Creating Meaning for Life through Ecotherapy and Spirituality

Sunlight pours through tress, drenching a forest road.Tu B’Shvat, a Jewish celebration of trees, begins the evening of January 29th, marking the time when tree sap begins to rise in the region of the custom’s origin. During this time of appreciating and respecting life, celebrants eat tree fruit or nuts. If I was a Jewish celebrant, this evening after sunset I might take a pomegranate and savor its sweetness, feel its tang on my tongue, and imagine the dusty region my ancestors came from, how they may have tilled the earth, or walked or prayed or sang together, connecting, through taste and spiritual practice, to the earth and my people.

Although I may now be severed from that place, in this way I would remember and acknowledge my ongoing  connection to it. Why might a practice like this be important for our health and mental well-being? While nearly every religion has been used to excuse a lot of harm and mayhem, religion also seems to hold value for containing restorative practices that may nurture a sense of meaning and act in beneficial ways in our lives. The spiritual aspects of a religion hold true, even if some manipulate it for their own less than benign purposes.

Spirituality is much on my mind these days, as I try to make sense out of the destruction caused by merely existing. By consuming that which is necessary for my life—sitting in a wooden chair, writing on a sheet of paper, or driving my car to work—I contribute to the death of other creatures, plants, and trees. I wonder how to make sense out of this, how to give meaning to the disparate ways in which I impact the earth and consume resources. How do I remain open and connected to the earth, even as my life necessitates destruction? The obvious ways of mitigation, planting trees, recycling, restorative work, consuming less, are helpful, but I also need some way to find meaning in the process of life and death.

Our culture has developed many ways to deny the subject of death, and many of us deny the death caused in our daily lives for houses we live in, products we use, and cars we drive. Avoiding and distracting ourselves from death may lay at the root of many of our problems. We hide in our insulated cars and buildings, in our media and entertainment, and shut ourselves off from the reality of nature rising and falling all around us at every moment. Spirituality is one way we can face and find meaning in death, and learn to respond to the earth more effectively, with more wisdom and grace than—let’s be truthful—we have thus far. By facing death, we appreciate life more, and find ourselves living more respectfully.

In my own spiritual practice, death is a subject of ongoing reflection. At the root of this reflection is the knowledge that if nothing dies, nothing can live. Death is the reason life is not static, that it is the dynamic, ever-changing, groundless place we negotiate our way through. One of the precepts I’ve studied and attempt to follow is not to kill, but rather to nurture all of life. And yet, my life requires the sacrifice of plants and other creatures so I may continue.

I’ve come to see how both death and life are larger and more complicated issues than they initially appear to be. I swallow life: I swallow the fruit of a tree, and those seeds will not germinate in the ground. My life is then allowed to continue because of its nourishment. In this way, I nurture my life which is connected to all of life. Perhaps I pluck another fruit from this tree and plant it. I then nurture the tree’s life and continuance. I create life. I do not deny I have caused death, but I realize it is also my own death that I cause now. And I acknowledge that one day this body will also die, and perhaps nurture some other life, or allow some other form to continue. Life and death is, in this way, one continuous event, not something separate and distinct. Watching and being in the natural world in an uninsulated way brings this truth home to me and helps create meaning.

If nature therapy is about helping us feel more connected, then it is at base a spiritual practice, whether or not we label it as such. Adding an existing spiritual practice to ecotherapy can enhance and enliven it by connecting to practices that have long traditions and deep connecting roots to place and rhythms so necessary to life. The repetitions found in nature are echoed in many spiritual practices, and can be experientially included in nature therapy practices, even if they are not labeled as such.

In Zen practice, we stand together, we sit together, we walk together and create through specific practices an enhanced sense of awareness of ourselves in relation to each other. This awareness continues to expand when I am out in nature—I carry this practice of attending to and relating to all aspects of my life, and notice how this attention brings meaning and depth to my life in ways I never dreamed. Developing intimacy in spiritual practice with my mind, my body, and my surroundings, I feel naturally related to streams and birds and forests. I notice more about how things change, and see more of what is being damaged. This enhanced sensitivity helps me respond to the crisis the earth is undergoing with greater feeling and insight. It also helps me understand those I’d rather blame and distance. I’m not separate from them. In this way, ecotherapy, laced with spiritual insight, may be used as a guide for compassion, caring, efficacy, and the creation of meaning.

© Copyright 2010 by By Laurel Vogel, M.A., therapist in Seattle, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Teach

    Teach

    February 1st, 2010 at 11:30 PM

    Laurel, that was one of the most soothing pieces I’ve ever read. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom.

  • Angela

    Angela

    February 2nd, 2010 at 5:03 AM

    It is indeed a good thing to comebu with nature and the past… it keeps us grounded and does not let us look down upon others thereby making us better people.

  • Michelle H

    Michelle H

    February 2nd, 2010 at 5:42 AM

    Taking the time to really appreciate the beauty of the world around us can indeed have awesome healing power.

    We too often take the world for granted and when we get down and low we have nothing to look forward to. But when you find a way to appreciate every day of life that you are given and the majesty of the outside world which surrounds us that is a beautiful way to keep life going, and to sustain you through those difficult times.

    I am not so naive that I think that this is the only way to heal. But to love nature and to appreciate its goodness is a way that helps me to stay spiritually focused and grounded, and gives me something wonderful new and exciting to look forward to everyday.

  • nate

    nate

    February 2nd, 2010 at 3:46 PM

    Any time is good to get close to religion and spirituality… it gives you a more detailed reason for you to live, for your very existance.

  • Laurel Vogel

    Laurel Vogel

    February 2nd, 2010 at 5:20 PM

    Yes Michelle, appreciation is so essential to any kind of practice and it seems to open us up in a way that allows more of life to come into us. Maybe it’s a prerequisite for connection, even…just a thought. I feel deep gratitude for all of the comments posted here.

  • Craig H.

    Craig H.

    February 3rd, 2010 at 4:52 PM

    Have you been following this practice long, Laurel? With a name like yours, you must feel you were destined to walk this path. :)

  • themuse

    themuse

    February 3rd, 2010 at 6:27 PM

    You feel and sound so centered Laurel. Your energy is so calm and restorative. :) Thanks for sharing your beautifully crafted words with us.

  • Belle

    Belle

    February 3rd, 2010 at 7:59 PM

    I believe in a connection with the earth too. When I meditate I visualize my feet sprouting roots and burrowing deep down into the core of the earth to draw upon Mother Nature’s boundless energy.

    The connection is there and always has been. We’ve just forgotten how to connect with it in the ways our forefathers did.

  • Nigel Magowan

    Nigel Magowan

    July 7th, 2011 at 10:54 AM

    Many Ecotherapy processes do aim to develop a deep connection with both our environment and within ourselves. In my own experience this is a very spiritual process. Not in any religious sense, but spiritual in the true sense of the word.

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