There is an intersection between a relationship with the natural environment and human health. This relationship, or lack of it, critically affects the lives of individuals and society at large. Interconnectedness is the immense single web of life of which all aspects of wellbeing are closely interwoven.
There is an ongoing cultural problem of defining health by purely physical measures. Yet that very physicality, in our modern culture, often lacks a depth of integrity, of basic body-awareness, emotional intelligence or relationship with nature. In other words, our obsession with the physical realm of life is, paradoxically, alarmingly anti-physical. It does not honor the body’s animalian or emotional component, which brings the motivating joy to feeling fully alive in a body in the first place. It is the obsession of a disembodied mind.
How many advertisements for thinness, for macho-muscular athleticism, for food are we dumped with? Yet this type of overemphasis on physical appearances without feeling only further dulls and disconnects us from the native beauty of our animal bodies. We are separated from the delight of our bodies by outrageous expectations and internalized shame, to please a distant standard while draining ourselves. This is not helped by the problem of philosophical traditionalists telling us that the physical body is not as sanctified as the severed Cartesian mind floating in it’s enlightened glass jar of “higher” reason. The West has an old problem here. We are disassociated from the liveliness of our own physicality.
Ecopsychology, nature-based education and rewilding help to heal that. No wonder we don’t want to “exercise” when the dominant cultural understanding we have of exercise is a race to get thin or muscular for no other real end than looking a certain way. We expect that if we are to feel differently from “working out”, it will be a satisfaction at having conquered our bodies, as if our bodies were an enemy to be dominated in war. This masculinist, warring, domineering attitude toward our bodies has left a trail of carcasses. We think that getting “in shape” will not be to love and care for ourselves more completely, but to control and rule.
No wonder it is so uninviting to exercise when the very idea of it feels, to so many people, like a task to wearily get done with that is separate from everything else we do. The problem of exercise being separate from the rest of normal life is a problem society has never had before these modern times. In days before the prevalence of sedentary office jobs, daily labor was often physical, exercise happened without worrying about it, and medically-dangerous morbid obesity was extremely rare.
In David Abrams’ remarkable book Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology, Abrams tells the story of young Vincent Van Gogh’s reawakening to the sensual, embodied world, and how this infused life into his paintings.
Although his first career was that of a preacher, Vincent’s passion could not contain itself in that stance, denying his body while straining toward a beauty beyond the visible; it fell back into the world. And at that moment, as his intellectual faith in a truth beyond the sensuous fell away, he found himself abruptly caught up and carried by a faith more implacable than any mere belief: the human body’s ancient and inexhaustible faith in the breathing earth, in the whispering leaves, in the meandering river and the night and the goodness of the sun. His senses burst open like sunflowers scattering their seeds: he began to paint the surging world. In Vincent Van Gogh’s canvases there is nothing that is not alive. (Abrams 50)
If a returning to bodily senses so ignited Van Gogh’s paintings with vivacity, how much more would it empower we who struggle to embody beauty in our physicality? Rebuilding a relationship with our bodies is an art of its own kind. Mental health is directly related to physical health. How exactly the relationship manifests is diverse from person to person, but the relationship is undeniably there. Physical movement relieves depression: laughter welling up in the airways tickles the body. Sunlight seeps through the shade surrounding our minds. Access to nature makes whole the human animal. In the words of psychotherapist Friedrich Salomon Perls, “Lose your mind and come to your senses.”
Nature’s role in physical and mental health need not be explicitly rural. Many of us do not live near to majestic national parks. Some of us are lucky to have a car to get out of the city we live in. For others, the call is to find Great Nature, as the Shinto religion speaks of it, in the sparkling and waving of trees along sidewalks, in city parks, in the air in your lungs, or the warm pulse (and impulse) of your own body. We are not fundamentally separate from nature or nature’s ability to heal.
Izanami is the Japanese goddess of creation and death. She is similar to India’s more well-known Kali. Izanami is a Dark Mother archetype, who’s way of bringing life is through transformative death. She eats, with the fangs of the earth, everything which is contrary to ultimate life and wholeness so that it will be destroyed to make way for regeneration. Dark Mother medicine is timely for dealing with the grief, frustration, stagnancy, pain, disconnect, toxicity and amnesia of the worst aspects of modern life which make us chronically unwell. Perhaps ironically to the message of liveliness, Izanami often takes the form of a corpse. Mythologically, there is rhyme and reason here; look again, more closely. She divinely mocks an obsession with appearances, for she reveals to us the seriousness of accepting our own mortal physicality. She compels us to be at peace with having animal bodies which are intimately bound with the cycle of life and death, birth and decay in the earth. We mark our lives as preciously short. Dark Mother destroys illusions of perfection, destroys the damaging praise of disembodiment, of health in appearances only. She is a fiercely female, earthly, embodied force of reckoning.
The next time we “exercise”, let’s be kids again. Run and play for the pure joy of it, be hilarious, forget expectations. And if a strange sadness arises and the play doesn’t feel immediately exuberant as it once did, know that such pain is natural, too. Even the frustration is held within the Great Nature of animal life. We have lost something, but we can find it again.
Abram, David. Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology. New York: Pantheon Books, 2010.
Perls, Frederick S. Gestalt Therapy; Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality. New York: Julian Press, 1951.
Cartwright, Mark. “Izanami and Izanami.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. December 6, 2012. Accessed August 16, 2016. http://www.ancient.eu/Izanami_and_Izanagi/.