Meaningful Nature Experience, Research Insights 2

The essence of meaningful nature experience

Does this description of a profound nature experience resonate with you? Do you get a sense for what they feel like?

As part of doctoral research focusing on the phenomenology of meaningful nature experience (MNE), approximately 200 accounts of MNE were analyzed, common textual and structural themes identified and the ‘essences’ distilled so as to create a shared sense of what MNEs may ‘feel’ like as they are lived in their immediacy. In other words, revealing what these experiences have in common may help you come away with a feeling of better understanding what it is like for someone to have this experience. Similarly, in moving from the subjective to the inter-subjective, this rich description may help legitimize this personal experience in conveying a sense of “It is OK for you to have that interpretation – you are not alone.” This is particularly important given the potential for MNEs to positively motivate people toward living more environmentally conscious lives.

Meaningful nature experiences are characterized by multiple themes relating to both the felt experience and its context. Evidently, some themes may be apparent in nature experiences which are not considered so meaningful; some themes may arise through other types of MNE but which do not involve any natural (biotic or landscape) phenomena. This following text therefore seeks to reveal that which ultimately gives MNE its defining qualities:

EssenceOfMNE-5Meaningful nature experiences emerge in distinctly natural areas: remote, ‘wild’, authentic, vast or other novel environments are particularly conducive. We approach and subsequently engage with these areas through physical activity – sometimes intense – but yet encounter intermittent periods of rest and stillness, whether intentionally planned or unintentionally arising as necessary lulls between our otherwise steadfast exertions.

Between these contrasting moments of activity and inactivity, we find a mirroring of such patterns within our own mind – oscillations between mental chitchat and quietness. The inner dialogue and sensations may be emotionally intense, arising out of undesirable circumstances in our current everyday experience. We however find that we eventually give greater currency to the emerging inner stillness that awakens our senses. In shifting our focus from inward to outward, we become more aware of our surrounds. We begin to relax and pay attention, open to whatever may arise. We appreciate the isolation and solitude, the presence of family, the companionship of a friend and the entirety of the setting which cocoons the connections with ourselves, others, nature and, sometimes, the transcendental.  As nature’s beauty unfolds in our awareness, we feel increasingly privileged, humbled and appreciative. The dipping sun brings a relaxed and agreeable ambiance. Alternatively, we find ourselves in unfamiliar territory: possibly immersed in the unpredictable expanse of the marine world. We feel vulnerable, anxious, unnerved, keyed up and alert.

“In shifting our focus from inward to outward, we become more aware of our surrounds.”

Suddenly, the unexpected happens. An animal presents itself or other eye-catching phenomena appear within the sky, sea- and/or landscape. The non-ordinary nature of the encounter is arresting. Our senses intimately engage with that which presents itself in our consciousness: the experience grows in its vibrancy and vividness. In states of adrenalin and heightened awareness, we direct attention to the phenomena, engaging with the stimuli and attending to the striking natural detail: colours, forms, movements, markings, scents…or are seized by the survival instincts which have been abruptly awoken within us.

We find ourselves in an unfamiliar space: the animal may be in unusually close proximity or in our vicinity for what feels like a prolonged period of time. It is an interaction which beckons us into relation with this living being, with reciprocity reinforced through mutual eye contact or physical acknowledging – and possibly accepting – our presence. Attuned to the moment, we begin to wonder what the animal is thinking, feeling or what its intentions are: How is the animal reacting to my intentions and presence? How am I part of its own experience? We perceive some form of communication taking place yet wrestle with how that should be understood or interpreted. We may find ourselves between two potential extremes: willing the moment to end because we feel vulnerable, gripped by fear with our life at risk; or wishing the beautiful magical moment to last forever as we savour the rarity and purity of the encounter.

EssenceOfMNE-3When landscape is the centre of our experience, we are enveloped in the beauty, majesty, perfection and/or dwarfed by the power, scale and magnitude. The diversity  natural landforms surrounding us are suddenly renewed and awakened. Trees, rocks, waters, sky, sun – the elements in their primacy – come alive with a non-ordinary vividness. For moments, they are no longer experienced as the labels which we have cognitively assigned them, but are interwoven as one living mosaic of colour, contrasts, patterns and form pulsating with life energy, where names are almost meaningless. Our senses expand to meet the grandeur and majesty of mountains and swallowing sky or tune into the fine-scale forms and intricate patterns of plants and pebbles. We marvel at the endless expanses of ocean and light refraction.

Our emotions are triggered and released. As they intensify, we feel amazement, awe and excitement – a combined sense of wonder and exhilaration. In fear-driven states, we are anxious with senses aroused, feeling helpless with lack of perceived control over the situation. Our body responds with a rush of adrenaline which is felt as a racing heartbeat, pulsing, tingling, changes in breathing or a sudden surge of lightness, energy and vigour. Previous emotional and physical states (e.g. hardship) dissolve. We are held captive to this experience and, as it piques, we are caught in concentrated – and possibly conflicting – emotional states. Yet emerging from within the moment may be an extreme sense of calm and bliss: an unparalleled well-being or acceptance with everything that just is. Or, as the intense fear dissipates, we are gradually overcome by mildly euphoric relief that the perceived danger has passed. Surrendering, we feel truly alive.

We experience a continuous shifting interaction between the inner and outer aspects of our consciousness: a perceptual dialogue with the non-ordinary as our prior mental concepts morph to integrate this experience alongside current frames of reference. We discover a quality in those prolonged moments which takes us beyond usual ways of conceiving our interactions with nature. It is in these moments that nature evokes something profound – yet often indescribable – which moves us into closer relation with the animal or the natural phenomena, animate or inanimate.

The accepted everyday boundaries between us and this ‘other’ become permeable. Something ‘shifts’ and we deeply connect. This exact link is often indefinable and indescribable but we feel, in that moment, that its existence is undeniable. We are aware that we have momentarily formed or rekindled some kind of underlying bond or affinity that is not ordinarily felt. The sudden dissolution of divides which characterized our previous relationship with nature brings a sense of belonging and, during more peak moments, an all encompassing feeling of oneness. In that instant, we discover that we are not alone. Something meaningful exists outside of us and we welcome it.

The connections include yet extend beyond our immediate physical surrounds as we experience renewed bonds with family, friends, nature and place. There are glimpses of newly perceived interconnections between social and ecological phenomena and comprehension of the complexity of these interlinking systems. These realizations may seed insight that is shaped by whether we are alone or are sharing the experience with another person. If the latter, it may help us to interpret or substantiate an experience which is otherwise difficult to share or describe – knowing that words can never supplant the richness of all that was experienced during the event.

In the face of this enormity, we encounter something other – or even greater – than ourselves. We might speak of the power  and wisdom of nature, soul or psyche, or we reflect on mightier creative forces in the Kosmos such as that of God, the Divine, Spirit or the manifesting Universe. In the presence of such, we are humbled. Our sense of self is diminished and we no longer feel the same individual centeredness or importance as a member of the human species as before. Something both in and outside of our physical human form conspired to move us in a way not normally known, imagined or expected. We remember this experience and carry it forward as an embedded part of who we are – and who we hope to become.


Summary: core structures of meaningful nature experience

The above description revealed the what and how of MNE,   providing insight into the relationships which help reveal the essences of the experience. The core structures of MNE are identified as follows:

  • Personal context: characterized by expanded sensory awareness (captive attention), emotional response (awe, ‘a rush’) and a perception of the non-ordinary (amazement). This awakening experience powerfully and/or meaningfully informs one’s views on the nature of the world;
  • Situational context: natural phenomena suddenly/unexpectedly arise to meet one’s awareness. The perception of authentic beauty (through, e.g. naturalness, remoteness, vividness, wholeness, harmony and novelty) is integral to MNE;
  • If an animal is involved, close proximity (spatial), extended length of time (temporal) and reciprocity (meaning) are central. For MNEs not involving an animal, perceived vibrancy and aliveness (life energy) infusing the ‘scape’ is primary;
  • The ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ dimensions meet: with a diminished sense of self, there is an innate (or primordial) feeling of connectedness and interdependence. The privilege to commune with ‘the other’ redefines or reinforces one’s own sense of being and place in the world; and
  • The diversity and uniqueness of every MNE ensures exceptions are inevitably the rule.
The focus here is on general MNE (all types). The essence of synchronicity as an MNE is specifically explored here. Whilst overlap is unavoidable, some omissions of qualities of MNEs in this section have been purposely done with the view that they may be better ascribed to synchronicity as a MNE.
Zylstra, M. J. 2014. Exploring meaningful nature experience, connectedness with nature and the revitalization of transformative education for sustainability. PhD dissertation. Dept. Conservation Ecology & Entomology, Stellenbosch University, Stellenbosch. This adapted text is extracted from Chapter 4.3, pp240-242

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  • April says: July 21, 2016 at 11:57 am

    Thank you for adroitly describing this phenomenon. Glad to have come across this site. Beautiful.

  • Christopher says: February 26, 2023 at 3:40 am

    Awesome essay!! I came across it while researching the health benefits of nature, and wow this was more than I had expected! Thx for the wanderful surprise!!

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