Is it possible to cultivate non-ordinary experiences with nature and, in doing so, allow the non-ordinary to become the ordinary? A recent workshop in the Santa Cruz mountains explored this possibility through the art of nature writing and intuitive enquiry.
On a picture perfect day in the Santa Cruz Mountains (California, USA), I was feeling fortunate to have been invited to attend a half-day seminar (Sunday 14th August) hosted by Nancy Rowe and Adam Heifetz titled: Nature Writing as Wilderness: Cultivating Wonder, Awe and Presence. The seminar formed part of a week-long seminar series for students enrolled in the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology (ITP). This particular session promised to reveal how intentional engagement with nature can help us to cultivate qualities of wonder, awe and presence in our daily lives. In addition, it aimed to explore how intimacy with the natural world attunes us to our own wildness and increases our feelings of aliveness.
The workshop was aptly set amongst towering redwoods – a scene which immediately grounded me in the fact that I was in the USA for the first time. Workshop hosts Nancy and Adam gently guided the group into the realm of intimate nature connection with readings from well-known nature writers/poets as well as introducing us to their own backgrounds. Interestingly, Adam is embarking on a PhD which sets to explore the profound experiences once has when in nature for long periods of time alone. Among many endeavours, Nancy has been doing cross-cultural and cross-ecosystem research to gain better insight into what it actually means to be in spiritual connection with nature.
The seminar began with looking at the distinction between “ordinary” vs “non-ordinary” experiences and suggested that in society we tend to divide our life between the two. I found myself reflecting on my own research on meaningful nature experiences and was challenged in answering the question posed by Nancy and Adam about peak experiences: “Is it because we are so disconnected that when we have experiences which are kind of non-ordinary that they become peak experiences?” Something to ponder… And the activities in this seminar aimed to bring out the realization that, in their words, “The beautiful is not as uncommon as it may seem.”
The seminar continued with practical group exercises of working with natural objects and ‘tuning in’ with external senses and inner intuition to their beauty and relevance to our own respective lives – sort of like unpacking and co-creating the non-ordinary meaning from the ordinary object. Nancy alluded to her experience that the more one takes time to tune into earth, listen, and sense how the earth speaks to us, the more synchronicity we are likely to experience in our lives.
There were many other insights to emerge from this few hours and it struck me how quick and simply, one can drop into a space of meaning. It comes with focused attention and a conscious slowing down to be aware of human-nature reciprocity and intimacy. Gratitude as an emotion and cultivating certain “qualities of being” may well amplify the process.
Naturally, we can’t say we ‘know’ all of this for sure in scientific terms. We can only begin to slowly accumulate a growing collection of personal and inter-subjective lived experiences. But travel the world over, read books from all traditions, delve into neuroscience, psychology and holistic medicine literature and the same trends emerge over and over: sensory awareness, curiosity, wonder, awe, gratitude, reverence, respect, compassion and empathy are just some of the core qualities of being. But, as Adam also suggested, maybe we should get out of this compulsion of “needing to know” – it may well be that being open to the mystery of not-knowing, the potential for unexpected emergence , could be one of most critical qualities to cultivate.
These are all aspects which good nature writers are able to embody in their writing – a natural flow which captures they mystery of our interactions with the natural world: the sense of letting emerge what needs to emerge and enriching that with first-hand experience and continued reflection.
This was a glimpse of the seminar as I experienced it. The informal but inspirational dialogue with Nancy and Adam afterwards over lunch allowed me to dip into even deeper connections and understandings with them and with this topic. Synchronicity played its part. It was a special morning.