Three days a week I drive forty minutes from my home to work. When I walk out of my house at 5:40 a.m. I hear the crickets and see the starlight. I smell the sheep and the grass blowing in the field. The houses on our street are dark. There are lights on the horizon from nearby neighborhoods but mostly it’s dark. Everyone seems to be sleeping still.
I roll down my window as I pull out of the driveway so I can say good morning to all the trees, plants, soil, rocks, animals, and bugs. They deserve to be greeted. I soak up as much of the peacefulness as I can as I turn out of the neighborhood onto a two-lane road.
I quickly make it to a highway surrounded by swatches of trees, marshy lowlands, and open fields. It’s a pretty dark highway except for the glowing moon and the glaring headlights of oncoming cars. The traffic slowly increases as I draw nearer to the city.
I cross a total of four highways to get to my destination. When I cross onto highway 45 the cars slow down for about a mile of bumper-to-bumper traffic. Mind you, it’s 6:00 in the morning at this point. The peacefulness I carried with me from the land near my home starts to fade into the background as the tension of traffic, the noise, the lights, and the hubbub of the city creeps in.
This highway leads straight into downtown. Looking ahead I see towering buildings with colorful LED lights blinking and changing colors. Cranes crafting new multi-family home skyscrapers and corporate spaces. Cars, buses, trucks, and motorcycles weaving their way in and out of traffic.
By the time I get to the parking lot outside my hospital, I will most likely have cut someone off, been cut off by someone, gotten frustrated, taken five deep, soothing breaths, and visualized myself in the woods.
I can’t help but notice that the peacefulness of nature is completely devoid in this space. The pace and rhythm of the city contradicts nature. I feel the difference as I imagine myself at my favorite spot. I feel the calming energy of the place, the quiet peacefulness, the birds, the smells, the sights of green lusciousness. I begin to calm down as I’m simultaneously jolted back to reality by the aggressive maneuver of the small white truck that cuts me off.
The city has its own vibration. It’s distinct from the forest, the prairie, the marshland, the oceans, the rivers, the lakes. It’s frenetic, intense, oppressive, mind-numbing, distracting, disorienting, and unsettling. You don’t notice it as much when you live inside of it.
It’s really only palpable when you go outside the city for long enough periods of time. Otherwise, your only real way of noticing the effects of the city is how your nervous system behaves. Think: anxiety, restlessness, unsettled feelings, inability to relax, constantly moving and doing among other things.
Cities serve a purpose and meet people’s needs in various ways. And with as large a population of humans as we have, there’s really no way to avoid such places. But this will never negate the necessity of nature’s rhythm nor should one disregard the power of such a rhythm to heal people plagued by such rampant anxiety and depression.
If you sit in stillness and pay attention to the earth, you’ll notice the abiding peace. If you listen really closely, you’ll hear presence. If you put away the distractions, your nervous system will calm and your body will naturally take a deep breath. If you let your thoughts subside, you’ll find the calm that resides inside.
Sometimes all we really need is just one moment to remember that beneath the hubbub of daily life there’s another rhythm. Its presence is intense yet its simplicity is deceptive. Uneasiness easily sends us to all the habituated outlets while we overlook the one mother who’s always available to help us regulate (albeit sometimes difficult to get in touch with when living in a city).
Try it now. Take a moment. Wherever you are, stop. Stop watching TV, scrolling Facebook or Instagram, responding to texts, working on tasks, making dinner, reading a book, listening to music, folding laundry, thinking.
Put your awareness on the tree line at the horizon, on a single blade of grass, on the lone tree in your front yard, on the caterpillar that inches along the railing, on the stone that rests off your back porch, on the wind that blows through your hair, on the smell of grass from the field across the street, on the sound of the birds going to bed, on the water that ripples in the pond at your favorite park. Let everything else fall away.
You don’t need to be in these places to see, hear, feel, or know these things. You don’t need to be outside. The responsiveness of nature meets us even inside our four walls, although it’s best if you go outdoors. Go outside as often and as frequently as you can. Get away from the city and sit in a field or a forest. Go to the lake or the river. Get away from the people and just be with nature. Listen. Listen with all your senses. Feel how she feels.
When you attune to the rhythm of nature you’ll notice the rhythm of the city because it’s different. You can’t help but notice the difference. As you attune to nature, you’ll be able to drop into her rhythm even in the midst of the chaos, even while driving in traffic through downtown on your way to work at six o’clock in the morning.
This is an essential tool for well-being. One that many, many folks, unfortunately, go without. Instead, we turn to distractions like electronics, drugs, alcohol, shopping, work, etc., to “soothe” our nervous systems. Ironically, there’s nothing sustainably soothing about these things. They’re really only distractions. They take our attention off the fact that our nervous systems are unsettled rather than helping them to settle. Nature settles our nervous systems even in traffic.
I’m at home on a Tuesday night. I sit, feeling restless, so I reach for my phone to soothe me. But I stop. I know there’s nothing there that will give me what my body craves. I put my phone down. I close my computer. I push the TV remotes away. I sit in silence. I sense into nature outside my four walls. I feel her and know her. She greets me warmly and shows me what peace feels like. She shows me how to hear her presence. And she directs me to the calm that resides inside. My nervous system settles.
Nature is the great regulator. She always will be. Even in the midst of our endless drama of city living.