4 ways nature supports your personal growth
Have you ever enjoyed a walk in the forest and come out not only refreshed and invigorated, but also inspired with brilliant ideas or maybe with a new solution to a problem you had not considered before?
That's my experience, since childhood, when being in nature was primarily a source of sheer pleasure, a space where I could relax, play, explore and daydream. Over time it has continued benefiting me in many more ways.
In this post I want to walk you through four levels of personal experience/personal development we can all access through engaging with nature: the experience of our body, the one of our emotions, the one of our mind, and finally the experience of our soul and of deeper connectedness.
The content of this article is largely based on my practice as an individual and as a transformational coach. In some cases I refer to more or less recent research. If you wish to read further you will find a small selection of references at the end of the post.
1. First level: the body experience
Research developed around the Japanese practice of forest-bathing (shinrin-yoku) has shown the positive effects of forest's air on our health.
It has been observed for instance that Phytoncides, the airborne essential oils that trees release to protect themselves from bacteria, fungi and insects, also increase our number of ‘killer cells’, the white blood cells that bolster our response to tumours and viruses.
Together with other components they are part of the forest natural aerosol, which overall seems to impact positively also on our microbiota and our resistance to allergenic substances.
But the body experience goes beyond the beneficial effects of open air on our immune system.
Our body is the mean through which we enter in relation with the world. Our very first experiences and learning happen through the senses and the somatic reactions in and on our body.
Engaging our body in nature make us progressively attuned to the full spectrum of our sensations. When we are outdoor we are more capable to perceive our internal physical experience in its richness, we feel the space we occupy differently, as if we were using more of our sensory abilities.
This is increased somatic awareness. When we start to pay closer attention to the sensations in our body we not only start to use more consciously our traditional five senses, we also begin to recognise the signals from our interoceptors and proprioceptors, the sensory receptors we have in our organs and muscles, so that we are de facto expanding our sensorial experience and broadening our ways of getting information in, and hence learning.
Making us attuned to the language of our body, which speaks through sensations, somatic awareness allows us to intuitively know what is good and healthy for us, and what is not, to adopt new more beneficial or healing movements and habits, to enhance inner balance, and to progressively integrate our inner and outer being through more natural embodiment (which results in being perceived from others as more reliable, consistent and authentic).
But, that's not all. It also improves our capacity to process our sensations and hence our emotions.
2. Second level: the emotional experience
This expanded somatic experience is the door to a deeper emotional one, as we become more able to recognize, track and process our emotions.
In nature it is easier to let our emotions surface: openness all around offer a mirror for spaciousness within us.
In this expanded space our emotions can unfold and evolve as it becomes easier for us to recognise the relations between feelings (felt state) and emotions (our mental interpretation of those body signals), acknowledge them and develop a conscious, non-reactive, response to events and circumstances.
The ability to stay with even uncomfortable emotions and from there to process them is indeed a crucial component of any self-development journey.
As an example, the relieving effects of nature on stress and anxiety are generally acknowledged.
Walking in nature has the power to shift our mood, making us feel more relaxed, open and positive in facing challenging circumstances (in my own experience, a bare 30 minutes’ walking meditation has often been enough to let me literally forget my worries of about half-an-hour before!)
Becoming conscious of this shift allows to gain a new perspective on events, and so induces a different response, based on choice