As much as I try to go through the world calm, centered, and positive, like everyone else, I have days when I am stressed out, depressed, anxious, and confused.
Like many, I try different strategies to make myself feel better. Some are admittedly more healthy and productive than others. Consistently, I am finding that one solution always helps: getting outside.
Whether it’s gazing at the stars or sitting against a tree, just stepping foot outdoors has become my go-to remedy for all that ails me.
These experiences in nature are not only the perfect medicine when I’m feeling out of balance, but also my daily dose of proactive self-care to keep my mind, body, heart, and spirit healthy. When I take a few deep, cleansing breaths of fresh air or feel the elements on my skin, everything is made better: my mind clears, body relaxes, heart opens, and soul is nourished.
Time in nature is one of those most amazing gifts, the kind that keeps on giving; it is the massage, hot tub, good night sleep, and great meal all rolled into one.
Research demonstrating the mental, emotional, and physical benefits of time outdoors is mounting. Here are a few highlights from an extensive list of proven benefits: reduced stress, reduced anxiety and depression, heightened innovation, a heightened sense of connection, a more positive emotional mood, and increased mental well-being. As impressive as this list is, perhaps more importantly, time in nature is also profoundly beneficial spiritually. Though harder to quantify empirically, the value of this spiritual component is no less real.
As my toddler daughter discovers the world of monarch butterflies, I myself am reminded of the incredible intelligence of nature’s creatures. A monarch venturing to the same place each winter or a wild salmon returning to the river of its birth to die speaks to a deep wisdom beyond my comprehension.
I see this intelligence in the bloom of a flower or the shape of a nautilus shell. It is everywhere in the natural world, and I believe that the more we attune to it both around and within us, the more we grow as people, communities, and a culture.
Nature helps me develop into my fullest expression by offering many teachings—all of which lead to a profound sense of perspective. In the wild, problems, worries, and struggles seem to dissolve a bit. My outlook becomes expansive as I remember that life and nature are so vast. This greater perspective and insight is the perfect antidote for most all my worries.
I can actually step away from my ego and get space from my fears and preoccupations. I know that I am not my job, bank account, or the errant slip of my tongue to my wife. It’s very easy in our hyper busy and indulgent world, with immediate gratification available at the tap of our fingers, to become fixated on our little world, on the many little problems of life that can disproportionately consume our attention.
I’m not talking about serious or pressing issues, but rather our tendency to make “mountains out of molehills.” Nature puts these things in perspective. I gain insight into what I genuinely need, what is really deserving of my attention, and what isn’t worth the energy and time. In this way, time outside helps me to shift from an ego to an eco perspective.
This eco perspective is rooted in an experience of connectedness and belonging. When I sit in a forest, swim in the ocean, or look up at the sky, I feel and know I’m a part of something bigger than myself. Along with the owls and osprey, bees, badgers, and bears, I am a participant in this great web and ecosystem that is our planet. I am a part of this force, and it is a part of me.
There might be different labels, beliefs, and practices across different cultures and religions to describe and access this experience, but it is the experience of a larger being and belonging that is at the heart of spirituality. In nature, this belonging, connection, and unity occur effortlessly. Talk about a spiritual path and practice!
Instead of seeing the world as either this or that, black or white, I see shades of gray, paradox and contradiction, life as more “both and.” There is birth and death, expansion and contraction, competition and sharing, each inseparable from the other. The earth and its ecosystems are non-dualistic with interconnected and interactive components existing in a great network of relationship. This understanding and experience of the world as interconnected and non-dual is central to mysticism and most spiritual traditions.
Nature effortlessly offers me this teaching. The experience of inter-relatedness brings fluidity to the boundaries between myself and the world. My well-being and sense of self expands, and I realize I am inseparable from the planet. This feeling inspires compassion and concern for all beings. Just as I send my best wishes to the birds migrating south as winter approaches, I find myself wishing that others may be safe, healthy, happy, and free of suffering, and that they experience abundance and beauty.
As my feelings of kinship and openness expand, the little details that cause me to feel separate and divided from others seem less significant and insurmountable. It no longer matters so much what political candidate one supports, sports team they like, or beliefs they have. Like all of nature’s creation, I remember that everyone is carrying unique burdens while doing the best they can with their lives and trying to be good people, be comfortable and safe, and healthy and happy. Each person might have a different view about how to realize these outcomes, but the goal is the same.
Remembering this, I don’t feel so critical or estranged from the people around me. My judgment—the source of so much disconnect and hurt—diminishes. I realize that we do not just simply co-exist on this planet, we actually need each other. The diversity that is everywhere and characterizes all of life is not only acceptable, it is essential. Just as healthy ecosystems require many different organisms, our communities are similarly enriched by diversity.
If we are to individually and collectively thrive, we must embrace all the different bodies, beliefs, and behaviors that exist in the world.
My increasing ability and desire to be with diversity is about much more than different people. It’s also about embracing the diversity of life’s experiences. Nature enables me to flow more gracefully with the broad palette of emotions, thoughts, and experiences that everyone must encounter. Near the steady moving brook close to my house, I find an abiding sense of rhythm and fluidity. As I watch the consistently shifting tides on my island home in Mount Desert, Maine, I am reminded that the world is literally and figuratively a big circle with constant movements of life, death, and change.
Nature clearly reveals this impermanence. Watching a leaf drift down the brook in the autumn, I experience the reality of change and I feel more capable of floating on the currents myself. There will be rapids and eddies, gentle flows and gushing torrents. Nature reminds me not to fixate on the difficulties that inevitably arise. I know these hardships are as normal as the weather, something to breathe into instead of fighting. And, like the weather, they will pass.
As my resistance subsides, my senses pick up. My breath expands and settles, sensations and sounds become more noticeable, my mind quiets, and a relaxation starts to pervade my body. I am present and spacious and more attuned to my complete experience. I feel so alive. The shades of blue and green around me start to pop, smells like fresh cut grass become more vivid, and my ears hear the orchestra of sounds around me.
This engagement naturally yields awe and wonder. I observe a spider web glisten after a fresh rain or a bee pollinating our cucumber flowers, and I’m touched on a visceral level. My heart is moved with amazement at what it means to be part of the circle that is this planet. This wonder and appreciation births a desire to protect each aspect of this web to which I belong.
I don’t just care about air quality for my family; I want every person to breathe in deeply, free of pollution. I want clean water not just for my community, but so every community and creature has a safe and healthy environment in which to exist.
These aren’t just issues of health, but equality and justice for people and animals alike.
I know I must do my part to address environmental degradation and climate change. This is not just for my loved ones, but all of creation. Climate change affects not just our quality of life—it affects the existence of life itself. In this way, it is a deeply spiritual issue. Animals, organisms, and people are already dying because of climate change, and without radical action this will increase dramatically. My climate activism is practically, morally, and spiritually motivated. Yet I do it, not with feelings of burden or duty, but rather, I work toward solutions and problem solving from an experience of love, service, and gratitude.
Furthermore, knowing that the sources of climate change arise from our psychological and spiritual shadows—greed, fear, apathy, selfishness, and so on—I know environmental engagement makes me a better person. In this way, climate action is a spiritual practice where I receive as much as I offer.
Whether to save our planet or grow spiritually, I believe we all need the experiences and qualities nature provides. It is the medicine we seek for all the ailments facing us: practical, psychological, and spiritual. Closer connection to our environment is the antidote to the increasing anger, judgment, fear, and intolerance we observe everywhere. Individually and collectively, now more than ever, we need the gifts of connection and compassion, perspective and presence, gratitude and belonging that nature offers.
In the process, we become better people. We grow, heal, and awaken spiritually. Whether you identify as religious or not, there is a deep and profound benefit found in connecting with the earth. The benefits are effortless and organic. It does, however, require that we walk away from our screens and step out of our boxes. We need to unplug from technology and connect into a network with much better reception, bandwidth, and downloads.
Author: Dennis Kiley
Image: Unsplash/Jacalyn Beales
Editor: Travis May
Copy Editor: Catherine Monkman
Social Editor: Catherine Monkman