By Ilchi Lee
Author of The Call of Sedona
Many experts suggest that mental acuity and creativity could be improved by spending time in nature. Neuroscientists have discovered that city life taxes the brain, causing mental burnout. Any exposure to nature, even a picture on an office wall, can help the brain. As a nature lover and brain educator, I am in full agreement. I have witnessed the positive effects of spending time in nature.
However, it is also important how you spend time in nature. The benefits of nature are greatest when we feel fully connected with the environment. Often, people fail to escape their mental ruts and do not fully experience nature. The key is opening up the senses to take in the essence of nature, to really see, hear, touch, smell, and even taste nature.
See Like an Artist
We are most accustomed to taking in nature through our eyes. Even when we can’t go outside, we look at pictures and learn about plants and animals through beautifully produced documentaries. These modes of seeing are wonderful, but it is possible to see things more deeply. Try to see nature through your right brain, not just your left brain, which wants to identify and judge things. If you give up the need to focus on and analyze particular objects, you will be able to feel the environment as a whole.
Try to see nature as an artist sees it. When you look at a beautiful landscape, notice the many shades of green and brown, as well as splashes of yellow, red, and orange. Notice how contrasting colors come together, such as the blue sky peeking through the green leaves of a tree. Notice the highlights and shadows changing as the sun passes from day to night. Look closely at the shape of things, how everything fits its particular space.
Enjoy the Silence
We rarely listen fully to nature because we’re accustomed to blocking sounds out of our conscious mind. This is necessary for urban life, but it may not be good for your mind because you forget how to discriminate fine nuances of tone, pitch, and rhythm. Many hundreds of years ago, people probably relied on listening closely to survive, but now we are more practiced at ignoring the “white noise” in our environment.
If you are in a truly wild place, spend a moment enjoying the sound of silence. You may hear the birds singing or the sound of a rushing stream, but underneath those sounds lays a sense of silence that is missing from a busy human environment. When you experience this, the peace and serenity of nature permeates into every cell of your body. In this way, you share nature with your entire body.
Once you’ve opened your ears, you can perceive the music of nature. Tune your ear to each sound individually. For example, try to hear the song of each individual bird. Each bird has his own individual voice that sings out little sentences of communication to partners and rivals. These are the musical instruments of nature—the pulsing, whooshing sound of the wind against the dry grass and the whistling of the wind through the trees. Also, take a moment to open your ears up to the sounds of your own body at work—the sound of your breath and the beating of your heart.
Taste Nature, Mindfully
Most people would not relish the idea of sticking things in their mouths as they walk along on a hike. Rest assured, this is not what I would suggest you do. Actually, you already taste nature every day. Every single thing you eat is from nature, so you are putting nature in your mouth all the time. Meals provide an opportunity to contemplate and to fully realize one’s connection to nature. Everything you eat becomes part of your body, connecting you to nature in a very personal way.
Have a simple moment of gratitude for each meal. When you eat, just eat. Turn off your TV or computer and give your full attention to your food. Eat slowly, aiming for 20 to 30 chews per mouthful. Genuinely savor each bite, tuning in to the unique texture and flavor of your food.
Smell the Roses, and the Tree Sap, Too
Studies have shown that smell is the sense most connected to memory, so when you take in the smells around you, you are stimulating memories of times spent in nature. Later on, you can reconnect to nature through those memories, even when you are no longer having that experience.
Smelling allows you to becoming one with the essence of something because you are literally taking molecules into your body when you smell. When you’re out in the woods, and you smell sap oozing from the bark of the trees, you are inhaling the molecules that are escaping from the sap. You are literally breathing nature in. Seek out these experiences, and as the old saying goes, “Take time to smell the flowers.”
As children, we want to touch everything, but the world tells us, “No, no! Don’t touch!” Thus, we learn to keep our hands to ourselves, no longer exploring the world through the sense of touch.
I urge you to reawaken that childlike desire to touch things. Pick up a leaf that you know is safe to touch, such as an oak or maple leaf, and feel the textures it provides. Explore the veins in the leaf with your fingertips, noting how they branch out to the tips of the leaf. Notice how the front and back have a different texture. Feel the leaf against your face or arm. Once in a while, take off your shoes and feel the sand or grass beneath your feet. Soon, innocent delight will return to you, and you will feel as open and relaxed as a child at play.
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