Spirituality, religion and nature
A symposium held in 1990 titled ‘Spirit and Nature: Religion, Ethics and the
Environmental Crisis’ brought together speakers from Buddhist, Christian, Islamic, Jewish, Native American, and liberal democratic traditions to discuss why the environmental crisis is fundamentally a moral and religious problem (Rockefeller and Elder, 1992). Its purpose was to foster ways of living that promote sustainable development, and to join scientific understanding with life-affirming, and world-affirming moral and religious values (Rockefeller and Elder, 1992). In the introduction to the published proceedings, Rockefeller and Elder (1992) state that the great issue for the 1990s and the twenty-first century is to channel the freedom and power modern humanity has acquired into new creative directions by spiritual awareness and a moral commitment that transcends, among other things, the dualism between human culture and nature.
Conversely, the original teachings of most world religions including Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism are based on a deep reverence for nature, and a profound understanding of the relationship between humans and the natural world around them (Suzuki, 1997). For example, in classical Islamic thought, the Koran (or Quran) does not regard humans and nature, or the natural and the supernatural, as separate from one another but as an integral part of the same universe, ‘sharing in its earthly life and also in its ultimate destiny’ (Nasr, 1992). Malinski (2004 p. 92) puts it this way:
Experiencing wholeness and unity with all living beings and the natural
environment, finding meaning and purpose in living and dying, transforming, and transcending, such are the hallmarks of spirituality. Spirituality is a unitive experience, without boundaries or divisions.
Suzuki (1997) claims, however, that most religions have changed their beliefs over time to consider the individual as an entity separate from family, clan, and nature. As a result, people are increasingly finding themselves alienated from their cultural and natural surroundings.
Every worldview of indigenous humans describes a universe in which everything is connected with everything else: stars, clouds, forests, oceans, and human beings are interconnected components of a single system in which nothing can exist in isolation (Suzuki, 1997). Indigenous cultures around the world regard nature as the realm of the spirit and the sacred; the natural world is seen as inherently spiritual, and humans are seen as an integral part of it (Metzner, 1995). From this perspective follows an attitude of respect, and an instinctive understanding of the need to consider future generations and the future health of our ecosystem; in other words, a sustainable approach to life and health (Metzner, 1995).
A study on health promotion and illness prevention in Chinese elders revealed that the elders believed conformity with nature was the key to health and wellness (Yeou- Lan, 1996). This comes from the teachings of Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism, which emphasise harmony with nature, simplicity, and love as the way to achieve ‘ultimate wellbeing’ (Yeou-Lan, 1996). The study by Yeou-Lan (1996) defined nature as all things and events that surround an individual, such as air, mountains, plants, animals, people, society, and belief in a higher force, identified as ‘Supreme Nature’.
To conform with nature, Chinese spirituality requires three interrelating categories: harmonising with the environment, following bliss, and ‘listening to heaven’ (Yeou- Lan, 1996). Harmonising with the environment is the process of allowing oneself to gain access to experience of, interact with, and be aware of nature. In agreement with recent findings (e.g. by Parsons et al., 1998; Ulrich et al., 1991b; Kaplan and Kaplan, 1989), the Chinese elders believed that exposure to natural scenes gave them peace of mind, and promoted health and wellbeing (Yeou-Lan, 1996).
The 14th Dalai Lama refers to the Buddhist understanding of interdependence in order to understand the human relationship with nature (Gyatso, 1992). This principle essentially implies the interdependence of all life, matter, and consciousness, as well as the interdependence between causes and conditions (Gyatso, 1992). This is practised also by the Australian Aborigines, who believe that each person is not only the offspring of their physical parents, but also that they are in some essential way a spirit of the land with an eternal and intimate connection with it (Kingsley, 1995 in Suzuki, 1997). This connectedness of people to country and kin (both present relatives and ancestors), to that which is outside of time, is integral to the Aboriginal sense of wellbeing (Anderson, 1996), and it implies that when harm is done to the land or to people, the other is adversely affected. Leal (2004 p. 93), reflecting on the Australian Indigenous belief in a ‘creator Spirit ^located not in a remote heaven above but deep in the earth’, states that ‘such a conception immediately confers on the earth and its contents a value inaccessible to the dualistic thinking of the Western mind. It spiritualises the earth and serves to explain why access to land is of such overriding importance to the
Aboriginal people’. It is this concept of a creator Spirit which is expressed in the totems and creation stories that typify Australian Indigenous culture (Isaacs, 2005; Indigenous Law Research, Reconciliation and Social Justice Library, n.d.).
Traditionally, Hindu theology reflects similar attitudes to those expressed within ‘traditional Chinese and Aboriginal views and practices’ (Coward, 1997 p. 50). The Hindu belief in non-violence reflects the belief that ‘humans, along with everything else in nature, are but a part’ of God’s creation (Coward p. 50). This philosophy underpins the ecological orientation of Hinduism, which is set out in a key Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita (Coward p.56). Reflecting on the tsunami of December 2004, Vandana Shiva reminds us of this traditional Hindu belief, stating: ‘The tsunami reminds us we are not mere consumers in a marketplace driven by profits: we are fragile, interconnected beings inhabiting a fragile planet. The tsunami reminds us that we are all interconnected through the earth’ (Shiva, 2005 p. 24).
In a similar vein, Wilson (1992) observes that humans have forgotten how much the natural world means to them. Yet, as Wilson (1992) states, signals abound that the loss of life’s diversity endangers not just the body but also the spirit. If that much is true, the changes occurring now will visit harm on all generations to come (Wilson 1992). It has been reported that modern people are experiencing a spiritual famine. Alcohol, food, and drug addictions are futile attempts to fill the spiritual emptiness that has arisen from loss of contact with nature (Nasr, 1968; Glendinning, 1995; Canadian Parks/Recreation Association, 1997). Along a similar line of thought, Metzner (1995) states that human beings have forgotten how to empathise and identify with non-human life, have lost respect for the mysterious, and lack humility in the relationship to the infinite complexities of the natural world (Metzner, 1995). Shiva (2005 p. 24) concurs, stating: ‘Above all, it [the tsunami] brings a message of humility: that in the face of nature’s fury, we are powerless. The tsunami calls on us to give up arrogance and to recognise our fragility’. The evidence irrefutably demonstrates that both the cultural and natural history of the human species is entirely based upon an intimate relationship with, understanding of, and respect for the natural world. Recognising and respecting worldviews and spiritual practices that are based on oneness with nature, and searching for similarities in the dominant religions is, according to Metzner (1995) perhaps the best antidote to ‘the West’s fixation on the life-destroying disassociation between
spirit and nature’. Similarly, Nasr (1992) states that to rediscover the spirit in oneself and then see its reflection in nature is essential to reverse the humanity’s current destructive attitude towards the natural environment.
A small study conducted on a random sample of residents in New York also
demonstrates the spiritual effect that nature can have on people. The study by Mausner (1996) revealed that respondents viewed themselves as separate from nature, but felt ‘compelled to re-insert themselves’. The author interpreted this yearning for reintegration with nature as a reaction to the separation from the natural world deeply ingrained in Western culture (Mausner, 1996). When the respondents were in natural environments, they claimed to be more perceptive of their surroundings, to have an increased awareness of themselves, to feel at one with the world, and simultaneously detached from the people in their everyday lives (Mausner, 1996). Mausner (1996) concluded that the experience of being in
nature appeared to give people the opportunity to transcend the fundamental dualism of people vs. nature. To understand the human relationship with nature by looking to traditions of spirituality and religion confirms that by harming nature, humans harm themselves.
There is no doubt that nature can evoke powerful responses in people, and can sometimes be responsible for life-changing experiences. Katcher and Beck (1987) describe one such response: ‘.. .[it] generated a feeling of being intact, complete, as if the solid distinct otherness of that natural world had acted as a mirror reflecting myself back to myself. That sense of being intact and comfortable in myself crystallized precisely at the moment when the sense of being a separate self was lost in contemplation’ (page 175). A second example concerns the Stein Valley Festival held in Lytton, British Columbia, which celebrates the physical and spiritual values of the Stein Valley. When two young American Indian men were asked independently describe what the Stein meant to them they both described the valley in terms of a church or a cathedral where they could go to find spiritual
sustenance and restoration (Suzuki 1990).
Although not always formally ‘religious’, many manifestations of modern
environmentalism and the ‘eco-protest lifestyle’ (Letcher, 2002 p. 81) reflect
aspects of spirituality and/or religion. Taylor (2001 p. 175) observes that ‘although participants in countercultural movements often eschew the label religion, these are religious movements, in which these persons find ultimate meaning and transformative power in nature’. Lecher (p. 81), reflecting on the British anti- road protests of the 1990s, comments ‘whilst the actions, and direct-action, of protesters may not always appear outwardly to be religious, many protesters are motivated by their religious convictions such as the paramount belief in the sanctity of nature’. Lecher refers to this religious belief as ‘Eco-Paganism’.
Ethnicity and nature
According to the theory of biophilia, when given a choice people of all cultures should prefer natural environments to urban ones. Newell (1997) studied the favourite places of subjects from Senegal, Ireland, and the United States for cross-cultural comparison of environmental preferences. Participants were asked to identify their favourite place an d give the reason it was chosen, the aim being to test whether people from different cultures shared a preference for certain environments or features, including both built and natural environments. Sixty-one percent of participants identified a part of the natural environment as their favourite place, and across all countries the reasons given were ‘relaxation’ or ‘to recharge’, ‘safety’, or ecological reasons (Newell, 1997). This indicates that across the human population there is a preference for natural environments, regardless of nationality or culture. This clearly supports the
hypothesis of biophilia (Newell, 1997).
Another good example of cross-cultural preferences for nature is the universal attraction humans have for water bodies (Wilson, 1984; Ulrich, 1993; Kellert, 1997; Williams, 1999). Ulrich (1993) proposes that this attraction for water has genetic component tied closely to human evolution, as it signalled the presence or likelihood of finding two survival necessities: water and food. Also, Williams (1999) believes that the general attraction Western cultures have for water is because of a healing or therapeutic meaning assigned to it, dating back to classical Greek and Roman times where water bodies were renowned for their healing powers. Evidence
for this in modern times can be seen in the popularity (and real estate value) of houses built overlooking water. Evidence for the international appeal of water bodies can also be seen in the high volume of tourists and pilgrims who travel each year to rivers, lakes, and beaches at various significant sites around the globe.
However, there are of course different cultural interpretations of what ‘nature’ is, and different ethnic groups relate to nature and natural environments in different ways. In commenting about how people of varying characteristics, including ethnicity, relate to parks and natural environments, Brun (2001, p.20) states that different groups relate to the same place with different meanings, uses and values. These are differences that may give rise to various tensions and conflicts over the use of places.’ Ewert and Kessler (1996 p. 273) highlight the example of indigenous communities which (because they ‘participate in a natural ecosystem as part of their daily lives’) may relate to the natural environment in quite a different way when compared with people who only ‘visit’ a natural environment. Ewert and Kessler (p. 273-4) go on to say: ‘The ecosystem is more than a physical setting for these communities; it is the support system that sustains people physically, culturally, and spiritually.’
Virden and Walker (1999) studied how ethnicity and gender are related to affective meanings attached to the natural environment and how they might influence preferences for environmental settings in outdoor recreation by surveying African-American, Hispanic and White university students in the United States (for the discussion on gender refer to the section entitled ‘Gender, Nature and Health’ below). Their findings showed that White participants considered a forest environment more pleasing and safer than did African-American or Hispanic participants (Virden and Walker, 1999). African-American participants viewed the forest as more ‘annoying’, and both African-American and Hispanic participants considered the forest as ‘threatening’. The authors discuss a number of explanations for these findings, including that African-American and Hispanic participants had lesser amounts of outdoor childhood experience than Whites, which may have influenced their perceptions of nature and natural environments (Virden and Walker, 1999). Drawing on the literature, Virden and Walker (1999) also discuss the possibility that African-Americans and Hispanics are apprehensive about forest environments because of their perception of experiencing unpleasant encounters with other humans. However, their findings may not be applicable to the broader population because the sample was limited to university students (Ho et al., 2005). Nonetheless, they contribute some interesting data to the exploration of ethnicity and nature, an aspect of human-nature relationship that is understudied.
Culturally, due to their early European ancestry (influenced by Judeo-Christian tradition), American Whites are predisposed to perceive forests or wilderness areas as symbolising freedom, as places of refuge, or as places to test oneself (Nash, 1982 in Virden and Walker, 1999). This indicates there is a strong sense of ownership of these environments in those from a White ethnic background. Conversely, due to the historical suppression of, and discrimination against, those from ethnic backgrounds other than White (Ho et al., 2005; Shinew et al., 2004), forests may be considered by non-Whites as environments that are controlled by Whites and are therefore perceived to be potentially unsafe. Virden and Walker (1999) explain that the perceived freedom of wilderness areas may actually imply a lack of social structure, and therefore it is not surprising that members of African-American and Hispanic ethnic groups may find forest environments to be more threatening than their White counterparts. Martin (2004) however, investigated the concept of a racialised outdoor leisure identity in magazine advertisements. He found that the ‘great outdoors’ is socially constructed as a White space, and that African- American models rarely appeared in advertisements for wilderness leisure experiences and are instead confined to urban and suburban environments. Martin (2004) discusses three consequences of this, including: the stereotype that African-American Americans do not participate in wilderness recreation may become a self-fulfilling prophecy; if wilderness areas are perceived as a ‘White space’ some African-Americans may not participate to avoid a perceived or real increase in the likelihood of discrimination; and lastly, that some African-
Americans may internalise the notion that wilderness recreation is White leisure and therefore avoid participation because of a conflict with their own racial identity and/or they may fear ostracism by other Blacks.
Shinew et al. (2004) tested whether community gardens in urban settings could be perceived as spaces in which people of different ethnicities, in this case those from either an African-American or a White background, can successfully relate. Although further investigation is warranted, their findings showed that majority of African-American and White gardeners felt connected to their community garden and believed that community gardening brought people of different ethnicities, who would not normally socialise, together (Shinew et al., 2004). Compared to the negative connotations of forest and wilderness environments described above, community gardens may be perceived by ethnic groups other than White (particularly African-Americans) as unbiased (Shinew et al., 2004), making them ideal environments for fostering positive interactions among people of varying ethnicities as well as a means to build community in urban/ suburban environments.
Community gardening is also a means of building community and enhancing the individual wellbeing of newly arrived migrants. Wong (1997, in Rohde and Kendle, 1997) described the outcomes of a community garden for migrants as: increased sense of identity and ownership of the country they live in; sense of integration rather than isolation; a reunion with nature (i.e. particularly important for first generation immigrants who have rural backgrounds); the reawakening of a sense of possibility; restoration and a relief from daily struggles; and empowerment, skill development and the enabling of opportunity to participate in caring for the environment.
Ravenscroft and Markwell (2000) highlight the potential of parks and open spaces to bring together people of varying social, cultural and ethnic backgrounds. They refer to Carr et al. (1992, p. 10) who note that ‘… successful multicultural spaces add to the richness of the city as a learning environment and give hope to the … dream of cultural integration, or at the very least, cultural understanding.’ Hence, by bringing people in contact with one another, natural environments could be used as means of breaking down racial barriers, or facilitating cooperation and communication between different groups.
In terms of preferences for, and perceptions of, parks and other natural
environments by people from varied ethnicities, Ho et al. (2005) studied people from African-American, Hispanic, Chinese-American, Japanese-American, and Korean-American backgrounds and their use of urban parklands. Although some differences were found in relation to preferences about facilities (refer to Ho et al., 2005 for explanation), there was widespread agreement amongst participants that urban parks and open spaces provided important benefits including improving overall health, increasing social and spiritual wellbeing, and enhancing environmental quality.
In general there is still more research needed on how people of different
ethnicities perceive nature and natural environments, how these perceptions influence their use of these areas, and lastly, their perceptions of the potential benefits and outcomes of contact with nature. On this note, Driver et al. (1996) comment that managers of parks and other open spaces must work towards a fuller understanding of the needs and values of an increasingly ‘multicultural citizenry’.
Healthy parks, healthy people
The health benefits of contact with nature in a park context
A review of relevant literature
School of Health and Social Development Faculty of Health, Medicine, Nursing and Behavioural Sciences
© Deakin University and Parks Victoria 2008
Authors Dr. Cecily Maller Associate Professor Mardie Townsend Associate Professor Lawrence St Leger Dr Claire Henderson-Wilson Ms Anita Pryor Ms Lauren Prosser Dr Megan Moore