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The Power of Nature: Ecotherapy and Awakening

Updated: Oct 28, 2018

In recent years, researchers have become aware of a powerful new kind of therapy which is just as effective against depression as traditional psychotherapy or medication. And the amazing thing is that you don’t have to pay for this therapy. It’s free, and completely accessible to anyone at anytime. It’s not even a new therapy either – in fact, it’s even older than the human race.

This is ecotherapy – contact with nature. A few years ago researchers at the University of Essex in 2007 found that, of a group of people suffering from depression, 90 percent felt a higher level of self-esteem after a walk through a country park, and almost three-quarters felt less depressed. Another survey by the same research team found that 94% of people with mental illnesses believed that contact with nature put them in a more positive mood. Since then, in the UK contact with nature has been increasingly used as a therapy by mental health professionals.

But as well as helping us to heal our minds, contact with nature can transform us. For several years, I have done research into what I call ‘awakening experiences’ – moments when our vision of our surroundings becomes more intense (so that they become more beautiful and meaningful than normal), and we feel a sense of connectedness to them, and towards other people. The world may somehow seem harmonious and meaningful, as a strong feeling of well-being fills us. (These are similar to Abraham Maslow’s ‘peak experiences’ – see my book Waking From Sleep for a fuller discussion.) And my research consistently shows that contact with nature is one of the most frequent triggers of these experiences – in fact, around 20 percent of them.

This is certainly true for me. I have what you could call ‘low intensity awakening experiences’ very frequently when I’m amongst nature. If I go walking in the countryside on my own (it doesn’t happen so often with other people) there usually comes a point when a feeling of well-being begins to well up inside me, and when the trees and the fields and the sky around me seem to be more alive and beautiful, and to be shining with a new radiance. The clouds above me seem to be moving with a dramatic beauty, and I have a sense that ‘all is well.’

Of course, countless poets have written of the states of awe and ecstasy they've experienced whilst alone with nature too. This is what William Wordsworth's poetry is most famous for: his sense that nature is pervaded with what he called ‘a motion and a spirit which rolls through all thinking things, and all objects of thought.' Other poets like Walt Whitman, Emerson, William Blake and W.B. Yeats have also left us many descriptions of the sense of meaning and harmony and inner joy they experienced while contemplating natural scenes.

Why does nature have this effect on us?

It’s not surprising that nature has a therapeutic effect when you consider that the human race – and all our evolutionary forebears – have been closely bonded with it for all our existence. It’s only in recent times that many of us have been confined to man-made environments. For us, contact with green spaces is therefore like going back home, and fills us with the same sense of safety and belonging. We crave nature in the same way that a child needs a mother, and derive the same feeling of comfort from it. 

But the main reason why nature can heal and transform us, I believe, is because of its calming and mind-quietening effect. In nature, our minds process a lot less information than normal, and they don't wear themselves out by concentrating. And most importantly, the beauty and majesty of nature acts a little like a mantra in meditation, slowing down the normal ‘thought-chatter’ which runs chaotically through our minds. As a result, an inner stillness and energy fills us, generating a glow of being and intensifying our perceptions. (Again, see Waking From Sleep for a fuller discussion of this.)

So the next time you feel depressed or frustrated, don’t choose retail therapy or mood-altering medication – put on your walking boots and try ecotherapy instead. You may not just get a boost of well-being, but an awakening experience as well.

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