Hildegard of Bingen believed that moderate activity was essential to good physical, mental, and spiritual health. She advocated for walking after meals, and regular activity for physical and digestive health. For strength of spirit, Hildegard considered regular dynamic meditation in nature a powerful source of health and vitality.
She saw nature as a manifestation of the divine. It was in this divine healing power of nature and the transfer of energy from plants to humans, that she saw as a principal means to embrace the “greening” power she called Viriditas. She believed humans and nature are inextricably bound together in a sacred relationship, a relationship that needs cultivation.
Hildegard’s Dynamic Meditation: Stepping into Green Reduces Stress and Improves Health
Hildegard believed our interconnectedness with nature was something that needed to be tended in order to feed our spirit, mind, and body. Just as we need to tend our gardens to feed our bodies. Her ideas of connectivity with nature were what inspired her to become one of the first to advocates for the stewardship of nature. We are responsible for caring for nature, and in turn, nature will always provide everything we need to thrive.
“With nature’s help, humankind can set into creation all that is necessary and sustaining”
– Hidlegard, Book of Divine Works
Her beliefs were rooted in action. Hildegard believed our connectivity with nature must be experienced. Whether this meant eating healthy foods, tending to the healing garden, or just taking the time to sit in nature, this sacred connection requires purposeful efforts to fully receive the benefits.
The Healing Power of Green
While her notion of Viriditas came 800 years before modern science began to explore the inner workings of our minds, her ideas about nature and wellness — namely our need to directly experience nature on a regular basis — are proving out, as science unravels the relationships between nature and our well-being.
Dynamic meditation, walking outside, or even just being able to gaze outside through a window is linked to many physiological and psychological benefits. Of course, the inverse is also true, which is that by depriving ourselves of contact with nature we are disconnecting from what Hildegard described as the flow of viriditas – the greening power that flows through every living thing, and thus we become susceptible to illness and suffering.
Hildegard would call this deprivation of nature a condition ariditas, the opposite of viriditas, which is characterized by dryness. Unchecked, this can lead to a barren, arid condition that invites disease and spiritual distress.
She envisioned the duality of the verdant freshness of viriditas, and the arid, barren properties of ariditas as the two forces moderating wellness and illness. Much of her work focused on this duality and the need to cultivate our connectivity to the healing powers of nature.
While viriditas is everywhere, it still requires effort to nurture our connection with it. The more our modern lives construct barriers between us and the natural world, the more we need to work to re-build those connections.
Luckily, we have one simple solution to help you engage in viriditas: go outside.
Step into Green using Dynamic Meditation
Dynamic meditation, walking in nature is simple preventative medicine. A walk – even in the chill of winter, can improve your mood, lower your blood pressure, reduce stress, sharpen mental focus, and boost your creativity. These are the effects of dynamic meditation in nature.
There are many ways that exposure to nature can improve your health, but when it comes to rebuilding your exposure to nature as a regular part of your daily life, there is no better way than to just get outside, engage dynamic meditation, and take a walk in the green spaces.
Involuntary attention induced by dynamic meditation
Walking in nature can induce dynamic meditation grounded in what psychologists call involuntary attention. Involuntary attention is a cognitive state that processes environmental stimuli without effort or focus; it is a reflexive process that happens without conscious intent.
This process happens in the medulla oblongata, an “old” part of the brain in terms of development. The medulla is located in the hindbrain, the top of the brain stem where the spinal column joins the brain. This part of the brain is responsible for autonomic (involuntary) functioning; things like breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, and sneezing.
Importance of processing involuntary information
Along with controlling the vital bodily functions, the medulla is where information from the environment is first processed via this process of involuntary attention. The autonomic aspect of this functioning allows our brains to continually take in incredible amounts of information and initiate reflexive responses without flooding our higher cognitive functioning with the need for constant decisions in response to our environmental cues.
The process of involuntary attention process helps keeps us safe, sometimes without even knowing it. It is also what allows us to engage in the beauty of nature without having to direct our focus. This reflexive process does, however, present other challenges, particularly given the modern environment.
Overwhelming focus of concrete jungles
While we can process information that would otherwise be overwhelming if it required the kind of specific, directed focus of voluntary attention, we also can’t control it. We can’t moderate it according to our environment or mute how attuned we are to our surroundings. That’s the conflict of city life and the brain.
The problem is that hindbrain does not differentiate between the bustle and noise of an office building and the instinctive response to what may be potential threats. In other words, we know there isn’t a threat but our bodies are still primed to pay attention to the cues and initiate physiological responses accordingly.
The density of these environmental cues within our busy manufactured environment builds a stress response that can be damaging if not relieved periodically by moving ourselves into nature for a restorative period of involuntary attention.
As the modern environment becomes increasingly dense with fewer green spaces, we are subjecting ourselves to a level of stimuli that fatigues this automated sensory response. Modern living often means turning up the volume of stimuli while also limiting our ability to connect with the natural environment.
Our primary focus on voluntary information
The natural corollary to involuntary attention is voluntary or directed attention. This requires a great deal of focus to concentrate on a specific task or set of problems to be solved. This type of attention also involves inhibiting incoming stimuli that are unrelated to the task at hand. Directed attention employs several parts of the brain, primarily the frontal lobe and parietal lobe, two of the four major lobes of the cerebral cortex.
The frontal lobe contains most of the dopamine-sensitive neurons in the cerebral cortex. Dopamine is associated with planning, motivation, attention, reward, and short-term memory tasks. These lobes are responsible for managing the high-order brain functions that allow us to plan and control our actions.
While the cerebral cortex is the “new” part of the brain, relative to the brain stem, directed focus is not that new. Our ancestors called upon this aspect of voluntary attention to enter into the productive trances involved in hunting, gathering food, and building shelters.
For our ancestors, however, this was much easier to accomplish when proximity to nature, and thus a reprieve from this kind of intense focus, was a given.
Relief from voluntary information overload
Just as involuntary attention needs to be relieved from over-stimulation, the directed focus needs to be balanced by periods of involuntary attention. This is difficult to accomplish when a break from concentrated mental work does not include isolation from the hum of the constructed environment.
When our environments are over-stimulating and we enter into prolonged periods of mental focus, the brain becomes fatigued. This is called Directed Attention Fatigue (“DAF”).
Directed Attention Fatigue (DAF)
DAF is often conflated with stress but the concepts are quite different. Stress is largely anticipatory response to a preconceived threat or problem, while DAF can result from a stressful situation it is actually tied to prolonged focus as opposed to something threatening or harmful. It can arise just as easily from working on something enjoyable.
The most noticeable aspects of DAF include difficulty focusing, lack of sleep, agitation, confusion, and inability to ward off distraction. Given that we often incorporate multitasking, spend time in distracting environments, and engage in prolonged periods of focus, we are setting ourselves up to become fatigued.
A Dynamic Meditation in Nature
Our pattern of living is dominated by prolonged sedentary periods and activity that is almost entirely mental. We spend most of our time indoors engaged in non-physical activities that require directed engagement and focus without interruption.
Up until the past 100 years or so, the entire history of humanity involved an intimacy with – and proximity to nature. In a very short period of time we have progressed into a pattern of living that regularly separates us from nature, plunges us into all varieties of stimulating physical environments, and asks us to maintain prolonged periods of mental focus without reprieve.
Due to this rapid change in our environment, our biology has not kept up with the progress of civilization. Thus we need to consciously forge connections with the natural world; we need to step into the green so our minds and bodies can heal and recharge.