You’ve been sitting at your desk for hours. Three zoom meetings deep into your day, and the novelty of the Brady Bunch Boxes wore off sometime in the summer of 2020. What were you even working on anyway? Between the stream of emails, checking your social channels, news updates and texts, you feel like you’ve been put into a blender. You get up to use the bathroom and the room wobbles. You rub your eyes and lean on your desk. You lift your gaze and look out the window. The blue sky and green treetops bring you back to earth. You take a deep breath and smell the fresh air flowing in from the world of trees, song-birds and lawnmowers. Just looking out the window for a few seconds and you begin to feel a little better, like a human being again.
Does this sound familiar to you? Zoom fatigue. The experience of excessive screen time combined with multi-tasking in a nature deprived, tech-driven, sedentary daily routine. The average american spends more than 11 hours each day on a screen and more than 90% of their lives indoors. And these are pre-Covid statistics. Children in the United States were spending 8 hours a day on media outside of school, another pre-Covid stat. We can only guess that those numbers have all increased during the pandemic. All of this points to a trend which author and journalist Richard Louv coined as Nature Deficit Disorder, a host of lifestyle related health issues connected to the mass migration indoors which has been occurring over the last 25 years, increasing exponentially since the advent of “smartphones and other hand-held devices, and on steroids since Covid lockdowns resulting in online schooling and work for millions.
“Nature deficit disorder describes the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses.”
The idea is not that radical. Human beings are, after all, a species that evolved here on earth, outside, immersed in natural environments. It makes sense that we feel better, more human, healthier and happier, in contact with our natural habitats. Fresh air, sunlight, the sounds of the wind in the trees, the sounds and smells of oceans, forests, mountains and the presence of birds and animals, plants and wide open spaces. One of the lead researchers and champions for the Japanese practice of forest bathing or “shinrin yoku” puts it this way:
“Throughout our evolution, we’ve spent 99.9% of our time in nature. Our physiology is still adapted to it. During everyday life, a feeling of comfort can be achieved if our rhythms are synchronized with those of the environment.”
We did not evolve sitting at desks, staring at flat surfaces for 8-10 hours per day, immobile, squinting, typing and then winding down by binge watching Netflix. All of this equates to a certain kind of domestication for us as a species, we have become “of the house” as the root “domestic” denotes. Like a wolf that over time has become a Terrier, we too have become more and more dependent on large systems to provide for our needs. Our own worlds shrink smaller and smaller, ultimately to the size of the screen we hold in our hands.
But there is another “screen” that heals, which we can look to when we feel the effects of zoom fatigue and nature deficit disorder, domestication sickness and techno-stress. Through the bug screen of our window, onto the actual, real world. The one we evolved in relation to and the one that still knows how to bring us home to our true selves. And this window is 4-D, it even has expanded sensory features!
Environmental psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan at the University of Michigan have coined a theory they call Attention Restoration Theory (ART). It’s based on their research looking at the effects of prolonged periods of focus and the “directed attention fatigue” that comes with having to inhibit distractions while focusing on a task. Remember all those texts, news alerts and social media pings that you were wading through to compose that one complex email? Well, the work of trying to inhibit all of those distractions tires out our brains over time and we eventually feel drained and unable to maintain productivity. What helps, according to the Kaplans, is something called “soft fascination”. Remember when we were kids and we’d look out the window in elementary school and see the clouds floating by in the blue sky, or the green trees singing in the wind? Those minutes after lunch when all we wanted was to run out that building and be free? Well, our instincts were spot on. I like to think of this practice as “Green Gazing” and you can do it anywhere you have a window.
When you begin to feel “zoom doom”, when your productivity drops and you’re having a hard time focusing, don’t push, try looking out the window or taking a mindful walk outside. But approach it as a self-care practice, as medicine for your senses and your soul. Allow your attention to find the state of “soft fascination” and invite all of your senses to participate. Green gazing is like forest bathing through a window. We are opening ourselves to the atmosphere of the planet that is reaching out to us through our open window, inviting the exhalations of billions of trees to find its way into our lungs, even in the shelter of our modern homes.
Give yourself 5-10 minutes to allow your attention to follow whatever is moving on the earth. Flying birds, squirrels scurrying up the trees, grass gently moving in the wind…
To deepen the practice:
*Invite a few deep breaths, allowing the exhale to be longer than the inhale. As you lengthen the exhales you engage your parasympathetic nervous system, the rest and digest mode. With each long exhale feeling the fight and flight of the day melting away as you allow your attention to follow the wind, to rest in the light and shadow, to open to the beauty of the earth…
Something to consider:
*Try opening your window, even a crack if it is a cold day. The fresh air will make the practice all the more rewarding and enlivening.
When you feel refreshed you can return to your computer and your next zoom meeting with renewed focus and energy. Or, you may get up from your desk, head to the woods, and never look back again!
You may find as I have, as you make Green Gazing a part of your daily routine, that “the more than human world” outside your doors begins to speak to you in powerful ways, and that perhaps, if you can get really good at listening to the wind and the trees, pathways of health, wisdom and good fortune will open to you in unexpected ways.
Micah Mortali is the author of “Rewilding: Meditations, Practice and Skills for Awakening in Nature” published by Sounds True and is the founder of the groundbreaking Kripalu School of Mindful Outdoor Leadership at the renowned Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. He is the CEO of Shire Quests LLC and lives in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts on ancestral Stockbridge Munsee Mohican lands. To learn more about Micah’s work follow him on instagram @micah_mortali or check out his website at micahmortali.com