Since the pandemic began, I’ve taken the experts’ advice for dealing with stress by meditating, eating healthy and getting exercise. And then recently I learned about the notion of “healing places,” or “therapeutic landscapes” as they’re referred to in the medical literature. More often than not, they’re near, in or on the water, and recent studies suggest they can have powerful psychological and even physiological effects.
It makes sense to me. Years ago, in my mid-20s and recovering from cancer surgery, I’d been unable to make a very simple decision about where to go once discharged from the hospital. A practitioner in visualization meditation (this was in New York City, where in 1984 such specialties were still new) came to my room to help. Her prompt: “Where do you want to go to heal?”
My answer appeared instantly as an image even before my words could fill out the rest: blue water. A beach. The ocean. The sea would be my healing place.
Of course, it’s always helpful when science supports our gut feelings. Marine biologist Wallace Nichols, the author of “Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do,” is an expert on the healing powers of water. What are those benefits? According to numerous studies, Nichols writes, many things such as reducing stress and anxiety, boosting our sense of well-being and happiness, and lowering the heart rate.
Geraldine Perriam, a researcher at the School of Geographical and Earth Sciences at the University of Glasgow and who has done research on “therapeutic landscapes,” agreed, telling me that my hospital visualization is common. “[B]lue and green spaces – water – evoke responses in people that are calming, energizing, and can lead to better health outcomes. Just being beside water has a . . . destressing effect,” she noted, citing studies to that effect.
I chose to go home to Northern California (where at least my bedroom looked out over a kidney-shaped pool) rather than recover in my parents’ New York apartment with its gray view of Houston Street. In between episodes of feeling really horrible because of chemotherapy, I kept returning to my visualization: blue water. A friend suggested I visit Stinson Beach, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge.
“It has healing properties,” she said, adding that its power came from the blue water of the Pacific Ocean. I wasn’t sure about her mystical assertions but I was ready to give it a try.
In medieval times, Perriam explained to me, pilgrims regularly traveled to sites such as holy wells, churches and shrines thought to be healing places. Even today those who are ill flock to places such as Lourdes, or to Sedona, Ariz., in search of healing.
“Such quests for healing or well-being sprang not only from the desire to seek alleviation,” Perriam has written, “but also from understandings that the spiritual experience available at these sites would aid recovery.”
So why not Stinson Beach?
That first year after surgery and chemo, I started what has become an annual pilgrimage: I walked the length of the beach and back, seven miles in total.
Walking required nothing more of me than breathing and putting one foot ahead of the other. It allowed me time and mental space, or as Perriam said of those who have sought out healing places, a quest for “wholeness,” or putting together “a fragmented self/body.”
I had a long incision that ran from my breast bone to below my navel, which is to say much to fuse. Over time the sutures dissolved, and the pain lessened, but the proximity to the water provided a calmness and a connection to the elements that allowed for a different kind of healing, which is exactly what Nichols has described. His research suggests that even just being near water can provoke a therapeutic response.
Ronan Foley, an associate professor in geography who studies why certain environments contribute to a healing sense of place, credits “water’s essential qualities,” which include keeping us alive, cleansing our bodies and providing a “space for recovery.”
Five years after my cancer diagnosis, I took a vacation to Hawaii’s Big Island, home to the Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park, which has long been considered a sacred site and popularly known as a “city of refuge.” For centuries, the site had been considered a safe haven for those who faced execution after breaking tribal laws – safe, that is, if you could reach it by swimming and breaching its Great Wall. For those who survived the dangerous journey, a second chance at life awaited.
It had been a rough year for me – the AIDS epidemic was raging in San Francisco, where I was living, and too many friends and colleagues had died or were dying. By nearly every definition, Pu’uhonua o Honaunau is a therapeutic landscape, and what I experienced when I visited felt like a monumental earthquake. I scribbled these words in my journal in April 1990:
“As I moved through the day, through the heat, to one isolated village after another [and then to the refuge], I heard my inner self start to come back. No longer camouflaged by my work in AIDS, the calendar, alcohol, I asked myself if I wanted to write about my adolescence, my growing up, my coming out, my abuse from . . . my grandfather. I’ve never acknowledged that before.”
This realization, or what I came to understand as the exposure of a long-hidden wound, startled me and started me on a healing path.
Foley acknowledged that we don’t always understand the power of water to heal us but that it’s something you can “feel and recognize as important.” Indeed.
My healing place might not be yours and yours might not be mine.
Kelly Cross, a visual artist who almost died of extreme atrial fibrillation a few years ago, takes an annual trek to a small lake near where he grew up. He explained that the lake evokes what he calls “saudade,” a Portuguese word that roughly translates to “a feeling of longing, melancholy, or nostalgia for something or someone that one cares for or loves. . . . [The lake is] central to my healing journey.”
Similarly, Jaki Shelton Green, the poet laureate of North Carolina, found that “the ocean has always called to my body and spirit in seasons of distress or physical illness.” But Green also discovered healing places devoid of water and closer to home: “The forest, woodlands, mountains, and deserts are all archetypes of soulful medicine to me as well.”
Others have found healing in such nature – thus the growing popularity here and elsewhere of the Japanese practice of forest-bathing, an English translation of the Japanese term shinrin-yoku, which means “taking in the forest atmosphere”
All this made me wonder if any place could become a refuge of healing, especially during these times, when our ability to travel has been curtailed. Experts say the answer is yes. Health-enabling spaces exist anywhere that you find a connection to nature, explains David Conradson, an associate professor of human geography – the study of the relationship between people and places – at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, whose work focuses on what he calls supportive, enabling and therapeutic settings.
There is surely such an oasis near you. But how do you find one?
Perriam suggests starting with a local map.
“Look for green and blue spaces,” she says, which can be found in major cities (from New York’s Central Park to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park) as well as in suburbs or the country. “Even the fountains in courtyards of skyscrapers can be wonderfully refreshing,” she adds. “Plot a walk that takes you to these beauty spots and wait for the feelings of well-being to wash over you.”
Or think back to where you’ve been before, especially near water, that has been calming. It’s not like you need to travel to the seaside, much less Hawaii.
On a recent weekend, I drove 15 minutes to a local botanical garden and watched the koi swim in a pond. After a bit, I felt uplifted by their frolicking, and energized by the aquatic sounds and the sun reflecting off the surface of the water. In other words, a bit more whole and resilient.
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