Wild Grace: Nature as a Spiritual Path – Eric Alan Interview

I heard this interview of Eric Alan around 2005 and found the transcript because he sums up my shamanic view of nature so beautifully. It was one of those, I couldn’t say it better moments. So I wanted to share this with you here along with the link to his book.

This interview originally appeared at SFGate.com and was conducted by David Ian Miller.

In his book, Wild Grace: Nature as a Spiritual Path,  writer, musician and photographer Eric Alan uses language and images of the outdoors to explain how nature inspires and transforms us. The book includes his photographs of nature scenes in California, Oregon and Hawaii, along with a series of essays. Alan, 46, lives in Ashland, Oregon, where he is the musical director of a radio station. I interviewed him recently by e-mail.

You grew up in the suburbs of Southern California. How did you become so interested in nature?

I learned to appreciate the outdoors as a young person, even though I grew up in an urban environment. My parents appreciated it, and so I’m sure they instilled a love of it within me — but it goes deeper than that. Even though I didn’t have the words for it as a boy, I think my interest was innate. I became interested in nature — because it’s all there is.

What are some of your favorite outdoor places?

Over time, my favorite places have shifted with my environment. As a child, the smell of the chaparral in the Southern California canyons was the smell of heaven, and I learned to find great peace along any edge of ocean. Living as resident artist at Wilbur Hot Springs in the early ’90s gave me a deeper outdoor home, and the forests of Oregon have come to feel the most welcoming — although, conversely, I love the deserts of the American Southwest. I have yet to see a natural place that didn’t in some way have great beauty.

What do you usually do when you’re in nature?

I tend to hike and photograph in the outdoor places, although I also like to spend time simply listening, writing, napping, eating, laughing, making love and playing Frisbee. And when the night skies are clear and warm, you can find me under the stars at any given opportunity.

Do you do any sort of spiritual practice outdoors?

I don’t distinguish between spiritual practice and the motions of daily living. It’s all in what we bring to the moment and the task at hand. I consider it a spiritual practice to walk to work every morning. Working, too, is as spiritual as it gets, as long as I do it with mindfulness.

Lately, it’s been my practice to focus on gratitude while walking. When I see the miracle of the growth from the soil and feel the miracle of life itself, gratitude is impossible to prevent. The difference between meditation and a walk has disappeared for me. And I walk every day lately. My mountain bike has gotten lonely this year.

Why is it that so many people have spiritual experiences in nature? What is it about the natural world that stimulates this reaction? Our spirit is our essence, and nature is our essence as well. So it’s natural that spirit becomes apparent where nature is most obvious to human perception.

Also, experiencing the pure natural world takes us beyond intellect, into realms of the sensory and the instinctive — places that return us to a connection with our own spirit. It also shows us the transcendent beauty and complexity nature is capable of, and in that beauty greater spirit becomes clear.

And yet most of us live in an urban environment. Do you think that works against having a spiritual life?

No. The urban environment is still a part of nature. We’ve modified nature significantly; but modifying nature is a part of nature, too! There’s no fundamental difference between a simple bird nest and a home in Pacific Heights — it’s just a matter of form and scale. Some African termite mounds are remarkable feats of architecture that put our clumsy dwellings to shame.

When you recognize that everything urban is still a part of nature’s amazing weave, you begin to have a different relationship with it. You start to see the living spirit within it.

One small but significant exercise is to look at any object, in any room, and trace its roots back to nature. Some objects are obvious: Wood furniture traces back to trees, which in turn trace back to the soil, the rain, the sun. Plastic traces back to oil, which directly connects to living creatures of another geologic age. Some objects are complex composites, but even toxic wastes, weapons and technological marvels are still creations only made from nature — and thus remain a part of it.

What are the central lessons that nature has to teach us in terms of spirituality?

There are so many that it’s difficult to know where to begin. I’ve come to believe that all wisdom, including wisdom that’s beyond our perception, is contained in nature in almost a holographic way. You can often find the largest lessons coded within the smallest vistas. It may even require a magnifying glass! There’s no answer I’ve sought in which I didn’t find nature had some relevant wisdom embedded in it for me to find.

Give me one example.

One central realization for me was that if enlightenment is a state of perfect awareness and no interfering mind, then the enlightenment so many have sought is essentially a return to the state of wild perception. Enlightenment is what the wild animals already have.

Were you raised in a particular religious tradition?

I went to a Methodist church as a child and found community there but not full resonance with the forms of belief and practice. I found myself rebelling against it inside, even as a boy. I would sneak my transistor radio in and listen to Dodger baseball games with an earplug, instead of to Sunday school. Fortunately, as an adult I saw the light and became a Giants fan.

I never did return to the Christian tradition. However, I love the core principles. If only they were followed more often! I saw a bumper sticker recently that said, “Jesus called: he wants his religion back.” I think that pretty much sums it up.

What’s your spiritual practice these days?

Daily living a mindful life. That can include nearly everything, from choosing work with purpose to approaching relationships and lovemaking from a spiritual perspective, to washing the dishes with focus and presence, to how I interact with music promoters when they call me. When I’m on the air as a radio DJ, I make it a practice to take a four-minute walk around the building every hour, just to breathe and taste the outside air. It changes everything. Merely breathing mindfully has phenomenal power.

It sounds like you’ve been influenced by Buddhist ideas. Do you consider yourself a Buddhist?

No. I don’t affiliate myself exclusively with any organized path (or any organized political party, for that matter).

Who are some of your favorite spiritual teachers?

In the human realm, I feel the deepest resonance with Thich Nhat Hanh. The simple mindfulness he teaches, the spiritual inclusiveness and the engaged quiet activism all speak to me deeply. He’s managed to communicate great truths with such elegant simplicity. My spiritual teachers are often in other than human form, though. Rivers have been great teachers to me, as I mentioned, teaching me tremendous amounts about how to move through the world.

The cat currently on my lap has also been a great teacher: He’s extremely mindful and very in touch with his purpose. Even what seem like the worst adversaries can turn into incredible teachers. Traffic jams, for instance, have taught me a great deal about flow — as water has done — and about what I must bring to conflict to successfully negotiate it. Illness, too, has been a great teacher.

You survived a bout with cancer. What kind was it?

Testicular cancer that spread into my lymph system. Very much what biker Lance Armstrong went through, except his went into the lungs and brain before they stopped it. It took two surgeries, two courses of chemo, meditation, imagery work, exercise, lifestyle changes and other things to beat it.

How, if at all, did that experience affect your spiritual beliefs?

One thing cancer really made me aware of is that a human being isn’t just one form of life. I realized that cancer was as alive as I was, a part of me and yet not a part of me. Same with all the healthy bacteria and microbes within me, and so on. None of us could exist without several hundred kinds of microbes living within us. Are those separate lives from ours? No.

My beliefs about a separate sense of self began to come apart. My belief in the equality of species also made me start to question whether cancer didn’t have a right to life equal to mine. That, to say the least, brought up philosophical conflicts. I decided not to spend my time debating them and focused instead on survival. That choice is as fundamental as nature gets. Creatures don’t debate philosophy when in danger of being eaten!

Do you live any differently now as a result of having had cancer?

So many people who have cancer rearrange their priorities, but for me — because I was already in the middle of that process — it mostly reaffirmed mine. I was already becoming insistent on living simply, following my creative path and diving ever deeper into nature.

After discovering how the Oregon woods (and photographing within them) were an antidote to chemotherapy, I came out of the experience knowing that nature itself was my spiritual path. But I didn’t know what that meant in specific. I had to write and photograph all of “Wild Grace” to begin to find out.

What do you think God is?

I’m uncomfortable with the term because so many specific and inadequate images have been attached to the word “God.” I’m even more uncomfortable with the notion that I could define or understand the greater spirit I feel. Me attempting to conceive of God accurately is akin to an insect attempting to interpret the Bible. It’s so far beyond the capabilities of my tiny, limited consciousness that I know better than to believe I’ll ever understand. I’m content with the beauty and the awe of the mystery.

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