“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.” ~ Rachel Carson (Silent Spring)
Although I’m a dual citizen of the United States and Canada, New York has always been my home. I used to love being a ‘New Yawker.’ I reveled in the vital energy of living in a revolutionary artists playground. I fondly recall the Golden Age of Graffiti Art, when you could spot a Keith Haring drawing on a subway platform. Taking in music at landmarks such as the Bottom Line Cabaret, Gerde’s Folk City, Max’s Kansas City, Tramps, the Palladium and CBGB was a routine venture.
Sadly, over the years I’ve witnessed the NYC landscape transform through gentrification, displacing immigrants and working class folk so that the wealthy 1% can occupy lavish high rises. Unique ethnic character has become tamed by carbon copy development. Times Square has become a place of Disneyland sterility. Iconic diners have been replaced by Starbucks. Gritty OTBs are a thing of the past. I can regrettably attest that the Big Apple has lost its soulful edge.
Be it yesterday or today, living in an urban landscape such as NYC has always taken its toll on mental health. Yet now, as New York City lapses into chaos, catalyzed by the ravages of Covid, economic devastation, a broken healthcare system, and rampant class and culture warfare, psychological distress is greater than ever.
Researchers contend that urban dwellers evidence brain activity indicative of higher levels of fear and anxiety than non-urban counterparts. With sheltering in place directives, the increased time spent indoors and on screens, concomitant with decreased outdoor recreational activities, we are even at higher risk for acquiring mental disorders. Likewise, generalized anxiety and fear related to common urban stressors such as the absence of space, mass transit mayhem, and rampant violence, rudeness, and endemic homelessness, has become exceedingly worse with the collapse of an already deficient infrastructure.
Additionally, issues with cost of living largely rooted in sky high housing costs, and the inherent pressures of competition rooted in an industrialized ‘caste system’ are exacerbated by looming furloughs and imminent evictions. A recent analysis led by the firm Stout Risius Ross, suggests that 46 percent of New York renters are unable to pay rent, putting them at risk of eviction. One estimate suggests that some 40 million Americans could be facing eviction during the public health crisis.
Other egregious variables, such as bail reform, Covid releases from prison, and court shutdown, have likely contributed to the jarring escalation of crime and gun violence in New York. As of August 2020 gun shootings in the New York metro area have officially surpassed the total number of shootings in all of 2019.
On top of everything, a recent report, from the Well Being Trust, said the pandemic could lead to 75,000 additional “deaths of despair” from drug and alcohol misuse and suicide due to unemployment, social isolation, and fears about the virus.
Mental health is defined by the World Health Organization (2014) as “a state of well-being in which [an] individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community”
Given the current intolerable conditions afflicting most Americans if not the world, it is logical to conclude that the World Health Organization’s definition of mental health has become increasingly difficult to accommodate. In fact, current mental health decline indicates a state of collective psychological trauma.
Although patently simple, my efforts to maintain my sanity as a trauma therapist and human being contending with glaringly difficult challenges, have led me towards the healing power of nature.
Throughout my life I sought ways to escape the adversity I was born into. Being moved and even healed by the immense beauty of God’s magnificent creation continues to hold profound psychological and spiritual meaning. It has helped me to not succumb to a nihilistic worldview and it has affirmed the pleasure and beauty that life has to offer, even when my internal world and the world around me has been plagued by misery and violence.
Aside from my personal experience, there is considerable evidentiary support that nature provides a range of health benefits from improved mental health to enhanced relational capacities and immune functioning. When researchers measured brain activity in folks listening to sounds recorded from either natural or artificial environments (March 27, 2017 Scientific Reports) they discovered that listening to natural sounds catalyzed brain connectivity similar to wakeful rest, such as daydreaming, whereas artificial sounds catalyzed a response congruent with anxiety and depression. A comparable study concluded that people who took a 90 minute nature walk had lower activity in the prefrontal cortex, a brain region that is active when having repetitive thoughts that focus on negative emotions.
Engagement with ecotherapy, also called “green therapy” or “nature therapy,” facilitates the exploration of one’s connection with the earth and its harmonizing systems. Ecotherapy operates from the fundamental principle of recognizing our place within the larger ecosystem so that inner calm, enhanced well-being and even peak experiences can occur. Indeed, during a time when the need for respite was greater than ever, the dramatic beauty I discovered recently when exploring Rachel Carson’s wildlife refuge in Maine, brought me immediate comfort. The therapeutic benefit was pervasive and sublime.
Lao Tzu author of the Tao Te Ching, wrote a compilation of paradoxical poems greatly influenced by the wisdom of nature. Tao is the notion of nature in its untainted form. Lao Tzu espoused that we are one with nature, and nature’s wisdom offers us all the guidance we need. When I visited the rainforest region of southern Brazil my spiritual practice involved meditating on the teachings of the Tao.This practice culminated in meaningful insights and a connection to Sprit that felt exhilarating and complete. My innate pull towards accessing the fierce mother within was amplified by my presence at the powerful ‘womb’ of Iguassu Falls.
Tragically the wisdom of earth based spiritual traditions such as Taoism, and indigenous and pagan paths from around the world have not prevented humanity’s deleterious impact on plant and animal species. A study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences warns that extinction is accelerating and that these irreversible losses could contribute to the collapse of human civilization. Additionally, deforestation and the rampant destruction of natural resources is heading us towards ecological collapse.
The future of our planet rests on our capacity to humbly embrace our moral limitations and honor the Divine mystery and power of nature. Astrophysicist and Nobel Laureate Subrahmanyan Chandresekhar stated,
“Nature has shown over and over again that the kinds of truth which underlie nature transcend the most powerful minds.”
Chandresekhar implies that our intellectual arrogance deludes us into believing that mankind is superior to the natural world. As a result, corporations and governments feel justified in their efforts to conquer nature, as evidenced by the privatization of natural resources, imperialist hegemony, and the callous plundering of the planet.
This global absence of humility and humanity is sadly evidenced in the amoral decision-making pervading foreign policy, economic disparity, and the tragic reality of ecological decline. Unless we humbly examine the potential for evil within the human condition which fuels our power-driven motives and inclinations to oppress and dominate, the possibility of individual and global salvation will tragically elude us.
In a speech made by marine biologist and conservationist Rachel Carson when accepting the John Burroughs Medal she conveyed, “The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us the less taste we shall have for the destruction of our race. Wonder and humility are wholesome emotions, and they do not exist side by side with a lust for destruction.”
During these times returning to nature for spiritual renewal and perspective may be our ultimate salvation. It may be the trajectory back to sanity and back to ourselves. Apart from that hope, I will continue to immerse myself in nature and receive the bounty of the earth’s gifts. In the days ahead its palliative deliverance will be sorely needed.