Most often, we go outdoors to connect with nature through the senses, seeking to lighten the mood and nurture the soul. There are also moments indoors when we need the same healing experience. When you deeply understand the power of this connection with nature, you can bring it into your own life more fully, which allows you to share it with your staff and clients more readily. In addition to concepts about connecting with nature and how it supports well-being, this article will describe experiences that you can enjoy yourself and share with others.
A Brief History
Understanding the historic context of our need as humans to connect with nature invites us to recognize what has led us to this moment, where the value of nature is being seen with increasing clarity and urgency. This need is described as biophilia, a concept brought to public awareness by biologist E. O. Wilson in the 1980s. Described as “a love of life and living world,” it is based on the belief that because humans evolved in nature, we have a biological need to connect with it. This affinity for living things, plants and animals alike, is seen as “an innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms.”
The concept that nature nurtures well-being was voiced in the 1800s by writers including Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, who both described it as essential to well-being. In 1865, Frederick Law Olmsted, landscape architect and key advocate for the development of parks throughout the U.S., put forth a report noting that scenes of natural beauty affect the mind, which is intimately related to the nervous system and the entire physicality of the body, offering “the effect of refreshing rest and reinvigoration to the entire system.” Fortunately, his plea for immersion in nature as favorable to health, intellect and happiness was heard and led to the formation of New York City’s Central Park, among others.
Fast forward to the 21st century: In his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv used the term “nature deficit disorder” to describe a dysfunctional gap between children and nature. In The Nature Principle, Louv suggests how nature can expand our senses and reignite a sense of wonder to support well-being and spirit, along with survival.
Increasingly, in our fast-paced technological world, the requirements for ongoing focus can lead to mental fatigue. In contrast, “involuntary attention,” sometimes called “soft fascination,” comes naturally and does not require mental effort. This is the open focus, free-ranging the way we are often able to perceive nature. Our minds have an opportunity to relax and renew, and we are able to restore our ability to think more clearly.
Developing a Deeper Connection
Mindfulness is a moment-to-moment awareness of what is happening inside and around ourselves, in a gentle, nonjudgmental way. When we are mindful in nature, we connect with the natural world through all of our senses without trying to describe things to ourselves on a cognitive level.
As you explore a mindful connection with nature, stay aware of the body and the sensations you feel. Be curious about the entire experience, be present in nature and let it reveal itself to you. As you feel your way into it, you don’t need to label it with words. Connect with and savor the feelings of awe and wonder, which can lead to a sense of well-being and gratitude that permeates your everyday life. Bringing a mindful awareness of nature into the moments of your life is a powerful act of self-care.
When you go outdoors, try this simple mindfulness exercise: Choose a small natural object and pay close attention to it. Notice the colors, shapes and textures that comprise it. Continue to look without using words to describe it to yourself, and then look some more. Notice how you feel about the object. Seeing it with new eyes brings a sense of spaciousness to the moment that refreshes and renews the spirit.
Here’s another exercise for appreciating the innate beauty of the imperfect. Choose something to look at that is not perfect in symmetry or beauty, such as a flower that’s fading, a piece of fruit that’s past its prime, and so forth. Step away from the judgmental aspects of valuing only beauty, the layers of habit, training and memory that have shaped our reactions. As you continue to look, let go of the idea of perfection. Explore the experience of how, without judgment, we can deeply appreciate everything, and the exquisiteness of what it is, as it is. Notice if your experience with the object you’ve chosen has changed over time. If so, are there any sensations in your body that relate to this new awareness?
Breathing It In
We breathe all the time, yet we are not often aware of the nuances in the experience. Mindfulness in nature provides an opportunity to explore how a breath of fresh air feels, how sensations may differ from an indoor setting to being outside.
Start indoors by closing your eyes and breathing 10 times gently and fully, in and out through the nose. Find your own rhythm and pace. Notice the sensations of breathing while indoors. Then, step outdoors and repeat the exercise.
Compare the experiences. Is there any difference to being indoors or out? If so, where do you perceive it? How does it feel? Is there any shift in energy linked to trying something new as you explore this simple experiment? While vision is the sense we most often acclaim, the sense of smell is evocative and can elicit memories, as the nose is a direct pathway to the brain.
Nature calls out the senses in many ways. Next time it rains gently, venture outdoors and observe; the gray sky, subdued light and moisture may change your perception of an everyday scene. Does the rain bring out a more intense depth of color? A richness of detail? Perhaps the rain acts as a filter, as it enhances and transforms perception. How does it feel to see with new eyes in a new situation?
These are all exercises that can be shared with guests, either within your wellness programming or simply as at-home care. You can create your own experience as you explore mindfulness in nature and the art of being deeply present. Simply taking a 15-minute walk once a week with the intention of bringing awareness to experiencing awe is a way you can continue to support your happiness and well-being.
Nina Smiley, PhD, director of mindfulness programming at Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, New York, holds a doctoral degree in psychology from Princeton University. She is the coauthor of The Three Minute Meditator and Mindfulness in Nature, as well as the CD Mini-Meditations That Will Enhance Your Life. Smiley has studied mindfulness with Jack Kornfield, founder of Spirit Rock Meditation Center, and Sharon Salzberg, cofounder of Insight Meditation Society, among others. She delights in sharing insights about meditation and wellness, and her work has been featured in numerous renowned publications.