As the progressive field of mental health has
As all the world’s a stage, humanity must come to terms with all the props at its disposal.The development of flora and fauna occurred simultaneously with that of man. Yet out of the woods humanity came to reconstruct their environment, minimizing contact with the natural world. Today, the exploration in the progressive field of mental health has provided a path and a reason, for individuals to return to the wilderness. Ecotherapy has manifested itself as a result of numerous studies on nature’s impact on cognitive functioning and stress. This research has prompted intellectuals to examine how humanity’s shift from nature has occurred. The importance of ecotherapy as a component of the human experience also coincides with the Buddhist philosophy of the life of all beings. This form of therapy utilizes the innate connection between nature and man to improve mental well-being in an increasingly nature deficient world. Ecotherapy is a relatively new term which is used to describe the use of nature as a therapeutic tool. The term ecotherapy is synonymous with nature or green therapy and is applied ecopsychology (What is Ecotherapy?). Ecopsychology refers to humans’ psychological relationship with nature (What is Ecotherapy?). One way of describing the connection felt between man and the natural world is through ‘awakening experiences’. These are “moments when our vision of our surroundings becomes more intense (so that they become more beautiful and meaningful than normal), and we feel a sense of connectedness to them, and towards other people” (Taylor). Natural lighting, plants, and indoor gardens constitute ecotherapy, which is as effective as traditional psychotherapy in its power to effect depression (Feeling Down or Stressed? Try Ecotherapy, Taylor). Although a formal practice, Ecotherapy has the ability to take many forms with equal success, thereby allowing its impact to prevail in ancient times.The roots of ecotherapy reach back thousands of years when nature was more prevalent in people’s everyday lives. In the capital of Persia, around two thousand five hundred years ago, Cyrus the Great had gardens built around the city for relaxation purposes (Williams). Although no evidence existed proclaiming the value of these gardens, there was an innate feeling of peace and stillness that was realized through such spaces. During the sixteenth century, Paracelsus, the German-Swiss Physician, asserted, “The art of healing comes from nature, not from the physician” (Williams). Again, in 1798, William Wordsworth observed how the harmony of nature was a welcome reprieve from the world’s frenzy (Williams). It is interesting to note how Wordsworth felt the constant rush and bustle of society in the eighteenth century, providing a frame of reference for how feverish society has since become. Well-known authors such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Muir, and Frederick Law Olmsted are among those who helped to cultivate the emotional and spiritual reasons for the National Parks (Williams). World history is littered with the hints and observed gifts of nature, yet only now is humanity coming to terms with the importance of a nature connection. The effects of nature that have been supposed through the years are being defined today through numerous studies and researchers. In 1989, Psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan proposed the Attentional Restoration Theory, or ART (Craig and Pearson). This theory argues that people are constantly forced to be cognizant of the barrage of information in daily life which produces mental fatigue (Craig, Pearson). According to the Kaplans, environments that are restorative have two distinct features. The first is the idea that people adopt a feeling of having broken free from their daily stresses by being given a break (Craig and Pearson). The second aspect is feeling a connection with the environment and a increased sense perspective of one’s place in the world (Craig and Pearson). As a result of the Kaplans work, ART has provided a framework for how an individual’s psyche is restored, through nature as a Restorative Environment. Additionally, both the Kaplans and a psychologist named William James have described the two types of attention which people possess that allow an environment to have restorative potential (Clay, Craig and Pearson). Directed attention, or hard fascination, and fascination or soft fascination (Clay, Craig and Pearson). The Kaplans have proposed how the overuse of directed attention or hard fascination can result in irritation, distractibility, and impulsivity (Clay). However, while everyday life can have a negative impact on cognitive functioning and focus, nature is primarily viewed by individuals through fascination or soft fascination (Clay). As a result, when one experiences nature, their directed attention is replenished, as nature “automatically captures attention while simultaneously eliciting feelings of pleasure” (Craig and Pearson). This allows individuals to put difficulties into perspective, making them easier to work through (Thompson). Nature’s restorative effect is an important uncovered component in the quest to discover the characteristics of the human-nature relationship. With the discovery of the positivity radiated from natural life, researchers have attempted to answer the question of how nature improves mental health, albeit with controversy. There are perceived versus actual benefits of restorative environments. This issue has prompted the creation of scales to measure the perceived restorative potential (Craig and Pearson). This has allowed health professionals to gain an understanding of why the environment is attractive to people (Craig and Pearson). For instance, since natural landscapes in communities are associated with a higher quality of life, people living in such communities experience a greater “perceived quality of life” (Craig and Pearson). Additionally, mental restoration can occur in more than natural environments, from monasteries to art galleries, allowing the possibility of certain associate or contextual factors to be the source of such replenishing effects (Craig and Pearson). Therefore, the effects of the natural environment may have been overemphasized, yet the interactive component of a restorative environment is largely that which dictates mental restoration (Craig and Pearson). As a result, studies that suggest that wall murals have the same effects as windows have been proven false (Craig and Pearson). Similar to the circle of life, research into restorative environments has returned to the dissolution of nature in favor of artificial imitations, yet the raw reality and experience of the natural world is far superior.The presence of plants in a variety of environments, from a home to an office has a profound effect on cognitive functioning and mental well-being. Natural light in offices can increase performance and job satisfaction in workers (Bring Nature Indoors). Overall, nature has the unique capability to cause an upsurge in an individual’s vitality and energy, thereby being instrumental in increasing worker productivity (Health and Wellbeing Benefits of Plants). Scenes of nature, through windows or pictures, can also improve mood, creativity, and short-term memory (Ecotherapy/Nature Therapy, Williams). Additionally, research has shown that “plants in windowless offices and in offices with a city view can decrease stress over those environments where plants are not present”, and ornamental plants are beneficial in increasing concentration (Health and Wellbeing, Indoor Plants and Gardens). In some ways, nature has largely been ignored as society moves on to seemingly more interesting and beneficial advancements in the man-made world. However, the environment around which life truly evolves holds much value in society through the positive effects of nature in the workplace. Several studies have been conducted on how the reintroduction of nature has a profound effect on human lives. One study conducted at the University of Essex in England discovered that ninety percent of depressed people who strolled in a “country park” felt an increase in their self-esteem afterwards, while around seventy-five percent felt a decrease in their personal levels of depression (Taylor). Stress-relief is one of the profound abilities of nature, allowing an individual’s level of stress hormones to decrease and mood to improve in just minutes after a stressful event (Feeling Down). Research has also proved walking in nature to be more effective in reducing anger and fostering positive emotions after being mentally fatigued than walking in a populated area or listening to music and reading (Ecotherapy/Nature Therapy). In terms of mood, “people who keep flowers in their home feel happier, .. more relaxed”, as well as more optimistic in their approach to life (Health and Wellbeing). Nature allows a shift in perspective to occur in people’s minds, inducing a sense of calm and positivity that is rare in today’s world. Although nature can result in very personal changes in an individual’s mental health, flora can also foster positive emotions towards others. Spending time around plants has been correlated with increased levels of compassion for others, and more complex social relationships (Health and Wellbeing). The act of taking care of nature can become extended to people, therefore allowing such relationships to develop (Health and Wellbeing). Older people who participated in an indoor gardening program reported feeling less lonely and having improved social networks at the conclusion of the study (Indoor Plants and Gardens). William Wordsworth wrote poetry describing nature as “a motion and a spirit which rolls through all thinking things, and all objects of thought” (Taylor). The natural world truly is a mysterious force and an ever prevalent power that draws people in, releasing them with new skills in which to face the world. The observed benefits of nature have led to the contemplation for the biological reasons of why the natural world has enlightening effects upon the human psyche. Korean researchers have used MRI’s to show how an individual’s anterior cingulate and insular areas of the brain receive increased blood flow when participants viewed scenes of nature (Williams). These regions of the brain process feelings of empathy and altruism (Williams). David Strayer is a cognitive psychologist at the University of Utah (Williams). He has proved that the prefrontal cortex, or executive area of the brain, relaxes similarly to a muscle, when exposed to nature (Williams). Additionally, nature has the ability to reduce activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, possibly influencing whether people choose to direct their attention towards negative emotions or not (Williams). Roger Ulrich, PhD, described how nature, being the origin of humanity, had a positive effect on the evolution of man (Feeling Down). This positive reinforcement has led humanity to be favorably influenced by nature (Feeling Down). The closely knit human-nature relationship allows plants to take away “anxiety and tension of the immediate now by showing us that there are long, enduring patterns in life” (Taylor, What are Healing Gardens?). As the boundaries of knowledge have been growing at an exponential rate, nature allows for a breath of the world’s true life. This should serve as a reminder to humanity of its place within nature, in order to obtain an ultimate state of wellbeing. Specific architectural designs and select decorative elements can be used to promote human connectivity with nature in a man-made world. Biophilia means “love of life” and Nikos A. Salingaros PhD, a mathematics professor at The University of Texas at San Antonio, argues that the structure of a building should reflect the foundations of biophilia (Salingaros 8). He identifies eight different components that produce the effects of biophilia on people: light, gravity, detail, fractals, water, life, color, and curves (Salingaros 10). Light is responsible for establishing circadian rhythms, or human’s biological clock, creating a pattern upon which the body steadily operates (Salingaros 10). Structures should have cohesive complexity, mimicking how humans and animals interact through subtle, interpretative signals (Salingaros 12). Fractals refer to how naturally occurring plants and animals at every level of magnification in the human eye exhibit complexity which is also common within man. As a result, people receive positive feelings of connectivity with nature from such structures (Salingaros 11). Water, perhaps because it is viewed as a necessity of life, induces feelings of pleasure while being peaceful and soothing (Salingaros 13). The purpose of designing a building with curves is very important as nature does not have straight lines or right angles (Salingaros 12). Buildings which encompass these eight features are meant to reflect all perceived aspects of the natural environment with which people associate, thereby creating the most beneficial manmade structures for human wellbeing. The new discoveries concerning the importance of nature in people’s lives have prompted certain progressive countries to execute the developments of recent research. South Korea is one such country that has fully embraced the healing powers of the natural world (Williams) About seventy percent of workers in South Korea say that their jobs depress them due to long work hours (Williams). Koreans worship nature spirits where an important proverb is “Shin to bulee- body and soil are one” (Williams). The influence of nature spirits and growing concern over hard work days has prompted notable changes in the availability of nature to be of service to Koreans. There are currently thirty-seven healing forests in Korea which offer refuge for citizens while simultaneously providing government funded forest programs for firefighters with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and bullied children (Williams). The promotion of human wellbeing in Korea’s forests has caused visits to increase from nine and a half million people to almost thirteen million people between 2010 and 2013 (Williams). As more forests become available for relief, there is a growing need for “health rangers” (Williams). A “forest healing” degree program from Chungbuk University allows graduates to become “health rangers” through the Korea Forest Service (Williams). However, the most beneficial factors within forests or specific forest types for improving health are not yet known (Williams). Similarly, other countries such as Finland, have also decided to promote nature as a resource to improve mental wellbeing. In Finland, health problems including depression and alcoholism are being researched with government support (Williams). As a result, The Natural Resources Institute Finland recommends at least five hours of exposure to nature each month in order to elevate mood (Williams). As more countries come to realize how mainstream society is disconnected from nature, more support systems will likely arise in the near future in more nations around the world. The culture of the modern world has made children’s access to nature much more restricted than the generations that preceded them. One culprit to the lack of nature in children’s lives is the amount of time which is spent on scheduled activities. An overscheduling of activities does not leave time for free, creative play (Louv, Last Child 117). Additionally, the creation of manicured playing fields are not as conducive to natural play as areas with rocks and ravines (Louv, Last Child 117). However, the lack of outside playtime is mainly a result of the Digital Age. Children from ages of eight through eighteen, spend six and a half hours a day in front of a screen (Louv, Last Child 119). It has recently been discovered that of the seventy percent of mothers in the United States who were active outside everyday, only thirty-one percent of their children are as active today (Williams). This phenomenon is what Richard Louv, author of both The Nature Principle and Last Child in the Woods, calls Nature-Deficit Disorder. Louv is supported by Erik Erikson, a child psychologist. Erikson notes how it is important for children to use hideouts and forts to “establish a self beyond adult control” (Louv, 124). Nature has also proved to be important in the development of cognitive maturity in children by teaching evaluation, analysis, and synthesis (Louv, 124). Technology and nature represent two different realms that have become separated in human life. In today’s world, rejecting technology is neither practical nor ideal. Immersing oneself completely in the technological world is equally as inconvenient. Yet what if these seemingly independent systems could be reconciled? Louv presents his solution: “hybrid thinking”. A way of using both the cognitive and intuitive benefits of nature exposure and the technological advancements of the modern age to create spiritually and intellectually strong human beings (Louv, Nature Principle 38). Louv’s profound approach for bringing back nature in the Digital Age holds much promise for the future. It is now up to the collective whole of humanity to embrace the wild, while resisting the seduction of interface technology. Although ecotherapy is a relatively new term, its principles can be found at the core of Buddhism’s view towards nature and humanity. Ecotherapy is a broad term which encompasses activities from nature meditation, contemplation, personal relation to different aspects of nature, and horticultural therapy (Ecotherapy/Nature Therapy). The foundation of ecotherapy is the concept that the Earth is composed of many systems which exist in balance. When practicing ecotherapy, people are trying to “harmonize themselves” within these many systems (Ecotherapy/ Nature Therapy). Howard Clinebell was an influential figure in fostering the creation and growth of ecotherapy in his 1996 book on the subject (What is Ecotherapy?). He describes an ecological circle with three parts: inreach, upreach, and outreach. These three terms, in order, describe the process of allowing nature to nurture oneself, becoming realigned with one’s place in the the natural world, and giving back to the Earth through environmental practices (What is Ecotherapy?). This circle represents a pathway of transition for humanity, from exploiters and spectators to lovers and advocates of the natural world in order to reconstruct humanity’s relationship with its other half (What is Ecotherapy?). With this in mind, it is understood how nature allows people to realize the interdependencies of the world, proving nature to be closely connected to human spirituality (Feeling Down). As meditation connects the body with the mind, nature connects humanity to all forms of life and the cycles of the world. According to Buddhism, the demands of modern society has led to the exploitation of nature almost greater than its capacity to give, as the health of the environment is beginning to suffer (de Silva). This occurs as a result of the direct relationship between nature and man. Buddhism follows that nature’s fundamental principle is continuous change or sabbe sankhara anicca. The building blocks of the natural world, such as heat and liquidity are involved in dynamic processes (de Silva). Yet despite nature being a continuous cycle of change, Buddhism insists upon man’s morals as an effector of the natural world (de Silva). It is said that “man’s moral deterioration accelerates the process of change which are adverse to human well being and happiness” (de Silva). Similarly, ecotherapy teaches of the innate harmony that exists between all natural beings on the Earth. While greed and hate bring destruction, compassion and generosity for nature and other life forms garners great rewards (de Silva). Buddhism praises frugality, which the world can provide for; greed, however, is perceived as insatiable, placing want ahead of necessity (de Silva). The modern world is driven by demand and productivity, and accumulation of wealth. Buddhism’s analogy of wealth accumulation is interesting as it takes the form of a bee collecting pollen: “the bee harms neither the fragrance nor the beauty of the flower, but gathers pollen to turn it into sweet nature” (de Silva). This example represents the Buddhist idea that men should utilize nature as a stepping stone to achieve his spiritual potential (de Silva). Trees, open air, and natural habitat are considered symbols of spiritual freedom (de Silva). The Buddha himself was born under a tree and achieved enlightenment in open air (de Silva). The Buddha also advised his disciples to visit natural settings where, “undisturbed by human activity, they could zealously engage themselves in meditation” (de Silva). Additionally, the increasing need of humanity to be constantly stimulated derives itself from the power of slight sounds in the silence of nature to send “tremors through an impure heart” (de Silva). There is something remarkable about nature’s beauty and contemplative qualities that are similar to a meditative mantra that produces an inner calm (Taylor). As researchers are studying the effects of increased exposure to nature, Buddhism sits behind the scenes expressing ideas and principles which have only now been introduced to the general populace. Nature wraps the Earth with everything beautiful and serene, the brotherhood of humanity. Ecotherapy has reintroduced this vital, interdependent relationship to humanity, in order to heal minds and end the exploitation of the Earth. Buddhism represents the spiritual relationship between humanity and nature. Nature provides needed nourishment to the soul, as well as to the body through its many effects on mental health. There is a great deal of research supporting these benefits of the natural world, and many suggestions for individuals to reap such great rewards. However, at this time in the history of the world, nature has largely been left out of human progress and development. Yet there is evidence to support that humanity cannot survive to its fullest capacity of well being and advancement without nature being an important presence in the lives of all people. It is the hope of devoted researchers and environmental advocates that the natural world will begin to rise in the eye’s of humanity. One day, nature will not compete for humanity’s attention amongst other playthings, it will be valued, cherished, and protected. For at present, humanity is suffering, and only a the glimpse of a sunrise or bird in flight will restore balance to the world.