Living by Nature’s Rhythm
Connecting with nature spirituality is a growing desire among modern humans. And there is no better place to start than the rhythm of the seasons. There is something absolutely magical about the natural rhythm of the changing of the seasons. I grew up in Michigan, where we joked that there are two seasons: winter and road construction. But the truth is the seasons in Michigan (and other temperate climates) march around the year with reassuring regularity. And those seasons can have an incredible impact on our whole lives. For modern humans the natural world has great lessons to teach.
For Everything, a Season
In temperate climates there are so many subtle clues that herald the changing of each season. For most of my life I wasn’t even aware of them. But looking back I notice how the way the breeze smelled as winter began to give way the spring, or the softening of the air, and the damp earthy smell of thawing ground.
It wasn’t until I moved into a climate that has very little in the way of real seasons (hot, hotter, still hot, 9th circle of hell describes it well) that I realized just how important those season had been to the rhythm of my life. I found myself out of step with the calendar. In January when the temperatures finally fell to a “fall like” level and it sometimes got chilly at night I found myself with this crazy desire to decorate for Halloween and start researching recipes for Thanksgiving. It was disorienting and disconcerting nearly a month after Christmas.
The Spiritual Need for Seasons
The seasonal changes in nature resonate so deeply with us because they mirror movement of our own lives. We aren’t always aware of it, but our lives experience seasons of growth, abundance, decay, and death on a regular basis. It’s a natural part of life that it seems no creature can escape, not even modern humans. But too often we aren’t aware of this natural movement. And so we think that the seasons of decline or death we experience will last forever, we cannot see an end because we don’t recognize them as a season.
And that is (one of many reasons) why our spirits need the seasons. The gentle changing movements of the natural world through the wheel of the year are our teachers, our signposts, our training ground for the ways we must navigate the turning of our own lives. The seasons teach us about our bodies, our spirituality, and our personal growth.
Rooted In Nature
There was a time when the seasons ruled the lives of those who lived outside the tropics. It was a simple matter of survival. Before we had fast transport to bring food in from all parts of the globe what we ate was seasonal. And before central heating and air conditioning our lives were circumscribed by the weather. We couldn’t help but be aware of the seasons. In the winter the long dark nights forced us to slow down, to do less work (there wasn’t much to do anyway with all that snow out there). The long light of summer kept us up and busy as bees trying to get enough food grown, harvested, and stored to get us through the long darkness that would come around again like clockwork.
Our religions were just as tied to the seasons. Nearly every religion of any age has festivals rooted in the changing of the seasons. While the ancient British pagan religions have been long dead, their modern restorers still have the names of their festivals that marked the changing of light and season. Nearly everyone has heard of Samhain, Yule, and Beltane. Christian, Jewish festivals (and those of other religions as well) have ancient ties to the changing of the seasons. The spiritual connection we share with the natural world is ancient and real.
Agricultural people tend to live very closely with the seasons. Their activities and work were intimately tied to the turning of the year. Modern people are far more removed. For most of us, our work continues unchanged no matter what the weather is like outside. Our homes are heated and cooled to a consistent temperature. It is mostly just our leisure activities and maybe some everyday inconveniences that feel the effect of winter coming, or summer ending.
Nature and Spirituality: A Spinning White
It’s hard to argue with thousands of years of history though. Our culture is still steeped in the seasons, and our bodies are as well. When days grow shorter and colder we naturally want to slow down, rest, sleep more. As spring throws around new life most of us feel the urge to clear out the old and start new things. The health of our whole lives can benefit by embracing the changing of the seasons as an intimate part of our daily lives. Change after all, is perhaps the only real constant.
No matter how much we might try to control our lives and environment we can never totally succeed. Our lives move through seasons as surely as nature. We grow and we flourish, we produce fruit in abundance, and we fade and wither and eventually die in the grand sweep of our lives. But there are smaller seasons as well. Times of wild growth and excitement, and long fallow periods where we might feel hopeless and lost, or at least frozen in place.
We can fight these changes, try to ignore them; or we can take wisdom and guidance from the natural world and lean into these changes. There is wisdom is accepting our seasons, knowing that they are not forever, that our lives will move into a new season.
Nature Spirit for Modern Mystics
Nothing is forever, though it can seem that way. Modern mystics are moving ever so surely back into a relationship with the natural world (connecting to a nature spirit as it were). No matter our religious background or belief system there is a steady march to understanding that we are indeed part of the natural world, not above or separate from it.
It’s rhythms are part of our very souls. The ancient Celts brought their deep connection to nature with them when they converted to Christianity. They continued to believe in two revelations of the Divine: the first being the natural world and the second (written by human hands) scripture. While we forgot that wisdom for a time, we are slowly reclaiming it.
The natural world offers us glimpses of the Divine we can find nowhere else. And in it, if we are wise, we will find spiritual wisdom. Connecting to nature, understanding the spirituality of nature can transform our own lives. We may find our burdens lightened and our lives freer by reconnecting the shape of our lives to the natural world. We can learn to work with our inner and outer seasons instead of fighting them. And in doing so we might just learn to live with the natural world.
Building Ritual: Connecting our lives to nature
One of the greatest gifts of religious traditions is their marking of time. Almost all religious traditions have a calendar that marks the changes in seasons and the seasons of our lives in a meaningful way. For thousands of years this kept us connected to the movement of time, and reminded of our part of it.
If you have a connection to a religious tradition spend some time with the festival of holy days, see where they connect to the movement of the seasons, research their history and consider marking them more deeply in your daily family life. And explore how you can connect with nature, and connect your spirituality into the natural world. (For example: Christians who live in Michigan would do better to use cherry tree branches and pussy willow for their Palm Sunday services, rather than importing palms from across the world.)
Even if you aren’t connected to a religious tradition you can still reap the benefits of a life that is lived in rhythm with the seasons. You have the opportunity to build traditions that are meaningful to you and your family. These will almost certainly look different than the traditions of others, and there is no right or wrong answer. What matters is what works for you. Below you’ll find my suggestions for connecting your spiritual life to the changes of the natural world, and to honor the changes and seasons in your own life.
Step 1: Get Local.
What are the seasons like where you live? If you are in Northern Michigan this will look quite a bit different to coastal Texas! Be faithful to the world in which you live. Importing seasons into your life just because they happen elsewhere isn’t a faithful or authentic practice. Yes, the world around you will be going nuts with pumpkins in October no matter where you are, but you don’t have to.
This might seem trivial at first but if you spend time out in the natural world you will discover just how deeply embedded the rhythms of its life are. They are essential for the creatures who live all around us. If you want to connect with nature spirituality immerse yourself in it. Learn what the air smells like in summer, winter, fall. Get to know the beings who come out when no one is around (sit still long enough and you’ll be amazed what has been hiding all around you).
When possible: open your windows. Spend even your indoor time connected with the natural world through the sounds, sights, and smells that cross that boundary. Make friends with the nature you already life among.
Step 2: Be Honest.
As you delve into this you’ll probably have to face some uncomfortable truths. Be honest with yourself and with your family. As you begin to think about fall and winter you might find yourself wanting to skip over the truth of age and death. Don’t.
It may not be that literal death is the issue; but perhaps there are dead or dying relationships or other significant parts of your life that need to be tended to. It’s hard work, but it is worth doing. Trees cannot pretend it’s still summer and hold on to their leaves, if they did they’d die as the water froze, the sun vanished, and snow made those leaves into a terrible liability.
Let the natural world remind you that ignoring things won’t make them go away, but it can make them worse. And in those hard times? Meditate on what you can learn from the natural world. Really dig into why Easter is placed where it is in the calendar year. Meditate on what it means that every spring the whole of the temperate world is reborn.
(Or Rosh Hashanah, Ramadan, or other festivals that are part of your tradition.)
Step 3: Mark Important Moments.
Every culture, family, and person will vary when it comes to what we consider the most important. In my particular family of origin birthdays \weren’t really important, but holidays and traditions that celebrated family or community were very important. What is it that you and your family value most? Mark the important moments of your life, and mark the important moments of the year. Aligning traditions that match your values with the changing of the year is a great way to add weight and meaning to those times. So pay attention to the solstices and how the change in light, and weather, marks phases of our lives.
And consider taking your cue from the natural wisdom of the seasons. Fall might be a time to confront the things in our live that are dying. Winter (a time of hibernation and waiting) is a great time to do the hard work of creating safe space in your life so you can face those uncomfortable conversations. What important lessons do spring and summer have to offer you?
Step 4: Build Traditions.
Think back on your life, I’d be willing to bet that some of the most meaningful memories you have around around traditions that were important to your family or culture. They might not be the expected ones, either.
Yes, everyone knows that December in the United States is a crazy binge of parties, shopping, and poor eating. But you don’t have to do that. Take your tips from nature instead. Slow down, attend to your inner work, spend time with darkness (often a metaphor for areas where we need to grow). And by the time the solstice, or Christmas roll around you will be ready to celebrate the slow (but reliable) return of the sun.
Integrating the wisdom of the natural world into your traditions will give them value and structure.
Step 5: Make Meaning.
Often we do things just because everyone else is doing them. Halloween (and a variety of festivals at that time of year) used to have deep religious significance to a number of traditions. These days your family might take part without even thinking about it. Christmas, which once marked the coming of light back into the world (religiously) and the lengthening of days after the winter solstice is probably just a habit for most of us.
Take a look at the parts of your life that are already present and be intentional about why and how you practice them to bringing meaning back into your everyday and seasonal life.
Get Out There
This might sound obvious but the single most important step to connecting with natural spiritually is to get out into nature. That does not have to mean an expensive trip to Patagonia (although that would be fun). It doesn’t even have to take you far from your home. Even if you live in the densest urban area the natural world exists all around you because it’s all there is.
Oh human beings, we’ve done our best to pave it over and cut ourselves off, but we’ve failed.
Step outside your high rise apartment and there are still ants building whole worlds under the sidewalk. The pigeons and the hawks do a complicated and deadly dance above your head. The squirrels in the park, and the trees that have seen buildings come and go: that’s nature. “Forest bathing” might be the ideal for connecting with nature, but it is not the only way.
So get out there. Open your senses to the world around you. Take your shoes off. Spend some time as just one more animal in this divine dance of life.
Still looking for ideas of how to integrate seasonal changes into your life? Try these articles!
- Autumn is a great time for self-care themed around harvest.
- Winter invites us into a very different type of spiritual practice.
- Spring and summer offer an opportunity to take up gardening as a spiritual practice.
- Summer is my favorite time to examine my year and make a course correction as necessary.