Why does nature have this effect on us?
I take a walk in the woods and thoughts fly off like birds⎼ swallows, crows or chickadees, to be replaced by insights or a beautiful sense of quiet. Or I sit on the beach, by the ocean, and my attention goes to the seemingly infinite space over the water. My whole body seems to move rhythmically with the sound of the waves. Before I was tense, my mind and body racing. Now, as I’m sitting with the ocean, I am comforted. Relaxed.
Why is this?
I’ve used the rain, the sky, the sound of birds and peepers, crickets, and cicadas, the feel of my breath or the air on my face, the seasons, the glow of the moon in the middle of the night or the wind in the middle of the day as doors to meditation, or to calm and slow down enough so I can feel or perceive the world and myself more clearly.
Even an ice storm can evoke a sense of beauty; and the dark clouds of a hurricane can reveal a sense of awe⎼ right alongside the fright.
Being outside in nature or viewing it helps us stay healthy, happier, and recover more easily from illness. We experience less stress and pain and heal quicker in a hospital if our room has windows facing trees, streams, or mountains or there are murals of such scenes painted on the walls.
Something like 170,000 years ago, evolutionary changes like a loss of body hair and a subsequent need for protection from the elements led early humans to clothe themselves. Or maybe it was also for artistic reasons. Maybe as long ago as 400,000 years ago, certainly by the Neolithic Revolution of 12,000 years ago, we began to build homes, shelters from the storm, or from dangerous animals. Later, we began to build walls to protect us from our own species. We then tried to control nature or wall it away, but we couldn’t, so we walled ourselves from nature, or tried to do so.
Likewise, in our personal evolution, so many of us had to wall away traumas that were too much to face at the time or aspects of ourselves we didn’t know how to integrate or accept.
And because of this effort, of walling ourselves from nature or ourselves, the question arose: why is nature⎼ why is what we are walling away so often healing to us, despite the storms, the ice, the fires, and the bears?
Because nature ultimately includes everything. It’s not just trees, beaches, streams, and sky that can comfort us. Almost any aspect of nature can be used as an object for meditation and for calming ourselves, but so can almost anything we perceive. A poem, a work of visual art, a person, pet, park bench, building, a piece of paper, a question. We can use the mere act of looking to help us see more clearly, or a moment of fear to study how we construct emotions.
The recently deceased Buddhist teacher and environmental activist, Thich Nhat Hanh, said we can look at a sheet of paper and see a cloud. “Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper.” The key is to find what comforts us. We can see sunshine, loggers, and the wheat the loggers eat. We can see the water the producers of paper drink. We can see everything in a piece of paper.
We can look at the pavement of a city and see trees, see rain in our tears, the ocean in our veins. Even in the metal structure of a building, or the concrete, there is the earth, as the foundation and the materials of construction.
This is another reason those who deny science and deny Global Warming are so dangerous. Their narrative converts our ultimate source of comfort and our only source of air, food, and survival, into our ultimate threat. Turns ourselves into our enemy. Turns what’s real into a lie. We can’t allow such efforts to succeed.
We can’t escape the earth and the universe because we are it.
When we realize this, we feel a sense of presence, of being here, wherever here is, and now, whenever now is (borrowing from yoga and meditation teacher and author Ram Dass). We feel so comfortable being alive. Being natural. The calm we feel by sitting with trees or we receive from sitting with our breath or sitting with you, whomever you are. Sitting with compassion, for ourselves, others, the birds, and people we see. Or by doing nothing else but sitting. Here. This is the felt experience we’re after, the unobstructed awareness of being alive. Now. Once we allow ourselves to search for what’s comforting, it all can become comforting.
And the trees, the ocean, and the sky can simply remind us there’s more to us than our job, relationships, viewpoints, and goals. We don’t fit neatly into any of the conceptual roles or clothes we are sometimes squeezed into, nor does the universe fit into any of our ideas of it. It always exceeds our ability to contain it.
We can find ways to compassionately come out from isolation, come out from behind walls of ideas and concrete, worries and clock time, and find eternity. Even the storms can remind us we can face storms. We can face wherever and whenever we are because this is home. This is me. It is so comforting when we can let go of all the walls and labels and come home to ourselves, inseparable from the world itself and everyone, everything on it.
This is something worth practicing. This is something worth shouting from the mountains to preserve.