"Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom."--Luke 12:32
I enjoy science, and the insights it offers into our human natures and the health of our bodies. Over the past few decades, we have learned about many of the essentials for a healthy life, and this includes more than nutrition and exercise. We now know that sleep, stress management, and satisfying human connections are all crucial to our continued well-being. While there may be other ways our human natures connect to the world around us, one more essential is often overlooked: time spent in nature.
Research shows there are biochemical, neurological, and psychological benefits from exposure to the outdoors. Perhaps the most convincing evidence for nature’s importance in our lives is that we crave it; we have an appetite for taking walks, being out in the weather, seeing the beauty of plants, trees, and landscapes, noticing birds and animals scurrying about. It is called Biophilia; we love nature and we know how good it feels to be in its midst.
We don’t have to be there for exercise; we don’t need to be jogging, or even hiking. Being around nature is healing. Research shows that just spending 30 minutes a day in a quiet park can lower our blood pressure by 10 percent. When we are in nature, we experience what is called ‘forest-bathing’. Studies suggests that when we are in natural surroundings, we inhale aromatic compounds from plants called phytoncides. These can increase a type of white blood cell that supports our immune system and is linked with a lower risk of cancer. These cells are also believed to be important in fighting infections and inflammation, a common marker of disease.
Another part of forest-bathing is an experience called ‘undirected fascination’. This is when we allow our attention to freeflow, to be naturally drawn from one thing to another without any clear plan, purpose, or agenda. We let nature enter through our ears, eyes, nose, mouth, hands and feet. Listen to the birds singing and the breeze rustling in the leaves of the trees. Look at the different greens of the trees and the sunlight filtering through the branches. Smell the fragrance of the forest and breathe in the natural aromatherapy of phytoncides. Taste the freshness of the air as we take deep breaths. Place our hands on the trunk of a tree. Dip our fingers or toes in a stream. Lie on the ground. Drink in the flavor of the forest and release our sense of joy and calm. Now we have connected with nature. We have crossed the bridge to happiness. It doesn’t have to be a forest. Mary and I also feel this experience when we visit the ocean. We sense this at the top of a mountain, at the bottom of a valley – anywhere we experience nature.
Enjoying the vast and various countryside is one of the essentials that keep us operating at our greatest levels. Basically, our bodies, minds, and spirits are hungry for nature. We soak it up like we absorb other essential nutrients, functioning far better after ‘nature infusions’ and presenting warnings whenever we aren’t getting enough. If we have too little exposure to nature, we can start to feel restless and disquieted, as if our lifestyle is closing in around us for no logical reason. This is perhaps one reason why we enjoy pets, the beauty of cut flowers in our homes, and diverse foliage in our yards. We claim that we like these things, but it may be a far deeper need inciting our choices.
There is a phrase that describes our physical and spiritual need for nature, it is getting ‘back to the garden’. This phrase has many levels of meaning. Gardens serve as wonderful ways for us to connect with nature, and the garden as a metaphor for life is far reaching. We reap what we sow is a lesson from the garden. We learn of life and death cycles. From soil, which is the most important part of a plant’s growth we learn how important a good foundation is to life.
Gardens are a metaphor for relationships: maintenance and perseverance are key. When it comes to nature and gardens, we must go with the flow and allow the environment to influence our actions, not the other way around. We cannot fight nature; we will lose. But we can stay the course, keep weeding, feeding, planting, and harvesting.
I first heard the phrase ‘back to the garden’ from the Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young recording of the Joni Michell song “Woodstock”. In 1970, when I was an impressionable 17-year-old, that song spoke to me, as it still feeds my mind, body, and soul today. In Nature, we feel alive and right and connected to each other; we feel a sense of place, and of being part of something bigger and greater than just ourselves.
Astronomer Carl Sagan taught this: “The very matter that makes us up was generated long ago and far away in red giant stars.” He went on to say, “We are all stardust.” The truth of our cosmic origins brings us a feeling of connectedness. Joni Mitchell captured those words in a song that joins my spiritual and physical natures. We are souls with bodies molded from billion-year-old particles of carbon, so are connected not only through Spirit, but through Creation itself. To “get back to the garden” is then a primal instinct within our minds, bodies, and souls. Our biophilia feeds our oneness with Creation.
And lastly, the phrase ‘back to the garden’ has always hinted to me of getting back to the Garden of Eden, a spiritual state of restoration and reparation. Though man allegorically was expelled from the original Garden, through the Peace, Joy, and Love of Christ we are offered admittance into a new Garden; a place of innocence and connectedness at a spiritual level. Spirit invites us to share a place within our bodies, minds, hearts, and souls where we can slow down, release the world and its demands and temptations, and enjoy the serenity and wholesomeness of God’s Garden.
We can enter the environment of forest-bathing by heading out into nature, and we can also enjoy ‘spirit-bathing’ by moving our attention inward and cultivating a garden of God’s good in our lives. Our life-garden is the sum of the multitude of opportunities that continuously arise. God has planted the seeds of all that is good within us, and then asks that we fulfill our responsibility to nurture these seeds. When we engage with God to co-create these everyday moments, we find ourselves surrounded by a flourishing garden of abundance! When another is hurting, we plant seeds of compassion and love. When we see anger, we plant seeds of kindness and peace. When we perceive that others are in despair, we sow seeds of hope. God guides us to realize more fully that although an abundance of new growth comes to the world during spring, there is unlimited new growth that comes to the gardens of our souls at all times of the year.
It is my prayer that within the garden of our hearts and minds we will nurture peaceful thoughts, thoughts of serenity, wisdom, love, and joy. For it is the thoughts that we hold near to us that determine the experiences of each day. Within our quiet prayer time may we sense the voice of Christ speaking gently, “Fear not, for it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Regardless of the circumstances in the world, we know that we can always retreat to our inner kingdom and get back to the garden.