Do you have a favorite place or places on Earth where you feel more alive? Do you ever feel that you come ‘home to yourself’ when you are in nature? This is one side of the human-nature interaction: nature helps human beings heal and restores aliveness.
Nature healing research reveals that spending time in nature enhances our aliveness, whether we are in our favorite spot or not. Nature awakens eros, the first of the Greek terms for love, meaning our sensual self. Have you ever noticed how all your senses are stimulated when you spend time in nature? Nature is filled with sights, sounds, smells, touches, and even tastes (Burns, 1998).
Nature’s presence is associated with greater feelings of vitality, but being outdoors engaged in social activities or exercise is not predictive of vitality without nature’s involvement (Ryan, et al., 2010)
Nature reaches into the roots of our being and reminds us that we, too, are a part of nature, as nature is a part of us. We are meant to be fully and completely alive.
On the other side of the human-nature interaction, humans want to heal nature and the Earth. The environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht calls this soliphilia, by which he means our love and responsibility for a place, bioregion, or planet and the unity of interrelated interests within it (TEDxTalks, 2010).
Post-surgery and during chemotherapy, Sue grew more and more depressed and despondent. The side effects from her treatment felt overwhelming at times, and the fears about her health kept her up at night. One day, while walking near her home, Sue felt overcome with exhaustion and sat down in a park. She closed her eyes and felt a gentle breeze on her face. She was surprised to notice that her skin, which had been highly sensitive during chemo treatments, did not sting in the wind. For the first time in weeks, she felt at peace.
Sue noticed a piece of crumpled trash near her feet, and without thinking, she picked it up and carried it to a nearby trashcan. In that moment, she recognized a deep desire to return both herself and the planet to a state of balance and health.
She made a vow that, if she recovered, she’d devote herself to healing the Earth. Now in remission after a successful treatment, Sue is conducting eco-tourism in New Zealand, holds a backyard Wildlife Habitat certification and was the Washington, DC coordinator of the interfaith Prayer Vigil for the Earth held on the Mall for twenty years.
Awaken Your Aliveness
Upon entering wilderness…we are bathed in new sounds, awesome sights, interesting textures, different smells and tastes. This awakening of our senses, or perhaps better stated, ‘coming to our senses,’ is a subtly powerful and underrated experience.
Steven Harper, Wilderness Educator
Regardless of where you are at the moment, you can benefit from the healing effects of nature. If you can, go sit in a favorite spot in nature near you. If you can’t do this right now, instead visit a favorite spot using your imagination. Create the image as vividly as you can. Memories have a physical impact on your body and tend to evoke the experience of being there.
Notice your breath. On your exhale, imagine you are breathing out your tension; on your inhale, imagine you are breathing in relaxation and peace. Do this until you are fully relaxed yet alert.
Now heighten your senses. What you see, hear, feel, smell, or even taste in the environment? Extend your senses as far as you can. Experience how alive everything around you is. Invite the surrounding aliveness to quicken your own sense of aliveness. Allow joy and caring between you and nature to arise.
Eco-Therapy: Eco-psychology was introduced in the 1990s by Theodore Roszak when he recognized that people suffered mentally over environmental degradation (Roszak, 1992). While Roszak explored the bond between human beings and nature or the Earth, physician Robert S. Ulrich’s early research indicated that exposure to nature contributes to human health and wellbeing. In his study, people whose hospital windows had a view of nature had shorter stays, required less medication, and received fewer negative comments from nurses (Ulrich, 1984).
These two modern examples suggest that human-nature healing: (1) is a two-way street, (2) is core to who humans are, and (3) contributes to our aliveness. Turning to nature and the Earth for health and wellness is a centuries-old practice with many names, such as sanatorium, wilderness training, national park system, and so on.
The Sensual Awareness Inventory. Australian clinical psychologist George W. Burns created the Sensual Awareness Inventory to enhance people’s awareness of the sensory aliveness they experience in nature. He has worked with hundreds of people using nature as co-therapist, and his book Nature Guided Therapy (1998) contains specific descriptions of how nature contributes to people’s healing, health, and wellbeing.
Burns, G. (1998). Nature Guided Therapy: Brief Integrative Strategies for Health and Wellbeing. New York: Brunner/Routledge.
Chard, P. (1994). The Healing Earth. Minnetonka, MN: NorthWord Press.
Roszak, T. (1992).The Voice of the Earth: An Exploration of Ecopsychology, Grand Rapids, MI: Phanes Press.
Ryan, R., Weinsteing, N., Bernstein, J., Brown, K., Mistretta, L., Gagne, M. (2010). Vitalizing effects of being outdoors and in nature. Journal of Environmental Psychology; 30(2), 159-168.
TEDxTalks. (2010, June 1). Glenn Albrecht – Environment Change, Distress & Human Emotion Solastalgia. Retrieved January 28, 2013 from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-GUGW8rOpLY.
ThinkingAloudTV. (2010, August 25). Theodore Roszak: Towards an Eco-Psychology (excerpt). Retrieved January 28, 2013 from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=83VHiA2HhkM.
Ulrich, R. S. (1984). View through a window may influence recovery from surgery. Science; 224 (4647), 420–21.