As a species we rely heavily on science and technology to assure our survival, but this has not always been the case. Our hunting and gathering ancestors relied on a different type of technology to survive: The created and used traditional technologies to manage their own nervous systems.
Our ancestors did not have a lot going for them in terms of natural adaptation. They did not have wings, sharp fangs, claws or body armor. They had no fur to protect them from the cold. They could not secrete poison or change their skin color for camouflage. Instead, traditional cultures depended on their intelligence, stamina, perceptive acuity and ability to recognize environmental patterns in order to survive.
One of their primary skills was the ability and stamina to run down their game over long distances: Long distance hunting. This skill gave them access to protein-rich meat that helped their tribe to survive and thrive.
But in addition to long distance hunting, our ancestors also became particularly adept at recognizing patterns in the natural environment. They learned the language of birds and the implications of different kinds of waves on the open ocean. They learned patterns of migration and discovered how to use other animals such as dogs and falcons to help them hunt. They learned not only about things, but also about what things meant… what they predicted. As they became more successful at recognizing natural patterns they also realized that they could optimize their nervous systems to help them recognize those patterns. They created, developed, and passed down the techniques that enhanced their abilities. They were quite ingenious at discovering which techniques helped them assimilate the seemingly unrelated information and aggregate it into meaningful and useful tools. Combined with their success as hunters and their natural intuition, their ability to use and enhance pattern recognition assured their survival.
From this direct connection with their environment, our ancestors saw the interdependence of all things. They developed a reverence for the Earth as they realized that everything they needed came from Her. The Earth and Her biospheres became sacred.
In our technological society we have relinquished our ability to directly connect with the natural world. Our ability to recognize natural patterns is minimal… “Use it or lose it” as they say. But by using the same foundational technology and neurological techniques of our ancestors, we can reconnect with the Earth and feel Her in our bodies. This reconnection with the Earth may be a remedy for the loneliness and isolation many of us feel in our modern world.
There are a multitude of foundational techniques that we can use to enhance our ability to experience nature directly. But of all the foundations of nature connection, the creation of Sacred Space is the most profound.
The Reclamation and Resacralization of the Earth
All cultures throughout history have created Sacred Space. Our creation of Sacred Space is the physical manifestation of our search for meaning and our yearning to understand our place in the cosmos. The questions we ask in Sacred Space may not always be answered, but the questions themselves frame and define what we call Sacred Space.
Sacred spaces often have an organic “feel” to them as they resonate with something deeply primal within us. Sacred Spaces inspire (breathe in / bring in spirit) feelings of awe and reverence for inner, outer, and natural beauty. Sacred Space is not limited to churches and temples; in many ways our National Park system defines a series of Sacred Spaces.
In the last 200 years (some say the last 10,000) our technology and our behavior has desecrated (removed from the sacred / desacralized) the Earth. Our home has been transformed from a womb into a resource: Something to be exploited and sold for a profit. This is unnecessary, but it is also unacceptable: We all share in Her bounty and none among us can live without Her blessings. No one has the right to destroy her: There is no such thing as a post-environmental economy or post-environmental quality of life.
However, we can resacralize the Earth and our connection to Her through consecration (bringing to the sacred). We resacralize the Earth by consecrating Sacred Space in our environment, in our lives and in our bodies.
In many ways, the resacralization of the Earth has to do with reclaiming not only the sacred in our lives, but also with reclaiming our sacrum: our pelvis, genitals, and lower chakras. Our body is made from the Earth; our body is the Earth. Our body is also our shadow: the unconscious motives and desires that we deny, avoid, and repress. The reclamation of our body and our shadow is indistinguishable from our reclamation and resacralization of the Earth.
Being Present – Lucid Waking
Many of us have had the experience of lucid dreaming, in which we are asleep and dreaming but we are simultaneously aware that we are dreaming. Lucid dreams are very powerful and contain vast potential. But how many times on any given day are we conscious that we are awake? When we are aware of our awareness, we are in a state of Lucid Waking: the state of being fully present. When we are fully present in any situation doors may open for us that might otherwise remain closed. If we are connecting to nature, Lucid Waking can open those doors, the ones that lead us home.
All nature connection requires Lucid Waking: In order for our perceptions to enhance our existence, we need to be there when they happen… we must be present. Our ability to be present supersedes any other nature connection skills we might have. Without complete presence it is impossible to listen deeply to a plant, the Earth, or someone we love.
Lucid Waking often brings with it our natural curiosity as to what is happening, both inside of us and in the outside world. Lucid Waking, when combined with this natural curiosity, transforms into deep listening. When we practice deep listening we become curious as to what will happen or what we might soon discover.
The tools we have mentioned so far: Sacred Space, Presence, and Curiosity, will not connect us to nature if our nervous system is not able to receive information. In order to perceive and assimilate subtle information from our environment our nervous system must be in a receptive mode. The receptivity in our body is mediated by our parasympathetic nervous system.
Parasympathetic / Centered State
Our autonomic nervous system is comprised of two major divisions, the sympathetic (fight, fight, or freeze) and the parasympathetic (rest & digest / feed & fornicate).
The sympathetic nervous system is mediated by the chemical norepinephrine (adrenaline). When we experience fear, fright, anger, or strong emotional reactions, adrenaline is released into our bloodstream. We then feel impelled to fight, run away, or freeze in response to the situation.
The parasympathetic nervous system is mediated by acetylcholine. When we are more relaxed and “centered” and there is no imminent physical or psychological threat, acetylcholine is released into the blood stream, putting us into a “rest and digest” mode, and sometimes into a state of romantic arousal.
The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems complement, and ideally work together, much like the accelerator and brakes on a car.
Unlike our ancestors, the parts of our nervous system that are available to learn the language of birds or listen to plants are dormant. Our ability to activate these skills is predicated on our ability to engage our parasympathetic nervous system. So, in order to detect the subtler patterns in nature, we must be relatively centered; i.e. we must have a minimum level parasympathetic activity.
We can create this parasympathetic state within our bodies through activities such as meditation and tai chi, as well as numerous neurological techniques. Most, if not all of our nature connection technologies help create or enhance a parasympathetic state within our nervous system.
A common way of creating a parasympathetic state within us is to use technologies of the breath.
Our breath connects the inside to the outside, the microcosm to the macrocosm. Our breath can regulate our mood, our heart rate, our perspiration, and the flow of blood and lymph in our body. It also can help to regulate our sympathetic and parasympathetic responses.
There are very specific ways we can breathe that help us “feel” our surroundings and magnify the nuances in the immediate biosphere. These nuances can range from intuiting the use of a plant by its smell to understanding the subtleties of a lover’s emotional state.
Our breath can help us focus and identify (or create) an advantageous “seat” for our consciousness within our body.
Somatic Awareness: Locus, Focus, Torso & Skin
Locus: Locus means, “place”. In the context of Earth Medicine, our “locus” refers to the place in our body (or in the world) that we identify as our seat of consciousness. We have a choice as to where we place our locus. If we place our locus within our body, we bring our awareness to that part of our body, which then becomes our locus. If we place our locus outside our body, then its location is determined by where we are directing our attention rather than where our eyes happen to be focusing.
Focus: In Earth Medicine, our focus is a reference to our visual focus: The place in the outside world on which our eyes are focused. (In some techniques, our eyes can be “focused” on the back of our eyelids)
There are at least two kinds of visual focus: Hard focus and soft focus. When we use a hard focus, our focus and our locus are usually the same. In other words, if we are focusing and concentrating on something in our environment, we automatically bring our consciousness to that location also. While it is possible to simultaneously have a hard visual focus with an internal locus, we generally need a soft visual focus in order to fully bring our locus (seat of consciousness) within our body.
Torso: It appears that the psychological and physiological patterns of what we call our “shadow” or “unconscious mind” (the parts of ourselves that we deny, avoid and repress) are imprinted to a large degree in our torso.
In nature connection the locus is often brought to the torso, and particularly the lower abdomen, as a way to enhance deep listening skills and intuition. Cultural references to the chest and heart as the center of courage and compassion are almost universal. Many traditional cultures make reference to the lower abdomen as the seat of or power or the center of our being. There are numerous Chinese and Hawaiian references to the area of the lower abdomen as the center of both energy and wisdom in our bodies. I have little doubt that these almost universal cultural references reflect some kind of underlying physiological mechanism or correspondence.
Skin: The skin can function as the eyes of our core, enabling us, along with our breath, to connect outside to inside. We can use tactile sensations to help our unconscious point us toward relevant or unusual patterns in nature. When we bring our locus to our skin we use our outer body as “radar” or as an “antenna”. The more we pay attention to the sensations in our skin, the more we realize how much information our bodies process without our conscious awareness.
Our posture, and more specifically the alignment of our spine, can help activate awareness and increase the flow of energy and information in our body. When connecting to the natural world, the cervical and lumbar spinal curves are flattened, allowing the spinal column to lengthen and naturally enhance our ability to pay attention. The flattening of the cervical curve in the neck may lengthen the 10th cranial nerve (vagus nerve) and perhaps enhance its parasympathetic function. One of the major functions of posture is to enhance muscle relaxation and flow of energy in the body.
Muscular Relaxation: Söng
The word in Qigong practice used to describe relaxation is “söng”, which is also the word for “pine” or “pine tree”. This juxtaposition of meanings is a reference to the Shaolin monks who did some of their training in the woods with pine trees and aspired to have their bodies become as flexible and strong as green pine branches. This type of muscular relaxation is also called “attention without tension”.
It is important to note that this kind of muscular relaxation is not limp. To the contrary, it can have unusual levels of internal strength, much like a flexible piece of steel. It is strong yet yielding and flexible.
These are some foundation pieces of Nature Connection: Sacred Space, Presence, Curiosity, Centeredness, Breath, Somatic Awareness, Posture, and Relaxation. Individually, they are useful. But used together, they become synergistic pathways leading to our shadow, our heritage, and our Home.
We can only care about what we know. These nature connection tools can help us to learn more about the Earth, each other, and ourselves.