By Leah Rampy, Ph.D
March 6, 2016
I’m very grateful for the opportunity to be with you today. Thank you, Joni, and to all of you for inviting me.
How was your week? Did you find yourself calm, centered, and peaceful; breathing deeply; living joyfully and fully in the present?
If you’re like many people, there were a number of times when you were distracted, worried, fearful, or anxious, times when your mind wouldn’t stop racing. Perhaps sleep was illusive and you found yourself tired and out of sorts.
There are indeed a multitude of seemingly valid reasons why we are stressed and anxious. The political scene, climate change, money, the weather, our families, our jobs, relationships – all are fodder for our busy minds. We know that stress isn’t good for our health – and we feel stressed about that!
Our conversation today invites us to imagine finding healing in nature. I’d like to explore with you what we know and what we surmise about nature as a source of healing and wholeness.
Fortunately this isn’t a new topic and we have some research to guide us. For example, a study in the 80’s showed that patients recovering from surgery healed faster, needed less medication, and had fewer post-surgery complications if they were able to look out the window at leafy trees instead of a brick wall. [i]
Last year, researchers from the U of Chicago surveyed over 30,000 people in Toronto and found that residents reported feeling better and having fewer health problems when there were more trees on their street. [ii]
The gardeners among us were no doubt happy to hear that a strain of bacterium in the soil has been found to trigger the release of serotonin, which in turn elevates mood and decreases anxiety in lung cancer patients – and in mice. Isn’t it great to have another excuse to spend time in our gardens?[iii]
In March of 2011 a new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine reported that children who grow up on traditional farms are 30-50% less likely than other children to develop asthma.[iv]
The very soil beneath our feet makes wonderful contributions to our health! In a teaspoon of that soil, there are more microbes than there are people on earth. This amazing underground community cycles nutrients and water to plants, connects plants allowing them to strengthen their natural defenses against pests and ultimately contribute to our health through the food we eat.[v] And I might add, soils are the largest terrestrial carbon sink on the planet.[vi]
So we’ve noted ways that nature may help us to heal from surgery, to elevate our mood, help to prevent certain illnesses, and contribute to our overall health. I find this fascinating and wonderful. And yet I wonder: Is there more?
I was sad one day and went for a walk;
I sat in a field.
A rabbit noticed my condition and came near.
It often does not take more than that to help at times —
to just be close to creatures who are so full of knowing,
so full of love that they don’t — chat,
they just gaze with their marvelous understanding.[vii]
–St. John of the Cross – Spanish mystic lived in 1500’s
I’ve worked for and led programs and pilgrimages with Shalem Institute for many years. Shalem is an ecumenical organization started over 40 years to reclaim the Christian contemplative tradition, enriched by insights from Eastern religions. Living contemplatively: more fully present and alive to each sacred moment. Being fully awake requires that both the mind and the heart are open and available to what is in this moment. The ancient mystics sometimes referred to this as “mind in heart.”
What’s possible when we bring mind-in-heart presence to our encounters with the natural world? On behalf of Shalem I’ve begun leading pilgrimages that invite participants to align with Earth’s rhythm, experience her invitation, revel in awe and mystery, and to claim our unity with all beings.
Shalem comes from the Hebrew and means “becoming whole.”[viii] I believe that we are part of an interdependent web of all existence and when we are more fully able to recognize and claim this oneness, we are on the path to becoming truly whole.
I want to share with you four possibilities for your own exploration; these are a few of the ways in which I find that nature invites us into healing and wholeness. I invite you to engage with an open mind-in-heart and see what calls to you.
Possibility 1. Open to frequent and regular doses of Awe and Wonder.
When we moved to VA over 20 years ago, the mountains here were new to us; I did not immediately fall in love with the Blue Ridge. In fact, I’m embarrassed to say that the first time a friend pointed out the distant “mountains” to me, I burst out laughing. Growing up in the Midwest, “the mountains” were the Rockies; these looked a little small by comparison! It took time and many visits before I came to appreciate the richness of these 1.2 Billion year-old mountains.
Now I wonder, how could I fail to stand in awe of these ancient mountains that began forming before humans walked Earth? The breadth of this creation simultaneously stuns me and infuses me with joy.
Moments of awe do not require journeys to the ends of the earth in search of peak experiences. You can find them lying on your back looking at the vastness of the night sky, knowing that what you can see – as amazing as it is – is only a fraction of a fraction of what’s out there.
Take a magnifying glass and really look at the richly and beautifully complex landscapes in a dot of moss. Watch the sunsets.
Reflect for a moment: what is inviting you?
What part of the natural world invokes for you that sense of wonder in the presence of something so vast it transcends understanding? What walk, what view helps you to know in your very being that the trouble that seemed to important moments ago, is not really so large after all. What invites you to exhale long and deep and whispers, “All will be well”? What encompasses your senses so that there is no other moment but the present?
A new study suggests that a sense of wonder promotes loving-kindness and altruism, helps reduce inflammation in our bodies and improves our immune system.[ix] And even if it did none of those things, wouldn’t the experience of awe be sufficient in itself?
“The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper,” wrote W. B. Yeats. Let’s open to the magic of the world; embrace it open heartedly; and let it lead us to healing and wholeness.
Possibility 2. Accept that you belong.
In the same way that one heart entrains to the rhythm of another’s heart – we naturally feel and respond to others’ emotions – our hearts are fashioned to entrain to the rhythm of the natural world. The heartbeat of the mountains, the rivers, and the trees steady us, support our open presence, enlarge our compassion, and remind us of our unity with all of creation.
“It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men’s hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air that emanation from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit.” – Robert Louis Stevenson
Perhaps we have forgotten that we are a part of Creation, that we are inextricably linked, woven together in a web of being. In fact, we are like the coastal redwoods that range from Oregon to central California. Some of these magnificent trees live over 2,000 years and can tower 350 feet above the ground. With fierce winds and strong storms, the coast can be a difficult place for trees! Yet these trees persist because they have shallow root systems that extend over 100 feet from the base and intertwine with the roots of other redwoods. This interconnection increases their stability during strong winds and floods. [x] Any change in the well being of one tree impacts the others.
And so for us. The roots of our well-being are intertwined with other living creatures, and we are all sustained by the same water, soil and sun. The very air we breathe we owe to plants living and dead. Our bodies, inside and out, are covered with millions of individual microorganisms that help to keep us healthy.
Our rational, logical minds have learned ways to compartmentalize and to make separate. That’s sometime useful; and we need to remember that we are more than our minds. Our hearts are built for connections; in the wisdom of our hearts, we understand that we are one.
Albert Einstein reminded us of this: “A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
Possibility 3. Dance to nature’s drumbeat.
We are wrapped up in our concept of time; we concern ourselves with how we use time, lose time, waste time and gain time. On some level, we understand that time is a construct. But we don’t seem to have the capacity, inclination -or the time – to break out of this way of thinking. Yet we recognize that nature is more aligned with the rhythm of light and dark, the change of seasons, weather and climate, predator and prey than the ticking of the clock.
Rachel Carson reminded us that we can take comfort in nature’s rhythm. In “Silent Spring” she wrote, “Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”
For example, when we reflect on nature, we may notice that a time of hibernation, of slowing, is simply a part of the overall rhythm, not a cause for alarm. Can we imagine then that our work, creativity, our interactions may also benefit from a time of going inward for reflection and stillness? After all, we are not separate from nature; it’s not “out there” but within us.
Author Kristina Dryza writes, “Our lives are cyclical, not linear. We cannot break the rhythms of nature, only ourselves against them.
“Remembering we are nature reconnects us to everything else. It returns us to our essence. Nature’s rhythms are the key to feeling in sync with life, but this isn’t a mental exercise. It’s not a frog-march intellectually. To familiarize ourselves with the flow of life . . . to feel the sea of energies . . . means allowing – not forcing. We ‘let’ things bubble up and happen in their own unique timing rather than forcibly ‘making’ them happen according to our personality’s schedule. To connect to something deeper than ideas and concepts – to the source that powers life – requires Presence.”[xi]
When we go to nature with open mind-in-heart, we may find that we can be instructed in the rhythms that reside in us, rhythms that have been covered over, brushed aside or forgotten, rhythms that can return us to the vitality and joy and wholeness of life.
Possibility 4. Practice reciprocity.
Not so long ago, I would have ended this talk by imploring you to practice gratitude. But recently I read Robin Wall Kimmerer’s beautiful and, for me, transformative, book entitled Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants.[xii]
A Native American and botanist, Kimmerer has spent her life knitting together the breech between science and native understanding. She shares the rich stories of her culture that offer ways of being in relationship with nature, ways that enable us to receive nature’s gifts with deep gratitude and reciprocity.
Many of us know how easy it is to fall into despair when we think of how we have wronged the earth and her creatures. Kimmerer reminds us that while despair creates paralysis, restoration is a powerful antidote. As we graciously accept nature’s gift of healing, we express our gratitude. And in our gratitude we are moved to contribute to healing the earth. This process is fluid and organic; it can begin anywhere.
As author Joanna Macy says, “Action on behalf of life transforms. Because relationship between self and the world is reciprocal, it is not a question of first getting enlightened or saved and then acting. As we work to heal the earth, the earth heals us.”
A word of caution: working to heal the earth is not an egocentric process where we step in to save the world with our amazing knowledge and management. We are talking about listening to and respecting nature, perhaps assisting nature by undoing what we have thoughtlessly done so that nature can begin her own healing.
On Shalem’s pilgrimage to the Pacific NW in the fall[xiii], we will be visiting the Elwha River. You may be aware that in 2011 the second of two dams that blocked the mountain river was removed restoring 70 miles of spawning habitat.
Now elk stroll where there used to be reservoirs, a young forest is growing in the former reservoir lakebeds, and fish are booming back. Three days after the Glines Dam was blown out of the way, the Chinook salmon cruised past, heading toward the river’s headwaters at the foot of Mount Olympus. Every spawning season since the dam was built, the salmon had attempted this return, persisting in spite of being blocked by the dam for nearly 100 years.[xiv]
The call to restoration, to healing and wholeness is innate in nature. Our work is to listen and honor nature’s wisdom.
It need not be such a large example: perhaps you are returning milkweed and other natives to your garden for the benefit of pollinators or maybe you are capturing storm runoff to restore a stream. David and I are working on our small 8-acres plot to replant native trees and grasses in the hopes that a natural ecosystem will return. We are hoping to give the soil a chance to rebuild itself into the rich bio-diverse community it once was.
This is the gift of reciprocity, the work that is ultimately healing for us. And we might join with Kimmerer in the hope she expresses: “We are dreaming of a time when the land might give thanks for the people.”
Nature is all around and within. We have the opportunity to engage with her in many ways. My invitation to you is to open to awe and wonder, accept that you belong, dance to her drumbeat, and practice reciprocity. You may choose any of all of these options or others of your own devising. But I implore you to engage with an open heart – mind-in-heart – fully present and available to the healing grace, joy and wholeness that will find you.
May you come into the presence of still water, feel above you the day-blind stars, rest in the grace of the world, and be free.
When I Am Among the Trees
When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment, and
never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.
Around me the trees stir in their leaves and
call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come into the world to do this,
to go easy,
to be filled with light, and to shine.”[xv]
[i] “How Hospital Gardens Help Patients Heal.” http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/nature-that-nurtures/
[ii] “More Trees on Your Street Means Fewer Health Problems, Says Study” http://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/jul/10/more-trees-on-your-street-means-fewer-health-problems-says-study
[iii] “It’s in the Dirt! Bacteria in Soil May Make Us Happier, Smarter.” http://www.healinglandscapes.org/blog/2011/01/its-in-the-dirt-bacteria-in-soil-makes-us-happier-smarter/
[v] “Healthy Soil Microbes, Healthy People.” http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/06/healthy-soil-microbes-healthy-people/276710/
[vii] St. John of the Cross from Love Poems from God, translations by Daniel Ladinsky.
[ix] “The Power of Awe: A Sense of Wonder Promotes Loving Kindness.” https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201505/the-power-awe-sense-wonder-promotes-loving-kindness
[xii] Robin Wall Kimmerer. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. Milkweed Editions, 2015.
[xv] “When I Am Among the Trees” by Mary Oliver. http://www.marquette.edu/magazine/recent.php?subaction=showfull&id=1358182719
Additional Relevant Articles:
“The Curious Case of the Antidepressant, Anti-Anxiety Backyard Garden.” http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/good-health/the-curious-case-of-the-antidepressant-anti-anxiety-backyard-garden-20151112
“How Climate Change Endangers Microbes – and Why That’s Not a Good Thing.” http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/how-climate-change-endangers-microbes-and-why-that-s-not-a-good-thing/
“7 Reasons for the New Nature Movement.” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/richard-louv/seven-reasons-for-the-new_b_9211664.html
“How Walking in Nature Changes the Brain.” http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/07/22/how-nature-changes-the-brain/?utm_source=FB&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=FB_paid&_r=1
“Six Ways to Fall in Love with Your Sit Spot.” http://wearewildness.com/six-ways-to-fall-in-love-with-your-sit-spot/