As a teenager, I suffered from depression and anxiety too, and nature was one of the few things which brought me solace. I lived in a big city – Manchester, in the UK – where there weren’t many natural spaces. But in the evenings I would go back to my school, climb over its gates and wander around the playing fields in the dark, relishing the solitude and open space, staring up at the sky and enjoying the presence of the trees and grass around me.
Now, I no longer suffer from those problems, but I still feel the wonderful healing effects of nature. This is ecotherapy. I love the sense of ease and harmony which nature gives me, and the feeling of connection I experience. I feel a marvellous sense of ‘at home-ness’, as I call it.
As well as healing to heal our minds, nature can transform us. Before I wrote a book called Waking From Sleep, I collected many examples of people’s ‘awakening experiences’ – moments when their vision of their surroundings became more intense, and they felt a sense of connectedness to the world and towards other people. The world became a more harmonious and meaningful place, and a strong sense of well-being filled them. And I found that a high proportion of these experiences were related to contact with nature. People would ‘wake up’ in this way when they were walking through woods, climbing a mountain, swimming in a lake, running along a beach, staring up at a clear sky, and so on.
This is certainly true for me. I have awakening experiences very frequently when I’m in nature. If I go walking in the countryside, there usually comes a point when a feeling of well-being begins to glow 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.
Just this weekend, I went to Wales, and had a wonderful experience while walking along a beach, staring at the sea. In fact, I always have this experience when I’m close to the sea, and I especially when I swim in it: I have a strong sense that it is alive, with its own consciousness or being. I feel awed by its power and presence, and it feels an enormous privilege just to be there to witness it.
Nature is a source of poetic inspiration to me too. Some of the poems are direct accounts of awakening experience I’ve had in nature. But in a more general way, I often find that it’s after a period of contact with nature that the impulse to write poems arises. Poems seem to flow from a deep unconscious place, a source of insights and impulses which are paradoxically beyond words, but which somehow require expression in words. The busy-ness and stress of everyday life can sometimes block access to that place – but nature certainly takes me back there.
Why does nature have such a powerful healing effect? It’s not surprising that nature has a therapeutic effect when you consider that human beings – 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 spiritual aspect of nature is very important too. As Eckhart puts it in A New Earth, natural phenomena are portals to the divine, with an ‘ethereal nature’ which means that their ‘form obscures the indwelling spirit to a lesser degree…There is an inner opening, however slight, into the realm of spirit.’
This quality has a calming and mind-quietening effect. Like a mantra in meditation, the beauty and majesty of nature draws our attention away from the ‘thought-chatter’ which normally runs through our heads, which consequently begins to slow down and fade away. Our whole being relaxes and expands, and now that they’re no longer sustained by constant thinking, our ego-boundaries begin to dissolve. We transcend separateness and become connected, both to the landscape and our own deeper selves. A sense of inner peace fills us, a glow of serene energy which intensifies and clarifies our perceptions.
We feel that we are where we are meant to be, that we have become who we really are: not separate individuals, but part of a rich and intricate of network of being, with an essence which flows from the same spiritual source as the whole of the natural world.
Steve Taylor is the author of several books, including The Fall and Waking From Sleep. He is also the author of volume of spiritual poetry, The Meaning. He leads the Returning to Harmony on-line course, based on his book Back to Sanity. For further information, see www.stevenmtaylor.com