A few days ago, two friends and I cycled 42 miles to Barton’s Cove, a Massachusetts campground with acres of forest, lakes, and rock outcrops. With the time constrains of a full undergraduate course load, I tend not to cycle to places farther than 10 miles during the school year, which means my muscles and cardiovascular system were still acclimating to longer bicycle rides. This was also the first time that I ever jumped off a ~15 foot outcrop.
The question is: Why did we go on this adventure? Why did we put ourselves through mile after mile of sweat and muscle use, swim through ~60° F water, and face the fear that accompanies staring down a steep descent into that same water?
I think for me, one of the major reasons was experiencing nature more viscerally than otherwise.
While sitting in a comfortable chair in an air conditioned 70° F classroom or office, it’s often the case where many people become accustomed to this specific comfort range. Events like rain inside the room, wind blowing papers across desks, darkness, or your body’s muscles burning with intense use are more likely to represent calamities than events to be enjoyed as stimuli to one’s senses. A book I am currently reading, Four Arguments Against the Elimination of Television, argues in part that most human built spaces are deliberately constructed to focus the senses on specific work, a design that has unfortunate side effects. The lights are on–and on brightly–so that work may be clearly seen; the temperature is constant, so that one’s attention can be focused on work; the windows are often permanently shut, so that pollen, dust, rain, fresh air, or other extraneous material remains outside. Despite this intentional design indeed being conductive to focusing one’s attention on whatever work needs to be completed, it is also a design that reinforces a narrow range of sensory stimuli.
It’s focused yes–and it tends to limit your growth as a human that thrives on varied experiences and sensations.
In contrast, when one engages in intense physical exercise in natural spaces, one’s awareness is more likely to be broadened and heightened. For example, right before jumping into a steep descent, or piercing cool water, or cycling down a high grade hill, one feels the ephemeral weightlessness of their body, the cool water embracing their skin, or a rushing wind blowing around their face. It is these moments of intense sensory stimulation that can make life more full of excitement, meaning, and, if done with others, social bonding. Discovering and exploring one’s fears–in this case, jumping off a cliff for the first time–also adds sensory stimuli to the experience. In my case, the hesitation, apprehension, and mental debate I felt before making a jump made the resolve of landing safely and abruptly so much the more intense, empowering, and worthwhile.
It is because of these reasons that I’d like to continue carefully exploring activities that allow for broadened and heightened sensory stimulation between my body and the world around me; activities like mountain cycling, cold showers, free swimming, barefoot walking, and more.
If you’re currently feeling a common and understandable narrow range in your own sensory range, it’s okay–we’ve all likely felt that before. If you’d like to increase your range, spending time in nature might just be one of the most effective ways to do so; I’d highly recommend it. You don’t even have to necessarily jump off a cliff for your senses to feel new sensations–a conscious walk through the woods or a city park might just offer the variety your body might be seeking.