As you view nature, you’re just drawn to be grateful. There is a certain purification that occurs in nature. You can get so busy with many things but when you go to nature you can come to your still point. And you become who you really are. John Szarke, author of Fully Alive: Steps Along the Way
When was the last time you went outside? I mean outside, immersed in nature, feet tromping grass, lymphatic system surging, surrounded by fresh air, aware of birdsong and branch clatter. I live in Brooklyn and for most of us city folk — eight-and-a-half million strong in New York City—the experience of being fully surrounded by greenery is elusive. Even in the heart of Central Park or Prospect Park, or on a long walk through the Evergreens Cemetery, it can be hard to remember to take our time and be present in nature. And so, it might be just as hard to find such inner serenity — the type that comes as a result of spending quality time in nature — even if you regularly meditate, practice yoga, or sage your apartment.
But the truth is, it’s necessary to unplug and get out of urban landscapes to access not just a form of peace, but oneself. There is a redemptive and mystical power of nature that can impress us with quietness, stillness and a sense of complete restoration. One can sit on a zafu all day every day, but there’s nothing like Mother Nature to bring us back into harmony with ourselves. It’s not just about stimulating a sense of serenity or holding our own hands: neuroscientist David Strayer found that being in nature without technology enhances creativity and critical thinking in a very real way; after four days of hiking, backpackers were 50 percent more creative, as Outside reported.
Think about it. We city dwellers spend most or all of our time attached to technological devices, riding public transportation, talking on and manipulating phones, computers, electronics. Regardless of one’s industry, it’s hard to tune out. Even yoga studios have iPads and scheduling software to contend with.
That’s why it’s so important to run to the great outdoors — preferably to somewhere with limited wifi. When we put down our devices, something as simple as a hike or a mindful nature walk can bring forth great moments of clarity. And of course, when we kick it up a notch, glaciers, national parks or volcanoes give us perspective of our place in the world — a sense of humility for viewing that which is truly divine.
A recent Stanford study found that a simple, 90-minute walk through Stanford’s leafy campus left participants feeling happier afterward, as the New York Times reported. Participants’ minds were calmer, while racing, brooding thoughts diminished. So whether it’s a three-day retreat on a mountaintop or simply time to visit a nearby park, why does nature inspire mental well-being, creativity and a happier self?
As ethnobotanist and clinical herbalist Hayden Stebbins puts it, “When I step away from a screen and go outdoors, my senses re-expand.” What a concept: our senses actually take on a more complex spectrum in nature, and anyone who has scrambled to the top of a mountain on a fall day knows this to be true.
“My eyes relax and start to take in more diverse imagery and depth,” Stebbins continues. “I relax and I feel like I am in the middle of it all, as opposed to facing a screen where I feel I am at the end of a line attached to a web. When I’m in front of a screen, I feel I am holding on to the end of a line. When I am outdoors, I feel I am embedded in something grander, and have more agency.”
Stebbins points out that the separation between nature and urban settings is far less obvious than it may seem, and cities can provide much-needed nature too. “I also believe that nature is everything, so going ‘to nature’ is a false separation, but we have created the illusion that our houses and cities are separate from nature,” he says. In other words, keep in mind that your house was built with the same trees you might hug on a hiking trail. But as nice as a long savasana on a hardwood floor may be, it will never quite be the same as a nap taken under a gingko tree.
While in recent years, people have turned to meditation, mantras and prayer in droves, nature has become an ever-more important element in maximizing mental health. Just like positive affirmations can build new neural pathways and change the way we think, time spent in the great outdoors can also activate our brains for the better. “Getting further away from humans and buildings can rewire the brain in that it gives us a sense of awe and wonder and concept of distance back,” Stebbins said. “Walking five miles during a hike in the woods is so unfathomably different than driving five miles on a road.”
“I relax and I feel like I am in the middle of it all, as opposed to facing a screen where I feel I am at the end of a line attached to a web. When I’m in front of a screen, I feel I am holding on to the end of a line. When I am outdoors, I feel I am embedded in something grander, and have more agency.”
Perhaps the simplest way to put it is that when we’re outside, especially in leafy settings, we have a chance to see and feel a world that doesn’t exist indoors or on concrete, especially if screens are involved. Reading this story, one might have that very experience on a phone or laptop: the bright screen firing up the pleasure-seeking part of your brain. Maybe there’s a window nearby. Maybe you have a backyard or a little park around the corner. Or maybe you’re lucky enough to live close to an actual park, or luckier still to live outside of a city.
If so, go outside and visit the little park, or the big park, or a hiking trail. Remember that nature is a way of finding rest, serenity, solace and an escape from the business of life. For thirty minutes, for ten, even for five — take the time to listen to the forest, however that might look today. Your brain will thank you.