Spirituality, soul and solitude in nature

In December 2014 the ‘Action and Research Centre’ of the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufacture and Commerce) published a report of a two-year conversation about why spirituality needed to play a greater role in the public realm.

The report argues that “the spiritual injunction is principally an experiential one, namely to know oneself as fully as possible. For many, that means beginning to see beyond the ego and recognise being part of a totality, or at least something bigger than oneself” (Rowson, 2014).

Referring to the epidemic of loneliness associated with big city living, the report muses: “We are all surrounded by strangers who could so easily be friends, but we appear to lack cultural permission not merely to ‘connect’ — the opium of cyberspace — but to deeply empathise and care” (p.7).

Trying to heal causes instead of symptoms, the report calls for “the spiritual to play a greater role in the public realm, because it highlights the importance of personal and social and political transformation” (p.8). It asks the important question: “How can we best speak of the spiritual in a way that helps us understand how best to live?”

Reflecting on Martin Luther King’s insight that “power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anaemic” and his observation that “it is precisely this collision of immoral power with powerless morality which constitutes the major crisis of our time” (see also Kahane, 2010), the report calls for the spiritual practice of tapping “into the deep source of our own power and love” and embarking “on a lifelong challenge to bring them together in practice” (Rowson, 2014: 59).

The RSA project reviewed how deeper questioning into the nature of love creates a sense of belonging. Inquiry into death helps us live a deeper life. Questioning the nature of our ‘self’ catalyses personal transformation; and exploring the nature of the soul gives our life meaning and informs our creative expression (p.78).

The final report suggests a need to revitalize spirituality in order to more deeply address the challenges of the 21st century. Deep questioning into the nature of the soul will inevitably lead us to rediscover the soul of nature. Richard Tarnas writes in Cosmos and Psyche:

Not only our personal lives but the very nature of the universe may demand of us now a new capacity for self-transcendence, both intellectual and moral, so that we may experience a new dimension of beauty and intelligence in the world — not a projection of our desire for beauty and intellectual mastery, but an encounter with the actual unpredictably unfolding beauty and intelligence of the whole […] the open encounter with the potential reality of an anima mundi makes possible its actual discernment. In this view, only by opening ourselves to being changed and expanded by that which we seek to understand will we be able to understand at all. — Richard Tarnas (2007: 487)

Questions that invite us to explore the relationships between the intimate and the ultimate also help us to understand who we are and to find our place in the wider community of life and within a living and transforming cosmos.

By living these questions together, the process of collective meaning-making in the face of uncertainty can itself become our guide and inform our appropriate participation.

Bill Plotkin describes soul as our ‘ultimate place’. “David Whyte speaks of the soul as ‘the largest conversation a person is capable of having with the world’. Here ‘conversation’ is the poet’s way of saying relationship. […] the largest relationship a person can have with the world is the same as his ‘ultimate place’” (2008: 36–37).

To find our ultimate place in the world, we have to enter into a deeper conversation with each other, with nature and with the cosmos. We have to explore: how do we belong? Where are we? Who are we? What are we here to do? In living into these questions more deeply we might live into the answer to the question: why we are worth sustaining?

Bill Plotkin offers his seminal book Nature and the Human Soul as a “contribution to the global effort to create a viable human-Earth partnership” and bases his exploration on three premises: i) “a more mature human society requires more mature human individuals”, ii) “nature (including our own deeper nature, soul) has always provided and still provides the best template for human maturation”, and iii) “every human being has a unique and mystical relationship to the wild world, and that the conscious discovery and cultivation of that relationship is at the core of true adulthood.” He adds: “True adulthood is rooted in transpersonal experience — in a mystical affiliation with nature, experienced as a sacred calling — that is then embodied in soul-infused work and mature responsibilities.”

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Plotkin lays out a model for individual human development that offers “a narrative of how we might grow whole, one life stage at a time, by embracing nature and soul as our wisest and most trustworthy guides” and “a strategy for cultural transformation, a way of progressing from our current egocentric societies (materialistic, anthropocentric, competition-based, class-stratified, violence-prone and unsustainable).”

Bill Plotkin explores why being truly human is only possible in relationship with the natural world and how our soul and the soul of nature as our larger being are not separate but co-arise. “All places and all things and all roles speak to us, if only we have the ears to listen. Likewise, your soul, your ultimate place, evokes something from you, wants something from you, speaks to you, sometimes in a quiet voice, sometimes in a roar” (2008: 39). He speaks of “living the questions of soul” in reference to Rilke’s letter to a young poet, cited at the start of this book. [This is an excerpt of a subchapter from Designing Regenerative Cultures, published by Triarchy Press, 2016.]

In this letter, Rilke encourages the young poet to spend time in nature paying attention to the little things “that can so unexpectedly become big and beyond measuring”; and his advice for finding one’s true work in the world is “to go into yourself and test the depths in which your life takes rise” (in Plotkin, 2008: 280). The encouragement to seek solitude and insight in nature and the advice to go within are mutually reinforcing. In John Muir’s words:

I only went for a walk and finally concluded to stay out til sundown, for going out, I found was really going in.
— John Muir

Ecology and spirituality are two sides of the same coin — understanding and making sense of our own interbeing with the world, and our interdependence. You can enter into an embodied experience of wholeness and meaning through the door of the natural world or through spiritual practice. In fact, the two are ultimately not separate but they are pathways to the same oneness of existence in and through relationships. A oneness we experience most of the time from the limited perspective created by the ‘illusion of separation’.

If we want to reconstitute this oneness — the whole whose conscious reflections we are — we need to do so through the way we create meaning together and through the narrative we tell about our interbeing.

Making time for solitude in wild nature helps us to have the largest conversation we are capable of having with the world. Communion with wild nature helps us embody our ultimate place and act wisely in recognition of our kinship with all life.

Parker J. Palmer (2004) reminds us that “to understand true self — which knows who we are in our inwardness and who we are in the larger world — we need both the interior intimacy that comes with solitude and the otherness that comes from community” (p.54).

Palmer calls the soul “that life giving core of the human self, with its hunger for truth and justice, love and forgiveness” and continues “when we catch sight of the soul, we can become healers in a wounded world — in the family, in the neighbourhood, in the workplace, and in political life” (p.2).

Deep listening can help us catch sight of the soul: listening to our inner voice, listening to our community, listening to wild nature, listening for wholeness. Without listening for wholeness, truth and beauty we will not find the answer to why we are worth sustaining — the key to regeneration.

Up North, in the wilderness, I sense the wholeness “hidden in all things” [Thomas Merton]. It is in the taste of the wild berries, the scent of sun-baked pine, the sight of the Northern Lights, the sound of water lapping the shore, signs of bedrock integrity that is eternal and beyond doubt. And when I return to a human world that is transient and riddled with disbelief, I have new eyes for the wholeness hidden in me and my kind and a new heart for loving even our imperfections. — Parker Palmer (2004: 5)

[This is an excerpt of a subchapter from Designing Regenerative Cultures, published by Triarchy Press, 2016.]