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Photo courtesy of Pexels/Tirachard Kumtanom

One of the most difficult lessons for me to learn as a seeker has been eco-spiritual humility. This is closely connected to human supremacy: the idea that the entire universe and everything in it was made for us. If you grew up in the western paradigm and aren’t a hermit, you are swimming in the human supremacist waters, from over-mining and creating toxic pipelines to the belief that living beings can be treated however we want.

But human supremacy shows up in more subtle ways as well, and it was shocking for me to realize that, even after all these years, I still often view the universe as being for me. In the words of Jewish theologian Martin Buber, I saw it as an It and not a Thou, as something that could be exploited and be discarded when I didn’t need it any longer.

The antidote for me has been developing eco-spiritual humility, or ways to see my relationship with the universe as it is, not as the human supremacist paradigm tells me it should be. This means seeking a relationship with the universe as it is, as a Thou in Buber’s words, not as something to be used and discarded as our convivence.

But how do you develop a sense of eco-spiritual humility? You don’t need to become a distance hiker or camp in the wilderness to find your place in the universe. Here are five suggestions on how to get out and truly build your relationship with nature.

  1. Get out in nature. This one may seem obvious, but how many of us actually do it? This past March, I travelled to Peru where I climbed to the top of Huayna Picchu, a mountain near the more famous Machu Pichu. This is a challenging hike even for experienced and in-shape hikers, up narrow ancient steps, often without handrails, at already high altitudes. The reward, though, is stunning views of Machu Pichu, the Urubamba¬†River, and the surrounding mountains, some of the most beautiful in Peru. So imagine my surprise when I was passed by a man coming down the mountain while talking on his cell phone. Now I won’t say there’s never a reason to be on your phone in nature, but I couldn’t help but feel he wasn’t seeing the mountain at all.

    Now you don’t have to go to a Peruvian mountain to reconnect with nature, but what if you found your wild place and committed to just being with it when you’re there. That could be a hiking trail, a retreat center, a city park, or even just a tree in your backyard. Put your phone away and just be there, focusing on what your senses are telling you about your connections to the place. Notice what you see, hear, smell, touch, and (safely!) taste. Commit to regularly visiting and notice how it changes over time, through the seasons and over the months and the years. Get to know your place like it’s your home, because it is.
  2. Develop eco-spiritual practices such as forest bathing and terra divina. If an aspiring poet doesn’t practice writing poetry, it should come as no surprise if you don’t find your ability to craft verse hasn’t magically gotten better. Just so, when I’m feeling disconnected from the world, it often boils down to simply not paying enough attention to my need for relationship with the wild. We need ways of intentionally connecting with the natural world, ways that often seem counter-intuitive to the human supremacist system.

    Luckily, many spiritual practices already exist to shepherd us on developing our relationship with nature. Forest bathing and terra divina are both modern takes on ancient practices that help us pay attention to what we often miss right in front of our eyes. Beyond these, there are many other options, whether it’s praying or meditating in nature, creating art about what’s around you, or even just learning what’s all around you. Some people even talk to trees and rocks they encounter! Whatever practices you develop, make sure they feel authentic and they help you develop a relationship with the wider universe.
  3. Learn about the nature in your local area. I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t always known much about the nature that surrounded me. As a child, I couldn’t have told you where my drinking water came from or even what kind of tree was in my front yard. Part of human supremacy is alienating us from the experience of being a part of an interconnected universe that we are an integral part of.

    The Shinto faith reminds us that we are always within nature. The walls we surround ourselves with in our houses may make us feel safe, but nature is still there within the house in the materials of the wall and the small creatures that live with us, even when we don’t intend to cohabitate. The key is noticing this and learning all we can about the nature of our everyday lives. Where is your city’s watershed? What kinds of plants grow at your house? What animals do you see on a regular basis? Learning everything you can about the nature of your everyday life can give you a better appreciation for the ways we need nature everyday, even when we forget.
  4. Challenge human supremacist notions when you hear them. From seeing our animal companions existence as being solely for our pleasure to talking about nature as if we are better than it, there are ways we reinforce human supremacy on a daily basis. The old dominion paradigm runs deep within our veins, the idea that nature is ours to do with as we please, and it’s extremely hard for those of us who are raised in the human supremacist paradigm to break our dominionist thinking.

    One way to challenge our thinking is to learn to recognize these patterns when they come up, both within ourselves and others, and challenge this thinking. This doesn’t mean you should start constant arguments with others (after all, everyone is taking their journey at their own pace), but, rather, ask yourself why you or someone else believes what they or you are thinking. Then ask what your sense of spirituality and your knowledge from the sciences tell you. Is this true, or is it a result of human supremacist thinking? Challenge yourself to see the world as it is, not as human supremacy tells you it is.
  5. Meet with an eco-spiritual companion. Solo work can be invaluable towards building your relationship with nature, but there may come a time when you get stuck and don’t know how to proceed. When this happens, meeting with an eco-spiritual companion may help to get you unstuck, challenging your thinking and offering new ways of being for your spiritual journey.

    Not all spiritual companions have training in eco-spirituality, nor are they even well-versed in human supremacy and its effects on both our world and spirits. Make sure to ask a perspective spiritual companion questions about how they view human supremacy and their relationship with nature. Ask about their own eco-spiritual practices. In this way, you can find a good eco-spiritual companion to journey with you as you develop your sense of humility in nature.

Of course, this list is only a beginning, and there are many ways to develop your sense of eco-spiritual humility. Do you have a favorite way of developing your relationship with the universe? Let me know in the comments below!

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