On becoming a forest

Blog by Katriina Kilpi

People who are passionate about nature – myself included –  explain their passion by the time they spent playing in nature as a child.

Maybe their parents loved being in nature too. Maybe they were scouts or had a summer house. Maybe they lived close to nature and they got to spend their free time running free all day long together with their siblings and neighborhood kids.

Or, maybe…maybe their parents were not around to engage with them in meaningful activities and they needed to keep themselves entertained. Maybe they needed to stay out of the way, to stay small, to stay invisible. Outside is a good place to disappear into. Outside is also a safe place that will keep inspiring and distracting the young mind from the negative feelings brought on by absent or possibly dangerous adults. Outside is always available. Outside calms down the nervous system of a child.

Nature teaches at a very young age that it does not need anything from us but offers calmness, like hot chocolate that runs in the veins: cozy, sweet, and warm.

A child growing up with nature as a safe place will never grow too far from it. They might momentarily grow distant, and lose their way, but when shit hits the fan, they can find their way into it later in life. They will only need to remember.

Nature will have the same effect, and instead of being the playground, nature can be the safe adult that teenagers still need but often miss. Nature can be the friend who doesn’t judge or make one feel worse for wearing, thinking, or liking the wrong thing, or whatever is unacceptable in the often black-and-white world of teens.

In nature, it is okay to be different and a bit awkward. Nature is available, listening, and consoling. The nervous system of the teenager calms down.

If a child stays close to nature all the way to young adulthood, there is very little chance they will lose their way from nature as an adult. Nature might just become more consciously part of their life or they might become more consciously part of nature. This starts reflecting in their daily choices of consumption, where they live, what they believe in, who they work for and what they want to put into their bodies and surround themselves with.

The forest becomes a sanctuary for many because, in our highly urban lives, we need reminders of wilderness, the untamed world, and what things could look like if humans were not manipulating it all. Forest is an organism that one can immerse oneself into and momentarily forget about the human world.

Nature gives a perspective: it is the source of reason and meaning, the beginning and the end. For many who have felt nature holding them all through their lives, nature now becomes their place and object of worship. And a companion to co-regulate their nervous systems with. Nature provides the secure attachment many of us are missing.

Picture of a forest in the morning in Ottignies, Belgium.

Many recite this mantra of us human beings being part of nature. Yes, we are because we are carbon-based life forms like any other creature. We are programmed to love nature because of biophilia. We intuitively know everything that the mounting research on nature’s health effects tells us. But the reason why we keep going back to nature is that it has, for so many of us, ever been the only safe place to be.

You see, the human world is often not safe. The human world is exhausting. In the human world, we make ourselves and others feel unworthy, lacking, limited, sad, envious, ….frustrated, aggressive, competitive, having power over, and finally, victorious. But only for a split second. That victory we feel when we get that job, that girl, that new purse or a car, is fleeting because none of it fills our tanks for good.

Only we can do that. We can fill up our own tanks by understanding there is nothing wrong with us. We are perfect because this is how nature made us and everything in nature is perfect.

The realization is hard to remember and maintain because everything in the human world seems to be designed to remind you of your lacking.

Nature helps us to get started with that realization because no matter where we look we are reminded of that perfection. So many people report feeling consoled when they are in nature. They say they feel welcome. That there is no bad hair day in nature.

We get a glimpse of that wholeness when we are in nature. And that wholeness is our ventral state. Our wonderfully centered state, in which we are naturally mindful, present, noticing, and alert. In this state, we allow more, of ourselves and of our neighbors.

Source: http://www.rubyjowalker.com

And then, so easily something happens that makes us slip into the other states of our nervous system, dorsal or sympathetic, and lose our center again. And because we are so used to these other states, we feel almost at home in them. These states are maintained by our societies as well as the trauma that we have not yet resolved.

Because the majority of us are traumatized. Even without a big one-time event from war or a dramatic situation, we are traumatized. Why do I claim this? If you have a relative that knows or knew someone who was alive during the war, you are most likely traumatized. Not only because of the war traumas long tail but because that was the generation that did not learn to love their kids in the way we are all supposed to be loved: unconditionally and with full attention.

Illustration by therapist Ayan Mukherjee.

Our parents and grandparents and grand grandparents did not have the time for that! They were busy surviving. But humans are made to give and receive love. We are sensitive creatures but that does not mean we are not resilient. It is just that sometimes our resilience actually turns out as a survival mechanism and deep down, there are wounds festering. We hurt easily but we stay in the game.

On top of that trauma we have inherited from our parents, grandparents or grand-grandparents, the society we have built, the unreasonable and ridiculous demands we put on ourselves to work 5 days a week from 9-17 to be able to provide our families and ourselves everything that is needed to measure up as good citizens, makes it that we are constantly watching out, staying hypervigilant for the chances we are missing and for opportunities to do better and be less faulty. We are never just enough.
Except in nature.

So by all means let’s keep going with these projects to green the cities, create less polluting cars and try not to damage the Earth even more. And definitely providing opportunities for children to find nature as their safe space. But what about what we are continuing to do to ourselves? We need to stop being so relentless towards ourselves.

It is November and the forest is getting ready to go to sleep. What do we do? We up the ante and go even faster to “finish everything before the end of the year”. For what? For artificial deadlines. Who will die if we do not reach that deadline? Noone, but you might die trying.

What good does it do if we only have nature to bring us back to ventral for those fleeting moments, if we are only going to rush back into the sympathetic or dorsal states where we train our kids to be in and go through their lives in.

When people are calm, they are automatically more mindful. They have time and space to ask questions about their own wellbeing, their life choices, and the big picture. They will notice nature on their own, as this is our default programming – to notice nature when we are in our natural state. This noticing leads to awe and even more positive reinforcing.

I believe that if we are feeling good in our skin, we can be the regulators for others. Just like we sense the slow heartbeat of nature, we can sense the regulated nervous systems of other humans.

We can be nature for each other – that calm and familiar forest that we long to take shelter in.