To consciously engage with nature and the challenges of our time — ecological destruction, climate crisis, global social unrest — we need to have a clear sense of our nature values. When our action is rooted in our highest nature values, we are able to powerfully and sustainably mobilize our gifts, resources and energy toward meaningful action and positive change. Discovering our highest nature values is a process, and this article shows us how.
by Jennifer Harvey Sallin
OUR VALUES ARE A COMPASS FOR ACTION
In my work as a psychologist and coach over two decades, I have found that one of the essential tools to conscious engagement with life is a clear understanding of our values. Values serve as a compass and guide, helping us to know what matters most to us and where to invest our resources and attention. Without a conscious awareness of them, we tend to operate on guesses and impulses which don’t always align with our deeply-held priorities or authentic sense of self, and which are prone to manipulation by the psychological forces at play in our lives (dominant ideologies and their pressures, group think, unresolved trauma, unconscious fears and shadow emotions, to name a few).
Most of us weren’t taught in school how to gain a conscious understanding of our deeply-held values, nor how to align our life actions according to them. Instead, schooling is geared toward aligning our values to the dominant ideologies of whatever culture we grow up in (part of the psychological forces I mention above). Some of us are lucky enough to have families or certain teachers or mentors who helped us get clarity on our values, but for those of us who weren’t so lucky, it can be challenging to find the path to this valuable information.
A core part of my work has been partnering with clients and students in the life-giving exploration of their values, and then supporting them to make life and career choices according to this very personalized compass. Without this information, clients lack a clear sense of what they want and care about most in a world overfull of choices, and their confused priorities drag them here and there, eventually leading to burnout or impasse.
As I’ve moved into the the domain of climate psychology, I’ve witnessed (and experienced) the same phenomenon: without a clear understanding of our values as related to the natural world, many of us bounce around, never exactly sure what to prioritize, and often at an impasse regarding how to best engage with and protect the natural world. As with values in general, most of us don’t receive a stimulating and clarifying education about our nature values. Instead, the natural world is often treated in our education as a backdrop where the “real” story of life unfolds: the story of human society. Some of us end up with the feeling that we don’t even need personal values related to the natural world, since it is just there and will always be there: therefore it doesn’t need our attention or care.
Even if you’re a nature-lover, there’s no guarantee that you will protect nature as an expression of your deepest nature values. Maybe you hike or paint landscapes or love to ski, and you think of yourself as being very connected to nature. Many of us like being in or looking at nature, but when it comes to a values-imbued relationship with nature, we find we are at a loss. Research has shown time and again that loving nature as a beautiful place to be, and even caring about nature as its own separate being, doesn’t necessarily translate into taking action to protect it.
That obviously becomes problematic for us when we look at the situation we are in — ecological breakdown, climate crisis, global unrest — and find ourselves wondering what we should do in response. It’s clear we all have to adapt to the big changes we are experiencing, whether purely for survival reasons or out of a deeper existential and relational need to make a positive contribution; but without conscious knowledge of our values, and how those values connect to and direct us in our relationship to the natural world, many of us don’t know how we should adapt to the situation or how we should contribute to positive change. This can lead to total inertia (doing nothing) or hyperactivity (chaotic overdoing), both of which express an emotionally painful disconnection from nature and from our most authentic selves. So the question is: how can we learn about our nature values and use them as a catalyst and guide toward healthy connection with and sustainable engagement with the nature world?
DISCOVERING YOUR NATURE VALUES EXERCISE
Earlier in my career, I created a coaching exercise that I led almost all my clients through, to guide them in determining their values hierarchy. You can read about it here: Discovering Your Highest Values. To help us explore our nature values, I’ve decided to adapt a version of the exercise in this article.
Here’s how it goes: Make a 2-column list. In the first column, describe several situations in nature in which you have felt at your best, that nature was in harmony with your own priorities and you felt supported by the natural world. In the second column, describe situations in which you have felt at your worst, where the situation you were in was both in disharmony with the natural world and in disharmony with your priorities; these are situations where you felt that both you and the natural world were invisible, abused or otherwise blocked from thriving. These situations can describe momentary events, memories, ongoing life configurations, ongoing feelings related to modern life/nature, etc. Follow your intuition in choosing which situations to describe. They usually pop into your mind spontaneously and clearly — follow that inner guidance.
To illustrate, I’ll share my responses to the exercise:
Describe several situations in nature in which you have felt at your best, that nature was in harmony with your own priorities and you felt supported by the natural world. What did you feel?
Being with the oak tree on the school yard when I was a child – a sense of wonder; that the oak tree was teaching me about the nature of life, seasons, change, transformation, potential; a sense of hope in life; a model of and guide for resilience; wisdom of life; she was an elder to me; deep connection to the colors, smells, wind; relief from the demands and pressures of school and young social life — I just got to be myself with her and felt safe to grow up and be part of the circle of life.
Camping on the lake – quiet, very few machines (cars, planes, etc); capacity to listen deeply to the natural world around me; ability to experience the surprises of nature – animal visits, animal calls and communication, fossils in the water, shooting stars; being able to see and hear nature interact with itself (i.e. how rain looks and sounds on trees, instead of how it looks and sounds on windows and roofs); feeling a sense of expansiveness; being able to feel and experience my body (my own nature) in different natural contexts — in the lake, in the sand, in the forest; feeling myself as an integral part of nature, safe to be and welcomed as my natural self; relief from demands of societal expectations (no need to be on the cell phone or internet, no need to wear the “right clothes”, etc); capacity to learn about the local flora and fauna, and the natural rhythms of the bioregion; capacity to witness the evolution of life in real time.
Taking photographs of nature’s beauty – communication with nature; communicating with others about nature through art; advocating for nature through photography; helping others to see beauty in nature where they may otherwise ignore it; ability to spend time in beautiful surroundings.
Describe situations in which you have felt at your worst, where the situation you were in was both in disharmony with the natural world and in disharmony with your priorities; these are situations where you felt that both you and the natural world were invisible, abused or otherwise stymied. What did you feel?
Being in an elevator in a high-rise corporate building in my early career – artificial lighting; felt caged in; felt the absurdity of being in a box-within-in-a-box (elevator inside a building) and having driven in another box (the car) to have arrived there, from another box (home), which was in another box (condominium complex); I felt like the corporate world was totally disconnected from the natural world; I missed trees and access to nature; I missed spending my days in contexts other than concrete, metal and artificial lighting; I missed learning from the natural environment and being friends with trees; I felt that the goals I was (and everyone around me were) pursuing were invented goals just to raise more money to make more constraining boxes to live and move around in.
Being at a teen summer Bible camp on an island in the middle of a lake in New York – having to mix my connection with nature to religious indoctrination; having to be reminded of feelings of shame and guilt (sin and all that) while being in a beautiful natural location that would have otherwise fed my soul; feeling like a bad human while being in nature, and having no real control over the situation; sadness and desperation at seeing other teens and leaders treat the island and lake as just a background for the “important” work of saving souls; feeling I needed to pay attention to my looks and other superficial details of social life, instead of deeply connecting with nature in a quiet and meaningful way.
Seeing people mindlessly and needlessly consume factory farmed animals – seeing people treat beings as objects; seeing people overeat factory farmed animals just for pleasure rather than for survival; seeing industries grow up around manipulating people into eating more animals, especially prepared in unhealthy ways and in ways that are environmentally catastrophic (i.e. fast food); feeling deep empathy for the beings they are eating and how those beings had to suffer their whole, short lives; feeling guilty for having eaten a lot of factory farmed animals before I knew about factory farming; feeling disgusted at humans for not being more aware and sensitive toward the world and other beings around them; feeling powerless to change the situation; feeling a sense of similarity to the factory farmed animals, feeling controlled by society and forced into living in cages (see above); feeling a sense of futility about life (futility to fight the powers that be, which appear sociopathic at the extreme); feeling unsafe in the world.
NATURE VALUES META-ANALYSIS
Usually 3-5 situations of each type (positive and negative experiences) provide enough data for a meta-analysis of your constellation of nature values. For example, in my positive experiences list above, we see the following themes: learning from and attuned, deep communication with nature; growing together with her and the beings she gives life to; being able to carry her memories with me and share my experience of her with others; being able to advocate for her. These themes point to a deep sense of intimacy and trust with nature, which I would simplify down to the highest value of intimacy. This value is mirrored in my negative experiences list: I feel unsafe when I feel forced to limit my learning to my relationships with other humans (who sometimes unconsciously serve goals that are disastrous to both their own thriving and the thriving of the natural world); I feel frustrated when I cannot connect directly to and commune deeply with nature; I feel frustrated when nature is treated as a commodity and an assumed always-there backdrop for human consumption or drama (rather than as a beautiful thing to be appreciated and valued in reciprocal and interdependent relationship). Lack of intimacy, in other words, is my main anti-value.
As I described in my previous article on values discovery (linked above), this exercise helps to connect our emotions to our values: How we feel emotionally about a situation is closely linked to whether our experiences are in harmony with our highest values. When we feel good about how we’re engaging with nature, it’s most often not random pleasure we’re experiencing; it’s because we’re engaging in a way that aligns with our highest nature values. When we feel bad about how we’re engaging (or not engaging) with nature, it’s most often not random pain either; rather our highest nature values are being ignored or unfulfilled by the situation at hand.
Not everyone will discover that deep intimacy is their highest nature value. Values have a lot to do with our unique personality, and mine tends toward deep authenticity and intimacy in human and more-than-human interactions alike. Your highest nature value might be something like: balance, harmony, security, cooperation, adventure, challenge, responsibility, continuity, love, beauty… the list goes on and on. Whatever it is, it will be a value that aligns well with your own unique personality makeup. And it’s important to remember that your highest nature value is just the guiding star, it is not the whole sky. Your highest nature value will connect to and be supported by adjacent values. In my case, the values of authenticity, love and responsibility are very closely related to my highest value of intimacy. You can see them reflected in the situations I described (and you’ll also see in my previous article that authenticity is my highest general value). They serve as supports to help me nurture and express the intimacy with nature that is so important to me.
When you understand your highest nature value and its supporting values configuration, you can start to translate that knowledge into conscious, wise and sustainable engagement with nature and her current needs — whether you’re just waking up to the climate, ecological and social crises of our time, and are ready to take action; or you’ve been engaged for decades and are ready to course correct toward more conscious, wise and sustainable action.
Again using myself as an example: my value of intimacy with nature makes me well-suited to a particular kind of engagement with all the issues we’re facing now. My most powerful and conscious engagement is one that is centered first on deepening my own intimacy with nature (learning from her, being connected to her rhythms, etc), and then as a consequence, inviting and providing avenues for others to find their own intimacy with nature. I’ve participated in protests and other forms of activism which, while powerful in their own right, have not been sustainable as a path of full-time engagement for me. Instead, deepening my understanding and practice of climate psychology (a main resource for the “how-to” of nature intimacy, and branching off from my already-existing professional experience), having intimate conversations with others about their own nature values, continuing to photograph and share nature’s beauty, and partnering with others with similar nature values in educational climate initiatives, have felt like my most powerful and conscious ways to engage. And it’s not that I’m not challenged to go beyond my comfort zone in this values-imbued path, but rather that when the challenges come, I can root into my values and find the most sincere, aware, balanced and sustainable ways of facing the challenges.
In your case, your highest nature value, and its corresponding supporting values, will point you to your most powerful and sustainable way to engage. It might not be obvious right away — sometimes people take a long while (weeks or even months) to reflect on this exercise, before getting clear on the answer and where it is leading them. Sometimes they need support from a coach or other guide or friend to make sense of the data that presents itself in the exercise. If hard-to-feel or hard-to-digest feelings arise in the process of doing the exercise, like overwhelm, anxiety or grief, they may need to be talked about and processed within the safety of a trusted relationship, before the data from the exercise can make sense and be fully actionable. And once the data from our exercise is actionable, we often find that there are no ready-made perfect engagement plans for us. We have to dig deeply into our creativity, our personal and social resources, and our courage, in order to build opportunities for ourselves that allow us to engage fully from our highest values.
This is, in the end, a complex exercise because it helps us to see not only where we want to go, but also what we’re up against — both internally and externally. Fortunately, it also reveals us our deepest resources and strengths, which give us the resilience and courage to show up with and for nature in a way that we can be proud of.
FURTHER QUESTIONS & SUGGESTIONS FOR EXPLORATION & INTEGRATION
Here are some reflection questions and suggestions for deepening the nature values exploration exercise.
- Is your primary nature value the same as you expected it to be? If not, how is it different? And how will this knowledge help you to change the way you engage with the natural world and her needs?
- Do your primary relationships / career / life situation allow you to sufficiently express your highest nature value? If so, in what ways? If not, do you need to communicate your highest nature value more clearly to your boss, colleagues, family, friends, or partner? How could you do that? Could you create additional opportunities at work and in your personal life to nurture and express your highest nature value?
- How do your nature values match your parents’ nature values, or the values of your culture? Are there conflicting values? Has it been difficult at times to feel free to live by your nature values? How have you freed yourself to be able to be true to your own expression? Are there other positive steps you can take toward feeling free to express and live out your unique nature values?
- What about the nature values of the others in your life? Are you able to see what the highest nature values of your family, your friends, or your collaborators are? Understanding others’ values is a major help to communication and mutual empathy and support. Is there someone you’d like to share this exercise with, in order to discuss your values together?
- What life changes are you ready to make based on what you’ve learned about yourself via this nature values exercise? And what kind of help and support do you need in order to make these steps?
Something you can do to help yourself process the data from this exercise in a balanced way, is to feel your gratitude toward the natural world for the way it has supported your existence till now. Think about your positive experiences listed in the exercise, and take the time to express gratitude to the natural world and the natural beings which you experienced in those memories. Take the time as well to express gratitude for the lessons you learned from the negative experiences on your list: how they helped you to understand better what you value, how they helped you to cherish what you care about most. Express a commitment to the parts of yourself and to any other beings or parts of the natural world which suffered due to those experiences; let them know that now that you know better, you commit to doing better.
You may even express it in a prayer: May I take the _____ (beauty, intimacy, guidance, love, sustenance, etc) that nature has shared with me and use it to bless/change/transform _____ (the nature/the beings that need it the most). You can fill in the blanks to fit what you want to express, maybe even putting your hand on your heart in a gesture of respect and connection, as you speak your prayer.
If it would inspire you, write your commitment or prayer in a place that you can see it regularly. You may want to add your highest nature value and the supporting values on that page as well, to be reminded daily of where you feel called to show up as your full, unique and authentic self.
If you’re an artist, find a way to visually or musically express your values and your commitment. If you’re a writer, write about your experience and share it. If you’re an extrovert, talk about it with your friends. Find a way to make it real by discussing your learnings, knowledge, commitment and experience with others; and by showing your interest in learning about their nature values and experiences as well.
Beautiful feature photo by Kristopher Roller via Unsplash.