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Nature Awareness as a Therapeutic Modality:
Part 2: Coping with Loss using Nature

Kirsti A. Dyer, MD, MS, FAAETS


This article on Nature Awareness started as Part 1: The Healing Qualities of Nature.

Coping Strategies using Nature
There are many ways to utilize nature’s resources to aid in stress management, restore balance, improve health and help in healing from a loss.

Wilderness is a spiritual necessity,
an antidote to the high pressure of modern life,
a means of regaining serenity and equilibrium.

Sigurd Olson
Listening to and Learning from Nature
Visit the wilderness, sit quietly and just listen. The sounds, sights and scents of nature surround the visitor in peace and beauty. Answers to troubling questions may be found on the wind, in the trees, in the song of the birds, in the sound of a rushing stream, and in the stillness of a redwood forest. If one listens to the voices of nature he/she may learn from her infinite, immeasurable wisdom.

Do not fail to learn from
The pure voice of an
Ever-flowing mountain stream
Splashing over the rocks.

Morihei Ueshiba
Visualization of Nature
Nature imagery and visualization can be used for reducing stress, relaxing and coping with life’s pressures. This technique can also be practiced during those times when a person may want to escape outside, but cannot physically get out of doors.

Visualize that your mind is
a pristine mountain lake.
At the edge of the lake is a mountain ridge
with its image reflected upon the lake’s surface.
Imagine that your thoughts are winds
that ripple the lake’s surface,

preventing you from seeing the reflections clearly,
but as your thoughts slow down and the breezes cease…
you see the image of the mountains perfectly.

Joseph Cornell
Attraction to Special Nature Places
Those drawn to nature know there are certain places that entice them to visit, holding a special attraction. Whether a mountain top, a sunny field, an ocean beach, a forest stream, an alpine lake, a coastal hike, or a fern-filled canyon these different sanctuaries can be soothing, relaxing, and instill a sense of peace. Many nature locations can also be conducive to meditation and inspire creativity.
To maximize the benefits of nature awareness, it is important to discover the special places, to pay attention to the sites that have had special or emotional pulls, to determine what it is that has drawn us to the place—whether water, mountain, vegetation, season of year, overall environment or just the sense of tranquillity. Whether visiting again in person, or just visualizing the area in the mind’s eye, these special places can be used in the future for their therapeutic benefits to help quiet the mind, relieve stress or instill a sense of hope.

Stillness Meditation

My heart is tuned to the quietness
that the stillness of nature inspires.

Hazrat Inayat Khan
Naturalist Sigurd Olson would take quotes, poetry or philosophy copied on scraps of paper along on his canoe trips. Once in the wilderness, he would pull out the paper, read it, and think about what the words meant to him. One can imagine getting lost in the moment or reflection, and completely falling into the rhythm of the place.

Yesterday, I sat in a field of violets
for a long time perfectly still,
until I really sank into it-
into the rhythm of the place.
Then, when I got up to go home
I couldn't walk quickly or evenly
because I was still in time with the field.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh
Practicing stillness meditation is very simple. Arrange for some time to be alone. Find a quiet place. Once there think of a favorite quote, or a saying. Concentrate on the meaning, or just sit and listen to the silence.

We need to find God,
and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness.
God is the friend of silence.
See how nature—trees, flowers, grass—
grows in silence;

see the stars, the moon and the sun,
how they move in silence...
We need silence to be able to touch souls.

Mother Teresa
Walking Meditation

We must not forget to be grateful.
We walk for ourselves,
and we walk for those who cannot walk.
We walk for all living beings
past, present and future.

Thich Nhat Hanh
Meditation can be enhanced while walking along a meaningful route, by reflecting upon or reciting a favorite quotation or just focusing on the surroundings. Walking can be a beneficial adjunct to the meditation process and as previously mentioned healing from grief.

Grief Walking

We can’t escape or walk away from grief;
we walk through it.
And walking—not running, not crawling—
is the proper pace to be traveling.

Linus Mundy
A variation on walking meditation is grief walking, as a means of using a physical activity to counter balance the strong emotions exhibited during grief. Walking can be used as a way of healing the grief following a loss—step by step. It can be a way of "being" with the essence of a person lost to death by remembering him/her while walking with them in a spiritual sense.
The grief walking process involves four basic segments:
1. Breathing: Being consciously aware of the air moving in and out of the chest. Focusing on breathing helps center a person, make them more mindful, attentive and feel connected.
2. Counting: Counting provides the tempo, rhythm and beat to the walk. One counts the steps in cadence with each breath.
3. Stepping: Stepping is the physical part of the process, placing one foot after the other.
4. Utterance: This is the mantra, message, meditation that is used as the focus of the process. The utterance should be one that has meaning to the grief walker—the name of the person lost, a traditional phrase, a brief prayer, or a favorite quotation. The utterances may need to change with time and circumstance.
Grief Walk/Prayer Walk/Walking Meditation

In the labyrinth the set path takes you to the center;
that you know you will get to the center helps focus and quiet the mind.

Reverend Dr. Lauren Artress
Labyrinths have seen a resurgence of interest of late. These archetypes are being used as a spiritual tool, or a healing modality in a variety of settings from churches and schools to hospitals and prisons. By blending visual symbolism with the process of walking, labyrinths create a walking meditation that can be used to enhance awareness, reduce stress, quiet the mind and open the heart. While following the ancient pattern, the walker’s attention is focused on the process of stepping, placing one foot in front of the other and breathing in controlled, regulated manner.
Four different paths for using the labyrinth have been described. Each path revolves around a different focus of meditation:
  • The Path of Image: The walker follows whatever memories, dreams or images that the mind or imagination brings forth.
  • The Path of Silence: The walker opens his/her mind and heart by emptying the agitation of the outer world. This allows the walker to move into the present moment and become more centered.
  • The Path of Prayer: The walker recites a traditional prayer, scripture or verse, line of poetry, or original prayer. The pattern can be repeated over and over, be rhythmic or not.
  • The Path of Questioning: The walker poses a question and seeks an answer upon entering the labyrinth. Walking allows him/her to more deeply explore or become aware of possible solutions.
Therapeutic Hiking

In the forest the seasons came
and went and with them,
death came to the flowers, trees and animals.
It was all part of the life cycle.
Death is an inevitable part of life.

Sharon Kidd
By hiking in nature and taking the time to notice and reflect on the surroundings—trees, plants, animals, wildflowers—one can find many therapeutic benefits.  In therapeutic hiking the hiker is encouraged to focus on nature and how nature survives, to look at the little things surrounding them or even under foot—things that are often missed when walking lost in thoughts. 
While therapeutically hiking, one becomes more aware of the life cycle. By being in a forest, the beach, a lake—one can see the decay and death, and also restoration and renewal. Birth and death are a part of the life cycle. Looking at how nature copes with adversity, one can find countless examples of inner strength and the ability not only to survive disasters, destruction, hardship, and loss, but to continue to grow and thrive:
  • Roads may be hidden under the snow, yet we know that the path is still there.
  • Trees and plants grow out of rocks where the roots have pierced through small bits of soil finding water for their survival.
  • Wildflowers grow protected under a canopy of tree and plant leaves.
  • Trees change their growth patterns, over time, becoming molded by the wind.
  • Wounded, damaged or burnt trees continue growing despite large pieces missing or falling over, healing over the wounded part.
  • New tree growth—plants, ferns, foliage, trees—arise from old-growth trees, cut down decades before.
The hike itself becomes a metaphor for coping with loss and the grief response. A person must pace him/herself to make it to the top of a mountain taking it one step at a time. These recommendations can be applied to the grieving process—taking it one day at a time, sometimes even one hour at a time.

Hikers refer to them as "middle-miles." These are the most exhausting, challenging miles on the path, when the exhilaration of beginning the journey has evaporated into drudgery and the promise of the path’s end has not yet given new energy for the stepping.

Henry E. Woodruff
Therapeutic Hiking can be particularly beneficial when the examples of survival and healing noticed along the trail. Wounded trees are powerful examples of life continuing despite disaster or tragedy and the recuperative abilities of nature. In nature death is a natural occurrence and accepted. Plants and animals die, decay and new life grows from their dying. Becoming more attuned to and appreciating the survival cycle of nature, may provided the bereaved with profound insights into coping with life’s problems, challenges and struggles.

Ways of Getting in Touch with Nature
Those new to nature awareness or the thought of using the out-of-doors as a way of enhancing health and healing may need some suggestions for getting started. It is easy to become more aware of nature, through smell, hearing, touch, and sensing the outdoors. Noticing nature wherever one may be is another way of experiencing the healing benefits—whether on a city street or in the wild forest. When it is not possible to be out in nature, one can focus on the nature is around—a plant, a tree, the sky overhead, or a painting or photograph of a nature scene.

…a leaf fluttered in through the window this morning,
as if supported by the rays of the sun,
a bird settled on the fire escape,
joy in the task of coffee,
joy accompanied me as I walked…

Anaïs Nin
Many of the following suggestions can be utilized as effective coping strategies for dealing with stress or grief. These experiences are the essence of nature awareness.

Smells to Savor

  • The damp, musty smell after the rain
  • Fresh cut citrus fruits - oranges, lemons
  • Freshly cut hayfield
  • Lavender - sprigs
  • Walking in Pine Forests
  • Newly mowed grass or lawn
  • Spring Wildflowers
  • Bay Leaves
  • Walking in a Eucalyptus grove
  • Wild roses
Feelings to experience
These are divided up by seasons, but many of these sensations can be experienced at any time.
  • Hearing the running water in nearby creeks after a spring rain shower.
  • Rolling down a grassy hill.
  • Seeing and smelling multi-hued wildflowers.
  • Cooling breezes on a hot summer’s day.
  • Discovering a rainbow emerging from the clouds in the stormy summer sky.
  • Standing under a waterfall and feeling cold water run over you.
  • Watching the waterfalls create patterns as they crash into white foam.
  • Watching your breath cloud up in front of you.
  • Feeling the chill of a crisp fall day.
  • Raking fall leaves in a pile to tumble into.
  • Seeing a fiery display of fall colors explode with color on the hillside.
  • Walking on freshly fallen snow.
  • Crunching ice on puddles.
  • Tumbling down a snowy hillside.
  • Feeling the crisp winter chill on your cheeks.
  • Making snow angels.
Any Time
  • Finding a place, hiking to the top of a hill, and seeing a breath-taking view.
  • Watching the sun sparkle on a clear blue alpine lake.
  • Noticing wildlife scurry about you, unaware of your presence.
  • Walking through a redwood forest and having your footsteps and problems disappear into the stillness.
  • Watching the fog roll in over the hills, like fingers, extending their way in the valleys.
  • Sitting on the beach and listening to the steady, soothing rhythm of the waves.
  • Feeling the sand in your toes, the waves on your feet while walking on the beach.
  • Seeing the fog over the ocean, like a carpet that you can almost walk out on.
  • Climbing up to the top of a hill and feeling the wind on your face.
  • Dangling your toes in the water, sitting by a stream, and listening to the steady water flow.
  • Breathing fresh clean air.
Remembering to Communicate with Nature: A Prescription for Health & Healing

Never a day passes but that I do myself the honor 
to commune with some of nature’s varied forms.

George Washington Carver
The healing experiences of the outdoors and the wilderness should be included in the therapeutic armament of physicians as a powerful natural ally in treating a variety of disease. In particular, utilizing nature awareness has been beneficial in treating those who are depressed or dealing with the grief response following a loss. With the increasing acceptance of and desire for complementary and integrative medicine, it is likely that in the not so distant future doctors will prescribe a therapeutic hike, a grief walk, stillness meditation or other variations of nature awareness as an adjunctive therapy for patients suffering from a variety of ailments.
Nature can serve as a very valuable therapist to help the grieving and the ailing in discovering their inner forces by using visual examples of nature overcoming adversity ever-present in the wilderness. She can also be a constant source of solace, a trusted companion and a close friend who is always ready listen to help the bereaved in finding their inner forces, refocus, deal with the grief process and discover a sense of peace following a loss.

Wilderness can be appreciated only by contrast,
And solitude understood only when we have been without it.
We cannot separate ourselves from
society, comradeship, sharing and love.

Unless we can contribute something from wilderness experience, 
derive some solace or peace to share with others,
Then the real purpose is defeated.

Sigurd Olson
Whatever the method used, be it walking, running, strolling, sitting or wheeling, there are many therapeutic benefits to be gained by get in touch with nature and experiencing the wisdom what she has to offer. There are many insights and adventures waiting to be discovered.

The charm of a woodland road lies not only it its beauty but in anticipation.
Around each bend may be a discovery, an adventure.

Dale Rex Coman
Resources - alphabetically
Anglund, Joan Walsh. Crocus In the Wind: A Book of Poems. Random House, 1990.
Artress, Lauren. Walking a Sacred Path: Rediscovering the Labyrinth as a Spiritual Tool. Riverhead Books, 1995.
Backes, David. The Wilderness Companion: Reflections for the Back-Country Traveler. Northwood Press, 1992.
Browning, Peter. John Muir, In His Own Words: A Book of Quotations. Great West Books, 1988.
Burns, George. Nature Guided Therapy: Brief Integrative Strategies for Health and Well Being. Brunner/Mazel Publication, 1998
Cohen, Michael. Reconnecting with Nature: Finding Wellness through Restoring Your Bond with the Earth. Ecopress, 1997.
Cornell, Joseph. Listening to Nature: How to Deepen Your Awareness of Nature. Dawn Publications, 1987.
Cumes, David. Inner Passages Outer Journeys. Llewellyn Publishers, 1998.
Hanh, Thich Nhat. The Long Road Turns to Joy: A Guide to Walking Meditation. Parallax Press, 1996.
Hickman, Martha Whitmore. Healing After Loss: Daily Meditations for Working Through Grief. Avon, 1994.
Lindberg, Anne Morrow. Gift from the Sea. Pantheon Books, 1975.
Mundy, Linus. Grief Walking: Four Prayerful Steps to Healing After Loss. Abbey Press, 1998.
Stern, Ellen Sue. Living with Loss: Meditations for Grieving Widows. Dell Publishing, 1995.
Tinsley, Sonya. First Aid for the Soul. Peter Pauper Press, Inc. 1998.
Zadra, Dan. Forever Remembered. Compendium Inc. 1997.

In the depths of winter,
I finally realized that deep within me
there lay an Invincible Summer.
Albert Camus

See the Emergency 911 Page for links to immediate resources
if you are feeling helpless, hopeless, overwhelmingly depressed, or suicidal.

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