

Although there is much in nature that engages our spirit with its beauty, the stars, by offering us a peek into the expanse of the universe, stand out as instigators of spirituality. After all, who can gaze into the heavens and contemplate the universe without feeling some measure of awe and wonder, and for some, connection?

When a man stares at the stars, wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1831, he becomes aware of his separateness from the material world.

To end the discussion of beauty in nature, and this post, I have chosen to reproduce here the blog post, Nature’s Beauty, written by Robert Folzenlogen, May 15, 2009.

I believe this offers an interesting and expansive perspective on nature’s beauty, one that I wanted to share with you.

Nature’s Beauty

For most humans, the beauty of nature is represented by spectacular sunsets, magnificent vistas, colorful foliage and graceful wildlife. But her true beauty lies in her diversity and in both the interrelationship and interdependence of her physical forces, chemical processes, biologic systems and countless life forms. Nature is both evolution and extinction, life and death, growth and decay. She is a mosaic of heat and cold, light and darkness, fragility and awesome power. Nature offers sunshine and hurricanes, swans and maggots, rain forests and pond scum, whales and bacteria, distant galaxies and the molecules of life. Nature is neither good nor bad, benevolent nor judgmental, sentimental nor discriminatory. We enjoy her gifts and are subject to her whims. We are, after all, a component of her beauty, just like the golden eagle and the dung beetle.


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