The healing power of nature
"There is a beauty and clarity that comes from simplicity that we sometimes do not appreciate in our thirst for intricate solutions." Dieter F. Uchtdorf
There is no other happiness like standing in the middle of a forest, with just the sounds of living things, the wind and water as your companions. There is nothing quite like feeling the sun on your skin, a sea breeze in your hair and wet sand underfoot. Nature cleanses the soul of the useless minutiae of modern life; the small things that bother us, that we realise don't matter when we gain perspective. The wilderness we have come from offers us optimism in our darkest moments, and healing at our most pained.
The earliest examples of religion in human history were based on the natural world. Whether it was the sun as a giver of life; rivers, rocks, mountains or animals worshipped as gods; the celestial heavens interpreted in myths and legends; or the four elements worshipped as living, magical beings—all early instances of spiritual belief centred around nature and how we interact with it.
As a globally connected, scientifically advanced society, Alain de Botton believes we've lost faith (whatever individually that may be) as the centre of today's society. Instead he believes we have placed human achievement at the centre of importance in our lives, and that this defines many world cultures today. This may be why much of modern society is individualistic and materialistic. It may also be why it is so easy to lose our connection to the living world around us in pursuit of achievement, which is really a construct we have developed to measure ourselves against each other.
Is it not important then, that we nurture and maintain our connection to nature, and find those landscapes which awe, inspire, heal and enthral us? If we are to detach ourselves from a self-perpetuating cycle of working towards goals, buying and having, which ultimately does not give us the meaning we seek and thus cannot bring us true happiness, perhaps it is in nature we need to place our focus.
Studies have shown that increased exposure to natural environments increase general health and wellbeing. Even just taking a short stroll in a forest or park can effect positive change in a short time. The Japanese, Chinese and Koreans call this 'forest bathing', and have been practicing it in rising numbers since the 1980s. With our evolutionary history tied so recently to forested environments, it is little wonder we would find solace, relaxation and restoration in replenishing our connection to it. It is, perhaps, more surprising it took us so long to realise how much we still need a connection to the earth from which we come.
In Japan there is a 5,000-year history of bathing in thermal springs, or Onsen, which dot the landscape all over the country. Associated with a ritual of cleansing and renewal, the Japanese embraced Onsen when Buddhism was established in Japan in the 6th century. Since then, the tradition has become so entrenched in the the nation's culture that it is considered an integral aspect of Japanese life.
Often bearing an origin story mystical in nature, Onsen have become a very real vehicle of connection between the natural world and the Japanese people, and are a palpable example of the importance of this connection to the health of our minds, bodies and spirits.
Water as a healer, life-giver or purifier are concepts repeated time and again in various cultures throughout human history. It seems then, that humanity has always instinctively understood the healing power of water, especially in natural environments. The ancient Britons believed there existed water spirits who kept the balance of the world in the name of their representative element. The Mayans believed water sources were entryways into the underworld, and worshipped these places as the source of life for their people. The Vietnamese today hold great reverence for their waterways as a giver of life, as they are so heavily dependent on them for trade and farm irrigation, and thus ultimately their survival. To the Hindu, water is sacred and believed to have spiritually cleansing power.
Time and again this idea appears, weaving throughout a collective human history and shared memory that transcends religion, culture, race, class, political boundaries, and just about every divide we humans have ever dreamed of. It isn't just one subset of our species that finds healing and replenishment in water, but all. It is a universal idea, therefore, that must have a base in some kernel of truth.
It logically follows, therefore, that there must be something to this instinctive yearning for natural environments, which so many people and cultures have felt. It is perhaps a yearning to return to a purity of self we feel we lost somewhere along the way; a yearning to reacquaint ourselves with the very best version of us. It is, perhaps, an unconscious acknowledgment of our origin story as a species.