The practice of being present: How nature has brought me back to center

When I was 3 months postpartum with Holden, I stumbled upon an amazing hiking group for moms. For over a year, I was hiking with Holden 2-3x per week with amazing women from all walks of life. We laughed together, we cried together, and we sweated together. We were going through so many of the same transitions with our bodies, hormones, relationships, and motherhood. There were times when I couldn’t even think about anything else beyond just getting outside to go hiking. It was therapeutic, challenging, and strengthening.

Four years and another kid later, and now my whole family turns to the outdoors to get a break from the rest of the world. It’s a relatively new love that I have for nature and the outdoors. I didn’t grow up hiking or camping or really being outside a ton for the most part. And as I got older, I actually developed a really strong detachment from my own body. When I was 15, I developed body dysmorphia which led me to struggle with anorexia, bulimia, and really unhealthy relationships with food in general. I was living in a constant out-of-body state where I emotionally and mentally was not attached to my body in any way. It was like I was looking at myself from a different point of view, every moment of every day. Beyond the basic motor skills of my brain telling my body to move, there was no other connection to what I was doing with my body. I yearned for another body and would have done anything to change it.

It’s interesting, because when I think back to these worst and darkest years of dysmorphia, it almost feels like when you black out and you’re trying to remember what happened. The memories are extremely foggy and it often feels like all of it was all a dream. My mind-body connection was nearly inexistent, and I most definitely wasn’t connected to the world around me.

Having such disrespect for my body also led me to have no respect for Mother Earth and the beauty in nature. How could I appreciate her, if I hated my body so much? How could I appreciate something that is actually so connected to me, if I couldn’t appreciate myself to begin with? Probably the most hurtful thing to think about now, aside from how awful I treated my own body, is that I was also so hurtful toward her. I completely disregarded her beauty and had no problem littering my trash on the ground. At the pit of my stomach, I still have so much guilt and shame for my relationship (or lack there of) with her.

Then, about 8 years ago, I started coming out of this really dark reality. I met Tyson, and we began hiking together. He had also just come out of a dark time in his life, and it was as if, together, we were dating and exploring the outdoors together and simultaneously finding healing at the same time. The outdoors felt very foreign to me. It was weird to be in nature and not feel so worried about my own body.  And then, something clicked, and my appreciation grew. Mind was being stimulated, and at the same time, my legs and body were being stimulated too. It was a weird process of learning to feel my mind and body at the same time, while developing these positive feelings and memories of all of it together. My lungs felt like they were expanding more than they had in years. My out-of-shape body burned and my lungs gasped but I was so grateful for the connection between my mind and body that was beginning to take shape.

When I was out in nature, I started feeling my mind and body become one. I’d feel the soreness in my feet and legs, and I’d really feel it. I remember just dwelling in any physical pain I’d feel and I would appreciate it, because I had been so disconnected from my body that it had actually been a long time since I really felt physical pain. I started feeling this overwhelming humility where I felt so small outside in the large vastness of a mountainside and that I was at the mercy to whatever nature wanted to do to me. I started visualizing my arms and legs somehow being intertwined with the trees and their limbs. My feet started feeling like they belonged on the dirt trail. I’d imagine the fibers in my hair being the same fibers found in all the foliage around me. I’ve never shared those visuals with anyone because they would probably sound super weird to say out loud. But I still have those visualizations today.

I’ve learned to look at the trees and appreciate their strong stance and remember the oxygen and healing they give to us. I started seeing them as something more than just tall standing timber that moves with the wind. At my worst, I would see myself as just a figure, standing there, being swayed by whatever passed me by. But then I started to see it differently. That, even as we stand there, we can still be present and create energy and power around us.

I started seeing myself for what I am, and not for what I wasn’t.

I started feeling a sort of enlightenment, where the heavy weight I had been carrying began to fall off. The weight that my ego carried around from being so separate from my own body.

Michael Gungor often talks about enlightenment and letting go of all the ways we yearn and search for a way to be something other than what we’re not:

When the river reveals these sorts of shadows and unearthed constrictions in us, it is a great grace. One must first realize that some part of their body/mind is holding onto something in order to let it go. Letting go: That’s the one spiritual move (or unmove). It’s not even something that you “do” as much as something you stop doing. It’s not belief as much as it’s trust. It’s not trying to change anything, but simply being (Gungor).

Simply being. Less searching, less seeking, less perfecting. For most of my life, I have been told to believe that I needed to do all these certain things to obtain an eternal happiness for somewhere else other than life on earth. That my life here was almost moot, because we are supposed to be storing up for our true home elsewhere.

I’ll tell you why I have a hard time with that now: because it takes me back to that same out-of-body experience that takes me away from the here and now. I think that teaches the opposite of being present and finding the connection between ourselves and our Earthly home.

Often times we are told that we need to be checking all of these specific boxes and to constantly be seeking and searching for something else than ourselves. My other problem with that, is that for so long, I was so detached from my own self that I was near death. And now that I have found myself and a connection and love for my own body, I too, have found a new love for Earth. I can’t imagine how or why I would set myself aside and believe that where we are right now isn’t important. I don’t like the messages that take us away from taking care of our home here. I think that creates a barrier between people and the one true creation that we have here on Earth. Maybe we should start thinking of God and Creation and Nature all as one: as God our Mother.

Illusions of another life are planted inside of us, and because of it, we feel more and more detached from who we are NOW and we don’t know how to treat our Earthly home.

I’ve learned that for me, nature and her beauty are the most consistent healing that I have ever experienced. But it’s a learned experience – one that you have to commit to seeing with new eyes. Just like any other religion or belief, you have to also commit your time to it. If experienced pure, right and often, nature can indeed be the most perfect religion of practice and healing. And the way we interact with the earth – how we allow it to humble us and how we can experience community in it – can also change our perspectives of our natural home.

The practice of being in and experiencing the outdoors is a practice that has filled up a huge void that I’d had most of my life. My religion had been based mostly on the idea of belief – that you put all of your hope into something greater than you. You believe that there is a plan instilled for your life, and as long as you believe in the scriptural truth, you believe that no matter what happens on this earth, there will be an eternal perfect life waiting for you on the other side.

Believing is a beautiful thing, but what about the practice? I kept experiencing this seasons of dryness and despair because I couldn’t deal with the idea that we just had to believe. I’m a doer. I need to know what I should do to feel better and to be healed. Not only what I should believe.

I had never considered Buddhism until I heard this idea of belief vs practice explained to me. Buddhism is more of a practice and way of life than a religion or belief system. Buddhism shows you how to be present, mindful, kind, and loving. I’m in no way an expert on Buddhism and wouldn’t call myself a Buddhist, but rather a “former/almost-Christian-that-believes-there-is-healing-in-nature-and-doesn’t-always-align-with-Christian-beliefs-and-loves-the-teachings-of-Jesus-but-believes-that-you-can-be-a-loving-and-kind-person-without-Jesus-too.” I know there will be some of you that will roll their eyes and believe that the above run-on sentence isn’t possible. And this is what I’d say to those people: I’m sorry that you’re living inside of a box where you think it all has to be black and white. It’s really beautiful outside of that box and you should open your eyes to some other perspectives and ways to see the world.

“You are identifying yourself with the perspective of someone else. Someone else’s rituals become our rituals. Someone else’s thinking about God become our ways of thinking about God. So we don’t have an issue of God not being relevant or working in our lives…We have an issue of seeing God through OUR own experiences. 

I think the experiences of where God is to be found need to be taught. That God is also found in nature. God is MOSTLY found in nature. Our minds are so focused on the church, the temporal building, the scripture, the paper, the liturgy of the cloth, all of the things we do in church – we put great devotion to that, yet, we reluctantly and negligently commune with God in the very places that Moses did. And experience the wonder of the parting of the waters.

Coming to terms with the Earth is to come to terms with God. And I think that could be one of the reasons why the church doesn’t work so well. Now we could modify it all day long. We could open up churches and customize it to these people and that people, and I think that’s great. But if that’s our greatest aspiration, we are still no more than mice on a wheel recycling.

– Bushi Yamato Damashii (The Liturgist Podcast)

The idea that nature could be the perfect “religion” all of the sudden doesn’t feel so crazy to me. Every time I step into the woods, I lose the sense of feeling judged or monitored. I don’t feel the need to be what someone else wants me to be. I don’t feel the need to perform, and I don’t feel the need to relate to anyone else or have anyone relate to me. If I’m going to teach my children one thing in this lifetime, it is that they have the FREEDOM exactly where they are at right now. They don’t need to attain anything and the most powerful form of healing and being is to just simply be. Be who you are and find the ways in which you are connected to this earth that we roam around. We are created from the same atoms and matter that the trees and dirt are made from. They should always know that they have the freedom to follow whatever spiritual (or non-spiritual) beliefs and practices make them feel whole and connected to other people and Earth. But they should never think that anyone else has it wrong just because it might look different than their process of feeling whole.

I decided to write about all of this because of the overwhelming number of people who have reached out to me to talk about their own deconstruction and are having a hard time following their heart. There have also been a great deal of people who have opened up to me with just how hurt they’ve been by the church and other people because they don’t fit the mold. It’s hard to see just how many people don’t feel the freedom to challenge the church or ask questions about their faith without being scolded or criticized. It’s so sad to know that so many people don’t feel the freedom to search what truly makes them feel whole.

Stepping out of the cookie-cutter Christian mold has shown me something that I can’t unsee now. LISTEN to other people’s stories and beliefs that are different than yours, and do it without the intent to argue or to change their mind. And remember that everyone has a perspective and that perspective is their reality. So if it’s different than yours, it doesn’t mean that they’re wrong or that you’re right, and vice versa. We are all living in our own reality and I think we need to be better as humans to learn who the people are around us and respect them for just that.

Many of you have also expressed the desire for more connection with nature and have asked how to make that apart of your daily practice. I want to say: I’m not perfect at this or anything to do with feeling more whole. It’s a work in progress that I believe will always be a work in progress, but I believe that is exactly how it’s supposed to be and apart of the practice as a whole. I don’t believe that we will ever fully attain anything. For me, the idea of committing to the practice of getting outside or experiencing a different part of the outdoors that you never have before is all apart of the journey in living a humble life of gratitude and connectivity to ourselves and others. In my faith deconstruction and my transition to living a life of practice rather than strictly belief, I have created these statements and mantras about nature and what it has to offer me and how I can work forward a complete mind-body connection:

When you feel like you have nothing else, nature will always be there for you. It is consistent and has so much to offer you.

When you have lost your spirituality, nature can be the spark that ignites something new in you.

When you lose your connection with your own body, Mother Earth will show you how to love it again.

When people hurt you, nature is a place to escape in solidarity to reconnect to yourself.

When the voices in your head are weighing you down, there is a silence in the middle of the woods that will help you sort through those voices, but nature also has sounds that should be experienced with intention.

When nothing else makes sense, being in the outdoors will give you a new purpose that you don’t have to make sense of.

When you lose your confidence to be present as your self, being in nature is a practice that will teach you how to be present where you are at and to acknowledge your own self in a respectful way.

So much love to you all ♥️

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