Casper ter Kuile One of my favorite definitions of home is that the trees look like they should. And I think that’s so true, right? Like, we just feel at ease when the natural world looks like how we know it best. So, every day I would go sit outside on this little porch piece of a little alleyway that abuts our building. Or, I would go to the roof where I have kind of a view over some trees on the streets around us, and every time that I would just focus my attention on the tree, immediately, that sense of slowness and calm was there.
I felt myself feeling, just, a sense of it’s going to be okay, that sense of an expanded timeline would come to me when I was in the presence of these trees.
That’s an oak tree, and here’s a cherry and here’s a Bradford pear because you can smell it from a mile away. And, it really enriched my sense of where I was. And especially at night, this just totally blew my mind because sometimes I would go to the roof and I would look out over the city. And the only places that are dark are where the trees are. And so, it had this lovely sense of calm, that sense of groundedness, that sense of, you know, you are here that would just come alive every time.
Dacher Keltner I’m Dacher Keltner, welcome to The Science of Happiness. Our guest this week has been exploring the idea of the sacred in his personal life and his professional life for almost all of his life. Casper ter Kuile is the author of The Power of Ritual and co-host of The Real Question, a podcast exploring life’s big questions through pop culture and academia. Casper joins us today after trying out a practice in which he found the sacred in one of our deepest sources and one of the oldest sources of the sacred, which is nature. Casper, thanks for joining us.
Casper ter Kuile I’m so glad to be here.
Dacher Keltner I was really struck by your choice of the Noticing Nature practice.
walk us through the steps that you did?
Casper ter Kuile Yeah. So I live in an apartment in Brooklyn, not a place known for its natural beauty. And honestly, it was one of the things I really struggled with during lockdown. You know, I can get on my bike and in about 12 minutes, I’m in Prospect Park, which is a fabulous park, and was designed that when you enter it, you don’t see any buildings. So it really has that sense that you’re in a bit of wilderness. But it turns out I wasn’t the only one who was thinking about Prospect Park. So that was just a real sense of, well, I don’t want to say trapped, but feeling very much that I was in a city in a moment when I desperately wanted to be in wild expanses, or a sense of freedom. And so, I thought this practice will be really good for me to kind of focus on the trees that are here, because in the building that I live in, there’s this little tree that’s right outside, you know, it’s probably fifteen, twenty years old. So it’s not huge. And I see it out of my window every day. And when it’s warm enough, I can sit outside and just look at it. And one of the things that I noticed myself doing during lockdown, especially, was looking at the buds and the leaves on the tree.
So, it was a way in which I could kind of notice time passing and it felt like, you know, some sort of progress was being made. And I’m someone who really likes making progress. And so, you know, this last year was pretty, pretty tough. And it just felt like I could see something happening when it felt like so much wasn’t happening. So I thought, let me, let me pay some more attention to these magical trees.
Dacher Keltner Mm. There’s this recent study out by Passmore and Holder, and, you know, they have people notice nature and they get calm and there’s a lot of work on that. But one of the striking findings is people feel more connected to people around them. And, you know, to me, one of the most stunning insights about this new science of trees that Suzanne Simard has written about is, their hyper sociality. You know, they’re communicating with one another. They’re housing all kinds of species and ecosystems. They’re like a home. And then you use the word home in this relationship, the trees. Did you have dimensions of that experience to being connected or sensing being embedded in things around you?
Casper ter Kuile Well, that was absolutely what happened. You know, it started out by me being like, “Oh, you know, we’re neighbors. Like, I’m looking at this tree and it’s also a living being.” You know, and I was feeling very spiritually connected. And then I was like, wait, we’re actually part of the same living ecosystem that was really the big aha moment or re-aha moment because I knew it, but I’d forgotten it. Because, you know, while I’m breathing, breathing in oxygen, breathing out CO2, the tree of course, is doing the opposite. And I was like, “Oh gosh. Like, we’re already in a relationship.” And it’s not that this is just a separate living being. It’s part of the same living ecosystem, the same living being. And that immediately changed my whole perspective of how I look at this particular tree outside my apartment, because I’ve always thought, well, I live here and the tree lives outside my apartment. And then I was like, wait, the tree lives here. And I’m the guest, you know what I mean? Like, I’m the one who lives outside of where the tree is. And so, it just kind of inverted, I guess, the assumptive way in which I walk around the city. And it reminded me that trees were here before I got here and they’ll be here long after.
Dacher Keltner I agree.
Casper ter Kuile Really it’s the end of the working day. That’s the moment that I found myself really appreciating. And I literally take the elevator to the top of the building. I stand there and I take ten deep breaths. That’s when I was really kind of focusing on these trees as I looked out at them. And then, I have a very special friend who texts me a piece of poetry or a text every day, and I read it out loud. And of course, there’s no one on the roof at that point. So I just get to, like, read it out loud to the city of myself. And it’s this wonderful – yeah, it’s been a wonderful rhythm to have that at the end of the day. It adds just a sense of I don’t want to say closure, but like an ending to that sense of like, okay, work is done. Now, I can actually be present with my husband and not try and cook and work and do eight other things at the same time, but just read or whatever it is. So that’s been a real joy.
Dacher Keltner I think it’s one of the things that’s happening during covid very interestingly, because people have slowed down our use of trails in the United States is at record levels. People are getting out, walking near trees. And I will note one of my heroes, Charles Darwin, found most of his great intellectual discoveries when he was walking. He did a lot of his thinking through walking in the gardens of his home in England. You know, one of his central metaphors of evolution is the tree of life.
Casper ter Kuile Yeah.
Dacher Keltner So Casper, you know, the practice in the moment is about, you know, going to a place of nature, look at clouds or trees or the moon, as you talked about and then kind of noticing it and taking, you know, sort of a mental picture of it and then kind of jotting down the experience. Can you share a bit of what you journaled about the experience and where it led your mind?
Casper ter Kuile Yeah. So, every time that I would write something down, I’d try and focus on one word and the way in which it kind of came alive in that particular practice. So, for example, one of the words I played with was ‘generosity,’ because I noticed that in the branches of the trees, it wasn’t just leaves, right? But there were robins and pigeons and there was a squirrel and there was, like this huge crow that descended one day that really made me look up into the branches and see all the bits of life, like from from the tiniest little fly to, you know, to these much more bushy kind of vermin that were running around.
And it was so cool to think about a particular element or particular angle of the tree that I got to experience. Another day, I was thinking about the mystery and the fact that I get to see these branches going into the sky. But the tree also has this whole root system. I don’t quite know if this is true with every species, but sometimes you can imagine that the roots go down as deep as the branches go high into the sky. And so, again, it really shifted my perspective about what’s, what’s hidden, right? What can’t I see that is still part of this tree. So that made me really think about and write about mystery.
Dacher Keltner Hmm. I love how, you know, out of experiences, we find these complex words, sacred ritual, mystery, generosity and see where they’re going in the particular moment of the experience.
Casper ter Kuile Mmhm.
Dacher Keltner It’s so striking to me when you consult some of the best writings on relationships to nature and traditional ecological knowledge, the indigenous perspectives, and there are many. But one of the ideas is, you know, “I am part of this collaborating ecosystem of species that are just living together and cooperating.” And after certain trends in evolutionary thinking, we’ve moved to that idea where, you know, if you look at the kind of latest statements from people like Robert Novak and David Rand, it’s all about cooperation. Cells cooperate, individuals cooperate, species cooperate. How did that dimension of this experience sort of speak to your feelings of the sacred? How did it connect to it?
Casper ter Kuile I think one of the things that draws me towards spirituality is it’s one of the things that asks me to not just think about myself. I’m a pretty ego-rich person. I like myself a lot. I’m pretty great, I like to think. And that’s good, it’s healthy to have a good sense of self. But at the same time, why I try and practice spiritual practices, it’s because it draws me out of myself, not just to a singular other, although my husband appreciates it when I do my prayer meditation time, but really towards a larger whole. And I think that’s what this practice with noticing trees did as well, because it was pulling me out of my, you know, my selfish thinking. It was pulling me towards noticing the reality of other living beings, whether it was a little squirrel or a big crow or the other people right around me in the street.
And so, I loved looking at the trees in this generous way because it reminded me of how I can be right, that I can be a host of of conversation, that I can be a person who shares my resources, that I can be a person who who strives to make sure that everyone can thrive in the community around me, just like the trees are doing. And so there’s a beautiful modeling, really, especially when you see them growing together, right, there’s none of them become invisible because the others are there. In fact, there’s something beautiful that happens when they’re all together.
Dacher Keltner What you’ve just described in sensing community in nature is the divine. So it’s such a nice dovetailing with your work.
Casper ter Kuile Yeah.
Dacher Keltner So, Casper, and this is always a challenge with these kinds of experiences is which is, you know, we give you these steps, right, which are like going to a space where there’s something natural that moves you. really take it in mentally, and write about it. I’m curious how you modified it or what you added to it, that, you know, since you’ve had this deep immersion into what rituals are, how’d it work and what how did you change it?
Casper ter Kuile Yeah, the thing I started doing differently after a couple of days was I thought I’d make some notes on my phone and kind of do the writing piece that way, and it didn’t work because my attention immediately got pulled into something else. So, I started to take my little notebook, which I now have in front of me, where I get my kind of notes and just writing by hand kept me present much more easily. So that was one change. The other thing, and this may not be for everyone, but I think my most favorite sacred practice is singing. And so, often I would find myself with a trio looking at the trees. I’d find a song that would come to me. And so I sang a few songs to the trees, which was really, really fun, especially songs from my childhood that I grew up with that kind of came back to me.
It’s kind of like sea shanty-ish in that it’s, I think it comes from the perspective of perhaps a group of men who are far away from home. And they’re singing. “Well, that’s home, boys, home. I’d like to be home for a while in my own country where the oak and the ash, the Bonnie Rowan tree are all growing green in the old country.” So they’re singing about the trees that remind them of home.
Dacher Keltner That was amazing! You know, Casper, one of the things we hope our listeners are doing is, you know, taking these practices and adding, you know, their own cultural traditions and modifying and personalizing. And I am so moved by your adding singing to this. And I know you write about, you know, how deep singing and chanting is is a sacred practice. It has really interesting effects upon neurophysiology in terms of altering, breathing, activating vagus nerve. So how do you feel for you? What’s, give us the Casper description of what singing gives you spiritually?
Casper ter Kuile I think personalizing rituals is one of the ways in which it really feels also doable to sustain, you know, in the long term. And so kind of feeling that permission to to adopt a practice and to build it into the things that are meaningful to each of us. That’s such an important piece of the puzzle. So for me, singing, I feel like I’m able to say things in song that I find difficult to say in words and obviously of saying words like singing, but it’s easier to stretch what I’m comfortable with in song. So, you know, sitting on a stoop, looking out at a tree as maybe there are some passers by and I’m trying to commune with this tree. There are ways in which I can kind of sustain that sacred feeling more easily with a song than just with words or with silence, at least for me. So it kind of, it’s like a bridge into that magical place that I want to get to. It’s a way of, I don’t know, speaking the language of the sacred that makes sense in my heart and my soul. It’s very embodied, right? Because you can’t all talk at once, but you can sing together literally. If you’re singing the same song, you often end up breathing together because you’re taking a breath to stop the new phrase as you sing. So there is just a sense of joining in this greater song with your individual voice, that I love that image, that the world is one big song and we contribute to it when we’re singing.
I mean, if I’m really honest, it made me feel like I knew the tree better. Right. Like I was like, oh yes, the tree and I sing together. Right. This is our song like it’s like this, this is – It Feels like I’m able to speak the language of the tree more than. Yeah. With the song.
Dacher Keltner I agree. You know, trees are breathing. Humans are breathing. Casper, you brought our attention to this really striking idea that we’re breathing together. I’m just curious, you know, the kind of the broader thoughts you have about what this relationship to trees, even at the level of breathing brought to you or taught you in?
Casper ter Kuile One of the people who I’ve learned so much from is Joanna Macy. And I talk about her in the book and the way she kind of lays out different relationships that we have with the natural world. And so often we get stuck in thinking that nature is a resource for us to use. And you hear this in newspaper headlines like, you know, we’re going to need X number of, you know, X amount of water, X amount of land for this or that use. And of course, it serves a function, but it really centers us as human beings. And so, she kind of illustrates different paradigms in which we can be in relationship with nature. And one of one of my favorite ones that she offers is, as she describes the well as a lover. So this this beautiful softness of the wind on your cheek or the smell of a rosebush. These beautiful sensory experiences, what we get that we get to have.
But then the best one, I think, is when she describes the world as self. So this movement of not looking out at trees as a different object, but bringing us into union and reminding us that we are part of the same living ecosystem, right? The same biosphere. And that’s I think what happens to me in a practice like this is it just changes the center of how I understand the world for me and my to do list to this larger breathing living system of which I am a part, but not the whole. And that, I think, is a very healthy thing for at least for me to remember now and then.
Dacher Keltner Well, Casper ter Kuile, I want to thank you deeply for being on our show and opening my eyes, and I hope many of our listeners to the rituals that are awaiting us around us and and look forward to seeing where you go next. So thanks so much for joining us.
Casper ter Kuile Thank you so much for having me, Dacher.
Shuka Kalantari Hi, this is Shuka Kalantari, Senior Producer of The Science of Happiness. We know from dozens of studies that contact with nature is good for our mental health.
Melissa Marselle But most of this research on nature doesn’t tell us anything about the specific type of nature that’s really important for reducing your depression. Is it a park? Is it a forest? Do street trees matter?
Shuka Kalantari More on the science of trees, up next.
Melissa Marselle When I was in high school in the United States I often would spend time alone in the woods of Oregon as a way to gain reflection and process just the stresses of adolescence. I felt that all of my problems just sort of went away and became really insignificant in comparison to the bigness of the trees and the complexity of the forest.
Shuka Kalantari Melissa Marselle is a lecturer in environmental psychology at the University of Surrey in England. She studies “street trees” – the ones we plant around homes and freeways.
Melissa Marselle Because we live in urban areas. I mean, 70 percent of the population by 2050 will be living in cities. So for this reason, our study really focused on a specific type of urban nature that’s really common all over the world, which is a street tree, and how near to the home it needs to be to have an effect on mental health. In this case, antidepressants prescriptions.
Shuka Kalantari Melissa’s team analyzed information gathered from about 10,000 people in Leipzig, a city in Germany.
Melissa Marselle We had information about whether or not they were employed, their net income or their socioeconomic status, as well as age and gender, marital status.
Shuka Kalantari They also had data from city planners on where every single street tree in the city had been planted.
Melissa Marselle We found that people living in homes with a greater density or amount of street trees one hundred meters from their home were less likely to be prescribed antidepressants. The number of street trees around the home, that distance is further away from the home had no effect on antidepressant prescriptions, suggesting that it’s this daily contact with trees on our streets that may reduce the risk of depression.
Our findings on the relationship between street tree density and antidepressants was particularly strong for people with low socioeconomic status.
Shuka Kalantari They were half as likely to be prescribed antidepressants if they lived on a street with a lot of trees nearby.
Melissa Marselle And we also found that the types of trees was not related at all to depression. It was only the amount of street trees immediately near the home, at one hundred meters, that mattered.
It’s your unintentional every day, contact with nature. That’s why it matters. It’s the trees that we see and interact with whenever we look out the window or leave our home to go get some milk or when we go for a walk to pick up our kids from school, this is the nature that we’re immediately interacting with every single day. It’s not the nature that requires us to go for a walk in the park that may be 15 minutes away.
It’s just really important to bring nature where people live because we come to our houses every day. We may not go to a green space every day, but we come home every day.
Shuka Kalantari In our next episode, we explore purpose, how to craft it in our own lives, and how it can change throughout life.
Patty Brown You know, after devoting a large portion of one’s adult life to a particular task, it’s kind of challenging to shift course. And so, I have found myself looking for a bit of a roadmap.
Dacher Keltner Thank you, Shuka.
I’m Dacher Keltner. Thanks for joining us on the Science of Happiness.
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The Science of Happiness is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRX. Our Senior Producer is Shuka Kalantari. Sound design by Jennie Cataldo and Ben Manilla of BMP Audio. Our Associate Producer is Haley Gray. Our Executive Producer is Jane Park. Our Editor-in-Chief is Jason Marsh. I’m Dacher Keltner, thanks for joining us.