Personal-spiritual eco-healing explores the role nature plays in fostering values, ethics, and transcendent experiences in life. Three areas of study converge to create the field: science, religion/spirituality, and environmental sustainability.
Recent empirical research suggests that nature can cultivate and support a sense of purpose in the lives of individuals (Health Council of the Netherlands, 2004). Meanwhile, human beings have been turning to nature to strengthen their character and uplift their spirits for eons. Indigenous cultures all over the world send their children into the wilderness alone to discover personal meaning within the larger context of nature. Many leaders of religious and spiritual traditions sought solitude in nature to experience the transcendent and bring new messages to humanity.
Organizations such as the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, Outward Bound, and Wilderness Expeditions employ outdoor experience to build character and team-building skills. Religious organizations sometimes offer outdoor education camps for children. In these settings, nature acts as educator, healer, philosophy instructor, counselor, and spiritual director all at once.
In the last twenty years, religions all over the world have become more engaged in environmental issues. Anthropomorphic views that focus on the transcendent experience between humans and God are being augmented by the recognition that all life is animated by spirit and plays a valuable role in the web of life.
The happiest person is one who learns from nature the lesson of worship.
To see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, An eternity in an hour.
After months fruitlessly searching for a job after graduation, Sherry was losing confidence in herself. Seeing she was depressed, her parents gifted her with two weeks of wilderness training. Sherry returned a new person.
Of her experience, she said, “I learned the depth of my strength and how much I could accomplish. My courage surprised me…Being surrounded by nature reminded me to keep the Big Picture in mind not only during my wilderness experience, but also when I returned home. Life is in front of me and I have lots of options.”
Mini Vision Quest. Tell someone where you are going and what you are doing. Pack yourself enough to drink and eat, and go to a local park or wilderness area. Find a place that attracts you. Using stones or sticks, create a circle to sit in for a few hours or a full day. During your time inside the circle, watch everything that happens, allowing worries and daily preoccupations to dissolve away. Extend your presence into all that surrounds you and invite all that surrounds you into yourself.
At the end of your time, express gratitude to all that has shared this experience with you. Return anything you have moved to its original spot.
At home, record in a journal what you remember about your experience. Over the following years, visit your place in your imagination and strive to remember and apply what you have learned.
Health, Nature, and Purpose. In a review of current research, the Health Council of the Netherlands (2004) found a relationship (1) between health and sense of purpose and (2) between sense of purpose and experience of nature. This cascade suggests nature’s indirect role in fostering and supporting a sense of purpose in human beings.
History of Religion and Nature. The Industrial Age sparked environmental concern in the United States, fueled by the work of writers like Henry David Thoreau. Christian and other spiritual groups were frequently divided between those who felt humans were the divinely appointed masters of nature and those who believed that humans were one of many in a planetary community of life. Through the first 70 years of the 20th century, the basic struggle between these two camps ranged from variations on Christian concepts of ‘divine destiny’ and the exploration of ‘primitive Indigenous’ views of nature.
A 1967 article by historian Lynn White became the rallying point around the nature and religion debate. White wrote, “Since the roots of our [environmental troubles] are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious.” Rachel Carson’s famous Silent Spring, which highlighted environmental concerns with religious undertones, was published five years earlier.
Adams, C., ed. (2002). The Soul Unearthed: Celebrating Wilderness and Spiritual Renewal through Nature. Boulder, CO: Sentient Publications.
Carson, R. (1962). Silent Spring. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.
De Boer, L. (2011). An ethical way of being in the world. National Catholic Reporter; December 9 – 22, 3a – 5a.
Health Council of the Netherlands. (2004). Chapter 8: research into impact on personal development and sense of purpose. Nature and Health: The Influence of Nature on Social, Psychological, and Physical Well-Being.
White, Lynn, Jr. (1967). The historical roots of our ecologic crisis. Science;155(3767), 1203-1207.