This month's discussion column addresses a reader who questions: How can I nourish my spiritual side when living in a rural area—where connections are harder to find?
Q. I’d like to feel more connected spiritually, but I’m not interested in having a bunch of rules around it. I live in a fairly rural area so I feel like I don't have a lot of options, and joining an organized religion just isn’t my thing. What can I do?
I have a few ideas for you. First, have you tried forest bathing? Many people find that spending time in nature feels spiritually rejuvenating. “When you are surrounded by a forest, a park, or a garden setting—or even your own backyard—and you tune in to the beauty and wonder around you with all of your senses, the experience is bound to feel spiritually uplifting,” says Melanie Choukas-Bradley, a certified forest therapy guide and the author of The Joy of Forest Bathing—Reconnect with Wild Places & Rejuvenate Your Life and other nature books.
“Quietly immersing yourself in nature fosters a sense of awe,” Choukas-Bradley notes. “Psychologists are actually researching the emotional benefits of experiencing awe, finding that it leads to greater happiness and social well-being.”
A 2015 Stanford study showed that walking in a natural area boosted neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, a brain region that is active when we are in rumination—those repetitive loops of negative emotion that can lead to anxiety and depression. “The spiritual benefits are harder to measure but I can tell you from my own experience and those that others have shared with me, the spiritual uplift you feel on a forest bathing walk can be profound,” says Choukas-Bradley.
To try forest bathing, first find a “wild home,” Choukas-Bradley advises. “A wild home can be a park or garden, a tree down the street, or your own backyard. Put your phone in airplane or ‘forest bathing’ mode and spend time in your wild home as often as possible, during all seasons, weather conditions, and times of day. Make it a practice to find a ‘sit spot’ in your wild home, where you quietly observe the beauty and wonder around you. Breathe deeply and tune into your surroundings with all of your senses. Notice what’s in motion, listen for sounds near and far, smell the earth and the plants, and touch the stones and trees around you. Spend as much time as you can soaking up beauty through all your senses.” She also recommends you develop some simple rituals for transitioning back to your daily routine from your forest bath. “Have some tea and a snack, read or recite poetry or sing a favorite song, and think about what you want to bring back to your everyday life from your forest bathing experience.”
You could also try enjoying religion in a way that focuses on self-study and reflection, and doesn’t require commitment—or even interacting with other humans. Harvard has free, self-paced classes available online where you can learn about many topics, including Islam and the Quran; early Christian scripture; and Buddhist practices including art and literature. Find them at edx.org.
Lastly, you could host a salon, inviting a few people over for coffee, wine, and lively conversation exploring spiritual subjects. I loved the list of conversation starters I found associated with the book Saturday Salon by Valerie Davvison (http://thesaturdaysalon.com/topics/). She suggests asking questions like “What was your exposure to/experience with religion growing up?” and “What do you think happens to you when you die?”
I hope one or more of these will resonate with you and help you feel more connected to your spiritual self.
Click to read another Discussion column, “Has Meditation Gotten Too Easy?"