Forest Meditation, Sunday Forest School, and Sassafras Tea Time

Back in March I had been thinking through how to organize a Sunday Forest Meditation in Middletown, Connecticut, where I live, aiming for after Earth Day (announcing this new offering at the Middletown Earth Day Festival). As with all religions, it’s essential to have a weekly service—and not just online. These gatherings feed the spirit. And build community. And energize people to do more than just meditate each week. Social distancing, however, put all in-person church services on hold (other than those who ignored social distancing, putting their congregations at risk), so this has remained in the aspirational stage.

But one silver lining is that COVID-19 has revealed additional value in holding services outside. When I was writing on pandemics in early February I was struck by the English village of Eyam, which quarantined itself and thus helped prevent the Bubonic Plague from spreading. During that time, residents continued to have church service outdoors even as the plague ravaged the town. That’s probably not a good idea in our current COVID-19 outbreak (as the disease travels by droplet not flea) but as the social distancing phase dies down, gathering outdoors is a good way to minimize risks as we start to reopen society.

meditation-2547941_1280But that’s not the main reason for choosing to make the weekly service a forest* meditation, of course. One good reason is because it’s soothing and promotes good health. But most importantly, it helps to reconnect us/sustain our connection to Gaia—and to remind us that our true purpose here is to heal the planetary being that we depend on utterly.

While I’ve explored those points before, what I haven’t yet written is what form those Sunday forest meditation services would take. First where would these be? I’ve bounced back and forth whether they should be in varying locations—maybe different state parks, drawing people in different areas and through the novelty of connecting with a variety of natural areas. Or maybe always in one park, so that we connect more deeply to that place, and watch as its annual cycle unfolds. Even as I write this, it sounds as if the latter should be the case, but that means finding the right natural area that is easily accessible, awe-inspiring, and with spots both private and accessible enough so people of all ages could easily and comfortably participate in the meditation.

And once a suitable location is found, how should the service be structured? Well, I imagine something along these lines:

The Gaian Sunday Service

People start arriving (ideally by foot, bicycle, or carpool—the last being most realistic other than in parks embedded in urban areas) before the service’s start time. People chat quietly with friends, the individual leading the service (let’s call her/him an officiant for now) greets those who arrive. And perhaps in good missionary religion fashion, one Gaian is asked to keep her eyes open for anyone looking new and lost and help make them feel welcome.

A few minutes after start time (what service ever really starts exactly on time?) there’d be a welcome, and a land acknowledgment, acknowledging the Indigenous people who first stewarded this land; recognizing the bioregion or watershed this land is part of; and recognizing that this land is one aspect of Gaia.** Then there’d be a poem, prayer, or quotation to reflect on, and then an invitation to meditate. The officiant would then explain the type of meditation the group will do today. That’d all be pretty brief (maybe 5 minutes or so).

This sparrow found its own sit spot.
This sparrow found its own sit spot.

Then there’d be a 20-30 minute meditation depending on what type it was. I think it could be valuable to vary these as long as they’re accessible to all. Sometimes it could be a sitting meditation—and those could vary as well, occasionally being more internally focused (e.g. on your own breath or emptying your mind) or externally focused, such as on sounds of the forest or observing one small patch of the forest (i.e. a “sit spot”). Or it could be a walking meditation—taking one breath per step, for example, or “fox walking” like you were stalking prey—which in its extreme slowness is incredibly meditative. Or even a moving meditation like tai chi/jufu (the karate equivalent). There are many different ways to meditate—and some participants will connect with certain practices better than others, so experimenting at least until a community finds what it enjoys most makes sense. Or perhaps a community cultivates a repertoire of eight or so different meditations so that each week the experience feels fresh (i.e. rotating through them one time every two months). That’s what our instructor does in karate. He knows dozens of kata and makes sure to practice all of them every month—so we do a few each night rotating through them regularly, allowing us the chance to learn them too.

Then after the meditation, there can be an invitation to speak—Quaker-style. Where the community will listen to you without interruption or judgment—whether that’s on something you feel moved to say from the meditation or something you’ve been thinking about or grappling with. This wouldn’t be long—depending on the number of congregants—but could range from 10 to 20 minutes.

Then a closing prayer and a thank you for joining followed by any announcements congregants want to share: a reminder about the letter-writing effort this Tuesday; our monthly resilience circle meeting next week; a need for volunteers to help with the potluck we’re organizing next month; an inquiry to see if anyone wants to help organize a river cleanup?

And then the final essential element:

The Coffee and Sassafras Tea Hour

Photo by Randy Everette
Sassafras Leaves (Photo: Randy Everette)

I loved “Coffee Hour” as a kid, running around the church, playing, chatting, eating cookies, crackers & cheese, grapes, whatever was on the table. While I can’t imagine skipping the coffee (at least while it’s still in ready supply), we could also have a locally foraged tea: spice bush, black birch, or sassafras for those who wanted the full forest meditation experience (or didn’t want caffeine). Of course, everyone would bring their own mugs, but the hot beverage and plate of homemade cookies would encourage lingering and conversing—from which community is born.

Now, what’s been missing so far in this picture is the children. The value for many churchgoers is the Sunday school. It provides a community to their children, important moral and cultural-history lessons, and a little break so parents can focus on their spiritual development. The Gaian service could provide a unique Sunday Forest School that I think would be attractive to both children and parents.

What Should Sunday School Be Like?

I remember going to Sunday School as a kid. It was fun—hanging out with some other children my age, coloring pictures of Saints, and having discussions about the Bible and about being Christian. And subtly, it shaped my worldview, my beliefs, my values, and brought me deeper into the church community and Armenian culture (surely why I ended up spending two weeks every summer growing up at an Armenian camp).

A forest school in action. Photo (CC BY-SA): Karen Olsen/Cedarsong Nature School
A forest school in action. Photo (CC BY-SA): Karen Olsen/Cedarsong Nature School

So what is the ideal version of Sunday School for a Gaian community? It’d actually be pretty much exactly what my son, Ayhan, does a couple times a week already with two homeschool forest programs. They explore the woods, play games, build forts, do brief sit spot meditations, all starting and ending with gratitude circles (with subtle interweaving of moral and nature lessons throughout). Ideally an adult nature mentor could guide this, but even a responsible nature-aware child could lead, depending on the size and composition of the kid group (an idea I’ve already put in Ayhan’s head).

Just imagine how the kids would enjoy this hour playing outdoors, some of whom don’t get enough (or any) nature time. They may end up being a great driver of their parents to keep attending each week. (Some—the biophobic—might hate it and that will surely affect their parents’ decisions to attend as well.) And then of course, the kids would be welcome to join Tea Time and have a cookie and keep running around and playing or get to know some of the adults. I remember having many conversations with church community members—being lovingly teased, being tested on how strong my handshake was—all important parts of childhood (and community) development.

That’s the dream at least. And in June, that’s the plan. And if it’s just my son, Ayhan, and me to start, well, that’s fine. As the Quakers note, it only takes two to have a group. And hopefully over time, as people emerge from their homes, and attend one of these services, they’ll come out feeling refreshed, connected, and more purposeful. And this group—and other local Gaian groups—will grow.


*After finishing this reflection, I was reminded that not all people have forests near them. They may have prairies, beaches, deserts, mountains, or other natural settings. All of these will do. I’ve been using ‘forest’ as shorthand, being influenced by the forest bathing books I’ve read, and admittedly by the fact that I live in forested New England. But this service could easily be on a beach, drinking rosehip tea, or in a field, or wherever nurtures reflection, spiritual development, connection to Gaia, and community building. Of course, your local environment will shape optimal gathering times as well.

**This statement should be written to connect with the local reality. For example, here’s what we could say in the Middletown area of Connecticut:

“We gather on this land, which was once the traditional land of the Wangunk Nation, who sustained and stewarded it for countless generations. This land endures as part of the Connecticut River Valley watershed—specifically at the bend in the river, from which the Wangunk took their name. But this land bears the wounds of being overdeveloped—and of our being disconnected from Gaia—these past centuries. The land remains part of and is one of many aspects of Gaia, and in the future, may once again be nurtured by generations to come, and become a full manifestation of Gaia’s greatness.”

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4 Responses

  1. I love the concept and structure proposed here. Indeed, I’d like to give this a go here in New Orleans soon as well. Is there anyone else anywhere? That would be exciting.

    Calling it a Sunday service does not conjure positive associations for me personally, but that’s just me. It might resonate with Christian “church” which could be a positive or negative connotation depending on the person. Emphasizing any particular day of the week will be, I think, culture-bound. Sunday probably makes sense in Christianized areas, but in other parts of the world Friday or Saturday might be more convenient. I’m just trying to think globally. I also wonder if a weekly rhythm is necessary and/or desirable. Perhaps it’s best for each community to find its own rhythm.

    Endless possible variations: a little music, a song to sing together, a full-on potluck/picnic…

    The idea of a separate program for kids is wonderful, but obviously a critical mass of people is needed to pull that off — and it opens up issues of trust.

    • Erik Assadourian

      Great thoughts Bart. And glad to hear you’d be interested in creating one in New Orleans!

      And no, it doesn’t have to be on a Sunday–but just as Christians borrowed so many elements from pagan traditions, Sunday feels like a more spiritual/reflective day now, so it seemed right to choose it (especially as it marks the transition between the end of the weekend and the start of the work week). But any day that works for the community is fine.

      As do specific traditions/practices of the service. Though I do think it being weekly means enough of a frequency to strengthen and grow a community (and develop trust, commitment, and secondary activities). But again, none of this is set into stone (Gaia doesn’t do tablets =) and I think it can be shaped by the local Gaian groups themselves. As the movement grows, perhaps there would be some guideposts to help cultivate some alignment across groups (though while not diminishing the celebration of diversity).

      As for kids programs, those definitely depend on critical mass, and trust. Less than 2-3 children, they should simply be welcomed to join the meditation. Maybe beyond that, there is an opportunity for a couple of parents or a volunteer and parent to take the group to explore (while not ranging too far from the group). I’m sure there is a lot written on best practices of both sunday schools and forest schools that could be leaned on as these programs are cultivated.

  2. PS: Literally yesterday I was thinking about calling a local “interest meeting,” to see if any like-minded folks would turn out to discuss forming a Gaian community here. I thought we would discuss how we’d want to organize a service. Now you’ve got me thinking that just jumping in and doing it might be the way to go.

  3. Erik Assadourian

    A recent article on where/how COVID spreads pointed out that so far the vast majority of transmission has been indoors. (https://www.erinbromage.com/post/the-risks-know-them-avoid-them). (Original source here: https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.04.04.20053058v1)
    That’s important to keep in mind–and provides extra support for this model of gathering (with ample space between congregants). But it also suggests, as society reopens, other events should ideally occur outdoors–church services of any type, birthday parties, memorial services, and so on.

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