Healing Through Nature

Namasté

Shhh, can you hear it?
Can you hear the sound?
I think I can.

Wait.  First I must thank my mind for weaving thoughts, emotion.
Instantaneously transformed, feelings.
Wait.  First I must thank my intellect for being so smart.
Ideas to fix, evaluate, discriminate.
Wait.  First I must thank my ego for defending with vigilance.
Vast universe, infinite perceived threat.

Ahh!
Gratitude allows silence to emerge!

There it is.
Now I hear it.
The song of divinity, everywhere.
Everything.

Shhh, can you hear it?

Enveloping ourselves in the rhythms and forms of nature can be transformative and healing. Ayurveda, the ancient healing tradition of India, recommends spending time in nature each day. Doing so allows us to experience the wonderment of this existence with all our senses. Nature allows us to shift our attention beyond the domain of our ego and to recognize that we are inextricably connected to the universe.

As young children, we have a deep sense of connection and an inherent fascination with the manifestations of the natural world. I remember when I was nine, our family took a long summer road trip from Wisconsin to Arizona. My father was an avid lover of National and State Parks and fully appreciated the beauty and serenity of wild, natural places. He wanted us to appreciate and experience our lives within the context of the natural world. We always camped, and on this trip we drove in a popup trailer that would bite at and pinch my mother’s fingers when taken down in preparation for another day.

Driving across the Great Plains in August was a long affair. I marveled at the apparent flatness of a world I knew was curved. I wondered how many grass plants and insects lived in mile after square mile of land. I began to think about how and why mountains and rivers and prairies were located where they were.

Approaching the Grand Canyon across the Kaibab Plateau of northern Arizona, the smell of sage and sandstone filled the air as it forcefully billowed through the open windows of our old brown Ford van. John Denver’s voice was muffled by the warm wind. On the horizon large white thunderheads were aloft, the threat of rain remote. I saw no grand canyon. I only saw broken sandstone, a few high voltage power lines, and scattered segments of rusted barb wire fencing, the posts hewn from ancient knotted juniper, silvery grey from decades of exposure.

Entering the Timeless
After we arrived at the park and entered Grand Canyon Village, we left the confines of the van and walked to the rim. There, before us, was the most extraordinary sight. A deep colorful gorge; layered, steep and exquisitely beautiful. The north rim was just visible through the afternoon desert haze.  The Colorado River shyly revealed itself a mile below. It’s silvery, glittering hue beckoned. A dusty rock-strewn trail snaked through the scrub revealing a way down through millions of years of frozen crystalline time.  I yearned to be within its rims. I wanted to see and understand its contours, its contents, its inhabitants. It was all my mother could do to keep me away from the edge.  To ground me near, free from risk.

The following day my father and I hiked down the Bright Angel Trail. I could taste the earth kicked up by a group of mules a short distance ahead, tourists’ bodies bobbing side to side, surefooted ungulates guiding their way. The characteristic smell of leather, mule, and yesterday’s digested alfalfa stood in contrast to the sweetness of the early morning air. The desert sun provided soulful warmth – a welcome invitation home.

The pamphlet we received from the visitor’s center told the canyon’s story, supported by geologic evidence. It described the formation of rock layers, eroded particles of ancient mountain ranges that accumulated and ultimately became strata of rock, each with its own story.  Metamorphism, deposition, subsequent uplift, and erosion over eons of time ultimately formed the canyon we were hiking through. More recently, damming of the river effectively stopped further downward erosion.

Hearing Nature’s Song
That experience transformed my understanding of nature.  I remember imagining what might happen to the earth in a day, a year, in ten, in a million, in a billion years.  All my senses were opened and enlivened.  Appreciation of the physical composition of nature ignited a desire for learning about and understanding how the world works.  I began to listen for, and hear, nature’s song as it emerged through wild silence.

Does my story remind you of a time during your childhood, or later in your life, when you began to use all of your senses to appreciate nature?  Do you remember the feelings of  wonderment and discovery?  Do you remember the excitement and anticipation of learning and understanding?  Perhaps you recall a sense of connection and belonging to the extended natural world.

The thoughts and feelings that result from a level of expanded consciousness and realization of connection are the ingredients for healing.

How to Heal through Nature
A wonderfully nourishing practice to heal through nature is to bring our awareness both to our five senses (sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch) and to the five great elements that, according to Ayurveda, comprise the physical universe: space, air, fire, water, and earth. Finding time each day to direct attention toward our senses in the context of the five great elements (known in Sanskrit as the mahabhutas) allows us to more fully appreciate our lives. Since our mind-body system is a unified, indivisible manifestation of nature, giving our attention and appreciation to this experience allows balance and healing to emerge.

Here are some suggestions for awakening nature’s healing power in your bodymind.

Step 1: Establish a meditation practice. Quieting the mind, intellect, and ego in a state of restful awareness allows you to enter the realm of soul, beyond thought and form. As your practice matures, your level of consciousness will expand and you’ll have an experiential knowledge that you’re an inseparable part of the universe. You will start to become more aware of the opportunities and lessons the universe is presenting. In addition,  you become more open to healing – in whatever form that may take.

Step 2: Each day, consciously awaken.  Consciously practice opening your eyes, and other senses, as my colleague Libby says when ending meditation at the Chopra Center, “as if for the first time.”  Pretend you are from another part of the universe and everything you are sensing is new. As you practice being a silent witness, do you observe things, both internally and externally, that you haven’t noticed before?

Step 3: Spend some time in a natural environment, preferably outdoors.  If you’re unable to go outside, find a position of comfort, close your eyes, and consciously visualize walking in a natural setting.
How much detail can you bring to the experience?  Can you visualize yourself healing or healed?  How slowly can you take in your surroundings to most fully appreciate everything in your environment?   You may want to try a walking meditation, moving as mindfully as possible, with no thought of a destination or goal . . . just walking and paying attention to the world within and the world without.

Step 4: Whether you’re outside or visualizing, become aware of each sense while bringing attention to each of the five elements.  For example, you might use your sense of sight to visualize the night sky, searching for stars, planets, and satellites.  You could then find yourself watching how the wind moves clouds, branches, and leaves.  Watching water move downstream, gently caressing the cobbles lining its bed, may be soothing.

One of my personal favorites is observing sunlight through a prism as the light is resolved into its component wavelengths and the intense beauty of the visible spectrum is revealed.  Looking at the earth and its formations through new eyes that appreciate its dynamic nature may be both expansive and grounding.

Spend time contemplating each sense in a similar fashion, treating your ears, nose, mouth, and skin to a wide variety of the sensory delights that nature so abundantly provides.

Step 5: Write about the emotions, feelings, and ideas that come to mind as a result of this exercise.  At the Chopra Center we have found journaling to be very useful in the art and process of healing.  It gives each of us the opportunity to clarify our thoughts, feelings, and experiences.

Step 6: Witness the healing effects of this practice on yourself, community, and planet.  Ayurveda teaches us that we are made up of three bodies.  The physical body is composed of the environment, our personal body, and life energy.  The subtle body is composed of mind, intellect, and ego.  The causal body is composed of the personal, collective, and universal soul.  Because all aspects of our being are actively interacting with all other aspects of the universe, practices promoting healing extend beyond us, to others in our environment.  In this way our actions are like a ripple effect in that the wave of healing energy propagates and others may benefit.

Step 7: Celebrate!  Express gratitude for this extraordinary, remarkable privilege of existence.

Listening for the Story
Nearly 40 years after my Grand Canyon adventure, I am still actively engaging all my senses, especially listening.  The experience of external wilderness has gradually evolved into experiencing the internal wilderness of body, mind and spirit in me and in those I serve. Although the topography of both the external and internal environment is different the underlying unifying concepts are the same.  When all is seen and experienced as universally connected, dissonance resolves into harmony and peace emerges.

Each day we can practice opening our eyes (and all our senses) “as if for the first time.”  Forever and tirelessly surprised by the magical elegance of this conscious existence, we can direct our energy towards listening for and understanding the sound and music of our own story as well as the underlying story of our fellow humans beings.  It is the deeper story that is found within, beyond the superficial story we tell ourselves and others about who we think we are. Through this practice we are able to recognize and realize the concept and spirit of namasté – the idea that the divinity within me recognizes the divinity within you, and we are one.  Once understood and appreciated, it can be lived. Through namasté, being is clarified and consciousness revealed.  Universal oneness is known.  Healing of body, mind and spirit is the natural consequence of these actions.

Spend time in nature allowing healing to occur.  Consider having a friend accompany you.  And above all, listen.

Shhh, can you hear it?

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About the Author

Tim Brieske, M.D.

Medical Staff
Tim is a board-certified family physician, mind-body healing expert, and core member of the Chopra Center medical staff. With his characteristic compassion, wisdom, and lighthearted nature, he provides medical consultations for guests and patients and offers mind-body guidance at the center’s events . He also teaches the healing tools and techniques of Ayurveda and leads walking meditations in nature. Before coming to the Chopra Center, Dr. Brieske was in medical practice for more than 13 years in southeast Alaska and rural Wisconsin, where he was able to experience and practice the full range of primary care and emergency medicine while developing and...Read more