In recent years, researchers have become aware of a powerful new kind of therapy, which is just as effective against depression as traditional psychotherapy or medication. And you don’t have to pay $100 a session for this therapy. It’s completely free, and is completely accessible, to anyone at anytime. It’s not even a new therapy either; in fact, it’s even older than the human race.
This is ecotherapy — contact with nature. A few years ago researchers at the University of Essex in 2007 found that, of a group of people suffering from depression, ninety percent felt a higher level of self-esteem after a walk through a country park, and almost three-quarters felt less depressed. Another survey by the same research team found that ninety-four percent of people with mental illnesses believed that contact with nature put them in a more positive mood. Since then, in the UK contact with nature has been increasingly used as a therapy by mental health professionals.
But as well as helping us to heal our minds, contact with nature can transform our state of being. For several years, I have done research into higher states of consciousness, or “awakening experiences.” These are moments when the vision of our surroundings becomes more intense, so that they become more beautiful and meaningful than normal and we feel a sense of connectedness to them and towards other people, the world may somehow seem harmonious and meaningful, and a sense of well-being fills us. These are sometimes called spiritual experiences, but I prefer “awakening experiences” because the term “spiritual” has so many different meanings to people. And my research consistently shows that contact with nature is one of the most frequent triggers of awakening experiences, in fact, around twenty percent of them.
This is certainly true for me. I have what you could call “low intensity awakening experiences” very frequently when I’m amongst nature. If I go walking in the countryside on my own — it doesn’t happen so often with other people — there usually comes a point when a feeling of well-being begins to well up inside me, and when the trees and the fields and the sky around me seem to be more alive and beautiful, and to be shining with a new radiance. The clouds above me seem to be moving with a dramatic beauty, and I have a sense that all is well.
Of course, countless poets have written of the states of awe and ecstasy they’ve experienced whilst alone with nature, too. This is what William Wordsworth’s poetry is most famous for, his sense that nature is pervaded with what he called “a motion and a spirit which rolls through all,” a benign unifying presence, which he called “a spirit which rolls through all thinking things, and all objects of thought” and the joy and serenity he describes while contemplating it. Other poets like Walt Whitman, D.H. Lawrence, Emerson, William Blake and W.B. Yeats have also left us many descriptions of the sense of meaning, harmony and inner joy they experienced while contemplating natural scenes.