Being in nature is an essential component of resilience. When we interact with the natural world, we discover how to recognize, attend to, and learn from our sensations, which enables us to be comfortable with ourselves. Nature is the master teacher of sensations. 

Sensations are different from emotions. Sensations describe how the body feels physically. We are innately attuned to recognizing sensations.  Even before they can speak, children can identify trembling, numbness, calmness or pain in their bodies.( Levine and  Kline, p. 10)A sense of equilibrium and harmony comes from the capacity our body has for self regulation.   

Richard Louv in his book “The Last Child in the Woods” posits that the quality of our exposure to nature affects our health even at a cellular level. (Louv, p. 42).  Louv explains that a healthy and constant contact with nature, especially in childhood, creates a “hyper-awareness or hyper-consciousness” that allows us to develop a positive way of maintaining our attention and, when appropriate, of being on guard.  This is very different from hyper-vigilance, one of the common effects of trauma, which keeps people and groups on alert and hypersensitive to sights, sounds, smells, and actions that trigger the response to a traumatic event. 

EXERCISE 1:  Counting sounds

Take a chair outside to you balcony, patio or other outdoor space.  If you can’t go outside, sit by an open window.  Relax and breathe deeply until you feel calm.  Now lift your hands up in front of you with your fists closed.  Close your eyes and feel the sensations in your body as it interacts with the air, smells, and sounds around you.  Do you feel a breeze? What is the temperature of the air compared to the temperature of your body?  What can you smell?  Now you are going to spend a minute concentrating on sounds.  Every time you hear a different sound lift one of your fingers.  Your fingers will go counting the sounds while you concentrate on what you hear.  Which sounds come from nature? In the instant you hear the sound try to give yourself a one word description, not what it is, but how it sounds.  What sounds come from other people or their machinery?  Again, briefly describe these sounds to yourself.  Is your body making any sounds?  Dare to describe these to yourself, too!  When you have heard ten different sounds, open your eyes and ponder what you have heard and the sensations you felt with each sound.  Do different sources and kinds of sounds create different sensations in your body?  Don’t get stuck on the emotions but concentrate on what your body feels! Does your body feel different with the sounds of birds and the sound of a jackhammer? 

NATURE NURTURE # 1: Contact with nature develops our “felt sense” and teaches us to read and understand our sensations, an essential ability in developing resilience, because it helps us to recognize when a trauma has been triggered and to better manage emotional hijacking. 

  • Theoretical Foundation:  The pendulum of sensation: Surprise (novelty) activates the nervous system. In the case of a good surprise,  something gets stored the body that makes you feel better about your sense of self.  On the other hand, in the case of a horrifying surprise,  distressing sensations can become stuck, resulting in a diminished sense of self and feelings of helplessness.  When you’re in touch with sensations, you can begin to move with fluidity out of one state and into another.  Remember that anything that feels bad is never the final step.  It is this movement from fixity to flow that frees us from the grips of trauma.    (Levine and Kline, 95-96)

  • Theoretical foundation:  The felt sense is the embodiment (bringing awareness inside the body) of one’s ever changing sensory/energetic/emotional landscape.  The felt sense moves our focus from actions and things happening outside us in the world to qualities of our present, internal experience (e.g. textures, colors, sensations). “Sensations simply describe the physical way the body feels (its ins and outs), free of interpretations and judgments.” (Levine and Kline, p. 112)

EXERCISE 2:  Barefoot adventure-Try it with children!

It’s time to find a partner and take off your shoes and socks!  If it is too cold outside for bare-footing, the adventure can take place indoors.  Either inside or outside,  assemble items that can be safely walked on or felt by bare feet such as: wet towel, sand, rice or beans spread on a cookie sheet, baby blanket, welcome mat, shoe brush, rope or string,  bucket of warm water, a stiff or hairy rug,  mud or a pan of wet spaghetti.  Use your creativity, but make sure it is foot safe!  You will also need a blind fold. While one person patiently sits barefoot and blindfolded, the partner prepares the adventure setting out the materials.  If indoors, the adventure can wander throughout the house.  If outdoors, nature might supply most of the materials.  Once the course is set up, the partner gently, carefully and silently guides the blindfolded, barefooted adventurer to experience the different textures and temperatures. The adventurer first must name the sensations of the feet, then what emotion or memory the sensation causes, and finally guess what material is underfoot.  When the first adventurer finishes, then the partner sits blindfolded and barefoot until the materials are rearranged (and new ones may be added!) to create a new adventure.

If you don’t have a partner, you can try the barefoot adventure on your own opening and closing your eyes to experience each new material.  I don’t recommend you wander around outside or even in the house blindfolded unless you are willing to accept a potential accident bringing your adventure to a abrupt and painful halt!

NATURE NURTURE #2: To learn to be comfortable with ourselves is a vital part of resilience.  Nature gives us the opportunity to learn to be with ourselves, its interruptions flowing into us and becoming part of us, unlike the overwhelming of stress we often face in our daily lives.  Nature invites us to be “hyper-aware” of our surroundings, with undulating levels of tension taking in what comes, instead of “hyper-vigilant” with our physical system continuously running on high alert.

  • Theoretical foundation: “The education of children began by teaching them to be quiet and to enjoy it.  They were taught to use their organs of smell, to look when there was apparently nothing to see, and to listen attentively when it seemed like there was silence.  A child who cannot be still is a child who is only partially developed.”  (Luther Standing Bear, Chief Lakota, 1933)

  • Theoretical foundation: Your sense of harmony is based on the ability of your body to self-regulate, instead of becoming overwhelmed or out of control.  And this capacity of self-regulation is strengthened through the experience of tuning in to your sensations. Nature is the master teacher of sensations offering a wide variety of stimuli, surprises and opportunities to practice integration and self-regulation. (Adapted from Levine and Kline)

EXERCISE 3: That is really awesome!  

You will need a toilet or paper towel roll or tube for this activity.   Choose a place outdoors or beside a window if you can’t go outside.  Close your eyes, settle down, breathe deeply and when you feel calm, bring the roll up to one of your shut eyes and point it out into nature (it can be down, up, straight ahead, to one side or the other).  Open the eye that can look through the roll (keep the other eye shut!) and without moving the roll, look only at what is framed in the circle of the roll.  Is there something that catches your eye?  Study it in detail.  Take all the time you need to admire whatever is in the frame, paying attention to any sensations in your body.  Then close your eye again.  Point the roll in a different direction and repeat the process.  Be sure you try looking with one eye and then the other.  Notice if any smells or sounds seem to be a part of what you see.  The reactions in your body may be very subtle so be sure you take time for the sensation to develop and come in to focus – sort of like those old Polaroid photos!  If any emotions bubble up along with the sensations, notice and recognize them, but don’t dive into them.  Let the emotions dissipate with the next view through the tube. 

NATURE NURTURE # 3:  Nature’s gifts of resilience and healing through experiencing awe lie hidden in everything from the microscopic cell to the expanse of the  universe.  Awe in contact with nature is something we might experience alone while observing a long line of ants at work as well as in the community celebration of an abundant harvest. Nature evokes awe both on the individual as well as collective level.   

  • Theoretical foundation: Researchers are exploring one of the least understood emotions: awe. “But new studies show that it’s a dramatic feeling with the power to inspire, heal, change our thinking and bring people together.” (Spencer) Paula Spencer quotes researcher psychologist Dacher Keltner  who defines awe as “the feeling of being in the presence of something vast or beyond human scale, that transcends our current understanding of things.” (Spencer)

  • Theoretical foundation: According to the Parade article by Paula Spencer “Awe may be the secret to health and happiness”, awe does 3 things:

ü  Awe binds us together. 

ü  Awe helps us see things in new ways

ü  Awe alters our bodies. 

Podcast information partially taken from Con Esperanza y Valiente: Imágenes de la naturaleza para la sanidad de traumas y el desarrollo de la resiliencia en niños y niñas. (With Hope and Brave: Images from nature for trauma healing and resilience development in children) by Elena Huegel. Unpublished draft. Materials from the Retoños en las ruinas: esperanza en el trauma program, Chiapas, Mexico, 2020.  

Bibliography

Clinebell, Howard.  Ecotherapy> healing ourselves, healing the earth (A Guide to Ecologically Grounded Personality Theory, Spiritualy, Therapy and Education). Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996. 

Levine, Peter A.  and Ann Frederick.  Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. Berkley, California: North Atlantic Books, 1997.

Levine, Peter A. y Maggie Kline. Trauma Through a Child’s Eyes, Awakening the Ordinary Miracle of Healing. Berkley, California: North Atlantic Books, 2007.

Louv, Richard. Last Child in the Woods, Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder . (El ultimo niño en el bosque, salvando a nuestros niños del desorden del déficit de la naturaleza). New York: Workman Publishing, 2005. 

Spencer, Paula.  “Feeling awe may be the secret to health and happiness.”  online article from Parade agazine, April 2020.  https://parade.com/513786/paulaspencer/feeling-awe-may-be-the-secret-to-health-and-happiness/

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