Why Do We Make “Nature” Based Spirituality All About Us?

A few times a month I get an email or other message from someone that goes something like this:

I saw such-and-such animal run across the road/fly into my yard/otherwise enter into my field of vision. WHAT DOES IT MEAN???!!!

My response is generally along these lines:

Chances are it was just going about its business and you happened to catch a glimpse of it. If you really, really think there was something spiritually significant about the event, try talking to the totem of that species to see whether it was anything of importance, or just coincidence. Otherwise, appreciate the fact that you got to observe a critter you don’t normally get to see.

Recently, I’ve been thinking more about the emphasis so many pagans and others place on animal omens and other supposed “messages from nature”. It’s as though we have to insert ourselves into every single sacred thing in (non-human) nature. We can’t just experience the wonder of a grove of old-growth trees, or the delightful surprise of a red fox racing across our path, or the split-second beauty of a meteorite flaring across a nighttime sky. No, we have to make it more meaningful to us in particular. We have to be the special centers of attention–“Nature noticed me! What a moving experience in which I was the special being chosen to have this amazing revelation given unto me by the spirits that have nothing better to do than place a well-aimed fox in my direction!”

I get that spirituality in general is, in part, a way for us to make sense of the universe and our place in it. And many of us were raised in religions and cultures that place humanity and our relationships at the center of everything. We want religion to give us all the answers and tell us what it all means for us. So it’s not surprising that when people enter into a version of paganism that’s expressly nature-centric, they still start with themselves and work outward. We want to honor nature (and, if applicable, the spirits and/or deities within it)–but we also expect to be paid attention to in return. We feel a bit cheated if nature doesn’t dignify our efforts to notice it with special signs and symbols meant just for us humans.

Yet every day, millions upon millions of animals, plants, fungi, weather patterns, geological processes, and other forces of nature go about their business whether we notice them or not, and it doesn’t change their experience much, if at all, just because we happened to be nearby. The fox only wants to get away from the potential threat we pose and continue on its merry way; the tree couldn’t care less whether we’re walking by so long as we don’t break off any branches; and the avalanche will come tumbling down by gravity’s pull regardless of how many hapless humans (and other living beings) are trapped in the way.

This isn’t to say there are never, ever any special moments in nature where we have that deeper connection, or where some spiritual being from the natural world makes contact with us. But it’s quite telling when the very first reaction someone has at seeing a bird in their yard is “What special message from the Universe does this bird bring to me? Why was I chosen to see this bird at this moment? Is it my spirit animal?” Not “Huh, I’ve never seen that species before; I wonder if they’re migratory?” Not “Wow, there’s a tiny dinosaur* flitting about my yard!” But “ME! ME! ME! MEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!”

Okay, yes, that’s a bit hyperbolic. My point stands: we’ve been making nature-based spirituality more about us than about the rest of nature. Really, it’s an extension of humanity’s self-centered relationship to the rest of nature in general: for the most part, we only value it as far as we can get something out of it. We want stuff and things from the bounties of the Earth; we want our metals mined and our food harvested and our wood chopped down and we want it NOW. And our nature spirituality has gone in the same direction. We want a totem animal dictionary to tell us what a particular totem means for us. We use dried herbs and crystals in spells to make things better for us. We spend our Sabbats and other seasonal celebrations thanking nature for what it’s done for us. And we want those answers NOW.

It’s a long-ingrained habit, and I think we need to spend some time breaking ourselves out of that headspace. We don’t need to abandon personal meaning and messages entirely; they do have their value. And there’s nothing wrong with wanting to understand one’s place in the Universe. Hell, I still write books that are largely about helping readers connect with totems and other spiritual nature-beings, to include for one’s own spiritual growth.

But my own practice has been steadily moving away from a human-centered nature spirituality. I have my totems and other guides, but the work I do with them is less about me, and more about them and their physical counterparts. When I am out hiking and I see a new species of bird I haven’t encountered before, I experience a great deal of wonder at the diversity of life around me; it’s an occasion to stop, count all the plants and fungi and animals and other things I see, and be amazed by it all. I don’t study spells or rituals any more; instead I read books and watch documentaries on biology and astronomy and physics and geology. I don’t celebrate the turning of the seasons with rituals about humans and our agricultural cycles, or projections of ourselves through anthropomorphic deities; instead, I go hiking and observe the shifts in nature, and I do volunteer work to clean up my adopted beach along the Columbia, and I ask my totems what more I can do for them and their physical counterparts. That’s why, more and more, my books have emphasized the two-way relationships with totems, what we can give back as well as what we can receive from them. As my practice goes, so goes my writing.

It is impossible to divorce spirituality experienced by humans from being at least somewhat human-focused; we are looking at the world through human eyes, after all. But if our nature-based paganism really is going to be about nature as a whole, and not just the celebration of humans in nature, then we need to be critical of how often we place ourselves squarely in the center of our nature spirituality. We need to stop asking what nature can give us and teach us, and instead focus more on what we can give to nature amid the constant pattern of take, take, take. Some pagans claim that paganism is a solution to more overbearing, dominating religions; yet if we’re going to truly and radically make naturalist paganism a path of relationship rather than dominance, I think we still have some work to do.

In my next post (scheduled for next Monday) I’m going to go into more detail as to what that work might look like. (Hint: there’s no one true way!)

*Okay, so technically birds aren’t dinosaurs–but they’re directly descended from theropod dinosaurs, so the eight-year-old in me likes to think they’re just Dinosaurs 2.0.

16 Comments.
  1. THANK YOU. I’ve just gotten certified in our local Master Naturalist program (which basically means that I am now much more aware of all the things I don’t know!), and it has driven me crazy for a very long time that Pagans so often don’t seem willing to learn about the rest of the natural world **on its own terms.** I do NOT have some sort of magickal psychic connection to my basil, but that doesn’t mean it can’t “tell” me how it’s doing and what it needs–I just need to learn what to look for. Its sensory world and mine are very, very different and it doesn’t make sense to expect it to communicate in recognizably human ways.

    • Exactly. We don’t need the rest of nature to always speak in our language; sometimes we can learn to understand the many and varied ways of communicating outside of the human animal. (Though even scientists sometimes have to walk a fine line between observation and anthropomorphization!)

  2. Birds are the dinosaurs that lived!

    If that isn’t enough reason to break out of one’s own wants and be in awe of nature, I don’t know what is.

  3. Hi Lupa,

    How can I follow your blog? It’s wonderful.

  4. Paul Marsen

    Thank you so much. I was lucky enough to be raised with access to the natural world. I am constantly surprised be people thinking, that people are separate(special) in some way from the other parts of nature. When I met any animal it never occurred to me that it was anything other than both of us sharing the same world. I loved your explanation and understood how others thought for the first time in 49 years!

  5. I enjoyed your essay. I’ve always felt somewhat a misfit to the pagan community and the Christian because my own manner of living has been more as part of nature rather than in dominance of or submission to, quit trying to learn about spells and rituals long ago and don’t religiously keep track of the names of whatever holiday it is on the calendar. However, I always have and presently do immerse in Nature as it unfolds and always marvel at the creation we humans are so intrinsically a part of. I marvel at how we interact, how everything is connected, and I do strive to understand and honor this tie that binds us all (which is where I might interpret messages I find in nature). Your words on this matter resonated with me, and thank you for giving them voice 🙂

    • You’re welcome, and thank you for sharing your own, so similar experience. (I think there must be something to the Ozarks that induces a love for the outdoors; it’s the place that raised me.)

      • Perhaps it’s also a draw to those who love Nature. I was raised in south Louisiana and moved here 8 years ago to be closer to the herbs and plants I enjoyed reading so much about all of my years. The goal was to go to the Rockies where I feel a part of my soul resides, but the Ozarks grabbed hold and hasn’t let go since 🙂 The Ozarks has turned out a wonderful Nature advocate in you.

        • Glad you’ve found a good home there; while I love Oregon, there’s a part of me that will always have roots in Missouri.

  6. This is exactly what I have been trying to get people to understand, particularly as it pertains to “shamanism”. I feel very strongly that the modern shaman needs to focus more on working with the earth and getting people to work with the earth in a variety of ways, including healing (i.e. when we heal ourselves, we heal the earth. And, when we heal the earth, we heal ourselves), rather than simply taking from the earth and spirits to obtain healing with honest reciprocation. I’ve also been trying to get people to understand how amazing it can be to shift focus from “What can I get from going out into nature that will make me more spiritual?” to simply sitting in nature and observing on various levels (either single-pointedly, say focus on one leaf on a tree, or more broadly, the entire tree) can be amazing. In my own practice, letting go of wanting to go out and have some spiritual experience to simply focusing on what nature I could observe made a huge difference in my spiritual growth.

    • Agreed. It’s actually part of why I no longer actively practice “shamanism”, at least not the ceremonial form with journeying and such. My work is very much rooted in this world, and so I figure by starting at the basis of our existence I can cause healing to radiate outward.

  7. Well said! I wrote something along the same lines (http://www.mudandmagic.com/not-your-bird/), but I really like how you said it.

    • Nice! There have been a few good pieces on anthropocentrism in paganism over the past year, and now I can add this one to the list. I especially like this line: “But I believe in Paganism’s ability to create new culture based on new values”. Yes, exactly. We don’t have to do things “the way they used to be/always were”, and we can draw on our current understanding of the world as well as previous wisdom.

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