A simple exercise tied to walking in nature.
Can a walk in nature unveil anxiety, sadness, depression, helplessness or hopelessness? Could it unveil anger, frustration, or a desire to travel or a feeling of strength, power, and happiness?
Yes, it can through a particular exercise.
Here are some examples:
A few years ago, when I went for a walk at the beach, my attention was drawn to a monarch butterfly flying gracefully from flower to flower. I tried to look at the sky, the ocean, the beach but my attention only wanted to focus on the beautiful butterfly. I then started the exercise, pretending I was the butterfly and giving it a voice:
“I am a brown and yellow, elegant monarch butterfly. I love flying from flower to flower. I don’t want to stay in one place. I want to travel, see the world”.
As I said “I want to travel, see the world”, tears came to my eyes. Those words touched me deeply. I was not talking as if I was a butterfly anymore. I was talking as myself. I had touched a secret unconscious part of myself that I had refused to see: I had lost my husband to cancer 2 years earlier and I was exhausted. I needed a break from work. I needed to travel, see the world, start a new life… which I ultimately did thanks to this new awareness.
Last week, when I went for the same walk at the same beach, even though I saw monarch butterflies, my attention wasn’t drawn to them. I was drawn to the waves and specifically the white surf of those waves. Talking as if I were one of those waves, I said: “I am a strong, powerful wave. I have a purpose in life and nothing can stop me. I am strong enough for people to surf me. I can take them from the ocean to the beach safely”. As I said those words, tears came to my eyes once more. I wasn’t talking about the waves anymore. I was talking about me. I was strong again. I had just married a wonderful man who was giving me a purpose in life. I could help people again. I had found new happiness. I took a few deep breaths, fully appreciating this delightful emotion.
Here is how and why:
The exercise of walking in nature, picking something our attention is drawn to and speaking as if we were that something, is a very powerful one, especially if we have a hard time accessing our unconscious.
By not talking as one self but talking as something our attention is drawn to, we bypass all conscious protective mechanisms. It is not “me” who is talking, it is “that thing” my attention is drawn to. All taboos are then gone because “that thing” that is talking, is just a thing. We can then explore without censure what spontaneously comes to mind, which is very often related to an emotion buried deeply in our unconscious.
Millon, Lerner and Weiner describe in their Handbook of Psychology, Personality and Social Psychology (2003) that most of our thoughts are governed by our unconscious and the authors explain why each person could see the same scenery and interpret it differently according to what their unconscious state of mind is.
This kind of mental process was described by Fritz Perls in 1969 in Gestalt Therapy Verbatim where Fritz used a form of psychotherapy he called Gestalt Therapy to enhance awareness of sensation, perception and emotion in the present moment, using among other things the interaction between the self and its environment.
This was later also described by Yontef and Simkin in An introduction to Gestalt therapy. They wrote that Gestalt therapy employs focused awareness and experimentation to achieve insight, the process of learning how to become aware of awareness.
Walking in nature can be one of those ways to grow aware of awareness.
What can this new awareness be used for?
A walk-in-nature exercise can help you better understand others:
Once upon a time, I dated a man who always joked. The first 2 dates, we had a lot of fun together. On our third date, one overcast Saturday, as we went for a walk along the beach, surrounded by beautiful flowers and birds, I asked him if there was anything his attention was drawn to. He said his attention was drawn to a large black cloud in the sky. Giving voice to the black cloud, he said that everything around him was black, there was no light visible. He said he was waiting for other black clouds to join him and cover the sky with darkness. This exercise uncovered the fact that my date was very deeply depressed, which I hadn’t suspected up to that point.
The question was: Was my date aware of the severity of his depression and was he getting help? It turned out he was aware of it but wasn’t getting any help. I gently recommended he get help.
This awareness of my date’s deep depression led me to another question: Did I want to continue dating him or not? I had a decision to make.
You too can do this exercise with a special friend and together you can discover his or her deep unconscious, uncover possible hidden problem and work at finding healthy solutions.
A walk-in-nature exercise can allow you to discover more about yourself and the deep emotions you are feeling:
If you go for the same walk every day, your attention might be drawn to something different every day, depending on your mood and on recent events in your life.
One foggy day on a walk, after my husband passed away, I was drawn to a small sailboat sailing into a dense fog. Imagining I was the sailboat, I said: “I am a frail sailboat sailing into a thick fog. I have no idea what is ahead of me and this is very scary. All I know is what is behind me. The visibility is very bad, just a few feet which makes my sailing very dangerous”. As I said those words, I became very emotional. I was indeed talking about my life. I had no idea of what tomorrow would be like and making new friends, possibly having a new boyfriend was scary and I could be hurt. My life was indeed surrounded by deep fog.
By giving voice to my unconscious, I became more aware of the deep reality of my life which made me more grounded.
Why is awareness of unconscious emotions important?
Emotions are the root cause of behaviors and are important health influencers. Sometimes people are conscious of their emotions but very often they are not. The result of unconscious depression or unconscious repressed frustration and anger can be devastating for one’s health and cause numerous difficult-to-treat symptoms like intense fatigue, chronic pain and insomnia to name a few. Getting to the heart of deep feelings is then crucial to better health.
One way to access those unconscious feelings is psychotherapy but it can take months and sometimes years to surface those deep emotions because people are often guarded.
But the exercise described above can allow the deeply hidden and sometimes problematic feelings to surface quickly.
Once we become aware of those feelings, we can work on finding a way to turn helplessness into hopefulness, frustration and anger into constructive actions which in turn will decrease our stress and boost our health.
And when we reach strength, powerfulness and happiness, we can savor those feelings, fully appreciate their beauty and enjoy better health.
But it all starts with awareness.
My husband’s clinical psychotherapy supervisor once said: “We can’t get rid of something we don’t know that we have.” I would complete that sentence by looking at the other side of the coin and saying “also, we can’t fully appreciate something we don’t know that we have.”
So, what about you? Which deep emotion are you feeling? Are you depressed, helpless, frustrated, angry or hopeful, strong, powerful and happy? Could this be related to your health?
Next time you go for a walk, ask yourself the question: “what is my attention drawn to today?” By focusing on the one thing your attention is drawn to the most and by talking as if you were that thing, you will explore a fascinating new world, the world of your unconscious emotions and related health. And by doing this exercise with a friend or a partner, you will dive deeply into surprising territories.
Theodore Millon, Melvin J. Lerner, Irving B. Weiner, 2003, Handbook of Psychology, Personality and Social Psychology
Perls, F., Gestalt Therapy Verbatim (1969) ISBN 0-911226-02-8.
Yontef, G. & Simkin, J. (1993). An Introduction to Gestalt Therapy. Behavior on Line.