How Connecting With Nature Can Heal You


“Have you ever sat near a roaring brook and felt refreshed, been cheered by the vibrant song of a thrush or renewed by a sea breeze? Does a wildflower’s fragrance bring you joy, a whale or snow-capped peak charge your senses?”

This is Dr. Michael Cohen’s response to an interviewer’s question as to how connecting with nature can heal and uplift the human psyche.

From his four decades of living and teaching in natural areas throughout the seasons, Cohen has pioneered “applied ecopsychology,” a synthesis of ecology and psychology. Applied ecopsychology was experientially derived from the observed effects of people connecting with sea breezes, roaring brooks, and wildflower fragrances. Cohen noticed that intimate contact with nature puts people in touch with an innate wisdom that affects a deep healing of self and planet.

To make the benefits of applied ecopsychology available, Cohen founded Project NatureConnect, a home study program of the Institute of Global Education in conjunction with several universities, where he is chair of the Department of Integrated Ecology. His students–most connecting with their instructor and each other through e-mail or telephone–make use of his self-guiding training manuals, Reconnecting With Nature and Well Mind, Well Earth. The manuals provide a syllabus of “124 environmentally sensitive activities for stress management, spirit and self-esteem.”

Bound by Attraction

The great systems theorist, Gregory Bateson, once noted: “The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between the way nature works and the way man thinks.” Cohen verifies that the distortions in the way humans think have arisen from our loss of contact with nature. He has discovered a sensory process that helps us regain that loss and thereby more powerfully resolve problems.

The Pulitizer Prize, Harvard biologist, Edward O. Wilson, observes that “Only in the last moment of human history has the delusion arisen that people can flourish apart from the rest of the living world. Preliterate peoples were in intimate contact with a bewildering array of life forms.” By contrast, as citizens of Western civilization we spend, according to Cohen, “an average of over 95 percent of our lives indoors, cloistered from nature. We live over 99 percent of our adult lives knowing nature through detached words, stories and pictures.” This detachment of our psyche from its biological and psychological origins stressfully and hurtfully estranges us from creation, from nature’s supportive, non-verbal wisdom, spirit and love within and about us.” This loss creates the insatiable wants and greed that underlie our disorders. We become psychologically addicted to rewarding technologies and relationships that often have destructive side effects. The consequences of our alienation from nature manifest as the myriad of lasting personal, social and environmental problems which beset the modern world.

To understand Cohen’s scientific analysis of why estrangement from nature disturbs our existence so profoundly, we must start with his outdoor observation that the cosmos/nature is bound by attractions. This principle of applied ecopsychology is in agreement with the experience of mystics. “From atoms and molecules to human beings with developed consciousness, all entities relate through attraction for one another. . . . attraction is the law of nature,” affirms spiritual philosopher, P.R.Sarkar. The cosmos is united as an integral entity by what we functionally describe as connecting attraction forces, but feelingly experience as love.

Cohen avows that attraction, love and consciousness are identical. He says, “The universe and all that it includes are wordlessly conscious and connected through attractions, the same “intelligent binding and pulling together” found in atoms and weather systems. We disconnect from that natural way of knowing by mostly thinking and communicating verbally with words, with abstractions, meaning “to pull apart.” Verbal abstracts are never the real thing for nature is non-verbal. Almost 100 percent of contemporary thinking consists of abstractions.”

Our indoor education formally and informally trains our intelligence to omit more than 45 of our 53 natural attraction senses. We lose conscious contact with our inherent sensory wisdom and its nurturing connection to its origins in nature. Our nature-disconnected thinking omits nature’s intelligence. This results in the deteriorating state of ecosystems and people and our inability to stop being destructive when it is reasonable to do so.

“Disconnecting natural senses from their origins in nature is like pulling out the plugs of light bulbs in our consciousness,” says Cohen. He notes that we are aware if we pinch ourselves too hard because the pain signals this to us. We are also aware that a walk in a natural area refreshingly clears our head and unstresses our body. He argues that our extreme disconnection from Nature erases something vital from our thinking. It removes the fact that both these phenomena are Nature at work. Both are eons of natural attractions balancing themselves to harmoniously create the next life-supporting moment. Cohen suggests, “On a walk, we think we feel better because we leave our problems behind. We have lost sight of the truth that in both examples we connect with the intelligence of paradise at work. That work, since the beginning of time, has created and sustained the natural systems within and around us.” No doubt the loss of this truth places us in the conflicts we face today. We learn to take natural systems for granted. Many of us learn to think we can manage the world better than Nature while knowing full well that with respect to Nature there is no known substitute for the real thing. For this reason, Cohen claims there is no substitute for conscious sensory contact with authentic Nature.

Cohen observes that it is natural and sustaining for humans to seek and experience attractions in the setting of nature. That is why this “love” connection produces good feelings in sentient beings. The feelings are natural rewards of, by and from Nature that urge us to keep making contact with nature. To biologist Wilson, this human tendency seems so fundamental that he coined the term “biophilia” to signify the “connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life.” Our expression of biophilia is manifested, according to Cohen, by some 53 “natural senses.” It is through these sensory loves–from the perceptual senses like smell and touch, to primary drives like thirst and hunger, to subtle feelings like trust and nurturing, to mental expressions like reason and discrimination–that we link our being to the natural system that runs through and about us. Cohen’s work validates sensation itself, not just the words describing it.

Through the use of a long established web-of-life string model, Cohen shows that our natural senses are designed, similar to string theory, to act in congress and bring our being into harmony, fulfillment and community with the world. Cohen calls the resultant functioning of the senses “self evidence” and “natural wisdom.” He finds that it arises when we are able to freely follow nature’s callings and learn how to genuinely connect our complex array of felt senses with the authentic natural world. In this state, our being, like all beings, functions in a manner that desires, mirrors, or receives, “earth wisdom.” “Through its natural attraction intelligence,” says Cohen, “Earth’s global life community cooperatively self-organizes to cooperatively produce an optimum of life and diversity without producing our garbage, war, insanity or excessive abusiveness and dependencies. Nature reconnecting activities help us become conscious of and think with that wisdom. The documented health, psychological and environmental benefits speak for themselves.”

Disconnect humans from rich, immediate sensory contact with nature, and we lose our profound natural fulfillments, wisdom and healing. This loss causes us to want, and when we want there is never enough. Our need for fulfillment overcomes our sense of reason. We can’t stop obtaining satisfactions from materials and relationships even when we know they are environmentally and personally destructive. Too often their side effects produce toxic garbage, cravings, mass conflict, stress, depression and dependency that deteriorates people and natural systems. Cohen says, “Knowledgeably seeking destructive rewards symptomizes addiction and madness. It is insane for us to knowingly destroy our life support system. We are in denial that we are psychologically bonded to doing this and our denial prevents us from effectively addressing this psychological problem with psychological solutions. Instead we rely on using the same nature disconnected thinking that causes the problem.”

Source: “Healing Ourselves and the World through Applied Ecopsychology,” from

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