How to embrace nature during a pandemic

Society is today almost designed to cut us off, to sanitise reality and to make it easy to navigate in a world of make-believe
File Pic
File Pic

Our relationship with nature is delightfully summed up in this quote from the popular tele-serial 'Boston Legal'. As the lawyer on an exotic holiday tells his friend talking about environmental laws: "Let me tell you something, I came out here to enjoy nature, don't talk to me about the environment."

This imagery of nature "out there" suggests holidays to a desired destination, with pictures duly reported on Instagram. So how do we catch up with nature and how do we connect with nature when we are under a lockdown and worrying about a second wave of the pandemic?

In his 71st episode of the radio talk series 'Mann ki Baat' broadcast on Nov.29, the Prime Minister Narednra Modi also touched upon the question. He noted how the pandemic had upturned our dialy lives, and spoke of an opportunity to experience nature in a "new manner".

In our daily lives, lived under the regime of modernity, the fact is we are more separated from nature than ever. How many of us really get to experience the joy of seeing nature unfold in its myriad and magical ways? Modern-day living and more so in urban settings – be it squalor or splendour — separates us at almost every step, making it more difficult to have the experiences of the kind that can breed not only curiosity and learning, but also a sense of joy and connectedness.

Society is today almost designed to cut us off, to sanitise reality and to make it easy to navigate in a world of make-believe. The supermarket brings us our consumables often shrink-wrapped or sealed in a plastic packet – be it chicken legs, two-minute meals, breads and bakes or a host of other foods that are bought not on the basis of whether they are healthy or ethical but where there is a Bogo (Buy-One-Get-One) offer going on it. The market and its marketing efforts nudge us all the itme. Simple foods have turned into complex nutrient analysis. Further, these foods are bought and often consumed in front of a screen that often blurts out more marketing messages. All of this is separation from nature that feeds into lifestyle, health, learning and growth of our children.

A little reflection and a rethink can change all this. Nature is joy, not far away but right here and now – dancing in a blade of grass, the shades of green in the local trees and shrubbery, in the fruit we eat and the bird chirping on the branch outside the window.

We need to call attention to this omnipotent presence.

In exercises on mindfulness, participants are often given one raisin to touch, feel, and soak-in the ridges of that tiny bead so that we can become familiar with what we are about to eat. This raisin is then placed on the tongue as we exert to feel its shape, form, and myriad minutiae on the tongue, and then, slowly, chew it and enjoy every bit of the nourishment. The palate is fulfilled, the body is nourished, and the mind is also nourished – all with one raisin.

This is the attention that can offer much more in return. When we begin to live in attention to nature, it is not difficult to see that nature is in many ways God, called Bhagawan {भग(अ)वान}. "Aa" in the inner parenthesis is not always written but is pronounced. When the meaning of this word is unfolded, it refers to the five elements of nature. Bha for bhumi, the earth; Ga for gagan, the sky; Aa for agni, the fire; Wa for Vayu, the wind; and Na for nir, or water. And we consist of these elements of nature.

Appreciation of nature takes us to ideas of gratitude, gratefulness for all that is offered to us and here begins a virtuous cycle of happiness that is in itself nourishing the mind and building a positive attitude to everyday living.

There is no escaping this joy. It is waiting to be granted to every one who can bring to attention nature that abounds all around us.

A simple way to understand this connection with nature is the wonderment of the face of a child seeing slices of nature – fruit on a tree, a rainbow or the delights of rain. Singing in the rain is more than a song – it is the way we humans are – happy when in an embrace with nature.

The benefits are untold and far too many to be recounted here.

For example, it is well known that nature helps bring out that inner feeling of joy, helps fight depression and takes us closer to a sense of wonder. The University of Minnesota reported that "being in nature, or even viewing scenes of nature, reduces anger, fear, and stress and increases pleasant feelings."

"Exposure to nature not only makes you feel better emotionally, it contributes to your physical wellbeing, reducing blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, and the production of stress hormones. It may even reduce mortality, according to scientists such as public health researchers Stamatakis and Mitchell. Research done in hospitals, offices, and schools has found that even a simple plant in a room can have a significant impact on stress and anxiety," the University said in material put up by its Earl A. Bakken Center for Spirituality and Healing.

In November 2020, a study published in a journal called 'Ecological Applications' indicated that nature can help mitigate some of the negative effects of Covid-19. This was a study of five mental health outcomes, namely depression, life satisfaction, subjective happiness, self-esteem and loneliness, along with two specifics related to experiencing nature: frequency of green-space use and green view through windows from home. Responses were obtained through a questionnaire administered to a sample size of 3,000 adults in Tokyo, Japan.

The study's lead author, Dr. Masashi Soga, was quoted by Science Daily as saying: "Our results suggest that nearby nature can serve as a buffer in decreasing the adverse impacts of a very stressful event on humans. Protecting natural environments in urban areas is important not only for the conservation of biodiversity, but also for the protection of human health."

Science Daily  wrote, "more frequent greenspace use and the existence of green window views from the home were associated with increased levels of self-esteem, life satisfaction, and subjective happiness, as well as decreased levels of depression and loneliness."

So there we have it, formally in a report, some deep truths that were always known to the ancients. To be healthy, embrace nature, and you can do so at arm's reach, even in the lockdown.

(Dr. Saamdu Chetri is the former executive director of the Gross National Happiness Centre in Bhutan which he popularisied globally as an alternative to GDP as the only metric of growth and wellbeing. Jagdish Rattannai is a journalist and a faculty member at SPJIMR. Views are personal (Syndicate: The Billion Press)

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