A walk in nature has long been considered to be a stress-reliever – a way to take your mind off the pressures of daily life and appreciate the ingenuous beauty of the natural world. But what is this beauty? How do you appreciate it? How can it reduce stress and enrich your life? How do you make the most out of a stroll through the park and answer these questions? Well, first you need to find a park. Cleveland Metroparks provides plenty of space to get out of the city or suburbs and into the natural world, so finding a beautiful slice of forest, prairie, or lakefront isn’t a problem for us. Once you’re out on the trail, you can address the other questions.
Beauty is a subjective experience, but I will provide my own interpretation of nature’s aesthetic qualities. For me, the beauty of a forest, of trees, of birds, of worms and dirt, does not lie in perfect lines and angles, or in any pre-planned design. It is not the beauty of city lights or of a new Ferrari. It is an aesthetic that we can perceive and react to, but not one that we can create. The beauty of life on earth is ephemeral, modest, complex, and enigmatic. It is a unique, abstract quality that can be experienced nowhere else, and is a sharp contrast to urban and suburban environments. The worldview of Wabi Sabi is the closest school of thought to how I perceive beauty in nature, because it focuses on imperfection and transience as beautiful qualities. But that’s just my own view of nature’s wonders, and yours may be very different from mine. And that’s okay!
However you perceive those elusive qualities of Mother Nature, you can take your perceptions a step further in order to fully appreciate and benefit from them on your next hike. While simply putting yourself in the forest for a peaceful stroll can have a calming effect, thoughts of daily stressors can still creep in and occupy your mind. So how do you prevent those unwanted interruptions? Simple: with an easy to learn meditation technique applied throughout human history – from ancient teachings to modern psychological studies. In English, we call it “mindfulness” – a state of mind achieved by focusing your awareness on present phenomena. For example, you can focus all of your attention on your breathing: breathe deeply, in and out, counting three seconds for each inhale and exhale. Focusing on this mundane, normally automatic activity can clear your mind of anxious thoughts and make you aware of your present surroundings.
Now, meditative breathing is a great method to employ if you’re sitting in your house or your car, but being out for a hike in the park gives an added advantage to the meditation process. You are surrounded by the sights and sounds of a living world, so focus on those. Listen to your footsteps on the dirt path, to the songs of birds, to the rustling of leaves in the wind. Look at the flowers that are in bloom, at the sunlight shining through the treetops, at the twisting of a trickling creek. As you become aware of your surroundings in the present moment, contemplate their transience. The bird’s song lasts only a few seconds and the flowers will die come autumn, but at the moment you perceive them they are beautiful, and you can appreciate and experience them with all your awareness. The knowledge that these phenomena are ephemeral does not affect their beauty in the present, or your ability to appreciate it. You can passively accept that these are fleeting wonders, constantly changing. Reflecting on these qualities of natural phenomena as you walk will help to further take your mind off the stresses of the day, and will add a new dimension to your hiking experience, allowing you to build an appreciation of nature and de-stress from your busy life all at the same time. So give it a try on your next hike and experience a new way to connect with your parks!
Joel Kavaras, Seasonal Naturalist
Brecksville Nature Center