“We already have everything we need. There is no need for self-improvement. All these trips that we lay on ourselves—the heavy-duty fearing that we’re bad and hoping that we’re good, the identities that we so dearly cling to, the rage, the jealousy and the addictions of all kinds—never touch our basic wealth. They are like clouds that temporarily block the sun. But all the time our warmth and brilliance are right here. This is who we really are. We are one blink of an eye away from being fully awake.” ~ Pema Chödrön, Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living
When I read this quotation this morning, I thought about how many of the people I see in my practice struggle with how to feel as though they are “enough.” We seem to know that self-love, compassion, and abundance is part of the healing process, but it can hard for many of us to believe that we already have everything we need to live authentically and fully as ourselves. I believe it really is possible to cultivate compassion for ourselves and the people we love, and having contact with nature can help.
Studies have shown that access to greenery and the natural world can expedite illness recovery, improve mental health, and regulate our autonomic nervous system (the system which controls our responses to unsafe and stressful situations). When you are feeling stress, anxiety, sorrow, anger, and other uncomfortable emotions, spending even 20 minutes in nature can help those emotions pass through you. When we pay attention to the natural world and its patterns of abundance, and allow the sounds, smells, textures, and shapes of nature to settle inside of our bodies, we can find reminders that every mood and difficult thought will pass, and something new will take its place.
Most of us who live in cities find our access to natural spaces exists within urban environments. Urban parks and gardens, and perhaps even the old tree in your neighbor’s front yard, can provide healing experiences. In the Bay Area, we have ample access to natural spaces—in the East Bay, we have Wildcat Canyon, Tilden Park, Redwood Regional Park, Chabot—there are so many places where you can find an hour or so of being in the natural world. Depending on what time of day you go, it is even possible to rarely see another human being. Additionally, if your mobility is limited, there is no need to walk: Staying in one natural place for 15-20 minutes can have a profound effect on your nervous system, and can help you find answers to questions you might have on your mind.
Here are more ways to allow nature to heal you:
- Start with an intention. In the beginning you may just want to focus on getting to know what happens for you when you are in nature. At first, your intention might be “notice my breathing” or “what colors and smells do I notice today?” Over time, you might bring a question or problem that’s on your mind, and let yourself be open to what the environment shows you along the way. You might often go back to simply “noticing,” because it can allow you to be even more open to the delightful curiosities of critters and landscape that you might otherwise be too focused to see. You might even discover something you could never have expected!
- Walk slowly and mindfully. Be aware of your breath, and as you walk, slowly become aware of the sounds, smells, shapes, shadows, sensations of heat and coolness, the texture of the path on your feet, what you notice in front of you and in your peripheral vision. If you wish, stop from time to time and allow sounds other than the crunching of your feet to be heard.
- If you find a spot you really feel connected to, stop walking and stay a while. Try not to worry about how much time you have, and about “getting somewhere.” If you find a spot that calls to you, you have already arrived. Stay here, if you can. It can take the natural world a good 20 or 30 minutes to return to how it was before you walked through, so expect new sounds and sensations to unfold the longer you allow yourself to stay.
- If you come across a tree that you especially love, touch it with both hands, and take three long and deep breaths with the tree. Try to feel its power, its strength, its longevity. It has probably been here for a very long time, and has seen a lot in those years. It plants its roots firmly while stretching its branches to the sky. There are a lot of metaphors to be found in trees. Perhaps you will notice something in the tree that can help you today.
- Look at both the macro and the micro. Notice the distance, the shapes on the horizon, the path ahead. Then, notice the roly-poly bugs, the ants, the pine needles on the ground, the birds and lizards moving through the periphery. Stop a while and notice what the bugs are doing, and how the patterns of the lichen form shapes in their movement and growth up the trees and rocks. Also notice how spectacular your long distance view is. Now: Notice that you, breathing, feeling, and seeing, are between these two places. You can contact both the long view and the short view. Breathe this in, and try to imagine this spaciousness entering into your lungs, your belly, your legs, your feet, your back, and your head.
Allow yourself to be open to being delighted by the unexpected, and to being awakened by the pace and interconnectedness of the natural world. Nature offers a reminder that you are enough, because our bodies are the same bodies we feel in the trees and in the rocks and critters, all held by the same earth. You are enough, and you are connected to something bigger than you.
More on Ecotherapy here: What is Ecotherapy?, Holos Institute, and Ecoutearth. Ecoutearth is a local group in the East Bay that offers monthly meetings at Redwood park to offer ways of listening to the earth and to your own heart. My training in Ecotherapy has come from Jan Stein, who is the Director of the Holos Insitutue and offers courses at CIIS.