How to immerse yourself in nature
This is the sixth and last in a series of posts spotlighting nature-connectedness.
This is the sixth and last in a series of posts spotlighting nature-connectedness. The take-away messages from the earlier posts in the series are:
- Being nature connected, is a pathway to happiness, well-being and health—among the most important things we could desire.
- More than something to be desired, the relationship is a basic psychological need.
- The need is accompanied by an innate disposition and ability to connect with nature.
- Meeting this need is easy because it is something that is ‘natural’ for us to do.
- As there are many nature activities to choose from, virtually everyone can find ways of connecting with nature that suits them.
I addressed some of the practicalities of choosing nature activities in my last post, where I emphasised the importance of contacting nature regularly.
Physically ‘doing’ nature activities is obviously essential to becoming nature connected, but it is not enough. A person might walk along tree-lined streets, past gardens or in a park every day, for example, oblivious to the nature on display. They would be contacting nature physically, but not psychologically. They would not be engaging with the natural environment in a way that leads to nature connectedness.
The Nature Connectedness Research Group at the University of Derby in the UK found that people connect with nature more rapidly and deeply when they interact with the natural world by stopping, pausing and engaging with it deliberately and mindfully.
Stopping and pausing provides time for nature to be noticed. We can be surrounded by nature but pay it little attention. Under some circumstances that is understandable and appropriate. When catching up with a friend in a park, for example, chatting might be more important than communing with the surrounding flowers and greenery. But to get the most from our nature activities, we must use them to connect with nature in mind, heart and spirit.
The Nature Connectedness Research Group have identified five practices or actions that create this kind of engagement: ‘seek and savour beauty’; ‘stimulate your senses’; ‘notice your feelings’; ‘discover what nature means to other people’; and ‘care for nature in thought and action’.
Seek and savour beauty
This is the easiest and one of the most effective practices for cultivating nature connectedness. We possess an astonishing ability to find beauty in almost all forms of nature, including representations of it in pictures and photographs. Natural beauty (and beauty of every kind) is mainly experienced as aesthetic pleasure or the ‘beauty buzz’. This feel-good and powerful emotion ranges from a warm glow to heady euphoria. Aesthetic pleasure heightens awareness, sparks curiosity, stimulates inquiry and inspires creativity. It can also foster empathy, friendliness and kindness.
Aesthetic pleasure is a highly rewarding emotion. To experience it is to leave us wanting more. We are attracted to beauty and beautiful things for that reason. We are drawn to nature largely (but by no means exclusively) because it is full of beauty.
Beauty is everywhere in nature. Much of it cannot be missed; it ‘hits you in the eye’ so to speak. But there is much beauty that is easily overlooked in the natural world’s complexity.
So be prepared to look in and under, to watch and wait, to seek, explore and investigate. You may find that the simple undertaking of looking for ‘three good things in nature’ every day is a helpful way to start. Bear in mind that natural beauty is where you find it and not always where you expect it to be. As we tend to underestimate the pleasure of nature experiences, seek nature’s beauty expectantly, with an open mind and with a readiness to be surprised.
Natural beauty is to be savoured by dwelling in the experience, discovering more about it and then processing it. Dwelling is essentially increasing the impact of the experience by staying with it, ignoring distractions and noticing your feelings. Discovering more about the experience requires attending mindfully and purposefully. Aesthetic pleasure prompts us to do this. Processing the experience involves re-living it in some way. You might talk about it with a friend, for example, write about it in a diary or journal, capture it artistically or record it photographically.
Seeking beauty increases our chances of experiencing awe, an emotion that more than any other binds us to nature. Awe is a ‘goose-bumpy’ feeling we get when we perceive that we are in the presence of vastness—in the presence of something that is both beyond our current understandings and imaginings and dwarfs us physically and/or psychologically. Awe draws us out of ourselves and immerses us in our surroundings and the wider world (which may help explain its tendency to inspire generosity and a sense of connection with others).
Stimulate your senses
This practice is about making full use of your senses to absorb the sights, sounds, silence, scents, textures and tastes of the natural world. It is about getting to know the fabric of nature first-hand and intimately.
We are programmed to pay attention to nature. Our attention is captured ‘automatically’ by the natural world—by its naturalness, aliveness, complexity and novelty. Nature is unequalled in its capacity to hold us in its spell or to fascinate us. But even nature’s allure can lose out to distractions. It is especially vulnerable to conversation, troubling thoughts and intrusive sounds. We need to be aware of this vulnerability and do all we can not to fall victim to it.
Try, for example, to have times free of chat and mobile phone intrusions during nature activities. Consider as well having a quiet time before an activity, a short breathing-focussed meditation perhaps, to get your mind in the right space.
It is also worth taking time to pay attention purposefully—by making a point of observing nature close-up, for example, or giving yourself mini-projects, such as looking for patterns on the bark of trees or noticing the different shapes and colours of leaves. You might also try selecting just one sound to listen to or a single object or landscape feature to explore with your senses. You could also try observing the natural world as if you are an artist, photographer, composer or poet. Consider following Rachel Carson’s advice to attend to nature as if it were your last opportunity to do so.
Notice your feelings
Noticing your feelings is an especially important way of engaging with nature.
You do this by paying attention to your emotions, identifying them and registering how they are playing out in your body as well as your mind. It also involves thinking about the effects the emotions may be having on your happiness and moods.
The emotions that you can expect on your nature connectedness journey will mainly be positive ones such as pleasure, joy, happiness, awe, wonder, excitement, exhilaration, peacefulness and tranquillity. You are also likely to experience gratitude, empathy, love and humility. A few negative feelings, such as fear, anxiety and disgust, may find their way into the mix. But this is OK. A mature and resilient relationship with nature requires an appreciation of nature’s ‘darker’ side. Just as our friends are friends, ‘warts and all’, we need to relate to nature in the same terms.
Discover what nature means to other people
Others can’t connect us with nature. Even so, our own nature connectedness journey can be enriched, guided and inspired by other people’s nature experiences, especially those that are captured in photographs, paintings, poetry and other forms of writing. The practice of discovering what nature means to other people is a way of experiencing nature indirectly. While not as powerful as experiencing nature first-hand, this indirect way of accessing nature is beneficial in surprising ways. Viewing nature photographs, for example, can reduce stress and promote recovery from mental fatigue.
Care for nature in thought and action.
Caring actions foster closeness between the carer and the cared for. Any keen gardener will tell you this as will people actively involved in hands-on conservation projects such as those organised by Landcare and Conservation Volunteers Australia. A caring space is an intimate space, one of understanding and unity. It is also a moral and ethical space. To share this space with the natural world is to share a distinctive and enduring closeness that fosters affection, respect, empathy and concern. And if there was a time that needed this closeness between humanity and nature, it is now—a theme I’ll explore in a following post.
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