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Nature's Path to Inner Peace

One writer connects with nature and inner peace on a trek through the rainforest.

Searching for serenity? It maybe as close as your backyard.

Dear Gabe,

I'm not sure how I'll mail this to you—who knows, when I'll find a mailbox. I was just abandoned in the middle of the jungle to fend for myself, and I don't even have a flashlight. Apparently they attract snakes. The big kind. Amazingly, I'm not really scared. I've overcome so many fears since I got here that this seems a cakewalk. I am black and blue, scraped up, swollen and covered in bug bites. But I feel strong. I just hope I'm not eaten by something in the middle of the night.

The above is excerpted from a letter written by the author on August 7, 2000, while somewhere in the middle of Costa Rica's rainforests.

So what was I doing, you may ask—alone at night, without protection—in a Central American jungle? It all started last June when an invitation to attend the Costa Rica Rainforest Outward Bound School (OB) landed on my desk. Dubbing the course a "life renewal program," the school suggested that 10 days of rainforest trekking would renew participants' spirits, basing their claims on a relatively new field of science called ecopsychology. Intrigued, I decided to do more research.

The term "ecopsychology" was coined 25 years ago by Theodore Roszak, Ph.D., author of The Voice of the Earth (Simon & Schuster, 1992) and a history professor at California State University at Hayward. It is grounded in the notion that people experience what renowned ethnobiologist and Harvard University professor Edward O. Wilson, Ph.D., calls "biophilia," an innate need to interact with the living world of which we're a part. But as humankind becomes increasingly reliant upon modern technology and less in tune with the natural environment, this disconnection from our roots instills feelings of restlessness and alienation and may undermine emotional health.

Research in ecopsychology is solid and steadily growing. In the early 1970s, University of Michigan researchers Stephen Kaplan, Ph.D., and his wife Rachel Kaplan, Ph.D., studied an Outward Bound-like wilderness program. For 10 years, they followed 27 groups through the nine- to 14-day program. After completing the course, participants reported experiencing a sense of peace, wholeness and the ability to think more clearly. In another of their studies, presented to the American Psychological Society in 1993, the Kaplans surveyed more than 1,200 employees at various corporations and state agencies. They found that office workers with a window view of nature—trees, bushes or even a large lawn—experienced significantly less frustration and more enthusiasm for their jobs than those workers without windows.

As these later findings suggest, reaping nature's psychological benefits doesn't require living in the wild, and other studies support this concept. One, published in Science, examined patients recovering from surgery and the effects of having a window view of trees in full foliage versus one of a brick wall. Roger S. Ulrich, Ph.D., director of the Texas A&M Center for Health Systems and Design, found that patients with a nature view had shorter hospital stays, fewer complications and required less pain medication than those who stared at a wall. And in another study at Chicago's Robert Taylor Homes—the world's largest public housing development—Frances Kuo, Ph.D., and Bill Sullivan, Ph.D., cofounders of the University of Illinois Human-Environment Research Laboratory, investigated residents' quality of life based on the extent of their contact with trees. The researchers learned that residents living near trees felt happier with where they lived and better adjusted to their environment than those with no trees growing nearby.

Despite findings like these, garnering support from some skeptical professionals has been difficult. But proponents such as Sarah Conn, Ph.D., a psychotherapist and ecopsychology professor at Harvard Medical School, are convinced by the positive results they see in individuals. Conn, a cofounder of the Ecopsychology Institute of the Center for Psychology and Social Change in Cambridge, Massachusetts, focuses on the "self-world connection," the idea that improving mental health is impossible without also considering the world in which we live.

"We tend toward 'pathological individualism,' thinking of ourselves as self-contained," Conn explains. "But we don't live on the earth; we live in it. So I look at not just what's going on in individuals' lives, but at the ways they're affected by cultural stress and what connections they have with the natural world." To help patients recognize those connections, Conn moves people into our "larger body," or the earth, by asking them to meditate near a rock, tree or other natural being. "I use body-based methods as a mindfulness practice to help people get in touch with their particular connection to the more-than-human world."

Like Conn, most ecopsychology practitioners believe that reconnecting with our natural roots requires a physical shift to facilitate a mental one. Michael J. Cohen, Ed.D., author of Reconnecting with Nature (Ecopress, 1997), is a leading expert in the field who helped develop OB's life-renewal program. Cohen has created more than 130 reconnecting activities that he teaches through the Institute of Global Education in Washington state, and he suggests that society's disconnection from nature is so "scary" that many of us have become "eco-zombies."

"Most of us are so deadened that we can't recognize what has really happened to us; it's as if we've been aborted from planet Earth," Cohen says. "You can't psychologically reconnect with an abstract idea. You have to actually make contact with nature, and that's unheard of—insurance won't cover it, it's not academic. So it's been a real challenge to get anywhere with this on a popular basis."

Most ecopsychologists admit that it may be a while before society is convinced that restoring our relationship with Mother Earth is vital to achieving emotional health. But they're confident that they're making headway—and that progress will keep pace with the environment's rapid deterioration.

"Most everybody has some feel for what's happening to the earth, and when people hear or read something about it, it resonates," says Conn. "But as Einstein said, it's the way of thinking that caused the problem. We have to get out of that way of thinking in order to solve it."

Well, I was sold. After all, Einstein was a pretty bright fellow. But even if I wasn't entirely convinced, I was certainly ready for a vacation. And so, two months later, I boarded a plane destined for Costa Rica's capital city, San Jose.


The night before the course begins, I join program founder and director, Jim Rowe, for the last meal that won't consist primarily of beans and rice.

"Society promotes a culture taught to dominate nature," he says. "The message conveyed in [our] activities is aligned with the Gaia theory that everything is interrelated." Rowe takes me to the youth hostel to meet my nine classmates and our instructors—"Lluvia" (rain), who was born and raised in the rainforest, and "Arollo" (stream). We each adopt new names, some in Spanish, but all something from nature with which we feel a personal connection. I choose "Brook" because I've always felt soothed by a brook's soft babbling. We load our packs—40 pounds of supplies apiece, all sealed in plastic bags because nothing stays dry in the rainforest—and anxiously await the morning.

Day one

The day begins on the lawn with what will become a daily ritual—sit-ups, push-ups and yoga. Arollo teaches us Sun Salutation, a 12-step hatha yoga sequence. We then drive to our first physical challenge: a 50-foot-high climbing wall standing perpendicular to the ground and sparsely spotted with handholds.

After learning to belay—a safety technique with ropes that requires more trust on the climber's part than strength on the teammates'—everyone attempts the climb. I reach the top, amazed and thankful for my height; standing at a gawky 5 feet 11 inches, my typically klutzy long limbs actually help by extending my reach. That night, already whining about bruises and sore muscles, we stay at a run-down hotel in a nearby village.

Day two

The skies open as we shrug into our packs and ponchos. The trek begins high amid the clouds, where it's rainy, but not at all tropical. We hike for hours and finally reach our campsite: the base of a magnificent waterfall. All 12 of us huddle together under one big tarp, sharing the day's trials and triumphs as an unusually strong rainstorm rages around us. Suddenly, a clamorous crash stills our voices, and an instant later our shelter collapses.

"Out of nowhere we hear huge wrenchings from the earth," my classmate "Sage" later described in the group journal. "Rocks slide, branches whisper by and crash. Panic, fear and terror flood the group." We scramble from beneath the tarp and nearly stumble over the culprit: a giant tree that has succumbed to the heavy rain, missing us by a mere two meters. Wondering what other close calls Mother Nature has in store for us, no one sleeps soundly.

Day three

Another full day of hiking ensues as we climb toward our first of three "homestays." These small dwellings, each separated by miles of forest, will provide nightly respite from the rain. But first, more aftermath from the previous night's storm awaits us. This time, a landslide has washed away the trail, creating a steep slope of still tumbling rubble. We use rope to shuttle across, all the while peering below for a glimpse of the seemingly absent bottom.

Six more hours of sliding through shin-deep red mud, and we arrive at the homestay. The generous family serves dinner, and I sleep for the first time since leaving the hostel, lulled by the tapping of rain on the porch's tin roof.

Day four

Reaching the next homestay in only two hours, we begin a 45-minute journey into the womb of a nearby cave. Once there, we turn off our headlamps and are led through calming meditation. Arollo then announces that we must find our way out—without light or guidance.

After much deliberation, we form a human chain and slowly begin to climb. Fears heighten as eyes scan uselessly for hand- and footholds and bats swoop overhead, way too close for comfort. Four hours later, there are traces of sunlight. "We all share the experience of self-exploration as we emerge from the cave," "Arbol" (tree) wrote of the adventure. "We are all reborn."

Day five

Another short hike brings us to the next homestay, this one belonging to Lluvia's family. Like the other homes, it has a roof but no outer walls, so the sounds of a nearby waterfall soothe our spirits. Lluvia's father, a shaman, collects forest leaves and explains their medicinal purposes. Sleepily, we sip tea and claim floor space for the night.

Day six

Today our newly acquired climbing skills are put to the test. This time the goal is a tiny platform nestled in a tree 90 feet above. I feel proud when I reach the top and am rewarded with a spectacular view of the forest canopy.

In the afternoon, we embark on what OB calls a "solo." Deposited in the rainforest, we'll each spend one night in complete solitude. Armed with only a tarp, sleeping bag, candle, journal and pen, I finish constructing my shelter just as the rain stops. I write for hours by candlelight, scared senseless by what might lurk in the dark.

Day seven

Relieved to awake in one piece, I also revel in a sense of personal accomplishment. I meditate, then begin my homework. We were asked to write a letter to the group, and in mine I thank my teammates for their unfettered friendship and support. At noon we return to the house, and I'm almost disappointed my solo is over.

Day eight

Now in the tropical region, we set out for the trip's longest day of hiking. We conquer the final peak—called, appropriately, "Cardiac Hill"—beneath a glaring sun. Sweatsoaked and exhausted, we're coaxed onward by a glimpse of our destination: the Pacific Ocean. Night falls as we reach a rustic beach house; home for the next two nights.

Restlessly sleeping among swarming sand fleas, I'm awakened by "Gabilan" (hawk), who points to a sky filled with thousands of stars and dozens of streaks of light. We sneak out and lie on the beach, awestruck by what we learn months later was the Perseid meteor shower.

Day nine

Today we try our hand at surfing. Some of us are pretty good by the day's end—present company excluded. At sunset we build a bonfire, then rehash our adventure. "This was truly the culmination of nine days of bonding," "Viento" (wind) wrote of the evening. "It was abundantly clear that lasting friendships were made and a formidable amount of respect existed among all members of the team."

Day ten

The morning is spent rafting down what should have been class IV rapids, but the water is disappointingly low and slow from lack of rain. We make the long drive back to the San Jose hostel to shower—cold, but very necessary—and meet for one last, celebratory dinner.

Tomorrow we'll all jet off to various parts of the U.S., and I am both sad to leave and anxious to see my friends at home. But right now I feel better than I have in months—perhaps even years. The OB brochure didn't lie; my spirits are renewed. My stress has dissipated; I haven't once thought about impending deadlines or bills, and I have a stronger sense of confidence and trust in myself.

Still, isn't that the purpose of any vacation—to feel better mentally by physically removing ourselves from the stress-inducing stimuli of our daily lives? Admittedly, I worry that once I'm back in New York City, the concrete jungle I call home, my newly revived spirits will wither. I suppose that's why ecopsychology experts suggest that reconnecting with nature requires a transformation of consciousness. "Because," as Sarah Conn says, "the Earth is going to survive. Whether the species we're a part of does is up for grabs. So the health of humans in the Earth, as a living system, has to be a major focus." Looks like I'll be frequenting Central Park more often.

Read More About It:

Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind by Theodore Roszak, et al. (Sierra Club Books, 1995)

Nature and Madness by Paul Shepard (University of Georgia Press, 1998)