Engagement with nature, and specifically, physical connection to water, yields profound cognitive, emotional, psychological and social benefits
[The following essay is adapted from Blue Mind, Wallace J. Nichols’ New York Times bestselling book]
We need the sun, the moon, the stars, the rivers and the mountains and birds, the fish in the sea, to evoke a world of mystery, to evoke the sacred.
— Thomas Berry, The Great Work
When scientist (and agnostic) T. H. Huxley was asked to write the opening article for the very first edition of Nature, in 1869, he declared there could be “no more fitting preface” than a “rhapsody” by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. “We are surrounded and embraced by her: powerless to separate ourselves from her, and powerless to penetrate beyond her,” Goethe wrote, and Huxley concludes, “It may be, that long after the theories of the philosophers whose achievements are recorded in these pages, are obsolete, the vision of the poet will remain as a truthful and efficient symbol of the wonder and the mystery of Nature.”
In study after study, those who choose to spend time in nature speak about its ability to make us feel more connected to something outside of ourselves—something bigger, more transcendent, and universal. Some of my favorite recent studies include a 2011 survey of 452 students in Edmonton, Alberta, which showed that feeling connected to nature led to greater feelings of awe, vitality, purpose, and more positive emotions overall. In another study, people who viewed nature scenes and imagined themselves fully immersed in nature were more concerned with prosocial goals and more willing to give to others.
What is it about nature that inspires this feeling of connection?
First, the most frequently mentioned “transcendent” aspect of the natural world is its sheer beauty. “Even the person whose sole experience with nature consists of lying on a beach and watching the waves will not be surprised that those who visit the wilderness list aesthetics as one of their main objectives,” writes Winifred Gallagher in The Power of Place. Perhaps because our ancient ancestors saw beauty in the shapes and colors of the natural world, our response to nature’s aesthetics is deep — and often poetic. And the experience goes well beyond the visual: we come across unfamiliar (read: novel) sounds, smells, flora, and tastes that we would not encounter back home. This is the way author and wilderness guide Sigurd F. Olson described one of his most memorable and beautiful moments in nature:
A school of perch darted in and out of the rocks. They were green and gold and black, and I was fascinated by their beauty. Seagulls wheeled and cried above me. Waves crashed against the pier. I was alone in a wild and lovely place, part at last of the wind and the water, part of the dark forest through which I had come, and of all the wild sounds and colors and feelings of the place I had found. That day I entered into a life of indescribable beauty and delight. There I believe I heard the singing wilderness for the first time.
Nature generously bestows a grandeur that puts us in our place.
When he was a teenager, neuroscientist Dan Siegel would ride his bike to the beach, walk along the ocean edge, and think deep thoughts. “I’d watch the waves and be filled with wonder — about life, the tides, the sea,” he recalled. “The force of the moon beckoning the water, raising it up toward the cliffs, then pulling it back down beyond the rocky pools, back out to sea… These tides, I thought, would continue their eternal cycle long after I was gone from this earth.” Trees, grass, water, sand — all are familiar to us, yet the size and scale of nature can make us catch our breath and marvel at its power. In its age, majesty, and complexity, nature dwarfs us — and yet we are drawn there because it puts our humanity into proper perspective. We encounter nature in a very physical sense when we walk, hike, climb, sail, paddle, swim, run, ski, or snowshoe through it; as hiker Adrian Juric says, these elemental forces “resist the sense of self we have worked so hard to establish” and cut us down to size.
A 2007 study asked participants to describe a time when they saw a beautiful natural scene and to rate the level at which they felt ten different emotions. Words like awe, rapture, love, and contentment were ranked highest; people tended to agree with statements like, “I felt small or insignificant,” “I felt the presence of something greater than myself,” “I felt connected with the world around me,” “I was unaware of my day-to-day concerns,” and “I did not want the experience to end.” When participants in wilderness expeditions in the United States were surveyed in 1998, fully 80 percent said they had a greater spiritual connection with nature as a result of their trips. We realize what I like to think of as a positive lack of control, as opposed to the lack of control we feel in our overstressed, overwhelmed lives. Our inability to have power over our inboxes and bank accounts and waistlines (not to mention the economy and international conflicts) simply makes us feel worse about ourselves.
But in nature we realize there is something so immeasurable, so magnificent, that it exists both with us and without us. That recognition can transform our sense of responsibility and renovate our list of priorities.
Recent studies have focused on the different neural networks that we use when focusing on things outside ourselves (the extrinsic network) and when focusing on self-reflection and emotion (the intrinsic, or default network). The brain usually switches between the two, but cognitive neuroscience researcher Zoran Josipovic discovered that experienced meditators could keep both networks active at the same time while they meditated. Doing so lowered the wall between self and environment, possibly with the effect of inspiring feelings of harmony with the world. That ability to simultaneously hold awareness of self and other is called nonduality, or oneness in both Eastern and Western philosophies. There’s a sense of connection with everything, of no separation, of being part of something infinitely large and wonderful. Senses are sharpened; you see, hear, feel, taste, and smell more fully. Feelings of happiness, contentment, bliss, awe, and gratitude arise for no reason — some spiritual masters refer to this as “causeless joy.” There’s a sense of timelessness, or time seems to slow to a crawl. There’s a sense of wanting or needing nothing else.
Some would call it communion with the natural world; some would call it the experience of God. Perhaps most people wouldn’t even know to put words of any sort to it.
Meditation can bring us to this state, as can prayer and other spiritual practices. But many of us feel moments or even hours of that sense of oneness and spirituality when we interact with nature, especially with water and the creatures we find there. “One cannot help but develop some form of attachment to the various social and natural landscapes that one encounters and moves through in one’s lifetime, and frequently the feelings one forms in response to a particular place can be especially strong and overwhelming,” state Laura Fredrickson and Dorothy Anderson. We become attached to our particular “piece” of nature and treasure it for the experiences we have had there: it becomes our “sacred space.” Your sacred space may be an inaccessible bit of wilderness reached only by foot or canoe; or it may be amidst the waters themselves, as you fished, sailed, or slipped in and felt the power of the water beneath or around you. But whenever or however you enter it, you feel connected to something greater than yourself.
Psychologist Abraham Maslow believed that because man’s “higher and transcendent nature” is “part of his essence,” occasionally we can access the mystical consciousness William James described. Maslow called these moments peak experiences, and described them as “non-striving, non-self-centered, purposeless, self-validating, end-experiences and states of perfection and of goal attainment.” Psychologists studying these peak moments believe that they share certain characteristics: a complete focus of attention; an absence of fear; a perception that the world is good; a feeling of connection and even merging with the environment; feeling humbled by the experience and fortunate to have participated in it; a sense that time and space have altered and one is immersed in the present moment; a feeling that the experience is real, true, and valuable; flashes of insight and emotions not experienced in daily life; and a realization of the meaningfulness of the experience and the significance for one’s future life. When we access these states, we see ourselves not as separate but as “embedded” in our relationships with everything in the world; we are part of everything, and everything is part of us.
Many times such peak experiences involve pushing yourself past perceived limitations. Neuroscientist Catherine Franssen saw this with skydivers and rock climbers; Jaimal Yogis and other big-wave surfers describe moments in the ocean when “the wave demanded such hyper-focus… there wasn’t even time to differentiate between one’s body and the wave.” On the South Fork of the American River in California, a white-water rafter described the experience like this:
The top of the mountain finally gives up at the end of the peninsula that creates the S turn I admire so much. The velocity of the water increases dramatically, the negative ions in the air from the rapids changes everyone’s attitude. As I approach the thunder, my muscles throughout my entire body come to attention — as always, I go through the rocks 100 yards upstream, I call the goal posts, knowing that if I can float my boat through them, I’ll be OK in Troublemaker. Approaching the final turn . . . I tense as I grip my oars, I totally relax my mind and go for the flow—punch the hole and slip by the rock. And like magic, another peel off the layers of life, off the old onion, exposing fresh flesh and a new perspective on life.
This sort of expansive awareness — “a new perspective on life” — is almost inevitably common in such circumstances that combine the natural world and water.
Indeed, as a spiritual element of the natural world, there seems to be something particular about water that permeates humanity’s consciousness. When seeking to describe the experience of wholeness, limitlessness, and eternity, Freud drew on his correspondence with French writer (and student of Eastern religions) Romain Rolland and called it the “oceanic feeling.” Many of our spiritual and religious traditions feature water. In the Tao Te Ching (written somewhere between the sixth and fourth century B.C.E.), Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu wrote, “Of all the elements in the cosmological construct of the world, Fire, Water, Earth, Mineral and Nature, the Sage takes Water as his preceptor.” The Buddha likened life to a river that is always flowing, changing from moment to moment.
Water is integral to the creation myths of ancient civilizations from Egypt to Japan. “The spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2, King James Bible). “We [God] made from water every living thing,” (The Quran, su ̄rat l-anbiya ̄a [The Prophets] 21:30). Hindus consider it sacred to bathe in the Ganga, “Mother Ganges;” Christian pilgrims flock to the river Jordan and Lourdes; Islamic pilgrims visit the Zamzam well in Mecca while performing the hajj. Humans ritually use water to cleanse themselves of metaphysical pollution and as a means of consecrating the living (baptism with holy water) and the dead (bathing the body before burial). For many indigenous peoples around the world, water represents humanity’s connection to all living things. Elizabeth Woody, a member of the Yakima Nation in Oregon, says, “Water is a sacrament in our religious practices and overarching medicine. It is the central symbol of our cycle of ceremonies. Along the ‘Big River,’ the Columbia, we wake with a drink of water, and close out the day with a sip and prayer… water equals all life.”
In 2010, Ian Foster of the University of Montana did a study of the spiritual connection felt by people on canoe trips through the Minnesota Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA), which consists of approximately 1.3 million acres with 1,175 lakes and hundreds of miles of streams. Much of the BWCA is accessible only by canoe, yet every year more than 250,000 people visit it to hike, canoe, kayak, fish, hunt, or camp. Foster conducted his research by canoeing to different campsites in the area and asking people to describe their experience of the wilderness. “Rather than standing at the trailhead after taking my morning shower and asking them about their trip and experiences, I was there, in a wild landscape,” Foster wrote. “[I] had bathed in the lakes, caught fish for dinner (albeit twice in thirty days), paddled into the winds, and combated the same swarms of mosquitoes.” He discovered that it was in the beauty and quiet of “plateau-experiences” that people felt the closest to spirit. One man, “Tom,” talked of soaking in “everything — the water, the trees, the sky the breeze… I just turn off everything else and just soak in what is around me and take time to be thankful for it.” Being immersed in the natural experience, with limited social contact and cultural input, and required to interact with nature in much the same way that people native to the area had done for thousands of years — in such conditions, Foster commented, people’s connection to something greater than themselves and to their surroundings was “kindled, stoked, and/or sustained.”
In descriptions of their spiritual connection to their environment, Foster discovered that water consistently played a significant part. The natural beauty of water and sky (in the Dakota language, Minnesota means “where the water reflects the heavens”) touched many people. “Mary” described one such encounter:
Yesterday we stayed at a campsite on Hudson Lake and the sky was this bright pink and purple, and it looked water colored — so amazing, like it couldn’t even be real… As the night gradually came on, the sky was getting darker and the water took that on, and I was just watching these two mediums entirely change all the time… In that moment you are like, “Why am I here? What put me here in the spot so that I can feel this?”
Peak and plateau experiences in nature are remarkable not just for their momentary impact, but, more important, for the effects they have when we return to our regular lives.
In the middle of a busy day, on the streets of a large city, or in an office, with our eyes locked on the screen of our smartphone or tablet or laptop, taking a moment to remember a transcendent moment when the mind calmed and the heart opened to the beauty and wonder of nature can transport us back to the experience of feeling connected with nature, spirit, the divine, or whatever inadequate name we give it. “Nancy” summed up her own return experience: “I grasped something out there… It’s like everything is all right. This kind of deep sense of happiness, just by thinking back on it, is so powerful.”
I call it Blue Mind.
You may also enjoy reading Mother Nature’s Hourglass: A Biologist Reminds Us That Time Is Running Out by Dave Cannon