January 12, 2024
Oh do you have time
for just a little while
out of your busy
and very important day
for the goldfinches
that have gathered
in a field of thistles
for a musical battle,
to see who can sing
the highest note,
or the lowest,
or the most expressive of mirth,
or the most tender?
Their strong, blunt beaks
drink the air
as they strive
not for your sake
and not for mine
and not for the sake of winning
but for sheer delight and gratitude –
believe us, they say,
it is a serious thing
just to be alive
on this fresh morning
in the broken world.
I beg of you,
do not walk by
to attend to this
rather ridiculous performance.
It could mean something.
It could mean everything.
It could be what Rilke meant, when he wrote:
You must change your life.
"The Invitation" poem by Mary Oliver
In the bustling world of academia, Aristotle was known not only for his philosophical brilliance but also for his unconventional teaching style. He would often engage his students in discussions and lectures while strolling through the shaded paths of the Lyceum in ancient Athens. This practice, known as 'Peripatetic' teaching, not only symbolized his commitment to philosophical discourse but also inadvertently highlighted the profound benefits of incorporating movement and the outdoors into the sense making process.
Today, as we navigate the complexities of modern workplaces and professional development, there's a growing realization of the advantages offered by outdoor workshops. Aristotle's habitual walking meetings offer a striking parallel to the advantages found in taking dialogue beyond traditional meeting room walls - and we are not talking only about easing the backs of participants.
More than a decade ago, I (David) had the privilege of hosting learning journeys at Avalon Sustainability School. During these programs—spanning from multi-day to multi-week camping experiences in the Spanish Pyrenees—we provided an immersive environment that went beyond the program's content. Participants were encouraged to engage with the natural surroundings through various activities, seamlessly intertwining with the core program. From serene walks to immersive land art projects, permaculture endeavors, and even adventurous mountaineering activities such as hiking, climbing, or canyoning, each element was integrated with the program's essence. Witnessing participants embark on their personal developmental journeys, I also observed an unprecedented level of presence, engagement, awareness, and integration—a profound transformation seldom experienced in traditional learning and collaborative settings.
Nature's unparalleled ability to ignite creativity motivated me and my colleagues at Greaterthan to craft workshops and experiences for our clients that take place outdoors. Anna and I set out on a journey to uncover the unique and highly supportive aspects of outdoor environments for fostering collaboration. Here are the five key advantages we discovered about working in nature.
We can learn about the benefits of bathing in the atmosphere of the forest from Japanese culture. While the concept is not new, (many cultures have used nature as a remedy and preventive measure, deliberately and non deliberately) Shinrin-yoku, translated to forest bathing, is a growing practice and one that's caught the attention of researchers. It is a mindful healing practice now spread across continents, where people immerse themselves in nature, while mindfully paying attention to their senses and experiencing wandering without a destination. Alongside this, a body of work has emerged that studies the implications of forest bathing on a physiological and physical level. Studies have reported the benefits of shinrin-yoku include the improvement of the immune system, the cardiovascular and respiratory systems (Williams 2016). Additionally improvements have been described in mood disorders and stress, and mental relaxation (Park et al. 2012).
Taking your team outdoors can improve their physical well-being while also impacting their physiological state. The possibility of diluting the stress factors in a team retreat by simply going outside is a no brainer for us.
Naturally, being outdoors involves movement, and physical activity aids our cognitive processes. Walking, in particular, elevates our heart rate, prompting faster blood circulation that delivers increased oxygen and nutrients to muscles and organs, including the brain. Stepping away from the office chair not only stimulates physical activity but also redirects internal energy, breaking any stagnation caused by prolonged inactivity and blocked emotions. Stagnation is a common experience for everyone, impacting creative flow, access to innovative solutions, the speed and posture of responses, the ability to discern urgency and address situational needs, and overall body well-being.
Prioritizing the well-being of the physical body stands out as a crucial advantage of spending time outdoors and engaging in physical movement. *It is imperative to consider a diversity of physical and psychological experiences when designing environments. Collaborating with a team of experienced facilitators becomes advantageous in this context.
Nature is a reservoir of timeless wisdom. The natural environment has the ability to mirror back to us and inspire around a question we bring forth while being attentive to the environment around us. In the living systems design principles, we look towards the fundamental principles in how nature has operated and evolved to learn about how we can better create complex adaptive systems. What is important here is becoming aware that we are of nature and are interdependent with the made and natural world around us.
However, awareness alone constitutes only a part of this profound experience. Deliberate learning from nature enriches our perspective, cultivating a mindset of systems thinking that empowers us to approach questions and challenges through this lens.
Being outside often encourages a different perspective on issues. Outside of the usual four white walls, our eyes assimilate to a fresh view - expanding the panorama for a wide and vast view and a microscopic view of life. This can help participants see things from different angles, leading to more holistic problem-solving. Outdoor settings can reduce distractions and help participants focus better on the workshop content. You don't have to take on a 5 day Vision Quest, go on a team building seminar climbing Mont Blanc or participate in a multi-day Hiking & Coaching experience to experience the benefits of nature space for your leadership staff and team (even though that's a valuable option too, of course - get in touch if that's what you are looking for 🙂).
The outdoor environment and movement of our body encourages not just a vaster perspective but a diverse perspective. While deepening a connection with a colleague through a conversation, the environment of the experience mirrors to us diversity, complexity, and vitality. The mind may be deeply focused on the conversation, however the rest of the body picks up on versatile elements around us and influences our mind’s experience.
The shift from indoor to outdoor environments constitutes a multi-sensory awakening—an unlocking of senses often constrained within the confines of a conference room. Each outdoor experience is inherently personal, drawing us into the present moment and fostering an acute awareness of our surroundings. This heightened awareness expands our capacity to be fully present, ultimately leading to a more focused state. This transition allows us to occupy a different mental space when collectively addressing questions or challenges. Consider the last time you sought clarity, decompression, or engaged in a vulnerable conversation during a walk in nature with dear companions. Why not make such experiences more accessible in a work setting?
In nature, whether in a park, forest, along a stream, or atop a mountain, the smells, textures, colors, and sounds envelop us, compelling us to attune deeper to these multidimensional sensations. The onus is then on us to immerse ourselves fully and engage with these sensory elements in a profound and enriching manner.
All of this should not go without a little warning: Post-Its don’t stick on tree trunks and don’t like the wind - Sharpies don’t like the rain. Nature doesn't accommodate in the same way as a meeting room. Anticipate uncertainties, but embrace them as opportunities. Of course there is some anticipation that you could and should take (like thinking of shading, seating, shelter, water etc), but with good prep you will be good to go! In our experience, those unexpected challenges like weather changes or logistical issues actually encourage adaptability and resilience among participants - we see that dealing with outdoor elements cultivates these essential skills that translate into better problem-solving in any setting.
The benefits of being in nature show themselves already in little interventions such as:
And consider working with a nature-based facilitator to create the journey with you. At Greaterthan, we specialize in creating emergent experiences and bringing to life your team retreat, strategy meeting, conflict resolution or whatever other meeting outdoors.
Come along with us outside …
You walk out onto the grass, maybe you’ve got your shoes on, maybe the green velvet carpet invites you to let your feet roam free as you walk along it. The fresh cut of the grass swifts your nostrils with delight and then an instantaneous sneeze. Your eyes wander to the hypnotizing trunk of the tree, lines traveling up and down along its spine, creating endless journeys.
About the Authors
David Weingartner - Partner at Greaterthan, mountain enthusiast and organisational developer. Alongside his work as a consultant and facilitator, he teaches new ways of organising and societal transformation at Munich University. He is currently on a mission to bring more of his clients and partners into the outdoors.
Anna Kopacz is an Associate at Greaterthan and founder of With Intention Studio, a collaborative learning and practicing space for other ways of knowing. Anna harnesses the transformative power of movement as a tool for navigating tension and reshaping perspectives within commonplace and stagnant relational dynamics. Her expertise extends to systemic experience design, whole-body facilitation, and the nuanced art of organizational culture alchemy. Through her multifaceted approach, Anna aims to bring about a holistic transformation in how we perceive and interact with the world around us.
Kotera, Y., Richardson, M. & Sheffield, D. Effects of Shinrin-Yoku (Forest Bathing) and Nature Therapy on Mental Health: a Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Int J Ment Health Addiction 20, 337–361 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11469-020-00363-4
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