This has been the year for returning to nature. Have you felt it? Or maybe you have observed it on social media. Instagram posts documenting walks, runs, and cycles out in the great outdoors. A collage of beautiful scenes of parks, hills, lakes, streams, mountains, beaches, forests, and gardens…seen anew through appreciative lenses.
The return to nature was one of the unexpected outcomes for many during lockdown.
For some of us, an hour of exercise outside became a precious lifeline that was not be squandered. Where possible we sought out natural spaces that were attractive. Being out there in the wide open we could exercise our right to exist outside our homes. And let’s face it, pre-Covid we were under-utilising this privilege to be in nature, too busy to smell the roses.
It turns out that (whether we are aware of it or not) we are inextricably connected to nature. This is noticeable in how our experiences in nature creates remarkable changes in our minds and bodies. Our moods are lifted, we feel happier, lighter, more optimistic.
Our wellbeing is enhanced, and our physical health is improved. Nature is medicine. While the medical profession and big pharma remain resistant to the science on this, some doctors are already prescribing ecotherapy. In Scotland, the National Health Service (NHS) Shetland board has authorised GP’s to issue ‘nature prescriptions’ to treat mental illnesses, heart disease, stress, high blood-pressure, diabetes, and other conditions. In Washington D.C., a GP writes up instructions on his prescription pad, detailing which park to visit and for how long – for patients who are suffering from obesity or anxiety.
I have experienced this transformative power of nature. When my family first moved to Scotland from South Africa in 2016, we immersed ourselves in the country’s natural beauty at every opportunity. I let the gorgeous countryside and stunning scenery soothe my broken, home-sick heart. Seeing the expanse of lush greenery, walking in the magical woodlands, and taking in the glittering lochs, helped me to connect with the present moment and feel love instead of sadness.
Now this should be enough to convince you to spend more time frolicking in fields. But what if this exposure to nature had a deeper, more profound effect on our collective lives?
Evidence in an emerging field called socio-ecological psychology, indicate that nature’s effect on us goes beyond the individual. Latest research shows that awe-inspiring experiences in nature enhances our social connectedness and promotes prosociality.
Simply put, nature enhances our relationships, makes us feel more connected to the collective, and inspires us to show kindness and care for our human family. When we experience awe and beauty in nature, we are more likely to care about others and be driven to serve the needs of others and the collective.
The overuse of ‘awesome’ in everyday speak has diluted the meaning of ‘awe’. The academic definition here does justice to the emotional response that is awe: “The feeling of being in the presence of something vast and greater than the self, that exceeds current knowledge structures” (Keltner & Haidt, 2003)
Awe is a transcendent emotion that is triggered in response to architectural wonders, religious you with a spiritual tingling. In this case, being struck with awe by the staggering beauty and astounding features of the natural environment can pause our obsession with ourselves, reduce our focus on everyday concerns, and force us to consider wider perspectives than we usually perceive. The connection with nature not only makes us feel better, but also makes us want to do better for others, turning our attention from the self to the collective.
The fact that nature has the power to make us a kinder, more caring society is both encouraging and a little depressing for me. Sure, it seems easy enough to make more room for nature in our lives and teach our children the same. But we are also faced with climate change, environmental decline, pollution, deforestation, and the demand for more space to accommodate our growing human family and our needs. Taking care of our planet has far wider-reaching benefits for us and our relationships, than just securing a safe place to live.
The seasons are changing now. This is an ideal time to tune into what you experience when you are out there in the beauty of the natural environment. Here are a few tips to encourage connection with the present moment when out in nature.
Take a few deep breaths before you begin your walk or cycle and set the intention to pay closer attention to nature.
Adopt a childlike curiosity and observe your surroundings as if for the first time.
Become fully aware of all that is around you and observe how the natural scenes change in front of your eyes. Take in the colour of the sky. Notice the clouds, the movement of the trees, the fields, mountains or hills in the distance, the waves of the sea, the stillness of the lakes, the dance of the sunlight on the trees or on the water.
Think of adjectives that vividly describe what you observe.
Engage all your senses. Listen out for insects, birds, the wind, the rain. Feel the breeze on your skin as you move. Feel the warmth of the sun on your face. Or the cool of the raindrops. Notice the scent in the air. Immerse yourself in the experience with a beginner’s mind.
The natural world is not separate from us, it is part of us. It is as much a part of us as our capacity for language; we are bonded to it still, however hard it may be to perceive the union in the tumult of modern urban life. Yet the union can be found, the union of ourselves and nature, in the joy which nature can spark and fire in us.