What is meaningful nature experience?
“Powerful non-ordinary experiences with/in nature that are particularly profound, significant, affective and difficult to wholly describe.”
~ Zylstra 2014, adapted from Swan 2010 and Morse 2011
A meaningful nature experience (MNE) occurs when perceived phenomena in nature* form the significant content of an experience that may be otherwise known as: peak, flow, exceptional, awakening, synchronicity, transcendent, mystical, ecstasy, spiritual, epiphany, revelation and/or ‘a-ha’ experiences. Since everyone’s experience is unique, the definition needs to be kept open so as not to presume what a MNE ‘should’ be or to specify what people may find meaningful.
MNEs can be triggered through a physical encounter with wildlife or with more symbolic phenomena (e.g. patterns, signs, metaphors, visions) perceived in nature. MNEs usually involve an awakened or heightened state of awareness with sensory arousal, emotional intensity and/or shifts in normal perception commonly reported. A sense of connection may be perceived, felt or intuited with the non-human “other” (e.g. plant, animal, landscape).
Read this description to get a sense for what it feels like to live through a meaningful nature experience.
To help further our understanding, we would welcome hearing about your own MNEs. So feel free to share your experience (anonymously, if preferred).
* Note: ‘Nature’ is understood in this definition as any biophysical element or organism and which may include plants, (wild) animals, geological landforms or celestial bodies (e.g. sun, moon) (based on Bratman et al. 2012). ‘In nature’ is understood as the biophysical environment as it exists without overt human influence. MNEs may also occur ‘with nature’ across various contexts ranging from indoors (e.g. with an insect inside a house) to pristine wilderness defined areas. However, MNEs are most often reported when one is physically in a natural or semi-natural landscape.
It is also recognized that the definition of MNE definition creates / perpetuates the perceptual division between humans and nature but, as is the intent of classifications, it allows for conceptualizing complex phenomena existing within a connected social-ecological system. It is also recognized that interaction with domesticated animals or pets may result in a MNE; however, these were not included in the research underpinning eyes4earth.org and are therefore excluded from this MNE definition.
- Bratman, G. N., J. P. Hamilton, and G. C. Daily. 2012. The impacts of nature experience on human cognitive function and mental health. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1249:118–136.1:184.
- Morse, M. 2011. River experience: A phenomenological description of meaningful experiences on a wilderness river journey. PhD dissertation. University of Tasmania, Hobart.
- Smith, L. D. G. 2007. A qualitative analysis of profound wildlife encounters. Journal of Dissertations 1:184.
- Swan, J. A. 2010. Transpersonal psychology and the ecological conscience. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology 42:2–25.
- Zylstra, M.J. 2014. Exploring meaningful nature experience, connectedness with nature and the revitalization of transformative education for sustainability. PhD dissertation, Stellenbosch University. Download »
- Image source: Dan Werkman.