The creation of a web site devoted to “Outdoor Spirituality” arose as a response to the extraordinary circumstances necessitated by the 2020 Corona virus pandemic. Quarantined from social gatherings, multitudes are making excursions into forests and other natural settings to escape confinement in one’s home space. The great outdoors holds the promise of sustaining one’s sense of well-being, especially given the psychological stresses of coping with the threat of a dangerous illness.
What is Outdoor Spirituality?
This term spirituality refers to a person’s engagement with “spirit,” a immaterial reality that exists in the material world, and within human experience. Today, fewer and fewer people identify with a particular religion while an increasing number are identifying as “spiritual but not religious.” Spiritual can be defined in many ways: the non-material reality both within and beyond an individual human being; a sacred essence of human consciousness; a mysterious energy that is common to all forms of life and animates the cosmos. Some regard spirit as that part of us, when free, seeks “inner” growth, sparks creativity in engaging the world, and compels us to search for a deeper meaning, and connection, to life. Pursuing one’s spirituality can be seen in the growth of personal traits such as wisdom, love, transcendence, serenity, hope, connectedness, and compassion.
Taking to the outdoors will cultivate a noble and essential part of our essential human nature: biophilia. This lovely term was coined by psychoanalyst Erich Fromm and popularized by the great biologist E.O. Wilson. It means the passion and love for life, nature and all that is alive.
So central is this element in our lives today that the World Health Organization has concluded that spirituality is an essential component in human health, since it impacts individual mental and physical wellbeing.
Stacy Stryer, M.D., a pediatrician who works with ParkRxAmerica (https://parkrxamerica.org/), suggests outdoor time to patients who are suffering from anxiety and stress. A study conducted by a Cornell public health investigator determined that people can achieve a boost in health bio-indicators and reported happiness through just 10 minutes of time spent in nature. Its author Genevive Meredith noted, “Getting into a space where there is green around you can have a restorative effect.” [Source: Men’s Health, June 2020, pg. 51.]
Growing numbers of people now avoid “organized religion,” disliking the need to conform to the norms and compulsions of being part of a larger group; for them, the pursuit of spirituality can be private, or it can entail trying new activities, joining new groups.
But spiritual experience is still the goal of practices in the organized religions of the world as well. For some, the cultivation of spirituality in recent decades has meant exploring hitherto-unknown religious practices, whether they have originated in Asia, the West, or among the world’s indigenous peoples.
By Outdoors, the definition is broad: places where nature and natural geography reigns. The outdoors can be range from forests and mountains, to wild places as diverse as deserts or rain forests. Since “outdoors” on Earth means the 70% that is oceans, outdoor spirituality can also be pursued in boats, on boards, or when diving beneath the surface to explore underwater life.
The modern sciences studying psychological health have documented how human beings show quantifiable benefits from venturing outdoors for regular exposure to the natural world. Studies documenting declines in blood pressure and heart rate, as well as lessening anxiety and depression, have shown that getting out into parks and woods, oceans and seashores, unquestionably improve human well-being.
This web site Outdoor Spirituality offers a resource for putting together outdoor adventuring and religious practices, drawing on a variety of traditions. It highlights how by going outdoors with a spiritual purpose we can enrich our lives. It supports those ready to engage with the natural world in new ways; the web site curates spiritual outings designed by contributors to “head out”… whether to the back yard and the “back forty,” or to the parks and nature preserves near and far, in order to experience life, “spirit”, and consciousness more richly.
This initiative was begun by Professor Todd Lewis and his students at Holy Cross College. It is also informed by the Mahayana Buddhist ideal of the bodhisattva, a person who balances the practice of meditation with service to others. (This balancing “interior” cultivation and outward service to others is a commonality of all world religions.) The goals of Outdoor Spirituality thus are multiple: to enhance the individual’s health and interior life, foster the feeling of connection to the natural world, motivate the defense of wilderness, and take action to resist species extinctions and climate disruption.