by Agnes Van den Berg
Nature for People
Abstract The concept of Nature Intelligence distinguishes three different pathways to connect with nature in a cognitive, emotional, and spiritual way. Of these three, the spiritual pathway arguably offers the most profound and direct way to become one with nature. However, this pathway is often met with scepticism and is not as generally accepted in both child and adult nature education as the cognitive and emotional pathways.
The concept of Nature Intelligence distinguishes three different pathways to connect with nature in a cognitive, emotional, and spiritual way. Of these three, the spiritual pathway arguably offers the most profound and direct way to become one with nature. However, this pathway is often met with scepticism and is not as generally accepted in both child and adult nature education as the cognitive and emotional pathways. One of the primary concerns sceptics may have about the spiritual pathway to connect with nature is its potential conflict with scientific understanding. But embracing a spiritual connection with nature doesn’t necessarily require a rejection of rationality. Indeed, like all human behaviour, spiritual experiences in nature are open to scientific exploration, and many scholars have tried to gain insight into these experiences. In this blog I will give a brief summary of what is known about spiritual experiences with nature, both in childhood and in adulthood.
As most of us know from personal experience, the key to a life-long connection to nature lies in those special moments when a child realises that everything in nature, including itself, is interconnected. These moments have been described as peak experiences that that stand out from everyday events and play an important role in self-actualisation (Maslow, 1970). They have also been referred to as significant life experiences, or deeply touching forming experiences that often contain a component of anxiety, and may permanently change the vision on life (Tanner, 1980). Personally, I prefer the term magical moments to describe these special experiences of feeling a deep connection with nature, because spiritual experiences are not necessarily exceptional or spectacular. As Rachel Carson (1984) wrote in her book ‘The sense of wonder’ (1965) “Many children… delight in the small and inconspicuous.” For example, when a child observes an ant walking with a leaf twice as large as its body and realises the enormous effort made by the ant. Or, a bit less romantic, when a child burns a snail or puts salt on it just for fun and feels deeply guilty afterwards realising again that he or she just killed a living being.
Magical moments in adulthood are less common, and also less studied. Much of the research on this topic focuses on wilderness experiences. For example, in a much-cited paper, Fredrickson and Anderson (1999) described the experiences of 12 women who made a multi-day trek through the American wilderness. The women kept a personal diary and were interviewed afterwards. Everything showed that it was a unique and special experience for the women. During the journey, the vastness and grandeur of the wilderness, coupled with the social contact with the other women, evoked strong spiritual feelings which they described with words such as ‘wonder and awe’, ‘humility’, ‘timelessness’, ‘heightened sense perception’, ‘elusive’, and ‘empowered’. Follow-up research, in which people are asked to retrieve a special experience with nature from their memory shows that magical moments are not tied to wild nature. They can occur in any kind of nature, even green space or gardens nearby, and can be divided into three basic categories: moments of heightened sensory awareness, moments of connecting with other living beings, and moments of awe and wonder (e.g. Naor & Mayseless, 2020; Van den Berg & Ter Heijne, 2005; Williams & Harvey, 2001).
An example of a moment of heightened sensory awareness:
My most impressive experience was when I was about 10 years old. I was in a playground, it was the end of the day and the sun was setting. I looked at that huge, golden light and experienced an overwhelming feeling of happiness. I couldn’t name that at the time, but now see it as a unity experience in which my self dissolved (personal story, Volkskrant, 30 juni 2023).
An example of a moment of connecting with all other living beings:
I was happy to be in the forest. I had the feeling that I was part of nature, and that I was experiencing
life and nature in its purest form. I felt truly content. I felt I could stand there forever. I relaxed. I felt like lying down and going to sleep. I closed my eyes and listened to the forest. I was much more in
tune with the world and life. I knew that there was much more to life than the everyday hustle and bustle of surviving (Williams & Harvey, 2001)
An example of a moment of awe and wonder:
The wilderness reminds me that there’s so much more going on than just my own small stupid issues . . . it does make you feel small but . . . in a really comforting way, it makes your problems feel smaller . . . it puts [life] in perspective (Naor & Mayseless, 2020).
Magical moments with nature emerge from an interplay between environmental factors and a person’s behaviour. With respect to the latter, there are indications that performing rituals (Pirri, 2019) or mindfulness exercises (Nisbet et al., 2019) while in nature can enhance the likelihood of having a magical moment. But you should take care not to overdo it, as these exercises tax the attention system and thereby reduce the chances of a magical moment occurring spontaneously (Macaulay et al., 2022). In general, when applying these exercises in nature education practices, it is important that the exercises or rituals match the entry level of participants.
Macaulay, R., Johnson, K., Lee, K., & Williams, K. (2022). Comparing the effect of mindful and other engagement interventions in nature on attention restoration, nature connection, and mood. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 81, 101813.
Maslow, A. H. (1970). Personality and motivation. Harlow, England: Longman.
Naor, L., & Mayseless, O. (2020). The therapeutic value of experiencing spirituality in nature. Spirituality in Clinical Practice, 7(2), 114.
Nisbet, E. K., Zelenski, J. M., & Grandpierre, Z. (2019). Mindfulness in nature enhances connectedness and mood. Ecopsychology, 11(2), 81-91.
Pirri, M. D. (2019). Spirituality, the connection to nature, and the role of Shamanic rituals. Wageningen: Thesis. WUR. https://edepot.wur.nl/472319.
Tanner, T. (1980). Significant life experiences: A new research area in environmental education. The Journal of Environmental Education, 11(4), 20-24.
Van den Berg, A. E., & Ter Heijne, M. (2005). Fear versus fascination: An exploration of emotional responses to natural threats. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 25(3), 261-272.
Williams, K., & Harvey, D. (2001). Transcendent experience in forest environments. Journal of environmental psychology, 21(3), 249-260.