By Punya Srivatsava
Nature reconnects us with our source, heals us emotionally and physically, and helps us flower as complete human beings, says Punya Srivastava
It was a nippy October morning in the year 2014. I was somehow moving forward, dragging my tired feet and weary body on an uphill climb. It was an excruciatingly arduous trek of several kilometers for an unprepared citygirl like me. I was on an official tour to cover a residential workshop in the Tirthan valley of Kullu, Himachal Pradesh. The group was returning from a trek to a waterfall at the height of 7000 feet. By the time we were back to our retreat centre, most of us were out of breath, looking ready to collapse.
I had pulled a muscle in my right thigh and had to complete the return journey limping all the way back which further increased the soreness, making the whole ordeal even more painful. There was no provision for a pain-relief ointment, pain killer, or a hot water bag at the camp. However, as I made my way to a solitary boulder amidst the gushing waters of Tirthan river by which the retreat space stood, and dipped my feet in its tranquil water, I could feel the knots of pain in my body loosening. I sat there for a good 30 minutes. Later that night, I crept into my sleeping bag and fell asleep gazing at the star-studded sky and listening to the playful melody of the river which was just a few feet away from my tent.
I woke up around 4:45 am sans an alarm clock, feeling refreshed. To my amazement, the stiffness and soreness that had plagued me the entire previous day was gone, leaving behind just a niggling, mild discomfort. This was a miracle! Never had I ever been healed of any pain or ailment so promptly without any kind of intervention. And then I recalled that sublime experience of pain ebbing away from my body as I sat with my feet dipped in the balmy waters the day before.
The healing power of nature had unraveled itself in an astounding way!
Cradle of comfort
This planet is the only home we know (as of now) and Nature, our first and foremost mother. Just as a baby finds comfort in the soothing embrace of his mother, humankind, along with other living species, has been finding repose in Mother Nature’s bountiful lap since eternity. Almost each one of us has inhaled the deeply fortifying prana-laden air, drenched our parched throats with abundant gulps of refreshing water, and rejuvenated our senses under the cool canopy of shady trees. We have felt the caresses of dew laden grass beneath our feet, basked in the radiance of a sunny day, enjoyed the playful breeze teasing our hair, been intoxicated by the heady fragrances of seasonal blooms, and feasted our eyes upon breathtakingly beautiful natural scenery.
Let’s recall, when was the last time we savoured these delicious moments in the company of nature?
“In our modern, highly developed culture, nearly all of us are highly estranged from our true nature, and consequently, from the nature around us. From the time we are little children, we are taught to set ourselves apart from all natural inclinations so that we can control, modify, and restrain them. We have learned to be suspicious, even afraid, of any form of wilderness. Some of us are unabashedly destructive of our environment. Others want to protect, manage, and be good stewards of our resources. Still others of us conjure up idealised images of ‘nature’, a pristine paradise when left untouched by human hands. What none of us seems to want, what we all resist, is to admit that we are inevitably, intimately, and irrevocably part of Nature rather than apart from it,” writes renowned psychiatrist and theologian Late Gerald G May in The Wisdom of Wilderness: Experiencing the Healing Power of Nature.
Isn’t he right? Last few centuries of modernisation have robustly claimed spaces not only in the tangible world, but also in our inner cosmos. Unlike our predecessors, we have been finding ways to keep nature out of our lives. Our routine and habits ensure minimum interaction with nature. We are turning into a generation that is reluctant to welcome the rains, winds or sunlight into their tastefully done homes and workplaces lest they ruin the sophisticatedly crafted interiors, or tamper with the remote-controlled environment. This separation from nature has further led us to fear its wilderness.
“We are born to live in harmony with nature - that is our deepest desire, and yet we have created a life where the opportunities to be in the lap of nature are minimum,” rues Shashi Bhushan Singh, who along with a group of people has set up a small farm - Sadhana Path (or the Madman’s Farm) in the Raisen district of Madhya Pradesh. An engineer by profession and an MBA degree holder, Shashi was all of 31 when he decided to bid adieu to his short career in the corporate world, after having spent almost equal time in the NGO sector.
Who can contest Shashi’s observation? Don’t we all eagerly look forward to spending our vacations in the refreshing company of nature? But what we all fail to realise is that each day of our lives can have the same refreshing, rejuvenating, unwinding feel, only if we become mindful of the natural elements waiting for us outside our tightly shut windows.
“Human divergence from the natural world appears to have occurred in parallel with technological developments, with advances in the 19th and 20th centuries having the most significant impact, fundamentally changing human interactions with nature. In its most literal sense, this separation was made possible by the construction of enclosed and relatively sterile spaces, from homes to workplaces to cars, in which modern humans were sheltered from the elements of nature and in which many, particularly people living in more developed countries, now spend the majority of their time,” says an entry in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, written under a paper titled Biophilia Hypothesis.
Bouts of Biophilia
American biologist Edward Osborne Wilson introduced the concept of Biophilia - the urge to affiliate with other forms of life. The term suggests that “humans possess an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life.” German born American psychoanalyst Erich Fromm in his book, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, describes Biophilia as “the passionate love of life and of all that is alive.”
We might have gone from living in nature’s lap to spending only few minutes in its proximity, yet, ask anyone about his or her favourite peaceful moments and they would invariably talk about an idyllic time spent in nature. This is so because even though grown, inherently, we are that same child who, seeks the solace of his mother’s embrace amidst a carnival of tantalising distractions.
“Nature has been my life, my mother, my teacher, my mentor and my healer,” says Mumbai-based CA Jyoti Deshpande. Suffocated by her hectic urban life (decorated with ornamental, manicured lawns), Jyoti decided to practice permaculture in 2011 on a piece of land in the Rajgurunagar district of Pune. Today, Chaitraban not only boasts of an organic farm and a farmhouse, but also an abundant forest. Recounting her love for nature, Jyoti says, “She is my mother because she lovingly caresses me every time I struggle with low spirits and nurtures me with abundant greenery at Chaitraban. She is my teacher and mentor because she gives me hope when I have none, and shows me the way when I am lost. She has a beautiful way of subtly teaching me things and showing me the right way, when I wander. She is the healer of mind and body because she touches my heart with her ever gentle touch in many, many ways.”
Hari and Asha Chakkarakkal too left city to live a life of sanguinity in the woods. The couple has been creating ripples across social media for their off- the-grid life amidst a self-cultivated mini forest in a little town in the Kannur district of Kerala. Both of them are environment enthusiasts, and when they started their lives together, they decided to build for themselves a life which was energy-efficient, deeply connected to nature and sustainable. They sought help from an architect friend to materialise their dream on a piece of 34 cents of land. Their breathing mud walls allowed them the luxury of doing away with ceiling fans and other such contraptions. The architecture of their house invites huge shafts of natural light inside, lending the ambience an airy and spacious feel. Their land produces fruits and vegetables, which they believe should grow naturally. They do not till the land and the only time they use a shovel is while planting. Migratory birds such as the paradise flycatcher, the monarch flycatcher and the white-throated rock thrush pay them visits regularly.
There are many people like Jyoti, and Hari and Asha who have found their ‘home’ amidst the flourishing, giving abode of nature. Kolhapur based award-winning architect Shirish Beri made for himself three different houses cocooned in the wholesomeness of nature. With an earthy and soothing farmhouse in Nadhawade, a rustic yet comfortable beach house in Deogadh, and an aesthetically appealing lake house in Andur – all in different districts of Maharashtra – Shirish is living a life of serenity and tranquility. “After my graduation in architecture, I asked myself – what kind of life I would like and the answer was immediate – a very simple life that is as close to nature as possible. Another reason was the immense contribution of nature to my work as an architect and life as a person,” he says.
No wonder his philosophy of life gets reflected in some of the best works he has done as an architect. “It is difficult for me to design anything in which Nature is not an inherent part. Can this symbiotic relationship between nature and architecture act as a catalyst in bringing man closer to nature?” reads a section in his website. “I experience an instant bonding and empathy with nature. Experiencing myself as an integral, indivisible part of this incredibly grand nature brings about a sense of harmony and fullness along with a sense of symbiotic humility. Nature also encourages and enhances innovation and creativity. It also calms my stressed nerves. The life cycle of so many trees, birds, animals, rocks teach me a lot about life,” he adds.
Though Bengaluru based Harish Mysore didn’t have the luxury of packing his bags and moving into the open expanses of nature, he managed to create a quaint little place of soothing greenery within the confines of his urban abode. Over the course of last 40 years, this retired engineer (65) has built a striking terrace garden with over 250 varieties of roses and 100 types of hibiscus. “Nature and all of its constituents _ whether a small plant or a huge tree, the sun, or the moon, the rivers, or the mountains, billions of humans, and their mesmerising diversity, inspire awe and amazement if you look closely. The closer you come to nature, the higher the benefits you derive. The gifts of peace, contentment, fragrance, taste, vision _ all jointly lead to the heightened feeling of satisfaction,” explains Harish.
Healing with Nature
"I firmly believe that nature brings solace in all troubles," said Anne Frank, author of The diary of Anne Frank.
So many of us have been healed by nature _ through the application of nature’s wonders in the form of ayurveda, unani, and naturopathy. However, when we root ourselves in nature, we do not specifically require healing through nature because we are already healing with nature. “While nature can heal and improve many physical, mental, spiritual, emotional, and behavioral health conditions, nature also appears to be necessary for healthy maturation and development in humans and our sustained well-being. Nature’s potential impact on human development is important because developmental gaps can lead to illness and dysfunction,” writes Denise Mitten in her paper The Healing Power of Nature: The need for nature for human health, development, and wellbeing.
Probably that is why Norwegians are some of the most robust people in the world today. The Vikings believed in what is known as ‘Friluftsliv’ _ a word coined in the 19th century which when translated in English (though not accurately) means, ‘free air life’. The word is used to depict a way of life that is spent exploring and appreciating nature. Most of the Scandinavian countries follow ‘friluftsliv’; well it would be a shame if they didn’t. They have some of the most gorgeous natural vistas on their land; from beautiful mountains to scenic coastlines, from awe inspiring fjords to mesmerising Northern Lights. Right from their childhood, Nordic kids are given a free reign to gambol in the outdoors. Nordic nations have the longest recess time in schools. Most of the family time is spent in trekking, hiking, skiing, or simply picnicking in landscaped public parks.
“When one can be in awe of the mystery and beauty of life there tends to be healing and a well-being which includes hope, calmness, and trust in life. This is something which is not objectively measureable; it can only be experienced. This healing benefits people’s psycho-emotional, physical, social, and spiritual well-being. When people practice friluftsliv, healing often occurs,” writes Mitten.
Moreover, common sense and scientific studies both surmise that regular exposure to nature has well-known mental and physical health benefits, especially in kids. It is linked to reduced ADHD, more creativity, better critical thinking, better behaviour, better test scores and even a stronger sense of purpose. An Australian study followed almost 2,000 school children for two years and found that more time spent outdoors was associated with a lower prevalence of myopia among 12 year-olds.
Offering another perspective on healing with nature, London-based Reiki Master and columnist with Huffington Post Shaylini Somani says, “Healing with nature tends to begin in times of despair, when we are deeply soul searching for answers and/or healing. It is only then that our hearts and minds are ready to receive and be open to healing from sources that we would not ordinarily consider. Once we reach this stage of openness and begin to take the time to appreciate mother nature and her healing gifts, profound changes begin to take place.”
I recall a small anecdote I had read on the internet which involved a doctor and his terminally ill patient:
“How do I know my healing space?” the client asked. “It is a place that you can never get too much of,” replied the doctor.
“Sitting next to a stream is my place. The sound of the water and the way it flows around the rocks... it is reassuring somehow. I don't know why.”
“Why doesn't matter. Nature has its own language, its own way of communicating. Just pay attention.”
And that is what he did as long as he was able to. Every day, come rain or shine, he sat by a stream in a forested area near his home. Hence, these natural spaces or events become partners in healing, growing or cleansing.
“Nature to me is panacea. I have found all my answers in nature’s company. Just few weeks back, unknown to reason, I felt quite restless and frustrated. I decided to take a walk deep into the jungles and went on to sit by a stone in the middle of the nearby forest. Slowly, peace descended upon me. Within moments, there were tears in my eyes and in a trice, I started crying. I had no idea why I was crying; infact, my logical mind was telling me to shut up. But nature has its own ways of taking care of anyone who comes into Her lap. I came back refreshed and healed, feeling fresh, new and ecstatic. I can’t express how healed I feel in the company of nature. I feel so grateful and loved that I want to tightly hug the huge mountains,” says Shashi.
Jyoti too shares an incidence of healing with nature. “Ever since we have come to live in Chaitraban, we have never had any ailments that are rampant in the cities due to changing seasons. Whatever minor ailments, like coughs and colds, that we have had did not require any medicines. All of us recover in a couple of days,” she says. Her son had suffered an illness this year. However, before they got it diagnosed, he was already well on his way to recovery. Jyoti too came in close contact with a friend having a serious contagious ailment once, yet the doctor observed that her body seemed to have fought the infection without medicine. “This was only when I reported to the doctor after sleeping for two whole days and nights. I believe it was the healing touch of nature,” she adds.
Shashi shares another anecdote and his experience of giving a miss to the ‘white coats’ after starting to live in a farm. “I realised what it meant to be healthy when I moved to the farm. When I was living and working in cities, I had developed many health problems. I still remember the day when I had crawled out of the dance floor in Hyderabad due to severe heartache and had suffered from sleepless nights because of severe backaches. I was in my early 20s then and yet I had many health issues,” he says. These things didn’t return through the backdoor once Shashi moved to live in his farm. “Almost every illness is gone and a new sense of health and freshness keeps me delighted,” he adds.
Talking of quick recovery from ailments, Asha Chakkarakkal, in an interview mentioned how she treated her husband’s fever with the help of only two things _ orange juice and proper rest. Hari recovered in just two days. The couple has been off any kind of medication since last two decades.
“Wilderness, then, is not only the nature you find outdoors. It can also refer to your own true nature - the You that is closest to your birth. This inner wilderness is the untamed truth of who you really are,” writes May in his aforementioned book.
According to Jyoti, the power of human mind has been blocked by living enclosed, artificial lives; and it can be unlocked only by being more aware of our surroundings and by living in close proximity to nature. It is said that the different hues of green plants and trees instill peace of mind and happiness. “If the colour alone can have so much of positive effect, can you imagine the effects of greenery, plants and trees in totality on our mind, body and soul? Diseases and situations which cannot be treated by the best doctors and professionals have found solutions in nature in mysterious ways: through its breeze, water, soil, ambience.Personally, I am quite enthusiastic and energetic for my age, as I spend at least few hours everyday in my garden. It gives me great happiness, keeps me calm, fit and composed. I can handle practically any situation with cool and ease,” recounts Harish.
Being amidst nature provides for a beautiful spiritual experience. It brings about a great sense of gratitude, reverence and appreciation for all life, leading to a deep sense of serenity within. For many, the outdoors is a source of inspiration, self-growth, acceptance, solace, guidance and rejuvenation. “Nature enables us to reconnect with our inner selves and recognise that we are inextricably connected to the universe. It enables us to see that everything is momentary and that even the most challenging of times shall pass. Being amidst mother nature brings about the realisation that you are a part of something magnificent and greater, where each living entity is not just a tree, a flower or some earth, but a magnificent life that is connected with all others,” says Shaylini.
When one embraces the lightness of nature, one takes one’s quality of life a notch higher. “We, especially the children, definitely enjoy a better quality of life by mingling intimately with Mother Nature,” says Jyoti, adding, “I see the world around me and I cannot help but notice the brighter faces of my children, their healthier bodies, their ability to quickly recover from any minor ailments. Most of all, I see them growing with not only a beautiful body but also a stable and sound mind. They can think practically, without sacrificing their heart’s voice; they are rooted to their culture which respects nature.”
Although surrounded by the ‘modern’ gadgets, her kids take pleasure in playing with the dogs, watching a new bird nesting in the trees, staring with wonder at the beehives, caring for the orphaned baby animals that they occasionally find and generally, being very aware of their surroundings. “Sensitivity and empathy are the two qualities I can proudly say our wonderful children have acquired, thanks to their experiences with the real world at Chaitraban,” she discloses.
Shirish too vouches for a holistically healthier life. “We as a family have become more tolerant and less separatist; more compassionate and less insular; more open and vulnerable instead of being closed and guarded,” he says. Observing natural phenomenons like sunrise or sunsets, trees, flowers, birds, and animals, together strengthens the bond between them as a family. “Bathing under a waterfall, or swimming in the sea or sitting in the stream is extremely rejuvenating. Walking, sitting, sleeping on rammed earth or wooden surfaces, living in abodes made of natural, native materials also contribute to the healing energies of nature. When I sit alone in these natural ambiences, I almost absorb that silence and energy from nature which rejuvenates and heals me on a different plane,” he adds.
Taking the road less travelled
I wholeheartedly believe that by being rooted in our source – nature – we can heal and energise ourselves. In no way I am criticising the technological advancements which have made our lives so much easier, nor am I advocating impractical idealism. What I look forward to is a mindful way of living which reduces the big chasm between inherently natural way of living and acquired lifestyle habits. As Australia based ecologist of Indian origin Vishnu Prahalad observes, “We may be gainfully employed; successful in our professional lives, but we can claim to be human only when we open our soul to nature.”
I fervently and ardently pray that I live to see the day when man would pull down all the fences that separate him from nature, and passionately seek its vibrant embrace. And every nook and corner of this planet would evoke ethos of the famous persian couplet: Gar firdaus bar-rue zamin ast... hamin asto, hamin asto, hamin ast. (If there is heaven on Earth, it is here, it is here, it is here.)
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