The Givens

The Natural World: Week 1

The Givens
Sunday, March 4, 2018

On spring and summer mornings, I love to go out early and walk in my little garden. If I can somehow let my “roots and tendrils” reconnect me with the “givens” of life, as Bill Plotkin calls them—not the ideas about life, but the natural world, what is—I experience extraordinary grounding, reconnection, healing, and even revelation. One hopping bird can do me in!

Many of us have a sense of self or identity that is created by our relationship to ideas, thoughts, and words. In fact, we think that our thoughts are reality. We can spend our whole lives rattling around inside of ideas, rarely touching upon what is right in front of us. Today most of us spend the majority of our time interacting with thoughts and opinions about everything. Computers, smart phones, internet, email, social media, and selfies keep us preoccupied. It is, of course, a world of our own fabrication. But we take it for reality itself.

I’ve spent many years with the Center for Action and Contemplation trying to teach contemplative, nondual consciousness. But sometimes my own teaching on contemplation can become heady and intellectual—even though the goal is to lead beyond the thinking mind and words. Often the missing link is the natural world (and embodiment, as we’ll explore later this year).

I come at things theologically because that’s how I was educated and because it has such a significant impact on our culture and individual lives, whether we realize it or not. If you do not have good theology, you will almost always have an unhealthy worldview, largely held unconsciously. Most Christians were sadly taught that the world was divided between the natural and the supernatural, and we were to focus on the supernatural, ignoring or even disdaining the natural. This got us off to a very bad start, because we could not be at home in this world.

Yet some of Christianity’s most astute theologians, including both John Duns Scotus (c. 1266-1308) and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), taught that grace can only build on nature. “Grace perfects nature”; it does not eliminate it. We no longer enjoy such an ideal synthesis. Some Catholics might have agreed with that intellectually, but practically we jumped over the nature part and went straight to Scripture, sacraments, and rituals, without appreciating the natural foundation for our beliefs and practices. Then we had to justify everything we believed by a special divine revelation instead of just learning how to observe “the way reality works.” This is the Christianity that so many are rejecting today because it does not take this world seriously. So, now, people do not take Christians seriously!

Bill Plotkin, a friend, author, depth psychologist, and wilderness guide, offers a helpful model called the “Soulcentric Developmental Wheel.” [1] He describes eight stages of the spiritual journey of transformation. He says that most of mainstream Western society is at the third stage, which is highly egocentric and narcissistic. As a culture, we tend to be preoccupied with our own comfort, entertainment, and security.

This is what we might expect of adolescents, but when people my age are still spending most of their lives focused on themselves, our civilization is surely in an arrested development. This is clearly seen in our politics, and even, I am afraid, in much of our clergy, who reflect our narcissistic culture rather than lead it forward. Robert Bly rightly called it a “sibling society.” [2] One of the foundational reasons for this widespread immaturity is that we have lost contact with the givens, with the natural world.

[1] See Bill Plotkin, Nature and the Human Soul: Cultivating Wholeness and Community in a Fragmented World (New World Library: 2008). Learn more about Plotkin and his work at

[2] See Robert Bly, The Sibling Society: An Impassioned Call for the Rediscovery of Adulthood (Vintage: 1997).

Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Soul, the Natural World, and What Is (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2009), MP3 download.

Image credit: Two Crabs (detail), by Vincent van Gogh, 1889, Faggionato Fine Arts, London, England.
Every day we have opportunities to reconnect with God through an encounter with nature, whether an ordinary sunrise, a starling on a power line, a tree in a park, or a cloud in the sky. This spirituality doesn’t depend on education or belief. It almost entirely depends on our capacity for simple presence. —Richard Rohr

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