“I went into the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I come to die, discover that I had not lived” (Henry David Thoreau, Walden).
Humans need to feel rooted; they need to feel a connection to something in order to give their life meaning. Currently, our lives are rooted in consumerism. We define ourselves by the things we buy, and we base our happiness and success on our things. We often find ourselves in a constant cycle of competition with our neighbours, aiming to prove how better off we are, based entirely on our things, we even go so far as to feel badly for those who we deem as less fortunate than us, due to their lack of things. We have cut ourselves off from society in that we no longer allow ourselves to feel connected to one another as anything more than a means to an end. It can be difficult to escape this consumerist society, and to combat these ideals with healthier ways of defining our selves.
One way to escape this unhealthy lifestyle is to delve into the forest. Through this adventure we will find we need human connection, but we will undoubtedly find we need a deeper sort of connection than the one we are currently espousing. Escaping to the forest offers us a number of lasting benefits that we may not find elsewhere. There are 3 in particular we should focus on and those are: alleviation of stress, fulfillment of needs, and a clear path to self-actualization.
Alleviation of Stress
The first benefit to consider is the simplest, and will be felt most readily upon entering the forest. Responsibilities and pressures within society surround us and we are bound by these responsibilities. By abandoning these responsibilities for a few days at a time, we also abandon the stress that comes along with them. In the forest we are not divided by our careers, our sexes, or our race. Upon entering the forest it is no longer necessary for us to uphold these roles, it is no longer necessary for us to act in certain ways to appease society. I will speak briefly about cognitive dissonance that may be caused by these roles before continuing on to how our escape may help alleviate stress.
In society we all play a role, which is typically tied to one or another characteristic of our self – such as being a woman, being homosexual, or being a teacher. These roles give us guidelines for how to behave in social situations. Although some of these are conscious and very real to us, a number of them are unconscious experiences. For instance, with being a woman come a number of social pressures and norms, such as the need to be more passive than aggressive, or the need to shave to be considered feminine. These norms are not necessarily overt, and some women may not even be consciously aware of them, however, when we do not abide by these social norms we may feel negatively about ourselves, we may find ourselves feeling “less feminine” than we normally would. This can cause a slight dissonance between how we perceive ourselves and how society perceives us. We are urged to act a certain way, fit into a specific role, and when we fail to abide by this we find a divide, a crack between some very fundamental aspects of our being. This dissonance can cause great stress – we may find ourselves wearing masks while at work, at social functions, even with family – these masks need to be cast aside in order to fill the cracks that exist between our selves, thus escaping and leaving our responsibilities, and these masks, behind.
By leaving these masks behind, we alleviate the stress on our psyches caused by this dissonance. We are no longer required to wear these masks, and we are able to be, fully, our selves. This allows us to focus on more important aspects of life, and to fulfill our most essential needs.
Simply being in nature alleviates stress, particularly through exposure to the sun, and the aesthetic of nature. The sun aids in moderating mood through the release of serotonin (Nall, 2015), and it also helps with vitamin-D levels, which of course, is important for proper bone health (Nall, 2015). Physical health and mental health are correlated, and when we are mentally unhealthy, our bodies typically mirror this, and vice versa (Doidge, 2015). Oxygen is necessary for proper brain health, and the best way to get oxygen is to be surrounded by greenery, which as we know, is abundant in the forest. The aesthetic appeal of nature helps alleviate stress because it re-directs our mood by its sheer beauty. It is difficult to be surrounded by nature and not be completely awe-struck. When we are awe-struck, we are no longer focused on the stresses we find deep within us, there is no cause to be.
Fulfillment of needs
Alongside the alleviation of stress we have the fulfillment of needs, which can be argued as the most important aspect of this entire adventure, because by fulfilling our needs we have laid the groundwork for our pursuit of self-actualization. The needs we fulfill are as follows: our need for inner peace, our need to self-actualize, our need for connectivity and our need for rootedness.
Our need for inner peace comes along with our decrease in stress, and the elimination of our masks. By putting aside pretenses, we bear our souls to the world around us, and with no one there to watch we have no fear of judgment or ridicule. Our minds become clearer, and we are able to introspect. By stripping ourselves bare we are able to see inside ourselves, and understand on a deeper level who we are, and what makes us, us. This, in combination with the simplicity of the forest, offers us peace. This need ties very closely to our need for connectivity and our need for rootedness. I mentioned before that we would discover throughout this adventure that we do need human interaction; we need to feel a sense of connectivity between others and ourselves. However, this is difficult in our society, a society where we put things above others, and treat others as means to an end instead of as human beings. First, we must fulfill our need for connectivity in an environment from which we came, that is, the forest. The forest is the most rudimentary aspect of our existence, we rely on it for our survival yet fear it to a degree, and so we shun from it. Instead, we should be embracing it and treating it for what it is – our source of life. Without the environment, we would not be able to survive naturally. By fulfilling our need for connectivity with the environment first, we may be better equipped to approach each new human interaction as an interpersonal relation, and not a means-end exchange.
This need for connectivity is necessary for our intrapersonal relations as well. By appreciating the simple and natural things in life, we become better equipped to feel connected with ourselves. This may sound strange; you may be asking yourself “how or why would I need to feel connected with myself”? It’s a fair question, and the simplest answer I can offer is to avoid dissonance. By feeling connected with ourselves, through introspection and understanding ourselves, we avoid the dissonance between who we perceive ourselves to be and who we really are.
Erich Fromm postulated 8 basic human needs, one of which was our need for rootedness (Fromm, 1997) – that is, to create roots in the world outside of our mother. This can be fulfilled through marriage, following a career path you are passionate about, or a number of other things. It is sometimes difficult, however, to fulfill this need no matter how basic or simple it may seem. Sometimes, we choose a career that we believe we are passionate about, but it turns out we have chosen it to prove something to someone, or we were pushed into it and told ourselves as we began to study that we truly were passionate about it, creating false memories. This is why escaping to nature is the best way to fulfill this need. We fulfill it by understanding where we come from, and appreciating how we came to be. We appreciate the absolute power nature has, and we appreciate the life and death forces within nature. It helps us to understand our place in the greater scheme of things and it humbles us. By fulfilling our need for rootedness in nature, we recognize that no matter what it is we do, no matter where we decide to plant our roots we will in fact, always be tethered to our environment, and we may always rely on it. It is interesting to note, that the earth and the environment have often been referred to as mother earth or Mother Nature and when we find ourselves needing to establish roots outside of our biological mothers, the most obvious place to root ourselves to is mother earth.
All three of these needs are essential for our final need, which is our need for self-actualization, which leads to my final point.
Creating a clear path to self-actualization
Self-actualization is hard for many, either because they do not understand what self-actualization is, do not have the means to self-actualize, or have never thought much about it. Self-actualization comes from humanism, Maslow placed it at the top of his hierarchy of needs (Maslow, 1954), and Rogers defined it as fulfilling the innermost capacities, and congruence between the perceived and ideal self (Rogers, 1961). This may be a lifelong process, and is not as simple as fulfilling our simple needs. One must work at self-actualization daily, and it can often be hard because life, duties and circumstances arise which create a sort of barrier around the goal, making it near impossible to fulfill. When I say some may not have the means to self-actualize, I am referring specifically to their ability to introspect, which is often a result of environmental factors. If a person is starving, or homeless, they are far less likely to be thinking about self-actualization than about eating a hot meal, or getting a good night’s rest.
The reason it becomes easier for us to self-actualize while on this adventure is because we have no distractions, and we have all our base needs met (referring in particular to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs). If we have achieved inner peace, cleared our minds, allowed our masks to fade away and de-stressed, then we are able to focus on self-actualization, and are much more likely to fulfill this need throughout our life (one should not expect to achieve self-actualization overnight, it is a very tenuous, often lifelong process).
What may the significance of all of this be? Would it not be simpler to continue living our lives consuming more and more, destroying the foundation of our existence through our waste, and retreating into ourselves more each day? Some may agree, that it would be simpler, but I am afraid that lifestyle is not very fulfilling. All I know is there is no better feeling than waking in the morning to the smell of pine, and falling asleep at night with stars visible in the sky.
Doidge, N. (2015). The Brain’s Way of Healing. New York: Viking.
Fromm, Erich. (1997). On Being Human. London: Continuum.
Maslow, Abraham. (1954). Motivation and Personality. Harper & Row, publishers.
Nall, R. (2015). What are the benefits of sunlight? http://www.healthline.com/health/depression/benefits-sunlight#Overview1
Rogers, Carl. (1961). On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy. London: Constable. ISBN 1-84529-057-7
Thoreau, Henry David. (1971). Walden, Or Life in the Woods. Princeton University Press. (Originally published 1854).