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Nature & Spirituality & Mental Health – Are they joined at the hip? Part 1

Updated: Mar 28

Embracing the Serenity of Nature: A Path to Spiritual and Mental Well-being

“Uncertain as I was as I pushed forward, I felt right in my pushing, as if the effort itself meant something. That perhaps being amidst the undesecrated beauty of the wilderness meant I too could be undesecrated, regardless of the regrettable things I'd done to others or myself or the regrettable things that had been done to me. Of all the things I'd been skeptical about, I didn't feel skeptical about this: the wilderness had a clarity that included me.” Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Patty could not believe how her life had turned out. She just turned 48 and was utterly alone. Both children in college out-of-state, her husband newly in-love with his young girlfriend. It’s been almost a year since he’d left. It was all so unexpected. Sure, there were a few signs of marital disconnect but nothing out of the ordinary, so she thought. At times the pain of loneliness and despair were so intense that Patty could barely breath. Her role as mother, wife and homemaker had given her meaning and filled her day with purpose. One day Patty someone sent her an article called “Walking off Heartbreak on America’s Newest Trail”. The story highlighted a woman’s epic backcountry hike as a way of working through her broken marriage. Patty felt a called to hike. She attended a few classes at her local REI on backcountry hiking, invested in the gear and set off on a 4-week trek on the Appalachian trail. Her experience on that trail was transformative. The hardship of trudging along the rocky path, day in and day out, in rain, in cold and hot weather was welcomed pain. At least this pain was expected, manageable. Patty speaks of an unseen force that accompanied her throughout the trek. “Perhaps it was God, perhaps Nature itself, I don’t know. I just know that it was comforting.” The hike didn’t solve all of Patty’s problems, yet it helped her reorganize her life. “When I was out there, my problems didn’t seem as huge as they did when I was sitting in my empty house.” Patty gained confidence in herself, she surprised herself. Her new-found stamina and determination was a long-awaited positive strength necessary to help her continue the healing process.

Spiritualty and Mental Health

Patty’s life-changing hike illustrates the intricate relationship between nature, mental health and spirituality. Numerous studies have examined the multifaceted relationship between spirituality and well-being and support the notion that spirituality has a positive effect on well-being and happiness. In other words, people with active spiritual lives tend to be healthier and happier. Nature is a major pathway through which people experience and express their spirituality. “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread,” Muir says, “places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.”

As Teilhard de Chardin says people are not human beings on a spiritual journey but spiritual beings on a human journey. A vast majority of people consider spirituality an essential ingredient of their experience. In the United States, approximately 91% of Americans believe in God, and about 43% of all Americans attend religious services on a weekly basis (Newport, 2010/2011). When recruiting participants for a doctoral research study at local universities, most students identified as “spiritual but not religious”. Spirituality has been considered a broader construct than religion. This broadness is reflected by the definition offered by Frame (2003): “Spirituality includes one’s values, beliefs, mission, awareness, subjectivity, experience, sense of purpose and direction, and a kind of striving toward something greater than oneself. It may or may not include the divine”.

Nature and its Relationship with Spirituality

Every year millions of people flock to national parks, seeking wonder and awe, rest and tranquility. The possibility exists that people’s desire to engage with nature is linked to a spiritual impulse. People frequently mention nature when referring to their personal spirituality; Encountering the transcendent in nature is a sentiment shared by many people. Frequent encounters in nature can be depicted as spiritual due to the sacred quality of a place. Most religious faiths share strong attachments to elements in nature such as the Judeo-Christian faith and the mountain of Zion, the Hindu faith and the attachment to the Ganges River, as well as the Buddhist faith and the Bodhi tree under which the Buddha meditated.

Stringer and McAvoy, two researchers at the University of Minnesota, examined spiritual experiences in nature. In one experiment, two wilderness adventure programs were offered to participants. The adventure included an 8-day canoeing trip or a 10-day backpacking trip. After the participants returned they shared common feelings such as excitement, happiness, joy, and self-confidence and reported feeling cleansed and renewed in spirit. More specifically, most participants acknowledged that their awareness of spirituality increased while in the wilderness. Interestingly, at the end of the nature experiences, people shared profound insights such as the recognition of the unconquerable power of nature that elicits a sense of aliveness, inner peace, and closeness to God. Long-standing research suggests that people like the ones that took part in this experiment, often encounter intense spiritual experience when immersed in the naturel world.

Purpose and Meaning

Vancouver Island is a most magnificent place with its lush green mountains towering out of secluded pockets of fresh water lakes. A place where bald eagles fly freely among the tree tops of ancient hemlocks. There begins the temperate rainforest trail. A forest of trees so huge, tall and ancient we all look like little children beside them. A world of vivid green moss, arching ferns, and a mass of plants so thick it's impossible to see the soil beneath them. This trail graces you with an abundance of green in more shades than one can count. The sacredness of this place strikes one almost immediately. All talk ceases with the overwhelming need to take in this sensual experience. It is like a rare glimpse into the beginning of time – fresh, pristine, untouched, sanctified. You could feel the presence of life-energy in every fiber of your being. Moments like these can reveal a greater life-purpose and provide a sense of security.

Emily, a client seeking therapy for depression, describes a similar moment in nature. “With everlasting gratitude, I made a commitment to reawaken people’s connections with the woods.” Nature became a significant part of Emily’s emotional healing process. Her therapist would “prescribe” weekly nature hikes, some therapy sessions were held outdoor at a local park. She discovered how to nurture her budding connection with nature and consequently made it her life’s mission to help others feel that same bond. Emily completed a Horticulture training and currently fulfills her calling at a program for returning veterans.

In his book Riding the Dragon (2003), Robert Wicks recounts the memory of a former student who learned to find meaning through experiencing the seasons. In the story, a caring aunt asks the little girl to kneel down on the hard winter ground and feel the life beneath it, but the child is unable to sense any form of life in the bareness of winter. The aunt tenderly enlightens the child that even in the most barren season life quietly grows, preparing the soil for the liveliness of the Spring season. Once they returned to the field in Spring, signs of life were sprouting everywhere. The child can perceive the hidden goodness of the gyratory seasons and discovers the life-giving truth that all seasons contain possibilities to find deep meaning. Through hands-on connection with nature the girl can take in a life’s lessons. Nature is extremely skilled at providing hands-on learning experiences.

Heidi Schreiber-Pan, Ph.D., is a successful psychotherapist, clinical director and sought-after nationwide speaker on topics of resilience, anxiety, neuroscience, and occupational burnout. Her latest book, “Taming the Anxious Mind” is available on Amazon and your local book stores

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