How important is man’s connection with nature? Has our environment become so abstract and artificial that it could be hindering us from reaching our full potential as individuals and as a species?
To our earliest ancestors, the natural world was ‘home,’ but for many today nature is something of a spectacle; a leisure destination; a place we go to ‘get away from it all’.
From the office to the school house; from the home to the car, we have built up an entire world around ourselves that is an artifact of our own creation, with of course the occasional potted plant or a solitary tree standing in a parking lot of asphalt.
Nature has become something almost alien to the city-dwelling man of the 21st century. Where once he knew only of potatoes, tomatoes, and cows, now he knows only of french fries, ketchup, and the Big Mac. His connection to animals and other species has been narrowed to that of a pet, meal, or football team mascot.
Is mankind truly an alien in our world or have we simply alienated ourselves from it through our environment?
In the late 1880s, William James, known as the father of modern psychology, called into question the assumptions underlying our artificial world showing that subjective well-being and concentration were diminished by artificial and abstract settings and tasks. Conversely, his research showed that that spending time in natural settings and participating in activities directly involving the natural world had a significant restorative effect on a person, including improved concentration and increased subjective well-being. It seemed that natural settings had the ability to draw attention naturally and effortlessly, whereas artificial settings required directing the mind’s attention through deliberate suppression of other information.
Scientific findings further demonstrated that the brain releases enzymes which inhibit or block out “unnecessary” stimuli when directed attention is required by an environment. While concentration is essential to daily life, it is an activity which produces mental fatigue and eventually requires restoration in order to continue functioning adequately.
It seems environments which naturally draw our undivided attention (without Adderal, Caffeine, or Nicotine) are essential to ‘de-fatiguing’ and replenishing a mind constantly depleted by forced focus; arguably as essential to our well being as roads, clean water and other amenities afforded to us by our artificial environments.
It is commonly held that we only use about 10% of our brains at any given time. Could nature bring us beyond this perceived limit to our cognitive abilities? Further, what if there is something beyond the everyday reality that we aren’t experiencing because of this barrier?
Poets and philosophers for years have indicated that there is in fact more to life than the mechanics of everyday living. William Blake is famous for his line, “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”
Abraham Maslow, the psychologist famous for his formulation of the ‘hierarchy of needs,’ published extensive literature on that which he called the Peak Experience, said to be responsible for, or at least characteristic of, individuals with high levels of what he called self-actualization or the realization of one’s full potential.
“Peak experiences…” he wrote, “…are sudden feelings of intense happiness and well-being, possibly the awareness of an “ultimate truth” and the unity of all things … the experience fills the individual with wonder and awe….he feels at one with the world, and is pleased with it .…”
Is this some bogus fantasy or could the direct experience of some “ultimate truth” and a certain “unity of all things” be hidden just beyond the reach of our everyday lives? What if our modern environment and 21st century way of life are in some way blocking us from experiencing some of life’s greatest truths and mysteries?
This will be explored in more depth in subsequent posts but for now we will leave these questions up to you…
Nick and Michael discuss these ideas and more in Episode 3 of the Return Of Gnosis Podcast below: