What is Right Relationship?

Inspired by time at a friend’s farm recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be in right relationship with the earth. The concept of “right relationship” is central to many indigenous cultures, and is a way of talking about living in a sustainable, loving way with all living beings. But what does “right relationship” mean, exactly, and how do we cultivate it?

As I pondered, I started by considering each part separately, beginning with “relationship.” What do people do in relationships? First of all, lovers enjoy just spending time in each other’s presence attuning to their beloved; they gaze into each other’s eyes, they bring their bodies and energies into the same space together. Lovers memorize their beloved’s habits and quirks, just as much as the contours of their face, and they delight in taking care of and thinking of the other. When we fall in love, it’s not with the abstract concept of love, it’s with a particular person, and that’s who we enter into relationship with. Similarly, if we are to be in relationship with the earth, then it cannot just be with an abstract concept of ‘the earth’; we must fall passionately in love with all the quirks and particularities of a specific place.

For me, this means being in relationship with my little ¼ acre of meadow and fruit trees and berry bushes here in the Willamette Valley of Portland, Oregon, that I have watched cycle through the seasons for the last two years. I love gazing at and delighting in the subtle shifts of the land, just as I would attune to the moods of someone I love and live with daily. During the late winter, I touch the tips of the blueberry bushes, waiting patiently for them to bud.  I know that the cherry blossom tree will only bloom for two beautiful weeks around the end of March, when I should plant the peas. I love hearing the contented cries of the hawk that lives in the giant cedar tree, and visiting with the two hummingbirds who will hover a foot from my face, because I’ve spent time being still with them. I memorize the habits and quirks of my beloved, I offer the land my time, and attention, and I bring my body into contact with the bare skin of the grass and branches and dirt, and my energy into exchange with all the livingness of it. And from this profound intimacy, this deep relationship, I want to take care of it, I want to touch it all and protect it with a tenderness born of love.

As a shamanic practitioner, my understanding of relationship also runs much deeper than just what can be seen in the physical. In many ways, the job of a shamanic healer is to ensure that their community is in right relationship with the world of spirit, as much as the earth. And so, for me, to be in relationship with a particular place also means to be in relationship with the spirits of that place, and to honor and respect them.

There are always unique energies and spiritual beings that are attached to any home or land. Around Portland, and all throughout the Willamette Valley, I have come across many indigenous spirits—mostly of the Kalapuya tribes—who lived on these lands long before we came along, and who still watch over them. If you don’t live in the Willamette Valley, find out about the Native tribes of your area. Many white folks also brought European spirits over with them when they came, so people can have those as well, in addition to animal spirits, special plant people allies (that giant cedar tree in your yard? What a presence!), elemental forces, and all manner of beings.

It’s important to honor these spirits and to ask their permission to be in relationship with them and the land. It’s just like being a houseguest; if someone invited you into their home, I imagine you would do your best to be respectful and treat their home as they wished you to. Hopefully, you wouldn’t take over their favorite chair while belching loudly, stomp your muddy boots all over their carpet, or knock over all their furniture to set up your badminton court in their living room (unless they laughed and wanted to play, too). So honor the ancestors and spiritual beings that you share space with, and be respectful, wherever you live. Offer them food, tobacco, sage, drum or song, or just take a moment to go outside, put your hands the ground, and offer your heart-felt intent to be right with them, as well as with the earth. Especially when it comes to indigenous spirits, this was their land and their home first, and they deserve your respect.

This brings me to the concept of “right” within “right relationship”: in a Native way, this isn’t about ‘right vs. wrong’—there’s no moralistic overtones, or external judgment. There’s not one way to be ‘right’, there is only your way of moving deeply from your center, grounded in your own truth, in harmony with all that is. The concept of rightness is about bringing yourself into alignment with the flow, knowing with humility that you are no more important than any blade of grass beneath your toes. To be right with something is to move with a loving heart guiding all your actions, like the truest compass. When you are “right” with something, you are walking in a good way, honoring the responsibility to protect and nurture the intimate relationship that protects and nurtures you, whether that relationship is with a person, a spirit, or the earth. And of course, you have to be in right relationship with yourself, too.

I thought about all this because I realized I hadn’t been in right relationship with my land, and by extension, the earth—or myself—in a long time. I had allowed my worries and troubles to pull me into myself and away from my responsibility to this loving relationship, which was to my detriment as much as to my land. My garden was weedy and choked; the trees needed to be pruned so they could bear fruit, plants that could have survived had died during the winter because I hadn’t protected them from the cold and snow. Likewise, I hadn’t allowed the land to take care of me, and my soul felt like a shriveled plant that needed to be rooted in richly composted soil and watered daily.

As I spent time at my friend’s farm, and then began caring for my own land, I felt my heart and my spirit expand, like a tender seedling pushing its face up to the warmth of the sun, after a cold, dark winter. I was reminded, again, that being in right relationship with the earth, with the spirits of the earth—and by extension, with ourselves—is a crucial part of our mental, physical, and spiritual health. If, like me, you’ve done that human thing and forgotten or have gotten distracted for a bit, I invite you now to return to that loving embrace. And if you’ve never had that kind of relationship with a particular place, why not develop it now? You don’t have to live on a huge farm; the movement of our world also happens in your backyard, at the local park, or even in an apartment windowbox. Pay attention to the world around you, fall in love with it where you’re at, one leaf, one worm at a time, and offer up your heart in love, in honor, in gratitude. That, my friends, would be a world filled with right relationship. And I don’t know about you, but that’s a world I want to live in.


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