It’s a question that comes up a lot: How does a person start practicing nature spirituality? So today I’d like to talk about two practices in particular. They’re great if a person is just beginning to explore nature spirituality, and they’re equally great for people who have years of experience on a path.
But first, a quick word on what nature spirituality is. In its widest sense, nature spirituality is just seeking to live in harmony with Earth—promoting the well-being of life on Earth. It means seeing nature as alive and treating all our Earth neighbors with love and respect.
Modern Western society starts us off in a different place, with the idea that nature is inert, not alive. It teaches us to think of nature as made up of objects that we human beings can use as we please—that we are subjects and all others are objects.
But in nature spirituality we learn to live in a different kind of world—in a world that’s full of other subjects. We learn to see how every being and force and part of nature is moving and doing and choosing and reacting to all the movements and doings and choices of all the others. It’s like we’re all weaving an enormous tapestry together, each species and each individual carrying their own thread up and down in their own way, responding to the motions of all the others.
But how do we actually learn to do this—to see others as subjects?
So today I’d like to talk about two spiritual practices that help us do just that. These are opening the heart and widening the perception, and they’re interrelated. Maybe they’re even the same thing. But let’s tease them apart for a bit. And let’s start with opening the heart, because an open heart makes everything else possible.
1. Opening the heart
So what does it mean to open the heart? It means slipping out of our everyday thinking brain, at least for a time, and into a different kind of awareness. It means interrupting the process of linear thought that we normally follow during the day so we can touch something bigger—a place that’s way more spacious and more tender. And when we can do this—when we can put a pause on our thinking mind—we give ourselves a chance to breathe and be in touch with the present moment, which allows us to get in touch with love.
Now, what does this actually look like? So the thinking mind is the part of us that makes plans and sets goals and figures out how to move forward step by step. Something so simple as getting groceries relies on many of the skills of the thinking mind: we make a list and read street signs and find a store and put things one by one into a basket and count up the bill.
But the thinking mind has some big limitations, and the biggest one is that, left to itself, the thinking mind takes over. So, to use the grocery-shopping example again, if I’m driving toward the store, and traffic is slow for some reason, I might start to feel impatient, especially if I’m on a deadline. So I feel more and more pressure to get my shopping done on time, and I start to block out everything else. And maybe I get so in a hurry that I cut another driver off, and now I’ve set off road rage as well—all because I was so focused on getting my own thing done that I didn’t care anymore about anything or anyone else.
This is how the thinking mind takes over. And every time it does, it distorts our perception. It keeps us pressing toward our own goals and grabbing what benefits us alone, and it blocks out everything else. When the thinking mind has taken over, we lose touch with the bigger picture, even with the idea that there might be a bigger picture. The thinking mind that is out of balance in this way serves “me, myself, and I.” It’s what we often call the ego.
But fortunately, we have within us the power to keep the thinking mind from taking over, and that power is the heart. The heart is just a different way of perceiving. Where the thinking mind is focused and forward moving, the heart feels spacious and relaxed. When we’re in the heart, we stop to listen and receive and absorb. The heart takes in the widest possible view. It dwells in the present moment.
For example, if you’re hiking up a mountain, and the path is just treacherous enough that you have to focus on placing each foot carefully, you will pay attention to what is right in front of you. This is the thinking mind helping you get to the top. But when you arrive at the top, suddenly the view opens out, and you just stop. And you find yourself taking a deep breath, and then another. The view runs to forever, and the sky is big, and you can just relax for a few moments and take it all in. You probably get quieter inside, quiet enough to feel a sense of wonder or appreciation. Everything just feels easier.
This in a nutshell is the difference between the thinking mind and the heart. The thinking, or linear, mind helps us focus on where we’re going, and the heart opens us up to a wider view.
Both kinds of perception are crucial. The problem, as I said, is that the linear mind likes to take over. And Western culture encourages this. We’ve built all of our public life on the skills of the linear mind so that as a culture, we serve the mind as the final authority.
For example, think about our school system, where we teach children words and numbers, the skills of the linear mind. But we teach them as if language and math were completely separate from and more important than the heart values of sharing and love and cooperation and inclusiveness. Getting educated in words and numbers without a larger context of love or compassion trains people to think of these pursuits as ends in themselves instead of tools toward a larger good, such as the thriving of all life on Earth.
Or think of the Western tradition of philosophy, built on rational logic rather than holistic awareness. Or think about our methods of science, which rely on taking things apart more than putting things together and looking at connections between them. Or think about the field of animal behavior alone, where until very recently if you wanted to be considered a serious scientist you had to refrain from showing even an inkling of love for the animals you were studying.
Relying too much on the linear mind continues into our legal and economic systems as well, where we measure social progress by getting more stuff and where we protect the stuff that’s ours against encroachment by others. The Western system of law is based on protecting property, a habit that goes back at least to the Code of Ur-Nammu, who was a king who ruled in Mesopotamia two thousand years before the common era, in other words, four thousand years ago. When Ur-Nammu wrote the law, he set a death penalty for many crimes, including stealing and female adultery and the rape of someone else’s virgin slave woman. Why did he think that all of these were so serious they deserved death? Because they were crimes against property—specifically, crimes against a man’s property, which in addition to animals and slaves included the sexuality of his wife and his female slaves.
Being preoccupied with ownership and possessions, and especially a man’s possessions, is a habit that has worn deep furrows into the ground of Western history, and we’re still tripping over them today. Women today are still fighting for sovereignty over our own bodies. And property remains central to law, as in Citizens United, a Supreme Court decision a dozen years ago that gives corporations rights of free speech. A corporation is a piece of property. It can’t exercise a right of free speech; only living beings can do that. Which shows that we’re so hung up with property that we’re actually confusing property with persons—a supreme example of what it looks like when the mind gets elevated to the reigning position, out of balance with the heart.
In other words, as a culture we have things exactly backwards. We serve the mind and its narrow focus on things instead of keeping the mind in balance through the power of the heart. The heart is where we can remember the good of all, where we can experience all of Earth as connected and alive, and where we can find ease in living. The path that is aligned with the well-being of life on Earth is the path of placing the mind, always, in service of the heart.
So this is why, to cultivate nature spirituality, the first step is just—to stop. To stop the frantic running and striving. To stop and do nothing. In a frenzied world focused on getting and owning and achieving, stopping may be the most radical thing we can do. Because stopping allows us to open the heart.
There is a teacher from Zimbabwe named Mandaza Kandemwa, and when people ask him how to find and open the heart, he says the first step is just to “do nothing.” He goes on,
Doing nothing about this is doing a lot. Being in silence, let my heart take me into the deep waters inside my heart. The heart will tell me exactly how I should walk this walk.
Just hearing these words gives a person permission to stop. And stopping allows us to breathe again. Stopping and breathing create more space. They allow us to settle into a more peaceful rhythm, the rhythm of the heart. That’s why stopping and breathing come first.
Then we can check in with the body. How are the feet and legs? The shoulders? The jaw and the brow? Releasing the tight places helps us come into the heart because it settles us again into the body. The place of the heart is where we can listen to the body. And stopping is an act of kindness to the body. Showing our own body this kindness seems to be a prerequisite for showing the bodies of others, including the body of the Earth, a similar kindness.
Besides stopping and breathing, other practices also open the heart. Feeling appreciation for any part of nature is always a good one. We might start with appreciating Water. Every time we take a bath or shower, we can thank Water. People often talk about getting their best ideas in the shower, but we rarely credit Water for having any part in it. So thank Water for cleansing your body and inspiring your mind. And during the day, every time you raise a glass of Water to your lips, thank Water for giving you life. Water first made possible life on Earth. Water is life.
And each time we sit down to eat, we can thank the plants or animals in front of us for giving us life. When I was growing up, we bowed our heads before each meal to thank God for giving us our food. But God was kind of hazy and abstract, and truth be told, so were the plants and animals in front of us because they’d been reduced to the abstract word food. It never occurred to us to turn to the carrots and chickens, the potatoes and cows and thank them directly for how they would keep our hearts beating and our blood flowing over the next few hours.
Every meal is a reminder that, hour by hour, we owe our lives to the life-gifts of other beings. Thanking each of them opens the heart. It reminds us that we are completely dependent on them. It cultivates humility and an awareness of how intimately connected we are with all others.
Another practice to open the heart is just to look out a window at the land where you live. All the plants and animals and insects and birds and humans and hills and valleys and waters outside that window are your closest relations—literally, they’re the ones you live closest to. While you’re looking at them, you might hold a thought something like this:
You who live here, as far as I can see, are my family. What I do affects you. What you do affects me. We are related as family in this place.
And then for a few moments, cultivate a feeling of cherishing, as one would cherish beloved family members.
Cultivating the feeling of connection nudges the mind toward thinking of ways to treat all these relations as family. We can ask questions like: What does Water in my community need to flow completely clean? How can I care for the soil? How can I show love to the butterflies and pollinators? How can I move my community, or my industry, past fossil fuels? The heart can provide answers for all of these questions and more. Stopping and opening the heart helps us listen for a bigger wisdom.
There are so many ways to open the heart—listening to music, playing with a child, gazing at stars, hugging a tree, cuddling a dog or cat. A big one is just enjoying whatever there is to be enjoyed in the present moment. Just take a moment to notice whatever is available to enjoy right now, and revel in it—even if it’s just the miracle of being alive. In this moment I can enjoy the pleasure of my own beating heart. I can thank it for its years of steady work, and I can cultivate a feeling of cherishing for my heart.
And a very important way to open the heart is to connect in prayer or meditation with a larger wisdom—with God or the Great Mystery or however you name the Source of love and joy itself. Softening our own heart is connecting with Spirit, in that it opens the door of our awareness so we can welcome in more love and wisdom from the Source and be ready to give them out into the world.
My own favorite way of connecting with Spirit is going on a spirit journey, which is a form of prayer or meditation that I’ve talked and written a lot about. If you’re interested, you can check out the episode a few months ago called “Going on a Spirit Journey” and an earlier one called “Meeting a Spirit Helper.”
All of these practices open the heart, slipping us out of that forward-focused mind and into a more relaxed and receptive and easy place. So the key to keeping the linear mind in balance is to live from the heart not the mind—to allow the quiet wisdom of the heart to guide every decision, both personal and societal. The linear mind can gather information, but it’s only by bringing that information into the relaxed and peaceful heart that we can find our way toward fully informed and compassionate living.
Keeping the mind in service of the heart means giving the heart the last word. Every time. When we dwell in the quiet wisdom of the heart, every choice can be guided toward well-being, toward the thriving of life and joy on Earth. This is why opening the heart is the starting point of nature spirituality. It’s the practice that can heal our relations with the rest of nature.
2. Widening the perception
We move now to the practice of widening the perception. It goes right along with opening the heart because really it’s just an extension of an open heart.
And I can’t think of a better way to learn how to widen the perception than a story my friend Jerri tells from when she was a little girl growing up on a ranch in Idaho. She was about five, she says, and she was hanging out near one of the ranch hands, an older Basque man who was a sheepherder. She must have been getting in his way, she says, because suddenly he turned to her and told her to go sit on that bench over there and see what she could see.
She went over and sat down, but after just a short time she popped up again to tell him that she couldn’t see anything at all. “Go sit down again,” he said, “and look until everything’s alive.” So she went back to the bench and sat down and looked at a patch of dirt. And then she looked some more. And that time it worked. Before she knew it, everything in front of her was alive.
The Basque sheepherder gave her a precious assignment, one that anyone can practice anytime:
Just sit down and look until everything is alive.
Sometimes I look at a tree this way—just gazing at a tree until I can see what the heart sees. Until I can experience the tree as a presence not a thing. How the tree creates the neighborhood through its beauty and its oxygen. How its tendrils of roots are reaching, reaching into the tendrils of fungi underground. And the birds coming and going from its branches. And if I look long enough, I can practically feel the tree sap rising in spring and the leaves giving off water vapor in summer. And if I’m very, very quiet, I might even feel what it’s like to eat sunshine—just imagine it! To turn light itself into food that nourishes the world!
Looking at a tree until it’s alive opens the heart, and vice versa: opening the heart allows one to perceive a great deal more about the being of a tree. Looking at any being from the heart—or in fact any problem or situation in life—widens our perception so that we have access to a broader and more inclusive view.
Some Indigenous peoples have been using the wider heart perception for thousands of years to receive their day-to-day instructions for living. I think of Ilarion Merculieff of the Unangan people of the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea.
Ilarion tells the story of how he began learning what his people have known for ten thousand years. Starting at the age of six, he says, he used to love to go sit by the cliffs at the edge of his island and watch the seabirds—thousands of birds zipping here and there in apparent chaos but never so much as clipping another bird’s wing.
He wondered how they do this, and in his six-year-old mind he decided it was because they don’t think. And he wanted to be a bird. So he practiced not-thinking. He tried to just watch the birds and be present with no words at all in his head. And after a few months of practicing, he says, he could stay in this state of not-thinking for several hours at a time. He writes, “That was when the magic happened. I could sense many things I’d never experienced before, and my world expanded enormously.”
He goes on to explain that this is the avenue by which the Unangan people gain access to wise ways of living. He calls it getting “out of the head and into the heart,” and he says it “results in wise, connected ways of being and acting in the world. . . . Our fallible thought processes regularly deceive us,” he goes on. “Yet, when guidance or information comes from the heart, it can be relied upon and has impeccable integrity.”
This is my experience too—of gaining access to a quiet and peaceable kind of wisdom that is loving and trustworthy and that has impeccable integrity. We can see a bigger picture and act with fuller and more compassionate understanding. When we widen our perception, we can feel—and not just theorize about—our connections with others. We can feel how tightly knit we are with all beings, and we become more able to act in accord with reality, which is that the universe is made of connections.
I talk here of “widening” the perception because I experience it as an actual widening in the field of awareness, like opening a camera lens from a narrow focus to a wide angle to take in more of the scene. And, as Ilarion says, when you do, “the world expand[s] enormously.”
Both of these practices, opening the heart and widening the perception, give a feeling of settling back into the body, taking a deep breath, and becoming ready to receive. It’s a different orientation, and a different momentum, from the kind of perception that modern culture trains us in. And it’s precisely this wide-open perception that is the most loving, because it can receive a balanced picture of the whole. With wider perception, we can remember the beings at the edges of the picture and know that what we do affects them too. We remember a bigger reality than “me” and “mine.”
And the more we dwell in this larger view, the more it becomes a habit to keep the good of everyone, including ourselves, in mind, and the more our reflexes bend toward acting in ways that benefit all. This is how we promote the thriving of all of us here on Earth.
So, in a society that promotes getting ahead above all else, and as a result is eroding the very foundations of life that we depend on, the most radical thing we can do is to stop and open the heart. Opening the heart puts us in touch with a clearer, quieter, and more inclusive wisdom. And from this wider perception we can find greater ease and joy for living toward the well-being of all.
Wishing you courage to pause the process of thinking, the clarity of contacting a larger wisdom when you do, and the joy of living in harmony with the well-being of life on Earth.
For digging deeper
In Episode 6, “Finding the Way of the Heart,” I explored the metaphor of hiking up a mountain path and how the spaciousness of the heart helps us relax into the present moment.
Mandaza Kandemwa spoke about finding the way of the heart at “The Power of Shamanism Summit” sponsored by Sounds True in 2018. Recordings of the summit are available as audiobooks. In 2020 Baba Mandaza recorded “Corona Msg 2020: Heal Your Relationship to Self, Others, Nature,” available on YouTube.
Some neurologists say that these two ways of perceiving—linear thought and heart awareness—reside in different hemispheres of the brain. Jill Bolte Taylor is a brain researcher who suffered a stroke that affected her linear-thinking areas, leaving her only with spacious, loving awareness, which made it impossible for her to get around in the world until she rebuilt her thinking capabilities. She sees thinking as a left-brain activity and heart awareness as right-brain. She tells the story of her stroke and recovery in My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey (Viking, 2008). She describes the two modes of perception in some detail, and I have been influenced by her typology. Her moving 2008 TED talk is one of the most popular TED talks of all time.
For critiques of traditional assumptions of ethology (animal behavior science) written by ethologists themselves, check out Frans de Waal’s book Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? (Norton, 2017); Marc Bekoff, The Emotional Lives of Animals (New World Library, 2007); and Carl Safina, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel (Macmillan, 2015). Jane Goodall, of course, was the first to break tradition in animal behavior studies by giving the chimpanzees she was studying names rather than assigning them numbers, as had been the rule before her time.
For more on connecting with Spirit by relating with a spirit helper, check out Episode 23, “Going on a Spirit Journey”; Episode 8, “Meeting a Spirit Helper”; and my 2017 book, Tamed by a Bear (Counterpoint Press), where I tell an intimate month-by-month story of the first year of spirit journeys with Bear.
I’ve talked about Ilarion Merculieff before in this podcast, in Episode 6, “Finding the Way of the Heart.” Ilarion’s essay “Out of the Head, Into the Heart: The Way of the Human Being” (2017) appears on the website of the Center for Humans and Nature. An essay from his 2018 book, Perspectives on Indigenous Issues, appears on the Bioneers website. He gave a powerful Google talk in December 2020 on what it means to live by faith and how to access the wisdom of the heart.