How nature supports well-being...and performance
The 19th century philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote about nature: There I feel that nothing can befall me in life—no disgrace, no calamity—which nature cannot repair.
The comedian George Carlin says it this way:
I like it when a flower or a little tuft of grass grows through a crack in the concrete. It’s so fuckin’ heroic.
I just wrapped my final meditation-teacher training practicum - a one-day meditation retreat in nature. Looking into the intersection between being in nature, mental health/well-being, and meditation, as well as listening to the stories from meditation students in the room, it became clear me that nature is not only therapeutic and enjoyable but is actually an unsung performance enhancer.
Why is nature so special? No one knows for sure but one hypothesis derived from evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson’s “biophilia” theory suggests that we are evolutionarily primed to seek out nature experiences. We may have preferences to be in beautiful, natural spaces because they are resource-rich environments—ones that have always provided optimal food, shelter, and comfort. These evolutionary needs may explain why children are drawn to natural environments and why we love nature in our homes and in our architecture.
Now, research is documenting the positive impacts of nature on human flourishing—our social, psychological, and emotional life. Over 100 studies have shown that being in nature, living near nature, or even viewing nature in paintings and videos can have positive impacts on our brains, bodies, feelings, thought processes, and social interactions. In particular, viewing nature seems to be inherently rewarding, producing a cascade of positive emotions and calming our nervous systems. These in turn help us to cultivate greater openness, creativity, connection, generosity, and resilience.
Participants in one study either viewed a few minutes of the inspiring documentary Planet Earth, a neutral video from a news program, or funny footage from Walk on the Wild Side. Watching a few minutes of Planet Earth led people to feel 46 percent more awe and 31 percent more gratitude than those in the other groups.
This study and others like it tell us that even brief nature videos are a powerful way to feel awe, wonder, gratitude, and reverence—all positive emotions known to lead to increased well-being and physical health.
Here are the lessons from nature I've learned plus those that our meditative group came up with.
Nature stays. It stays present. It’s never anywhere else. It embodies resilience and patience. It is steadfast in the face of challenges: weather, climate change, and development. It stands implacable and can be a firm foundation for us in times of uncertainty and change. Nature is connected. The tall sequoias in the USA as well as the Australian Bunya Pines are known for how their roots intermingle to hold each other secure and share nutrients.
Consider, too, our human interconnection with plant life. You are inhaling the oxygen that the plants exhale and they’re inhaling the carbon dioxide that you exhale. Reflect, too, on the fact that the air we breathe has been recycled on this planet for a couple billion years. You’re inhaling and exhaling the exact same atmosphere that has always been here.
In nature, our sense of separateness can start to soften.
Nature says, “You’re okay here.” Nature doesn’t judge you or care about your accomplishments or your failures. There’s no shame or guilt in nature. It just does what it does and lets it all hang out, so to speak. Seeing nature with this mindset can remind us of our own good nature.
Nature isn’t always pleasant. Catastrophic weather events—the bucketloads of rain drowning swathes of eastern Australia, for example—remind us of nature’s devasting power. Some plants are poisonous, others have prickers, and the ground can be slippery and treacherous. We could say the same about life.
There’s a duality in nature. In any snapshot of nature, you see the beginning of life in some species, and the end of it in others. Nature teaches us the lesson of impermanence. Be it the cycling of seasons or the flow and ebb of life.
Nature can be a great place to be truer to ourselves. In exactly the same way that nature shows us its true colours all the time without artifice or shame, it invites us to do the same.
Nature knows how to play. In the birds that swoop and dart each other, whales breaching, to young kangaroos engaging in mock fisticuffs with their mothers or each other.
I recently realized—with a start, may I add—that in the work-from-home business lifestyle I now have, fun has been forgotten. I exercise, I meditate, I self-care…but do I have fun? I’m now in the process of rekindling the habit of fun into my daily routine. Fun being things that, like the breeching whales or boxing kangaroos, have nothing to do with health or productivity, per se, but that light me up. Art and piano playing top the list.
Nature reminds us that we aren’t “all that” after all. And what a relief that can be! Researchers linking the impact of nature on feelings of awe and social behaviour found that participants who spent a minute looking up into a beautiful stand of eucalyptus trees reported feeling less entitled and self-important. And when it’s less about me, these researchers found, it can be more about us. That is, people who have experienced the awe associated with the grandeur of nature feel less significant in a good way, a shift that is vital to the collaboration and cooperation required of social groups.
From a Performance Perspective
Nature can soothe our nervous systems, reduce stress, and even take the sting out of loss and failure. That is, when in the presence of nature, we feel less self-important, it can help, in a good way to lessen the unhelpful self-critical rumination that sometimes accompanies those outcomes. Nature is also an excellent form of mental recovery. When our minds are jangly with plans, logistics, cognitive load, or worry, getting out into nature can be immediately soothing if we take the time to mindfully focus on it.
Lastly, up until now, I have come at this from the perspective that nature is something outside ourselves. As in, we go outside to experience it. But it can be useful to recognize that we, too, are nature. Inherent in this understanding, therefore, is the notion that what we do, think, and feel is also natural. This realization can be, if we let it, a powerful counterpoint to our tendency to unduly pathologize ourselves, particularly after failures. I believe that this attitude can go some way toward lessening the self-lacerating pain we can inflict on ourselves, under the mistaken belief that there is something wrong, maybe even unnatural, about who we are.
What performance-enhancing aspects of nature have you experienced? Don't forget to ping me with any questions related to making performance more frictionless. I'd love to have a crack!!
In case you missed my main message :), I believe that high performance shouldn't hurt people. I provide individual and group coaching on achieving the performance goals you want without hurting yourself or your people in the process. In ways that are healthier, happier, and more sustainable. If you want more information or have questions, you can reach me at email@example.com