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Nature has the power to change our lives. People who have direct experience in nature live longer, are healthier and happier, and find more fulfillment in life. If we could package the benefits, the "nature pill" would be the newest miracle drug.
Early civilizations understood that nature was a sacred presence and that a greater consciousness permeated the natural world. Unlike early civilizations, our society has taught us to forget our interconnectedness with the natural world. We have forgotten who we truly are.
For many of us, it is becoming more and more feasible to live in an entirely man-made world, to rush from one man-made container to another such container, by means of yet another container, without ever encountering a nonhuman life-form. Nothing could be more detrimental to our physical, emotional, and spiritual health.
As a species, we need to live in close and regular contact with creatures who are different from us.
This is as true for each of us as individuals as it is for humanity as a whole. Imagine going beyond the chaos and stress of our modern everyday life to a consciousness that inspires us. Going back to nature can free us from the cultural constraints and fears that keep us bound and unhappy.
The good news is that direct experience of nonhuman nature can lead us beyond our limited selves and reawaken our connection with a greater consciousness of boundless love and sacred wisdom.
In nature, we can experience unity with all life and profound physical, emotional, and spiritual healing.
The ability of animals and nature to comfort and heal us is not a sentimental fantasy. There is robust scientific data on the effects of reawakening our connection to the natural world. A study on creativity in the wild published in the Public Library of Science found that four days of immersion in nature (with a disconnect from technology) increased participant performance on a creativity, problem-solving task by a full 50 percent. This is consistent with Attention Restoration Theory (ART) that suggests exposure to nature restores higher cognitive functions such as multitasking and problem-solving.
Another recent study in Stanford, California, compared psychological test results of participants who spent time in nature with those who spent time in urban areas.
Those who were in nature had fewer negative thoughts, were less anxious, and had improved working memory.
Brain scans of the participants showed the region of the brain associated with brooding, the subgenual prefrontal cortex, was less active in the nature group.
Furthermore, the Japanese practice of forest bathing (wandering in the forest), has calming psychological effects as well as physiological effects including reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol, lower blood pressure, and increased oxygen flow to all cells of the body.
Beyond the scientific data, most religious and spiritual traditions believe that connecting with a consciousness greater than the self is accelerated in nature. For me, it has been my lifelong experience that the spiritual journey and nature are intertwined.
In the twelfth century, Saint Francis of Assisi turned this understanding into a way of life. You can find statues of him in many gardens around the world, for he is the patron saint of animals and the people who love them. He was renowned during his lifetime for a deep tenderness toward all living creatures. Francis inspired love and compassion by taking people into nature and teaching them to communicate with animals, birds, trees, and the plant kingdom.
Today, it is believed that Francis was on such good terms with the nonhuman beings in nature because he was a holy man, but I see things differently. Francis' approach to human spirituality was influenced by what he learned from animals and nature—he was on intimate terms with the birds of the air and the grasses of the field.
He saw himself as part of the ecosystem, not outside, dominating it, or master over or above it.
When Francis slept outdoors, "Sister Moon and her attendant stars" smiled down on him and he considered himself the most fortunate man on Earth.
What we can learn from Francis' journey and our own toward a personal and collective transformation, is that nature can lead the way for us to face the problems, not only in our personal lives but in the world today.
Nature is our ultimate teacher, healer, and source of comfort, and reminds us to never lose hope.
Just think, every winter is followed by spring and every night of darkness is followed by the light of day.
Dr. Linda Bender is a gifted healer, spiritual teacher, and internationally renowned animal advocate and speaker. Her work has been endorsed by Dr. Jane Goodall, Dr. Rupert Sheldrake, Deepak Chopra, and many others. Dr. Bender's love of the natural world began in her childhood backyard.