Connection to nature vs contact with nature: The wellbeing link.

A few years ago, I wrote a blog post ‘Connecting to nature, what is it and how do you do it?’ Since then, this term ‘connecting to nature’ has become the new buzz word used liberally to describe any time spent in contact with nature. However, wether you realise it or not you experience nature directly all day every day, the air you breathe, the sun on your skin, the water in the tap, walking under the trees, to name but a few ways. You might have also perceived nature i.e. looked at it from afar through a window, or you might have thought about nature, dreaming of your summer cocktails on the beach. That does not necessarily mean connection.  So  I would like to expand on my previous definition and explain further what this concept means and how it relates to health and wellbeing.

People who have researched the topic extensively define nature connection as:

“Connectedness with nature is a sustained awareness ..of the interrelation between one’s self and the rest of nature..(reflected in) consistent attitudes and behaviours” (Zylstra et al 2014 )

OR 

“The extent to which an individual includes nature within his/her cognitive representation of self.” (F.S. Mayer, C.M. Frantz 2004)

Say what?!  These are indeed existential statements that we could spend pages delving into but at the heart they are talking about our sense of relationship with self, others and nature; as it turns out these relationships are at the heart of what we know as wellbeing.

Let me explain! Health is a term that refers to a state of good physical and mental functioning, it has an objectiveness to it in that it can be measured and tested and boxes can be ticked. Wellbeing, on the other hand is otherwise known as spiritual health and it refers to:  ‘intuitive inner feelings and beliefs that give purpose, meaning and values to life (Fisher, 2011) i.e. how you intuitively feel about yourself, your health and your quality of life.  Contrary to popular belief, spiritual wellbeing does not necessarily relate to religion at allIt can not be measured but is often described in the literature as being the most influential aspect of health (Chuengsatiansup. K 2003) . You can have for example great physical fitness but if you don’t feel like your life has meaning, in studies, when asked about their wellbeing people rate it low.

The way we experience positive wellbeing (spiritual health) is through our relationships with self, others and nature and in some cases people may also have a relationship with an ‘existential other . When our relationship is positive we may say we feel connected; connected to our selves like we are living true to our values for example. We will feel   connected to others in strong supportive relationships and we can now go back to Mayer and Frantz or Zylstra above and see that connection to nature is about feeling a strong sense of interrelationship, like the other is part of our ‘selves’. Stephanie Radock puts it beautifully:

“Clearly all people do come from and belong to the earth…..identification with life forms beyond your own increase your empathy and respect for the world and embed you in a big family of relatives and relationships.” (Radock 2012)

The kind of words that people associate with a strong connection to nature is words like empathy, awe, belonging, zest. To come back full circle, the meaning behind these words is clearly different from the indifference of contact. Its not to say that contact can’t lead to a sense of connection or rekindle a sense of connection of course it can but its often a certain kind of contact or experience and that is a story for another day.

1.Chuengsatiansup. K (2003) Spirituality and health: an initial proposal to incorporate spiritual health in health impact assessment. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 23(1) pp. 3-15. Retrieved from http://www.who.int/hia/examples/overview/whohia203/en/

2. Dhar.N, Chaturvedi, S.K., Nandan, D. (2011) Spiritual Health Scale 2011: Defining and Measuring 4th Dimension of Health Indian J Community Med. Oct-Dec; 36(4): 275–282. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3263147/

3.Fisher, J. (2011) The Four Domains Model: Connecting spirituality, Health and Wellbeing. Religions, 2, 17-28.

4. F.S. Mayer, C.M. Frantz. (2004) The connectedness to nature scale: A measure of individuals’ feeling in community with nature Journal of Environmental Psychology 24(4):503-515

5.Radock, S. ‘an opening: twelve love stories about art (2012) Wakefiled Press, South Australia

6.Zylstra. M. , (2014)Exploring meaningful nature experience connectedness with nature and the revitalization of transformative education for sustainability. PhD

 

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No don’t kill it! The uncomfortable side of nature connection.

Connection to nature has a utilitarian side! I have been learning first hand about this from those who understand nature connection better than most, the Aboriginal community in the Northern Territory.
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I take older Aboriginal ladies out bush for a week for women’s business and respite. These ladies hunt turtles for food and to see this makes me and many other’s from our culture uncomfortable. A case in point: I was swimming in the beautiful Mataranka Springs at the end of one of my working camps and I saw a group of Aboriginal people walking around the path carrying the usual zip up supermarket fridge bag full of fishing gear. At the same time I saw some tourists squeeling with delight over seeing some turtles in the absolutely crystal clear waters of this hot spring. As the Aboriginal group approached them, the tourists enthusiastically pointed out the turtles and I thought to myself ” no don’t do that!” I knew what was going to happen next. Sure enough one of the ladies quickly pulled out her line with its big hook and bait and tossed it in, much to the absolute horror of the tourist onlookers who shouted ” No don’t kill it” . I walked past just in time to see this unsuspecting turtle take its fatal bite and in the hope of diffusing what could have become an emotional confrontation, I said to the tourists, “this is food, this is their way, just walk on”.
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No doubt I feel challenged every time one of the Aboriginal ladies on my camps catches one of these beautiful creatures; they get just as excited about seeing kangaroos and frIMG_0041ogs as I do, but they see food, I see a cute creature that I want to protect. I guess it makes me think that connection to nature is not just the ‘la la’ feeling of the warm sun on your skin, the chirping birds but perhaps its about respect more than anything;  a respect of co-dependence, which for us is lost in our supermarket ready life and our lens of what’s is acceptable to kill and consume. Fishing is  socially acceptable to us because fish are generally not considered cute and  what’s worst? farming millions of cows, sheep and chicken for over consumption or catching a turtle for yourself and family. For Aboriginal people living in Northern Territory, connection to nature is still rooted in survival for us we are shielded by supermarket packaging, over consumption and our socially accepted lenses of what animals we should care about (its ok to eat fish but not dog).
Perhaps in our efforts to re-connect with nature we can add mindful shopping to our ‘to do list’ and revisit our concept of what is enough when it comes to the volumes of food we catch, farm and consume. I think my lesson is that connection to nature has an uncomfortable side and this is where the real personal work needs to happen to fully understand what belonging to the natural world is all about.
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The parallels between violence against women and the destruction of nature.

Happy International Women’s Day! Whilst not exactly celebratory thoughts I am none the less reflecting on the parallels between the causes (drivers) of violence against women (VAW) and what could be called ‘violence against nature’. The most significant contributing to factor to VAW is named as the culture of ‘male privilege’, in the national framework for the prevention of violence against women (Change the Story) and there are several named drivers of violence that can result in such a culture. It would be interesting to change the word ‘women’ for ‘nature’ in relation to these drivers and see what we get; here goes… The drivers of violence against nature are:
 
1. The acceptance and condoning of violence against nature.
2. The lack of opportunity for nature to contribute to decision making in public and private life.
3. The negative stereotyping of the identity and value of nature
4. The lack of equal and respectful relationships between men and women and nature.
My experience facilitating workshops with many many diverse groups about nature and wellbeing is that everyone has a positive story to tell about the experience with nature and the benefits it brings to their life; its wrong to assume that most people don’t care because studies show that in fact, they do.  However there are many factors that make equal, respectful relationships difficult. If we go back to my theoretical drivers of violence towards nature,  perhaps the most meaningful things we can be doing are these:
1. Stop allowing violence/destruction of nature to be acceptable
2. Hear natures voice in our planning and decision making
3. Recognise the nature around us and accept its intrinsic value and right to exist regardless of wether its pristine rainforest or the median strip on our street.
4. Challenge our sense of entitlement and dominion over nature
Respectful relationship education is about to begin in schools across the country with Victoria leading the way. It is compulsory for all schools to take a whole school approach to the prevention of violence against women through through this program. In order to fully understand respect for someone else and to develop a healthy relationship with other people, we must have respect and a healthy relationship with ourself too. I wonder if the impact of this program will flow on to also create respect and a healthy relationship with nature ? If it does then we have the trifector that could lead to a dramatic increase in community wellbeing. I wonder what we can do to help schools make this link?! Just a thought….
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Are you really making a difference, are your actions true to their purpose?

The answer is yes, if  your environmental sustainability projects or daily actions increase health and wellbeing of all of nature including yourself. If that is not the case, then maybe its time to inject a bit more heart into what you are doing and how you are being.

Think about any interaction with nature that left a positive impression on you, it may have been simply hearing the birds this morning. What would you need to do to create more of that -more hearing, more birds. Is there a step that you can take today to make that happen?

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Finally, nature connection in policy and practice.

We are living in hope filled times! In the City of Hume in Melbourne, there is a palpable excitement in organisations business and local government about bringing nature back into our lives.

Why now ? why there ?

For change to happen there must be personal will and passion combined with structures and opportunities that enable people to act. The Healthy Together Victoria initiative has been just that.  Its an excellent example of a systems approach that supports hopes, dreams and community  leadership by supporting workplaces and schools to become health promoting settings under the guidance of human centered design thinking. These settings design healthy eating, physical activity, mental health , alcohol and smoking initiatives that effect change across policy, culture, community work and internal opportunities for staff.

Low and behold, its nature connection that has been the most popular choice of strategy to address these broader health and wellbeing issues; nature connection in the form of community gardens and orchards mostly, but also outside walking groups and environmental work. This is despite the fact that it is not listed as a benchmark activity for addressing any of the broader health and wellbeing issues in the framework.

People seem to know intuitively that they need to interact with nature, feel it nourshing their bodies in the form of home grown organic food, do some activity to care for it feeling a sense of purpose and doing physical activity in the process; they just needed the official excuse to do it and promote it on work time.

Isn’t it time that nature connection found its way formally into practice frameworks as its own priority area or own benchmark ? After all it is essential in its own right  for health and wellbeing.

Whether we like it or not its these frameworks that society values and institutions respond to.

In a brave step, the City of Hume have done just this. They have shifted their environmental care message from one that asks people to look after nature to one that asks people to look after themselves. Why because it works! They have had significantly more engagement in environmental activities by taking a health promoting approach than by taking a traditional environmental approach. This has lead to a number of new partnerships with community health centres and the development of three priority areas:

1. Nature connection (focusing on biodiversity)

2. Food security (focusing on community gardens)

3. Waste, energy and water (other sustainability issues )

This is a major step forward in creating culture change where people start to consciously recognise the importance of nature in their health and wellbeing and a step toward combined environmental and health policy. For this to be truly holistic however, a large gap still remains, an important one. That is to  explicitly address spiritual and cultural aspects of the human-nature relationship; to build pride and identity, gratitude and a sense of responsibility; a notion of stewardship and belonging with nature. This is the realm of nature focused arts based projects, mindfulness and celebration, the intrinsic stuff that words don’t explain well. The challenge is to find the words that do fit and find the opportunity to get these words into frameworks and policies. This can and will be done, its only a matter of time.

Note on the author: Erica is researching ways in which organisations are enabling culture change by integrating nature connection into policy and practice; with a particular interest in emotional/spiritual connections with nature.

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Some visual thoughts on nature connection

INSIDE OUT workshop 1 copy

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What is meant by ‘spirit’ and what does it have to do with sustainability?

The Inside - Out Project

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It is commonly accepted that human beings experience three layers of experience body, mind and spirit. Body relates to the way our physical self interacts with the surroundings; mind relates our thoughts and intellect but what is spirit and what does it have to do with sustainability?

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, spiritual Leader, Global Humanitarian, Peace Ambassador and Founder, Art of Living Foundation makes an important connection between science and spirituality as two forms of inquiry. He says

modern science is objective analysis, while spirituality is subjective understanding…..Science explores the outer world with a series of questions beginning with the basic query, “What is this? What is this world all about?” while spirituality begins with the question, “Who am I?” In the ancient world these two forms of knowledge were not in conflict but were understood to have a deep and subtle connection. Man’s knowledge of himself complemented…

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We are all indigenous

Join the conversation at The inside Out Project http://www.inoutproject.com

The Inside - Out Project

Clearly all people do come from and belong to the earth, but the stories of the many indigenous people all over the world suggest that they know which bit of the earth they come from and they can interpret it in terms of their own culture….Evolution is a profound creation story that connects every thing on earth…… Art that draws our attention to the earth underlines the importance of the relationship between humans and nature. the shapes of plants, of animals , of landfroms of skyforms, have a resonance within us that is lodged in our eyes and brains at the most fundamental level. …..all beings on the earth are related; our origins are the same. ……can we believe in the value of sharing food, respect for birds, animals, plants and trees, in responsibility for the planet? If the most significant identity comes from land, what of those who have…

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Redefining what me mean by practical

for website beach

Erica: A deeper conversation about the needs of people and nature is often seen as secondary  at best to the ‘practical’ aspects of sustainability

Anthony: Perhaps then its about redefining what we mean by practical

Erica:  Yes good point, the meaning we  personally bring to language seems to be at the crux of this culture change. Language is so powerful and goes unnoticed consciously most of the time.  Perhaps the starting point of culture change is an awareness of our own lens and language and filling our own words with meaning. It is easy to use words like sustainability without actually defining what that means to us personally, this is certainly the practice within workplaces.

Join the conversation at The Inside-Out Project (www.inoutproject.com)

 

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Hidden in plain sight

I sit on the front porch,…

IMG_3652 ….its warm even though its raining, there is mist on Big Hill and swirling dark clouds are coming in. Its one of those rainy days where you are grateful that it is too wet to do much and instead you have ‘permission’ to bake scones, read a book and drink cups of tea. I love these days. Right now I feel the most relaxed I have felt for months, since the last time I was here on this couch on the front porch of my friend’s house in in Mt Beauty. There are no anxious butterflies in my stomach, no deadlines to meet, no requirements to sit in a windowless office staring at a screen dreaming of things I’d rather be doing. Here on the porch with my ugg boots on; with the rain and the birds and the grey clouds and the warm air; I feel content, I have enough. Won’t it be great when everyone has enough?!

Nature calls and as I sit, I notice a spider on the tile floor. It makes a few futile attempts to climb the shiny white porcelain in the hope that the under edge of the toilet seat will be a suitable refuge, a comfortable place to call home. As it repeatedly slips back to the ground I think about our own attempts to climb up in a manufactured landscape to get somewhere that when /if we reach it, it is often not that fulfilling. Should the spider find its way to the underside of the toilet seat it will live out a life overshadowed by the huge ass of some thing that thinks it is more important, it is very likely to be squashed. If only the spider could find its way back to where it can flourish but how can it get there now from this place on the shiny tile floor? It could be transported there on the bottom of my shoe, a shadow of its former self or I could show it respect, kindness and worth by physically picking it up and taking it outside or it could set its sites on the gap in the fly screen covering the open window. This different direction may still be hard to reach if it just continues trying to climb up shiny structures but maybe there is a structure that is actually helpful. A long hanging piece of toilet paper combined with a cord from the blind, these manufactured structures might be the bridge to freedom and contentment for this seemingly stranded spider.

 Back on the couch….aagghh… WHAT WAS THAT?!

All of a sudden the soft seat does not feel deep enough to get out of the way of a very fast moving and close object. My eyes follow the direction it was going and I see there are two culprits, a Butcher Bird chasing a Wattle Bird. I think to myself that people are not that much different from this, fighting each other for territory. It is not unlike this pecking order battle that almost resulted in my head being taken out by these two birds only at least they are fighting out of a sense of connection people on the other hand are fighting out of a sense of disconnection.

How do we humans find ways to feel a sense of place within our own community, our self and within the context of the natural world without killing off these same things through that effort? I remember something the Dalai Lama wrote and it is along the lines that ‘the best contribution you can make to the world is to work on your own happiness’, I understand that more deeply now. I have met with the resistance that comes from trying, reaching and grasping too hard for what you think will make a better world. I think we all have. The paradox is that to create movement you have to stop trying to achieve it; you need to relax, let go, be happy and follow your heart not your head.

Perhaps this is the trajectory humans are on now,…

….perhaps these hard times are necessary for us to emerge as people with a deeper sense of appreciation for life, our own and those in relationship to ours. Perhaps we need to set our sites on different questions and quests and use different structures and bridges within our society and culture that are more conducive to a flourishing place. Perhaps then we can regain a sense of control over our future.

What I do know is that in my better world it will be more like this moment on the porch with the rain and the birds and the warm air and the contentment. I wish I had a magic wand to help me recognise that moment…the moment exactly like this one……when it finally comes……pardon?…did you say something about plain sight?!

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