I’ve been feeling melancholy lately, a restless and dissatisfied malaise I know all too well. Like an unwelcome houseguest, this general feeling of discontent shows up when the cold and wind keep me locked indoors too long, when my glimpses of sunsets and running deer are only through widows.
In many traditional shamanic communities, if you went to see the medicine woman because you were ill, she would ask you four things.
When did you stop singing?
When did you stop dancing?
When did you stop sharing stories?
When did you stop sitting in silence?
These Four Universal Healing Salves were thought just as effective for physical maladies as for depression, anxiety or general unhappiness.
Sadly, I believe our modern-day world must ask another crucial question lest we experience the loss of our own souls.
When did you stop spending time in Nature?
Mother Nature nurtures us in so many ways. On the most basic level, we rely symbiotically on nature through photosynthesis; the oxygen we breathe is a by-product of plants and the carbon dioxide we exhale is exactly what plants require to thrive. Trees emit a compound that supports our body’s ability to make cells that specifically ward off cancer. Exposure to sun-strength rays helps to reset our internal clocks (even in the winter, when we aren’t absorbing vitamin D). Spending time outdoors has been shown to lower blood pressure, reduce stress, increase the production of serotonin (our “happy neurotransmitter”), accelerate injury recovery, increase focus, aid in weight loss and improve sleep.
Yet, as a society, we are spending less time outside and more time plugged in. It never occurred to the shamans that there would be a time where humanity was disengaged from Nature, but there you have it. We are losing a basic building block of our human experience. We are stimulated, but not fulfilled, distracted rather than connected. We have become blind to our connection, cutting down the forests, mining the mountains, and fracking everything in-between. A few years ago, the Oxford Junior Dictionary replaced 50 nature-related words (including acorn and dandelion) with terms more associated with technology (like the terms broadband and MP3 player). If our dictionaries reflect our language as it’s used, then this is a sad commentary on what we revere.
Shinrin-Yoku, or forest bathing, has become a cornerstone of traditional Japanese healing by emphasizing the restorative benefits of walking leisurely through nature. One Shinrin-Yoku study had people walk on a sidewalk in an urban area and then walk through a forest. Those who strolled through the forest showed a 16 percent decrease in the stress hormone cortisol, a 2 percent drop in blood pressure, and a 4 percent drop in heart rate. These results were attributed to the grounding effect, which has been shown over time to reduce inflammation in the body. Since many of us don’t come into direct skin contact with the Earth very much, a positive charge builds up in our bodies. Direct contact with the Earth acts as a “ground” (in the same way it does for electrical outlets), reducing this extra positive charge. And it’s as easy as standing barefoot in grass, sitting on a rock or resting against a tree for a few minutes each day.
But the benefits of nature run deeper than simple metabolic process; the gains are metaphysical as well, at least for me. A walk in the woods fosters my sense of connection to the living world. I didn’t come to earth at birth, but from it. Sitting in the limbs of a tree reminds me that I am simultaneously inconsequential and an integral part of the cosmic balance. Life’s burdens are easier to bear when I hear the birds sing, watch a sun peek over the horizon and feel the biting rain on my cheeks. What shuts me off from the leaves and foxes will ruin me. The solace of God lives in creek pebbles and snowflakes, not in pixels and downloads. I am borne of earth and fire and water and air and ether. What exists without exists within.
So I slough my shoes and stand on the frozen earth, the dusting of snow melting between my toes. I shiver in the wind, turn my face upward to the full moon smiling down and open my ears to the coyotes braying in the distance. And, if only for a few moments, I am whole.