Started in 1979 by Joseph Cornell, Sharing Nature is a worldwide movement that brings people into closer contact with nature, experientially and sensorially, through creative play and meditative activities that are intended to allow the transcension of the self in natural spaces.
Greg Traymar, Sharing Nature’s international director, kindly shared his time with us. In a great conversation, he spoke about what he has learnt during 15 years of leading in-person training around the world, and about the transformations that can take place as we engage with the natural world around us.
Is our connection to nature a default state or something to reach for?
It’s both. I’d say that our default is to be connected; [to feel] a sense of deep oneness and harmony with nature. But in the last 100 years or so, development of technology, the media, cynicism in the world and all the things that separate us from nature [mean that] the more we’re on devices and electronics, the more we’re away from that sense of being connected to nature. We’re always on the go, we’re always stressed out. You can think of this stress as a glass with mud in it that you shake up: it takes a while to settle. It takes a while for us to settle because our minds, bodies, and lives are so busy. And that’s why we need nature experiences more than ever.
I wanted to ask about silence, or the act of being silent/still. Do you have any advice, not only for people who are trying to mature and connect to nature, but who are restless? Maybe they feel the need to talk or text someone or scroll on social media, or even have a stronger urge to post a picture of the place than to appreciate it. Is there a way that people can be truly present?
A lot of it is just a habit; it’s automatic. A habit creates a groove, right? It’s hard when a groove is there; it’s like a rut and it’s hard to get out of.
There’s a force of energy behind that habit that’s going in a certain direction. Equal force of energy in the opposite direction [will help] to break that habit. That’s why you can tell people not to use their cell phone, but it’s not enough because there’s so much energy going in that direction. The person has to be determined to put out a great amount of energy saying, ‘I’m not doing this.’ They have to use their willpower. Or a nature activity where they have to put out an opposite energy will help.
But we also have to be practical in our idealism. It’s not going to happen overnight. They’re not going to go from zero kilometers to 100 kilometers and all of a sudden be totally present with nature. It’s a step by step process.
We always have to believe in everybody’s potential for goodness; it takes us being creative and patient and trying different things. So be practical in your idealism, start small, and take that step and help people take the next step up. For most people, if we push them too much they might close down. Just asking [them] to concentrate for five seconds on the sounds [of nature], that might be all you can do.
These experiences in nature, unfortunately, are not immediately available to everyone. What are some practices that virtually anyone can do, even on a daily basis, especially those who live in urban spaces with limited access to nature?
As a child, Joseph Cornell, who created Sharing Nature, had very strong and immersive experiences in nature in which he felt so much joy! Later, as a naturalist at an Audubon camp in the USA, he was going on a walk with a naturalist. At that time it was called Walk, Stop and Talk: you would walk to a tree and talk about it. It was mostly intellectual; just information.
It was very different from feeling all this joy in himself. So, he started developing nature activities that helped to recreate an inner feeling, that were immersive, that were based on play and on trying to get people calm. All the activities that he created are very experiential, and meant to help you quiet the mind. Some people might call it mindfulness, but we prefer ‘meditative’. Meditative experiences [make me] think of the image of a mountain lake. If there’s a lot of wind on the lake, you can’t see the reflection. But when it’s very calm, you can see a beautiful reflection of the surrounding mountains and trees.
The calmer we are in ourselves, the more we can feel nature, because we’re not restless. And so all of the Sharing Nature activities are trying to get people into the present moment, maybe like a childlike mind. When we’re young, we can be more in the present moment. But as we get older, we have more experiences and start to think about the past and the future. So, as we grow up through adulthood, we need activities that help to take us out of our minds and bring us to the present moment. And they’re powerful.
One very simple activity: you sit quietly for a moment and put your hands up. Every time you hear a bird sound, you put one finger up. And you can follow more bird sounds with lifting more fingers. This will take the attention away from yourself to nature. It’s simply about receptivity, opening by listening to the sounds.
You can also create a Sound Map. You just need a piece of paper and something to draw on it. First you draw an X, which represents where you’re sitting, and any time you hear a sound, just map it, according to where you are, registering the direction and distance. I’ve done this activity hundreds of times. And every single time I do it, I’m amazed at the power it has: all you’re doing is listening to sounds, but most people don’t really listen to sounds; they’re listening to their own thoughts. We have this static in our minds and in our consciousness that prevents us from really entering into the present moment. And so Sound Map is a wonderful activity for being more receptive and beginning to listen. I do this activity often with groups of adults, and I always hear how they’ve never felt so much peace and calmness.
Well, my goal was just to have them listen to nature. But look how it made them feel! Like a mountain lake. The more we get calm in ourselves, the more we can enjoy the sounds effectively; we can experience the wilderness around us in a more powerful way.
Another activity that’s great to do by yourself or with a partner is called ‘Camera’, and it’s one of our most popular activities. It helps us to be in the present moment. And how do you do it? Your eyes are closed and somebody leads you very close to something beautiful. Maybe it’s a plant. And then they open your eyes. And after three seconds, you close your eyes and you have a very clear image of what’s before you.
You don’t know what you’re going to see. Maybe it’s just a piece of bark on the tree. Or maybe it’s a flower. But because your eyes are only open for about three seconds, you see it with a lot of clarity.
Do you think novelty or this surprise factor takes things further? Sometimes we take a lot for granted, even if we are starting to deepen our relationship with natural spaces.
Exactly. It’s about seeing common nature in uncommon ways.
And perhaps creative ways.
We are creatures of habit; we just do the same things. And [that includes] when we’re looking at nature; we see it how we are used to seeing it. So when we do activities in nature that we’re not used to, it helps us see things in fresh ways.
Do you think that sound can have a powerful impact on the way that we connect to the environment? Because we can train ourselves to hear very little things – not only big birds or big animals, but very gentle things, like insects on the water, for example. In my experience, not focusing on sight really has the power to take me very deep into things…
I think you’re on to something. I was in a forest in India and I could hear this buzzing – and in Hindu tradition, they say Om is a vibration-like sound. The sound of the divine forces; all of nature, all of the physically created world. And so, when we go deeper, maybe we’re connecting with a deeper origin of that great cosmic sound. [So maybe] we’re connecting back to our origin, our deeper sense, our deeper self. That’s why listening, not just seeing, is so important. Because the more we concentrate, the more we listen. The more we concentrate, the more we focus. All those other distractions, those self-talking thoughts are gone, and we start to interiorise our energy and our consciousness; we start to become one with something else.
These experiences are not everyday experiences. We feel one with it, and it starts with that concentration and listening, not just listening with the ears, but deeply focusing. It’s very deep and powerful. And the more we have these experiences, they touch us on a visceral, heartfelt level. We want to feel! We want to feel love; we want to feel good; we want to feel something. And so, often, when we can have experiences in nature that touch us on a profound level, they’ll stay with us for our whole lives.
When we deepen our relationships with nature, can we also deepen our relationships with the people in our daily lives?
Joseph likes to say there’s no ego when you’re out in the wilderness. It’s just pureness. And most people aren’t used to that. But when you have those experiences, it develops into more and more love and more good feelings. Ideally, we hold on to those feelings so that when we’re with others, we’re able to spread it. Like the German poet Goethe said, “A joy shared is a joy doubled.”
Sharing Nature is experiential, but it’s trying to develop our highest qualities within us, through nature. I believe that, while many people have made bad mistakes in the world, everybody wants the same thing: to find happiness.
There is an activity called ‘I Am the Mountain’, which you do with a partner who is standing behind you; they’re like your conscience. So they say, “I am”. In normal life, I’d say something like, “I am Greg. I’m American and I’m my ego. I like this, I like that.” But with ‘I am the Mountain’, you’re trying to say, ‘I am something larger than myself.’ And a lot of people have had experiences of awareness, where they felt like they’re absorbed, that they’re one with nature. It’s hard to get their intellect to wrap around that.
What is Flow Learning?
Initially Joseph had all these different nature activities. Through his years of teaching, he found that activities would work best in a certain sequence, and that students [would] retain information the best and have the most profound experience when the session had a certain sequence. He called this sequence Flow Learning.
Flow Learning starts with high-energy activities to get people moving, because learning through memory occurs not just in the brain but throughout the whole body. The more we move, the more we learn, the more we remember. So we first start with energy – but sometimes you’re with a group of children and children have a lot of energy and they’re totally out of control, right? So we need to focus that energy.
The next stage of learning is focus. After we have high energy, calm and focused, then we can guide people into the third stage, which is called ‘direct experience’ or ‘offer direct experience’. That’s where the experience is more quiet and still: you and nature coming together, ideally for a deeply absorbing experience. We have an activity called ‘Meet a Tree’, where we blindfold our participants and they hug a tree, then they have to take their blindfold off and try to find their tree. And you become merged in those moments. It’s a deeply powerful experience.
The fourth stage is called ‘share inspiration’. Research has shown that it’s not not enough to have an experience; it’s when we share the experience with ourselves and with others that we relive it again and again, and we’re able to extract more meaning from the experience. And so this whole process of Flow Learning guides people step by step into a more profound experience. The content of Flow Learning is saying, ‘How do we prepare people’s energy to absorb the experience the most profoundly?’
We are talking about experiences that are felt at a bodily level, and perhaps a spiritual level. Is the intellect involved too? What is intellect for you, in this context, and is it totally separate from the experiences you have been describing?
I think of intellect as something that analyzes, make distinctions. Oftentimes it separates, like, ‘This is a tree, this is a rock. This is this. This is that.’ The intellect can be very complex sometimes. It can get us in trouble. There’s a saying that says, “Our reason follows our feelings.”; if we’re in a bad mood, our intellect starts to make up reasons why we should be in a bad mood. So what we’re trying to do in Sharing Nature is to work with both the intellect and our reasoning and feelings, and bring them into balance. Because, as adults, we’re more predominantly in our intellect. We need our intellect: we need to fight, we need our intellect to find solutions to the problems of this world. But we can balance that with the right feeling, and to have both working in harmony so we’re not one-sided. We want it to be balanced because we care for things that we love. We might have all the reasons in the world why nature should be protected, but if you give people an experience of feeling why nature needs to be protected, that can do a lot more and can inspire their reasoning.
A lot of modern education is intellectual education. Interestingly, the word educate means ‘to bring out’. It’s not putting it in; it’s what we bring out. And what do we want to bring out? When it comes to nature, we want to bring out compassion, empathy, a sense of stewardship. And we hope that by putting in a lot of information that is primarily intellectual, we hope that it’s going to change people’s values. And of course it can, but that’s why it has to go both ways, in and out.
Within Sharing Nature’s philosophy, do you have any advice for people who might feel fearful or nervous about starting these practices in nature, especially by themselves?
We always try to start with people where they are. If you have one person you’re with, it’s a little easier because you can sense [how they are feeling]. So, let’s say for adults: where are adults more comfortable? Probably sitting down. So maybe we start with an activity with them sitting. And then the next step would be an activity where they’re standing and moving around. So we lead them gently into the experience. Obviously, we go to places that are very safe. But, I live in the Sierra Mountains here in California, and we have groups here. There are rattlesnakes or bears or mountain lions, but they’re rare to show up, so you don’t see them very often and we’ve never had any experiences where people have gotten hurt by them. So we’re aware, but don’t bring them up necessarily. It’s a process.
We want to make sure that people feel safe, and, maybe it’s irrational, but I’ve been in the wilderness a lot, and I feel it too sometimes. There was a woman who came to visit and she didn’t leave her car the first night. She slept in it. She was from an inner city in the USA, and had never left the city before. She thought that there were wild animals all around. But, eventually, she was out all the time like nothing ever happened. She started with the most extreme fear I’ve ever seen, but then she got comfortable. How? She would start by just being out in the day. She would start by seeing other people who are relaxed.
We need to always acknowledge what people are feeling. And then help them take their next step. Their next step might be, well, to go outside, to go to a local park; you don’t have to go directly into the wilderness. Go to where you feel safe, and maybe where you feel safe is looking outside your window. But that’s still nature; you might look outside your window, look at the clouds, and have a deep nature experience that way.
There is a project called Nature Imagery in Prisons Project, led by Dr. Nalini Nadkarni. She wanted to see what would happen if she took videos of nature into the prison. Soso she took it into this room where some prisoners were being penalized or disciplined in the intensive management units. These are rooms without any windows. And the prisoners asked to be sent to this room because they were feeling much better, and the crime rate in this part of the prison was going down [by 26%] because of how they’re feeling. And that was images of nature, not even real contact. That’s how powerful nature is.
So, while we might not be able to put people in an ideal wilderness environment, we can start with where they are and build an experience from that point, and hopefully they get more calm.
Are we humans part of the wilderness?
Well, what Joseph has tried to do with Sharing Nature is show that humans are not separate from nature. And that the more we feel our oneness and deep connection with nature, the more, automatically, there’s going to be harmony and we’re going to coexist in the right way.
But because we see ourselves as separate from nature, of course there’s going to be, ‘Well, that’s nature out there. And this is me. It’s all about me.’ It’s really the ego that gets us into all these troubles. And corporations and big companies that have destroyed things in a big way, we can maybe trace it back to greed. Human greed. Wanting more.
But, time and time again, we’ve seen and read stories and witnessed experiences where people feel that deep sense of oneness with nature. Nature becomes a part of ourselves just as much as our own arms and legs. And then, if nature’s a part of ourselves, why would we want to hurt a part of ourselves?
How can we keep moving forward and remain hopeful in the current climate catastrophe?
When Joseph first created Sharing Nature in the early eighties, climate change wasn’t the topic at that point. But now we’re trying to create a solution. [So] we might bring it up, but we’re not going to emphasize it. Because there are so many issues in the world, of all kinds, it’s easy to get overwhelmed, and it pulls you down. And so we risk forgetting the big picture. What that does is get us discouraged. And those of us who want to be agents of change, we can’t become discouraged and burned out.
I’ve seen too many people become burned out because they feel like they can’t create change. [But] I’ve never seen Joseph burned out. In fact, the older he gets, the more inspired he gets. Because of that, he’s always able to help many people. I mean, Sharing Nature is all around the world without any marketing. Because it touches people on the deepest level: their souls. Not religion-specific, but ‘souls’ like the universality of wanting to feel connected with something bigger than ourselves.
That feeling of expansion in their hearts, of inner joy, of inner peace, of all these qualities that we might say are spiritual: they’re universal. They are spiritual, but it might be a different spirituality for my mother, who’s Catholic, than for my friend who is an atheist. But they both love nature. And nature brings us together. So, yes, we do talk about these things, but not in a way that emphasizes them where they pull people down.
We try to give people experience of nature that lifts them up, so they leave our sessions not saying, ‘I can’t do anything’, but saying, ‘I’ve never felt this good in my life.’ In sharing nature, Joseph puts a lot of emphasis on keeping inspired: do meditation, spend time out in nature, take care of yourself in such a way that you can be the change in yourself. We need to start within ourselves.
Joseph has 25 editions of his books translated into different languages. There’s about 60 editions of his books throughout the world. In Japan, there’s, like, 35,000 people who have taken our training. It’s used all over the world. And I said to Joseph, “You’ve created so much change in the environmental education movement” – but he said, “That’s very interesting because that wasn’t my intention”; he said, “I wanted to change myself.” And by wanting to change himself, look how much he’s been able to really change the world.
Are there any spiritual practices that influenced the exercises and activities in the program?
When Joseph was young, he loved hearing and reading about the great American transcendentalists, like Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, and reading their experiences of being one with nature. John Muir’s father was very Christian, and he had to memorize the entire Bible. So when John Muir spoke of these experiences in nature, he brought it back to this Christian language – which inspired Joseph, to see John Muir speaking in these spiritual religious terms.
However, when Joseph was younger, he went to a Buddhist monastery for a while, a Zen monastery, and he was very much inspired by that: meditating a lot, and his own experiences in nature. And then, when he was in his early twenties, he found a book called Autobiography of a Yogi, by Paramahansa Yogananda. Yogananda was from India and a lot of the inspiration for Sharing Nature was inspired by this universal spirituality, and specifically by yoga and meditation. But if you look at this very nature book, you’re going to see hardly anything written about yoga or meditation, because he wanted to make it accessible for all.
So it’s not about trying to impose anything on anybody; if you’re offering an experience and they have an experience [they are welcome to] interpret it according to their background, their tradition. It’s beautiful in that way because it makes it for all.
This seems to speak to the universality of it, that everyone is trying to reach for the same thing. Does this, in a way, circle back to love – love of ourselves, of our surroundings, of nature?
We’re all trying to reach the same end. When we look at it that way, it brings us together. Everybody loves nature and that unites us. When we focus on those things, it’s very energizing.
Do meditation, spend time out in nature, take care of yourself in such a way that you can be the change in yourself. We need to start within ourselves.
If you go to somebody – regardless of country, religion, culture – and ask, ‘Where do you feel love?’, what part of the body are they going to point to? To the heart.
Sometimes love, based on our experiences, can be a disaster. Or maybe we’ve been hurt, or we have so much going on in our lives and we just can’t hear love, can’t feel love, can’t see love. But, going back to the beginning, once the lake of our consciousness is calm, nature’s love flourishes. Joseph wrote to me a few days ago, and he said, “Calmness reveals love.”
So, when we’re calm we start to feel that love; that’s what everybody wants in life. We want love, peace, joy, happiness.
In Sharing Nature, we focus on developing these qualities of love, calmness, peace, expansion, and joy through nature and activities. We don’t talk about those qualities directly because we’re trying to give an experience. But those are things people feel more and more. So, yes, it circles back to love.
All photos courtesy of Sharing Nature