Looking at the messages we get about nature
On day 1, we looked at our personal beliefs and perspectives of nature. However, it is unlikely that we formed these beliefs solely through direct experience of nature. Actually, how much of what we think and feel about the natural world comes from our own direct experience?
Sources of information
Most of us will have encountered some or all of the following sources of information about nature:
- family and friends – experiences from childhood and later in life
- news media – newspapers, TV news etc.
- nature documentaries
- school – perhaps science lessons or play time
- clubs – childhood clubs like Scouts or Guides, photography clubs etc.
- religious and spiritual – most religions contain references to nature within their texts and often refer to our relationship with nature
- social media – other people’s photos, articles etc.
- authority figures such as government
Considering each of these in turn, you might like to think about what messages you have heard from each. Are they largely positive? Relaxing? Sensational? What was your childhood relationship with nature like? Do you watch nature documentaries and, if so, how do they make you feel? What did you learn about nature from school or within a religious or spiritual setting? Do you see much nature on your social media feed?
You might also like to spend some time noticing advertisements and seeing how many of them have some kind of message that involves nature – maybe highlighting that something is “natural” or offering a way to combat some natural phenomenon (from aging to bacteria).
How might our relationship with nature be broken?
Before I reflect on the ways I think we may have a broken relationship with nature, you might like to journal on your own thoughts and feelings about this. You could think about how your relationship was during childhood and how it is now, what role nature plays in your life currently and how you would like things to be.
My broken relationship with nature
This is very much my own, unique perspective, built up from my experiences and some of the information that I have taken in from various sources. You may feel completely differently and that is absolutely fine. The purpose of this course is to guide you on your own journey. I share my perspective in the hopes that it might help to prompt your own discoveries. If you read something you disagree with, you might like to note that and to write down your own perception.
When I was a child, I spent a lot of time outdoors. I hid in hedges, rode horses across moorland, tobogganed in ancient woodland and built dens. I have been incredibly lucky and have many treasured memories. I can remember the excitement of seeing my first heron, of a holiday on the Norfolk Broads, watching all manner of bird species I had only ever seen in books. It was a magical time.
That is not to say that my relationship with nature was totally healthy. I was frightened to go into the sea after watching the movie Jaws. I was terrified of spiders or pretty much any insect, especially the stinging variety and we were told all sorts of scary myths about stag beetles!
Somewhere along the way I became an increasingly indoors person. I got caught up in the attractions of television and, later, the internet and smartphones. I grew accustomed to the warmth and dry of the indoors, to the routine of going to work, cooking dinner and then collapsing onto the sofa at the end of the day. Nature got squeezed out. It is quite possibly no coincidence that my stress levels and anxiety increased at the same time. (I have written more about this in Mindfulness for Transformation).
I became obsessed with keeping away from germs – feeling afraid to touch surfaces or wash dirty things so I became the queen of the single-use plastic hygiene products. I was afraid of getting food poisoning, so rather than trust my senses, I would go slavishly by the dates on packages instead and dispose of anything out of date. Most of my fruit and vegetables came in packages and I disposed of waste food without a second thought about what it took to provide it and the gift of having enough.
With my children, instead of offering them the idyllic childhood experiences I had enjoyed, I was afraid of all sorts of “unsafe” scenarios – heat, cold, sun, getting lost, stranger danger etc.
Over the years, I learned that I was not good enough; that I needed to buy things and read self-help books and diet and exercise to be a better person. I learned to avoid difficult experiences and to comfort myself with food and retail therapy. I took more than I needed in case one day there would not be enough. I treated my possessions as disposable and grew used to clean water on tap and waste that disappeared from sight every week. I was master of my environment – incubated to a cosy temperature at the flick of a switch. Double-glazing kept the sounds and spiders, wind and rain in a distant world, that I could look at but felt apart from. This was the lifestyle and relationship I was passing to my children too.
Ways I think our relationship may be broken
I see so many people desperate to make a connection with animals – feeding them or trying to get close to them, but it is so often on our terms and not on the animal’s. We possibly even make this mistake with domestic pets at times. It is a journey we make as children, learning that other people and animals have feelings too and how to consider others with empathy and compassion.
We talk in terms of natural resources, as though they will always be there and are ours for the taking. We borrow so that we can have things instantly. We walk and do almost whatever we please wherever we have the right to go. We do not think about giving back so that there will be resources for others. We are taught to fear nature through alarmist articles about spiders, sharks, or viruses. Take a look at the advertisements for antibacterial cleaners or weedkiller or astroturf. This is not to say that there are not a great many innovations that help people or that we should not be sensible about preventing the spread of disease. However, we might want to be mindful about whether this is getting rolled into a sense that nature is out to get us and that we should be disconnecting ourselves from the natural world.
I am among the many people who now consider that we cannot continue on this path without it having an unbearable cost for our children and other people around the world. With so many species becoming critically endangered or extinct, for me the cost is already unbearable.
This is “just” the environmental cost. I believe it also comes at a huge personal cost. This disconnection hurts us – we seek comfort in the wrong places and learn that discomfort is to be avoided. We are not only becoming disconnected from nature, but also from people and, it could be argued, from ourselves, particularly if we are finding ways to avoid our feelings.
I really hope that it is apparent to you that, if your relationship with nature is indeed less healthy than you would like, that it is highly likely to be completely understandable (perhaps even inevitable), given the world that we live in. Our cultural norms, upbringing and the vast array of different messages we receive from the media etc. all contribute in a significant way to our worldview. I have felt incredibly guilty and remorseful at times for going so far off track and taking my children with me. However, this is neither helpful nor very kind to myself and it certainly does not acknowledge the strong influences in my life. So please be kind and gentle with yourself as we explore this. It is not about finding yet another stick to beat ourselves with, but rather to consider whether this is the route we want to take or if we might choose differently. Of course, the people in the media and involved in our upbringing are likely to be subject to the same influences, so we should be compassionate towards them too.
Activity: Looking with Fresh Eyes
Today the invitation is to set aside everything you have ever learned about nature and to open yourself to experiencing the natural world as though for the first time. This is known as Beginner’s Mind – treating everything you encounter as though you are a baby or an alien from another planet. You could go as far as to not label anything. Trees might be seen as tall structures with other attributes. Could you tell they are living organisms? How does they feel to you? Would you feel that the tree was hostile or friendly, benign or threatening in some way? Explore this in as many ways as you like with different encounters in nature and please do share with the Facebook group. I have also made a video to demonstrate this practice.
Day 1 and day 15 in the 30 day nature connection challenge (with videos on the YouTube channel) involve using the Beginner’s Mind approach so do take a look and try those out!
Perspective – Foundation Stone 3
Beginner’s Mind asks us to challenge our perspective – to set aside everything we think we already know and to look again. We can go beyond this to consider what it might be like to actually be a tree or an owl or a bat or spider or even the whole of Mother Nature. We can start to tap into our imaginations and our capacity for empathy.
Mindfulness: Foundation Stone 4
I learned Beginner’s Mind through being shown mindfulness practices. Mindfulness is simply about paying conscious attention in the present moment. Connection is not possible without mindfulness – if we are not mindful then our attention is somewhere else. Part of healing our relationship with nature is about ending patterns of distractedness and learning how to be with and work through discomfort. If we are going to heal, we need to face some uncomfortable truths. It is also about making conscious choices in what we consume, what we give resources to and what we choose to leave behind that no longer serves us.
Gratitude and Connection
How is the commitment to regular gratitude and connection practices going? I set a reminder on my phone each day, although I find it helpful to make it part of my morning and evening routines. I particularly like to connect just before sunrise and just after sunset. It is a lovely way to bookend the day!
Remember – please do share your experiences in the Facebook group
If you enjoyed today’s session of the course, please do consider donating to Friends of the Earth if you have not already. This course is free and it is important that everyone who wants to can access it, so there is absolutely no pressure if you cannot afford to donate.
Back to Day 1