Just what is spirituality and environmental education? | eePRO @ NAAEE

The home of environmental education professional development

Just what is spirituality and environmental education?

What do we mean by ‘spirituality’ in the context of spirituality and EE? This question keeps coming back to me. These words have so many potential meanings and understandings: soul work, religious experience, relating to a universal power bigger than ourselves, connections to/with every thing, interrelatedness, and the list goes on. Perhaps that is why this eePro group was created, to create a space to explore spirituality (whatever that means to each of us) and how we integrate it (or hope to) into our lives’ work of environmental education.
Please offer your thoughts on how spiritually and environmental education are (or could be) integrated from your experience. Your raggedy thinking and sharing is encouraged (no need for polished long responses). And, if you have any resources, articles, or websites to share, please do so along with your response.

This is such an important question!

Spirituality is such a widely and subjectively defined term and also a term which can evoke immediate responses in folks. For many years, I have taught a graduate course at Prescott College called "The Spiritual Components of Environmental Education" where the very first assignment is to explore various definitions of spirituality, articulate what parts of those definitions resonate and which do not, and then each student generates their own definition based on the exploration. A lively discussion usually follows where it is often expressed that defining something like spirituality is dynamic and fluid.

What seems most important to me is that we, as practitioners, understand our own understanding of this term for ourselves, recognize our own biases and challenges within our own spiritual journeys, and realize that we cannot define this for others, but rather can create experiences in our programs which might open the door for our participants to have their own spiritual connections with the natural world.

Below, I will post an article I authored with a colleague of my, Dr. Richard Jurin. I will also post the two books I use for textbooks in the class I mentioned above. There as so many interesting articles out there on this subject! :)

PDF icon se_and_sustainability.pdf382.14 KB

Deb, thank you for posting. Your response is so "spot on". I do believe that understanding one's own spiritual path and how that defines one's own life is important because what we offer through the educator part of our being depends on that pathway and the relationship our spirit has to the environment and our audience. Being an environmental educator looks different for each of us no matter how we are trained. How we are able to reconcile our relationship with the environment to others' relationship is where the education happens. Or, so it seems to me.

Thanks for this conversation! The question of "What is spirituality and environmental education?" and the acknowledgment that it can mean many things to many people makes me think of a two-way street. On the one hand, as environmental educators, we may seek to weave spirituality into our programs and practices. On the other hand, as spiritual beings, we may seek to weave environmental education into our spiritual programs and practices. The former might look like starting an EE program off with mindfulness and gratitude, or by exploring with a class how various societies connect spiritually with nature. The latter might look like building environmental education activities and experiences into the programming at a religious institution. These are just a couple of examples.

As has been discussed, with our professional EE hats on, we must be careful to respect and honor the different spiritual perspectives of others. No one wants to go to a program (e.g., at a nature center) and feel that some else's spiritual identity or values are being pushed on the participants, who may have a different spiritual identity and set of values. Given these sensitivities around respecting others' perspectives, I gravitate towards ways to bring EE to spirituality, rather than spirituality to EE. For example, if I spent a moment during a nature program talking about my beliefs in Jesus and God, that might upset some, even though it is part of my spiritual experience and connection to the natural world. However, if I built more outside time and nature exploration into Sunday school experiences for preschoolers, I am leveraging my own background and skills as an environmental educator and my membership in a spiritual group to weave together EE and spirituality.

I would love to hear others' thoughts on this! What are some examples you envision in this two-way street of weaving EE into spirituality and spirituality into EE? Or, do you view it not as a two-way street but something different altogether?

I’ve been wondering about this big question: environmental education and spirituality; how are they connected... here’s to some raggedy thinking out loud… please comment with what this stirs for you.

For the sake of this response let’s use this definition of spiritually: “Spirituality can be defined generally as an individual's search for ultimate or sacred meaning and purpose in life” from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spirituality.

So much of what environmental education is intended to do is create learning experiences for people to better understand how the world works, how systems operate, and how we are not separate from nature or our community but are integral parts of the whole. I wonder if the best environmental educators are weaving spirituality into their work subtly, so much so that their learners are having transformational learning experiences they treasure for a long time.

I am curious to consider if it is necessary for environmental educators to explicitly publicly state that spirituality guides their work or not. Perhaps the way people ‘show up’ in the world is enough. I’m thinking of the concept of ‘preaching the gospel at all times, if necessary use words.’ In my experience, the most authentic amazing educators I have encountered had some type of strong spiritual life (I later learned from them). I can’t help but wonder about how a strong spiritual life gives someone such a grounded existence… and it’s apparent when you spend time with them, yet they never have to tell you about it to sense it.

One more thought. Consider how often we have learners do ‘solos’ while out on wilderness trips, silent journalling, make deep observations and drawings of natural phenonmenon, and the like. I believe these are all spiritual experiences for learner to better connect with the meaning of the natural world from their own unique perspective. They are creating meaning for themselves as they build a relationship with that which they are spending time with.

What do the rest of you think about this question?
Thanks for the rich discussion so far in this thread.

Kelly - I appreciate your point about incorporating more environmental education into religious institutions' education programming. I spent a couple years getting my parish going with systematic recycling and compost systems as well as convincing the parish council to do an energy audit of the church. We also celebrated the World Day of Prayer for the Season of Creation on Sept 1 with an outdoor prayer service where we invited the entire community for a more ecumenical event. It was important to me to work at the community level and not just the youth in all this. This is all such important work, even though it feels like we're swimming upstream against strong currents at times.

What a great discussion! I think an important point to bring up is that religion and spirituality are fundamentally different...can be related for some, but certainly are not for everyone. I tend to follow David Orr's idea that all education is EE as the environment is our context for life. What we include in our education programs (whether they are specifically EE or not) and what we leave out is poignant on so many levels.

Certainly some audiences come to programs looking for the nature component or the spiritual component, but that does not mean we should, in all cases, even mention the words spirituality or EE. It all depends on the group, time, place, focus of program, etc.

So many good thoughts and questions! I feel like you all have said much of what I have been thinking about the connections between spirituality and EE, particularly about how it's not always necessary or even appropriate to call specific programs "EE" or "spiritual."

I think this could connect with how I see opportunities for new audiences in EE to be reached by engaging with the spiritual and/or religious. For some folks who may not see themselves as "environmental," connecting the experiences to their religious or spiritual beliefs could play a part in helping start some environmental identity development. Also, faith communities such as churches, synagogues, mosques, etc. can offer resources, influence, and more in advancing environmental stewardship within their broader communities. I've started following the work of groups like the ones linked below to learn more about what that can look like.