Sunday, March 16, 2008

Leisure or Essential Essence?

Shhrrrtumpth, shhrrrtumpth, shhrrrtumpth - a strange squwelchy, hoarsey, staccato call emerges from the tree canopy. I think it must be a fledgling Coucal rasping its call for food as I have not seen a bird like this along the river before. As I peer among the branches an adult Turkey is resting on one of the low branches overlooking the water, while young Turkeys fossick in the leaf litter below.

The early morning rain is lifting and the song of the river explodes in the sound of Kookaburras, Magpies and Noisy Mynahs. People run by with their dogs, both panting in the damp humidity. The personal trainer with a series of water bottles velroed into his belt, stops with his client to do some active sparing. Thwack twack go the boxing gloves. Muffled voices from the rowers echo up the riverbank as their coaches or coxwains urge them into faster and more coordinated rhythms. In the distance the low throaty thrum of peak hour traffic and the growl of planes overhead seems to vanish in the space of heightened awareness and sensitivity.

The river trail is a haven, a refuge from the outer life of the city. It helps people turn inward, so connecting with the river becomes both leisure activity and spiritual experience.

Two New Zealand researchers, Christopher Schmidt and Donna Little (2007) have explored the interconnection between leisure and spirit and found that people who feel their leisure experiences are spiritual experiences say they gain a renewed sense of vitality, awe and appreciation. Being in nature was 'inspirational', 'an escape' from everyday life (235), where they could feel 'more peaceful and connected', where there were 'no distractions' and 'no one to judge you' (236).

Others found an affirmation of their Christian beliefs saying they felt closer to God. One woman described the sunrise and the spreading rays of the sun as 'a great miracle being unveiled... like God stroking your face' (236).

Walking in nature and being connected to nature, even in the city, created meaning in the lives of the informants. They gained personal insight and one Buddhist practitioner said it helped her tap 'into emotions that had been lidded by modern society' (237).

Leisure activities like meditation, yoga, tai chi also enhanced the spiritual. The informants said that these and other ritual practices laid a spiritual foundation for their day, a place for 'spiritual reflection' and 'guidance' for the day; this was in addition to the exercise they gain. Schmidt and Little comment that leisure became 'a composite tapestry with multiple elements and implications' (239-240).

If natural beauty is inspirational, a significant trigger for physical, emotional and spiritual enhancement, what happens in a world where the beauty of nature is being smothered with the entrapments of postmodern society? Governmental predictions show a rise in depression and other mental illnesses, so can nature-centred leisure help?

While nature-based leisure experiences are not the only answer, the culling of trees, the plastering over of river spaces, the consequent disappearance of birds and animals, can give rise to grief and trauma about the on-going loss of place and sense of community (human and nature). As the study by Schmidt and Little has shown, nature encounters can offer individuals guidance, insight and wellbeing, an escape from their busy city-driven lives and a provide a new sense of vitality and meaning.

Schmidt C and DE Little, 2007, Qualitative Insights into Leisure as a Spiritual Experience, Journal of Leisure Research, 39, 2, 222-247.