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From The Counseling Center: What Nature Can Teach Us

Photo courtesy of Virgil Roberson.

By Virgil Roberson, L.P., M. Div., NCPsyA, Executive Director of The Counseling Center

June 12, 2024: Last fall, I set out on a one-hundred-mile trek in Spain, the famous Camino De Santiago, anticipating glorious days of hiking across a sunny landscape. Instead, I encountered weather conditions that challenged every footstep I took—day after day of torrential rain, lashing winds, and wildly fluctuating temperatures.

Everything I’d read in preparation for the trip suggested that spending time in the natural world would improve my physical and mental well-being. Science has now documented that when people spend time outdoors, they experience lower blood pressure and a slower heart rate. Since the beginning of recorded history, writers have described the positive effects of being in nature.

Even more than physical wellbeing, I was looking for an extraordinary experience that would connect me with something deeper.  A quote from Joseph Campbell, the renowned author of The Hero’s Journey, kept running through my mind: “The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are. The goal of life is to make your heartbeat match the beat of the universe, to match your nature with Nature.”

I was hoping for a lot from my immersion in nature.

Yet, as a society we in the U.S. spend very little time outdoors—only 7% according to the Environmental Protection Agency. People living today spend far less time in the natural environment than previous generations did. Experts have described an epidemic of dislocation from nature. It shows up in a loss of well-being associated with indoor living, including rising incidents of depression, loneliness, and anxiety.

In The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative, environmental journalist Florence Williams reports on the neuroscience of human/nature interactions. Studies conclude that humans are biologically programmed to respond to other living things. Reams of data tell us that we are happier in an all-green or otherwise natural environment than in an urban landscape, and being alone in nature makes us even happier than being with other people.  Yet we consistently underestimate how good being outdoors will make us feel.

Brené Brown’s description of the natural world in her book Braving the Wilderness resonates strongly with me: “The wilderness is an untamed, unpredictable place of solitude and searching. It is a place as dangerous as it is breathtaking, a place as sought after as it is feared. But it turns out to be the place of true belonging, and it’s the bravest and most sacred place you will ever stand.”

As my group slogged along the Camino De Santiago in inclement weather, our guide said, “Walking is taking your soul around the body of the world.”  A nice idea, but often I was convinced I couldn’t keep going. In fact, sometimes I wasn’t sure I could take the next step!

Then the thought came to me: “Nature itself tells us that being flexible makes all the difference!”

I thought of palm trees bending deeply in the wind. I pictured the waves rolling ceaselessly toward shore. I imagined the constantly changing moon and the never ending rising and setting of the sun.

The palm trees taught me that by accepting the inevitable, I could bend without breaking.  The waves made me realize how powerless I was against them, yet still I could learn to surf.  The moon showed me it was perfectly fine to go through many phases.  And the sun promised that its rhythm of light and dark was a pattern I could emulate, an elastic push-pull that might allow me to cast away certainties and embrace flexibility.

I found I could keep walking, and on the tenth day, I reached our destination.  How? I believe that the key was in developing an ability to adjust, accept, and be present in the current moment, despite the discomforts and inconveniences.  By casting aside all expectations and embracing what nature taught me, I had the strength to endure and the freedom to live fully. There were even times when the wind and the rain became beautiful to me, and joy filled me.

I believe this experience has made me a better therapist.  Frequently, I encourage my clients to spend more time outdoors, to discover what nature can teach them, how it can alter and expand their perspective, how it can relieve them of stress and bring a sense of renewal.

I find great satisfaction in my work at Executive Director of The Counseling Center, which can keep me indoors, but now whenever I step outside, no matter what the weather, I take time to absorb where I am, appreciate the moment, and breath in the many benefits that nature has to offer.

 

The Counseling Center in Bronxville, a nonprofit organization, offers therapy for individuals, couples, and families, through video platforms, telephonically, and in person.  Please feel free to reach out if we can help, by calling Dr. Jennifer Klein, 914 793 3388. 

 

To keep abreast of ongoing information and activities at The Counseling Center, or to make a donation, please visit our website at https://counselingcenter.org/.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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