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Over the years my writing online at Therioshamanism.com and elsewhere has wrapped itself around abstract concepts and theoretical discussions, stories and anecdotes and personal experiences. Here I’d like to have a little spot where I focus more on the how-tos, a sort of casual teaching blog. I’m a naturalist pagan, so look for some ways and means of working with the denizens of nature, spiritual and otherwise! (If you like what you see here, please feel free to visit http://www.thegreenwolf.com for more info on my books, online writings, etc.)

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How To Sense Nature Spirits

So, let's start with the very basics, beginning with how to sense spirits. After all, if I'm going to be helping my readership work with spirits and totems and the like, I should make sure that you have a way of doing so. You might already have figured out a good option for yourself, but keep reading anyway if you like--maybe there's something in here you haven't considered yet.

I'm going to sidestep the issue of the exact nature of spirits, whether they're independent beings in a nonphysical reality that parallels our own, or unseen denizens of our world, or elements of our psyche that we project outward. Not that it isn't important, but I'll leave it up to you to decide exactly what they are; the how-tos I'm going to put in this blog should work regardless of your answer.

Sensing Spirits

How do you sense something that doesn't have a physical presence? In popular Western traditions, particularly those based in 19th century mediumship, there may be physical signs that a spirit is present, such as the room going cold suddenly, or an item falling off a shelf. However, these supposed signs can often be explained by more mundane things: the room went cold because the heat shut off, or the object fell off the shelf because it was already precariously balanced. The problem with these signs, too, is that they can lead you to want there to be "real proof" of the existence of spirits so badly that you start attributing any little thing to "the spirits". This is what's known as confirmation bias. This bugaboo can lead you to selectively ignore anything that doesn't support your desire for "real proof". Eventually you may find yourself so focused on trying to interpret the meaning of every little change in your environment that you completely miss the spirits themselves because you can no longer filter out what is and isn't the sign of a spirit's presence.

I favor a tactic that is admittedly more subjective and personal; it won't prove the reality of spirits to everyone and their mother, but it can help you to figure out the best way for you to sense their presence. (The spirits, I mean, not everybody and their mother!)

We have physical senses based in our bodies. We see with our eyes, hear with our ears, and so forth. Some people think we also have other, nonphysical senses. These are based predominantly in our minds and our imaginations. This doesn't necessarily mean we're making it all up; it just means that we can't point to a particular organ in the body (outside of the brilliant complexity that is the human brain) from whence these senses come from. 

I especially want to focus on the intuition. Intuition is a way of thinking without immediate use of reason and inference. Have you ever had something you just knew was true or right without having to think about it? Have you ever had a "gut feeling" or "hunch"? Maybe you were out walking at night, seemingly alone, and the hair rose on the back of your neck even though you didn't see or hear anything, and so you got yourself to a safe place as quickly as you could. That's intuition at work. 

You can also use intuition to sense spirits. For me, I just know when a spirit is there; each one has a little spot in my mind that it touches when it arrives, and each has a signature "energy" to it, just as individual as a color, or a sound, or a name. There's no physical marker of the spirit's presence; it's just that little "ping" in the back of my head that "feels like" that particular spirit.

Your intuition may take various forms. Maybe different beings, energies, or influences translate in your mind to colors, or emotions. Or you might "feel" their presence in a particular part of your head or body. You may see them with your mind's eye--not your physical eyes, but visions and images in your head. Similarly, some people have a "mind's ear", definitely different from physically hearing something, but translating the spirit's energy into words or voices. (Just for clarification, from a clinical perspective people who have visual or auditory hallucinations, such as in psychotic disorders, generally have trouble differentiating between the hallucinations, and physical sights and voices, and also exhibit other symptoms. So if you "hear" spirits but you know they aren't physical voices, don't panic about having schizophrenia.)

Practice It!

The natural world is full of spirits--spirits of trees and other plants, fungi, animals, and the like. This exercise is meant to help you just sense their presence; don't worry about trying to communicate with them. Just be open to sensing their energy.

Go to a place that has more than one species of tree, preferably at least two that are very different from each other, such as one deciduous tree and one conifer. Make it a place where you can walk around a bit without tripping over other people, though you don't have to be in complete isolation. 

Now, approach one of the trees. As you get closer, see if you notice any of the following:

--A particular image, color, phrase/words or sound in your mind

--A feeling or emotion (some examples are: wanting to be closer to or to move away from the tree; a feeling of happiness or calm; an increase or decrease in your own energy; a sense of connection or repulsion; and so forth)

If you feel comfortable, sit down under the tree, with your back against it if possible, and spend more time immersed in the tree's presence. As you sit there, continue to notice what you sense in your mind and in your body. If you can spend at least fifteen minutes there under the tree, that should give you a decent amount of time to really get a good idea of the tree's spirit. Again, don't worry about communicating with the tree spirit, either. Just be aware of its presence. 

Next, go to a different tree of a separate species, preferably one that's a bit of a distance away from the first. Again, as you approach this second tree, notice anything that comes up in your mind or body. Especially notice how it's different from the first tree, as well as how they feel similar. Sit under this tree for at least fifteen minutes, too, and try to get a good sense of its spirit.

After this, you're welcome to try this with other trees, the grass, rocks, and so forth. It may be a bit tougher with animals since they move around quite a bit; however, if you find something like a slowly grazing caterpillar, give it a try. Don't pick the animal up, though; unlike plants and fungi, wild animals don't react so well to physical touch, and it's not absolutely necessary in any case.

If you like, record your results once you're done with this exercise so you can go back and review your results. In fact, you might even go to the same place and work with the same natural beings multiple times so you can get a really thorough sense of them.

Troubles and Troubleshooting

You don't have to get perfect results the first time. For example, all you may find when you go to the trees is "Well, they both feel about the same". Congratulations, you've discovered tree-ness! It may just take more time and practice to be able to sense the more subtle and individual nuances of their spirits. Also, keep in mind that two spirits may feel very similar to each other. Think of it like meeting two people with very similar names that share a lot of the same letters, like Katie and Kathy, or Nicholas and Nichole. 

Part of the reason I suggested repeating the exercise in the same place is so you can check your work against itself. If you get about the same results each time, that's a good sign. If your results with the same beings each time is widely different, don't give up, but do make note of it. Maybe you're catching the spirits in different moods; maybe the weather's different and they respond uniquely to each. Over time, you may get a better sense of what causes these differences.

Do be cautious when comparing notes with other people. Nonphysical senses are a lot more subjective than physical senses. You can both walk up to an oak tree and feel the rough bark and touch the green, lobed leaves. But maybe the spirit conjures up an image in your mind of an old man, while your friend sees a young female dryad. Or maybe you see the color green, while they imagine the deep boom of a bass drum. 

One more thing--not all spirits in nature are nice and friendly, but in my almost-twenty years of experience with nature spirits, I've run into very few that are genuinely hostile. I've found some that didn't really like me, or that didn't want to be bothered, but for the most part if I left their presence, they didn't follow. In cases where a spirit seems to latch on and cause trouble, even when you leave its original domain, I find that what's keeping it there is your fear and anxiety; the sort of spirit that does that type of thing feeds on those emotions. 

If this happens to you, the simplest solution is to calm yourself down. Spend a few moments just focusing on your breathing, making it slow and even, only paying attention to the air going in and out of your lungs and the feeling of your body drawing it through your respiratory system. You can also distract yourself with a book, or by counting how many colors you see in the environment around you. There are also banishing rituals, from a simple herbal smudge to elaborate ceremonies; these generally work to the same effect--convincing your mind on all levels to stop feeding the nasty spirit and take away its reason for hanging about. (The language these ceremonies may use is often of the "go away, bad spirit!" variety, but the internal effect of detachment is the same.)

Conclusion

This is just a very basic introduction to sensing nature spirits. If your way ends up being different from what I've described here, go with it! And in my next post, I'll move on to how to communicate with nature spirits.

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Lupa is a naturalist pagan (neo)shaman living in Portland, OR. She divides her work time between creating sacred artwork from hides and bones and other goodies, writing books and articles on ecospiritual topics, and working as a Masters-level mental health counselor. She may also be found hiding in the Columbia River Gorge, rolling her sleeves up for litter and invasive species removal, or getting dirty in the garden. She may be found online at http://www.thegreenwolf.com and http://therioshamanism.com and her art is featured at http://thegreenwolf.etsy.com .

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