We need nature. Flowing water, plants, sunshine or clouds, the simple sounds of birds and breezes.
Research is confirming the substance of what most of us intuit: we are better when we spend time in nature – happier, healthier, freer from the darkness that clings to us when we are closed within our own contraptions.
Some people benefit from playing in nature, and some benefit from the quiet focus of mindfulness. Some embrace the study of animals or plants, or how their lives are entwined to make ecological communities, and others draw, paint, or write about it. There is certainly more than one way to spend time in nature and be renewed and nurtured by it.
I love quiet periods of mindful attention, and also taking the time to write about it while sitting at the edge of a meadow or prairie. Studying nature is also important to me. Someone else might want to play music in some open spot in the woods or spend the afternoon fishing. Is nature good for us regardless of what we do while we’re there?
I have some educated guesses about how we may get the most benefit from our time in nature. These are informed by what I’ve read and what I know about psychology and the research on the benefits of nature.
Taking time to notice and reflect. Whether it’s play, study, meditation or art, taking time to notice details and enjoy the experience is likely to be an important part of how nature benefits us. Related to noticing is pausing to reflect on it. In general the ability to reflect, to be aware of what we are perceiving and feeling, is beneficial.
Presence. If we are playing in the creek, we genuinely feel our connection with the rocks and water. You don’t have to read that in any mystical way; it is simply a kind of awareness of, and intentional interaction with, where you are at that moment. You are present in that creek. It is not just a “stand in” for every other stream – it is not a generic experience, like a creek video on an exercise machine.
Quiet mind. Except in some kinds of mindfulness practice, we don’t have to be silent. In a walk in the woods, people often talk with each other, and when we write in a nature journal, words come to us. A few comments and questions about what we are experiencing do not take us far from where we are, in the way that other thoughts and conversations do. In other words, “I think this is Glen Rose Yucca” keeps us in nature, while “What movie should we see tonight” separates us from it. When it comes to our busy, worried, chatty minds, quieter is probably better.
Acceptance and kindness. The more open and accepting we are towards what we are experiencing, the better off we are. The less we see something through the lens of our preferences and wants (and the more we can see it as it is), the more we benefit. This goes hand-in-hand with kindness, the wish for ourselves and everything around us to live in wellness and peace, with as few struggles as possible. These attitudes are closely connected with the practice of mindfulness. I think they are beneficial in visits to nature and in any other context.