By Chana Budnitz
One of my all-time favorite quotes is by John Muir, an early 20th century Scottish-American naturalist and environmental philosopher. The quote goes like this: “I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out until sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.” Muir, also known as John of the Mountain, advocated for the preservation of wilderness and for people to be more in touch with nature. Going out into nature, Muir theorized, was really another way for a person to “go in”– meaning to look inward at themselves. Solitude allows people to confront their innermost feelings and thoughts, which breeds self-awareness, while nature allows them to stand still, giving people the space to reflect in its surroundings.
This concept isn’t just flowery rhetoric or lofty philosophical idealism – it actually has practical implications and benefits. There is more and more research being done that indicates the importance that nature plays in our lives, and how interacting with nature can be beneficial. Even more so, research, movements, and individuals indicate the value of spending time alone in nature, without distraction from anyone or anything.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Father of the American Transcendentalist movement, said it best in his 1836 essay “Nature:”: “To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me. But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars. The rays that come from those heavenly worlds will separate between him and what he touches.” Alone time is not cuddling up in front of your laptop and catching up on a favorite show, rocking out to music when no-one is around, reading a great book, or even doing virtually anything alone. In fact, these are often just ways to further distract yourself. Nature and, more specifically, the contemplation of and introspection in nature, played a major role for Emerson and the Transcendentalists. Henry David Thoreau, one of Emerson’s primary followers, further pioneered this idea by actually going out and living in the woods for some time. In a lecture he gave at the Concord Lyceum on April 23, 1851, later published posthumously under the title “Walking,” Thoreau said, “There is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright.” Walt Whitman, who was greatly influenced by these thinkers, continued to spread these ideas. His book, Leaves of Grass, heavily emphasizes the interconnectedness of nature, Divinity and humankind.
Looking back even further, many of these Transcendental beliefs are not all that different from some of the practices advocated by the Chassidic movement in the mid-18th century. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov pushed his chassidim to practice Hitbodedut –– loosely translated as meditation, but actually meaning going out alone in nature to connect with one’s higher self and G-d. A similar Chabad concept called Hitbonenut advocates for contemplation of nature. It stresses the importance of studying and learning from nature in order to reach a higher spiritual place.
Although all of these movements and ideas are nuanced, they all point to an underlying theme: significance and power in experiencing nature by yourself, in seclusion.
During my two years studying in Israel, this idea was something that became internal and intrinsic to me. My various trips to the Jerusalem Forest gave me time to reflect, de-stress, and become who I am today. Sitting on a mountain top all alone, surrounded by the vastness of nature and the sounds of wind blowing through the trees, would ground me (no pun intended) and would serve as a reminder of a bigger picture. Eventually this became part of my routine, and when I couldn’t go, I felt a lack. Other times I would take walks by myself through the winding streets of Jerusalem in order to gather my thoughts–not as an escape, but as a way to be more present and aware of myself and the world around me.
But there’s more to be gained than just self-awareness. Nature allows us to take the chaos out of day to day life and rebalance. Tiziano Terzani, the Italian journalist and author who secluded himself in a cabin Japan in the ‘80s, spent his days observing nature, “listening to the winds in the trees, watching butterflies, enjoying silence.” He wrote that for the first time in a long while he felt free from the incessant stresses of daily life. “At last I had time to have time,” he wrote. Maybe the reason for this is that he literally had no responsibilities anymore but whatever the reason, he is actually backed by science. Various experiments found lower levels of cortisol — a hormone responsible for stress — and decreased heart rate in individuals who spent time alone outdoors. But if self-awareness and lower cortisol levels are not enough, various other studies show that spending time alone outdoors can also help sharpen our thinking and creativity and promote overall health.
Going out into nature is something that can benefit anyone at any stage in life. Still, It’s important to be balanced. This shouldn’t be an escape from life, but rather a way to better engage in life. Even on our busy, urban, mostly treeless NYC streets, there are still opportunities to implement these ideas. Taking the scenic route across Central Park, instead of hopping on a train, or sitting by The Hudson River one Sunday afternoon, can offer some much-needed tranquility and connection with nature. Everyone requires alone time in varying degrees, but we do all need time to relax, unwind, and re-orient. Indulge yourself, step away from everything for a little bit, every distraction, and don’t be afraid to just be alone with yourself!