by Joanne Lee
North. South. East. West. We live in a physical universe of four directions, which enable us to orient ourselves in this world of trees and rivers, towns and roads. When we hold a map, we expect that the "top" is north. The directions provide us a common language when we travel, whether we are moving around locally or a very long way from home. What we may have forgotten is that they can also serve as a map to our inner worlds ñ in our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual journeys.
It's not uncommon for people to be totally unaware of the directions in their home environments. A few people still give directions like this: Go north until you get to the elementary school, then turn to the west. For many this is not only not helpful, it is downright disorienting as they have no relationship to the directions. In western Washington it can be challenging to determine the directions because our skies are so often cloudy. With clear skies, the sun and the resulting shadows, give us moment by moment information about what direction we are headed. At night the stars can be our guides. Before the advent of mechanized and technological tools, navigation by the stars was the only option for mariners. To be able to navigate by the stars is still sound insurance for boaters who make multi-day trips or travel at night.
Cultures that live in harmony with the natural world typically know their directions and use them as guides in their travels, in planning their homes and gardens, and for ceremonial purposes. Animals also have an intimate connection with the directions, though we may not fully understand this or be able to explain how it works. We've all heard the stories of pets who have found their way across town or country to reunite with their owners. Bird migrations also demonstrate the essential nature of right relationship with the directions. For birds it means their very survival.
Human disconnection from the natural world has led to coining the phrase "nature deficit disorder" with regards to our children. Children spend their time inside at school, inside at home, in front of their TVs or video games. Many children have little or no relationship, familiarity or comfort with the natural world. Can't we say the same for many adults?
Indigenous cultural wisdom, long ago disregarded as quaint or even worthless, is being reconsidered as modern life increasingly fails to support our health and happiness. What can we learn from the indigenous cultures that have maintained connection to the earth? In my studies of my ancestral Celtic culture, I find rich resources with a consistent deep connection to the natural world. People were related to each other in families and communities ñ as we are now ñ but their communities included the natural world. The trees, the plants, the animals, the rocks, the mountains, the rivers, the weather, the very earth all constituted integral parts of their community.
In examining the deeper relationship that is possible with the natural world we find the four directions provide both a literal and a metaphorical map that can help us find our way. Each direction is associated with a power, with an element, with a season, with a color, with an animal species (or group) and with attributes. Differences between cultures with regard to their model of the four directions were based on their own "sense of place."
By contemplating our own modern lives, we can begin to create for ourselves a similar map. We can see where we have traveled and see what territory we have left to explore. We can find the 'next steps' in our development -- whether it be physical, emotional, mental or spiritual. Ideally our four 'bodies' develop and evolve in harmony as we are whole systems. We can't long ignore one without experiencing problems in another. One way to invite vibrant health is to design activities and adventures that call to our souls and invite us to reconnect with that which is deepest and most meaningful within us and within the natural world around us.
A way to honor yourself and your integration with the natural world, is to spend time deeply listening to the messages you receive when out in nature. A structure to help you deepen your listening is the following exercise:
Decide on a place in the natural world where you can be alone or undisturbed for several hours. You will need to bring the following items with you: