When we set out on our first Mindful Safari, three years ago, it was with a sense of curiosity: what would a week of twice daily meditation sessions, combined with twice daily game drives, feel like? What changes might we sense by the end of it?
Since then, the experience of dozens in the ever-extending Mindful Safari family has been that our time in nature offers a myriad benefits delivered in the most powerful, yet gentle, way.
As it happens, two recently published books offer a fascinating validation of the Mindful Safari experience. The Nature Fix, by Florence Williams, and The Biophilia Effect by Clemens G. Arvay gather together the findings of researchers who, in recent decades, have begun exploring what happens to our bodies and minds when we reconnect with nature.
It was Eric Fromm, the German-born American psychologist who first defined the concept of biophilia as ‘the passionate love of life and of all that is alive; it is the wish to further growth, whether in a person, a plant, and idea or a social group.’ The Harvard entomologist, E.O. Wilson developed the biophilia hypothesis to mean ‘the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms.’
Put simply, the biophilia hypothesis is that when we spend time in nature, we “regain equanimity, cognitive clarity, empathy and hope … Biophilia explains why even today we build houses on the lake, why every child wants a teddy bear, and why Apple names itself after a fruit …” (Florence Williams)
While the biophilia label is quite new, there is nothing at all new about the practice of turning to nature for recreation, in the true sense of that word. Aristotle thought that walking outside cleared the mind. Buddha attained enlightenment under a tree. Darwin, Tesla and Einstein deliberately walked in gardens to help think things through. Wordsworth and others in the Romantic movement saw nature as a salvation. Beethoven was, quite literally, a tree hugger, and Gaudi famously said that if you want to be original, you should turn to nature.
In the East, a number of governments are well ahead of the game in recognising the positive impact of nature on health. The Japanese government has coined the phrase ‘shinrin yoku’ or ‘forest bathing,’ based on the ancient Shinto and Buddhist practices of letting nature into your body through all five senses. It has invested significantly in creating forests of hinoki cypress trees, with paths among the trees, encouraging citizens to spend time there. The government of South Korea is in the process of growing dozens of forests, close to every major city, for exactly the same reason.
So, what are some of the main benefits of spending time in nature? I’ll review them briefly.
Yoshifumi Miyazaki, a physical anthropologist at Chiba University in Tokyo explains that ‘throughout our evolution we’ve spent 99.9 percent of our time in nature. Our physiology is still adapted to it. During everyday life, a feeling of comfort can be achieved if our rhythms are synchronized with those of the environment.’ Miyazaki has found that walking in the forest, compared to an urban environment, reduces stress levels significantly. In particular, cortisol levels go down 12 percent, sympathetic nerve activity 7 percent, heart rate 6 percent and there is a 1.4 percent decrease in blood pressure.
Boosts immunity/disease prevention
A colleague of Miyazaki, Qing Li, studies a kind of white blood cell called a natural killer (NK) immune cell. NK cells protect us from disease by sending self-destruct messages to tumours and virus affected cells. Qing Li found that NK cells increased by 40 percent, among a sample of businessmen who spend a couple of hours hiking through a forest every morning for three days.
Li found that NK cells are boosted by exposure to phytoncides, the pleasant scent we pick up when walking near cypresses and other trees. The trees produce phytocides to ward off fungal and other infections – and our immune systems are significantly boosted by theirs.
Helps manage pain
The subjective experience of pain has been shown to decrease in nature. There are several mechanisms at work: the release of serotonin enhanced by sunlight and being outdoors. The reduction of stress hormones. Very important too is the redirection of cognitive attention away from ourselves – a key point about being in nature which lifts us out of ourselves in a powerful way.
Speeds up healing
Roger Ulrich, Professor or Architecture at the Centre for Healthcare Building Research at Chalmers University in Sweden, published a ground breaking article in Science magazine in 1984. Having evaluated the recuperation of patients following surgery over a nine year period, he established that those who had rooms with a window overlooking nature recovered significantly quicker than those who looked at a wall. The nature group needed significantly fewer pain killers and fewer postoperative complications. His study findings have been confirmed in subsequent research, several times over.
Subsequent ‘window studies’ have shown that nature views support productivity of employees, better academic grades, and reduces aggression, to name just a few additional benefits.
Decreases rumination – and the problems that come with anxiety and depression
Studies have shown than when people walk in nature, we focus less on their own thoughts than when walking in the city. Nature has the effect of drawing people away from narrative mode into direct mode, or paying attention to what is present to our senses, here and now. Negative patterns of thinking, and the emotions that arise from them, are associated with anxiety and depression – two of the most widespread mental challenges being faced by many people today.
‘Certain landscapes boost our moods by quieting some brain circuitry governing self-wallowing. The world is bigger than you, nature says. Get over yourself. Nature impacts on rumination in a way that is markedly different from urban experiences.’ Florence Williams.
Offers fresh perspective
When we get locked into negative patterns of rumination, it’s very hard to get out of them. We become used to thinking negatively about ourselves and our diminishing world. Being in nature offers us a way out of wallowing in our own thoughts. Cognitive scientists are still studying why this is. There may be a physiological response to nature in our brain which dampens down elements of our thinking. Or it could be the response to an environment which is not only draws us out of ourselves, but offers a perspective of continuity, seasonality and timelessness which places our own concerns in a different perspective. Whatever the cause, nature helps us reframe our experience of reality in a more positive way.
A Remote Associates Test, also known as a creativity test, was undertaken by Outward Bound participants and showed a remarkable 50 percent improvement in creativity after only a few days in nature. Gaudi wasn’t just being poetic when he said that nature promotes originality – he was empirically correct!
Terry Hartig, professor of psychology at Uppsala University, tested the impact of nature on concentration by asking subjects to proof-read a document containing errors. After a before test, he divided the subjects into three groups. One group walked through the forest, another through the city, and the third stayed at home. “The trail subjects that were in nature did by far the best job and were able to concentrate longer, be more attentive and find writing errors more efficiently after their walk in the woods. Those who remained in the city or at home didn’t improve at all.” (Clemens G. Arvay).
Makes us less judgemental – including about ourselves
When we are in nature, the trees and plants are not evaluating us. We can leave our digital selves behind, along with the infinitude of judgement that accompanies so much on social media. Wilderness studies show that the more time we spend in nature, where most things are not symmetrical or perfectly shaped, the less affected we are by the photo-shopped standards of perfection imposed on us by advertising and the media. We become less judgemental in general, including about ourselves and our appearance because in nature, concepts like wealth, status and beauty are irrelevant.
Makes us happier
Following on from all the findings summarised above, the conclusion of George MacKerron, an economist at the University of Sussex who launched Mappiness in 2010, is hardly surprising. After a year he had over 20,000 participants. His finding? “On average, study participants are significantly and substantially happier outdoors in all green or natural habitat types than when they are in urban environments.”
Reduces crime and other antisocial behaviour in cities
An analysis of 98 buildings in Chicago over two years showed “a striking correlation between the level of greenery and the number of assaults, homicides, vehicle thefts, burglary and arson. Compared to buildings with low amounts of vegetation, those with medium levels experienced 42 percent fewer total crimes, and the contrast between lowest and highest levels of vegetation was even more pronounced. Buildings with the most green views saw 48 percent fewer property crimes and 56 percent fewer violent crimes than buildings with the least greenery… The greener-courtyard residents reported their neighbors were more concerned with helping and supporting one another, had stronger feelings of belonging, engaged in more social activities and had more visitors.” (Florence Williams)
Has a dramatic impact on PTSD and ADHD
The number of children diagnosed with ADHD has exploded in recent years – and it seems that our dislocation from nature, combined with immersion in the wholly unnatural media and digital worlds, may have a lot to do with this. A number of experiments have shown how children suffering from ADHD, showed a reduction in symptoms, down by two thirds, by being exposed to nature. Similarly, groups helping those with PTSD regard nature as a powerful healing tool.
Taking all these impact together, when we are in nature we are effortlessly more mindful. Nature draws us out of our thoughts and back to our senses. Combine hours each day in the bush, being fascinated by wildlife, with a sequence of meditation sessions structured to support our time outdoors, and the result is, quite simply, unique in its transformational power.
If our hectic urban lives have concealed it from us, out in Africa, when the agitation subsides, we come to glimpse once again our boundless potential, and the incredible preciousness of our lives. We become re-energised and refocused on making the most of this privileged time on earth to benefit both ourselves, as well as others.
Of course, not everyone can come on Mindful Safari. But each one of us can reconnect with nature in our own way. Whether that’s a daily pause on a park bench, a weekly trip to the beach, or more substantial time spent in nature, what’s important is not to undervalue this time of reconnection. Of coming home to ourselves.
To find out more about Mindful Safari, go to: https://davidmichie.com/mindful-safari/