In one of my earliest memories, I am in the White Mountains in New Hampshire. I have wandered away from my family’s campsite at Dolly Copp Campground. I am five or maybe seven years of age. Some of the details are fuzzy and probably lost forever. I think I am in a clearing in the woods, or it might have been near a riverbed or an overgrown pasture. What I do remember vividly is seeing a patch of moss, brilliantly green, in the way only early season moss can be. I remember standing on the glowing green moss in my bare feet. Was the sun rising or setting? Whatever the case, I can remember with clarity the quality of the light, the thick, soft moss squishing through my toes, the smell of damp earth, and the quiet of the woods. And I remember feeling content, safe, and connected. Yogis would call this a moment of ‘direct experience.’ I wasn’t thinking about taking a selfie (it was circa 1970, after all). There was no mental noise but for what my senses were taking in.
I was experiencing nature with no filter.
Moments of direct experience are inherently imbued with peace, clarity, and a strong sense of well-being because they give us a break from past/future thinking – from remembering and planning. Nature, one of the best ways for us to enter into direct experience, rarely fails to re-set and sooth a harried nervous system. It’s the perfect complement to the digital age.
Direct experience requires that we be in tune with our senses. When I am not in a moment of direct experience there is usually a personal podcast playing in the mind. I call it “The Dread Report.” Thoughts like these dominate: “when was the last time my son ate vegetables? …. How am I going to pay that dental bill?…. What if my brother relapses….?” As a therapist, I know that our brains our wired to scan the environment for danger so I know my personal podcast is a universal experience – even more so in the Twenty-first Century when we rarely give our brains time to power down. This alert mind, after all, is how we make it through the day without walking in front of a car. The problem is, our ancient nervous systems can’t keep up with the accelerated pace of change and the demands of life in the Twenty-first Century. Because of the bombardment of information coming at us, we can get caught up in a loop of chronic stress, in which we feel like there is always a freight train coming at us unless we remember that we too are part of nature.
Remember that you are part of nature
The digital age has many benefits. There’s no way I could write as clearly on my laptop as I could on the electric typewriter I had in high school. And working remotely has actually allowed me to spend more time in our home in the White Mountains. But we sometimes forget that we are not flesh-colored computers.
We still need seven to eight hours of sleep on a regular basis even though we could stay up all night binging on Netflix. We still need in-person social connection and community to have a sense of safety even if we can spend all our time texting.
We still need fruits and vegetables in a somewhat natural state to get the micronutrients we need for our brains to work well, and we still need to feel the sun on faces every once in a while. Without tending to these human needs – the human nervous system, the thing we all have in common – we will not be able to relax and enjoy our day-to-day existence.
The Nature Prescription
This is not a call to wearing flower crowns and walking barefoot – although if that’s how you do nature – go for it! This is a call to remember that we are nature. Now there is a body of evidence to prove that being in nature is a healthy prescription for body, mind, and soul. In a time when many of us can’t afford health insurance, time in nature can be free preventative medicine. In his book, Go Wild, Harvard Professor John Ratey, sites studies that show that time in nature boosts our immune response and decreases levels of cortisol, the stress hormone responsible for triggering so many common ailments. Movement, as simple as a gentle walk where our arms naturally swing back and forth, re-wires and rebuilds the brain. Scientists have been able to measure an increase in grey matter in senior citizens who exercise. Children who have more recess time experience fewer symptom of attention-deficit. In her book, The Nature Fix, Florence Williams tells the story of an experiment where participants are asked to do one of three tasks: Walk for thirty minutes without a cell phone or walk while talking on a cell phone. The third group was a control group. The group without the cellphone scored on average 80 percent on a post-walk memory test, cellphone walkers and the control group scored on average 30 percent on the same memory task.
More than just movement – Building a sense of place
Of course, we can move by going to a gym, getting on a treadmill, and plugging in the earbuds. But this kind of activity is not about connecting. It actually encourages us to disconnect. It might feel good and help you meet your Fit Bit goals, and going to the gym is better than being sedentary, but moving in nature does so much more for the modern mind and body.
Even though we can be “connected” twenty-four seven, we feel more lonely and disconnected than ever. Adults, young and old, feel isolated from meaningful engagement, overwhelmed by their daily to-do list, and separated from community.
In my counseling practice, I sometimes ask a simple question: “What happens when you stop?” Does isolation well up? Do you feel like a caged animal? Can you put your phone down? If you are in a time where you are experiencing a “friend gap,” whether you are a recent college grad or a recent retiree, walking on a wooded trail can help ease a sense of isolation. Connecting with your natural surroundings is the next-best thing to connecting with people. In nature, we are apt to come up with the answers and solve problems.
Keep it playful
So now we have a body of evidence showing that being in nature can help us live smarter, calmer lives. But don’t make being in nature another item on your to-do list. Remember to keep it light. We Twenty-first Century humans tend to want to do everything one-hundred-and-ten percent. Entering into the field of direct experience should not be a heavy and serious process. In fact, it’s easier to ignore the distracting dread podcast when we allow ourselves to be curious and playful. If you are part of the outdoor community of the Northeast you probably know the stories of people overdosing on the nature prescription, and taking dangerous risks on the trail.
Here is my challenge to you: Can you plan a hike and only go half-way? Can the experience be more about connecting with yourself, or a group of friends, and less about reaching a goal? Can you use your time in nature to digest your life experiences as opposed to making it another task? I don’t remember all the details of my time on the patch of moss at Dolly Copp Campground, but I clearly remember, even at five or seven years old, that I felt at ease, safe, and free.
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