• Sherri Phibbs

Science-ifying the Spiritual

Updated: Jan 16, 2018

HISTORY OF HUMAN / NATURE CONNECTION: Throughout the history of mankind, personal immersion in nature has been a reoccurring theme. A great many cultures worldwide categorized the resulting experiences as spiritual, attributing the insights and inspiration received during these interludes to a Divine benevolent guiding source, naming the source God, in whatever manner best suited that particular culture.  This spiritual connection to the natural world developed into worldwide shamanic and druidic practices that, surprisingly enough, despite vast distances and little to no contact between the varying human groups, are remarkably similar, a worldwide practice of consulting nature to receive insight.  With the subsequent advent of large-scale organized religions, followed by religious-based conquests, the nature connection-based societies suddenly became aware of the “evilness” of the natural world.  Shamans, druids and teachers, herbalists and spiritualists alike were hunted and marginalized (imprisoned, burnt at the stake, tortured and/or killed).  Consulting nature on a personal level was vilified, a fear-filled taboo experience.  The human senses connecting individuals to nature were suspect, thrust aside, unused, and possibly these senses and the mind analyzing them began to atrophy.  

THE SECRET GARDEN EXPERIENCE: Yet throughout this process of the disconnection of humanity from the natural world, a process punctuated by industrialization, technological advances, resource management and economic concerns, there are a telling number of clues that all connection was not lost, that there is an inherent sense genetically encoded in all individuals.  Evidenced by private and personal nature experiences portrayed throughout the world’s art, literature, poetry and songs, it seems a thread of consciousness flows through humanity, that there is a connection to the parts of nature an individual comes in contact with and a personal impact that cannot be denied, but must instead be honoured and expressed. Major figures in widespread religions were noted to spend time in the wilderness, seeking healing or converse with the Divine.  Many noted that this process is possible for all people at the individual level.  In some countries and cultures, China for instance, herbalists, “those who spoke to plants”, practiced, were culturally accepted, and thrived. Emerging from within the very bowels of the religious organizations themselves, sainted personages, such as St. Francis of Assisi in Catholicism, venerated and spoke with birds and animals modelling that very connection in full view of the disconnected masses.

EMERGING FROM THE DARK: Driven by the machine of power and progress, a great majority of the earth became a resource for financial wealth and personal power.  Recognized, this trend became vocally opposed at the grass roots level in the western world.  Organizations of “tree huggers” and “hippies” protested the loss of nature, the paving of the green space was immortalized in songs and perhaps the disconnection illustrated through a move towards art expression such as Picasso’s, or the more visually disturbing images of artists such as Dali.  During this time, formalized groups of concerned individuals created conservation laws, national parks and public awareness programs to protect certain areas from exploitation.  Yet in this current age, even these “sacred” spaces are coming under the gun, a ripe target for the nature-crushing machine of economic stability where large-scale organized corporations hunt down and “kill” (marginalizing or litigating into oblivion) concerned environmentalists, heirloom food or herbal medicine producers.  Yet even through our decades of disregard for the natural world, nature is still trying to connect and communicate with us, “The Call of the Wild”, and this terrifies.  

NATURE AS POP CULTURE: This communication came in waves of revelations for me, beginning with exposure to a widespread renewed societal interest in indigenous and shamanic/druidic culture, I became aware of an ancient nature connection process, a process quite similar to that learned through the organic psychology teachings of Dr. Michael Cohen.  Glimpses of this ancient process began to catch my attention in mainstream religion through song and “right action”.  Popular culture spit out such icons as Avatar and Anastasia, The Ringing Cedars book series, Robert Bateman (artist) and David Suzuki (environmentalist), all played their parts in bringing nature concerns into the light for me.  The next few pieces of this reconnection puzzle came in the form of my own professors, mentors, and teachers taking the learning outside: professors such as Straja Linder-King and Dr. Madeline Rugh; shamans, Peter Calhoun, Manfred Lucas and Sequoyah Trueblood; and the many talented horse-people who have touched my life and heart, all modelling and teaching the value of learning from nature and nature beings.  Modelling a process of stewardship rather than resource management, a process also glaringly evident in pop culture movies such as “Noah”. 

MAKING IT PERSONAL: Following the threads of this personal immersion in nature path, I began the study of organic psychology, and immediately came up against some very ingrained religious beliefs that I had been completely unaware of until that time.  I had a narrow view, blinkers that prevented me from seeing the value of a scientific exploration of a traditionally spiritual connection to nature and the Divine.  It appeared to me the whole process of eco-psychology was a basic renaming of the mystery of the spiritual experience into the mundane scientific language of our technological society, a betrayal of the Divine.  

Taking my concerns to my professor, he asked me a couple very pertinent questions...  “Do you believe God is in everything?”  “Yes.”  I responded. “So what’s the problem?” he asked. I was astonished.  Could it be that simple?

Apparently when restructuring old belief systems, it may be simple but not necessarily quick.  I dropped the program.  With a few years of continued nature exposure and communication experiences, facilitating workshops, teaching horsemanship, I returned to my studies with fresh eyes, having witnessed firsthand the responses of both children and adults to the nature experience of horse whispering, the power of connection between an old racehorse and a young autistic boy, the light of recognition in the eyes of scientific or technical people when they began to understand the communication methods of the horse or felt the whisper of the Divine in the breath of the air through the leaves of a tree.  

I was humbled when I began this study again.  The human senses that allow us to experience a connection to nature are alive and well, requiring perhaps only a little more use to bring back muscle tone, build a healthy understanding of how they work and begin providing access to experiences that grow self-esteem, confidence and wellbeing, as well as valuable life skills!

Over the years, I have acted as witness to not only my own growth, but that of my clients as well. The process of reviewing these nature connection experiences with others on the same path is enlightening. In scientific terms, the analysis and comparison of the data provides a validation of the experience. Removing the veil of mysticism, concrete facts are recounted. Clients note that when they are connected to nature, they are connected to themselves, and that Nature is truth.   This connection increases understanding of their own value, and allows them to experience the good feelings associated with this increased sense of self-worth. They can later remember this experience, a touchstone moment for difficult situations, or even repeat the process to reinforce awareness of self as truth, as Nature.

Sharing in these experiences provides me with a touchstone for a view of the world I’ve never seen, Nature through another's eyes.  I experienced the joy, deep upwelling feelings and tears by sharing another's experience through their words.  I touched the world through another's eyes, and felt its call.

CONCLUSION: The spiritual or scientific language used to describe the process and experience became irrelevant to me.  “A rose by any other name…”, says Shakespeare.  If scientific classification of traditionally “spiritual” interactions with nature validates the experience for the modern technocratic individual and draws them out into the world to gather more of these balancing and healing interludes, so be it.  By quantifying the repeatable scientific results, by providing an understanding of the process in language that moves nature connection from the mystical to the practical and verifiable, society as a whole benefits.  For me, this is the highest value add of this practice!  

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Copyright © 2009-2020 by Sherri Phibbs. All rights reserved. 


Cochrane, Alberta, Canada