What Works: Get Outdoors

City garden. Photo: ©2011 Phil Fox Rose
City garden. Photo: ©2011 Phil Fox Rose

Making sure to fit nature into my life, and encouraging others to do to the same, is a passion of mine. As a writer, it’s easy enough to stay holed up indoors in a room in front of my computer all day, but my encounters with the divine in nature helped form — and, it would be the right word choice to say, nurture — my spiritual path. Nature continues to ground me in my connection to the spiritual dimension of reality.

The fact that I live in a city, without any outdoor space of my own — no backyard or balcony — doesn’t mean it’s difficult to make this happen. There are parks all around, and just a walk in the sun down city streets can be enriching. For example, after working in the office, I often go to a park and spent a little time birdwatching or just strolling.

And contrary to all the neo-Luddite moaning out there, technology is now making it easier to stay connected with the non-technological world. Many of the advances in recent years have focused on untethering people from their desks. I am writing this column on my iPad; not only can I write it but even file it while sitting on a log in the middle of the woods, or on the grass in a city park. (OK, well, as long as there’s an AT&T signal.)

Taking time to notice nature is also taking time to just be present. To slow down and observe everything around you. It can be very contemplative. And, witnessing the amazing splendor and absurd abundance of nature shows me the face of God and my own place in relation to that. As Einstein said, “What I see in Nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility.” Perhaps some don’t have this reaction, and just see raw materials and messiness. I am awed.

We need Vitamin D to survive, and it is acquired naturally only from unblocked sun and some fish oils (and unnaturally through fortified milk and supplements.) This may seem unrelated to the spiritual value of being in nature, but it’s not: We are meant to be outdoors and the outdoors is meant to be in us. What is good for us physically is good for us spiritually.

Here are some ideas for getting outdoors — some you may not have thought of before, some you may just need a little prodding to fit into your life.

  • Eat an occasional weekend brunch outside — If you have outdoor space with your home, take your coffee or juice into the open air. If you live in an apartment, find a nice brunch restaurant with outdoor seating.
  • Don’t eat lunch at your desk — Walk out of the building for the hour. Find a local park, or just a bench in your office park. You will accomplish more in the afternoon than if you worked through lunch at your desk.
  • Grill — Whether it’s a backyard built-in unit or a hibachi on the fire escape, grilling is a great way to spend time outside in the summer. And it’s not limited to meat-eaters. Try tossing zucchini or green beans with olive oil and thyme and throwing them on the grill.
  • Walk more — I am absolutely baffled when people drive or take a train to go less than a mile, then spend time on an exercise machine. Use needed tasks during your day to spend more time outside.
  • Do something outdoors each weekend — In nature is best, but anything outside is better than not. Skip the mall and go to the beach, a local fair or festival, the park, a city farmer’s market.
  • If you have property, create outdoor space — Porches, decks and patios make it easy to move your activity outside. When I was at a monastery in New England I saw a clever solution to bugs: a detached gazebo that was entirely screened in. You could sit out there with open air on all sides, bug-free, all day.
  • Go camping for at least a long weekend this summer — Most can’t and probably wouldn’t want to do what my family did when I was growing up — camping for several months each summer — but at least get a little dose or two of sleeping outside.
  • Add an outdoor activity to your life — Birdwatching, hiking, mountain biking, kayaking: whatever gets you outside and more in tune with nature. Best are activities like birding that force you to slow down and increase your attention, but they’re all good.

So get outside more this spring and summer. Try a few of the suggestions above, and there are more in last year’s column, but you probably know best what is easy to do in your neck of the woods. Comments or questions? Leave them below.