In the woods

I sometimes wonder if there are so many spiritual traditions because people naturally have different spiritual instincts from one another. Not learned, but in-born.

I was raised Christian, and though I clung to those beliefs until the end of high school, I always found myself uncertain about many of the basic metaphysical assumptions of the faith and had no emotional connection to its primary metaphors. Thus, when I was in college and given many an intellectual reason to stop clinging, I did.

After that, I settled into a semi-comfortable nothinghood for a while. But a need in me to find some sort of framework for certain needs I had which I can only call “spiritual” kept reappearing. No traditional religion was going to do–they all had the same sort of metaphysical baggage that made me move away from Christianity.

I explored Buddhism a little, but the non-metaphysical part of its philosophy didn’t resonate with me. I explored Wiccan forms of paganism and that turned out the same. My problems with Christianity had nothing to do with any need for a “sacred feminine.” And the polytheistic forms of paganism, even if they are only metaphor-gods, left me cold.

Since I was a kid, I have often felt a sort of “spiritual” connection at church camp. Not because of the church part, necessarily, but because of the pine trees. Because of the rocks. Because of the dusty ground, and the birds. Staring up through the tall, towering pines into an infinite sky, I was simultaneously overwhelmed and belonged at the same time.

That’s a kind of paganism, I suppose, but an impersonal one.

When I am out in untamed nature, I feel part of this grand scheme of birth and life and death, of evolution and time and procreation and ancestors and humans and family that ties me to this species, this planet, this solar system, this galaxy, this universe. I belong here because of that scheme; I deserve to be here.

That makes me happy–that is what I need, spiritually.

And so every once in a while, I venture somewhere where nature overwhelms, where the sounds of civilization are drowned out by the deep silence of nature you can literally “hear” under the rustling of leaves, the chirping of birds, and the beating of your heart in your ears.

My spiritual ritual is to hike to the point of exhaustion. I ramble until I get lost or until I have simply gone too far–until I have a genuine physical challenge. My efforts to return then put me in a sort of altered state where I become one with the desert or the forest or wherever I am*.

The closest spiritual tradition I ever found that actually made sense to me was pantheism–the idea of a primordial, irrepressible, creative force that pervades all of nature, all of the universe, and yet isn’t a “person.” There is no “I am” or awareness there, there is only a creative drive of sorts.

Maybe it’s because I’m not a people-person that I never felt the need for a personal god. My mother feels very connected to the God-the-Father metaphor because she had such a nurturing, close relationship to her father.

Of course, I realize that part of what makes all this work for me is the human connection. That I have friends and family that love me, that include me as one of their own.

And despite my interest in pantheism, I’m not much of a pantheist–that commitment to improvable metaphysics again.

*Of course, true oneness with nature is a little difficult when there’s a predator around. A mountain lion was spotted in the woods above this campground recently, and there are placards posted near the hiking trails with a warning and instructions in case you encounter her. I hiked several times anyway, comforting myself with the though that the last thing she wants is to stray into the territory of humans; however, I also know if she does, she will do what I do when lost in the forest–face the challenge until she gets through it alive.

20 thoughts on “In the woods

  1. I understand that. I have some problems with various parts of the path I’ve chosen, Buddhism. Mostly like it because it’s a view of the way the mind works that makes sense to me and also because I don’t have to accept everything to get the good parts. The creator/judging god thing never worked for me, so glad not to have to deal with that, and glad to have a community with shared values.
    But it’s difficult. I expect a new spirituality will develop in a few centuries, because I hear lots of people who feel the way you do.
    Have to say that my one visit to the Grand Canyon was probably the most spiritual experience I’ve had, but I don’t expect to duplicate it if I ever get there again.

  2. *Of course, true oneness with nature is a little difficult when there’s a predator around.
    That would be a truly needing-to-find-zen-moment. Zen as I use it, like Lamaze breathing, allows *all* to be. My take anyway.

  3. This is a beautiful post.
    You know, I love pantheism as well, although it’s not necessarily something I connect with nature as wilderness as such; and I’m just as unlikely to commit to improvable metaphysics XD But I’m also Jewish which is something I feel I have a responsibility to uphold rather than having the freedom to explore different kinds of spiritual currents like neopaganism.
    Anyway I love what you wrote about a sense of connection and belonging. The idea that everything is part of everything, that nothing is left alone, that all of this richness, vibrancy, struggles and development are sacred, all of them. ^_^

  4. This post resonated with me and hit upon some of the same feelings I’ve had regarding spirituality. I was thinking about it the other day, I believe in a God, but not a “personal God” per se…not “father” or “mother”, maybe both? Hard to articulate my feelings on it or my sense of it.
    At any rate…what you stated above…fit many of my own thoughts on the topic. And my own explorations. Also, I’ve found that when I’ve walked a long ways in the woods or on a beach or watch the ocean, or as a youngster – when I ran to the point beyond exhaustion – I felt what you are discussing above.
    So thank you for this.

  5. The closest spiritual tradition I ever found that actually made sense to me was pantheism–the idea of a primordial, irrepressible, creative force that pervades all of nature, all of the universe, and yet isn’t a “person.” There is no “I am” or awareness there, there is only a creative drive of sorts.
    This is very close to what I feel spiritually; that there is a connection between all living things, a collective “soul” of sorts, that is evident when we strip away all the layers that divide us from the rest of the universe.
    I love the idea of losing yourself in order to find yourself, and doing it literally as well as figuratively.
    Beautiful post.

  6. Are you planning to attend the Gathering next year? Because there will be a visit to the Grand Canyon if we are in Flagstaff. The south rim is only an hour and a half by car on fairly level land, and even if we don’t do any kind of tour, you can gaze at the vastness of the canyon and still be glad you came.
    Of course, I have found second visits to places I had profound spiritual experiences to often be disappointing just because you build up too much expectations.

  7. I am very glad I didn’t encounter any mountain lion, but I suppose if I had and survived, I would have plenty of altered-state experiences to relate to everyone. Like total mind-numbing fear!

  8. I grew up in a church where there was a lot of love and a sense of extended family, and that had values I consider very progressive and certainly morally acceptable to me. I went to the college sponsored by this church, numerous camps every year, and I have family in the church going back several generations. This is not quite the same thing as being Jewish, but I guess my point is I never completely divorced myself from the church I was brought up in. I simply stopped believing in its basic tenets in a way that prevented me from being a full-fledged practicing member.
    So I’m still kind of in that church even though I don’t attend or believe. It’s like being culturally Jewish, you never stop being one even if you don’t attend Synagogue.

  9. Yes, I hope I’ll be there–that was one reason I mentioned it. And I know it won’t be the same. But it’ll probably be amazing in other ways.

  10. I am going to drive up there sometime in the Fall to get an idea what kind of trip it is from Flagstaff, and that will be my second visit. So when we go as a group, that will be my third. I am hoping seeing it through the eyes of my friends will be a whole new experience.

  11. In the Finnish (Protestant) Christian tradition there is this concept of the “forest as a church”. It appears in the hymns regularly. When you walk in a pine forest in the summer, it has the same spiritually elevating effect that the medieval Gothic churches attempt to emulate with their high vaults and filtrating light from above. It’s always been a given to me that one of the best ways meet/feel God is to take a walk in the woods.

  12. Forgot to add…
    The Finns have been historically very dependent on the forests as a source of wood etc. The Finnish pagan religion revolved around the woods too. The holy groves, the trees that marked the dead, the midsummer birches, or the cult of the bear, the lord of the forest. It is natural that the forests are part of the Finnish Christian spirituality too.

  13. Well, it explains why every forest-land church camp I ever went to had a “chapel of the pines” or “cathedral of the redwoods” off the beaten track for special worship services.

  14. Re: Forgot to add…
    I am often struck how the pagan religions of the far north in the eastern hemisphere (of very white/caucasian people) resemble the religions of the far north in the western hemisphere (inuit/native american).

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