If we take time to look and listen, nature provides space and oxygen to breathe, salve for our souls and encouragement for our spirits. However, to access that bounty, there is a tuning-in process that requires entering a slower pace than that to which we are accustomed. Tuning-in is not about looking at and appreciating nature, but actually experiencing it and in doing so, developing eyes to see and ears to hear the voice of the Divine cosmos. There are messages for us in Nature. But how exactly does a person tune-in to receive those messages?
Think about this situation: you are at a party where many people throughout the living room, dining room and kitchen are having conversations in small groups. While you are talking in your group you overhear a conversation about pomegranates in another group. We pick up on things that we are interested in. Would you have overheard a comment about how to remove pomegranates’ seeds if you didn’t know that pomegranates had seeds? It so happened that you recently had been researching online the nutritional value of pomegranates. Your interest and openness to this learning had readied you to hear information about pomegranates. It can be much the same in the spiritual dimension. What we are ready for, we pick up on more easily. If you are attuned to Nature and to the Source of all Love, you will be able to pick up the language of God through Nature. Just spend more still quiet time there with the intention of tuning-in. But how does this happen?
For 35 years I had the privilege of teaching outdoor experiential education and leading many college students on outdoor adventure trips ranging in length from one day to one month. Consistently, the students commented on how good it felt to spend time outdoors in a natural environment. During a group conversation one night under a blanket of brilliant stars, students were expressing their awe and questions about life. Suddenly a young man shouted, “This is better than getting drunk!” And we were “drunk” with awe and wonder. It seems that we can be oblivious to the length of time we spend indoors in man-made structures. So when we have opportunity to be outdoors in attractive natural environments, we can feel its positive influence. It affects our health as well as our mental and emotional states. Research gives evidence of actual physiological and psychological benefits of being in nature. These are but a few of those studies: Ulrich, 1979; Li, 2006; Li, 2008; Selhub & Logan, 2012.
For the past several years there has been a lot of discoveries in the domain of quantum physics, with its submicroscopic electrons, protons, neutrinos, quarks, leptons, etc. In the 1950s and 60s we were taught that there were three subatomic particles of an atom (electrons, protons, and neutrons) which orbited around the atom’s nucleus in set pathways similar to how our planets orbit around the Sun. Now we know that there are many more than three subatomic particles. And rather than orbit, they all vibrate in no set pattern, and at varying rates. So with this in mind, my theory of what makes natural outdoor environments so restorative, is that the atoms of Natures’ elements are vibrating at a different rate and rhythm than the atoms of man-made structures. When we are in the presence of those higher vibrations, we are restored and in harmony. The glow that all living things radiate is a perfect example of that reality. (Creath and Schwartz, 2014)
Think of walking from inside a building to outside into a beautiful area with trees, flowers and maybe a body of water. Most of the time when this change of surrounding occurs, people take a deep breath and immediately relax. Of course that happens only if we take a second or two to be conscious of our new location, and the change of energy that is present in the outdoor environment.
Quantum physics has shown us that all atoms are constantly vibrating. Previously we thought that all matter, i.e. tables, bricks, cars, trees, were solid. And that energy was real but invisible and certainly not solid. But with Einstein’s equation of E=mc2, it has been shown that matter can be converted to energy and energy to matter. Ilia Delio has explained this quite succinctly in A Hunger for Wholeness (2018):
The “invisible” world of energy has a direct and solid connection to the “concrete” world of matter . . . A particle split in two, for example, can communicate over vast distances between the two halves almost instantaneously, what Einstein and his colleagues called “entanglement.” How could this be? Only if the vast empty spaces of the universe are really not so empty after all, but complex layers of energy fields. (p. 16)
Barbara Brown Taylor has written a wonderful book on this subject. She calls these layers of energy fields, The Luminous Web (2000). Luminous, not only because all is glowing but because God is throughout it all. Maybe even God is the luminous web of Love energy.
Whereas Newton thought the material universe was made of inert matter, we now know that the material universe is fundamentally energy, and all is vibrating. Walking outside and being surrounded by God’s creation can be like stepping into the midst of vibrations from an harmonious choir - - only silent to our ears.
If you are interested in increasing the communication from Nature, you can start by practicing Centering Prayer outside. However, it doesn’t actually have to be done out-of-doors to be truly effective. Imagine being in a favorite spot in Nature or seeing it from your window at the beginning of a Centering Prayer period: This will serve as a peaceful catalyst for tuning-in to Nature’s frequencies and will aid your receptivity during Centering Prayer.
Another process for tuning-in is to notice spiritual metaphors in Nature as you walk your dog or just spending time outdoors. Here are three examples of metaphors to get you started.
Example I: Cactus grows easily in Texas and many people use them in their landscape. The Prickly Pear Cactus is one of the most common examples and is easily recognizable.
The large flat and generally roundish protrusions are called leaves and grow in a random multidirectional configuration. Finding more than one Prickly Pear cactus with the same configuration is not likely, but in general the leaves grow off of each other in a random pattern. The randomness of the leaves is a noticeable feature. So to see a Prickly Pear with a set direction of leaf growth is quite atypical.
Humanity is not designed to all be the same: Not all humans look alike, and like the Prickly Pear cactus we have no conscious control over how we are put together, how big our noses are, the shape of our eyes, or the size and shape of our feet. Then why do we make fun of people who are different? Why do we think people should be so much alike and conform to the latest fashion trends? We don’t shun a cactus that’s different. We tend to get excited and celebrate that difference. Yet we criticize other people and even ourselves for not being “normal.” It must be a part of human nature to look at outward differences. Thankfully, God looks on the heart. (1 Samuel 16:7) This realization might inspire us to practice celebrating differences.
Example II: Have you ever just felt all dried up? Your life has been going nonstop and there has been little time to relax and allow your soul, body and mind to be nourished? I remember hearing my mother say, “My spizerincdom has got up and gone,” when she felt dried up from working nonstop. All of us have experienced this feeling and it can seem like we will never have energy again. Dry gray rocks can serve as a descriptive metaphor for this kind of thinking and experience.
We all need nourishment: Although we might feel worthless, our memory can be jogged to remember that all we need is to rehydrate with whatever nourishes us, and our inner beauty can shine again like wet rocks. The beautiful minerals have always been there, but water was required for the beauty to be seen. However, unlike the wet and dry rocks, we can choose to put ourselves in positions to be nourished and hydrated, or not. It’s fairly easy to know when we need physical rest and nutritious food, but what about spiritual nourishment? Spending time in beautiful natural environments can be especially nurturing to the soul because of the deep communication that can occur. What nourishment do you need so you can shine?
Example III: Rivers are a lot like the wind, quiet unless obstructions get in their way and create diversions. My preference is to listen to a river that is “singing", when rocks large enough to disrupt the surface of the water and enough of a downhill gradient for the flow to make sounds and various patterns on the surface. It is the obstructions on, or just under the surface that cause a river to dance and sing as the water navigates the obstructions. Large rocks on the river bottom cause the waves on the river shown here.
Obstructions in life can lead to singing: Interestingly enough, the rocks on the bottom causing the waves, are actually located just upstream from where the wave begins to form. The current of the river in the above picture is flowing toward the right. The rocks are where the waves start to build just before their high point. The crests of the waves are doing the singing and dancing after the obstruction has been passed. I can identify with the dancing and singing as expressions of joy after passing obstructions. Without the obstructions there would be no singing and dancing, just a smoothly flowing river. Obstructions produce turmoil, but in that turmoil lies opportunities for growth. And later the celebration of that growth in the dancing and singing. If the obstruction feels as big as a dam with mounting pressure, know that the water will eventually flow over the top or be released from the bottom. Even dammed up water provides opportunities for life to flourish. Usually the largest fish live in the deep water just in front of a dam.
These are three examples of spiritual metaphors in Nature. When you see something that catches your attention in Nature, be quiet and still and wait to tune-in to what is there for your discerning “eyes to see and ears to hear.”
Camille Bunting, Ph.D. is Professor Emerita at Texas A&M University. She was Director of the Outdoor Education Institute in the Department of Health & Kinesiology and has led many outdoor adventure trips ranging in length from one day to one month. Her interest in the nurturing qualities of the natural environment developed over the course of 28 years leading trips and hearing students’ reflections about their experiences. The practice of seeing spiritual metaphors began during these years spent outdoors in a variety of settings. Her Centering Prayer practice began in 2004 and proved to be a wonderful partner for the spiritual experiences of Nature.
Creath, K. and Schwartz, G.E. (2014). Biophoton images of plants: revealing the lights within. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 10 (1):23-26.
Delio, I. (2018). A Hunger for Wholeness. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.
Li Q, et al. (2006). Phytoncides (wood essential oils) induce human natural killer cell activity and expression of anti-cancer proteins. Immunopharmacology and Immunotoxicology, 28:319-333.
Li, Q, et al. (2008). Visiting a forest, but not a city, increases human natural killer cell activity. International Journal of Immunopathology and Pharmacology, 21:117-127.
Selhub, E.M. and Logan, A.C. (2012). Your Brain on Nature. Toronto: HarperCollins Publishers.
Taylor, B. B. (2000). The Luminous Web. New York: Cowley Publications.
Ulrich, R. (1979). Visual landscapes and psychological well-being. Landscape Research, 4:17-23.