“We are part of nature. Nature is part of us. Stardust is in us and we are stardust. We are all part of this same endeavour which is life and the Universe.” – Jared Blumenfeld
There is a huge red ball in the sky which draws and captures my eye, pulls my attention and I am rapt. As I watch, it changes, dropping ever lower in its trajectory, deepening in colour, and the sky around is suffused with a range of pastel watercolours, and all is silhouetted below. This darkening continues as the sun disappears. At that moment, the spell is broken and my mind starts working again, wondering at this profound experience. The stress has dropped from my shoulders, without any effort on my part. The wild and untamed thoughts, which had been on repeat, had ceased chasing each other around and my mind was still. Welcome to the power and wonder of the natural world. These kinds of spectacles are around us every single day, and yet we can so often miss them unless we make a conscious effort to be there for them, or notice them in our daily lives. In watching this evolving sunset, I was reminded that everything changes, difficult and challenging experiences and feelings will pass.
Nature is so powerfully good for us, but we can so easily overlook it and have a tendency to forget the healing effects it can have for us when we take a moment to connect with it. Our lives are full and busy, where is the time to just be? There is an ever increasing, exponential rise in research from top Universities around the world about just how good time spent in nature is for us. This is great news for those of us stressed out by the modern world, though perhaps it is something that we do intrinsically know. The research is now backing this intuition wholeheartedly, showing that immersion in nature has profound and extensive positive effects. Firstly, a wealth of studies have shown that it lowers our pulse rate and switches on our parasympathetic nervous system, helping our bodies to rest, digest and recover, as well as lowering blood pressure. Not only this, but time connecting in nature lowers circulatory cortisol, the hormone switched on by stress. Time and again studies have shown that after just 15-20 minutes outdoors in nature, the result is an improvement in mood, and after 45-50 minutes immersion, it has been demonstrated to increase cognitive performance and feelings of vitality. There is a dose response, the more time we spend in nature the greater the positive effects. Nature is like caffeine or alcohol (or any drug), the more we get the more we want but without the negative side effects. It’s win:win.
As we start to move into spring, this is the perfect time to embrace a move outdoors. The beauty of nature is that it is non-judgemental, free and treats all of us the same. It is the only place we can fully open and engage all of our senses and, in that sense, where we can feel truly alive. This can be anywhere from a garden or park to something far wilder. I am lucky enough to live in the south west of England and have access to an array of outdoor settings but genuinely one of the most profound, and perhaps surprising, natural experiences I have had this year was during a mindful walk in Regents’ Park in London, where I intentionally slowed right down and opened my senses, non-judgementally (I could have labelled the noises all around me but I just listened). I noticed and felt much more deeply, wildlife came closer to me and I discovered a real connection to this green space.
Spring, a time when the sun starts to soar ever higher in the sky and the earth breathes in. The light filled days lengthen causing leaves to unfurl and plants to blossom, and across the northern hemisphere the vast temperature forests and grasslands go green at a gathering pace heading into summer, photosynthesising and causing global oxygen levels to rise. Over winter, much of nature has lain dormant: plant life has died back; animals have hibernated, so too we can often find we have held our breaths waiting for spring. Now it is arriving, we can watch the sun return in strength and take a much needed deep breath.
“To reclaim the qualities of the child: their play, their trust, their spontaneity, their openness, their wonder, their joy of life, is our challenge as adults. Here [in spring] when the birds start making their nests and the lambs play in the field, the spirit of the child is everywhere.” Ian Siddons Heginworth
Top 5 things to do this Spring outdoors to increase your wellbeing and sense of connection
Delight in the following activities that can seem almost childlike, and can help us reclaim the qualities of the child. These are great to do on your own, or with a friend, or if you prefer you can always do them with children if you can find some (ask permission first!).
1. Spring is a great time of year for foraging, particularly for delicious and tender plants to make salad with e.g. pennywort, common sorrel or common chickweed amongst many others or if you have access to a wood look out for wild garlic to make pesto or add to any meal you’d use garlic in, delicious. It is easy to find photos to identify these plants on the Internet or go to http://www.field-studies-council.org/publications/pubs/foraging-chart.aspx (full disclosure I’m the author!). This is the ultimate experience in slow food, free and so satisfying.
2. Go on a sensory exploration. Use your natural curiosity. It is said that if you’re being curious it is difficult to be unhappy at the same time. You could get up at dawn, find a comfy spot outdoors and listen to the birds. As I did in Regent’s Park, try not to label or attach to the sounds, just listen and see if you can distinguish the different sounds. If you wish to afterwards, you could draw pictures or use describing words to distinguish these calls and look them up later on the Internet – the RSPB is good for this.
3. Go on a mindful walk and look for signs of spring. As you walk slowly, see if you can discover any natural objects that catch your eye, for example feathers, cones, stones, daisies, petals of flowers, a little bit of moss and so on, you could collect them and use your innate creativity to make a picture or sculpture with. The process is more important than the outcome, nature does not mind as long as you are respectful.
4. Spring is a wonderful time to study the night sky on a clear night. Check the weather and if it is clear, head outdoors. You can often see more in a darker environment but it’s not essential. I had some wonderful views of the stars recently in London. If you felt like it, you could even take your shoes off, and feel the earth beneath you. Marvel at the sheer number of those little lights reaching us here on earth and wonder at just how long it has taken that light to get here.
5. Sit down, somewhere you feel safe and comfortable and watch the sky change for a minimum of 15 minutes (you can always take a cushion and a blanket). What do you notice? Often one of the best places to sit is by a tree. All you have to do is just breathe.