There’s a considerable amount of pessimism surrounding our relationship to the planet and what we’ll have to do going forward to keep things on even keel. And new research suggests we tend to think we’re all doomed, even as we hope for a better personal future. Our partners at the Greater Good Science Center are asking: how can we put that personal optimism to work in addressing environmental problems? We think having a few mindfulness practices that foster a positive connection to nature—from leafy forests to office ferns—could help bring that personal optimism to a more public arena.
Here are four ways you can mindfully appreciate nature, with examples offered by scientists and researchers. The list is composed by Carsten Knox, Mindful‘s associate editor, who penned the feature in Mindful‘s June 2013 issue, “Up the Garden Path.” (You can catch a glimpse of the nature feature here.)
1) Think about the ways we’re inherently interwoven with the living things around us—even when we’re glued to our computer screens. “Every time we breathe in, we’re breathing in other organisms,” says David Haskell, author of The Forest Unseen. “Our bodies are covered in bacteria that has come from all over the place. Our bodies are communities of bacteria.”
If you’re thinking that being indoors in front of a computer screen doesn’t lend itself to this kind of inventory, Haskell says we can think of the web as a smaller version of a much larger web of biological connections. “These days we’re very attuned, thinking about networks like Facebook and Twitter and all that,” says Haskell, “but in nature it’s more than Facebook. It’s whole Bodybook. In some ways the Internet is a rediscovery of what biology has been doing for billions of years.”
2) Consider how your senses help you relate to your environment, in both dramatic and small ways. “I was in Alaska with my son, going up a stream, being taught by a guide how to smell for bears,” says Richard Louv, author of The Nature Principle. “The Alaskan Brown Bears are the ones who’d like to have you over for dinner to eat you. Once you’ve smelled that smell, you never forget it. That’s an example of using a sense for a very important purpose.”
3) Accept that better understanding can lead to a better change, and consider how to be a part of the change you want to see. “Over human history nature has become ‘other,’ something separate,” says Lauren Oakes, a researcher at Stanford University, who measures the evidence of climate change on the environment. “Change is inherent, but it’s when you get different rates of change…we’re talking about it at a much bigger scale. I actually physically feel something when I stand in a forest that’s alive and healthy than one that’s dead. As a person I naturally feel responsible for things. How does that knowledge affect us? What role does hope play in a connection to that resource? A lot about science in this field is doing something rigorously and coming to the best understanding possible based on a systematic method.”
4) Visualize an environmentally healthy future by actively appreciating the good and growing things that surround us. “That word, sustainable, sounds to most people like survival,” says Louv. “The bare minimum. That doesn’t get most people excited. Obviously, survival is important but we weren’t put here just to survive, we were put here to create. What if we could begin to imagine a nature-rich future with new kinds of cities, homes and neighborhoods? New kinds of workplaces? If we don’t aim much higher than sustainability, we’ll never reach it. An experience in nature is super-important in making us mindful of who we are and where we are in the moment.”