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Practical tools for your personal spiritual life from Phil Fox Rose.

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May 26th, 2011

What Works: Get Outdoors

Spending time outside is nurturing for you spiritually and physically


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.

The Author : Phil Fox Rose
Phil Fox Rose is content manager of Busted Halo. He's a writer, editor and content lead based in New York and writes the On the Way blog at patheos.com. He is coordinator for the New York City chapter of Contemplative Outreach, helping promote centering prayer, which has been his contemplative practice for nearly 20 years. Phil has also been a political party leader, videographer, tech journalist, punk roadie, software designer, sheepherder, stockbroker and downtempo radio DJ. A common thread is the process of learning about stuff, figuring it out and then sharing that understanding with others. Follow Phil on Facebook here. Or on Twitter here. philfoxrose.com.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Rita Greene

    beautiful article,just a friendly reminder to all, that Gods creation goes far beyond our natural eye.God Bless,keep writing.

  • Cp

    I spent last Saturday planting a garden with a friend (family host) in her backyard and that was so wonderful. IT brought me back to the days when I spent many an hour pruning our hibiscus hedges which layered an entire yard. Somehow, I always knew I had a sweet connection with nature, but having been away from home in so long, I needed that fresh reminder. Your article is on-point. Also, rather than walking in the gym on a lovely day, I choose to forego the indoors, and hit the outdoors…I love the wind in my face…Nature is healing. Thank you for sharing this wonderful article. For those who are allergic to pollen, hm, I am still thinking of a suggestion for you. :) God bless

  • Phil Fox Rose

    Well sure, Ken, not every piece of advice can apply to everyone. If you have severe pollen allergies and have to live in a place where thats’s an issue, then spending time outdoors is not the wonderful thing I describe. You’ll want to make sure that you get the Vitamin D you need, though.

  • Ken Maher

    What about those of us who have severe pollen allergies? This year is the worst in memory.

  • Phil Fox Rose

    How could I forget gardening?! I’m taking advantage of the lack of rain today to mow and do some weeding and compost-throwing myself.

  • Ginny Kubitz Moyer

    Great article, Phil. Gardening is one of the best forms of meditation I know (easier to do in the ‘burbs than in the city, admittedly). There’s something profoundly therapeutic about pulling a tough weed out by the roots and throwing it in the composting pile. Planting flowers is also tremendously satisfying … it’s a great feeling to know you are creating beauty.

  • Daniel

    Interesting article and inspiring. In my time of getting out doors, I have enjoyed taking walks and listening to podcasts. Thanks, Phil, for your ideas and column about getting outdoors. The fresh air from being outdoors certainly does help both physically and spiritually.

  • Phil Fox Rose

    Kate, thanks for the wonderful question. More than the issue of people being in the image of God, scripture if full of references to the love of God being expressed between people and within community. To see that of God in others, to see the love of God expressed through others, is a powerful way to experience the divine.

    At the same time, encountering nature is one of the best ways of feeling the presence of God — both the awesomeness of overwhelming beauty and power, such as the ocean or a canyon, and the everyday delight of a leaf or bird song.

    I wouldn’t set up nature and people in competition. They are both paths to God. If you CAN’T see God in people, then that’s something to explore. Just as I’d say there’s something lacking if someone looks at nature and simply sees food and resources without seeing its beauty.

    But if you can see God in others, but happen to be a person that responds especially to encountering God in nature, I’d say, go for it! Find the divine wherever you can and whenever you can.

  • Kate

    Question: is it a bad sign if I really feel like I get way more out of being with trees than with people? After all, people are created in the image of God, and trees, while great, are not. I had this experience once on a pilgrimage-type trip – one day we’d spent some time with people, in church, and then went to a really beautiful natural place. When reflecting in the evening, pretty much everybody in the group said how moving it had been to be with the people in the church, but my own personal heart soared when we saw that view, while only my brain was involved in the objective observation that the people seemed quite nice. Maybe this is that God-in-daily-life vs. Awesomeness of God that you mentioned in the article from last year?

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