“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.”
When Albert Einstein’s sister, Maja, died in 1951, his stepdaughter was bereft. According to A&E Biography, this is part of the advice that Einstein gave to her.
Spending time in nature has myriad benefits, including reduced blood pressure and improved mood. Nature even enhances our creativity makes us more compassionate. My experience has borne this out over and over and over again—walking in nature is the top practice that boosts my emotional well-being, cultivates inner peace and cuts through rumination (aka overthinking).
For years, I made it a practice not only to walk in nature frequently, but also to experience nature deeply, without trying to interpret it. Even before phrases like “forest bathing” and “earthing” came into Western vernacular, I had found that paying deep attention to nature not only amplified all of the above benefits, but also, it helped me understand life in an implicit, experiential (rather than cerebral) way. Despite spending seven years largely in solitude, I’ve never felt lonely when I’m deeply in nature.
Here are five practices that can help bring you closer to nature.
1. Take three deep breaths
Sit or stand somewhere that’s relatively quiet, and gently allow your eyes to close. Inhale through your nose, and follow the path of the air down your throat and into your body. Notice all the sensations this breath creates. Feel the oxygen as it travels through your nostrils. Let it expand your lungs, then your belly. Picture the air working its way down to your toes.
Then exhale through your mouth, following the reverse pattern—feel the out-breath come back up your legs. Feel your stomach deflate, then your chest as you release the breath. Feel the air against your lips as it leaves. Can you feel how your whole body is breathing?
As you do this more often, see if you can feel your skin expanding and releasing, as though you’re breathing through the entire surface of your body.
The trick is to maintain this focus and attention for three complete breaths. My mind often starts generating thoughts (or running away with me) around the second exhale, so then I start over.
When you finally open your eyes, notice what’s different. For me, colours often seem more vibrant—especially the green of grass—and everything around me seems just a little more alive.
2. Make friends with a tree
Place your palm against the trunk of a tree. Now take all your mental energy and place your focus entirely on the sensations in your palm. Feel the bark, the tree, without labeling the sensation. Just allow your palm to connect fully with the tree. If thoughts arise—and they will—gently place your attention back into the palm of your hand. Sometimes I imagine my mental energy running down my arm and into the tree.
The benefit I’ve found from this practice is not only that I feel more alive, more connected to all of nature, but also that it short-circuits any rumination I’ve been doing. I may spend a lot of time in the forest, but I’m not immune to carrying on conversations in my head, or forgetting to notice the beauty around me. This practice always brings me back into the moment, into my body, and into myself as an expression of nature.
3. Let the earth absorb your stress
Pause on a piece of grass or on a dirt path. If you can do this barefoot, all the better, but shoes are fine, too. Close your eyes. Place your focus on the soles of your feet. Feel the place where your feet meet the earth. Feel your connection to the earth, to the planet. Don’t think about it, just feel. If thoughts arise, come back to the sensations of your feet on the earth.
Now allow any tension inside you to drain out through the soles of your feet. Visualize any kind of pain or resistance you may be feeling—anger, sadness, anxiety, grief, irritability—and allow it to flow down through your body, down your legs, and out your feet into the earth. (Don’t worry—the earth can handle it!) Do this for one minute at first, then work your way up to five minutes. Keep returning your focus to the soles of your feet and the sensation of the earth beneath them.
When you open your eyes, how do you feel? For me, typically my legs feel a bit heavier, as though I’m much more deeply connected to the earth and grounded. Yet my heart and energy feel lighter, as though a burden has been lifted.
4. Look without labeling
Choose a place that’s fairly quiet. Set your gaze on a section of forest or park, or whatever nature is in your view. Now comes the tricky part: try to look at this piece of nature without labeling it.
For me, often, it’s like trying not to think of the proverbial pink elephant—all I can do is label “green” “pretty” “trees” “water” “blue”. The labels will come up. The key is to let go of each label as it arises. Keep your focus on the act of looking, rather than the mental labeling. Don’t beat yourself up (that’s just more thinking); just set the intention to look without imposing labels.
Nothing is what we call it. A tree without the label “tree” would still exist. The word is not the object; the word only references the object. Or, as Shakespeare put it, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name, would still smell as sweet.”
The minute I label something, I lose the ability to truly see it for what it is. Instead, the label brings forth a slew of thoughts and questions about the being or object. Notice whether you can truly see what’s in front of you without putting words to it.
5. Breathe with a tree
About six years ago, I met a woman on the Saysutshun ferry who told me about this practice. At first, even I thought it was a little out there, but as I’ve maintained this practice, I’ve found it really brings me closer to experiencing myself as part of nature, not separate from it.
As you may recall from grade-school science class, trees are so good for the environment because they take in carbon dioxide and transform it into oxygen, which is then released into the air. Humans, on the other hand, inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide.
To do this practice, stand in front of a tree. You can keep your eyes open or closed. As you inhale, imagine the tree exhaling oxygen-rich air for you to breathe in. As you exhale, imagine the tree breathing in your carbon dioxide. Continue this practice for a few minutes, putting all your focus on the breath as it transfers from the tree to you and back again. Try not to think about it; just experience this back and forth, this symmetry and interdependency.
Silently thank the tree for providing oxygen for your breaths.
Be patient with yourself. These are simple practices, yet they’re surprisingly tricky for those of us whose minds are like runaway horses. Over time, these practices will feel more natural, and if your experience is anything like mine, you’ll feel more deeply connected to nature…and more peaceful. After all, humans are but one expression of nature, one out of trillions.
As Einstein told his stepdaughter, you’ll also gain a deeper implicit understanding of life—not by thinking about it, but simply by looking and feeling deeply.
Please share your experiences of these practices in the comments.
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