Op/Ed

Ways of Seeing: Seek connection, not competition

As a capitalist nation, the prevailing values that have shaped our social systems are those of competition, speed, productivity and power. From childhood onward, our worth is constantly measured — in dollars, possessions, accomplishments, status, grades and scores. We are taught that achieving relative to these measurements is what constitutes success. 
But has aspiring to the capitalist definition of success really formed us into the people we hope to be, or created the society we desire?
The basis for a healthy society is connection: to oneself, each other, and the Earth that is our shared home. Unfortunately, these tenets are not nurtured adequately in ours. There is a growing understanding that our modern social framework creates disconnection on a massive scale. This is hurting us, other beings and the entire planet. Thus, people are looking to change course and restore a culture of connection.
As we search for processes that can help, it would serve well to remember that we are all born ancestrally into nature connection — as creatures of the Earth, the blueprint resides in each of us at the most primal level, in our DNA. When we deny the guidance of this blueprint, we are cut off from an essential nutrient, stunting the full expression of human growth. If we welcome the guidance, however, we can truly flourish, and a culture of connection can begin again. Perhaps this is one place to start.
When asked what I do, I have struggled to find the right words. Recently, though, I settled on “nature connection mentor,” as my work is largely inspired by that of Jon Young, who popularized the term and its philosophy. My partner and I are among those facilitating learning in young people by awakening their innate nature connection blueprint, and supporting the journey that arises from that awakening. Our work is centered on the belief that simply holding space for experience in nature brings young people into a deeper awareness, sense of belonging and purpose as they move through life.
Our days have a general rhythm, allowing everyone to settle into the flow of life in the forest. Each morning, we welcome each other, greet our surroundings, and acknowledge our presence on the ancestral lands of the Abenaki people. We build a fire together that we take collective responsibility for tending — here we give thanks at lunchtime, gather to reflect, and sing farewell before parting. 
By daily ritual, stories, observation and sharing of ideas, we cultivate reverence for the natural world. Throughout the day, various projects, primitive- and naturalist-focused crafts and skills, sensory awareness activities, imaginative games, music making, storytelling and solo time all help young people learn to recognize what inspires them. Plans evolve based on children’s passions. Nothing is required. Achievement is never measured. All activities are simply potential entry points into connection — doors that the child can walk through, feel how an experience resonates or does not, and use that new self-knowledge to inform their own unique path. 
In other words, content is less important than what comes of it: opportunities to explore, create, be wild, be silent, observe, be alone, take risks, do nothing, rest, make mistakes, cooperate, face fear. Given the freedom to listen to their own instincts and engage in ways that move them, young people come into who they truly are, a process supported by a community of others on their own similar journeys. Over time, they become at home in the natural environment that is their ancient birthright. This shift is evident in their bodies, their energy, the way they carry themselves. A new kind of aliveness flows as their relationship with the Earth deepens.
While we grow weary of the pandemic, perhaps we can also turn toward the opportunity it presents — a chance to re-imagine some of our most ingrained routines and beliefs that we otherwise may never have sought to challenge. 
With schooling looking different this year, many families are able to engage and spend time together in new ways. If we indeed want to restore a culture of connection, one important step is to shift the prevailing values by which we educate the next generation. Specifically, we must revise our indicators of success to include not only measurable knowledge and productivity, but also vitality, happiness, and quality of relationship with each other and the natural world. While this certainly must be addressed within the classroom, we also must expand that effort by increasingly emphasizing children’s direct experience with the Earth in highly exploratory environments, and easing constant measurement against quantitative standards of achievement.
Opportunity to be immersed in nature, to be largely self-directed and free, and to draw inspiration directly from the natural world supports young people’s full growth. This serves their fulfillment in all areas of life, and is essential to re-establishing a culture of connection. Such a culture is imperative for future resilience of human communities and the Earth as a whole, and the way we educate plays a fundamental role in its existence. 
Centering nature connection feeds the wellbeing of the child. In turn, the child who develops a true relationship with the land naturally contributes to regenerating a society that honors the fullness of each being in the web of life. Such humans will walk softly on the Earth with a sparkle in their eyes.
Monica Fillipenko is a mentor in nature connection, an artist, and a climate activist. She lives with her partner in Ripton, where they are creating their homestead. They do their best to take only what they need, walk lightly on the land, and live in a way that is in harmony with the rhythm of our Mother Earth.

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