Each day we get up and face a complex world. When we were young, our life consisted of new challenges every day. One of the first was learning to walk, after that in quick succession came opening doors, speaking, reading, tying shoes, climbing stairs, etc. Gradually, we expanded our world until we no longer faced many challenges. Sure, high school, college, work, moving to new cities, children, all presented challenges to us. However, over time, there were fewer and fewer to greet us as we walked out the door. Then we reached a point where we became adept at avoiding challenges. Routines were set and life became comfortable. Challenges may have become unwanted inconvenience at some point. Several years ago I realized with disgust that my habit was to drive to the local grocery store instead of venturing out on the five minute walk!
But what is life where one isn’t challenged? For many people a safe life consists of backing away from uncomfortable situations inch by inch. It doesn’t seem like much each time we do so, but gradually, our world begins to shrink. We decide for example, that heated car seats are a necessity. Or that we can’t do without air conditioning on hot days. But often we can we just don’t want to. And as we build up an ever growing list of required creature comforts, designed to reduce or eliminate any challenges, the world in which we can move becomes smaller and smaller. Not only do we eliminate travel to entire countries because of the absence of our perceived needs, but even activities in our local area become too great of a challenge. Eventually, our own world is reduced to the house/apartment and few friends whom we met when the world was a larger place.
Recently, I was walking my dog on a beach in North Carolina when a rain storm swept over us. The rental house was a half mile away so I decided to just keep on walking. It was a warm July morning with no danger of going into hypothermia. Within minutes both the dog and I were soaked. And you know what? I didn’t melt! I realized then that at 58 years old, I had spent years avoiding getting caught in a rainstorm just because it might be a bit uncomfortable. But nothing bad happened other than a few wet clothes and some squishy shoes.
The rainstorm helped me realize an important lesson which is hammered home every time we venture out into nature. Things happen out in the woods, on empty beaches, in the desert which are out of our control. I believe that we can begin to expand our world again by taking on the micro-challenges which appear in nature. Taking on and overcoming these challenges frees us from depending on “things.” It’s the need for material objects which effectively creates a barrier between us and a healthy relationship with challenges. Think of the turtle. Some might say that the turtle carries everything he/she needs at all times and so they have no challenges. I’d like to flip that thinking: the turtle accepts what they’ve been given and aren’t bothered by life’s challenges. Rain, shine, hot or cold, they accept and keep on going. Nature is forever changing, forever throwing new things to deal with which requires a certain amount of nimbleness in our thinking when heading outside. Inside we have more control. We can control the temperature, what we see, the light(or lack thereof), animals, bugs and other people. We can mitigate our allergies to pollen. This is certainly a safe area. We’ve come a long way from the time when our ancestors huddled around a fire to keep the predators away and stave off the cold.
More and more scientific studies have come out in support of going outdoors. From the Harvard Medical Journal to a recent study by East Anglia University who’s findings were published in a 2018 Science Daily article, scientists are discovering what most of us already knew; that going out into nature is essential to living a healthy life. None of these studies mention them by name but I believe a key element is the nature of the challenges we face when outdoors.
So here are a few micro-challenges I’d like to put forth for people to consider. As a way to open up the world a bit more. I won’t be suggesting you climb Everest. That would constitute a major challenge for most people. These are the small actions which, hopefully, will offer proof that expanding your worldview and overcoming obstacles is still possible. This list is not complete and feel free to add your own challenges. Please remember that there is a certain amount of risk in any challenge. So don’t engage in those which will put your health in danger.
1. Walk in a rainstorm even after you’re soaking wet.
2. Get up early and watch the sunrise
3. Lie in the grass or in an open space where no lights are around and look at the stars
4. Let a mosquito bite you. Or, don’t swat at the sound of a mosquito near you ears.
5. Let bugs crawl on you while you’re sitting quietly in the woods(Be sure they’re not poisonous!). I’m thinking of non-biting ants. for example.
6. Sit outside in the dark. Just listen to the sounds and allow your eyes to adjust. Then walk around a bit to see if you can navigate walking in the woods without relying on a flashlight or headlamp.
7. If you eat three healthy meals a day, skip a meal while walking in the woods (If you suffer from any eating disorder or diabetes, I don’t recommend trying this one).
8. Walk in a stream or river with your shoes on until they’re soaked. Then continue walking.
9. In the course of your day, run errands via walking rather than drive your car. If you live too far away from stores, then drive somewhere closer and walk from there.
10 . Carry a plastic garbage bag, and using gloves, pick up all of the trash in an area of a park or nature preserve.
So there they are. Ten challenges which cover: fear of the dark, getting wet, hunger, bugs, getting up early, etc. No Mount Everests here but a few challenges which should be very doable for even the average person. I’ve found that the aftermath of taking on micro-challenges puts a bit more confidence in my step. So while you’re dealing with the isolation and frustrations associated with this pandemic, try a challenge which might make a difference for your mental growth. But don’t stop there. Tick off another one or create some of your own. Challenging oneself can become addictive and quickly you’ll see the world opening up. You’ll learn to lean in to discomfort. Finding new ways to enlarge the world will require more of an effort as a result. Keep your eyes open for challenges and take them on.
I’ve included links to two articles detailing the benefits of spending time out in the woods. https://www.healthista.com/8-ways-walk-in-woods-could-change-your-life/
Here’s an article from The Guardian about an old Japanese concept called, “Forest Bathing.”