Are green spaces healing spaces?

Studies say a hike improves mental health. This is especially true if it helps one get a higher, more spiritual perspective on life.

I relish the day when my friend calls and says “we need to go for a walk.”  Her call is “code” for “let’s go hiking, so we can get spiritually above all this stuff that’s going on right now.”  Even though we climb low hills and rarely log more than six miles, our conversation climbs up out of our everyday challenges and we encourage each other to look at things from a higher, more spiritual, perspective.

Currently there are numerous studies expounding the health benefits of spending more time in natural greenspaces. For instance, in her June, 2015 article, “How walking in nature prevents depression,” Olga Khazan of The Atlantic reports on an in-depth study showing how natural environments are restorative and confer psychological benefits. And in Mark’s Daily Apple post, 16 Ways Green Space Improves your Life, blogger Mark Sisson shares 16 scientifically tested outdoor settings that have been linked to better mental and physical health.  He concludes, “We tend to focus on physical health, but mental health (which isn’t really separate from physical health) is arguably more reliant on regular exposure to green space.”  No one from the Pacific Northwest would argue these findings, but is it merely being in nature that improves our well-being?  Or could it be that hiking gives us an opportunity to get closer to the divine?

History says so.  The early religious pilgrimages involved extended periods in greenspace, divine inspiration, and presumably, improved mental health. The search for inner peace, mecca or deeper religious understanding carried thousands of soles uncounted miles, sometimes in harsh climates and over jaw-dropping elevations. These treks were not conducted because scientific studies showed a correlation between pilgrims’ hours in the natural world and their overall health and wellbeing.   Huston Smith sums up today’s revival of the pilgrimage as not motivated by the desire for “rest and recreation—to get away from it all. To set out on a pilgrimage,” he writes, “is to throw down a challenge to everyday life.” Yet such quests for spiritual inspiration can bring not only inner peace but physical well-being.

My friend’s pilgrimage provides a good example.  She walked 800 miles across northern Spain on the epic Camino de Santiago trail.  When faced with increased temperatures due to a drop in elevation, her impervious all-weather boots became individual foot-saunas, which resulted in discomfort, swelling and eventually blistering.  At one point, she was in pain because of an infected foot, and she had three hours to walk before she reached the next town. She used the time to turn to God and pray to understand Him better.  Many of her favorite Bible verses, which she realized may have inspired pilgrims thousands of years earlier on this trail, took on deeper meaning as she walked.  This one, from Psalm 91, she found especially relevant:  “For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways.  They shall bear thee up in their hands, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone.”  Her foot healed before she reached the city, and she finished the rest of the pilgrimage comfortably.

Another friend summited Mount Washington, the highest peak in the Northeastern U.S., a 2,700’ vertical gain in two-and-a-half miles. From the start, he had mostly bouldered trail to scramble, so muscle fatigue and the need for endurance kept my friend on his spiritual game.  Reaching out for a connection with God’s infinite love, he found comforting Bible verses and ideas coming effortlessly to mind.  He grasped the parallel between climbing physically higher and being drawn spiritually higher–closer to God–on this climb.  This quote by spiritual pioneer Mary Baker Eddy was especially helpful: “You say, ‘Toil fatigues me.’ But what is this me? Is it muscle or mind? Which is tired and so speaks? Without mind, could the muscles be tired? Do the muscles talk, or do you talk for them? ” (Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures p. 217 )

Seeing the mental nature of his challenges pushed my friend up and over those challenges.  As he reached the top of Mt. Washington, he realized that because he had consciously taken the opportunity to focus on spiritual ideas during his hike, he was able at last to see the glorious and pure harmony of God’s creation, which had remained unchanged throughout his struggles.  He returned from his hike mentally refreshed and ready to be productive in his work.

In hiking, the important part is to “summit,” to get to that place where, in our heart, we rise above everyday challenges and we don’t allow information from the five physical senses to cloud the pinnacle of God’s beautiful, spiritual creation.   We don’t have to locate ourselves in a forest before we can find spiritual peace!  Here in Oregon, however, it is easy to be in the “green”– there are so many hikes to choose from.  Why not go for a hike, use it as an opportunity to see the mental nature of your challenges, throw them down, and rise to a view of life as Spirit, Love?

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