I have an ongoing love hate relationship with the city. I love the opportunities and abundance it provides but I hate the alienation and loss of connection to the natural world it produces. Over the years I have found that my own healing and wellbeing are intimately connected to our connection to the natural world. For me some of the greatest healing and alchemy I have experiences has come from playing in the mountains. There was something about being in nature, touching, smelling, using my body, seeing how natural rhythms unfolded that allowed me to move through anxiety and loss in ways that I just wasn't able to do in therapy or through my many other efforts.
For so many of us in the western world our modern lifestyle has us almost completely disconnected from our natural surroundings. We spend our days indoors looking at screens, we exercise in sterile gyms, we collect our food under fluorescent lit supermarkets. Our day to day lives have changed drastically over the past 50 years deepening our disconnection to our natural world.
A recent study from Stanford showed that people who walked in natural areas were at decreased risk for depression (see the study here.) This research is just the latest to show that when we reconnect with our natural world that we can experience powerful benefits to our mental health. For many of us we have a longing to be in nature and know that it would be good for us but we don’t exactly know what to do or how to experience it, especially those of us that live in cities.
Here are 5 simple ways that you can reconnect with nature in under an hour and the best part is they are all free and can even be done with small children! Choose one or better yet make a plan to try a new one each week! Be sure to share your experience with us on the Facebook Page so others can learn from you.
1. Create a Nature Installation
This is without a doubt my favourite thing to do outdoors! You can regularly catch me fiddling with sticks and rocks by a stream, trying to assemble them in a new and interesting way. A nature installation is a really fancy name for collecting natural objects and putting them together in a simple and beautiful way. You don’t have to go to a majestic setting, you can even begin in your backyard or a public park. When I am feeling stressed or disconnected from myself and the natural world creating an installations a chance to immediately reconnect with my creative self, physical sensations and feel like I am actually connecting with nature.
Begin by looking at the natural objects in the are. Perhaps there is grass, leaves, weeds, dirt , rocks. Gather a few of the objects that are appealing to you and begin assembling them in a new way.
Play around with stacking, balancing, making lines, shapes or explore natures colour pallet. Notice the textures, weights and sensations of each object.
Once you have assembled them in a way you think is beautiful take a few moments to enjoy your creation then snap a picture and make it your new screensaver or wallpaper.
If you want to deepen this experience bring a pen and paper with you and write a brief poem or story about the installation.
For added inspiration check out the incredible work of artists Andy Goldsworthy (one of my all time favourite artists!)
2. Forage Food (or a Bouquet!)
Did you know that we used to go out into the woods and collect things and then eat them! Yes I know it sounds crazy, but apparently that how we survived. Jokes aside the crazy thing about this is that I would be willing to guess that 95% of us wouldn’t have a clue what we could eat in our local natural environment. Depending on where you live this might take a little bit of research but I am willing to bet there is something nearby you that can be eaten. One of my first times in Northern British Columbia I was in awe at the amount of fireweed blossoming and wild raspberries growing all along the highways. So I took my family out one afternoon and we foraged and collected as much as we could. We then went home and made the most magical pink fireweed jelly and raspberry compote we ate on ice ream. This is about as simple as it gets, being out in nature, touching and feeling the plants, followed by time in the kitchen exploring each plants transformation and finally having the joy of eating it! I cant think of a better way to spend an afternoon . If you cant find any local plants to consume in your area try hitting up the farmers market and talk to the farmers about how they grow the food. When we see how our food is connected to the land a certain reverence and gratitude takes over, a feeling sure to interrupt our stress.
If the idea of foraging food feels a little to extreme or scary try foraging a bouquet to display in your home. I went into my backyard and created this arrangement out of weeds.
For added inspiration and resources for where to start foraging for food visit this amazing blog! http://wildfoodgirl.com/about/
3. Make Natural Paint
Admittedly, this is something I haven't done but it is next on my to do list! My sons grade 1 class spent some time creating natural food dyes as part of their colour unit in school and as a result he has never looked at beets and coffee the same way. This got me thinking about how we can take nature and transform it, get intimate with it and get inspired. Inevitably when we interact with nature it transforms us as well. When we take time to connect with everyday things that we often take for granted we are essentially exploring them with mindful intention, a powerful practice to cultivate when we are experiencing stress and anxiety.
Go to your back yard or a near by park and collect dirt, grasses and leaves.
Begin exploring the texture and colour of each, noticing subtle differences.
Start chopping or mixing the natural object and mixing it with water. Play around with different consistencies and textures. You can even begin mixing it together to see what new colour it will reveal.
See if you can mix your natural substances to make a colour pallet with a few different shades.
Use a pallet knife, spatula, or even a kitchen knife to begin spreading the texture onto a canvas, sheet of paper or piece of wood.
See what shapes textures and mixtures reveal themselves to you.
For added inspiration check out this interview with Artist Amanda Brazier who makes the most incredible natural paint. http://www.thejealouscurator.com/blog/
4. Take a Mindful Walk Outside
This is the simplest thing to do and can be done for even just a few minutes especially if you are finding yourself triggered or even if you have been inside for a long time and know that it is starting to ware on you. In my experience it is often these simple activities that are the most powerful. Even if you find yourself out walking quite often with the dog or your kids or to catch the bus, this is a chance to do the same activity with more intention.
Set the intention of going outside for a very short walk (the approximate distance of one block) which you will do at a very slow and rhythmic pace.
When you first go outside take 10 deep breaths and notice the shift and changes from being inside to outside.
Begin walking very slowly, much much slower than you think you should.
Start by noticing your feet, pay particular attention to the sensation of your heel touching the ground and then your toes. Feel the weight transfer from foot to foot, see if you can notice the different muscles and joints at work in your body.
Once you have found the rhythm of your footing begin to bring your awareness to natural elements in your surrounding trees, flowers, the wind, the temperature, rain, snow or sun, animals, colours textures etc. Observe each element with deep curiosity. You may even want to stop and touch or smell something to deepen your experience.
For added inspiration please visit the work of Mary Oliver the poet who said, “Instructions for living a life, pay attention be astonished. Tell about it.” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/mary-oliver
5. Do Something Different
This activity is about as simple as it gets, but it requires some deep intention. We all have our rhythms and patterns and ways of being in this world that keep us feeling safe and comfortable. But these habits can also allow us to become complacent. Part of addressing stress, anxiety, and depression is creating new neural pathways in our brains. New ways of thinking, experiencing, and being in this world. The more often we do something the more our brains begin to shift and rewire in new ways leaving the old pathways dusty and unused. So why not practice this first in nature and see if you can have some success that can be transported into other more complex areas of your life? For me staying inside on the couch experiencing life inside was a way of life for many years. It kept me unhealthy and far away from real living. When I finally found some momentum to get up and get outside, ditching the habit of watching tv and movies, and instead opting for a walk, sitting outside, or doing something more intensive outdoors became the catalyst for me experiencing my life differently.
Think about the ways that you normally experience nature. For example walking with headphones on, going to the beach, walking the same route, looking out a window etc. Now think about what it would be to do the opposite of that thing?
Alternately you can think of something that you haven't done in a long time and make the intention to do it. For example watch the sunrise/set, sit by a river, sit and watch the stars or clouds, feel the soil on your bare feet etc.
For added inspiration about how doing something different might just help you take a look at this interesting article.