Posted by: environmentspirituality | August 16, 2009

First Small Group Discussion

Tree of Life

Tree of Life

At the end of July, I led a small group discussion on the topic of environment and spirituality at a Pagan gathering (please check out the link if you are not familiar with what the term means to modern Pagans). The discussion was advertised to festival-goers as a workshop and described thusly: “Paganism is often described as a Nature Religion. What does this mean to you in your personal practice? What does your connection to nature look like?” About 15 people attended the workshop. We sat outdoors in the shade on a hot summer afternoon in a wooded area with other gathering attendees in the background.

I chose the small group discussion model out of what I learned in my Reflective Practicum coursework, that social change comes from people talking, looking at their lives, finding frustrations, and noticing gaps – and then people will want to change. I was hoping to plant some seeds that might lead to noticing gaps and help a movements towards social change in this area of environment and spirituality – but I was also really curious as to what a group of people attending a Pagan conference might have to say about their sense of connection to, or being part of, nature.

Rocks and Trees and Rivers

In addition to my understanding that Paganism is a nature religion, I know that Pagans also tend to believe that the Divine is immanent – i.e., right here, in us, in rocks and trees and rivers, in critters and clouds, here – as opposed to transcendent, or far away, distant, in heaven, in the sky, beyond the boundaries of the earth. In transcendence, the Divine is not part of the Earth; in immanence, the Divine is the Earth, and all that is on the Earth. I was curious to see if the current of immanence would mean that practicing Pagans had an understanding of humans and nature as being one and the same.

My first question to the group was whether they felt like they were part of nature or separate from it, and why. Now, in a group of 15 Pagans, you have at least 20 perspectives,* so I certainly did not get the same response from everyone. I did hear some people describe nature as something they looked for but did not find in their urban setting – that a dandelion growing through a crack in the sidewalk was a small glimmer of nature in an otherwise natureless-setting. This reflects an American cultural pattern of a clear separation between humans and nature (Stewart and Bennett, 1991, p. 115).

On the other hand, I also heard people who described themselves as “a wave, not a particle” and “absolutely part of nature – my life is part of the web of life.” One person relayed that a feeling of separateness from nature was a motivation for them to strive for something different. We spent some time musing on a plastic bottle – how it was made from parts of the earth, how it was a feat of human intelligence and design, how it was part of our cycle now. How, we wondered, did the “sacredness of crappy plastic” fit in to everything?

Maple Canopy

Maple Canopy

My second question was how they defined themselves spiritually* and how that influenced their sense of connection to nature. Some felt it was their experience of nature, or being in nature (note: use of the word “in,” not “part of”), that drives their spirituality. One person commented that it was an eye-opener for them when they learned that the word “religion” in other parts of the world means how you live every day of your life, because that hadn’t been her experience of religion up to that point. Many agreed that a sense of awareness, seeing little details or “Goddess moments,” recognizing that in nature you never see function without beauty or beauty without function, fed their spirituality.

At the end of our hour together, I felt that we had had a very good discussion and raised some good points with areas to explore further, but I’m not sure (yet) that I planted seeds that will lead to social change. I hope the conversation will continue – perhaps on this blog?

Stewart, E. & M. Bennett (1991). American cultural patterns: A cross-cultural perspective. Boston: Intercultural Press.

* When I asked people to define their spiritual path, the answers I got included:

  • I deal in probabilities – a Pragmatic Pagan
  • I’m sending out feelers
  • Church of Freaky Bookstores, Orthodox
  • A feeling of being connected to it all
  • Pagan because of the nature connection
  • Exploring, as every religion has a bit of truth and none is the truest
  • Exploring Paganism and Zen Buddhism with no final identity
  • Pagan, Witch, and other
  • Every religion is a manifestation of people wanting to be spiritual
  • Tolerant Agnostic
  • Scientifically-based Church of Trees and Bees
  • Pantheist Pagan – universe is all holy
  • Pagan
  • Nothing in particular


  1. Dear Laura:

    Thank you for your reflections on my book, A Reenchanted World. I hope the concluding chapters brought a better understanding of the possibilities for change that are opening up. It’s too bad the Obama administration has not reversed all of Bush’s environmental policies, much less go beyond Clinton’s, but cultural change is still ongoing. Go see The Cove (about the movement to abolish dolphin theme parks) if you haven’t already.

    Best wishes,

    Bill Gibson

  2. I just love that list of the ways people defined their personal spiritual paths… it’s so self-revealing.

    It’s true that discussion is a strong starting point for change… what I especially like is when a discussion includes many different voices – that often seems to be an opportunity for seemingly different people to find common ground on specific ideas.

    I believe change can begin as people find those points of connection with each other.

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