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 and not on fight-or-flight modality.


This is because not only breathing fresh air is invigorating and mentally stimulating (think of the aerosol treatment above), research has also found that nature connection has similar effects on our brain than a meditation or mindfulness session.


It slows down our brain waves to alpha frequencies, stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, reduces heart rate, activates the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex to produce dopamine, which is responsible for feeling energized and inspired, and endorphins, our first “feeling good” neurotransmitter.


Isn't this a more resourceful inner state from which to live our life?


3. Third level: the mind experience


What happens when we access our alpha state of consciousness is that we become naturally able to tune out our ‘monkey mind’ and tune into our intuitive and creative thinking.


Intuition and creativity thrive on quietness and on inward attention and can deeply enrich our generally dominant analytical thinking.


In this different inner state we become able to imagine and visualize new solutions to problems, often gaining a more expanded vision than what we are able to do in indoor settings.

When in intuitive modality we are naturally more capable to see the big picture, zoom out and see interdependencies, and create new associations of ideas.


Here again, nature offers a wider space all around us, and without walls and roofs, our thinking too lose its boundaries.

We create more freedom in our reasoning, and our system thinking abilities, those that make us aware of interconnectedness, feedback loops or underlying patterns, are improved.


Carl Jung described four main ways of knowing, the analytical, the intuitive, the emotional and the sensorial way.

According to our personalities we develop preferences as for which way(s) bring(s) us new learning more effectively.


I believe that connection with nature allows us to access these ways of knowing at once, opening new paths of learning and sense-making and ultimately leading to new choices, and solutions.

A regular practice with nature expands our capacity to think and feel, and I would say that we really start to use more of our mind.


4. Fourth level: The soul experience


If you stayed with me so far I'm happy to guide you into the fourth level of nature experience, the one of deep interconnectedness.

Because when we access these expanded capacities of our mind and body, we start to perceive ourselves and our place on this Earth rather differently.


Interacting with nature gives us a unique mirror to understand our own functioning as human beings, and opportunities to learn about our behaviours and ways of operating.


Bio-mimicry is a branch of studies that focuses on the emulation of the models and systems of nature to solve complex human problems.


Analysing how nature has developed, over more than four billion years, its principles and operating system, Biomimicry studies how we can harness this Earth “wisdom” and mimic it in human-based systems (from the construction of buildings to the development of new materials to the organization of societies).

It operates at the intersection of biology, ecology, design, economics, engineering, social studies, and many other disciplines.


It’s by observing nature that we have become able to see and understand its basic rules of functioning: nature is resilient (through diversification, decentralization and distribution of resources), adaptive (sensing and responding to change), optimizes shapes and functions, fosters synergies, and rewards collaboration among species that are interconnected and interdependent.


When we talk about recycling and circular economy, we are applying to our behaviours and economic models modalities that nature has been applying for billions of years.


When we discover the value of distributed organizational decision-making in modern organizations and societies we are applying principles that make the resilience of any natural living system.


We are finally understanding, by observing nature, that we and our human structures we function as complex living organisms much more than as complicated machine-like systems, and that to let us and our societies stay healthy and prosper, we need to embrace this expanded, holistic vision of how a living organism actually thrives, which is when all its parts are taken care of, and not only a few bits and pieces of it.


When we become able to tune into its wisdom, nature makes us understand that we are whole beings made of body, mind and soul, and that we are all part of a whole which is bigger than us, our community and the society we participate to, and the planet which we inhabit together with the other living species.


Can we really thrive as individuals in a community or society that is suffering?

Can we thrive as humans on a planet that is not prosperous and healthy?


Take a walk in the woods. You will find your answer.






I’m Alessia D’Acunto, Transformation, Self-Empowerment and Leadership Coach.

I help you to connect to the power of your whole mind, body-intelligence and soul-purpose so to thrive in your personal and professional life with confidence, authenticity, and grace.

Ready for a deep dive into your powerful self?

Find more about my coaching programmes on www.mygrowthcafe.com or get in touch at alessia@mygrowthcafe.com



 

Interested in some of the topics of this post?

Find here a small selection of references for your further reading.


On Forest aerosol:

Antonelli, Michele; Donelli, Davide; Barbieri, Grazia; Valussi, Maro; Maggini, Valentina; Fabio Firenzuoli, Fabio. Forest Volatile Organic Compounds and Their Effects on Human Health: A State-of-the-Art Review. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health; 2020, 17, 6506. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17186506


On benefits of nature at cognitive level:

Atchley RA, Strayer DL, Atchley P (2012), Creativity in the Wild: Improving Creative Reasoning through Immersion in Natural Settings. PLoS ONE 7(12): e51474. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0051474


Berman, M. G., Jonides, J., Kaplan, S. (2008), The cognitive benefits of interacting with nature. Psychological Science, 19(12), 1207-1212


On Somatic Intelligence:

Amanda Blake, Master Somatic Coach: Developing Somatic Intelligence: Leadership and the Neurobiology of Embodied Learning, 2009. Microsoft Word - Developing Somatic Intelligence NLJ10x.doc (embright.org)


On Biomimicry:

M. Iansiti, R. Levien, Strategy as Ecology, Harvard Business Review, March 2004, (Strategy as Ecology (hbr.org)