Navigating the Nexus – Nature, Culture & the Sacred

The following is a transcript from Bioneers Co-Founder Nina Simons’ presentation at Bioneers 2022.

As we left Northern New Mexico this week, a wildfire was (and still is) burning – over 260,000 acres of rural forested land about 20 miles from our beloved home. My animal body has been tensed to flee, perhaps also sensing the panic of elk and deer, antelope and fox in the region.

If you’re at all like me, you may be having trouble finding your way through the challenging
confluence of crises we are facing these days. I keep trying to figure out how, where and when to show up, attempting to find a window through this maze of ever more broken, corrupt and increasingly destructive systems and institutions that currently govern our society.

Nina Simons

It has felt sudden to some of us, but it’s apparent now that it’s been building steadily for a long time. It feels to me like being assaulted from all directions, at once. And, as I’ve heard it said “If you find yourself in hell, keep going.”

To try to find some footing amidst all this instability, I’ve had to dig deep within my heart, body, mind and intuition to identify some anchors, some practices that can stabilize and help me to stay centered to move forward in a good way.

As I considered my life’s trajectory, I realized that the first anchor I have turned to again and again is the natural world. As early as I can remember, green, outdoor spaces were where I went to soothe and comfort myself. When my parents fought, or I was feeling uncertain or frightened Central Park, where I lived in New York City, was the place I felt held, secure and stable.

Another area of life that has always enlivened me is the arts, in the realm of culture. In college, I saw that so much of our dominant cultural conditioning was a source of everything that I sensed was wrong in the world. But I found forms of theater there – by playwrights like Harold Pinter and Sam Shepard – that challenged those social norms. I loved how these collaborative artforms created an embodied, felt experience of some of the twisted aspects of mainstream beliefs and behaviors. I relished how theater could expose otherwise unexamined social patterns that result in isolation instead of connection.

Creative purposeful efforts in many media that aim to help reshape our culture have claimed my focus and my heart ever since.

Although much of what our mainstream media creates is banal, toxic or perpetuates harm, those visionary artists who delve below the surface to reveal the truths emergent beyond the noise are among my most regenerative sources of hope.

The other wellspring of renewal I consistently draw upon to see me through challenging times is the domain of the sacred or the spiritual. It’s the most difficult aspect of life to talk about for me. I hesitate to even go there, but it’s become so central to my well-being that it would be dishonest of me not to name it in this context.

I realize that it’s a cliché to say that spiritual experiences are the hardest to put into words, because they aren’t born from my rational mind. As they say, they’re “ineffable,” and no one knows where they come from.

But I’ve found that trying to bring my own personal sense of the sacred into some sort of daily, embodied, ritual forms has offered me essential ballast. Terry Tempest Williams’ words resonate deeply for me: “I trust what I see, and I believe what I feel. Trusting direct experience is the open door to revelation. This was my foundation for faith. It still is.”

In my view, dictionary definitions of the sacred, like ‘worthy of veneration,’ or ‘entitled to reverence and respect’ are missing the physical and emotional realities of experiencing the sacred. To me it feels more like a tangible experience of a generative and boundless love. The love of the mother. It’s a nectar that all my senses perceive, and one that nourishes and renews my heart.

And this returns me to my first anchor, because immersing myself in the natural world has provided me with a most reliable doorway into the sacred. My daily walks in the woods around our home revitalize me. I smell juniper and pinon, hear the wind rustling ponderosas, sense the crusty soil crunching beneath my feet.

I am awed by the resilience of moss that can still grow in the sandy arroyos, amidst a hundred-year drought. My eyes savor the brilliant green of new growth, my heart greets a flurry of bees feasting on apple blossoms, as friends of fertility.

I used to be afraid that if I told anyone how transported, lifted and embedded I felt in nature – how devoted I am to her creatures, places and mysteries – they’d think I was crazy, so I kept it under wraps. But now, as we face imminent threats to all of life, I find myself asking for help from all possible allies, including the invisible ones I sense as ancestors, elements, energies and nature spirits.

Doing this helps me remember that I don’t need to carry the pain or grief of the world’s losses alone. It reminds me that I’m part of the entire web of life, of the whole Earth community, and that all of it is imbued with sacredness.

But I really want to avoid what’s sometimes called “spiritual bypassing”- using supposed spiritual attitudes to ignore the world’s problems and deny the strength and value of our emotions.

Let’s be real: It’s really hard not to get knocked off-center by so much that is happening.

I am outraged at the brutality and repression of so many in power around the world, Furious at a Supreme Court Justice quoting the words of a 17th Century witch burner as justification for stripping women of our right to decide about our own bodies and lives. I’m enraged at fossil fuel corporations knowingly destroying the climate while corrupting our political system, Horrified by the murders of so many courageous Indigenous and other activists and journalists around the world, And my heart breaks for all the species we’re annihilating.

I do feel angry frequently, and often deeply sad and mourning, and the anchors I’ve mentioned are helping me to express what I feel and find my center as often as possible.

As humans, emotions are the psychic ocean we swim in. Some say they are nature’s way of informing us of what we need to know.

We’ve got to avoid and shift mainstream culture’s program of insidiously repressing emotions, especially grief and legitimate rage. I believe that pattern hobbles our capacity to act effectively and collaboratively on behalf of what we love and want to protect or defend. Our lack of brave spaces to respect, listen for and express what our hearts feel throughout life’s changes undermines our leadership and engaged action.

From Unangan elder Ilarion Merculieff, or Kuulux, I’m reminded that we must learn to lead from our hearts first, and no longer mainly from our minds.

Another source of strength I’ve found is learning about the worldviews and ways of being of some traditional Indigenous cultures. Many of them offer remarkable models for how we can live as good human beings, in right relationship to each other, nature and the sacred.

We are so fortunate that even with the horrific ongoing genocide and oppression inflicted on so many First Peoples, there are still those who are generously willing to communicate some of what they know, if we can approach them humbly, with curiosity, deep respect and true allyship.

For many years, in partnership with great co-facilitators, I’ve gathered groups of women change-agents who were diverse in every way, for weeklong retreats. There, we practiced ways of shedding our toxic cultural habits – the impulses to compare and judge each other and ourselves in ways that kept us small.

We tried in those gatherings to work toward greater collaboration, mutual aid and lifting each other up. We practiced in co-creative spaces where intimacy, vulnerability and the first tender shoots of trust could emerge.

When painful eruptions occurred, we tried to turn toward them to heal, instead of away.

These women have taught me how much healing can happen when we choose to cultivate ourselves in community. We made purposeful art, danced together, exchanged root stories and unearthed core archetypal shadow material to offer it to the flames of change.

Once I experienced that kind of kinship, I saw women in a different light. I witnessed their profound and unflagging dedication to life and I could encounter them as potential allies, and not as competitors.

And after all these years I remain devoted to Bioneers, because it’s still a dynamic living system. We try to create spaces where different cultures and perspectives can meet, listen and connect in mutuality, appreciation and respect.

Of course, there are some disagreements among us, and we make mistakes like everyone else, but we seek to co-create a field that celebrates pluralism. A community that intends to be guided by inquiry, courage, love, respect and compassion, all rooted in a deep devotion to our home and mother, the natural world herself and our entire Earth web of kinship.

In the hope that some of it may be useful for you, I’ll share a few things that I’ve found helpful in arriving at decisions about where to focus, how to take my next clear step, and how best to live.

More and more I try to focus on what’s small, close and dear to me. On caring for the land, plants, creatures and loved ones who surround me in my daily life. I tend to the hungry birds that remain near our home daily, praying for their wellness while ensuring they have food and fresh water. When I walk in the woods, I practice pouring love, gratitude and healing into the natural world through the soles of my feet.

I devote more and more energy to cultivating a community of chosen family, an inner circle who I feel I can count on, no matter what.

I’ve begun giving more attention to life support systems in my community, trying to invest some of my time, skills and resources to help develop greater self-reliance for things like food, energy, water, shelter, and the local economy. And I’m beyond grateful now for the valor, dedication and skill of firefighters and health care workers.

I practice listening for what my body and heart want and need to stay healthy, and try to act upon what I sense, hear or feel.

But doing this kind of inner work doesn’t replace my need for action in the wider world – instead, I hope that it can inform what I do from a more considered, reflective and self-aware place.

And, while tending to the local is deeply healing and important, we all need to urgently keep finding ways to respond to the climate justice emergency for all of life, to stand strongly in allyship with the leadership of Indigenous and BIPOC activists, women and young people.

I learned recently about a group I found especially inspiring called Scientist Rebellion, over a thousand scientists from around the world who are frustrated, angry and fearful about the lack of effective responses to the climate crisis. They translate those emotions into effective forms of civil disobedience, including chaining themselves to the White House fence and covering the Spanish Parliament building with blood-red paint.

In the NY Times, the founder of the Climate Emergency Fund wrote this: “Testimony from these scientists shows people who are radiantly alive, meeting the challenges of the moment.

Peter Kalmus, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, described chaining himself to a Chase Bank building in Los Angeles last month as “a profoundly spiritual experience – in some way, incredibly satisfying and empowering and hope-giving and life-affirming.”

I invite you to join me in imagining and working toward a people’s civil resistance movement that can help to form connective tissue and some shared vision among the many siloed – yet deeply related – networks, movements and issues that we face.

May enough of us bring our determined and impassioned selves into creative collaborative action, holding each other with fierce compassion in community, across divides – while turning towards each other through the bumps, triggers and ruptures we encounter.

May we trust in the power of the natural world that speaks through us, remembering to ask for help from all of our relatives, and also from our invisible allies, ancestors and the Earth herself.

May we move forward only as each step becomes clear, paying exquisite attention, listening with our hearts, remaining focused and resolute, so that when a window through appears, we may be ready to open and step through it.

Here’s to the regenerative power of life herself, and to the healing that’s so urgently needed.

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