Samson would be a terrible jogging partner. Half golden retriever, half rottweiler, he loves to explore, often bursting forward with speed only to stop every few yards to investigate an interesting smell. And he will not be hurried along. But what disqualifies him from long jogs makes him a great hiking companion. Especially for a photographer like me who's also constantly stopping to capture some of nature.
And when we're not out in the woods together, I am always thinking about the next possible opportunity to plan a trip. Because it makes us both happy and healthy.
Camping was something we did regularly when I was a kid. Visits to Yosemite National Park and the Redwoods of the northwest instilled in me a love for nature and our national parks. To this day, one of my favorite things to do is get up early on a summer morning and hit the road for a long trek to some distant natural wonder.
In our increasingly technology-centered lifestyle, it's easy to forget how important nature is. Our generation could possibly be, in all human history, the most disconnected from the real world which has always been our home. But time spent in the mountains, the forest, a beach, or a river, and really being there is time that's well-invested.
Nature is Different
Like you I enjoy unwinding with a good movie, Netflix marathon, even some video games. The thing to remember about entertainment, however, is that it's all coming from industry, designed to increase its own demand and create habits among consumers. Cliffhangers keep us coming back, new content downloads automatically, storylines are crafted to trigger emotional responses and before we know it we're consuming more than we meant to. Soon our "winding down" time is actually creating more stress and degrading the restorative quality of rest.
Listening to the silence of the woods in winter or the roar of rivers in spring , we're invited to just be. From the frailty of wildflowers to the grandiosity of mountain ranges, nature has a million ways to invite us into a state of awe and reflection. It has a way of quieting our minds and putting our priorities in a better light. It's impossible to stand in places like the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone and feel like me and my problems are the center of the universe.
My thoughts and emotions do still follow me there, of course. Sometimes on hikes I find my mind going back to that argument, that unfinished work, those loans... It's an opportunity to practice the letting go that I'm always encouraging my clients to do. Not trying to make thoughts and worries go away (that's usually impossible), but allowing them to be there, and allowing myself to keep going, keep enjoying, and not be fused to everything my mind wants to do.
Some recent research has shown that spending two hours a week in nature can make a significant, positive impact on things like anxiety, depression, and even chronic illness and pain.
I know, I know. Where am I gonna find two hours to go nature-loving this week?
Well, first of all the paper I linked to found that it doesn't matter if the two hours is all together our portioned out through the week. Secondly, I really don't think there's something magical about the 2-hour mark. Any time you spend feeling centered and present in nature is going to be good for you. Plus, here in northern Colorado we have so many of nature's greatest hits really close by.
And, it might be time to start thinking about priorities, boundaries--and reclaiming your story. Many of us have gotten written into the narrative that exalts exhaustion, that says burnout is the sign of the true believer. We dutifully pack our schedules to avoid judgment, looming guilt, or to risk having the audacity to say, "no."
Do you really want to live that story?
Be Prepared, and Let It Be
In all honesty, two hours a week is a pretty ambitious place to start. But if you can't remember your last mountain hike or picnic in the woods, I challenge you to get a little nature time this week. Maybe even plan a doable getaway. Like I said, as Coloradans, we have a lot at our fingertips.
Do a little research and be equipped for the adventure you're going on, of course. Have water and basic first aid, and an idea where you're going, and what the rules are there.
But also let it be what it is. Remember, one of the great lessons of nature is that we are ultimately not in control.
When I went up to Yellowstone a few years ago, just as I was driving into the park, a summer storm was rolling in, too. Suddenly I was anxiously imagining putting up the tent in a downpour, thinking about the relaxing campfire I wouldn't be having, etc. But then I remembered that storms are beautiful too. I found a good, wide-open place to stop and watch the storm sweep over the landscape in all its glory, and forget myself.
I did get soaked. And I had to adjust my plans a little.
And I did have an amazing trip.
Mike Ensley, LPCC is a Professional Counselor (and hobbyist photographer) in Loveland, CO.