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The power of nature to keep us flowing

Lessons from the river on how to sustain the sustainability field. Gifting immersive nature experiences may be part of the solution.

Chana Widawski

The author, Chana Widawski, paddles along the Green River in Labyrinth Canyon. Photo by Mike Shubic

Burn-out. Trauma. Despair. We have all seen articles about these topics and perhaps we have even organized or attended a session in our workplace to acknowledge these all too familiar phenomena. As leaders in a movement addressing the world’s most pressing social and environmental challenges, we must take the time to reflect on our vision for the long journey ahead. 

Whether running a corporate sustainability department, leading a team of grassroots organizers, or working in any other passion- and justice-driven way, we deserve (and actually need) a push towards the type of gift that keeps us flowing. More than any article, workshop or counseling session, the very nature we seek to protect can provide us with our solution. Will we and our colleagues heed the call of the Great Resignation? Or can we carve out the time to embrace the lessons of flowing rivers and canyon walls to sustain us on our path? 

According to Dr. Adam Borland, you may not realize you’ve hit burnout until it’s too late, when you’ve crossed the line between "really tired" and "too exhausted to function." 

I recently made the challenging decision to take a much-needed break from a beloved trauma-rich job. The first portion of my break included a wilderness canoeing therapeutic writing trip. "Descend into a 45-mile stretch of Green River through Labyrinth Canyon while descending into yourself. A deeply spiritual journey, an intentional solo is a powerful way to connect with your purpose." This invitation, on The River’s Path site, had my name on it. 

Energized by the power of writing and reflecting while being nourished by the magical flow of a calm river and the nature both around and within me, it was dreamlike to spend eight days in Utah’s extraordinary Labyrinth Canyon. I felt nurtured and held, not only by the spellbinding canyon walls, abundant mud and soothing river flow, but by a special team of trauma-informed guides including John Roedel, the "accidental" viral poet who some think of as the next Mary Oliver.  

According to The World Health Organization (WHO), burnout is an "occupational phenomenon." There is also a monetary factor to burnout, emphasizes governance adviser Helle Bank Jorgensen, referencing figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about employee depression resulting in more than 200 million lost workdays each year. The WHO reports that depression and anxiety disorders cost about $1 trillion in lost productivity.

According to Linkedin’s 2022 Global Talent Trends report, employees want flexibility in where, when and how they work. And they’re more than willing to head out the door if their organization isn’t providing it. Of more than 500 C-level executives in the U.S. and the U.K. surveyed by LinkedIn, 81 percent said they are changing their workplace policies to offer greater flexibility.

We often misconstrue the idea of attending to our self-care as somehow being selfish. And it's really not.

What is missing for me is deeper thinking about more sustainable, body-centered, trauma-informed tools for permeating mental health and well-being. My own burnout was exacerbated by excessive screen time and always being "on." According to The Cleveland Clinic, burnout is so common because technology plays such a significant part in the work field today, making it difficult to maintain necessary boundaries.

The answer must go beyond remote work opportunities. Even for those who are humbled by nature or even scared by some of its elements, a well-facilitated, immersive natural experience can be a life-changing investment that not only provides mental, emotional, spiritual and physical balance but where lessons are deposited in our muscles and bones, in our hearts and spirits to impact our entire beings and our work. 

Fire circle

The Green River tour gathers around a fire circle. Photo by Mike Shubic

The power of my time on the Green River

Relaxed in the canoe’s front seat on the second day of our river trip, mesmerized by the storied canyon walls and stillness of the river whose subtle flow was carrying our group along in our meticulously organized and well-stocked canoes, I hummed the tune I learned the night before. It was magical that first night, under the starry sky, feeling the campfire’s warmth and seeing beauty in each direction, including the colorful lit tents, where some participants were nervously getting to know their gear and others peacefully journaled, all of us eager to embark on a journey designed with empathy and communal intention.

Now I know I skew hippy and am completely in my element when immersed in nature. I also know that isn’t the case for many, and it most certainly wasn’t for everyone in our group. It was the need for recharge, inspiration, connection and meaning that drew folks in and kept them glowing. For some, the opportunity fell into their lap and they said "yes" despite pushing comfort zones. Others consciously prioritized this type of experience, one even delaying payment of taxes to afford the trip, rightfully predicting its deep impact.

As I sat perched on a rock, deep in the canyon, my feet chilling in the freshwater and healing mud, shaded by the uniquely rounded wall of the area that intrepid, visionary river guide Lauren Bond refers to as "the Grotto," I felt not only awe and wonder about the magical nature that shaped this sacred space but transfixed by the power of our communal experience. Poet John Roedel stood before us in this natural sanctuary and shared his vulnerable self, reflecting on his current experience and reading from his writings. Another member shared a poem critical for her own evolution. Others stayed silent, taking it all in, before we set off for an afternoon on our own — or with others — whatever felt right for each person. 

Finding the words to describe the internal impact of these moments is challenging, but being able to feel them, channel them and let them guide me, even now, months later, in my way-too-busy New York City life, is what I wish for all. 

While research demonstrates the scientific and biological impact of nature exposure on brain function and stress levels, even in limited doses, to keep us going for the long haul, an immersive nature experience can be life-changing and money-saving. The World Economic Forum says companies get a $4 return on investment for every $1 spent on mental health care and initiatives in the workplace.

'A healing balm'

According to Windcall Institute, which offers nature-based programming for frontline organizers:

These types of experiences provide the chance to connect with multiple intelligences: your own inner wisdom; intuition; emotions; consciousness; and imagination. Some of these qualities erode over time in our work. Reclaiming them can reconnect us to our purpose in a deep way, tap into our strengths, and help us inspire others through a different kind of organizing presence.

Green River and Labyrinth Canyon

The Green River and Labyrinth Canyon walls. Photo by Chana Widawski

While an immersive nature experience might feel like an indulgence, I can assure you it is a healing balm for the soul and brain, and a necessary ingredient for a sustainable future in the field. It is the ultimate gift. Choosing the right type of provider to maximize the mental health and personal impacts of a nature based journey is critical.

Seven considerations for picking the right immersive experience:

  1. Staffing/guides: Qualified guides not only ensure a trip will include solid equipment, ample supplies, nourishing meals and the necessary technical skills for any circumstance, good staff also provides a holistic experience by imparting naturalist knowledge, modeling and inspiring creative expression, and facilitating a sense of belonging and community. It was clear to me that the Rivers Path team could provide all of these things and was also trauma-informed, with a commitment to long-lasting personal impact, meaningful connections and resource sharing. While it is important to feel confident that the company is a solid, reputable outfitter, a safe space that inspires introspection, growth and connection is key.
  2. Participants: While solo time in nature can be incredibly nourishing, the benefit of a group experience can be life-changing, even for introverts. It is in teamwork and opportunities to both informally and formally share oneself, that a diversity of voices, experiences and nonjudgemental listening ears can provide important perspective, ideas, realizations, validations and new ways of being. Some groups may also have an intentional theme or purpose.
  3. Physicality: Just being in nature is important, but physical exercise through paddling, hiking, stretching or other activity, especially one that might be new to you, is important too. Many trips will indicate that no previous experience is necessary. As Windcall reminds us, just as transformation is felt in the body politic of our communities, it is also felt in our body’s movement, senses, emotions and spirit. Multiple types of physical activity, nutritional food and optional support services that nurture an embodied approach to being and doing is key. 
  4. Mindfulness opportunities: The longer the trip, the more opportunities there will be to connect with one’s personal motivations and needs, and to hone in on daily routines. New, positive practices can be sparked while old habits can be dismissed. Subtle lessons from nature’s metaphors can also help us reshape work life boundaries. A special photo, rock or dried flower can continue to inspire for years.
  5. Technology fasting. Using phones as cameras can be helpful but seizing an opportunity to disconnect from technology can be game-changing. Disconnecting enables us to be fully present and to connect with both nature’s pulse and our own.  
  6. Balance: Whether you are an introvert or extrovert, we all benefit from time alone and time together, in stillness and in motion, in silence and in sound. Knowing a trip will offer opportunities for both individual and communal experiences and for rest and action is imperative. 
  7. The environment and flow: The multi-sensory experience that comes with nature immersion can be transformative, from the smells, patterns, rhythms and indescribable beauty on the outside, to the internal stillness and playful movement inspired internally. If possible, choose an ecosystem that is new to you. As Lauren Bond of The River’s Path suggests, "Canoes can take us places that are difficult to reach on foot and offer a front-row seat to the secret lives of animals that depend on the river for survival. The river is also a place that abounds in symbols and metaphors, both cultural and personal. Being in the presence of such a vital life source can be healing and thought provoking. The emotional connections people have to nature are also an important part of environmental stewardship."

At the end of the day, it all comes down to balance. "We often misconstrue the idea of attending to our self-care as somehow being selfish," Borland says. "And it’s really not. I often remind my patients that in order to be the best friend, spouse, parent or child, you have to attend to your self-care. If your tank is empty, you can’t be the type of person you want to be to these others in your life."

Sometimes we need that extra push (or gift) to carve out the time to embrace all that our flowing rivers and canyon walls can offer. Immersive nature experiences magnify our sense of self, the power of unity and community, and the interconnectedness of it all. Permeated through our muscles, bones, brains and souls, we need these experiences to sustain and keep us flowing.

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