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We were standing on a dirt trail in the middle of pristine oak woodlands that gave way to rolling golden hills stretching down to the Pacific Ocean. I was lead hike docent that morning, and we paused in the shade for the group to snap a photo, and I stared out at the ocean.
“Dude, you can’t see anything man-made anywhere from here!” one hiker murmured to his friend. My ears perked up as I tore my eyes away from the horizon. The awe in his voice was rich with the realization so many of us feel when we are in nature—a deep respect for something that is larger than us.
To be in nature is to connect with our soul and to return home. We must make space to enhance our relationship with the natural world, as our essence depends on it.
Exposure to Nature Changes Our Brain Chemistry
It is almost hard to put our biological connection to nature into words, as it is felt so deeply. Deepak Chopra explains in the The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, “[S]pending time in nature enables you to sense the harmonious interaction of all the elements and forces of life, and gives you a sense of unity with all of life.” Chopra writes, “[T]he more tuned in you are to the mind of nature, the more you have access to its infinite, unbounded creativity.” We find not only peace and inspiration, but we tap into our creative powers.
Our connection with nature is something that resonates in each of us in our own way. People from all walks of life can experience similar shifts in mood and brain activity when they’re outside. A recent study published by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed measurable brain chemistry differences in subjects who walked in nature versus subjects who walked in busy urban settings. Specifically, the nature-walking subjects experienced reduced “rumination” and negative thought-patterns versus their city-walking counterparts.
Why is this important to us? To quote this same study, this “reveals a pathway by which nature experience may improve mental well-being and suggests that accessible natural areas within urban contexts may be a critical resource for mental health in our rapidly urbanizing world.” We may agree that being outdoors makes us feel good. But this study shows that not having opportunities or making time to be in nature is actually unhealthy for us.
6 Ways to Integrate Nature Into a Busy Urban Life
Most of us do not live in rural open space. We are in busy urban areas with traffic, noise, congestion, and frantic energy. The number of people living in urban areas will continue to rise along with demands for housing and resources. How do we keep ourselves balanced and connected to the bigger universal picture amid all of this craziness?
Most importantly, how do we incorporate the beneficial exposure to our natural world into our busy lives without making it one more thing to add to our to-do list?
Many of us are nature-depleted and needing to add a big green scoop of the outdoors to our daily life smoothie. I’ve determined six steps to integrate nature as part of our holistic diets:
1. Change It Up
Find ways to get outside during your daily schedule. Walk or bike to work. Instead of taking a meeting in a coffee shop, grab your drinks and find a bench or table nearby outdoors. Take a quick walk to decompress at the end of a stressful day instead of charging home and dragging your negative energy through your front door. Wanting a weekend getaway or a day trip that doesn’t bust your budget? The National Parks Service website is a great resource to discover natural wonders close to you.
2. Explore Safely
Okay, you’re ready for your nature immersion experiment, but this is not a test of survival of the fittest. If you are exploring alone, let someone know where you are and when you are expected back. Use the buddy system as much as possible. If you are on trails, pay attention to signs and directions and be aware of your surroundings. Pack your cell phone for emergencies. Don’t scare yourself into worst-case scenarios, but plan ahead so you can enjoy the moments.
3. Gear Up
Just think of John Candy in The Great Outdoors and you flashback to a range of activities gone horribly wrong. Depending on your explore du jour, you may need to grab a few essentials first. Don’t be intimidated; we aren’t putting an entire REI Store on your credit card for one trip. Headlamp, bug spray, extra water, hat, sunscreen, layers of clothing, and first aid supplies — trust me, all of these are worth their weight in gold when (not if) you need them. Ask friends or colleagues if they are willing to share trip experiences, tips, or supplies and do your research. The US Forest Service has a detailed checklist of recreation safety tips for a range of activities.
4. Book a Nature Date
I am a huge advocate of sharing nature with others for both safety and social benefits. Exchange a happy hour round for a happy hour hike with friends, take a your date night outdoors for a picnic under the stars, or pick a new trail to jog with a friend instead of the gym treadmill. Chase your kids around a local park or beach instead of the confines of your living room. There are many social and networking groups that include outdoor activities in their calendar of events. Book nature dates into your schedule and break up the routine!
5. Open Your Ears and Find Your Zen
Perk up your ears and listen to nature around you, instead of trying to tune it out. Try meditating in natural spaces, also known as “forest bathing.” In committing to ten minutes sitting outdoors with your eyes closed, you will begin to notice all the natural sounds around you. For those times we cannot bounce outdoors, technology can help us. Consider using soundscapes to help you unwind, and drink in the recharge. My favorite meditation app is Omvana, which offers free guided meditations and free ambient sounds. My current favorites are croaking forest frogs and crashing ocean waves. Other sources for sounds include Nature Sound, Nature Sounds Relax and Sleep, and Spotify (search “nature sounds”). Let these sounds assist you in envisioning yourself relaxing in nature, and reap the benefits of an outdoor recharge even if you cannot set foot outside.
6. Catch the Sun Across the Sky
As humans, we are wired for the natural world’s telling of time. The human race has depended on this daily pattern for survival for centuries before us. Sunrises and sunsets are magical times of the day, and ignite a carnal respect in all of us for the life we have. A sunset marks the chapter ending on another day we have endured, with a sunrise bringing the promise of a new (possibly better) day. Regardless of where in the world you live, you almost always can find the sun. Plan to catch a sunrise or sunset regularly and use that short window to quietly reflect, let go, and look to the future.
A Connection to Nature Is a Connection to Self
We feel grounded on a beach as we root our toes into the sand, we can feel the emotions rolling through us as we reach a mountain top and look out, notice a butterfly in the wind, or run across a golden field. Strengthening our connection to nature is essential to our well being and fundamental to living a balanced life of purpose.
Honor yourself by committing to explore the great outdoors! Surrender to the feelings of wonder and belonging, and embrace the journey home. We are always welcomed with open arms when we return to Mother Nature’s house.