Many of us feel overwhelmed and bombarded by always being “on”: Constant connection through social media; major political divisions and threats; the risk of nuclear war; the destructive impact of climate change upon our lives. Oh, and don’t forget the looming possibility of more COVID variations. Whew!
My suggestion: Step away from these ever-present realities a bit and remind yourself of the value of simply being alive—and possibly hopeful—in these times. Below I describe three “practices”—steps you can take, for even brief moments, to do that. They immerse you into the natural world by tuning into three kinds of direct experience. All three enhance your life. They are supported by research showing, in brief, that any amount of time spent outdoors increases wellbeing, calm, and a sense of connection with something larger than your own conflicts and concerns.
I describe the research below, but here are the three steps you can take. First, get up from your computer, exit your office or home, and go outside, wherever you are. Take a walk. You don’t need to find a park, necessarily, or a trail through the woods. Just walk anywhere that surrounds you with nature to some degree. A leafy neighborhood is great, or the area around wherever you happen to be. City streets are fine but avoid the most congested downtown areas. As you walk, do the following:
Sounds—Listen to Them
Focus on hearing the sounds that surround you as they come and go. Imagine turning off all other senses. Just take in and enter into the multitude of sounds that occur as you walk along. Maybe birds chirping, sounds from cars nearby, people’s conversations, machinery in the distance.
Open yourself to hearing all the sounds that always surround you outside but that you’ve probably tuned out or ignored. It's understandable: We’re so often preoccupied by the internal dialogue swirling around in our heads. Take note of what you now experience as you embrace the multitude of sounds that take residence in your consciousness.
Sights—See the Details
Shift to your vision. Look at all the things you see as you stroll along, but now really “see” them: The leaves on a tree, flowers, ivy growing on a building, a parked car, a house or apartment building. Really look at them in detail. Perhaps the veins of a leaf, the bark of a tree; or the texture of the walls of a dwelling.
Distinguish the patterns as you hone in, just looking. Perhaps nearby sights, those in a short distance away, or in the far distance. Don’t “look-without-seeing,” as you might do when walking to go somewhere. Rather, focus on the object; the specific features. Reflect on how you normally tune things out visually when you’re outside. How does tuning in affect your consciousness?
Sensations—Feel Your Body Responding
Now, turn off your hearing and visual senses. Try to ignore the sounds and sights around you, as you walk. Instead, open yourself to feeling the air and atmosphere that flows over you and generates bodily sensations. Open your consciousness to those sensations. Maybe it’s the softness or harshness of a breeze as it strokes your skin, your face; the sensation of the warmth or chill in the air; the physical experience of the sunlight flooding over your body; or that of an overcast sky.
Also, tune into your bodily movements along your path. What does your stride arise, physically? For example, do you feel fluid in your movements? Some pain or discomfort, as you walk? And in what parts of your body?
Research Shows Nature’s Impact
Note how all these sensations, sights, and sounds that nature arouses in your total being meld together. Do you feel them generate into a feeling—even fleeting—of oneness with that infinite realm, of which you are a small, temporary, though eternal part?
A study from the University of Mannheim found that people who experience that sense of oneness with the universe show higher levels of life satisfaction, overall. And that was independent of any religious beliefs. In fact, the researchers indicated that a stronger sense of oneness may exceed any religious beliefs or practices. That’s likely because it increases greater wellbeing and satisfaction with your life—through all its ups and downs; the pleasures and disappointments; the things you can impact and change, as well as those you cannot.
Another study from the University of British Columbia assessed how participants responded to spending even a bit of time in nature. They didn’t go for long walks, but just recorded their responses to noticing anything at all, outside—a bird; a tree growing next to a bus stop, for example. The study found that just being outside, per se, had a positive impact on their wellbeing. It also increased their level of connection to other people. Just some time outside allows for greater inner calm; it contributes to more focused, creative responses to everyday life.
The findings for such studies make sense: Connection with nature pulls you away from attachment to external validations of your self-worth. It helps free you from what you believe will bring you fulfillment, such as money, power, and recognition. Being in nature pulls you towards feeling more unity with life in all its forms; towards valuing human connection, the capacity for love, and appreciation of just being alive. It helps you let go of over-attachment to all those “things” we seek to define ourselves by—and which are ultimately impermanent and transitory, anyway.
And needless to say, being in nature has a positive impact on specific mental health measures. For example, a University of Michigan study found that just a 20-minute nature experience was enough to significantly reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol. And by spending a little more time immersed in nature - sitting or walking, cortisol levels dropped even more.
Now go outside and take a walk!
Copyright 2022 Douglas LaBier