American Association for Physician Leadership

What Nature Teaches Us About Human Nature and Mindfulness

Gregory Bentz, Sr., MD, PhD, CPE, FAAFP, FACPE

May 8, 2023

Volume 10, Issue 3, Pages 52-53


By observing and learning from the natural world, we can gain insight into our own behavior and motivations, and find ways to live more harmoniously with the world around us.

The concepts of diversity, sexual identity, inclusivity, and transparency are not unique to humans, and nature showed us the benefits of these concepts long before we started arguing about them. Perhaps nature has taught us most about diversity. Biologists have known for years that diverse communities are stable communities; the more diverse the community, the greater the stability.

For example, the Northeastern United States has a temperate climate that features four seasons, deciduous forests, and numerous plants and animals that depend on one another for their survival. Studies of their interconnectivity have changed the concept of food chains to food webs. If you have a community of plants with only three or four species and one is threatened or goes extinct, that’s a problem; the web has been broken, and it’s likely that animals will be directly or indirectly affected by the lack of diversity.

Bees have been successful at diversification to the extent that there are more than 20,000 species. When mammals invaded the large adaptive zone called the air, they too were successful; there are more species of bats than of any other mammal. The oceans also exhibit diversification. The dorsal fin of the remora fish is often seen attached to sharks — flattened and modified into a brush-like structure that clings very nicely to shark skin.

The natural world is incredibly diverse, with a wide variety of species and ecosystems that all play important roles in maintaining the balance of the planet. This teaches us the importance of valuing and protecting diversity in all its forms and of recognizing the unique contributions that each person and community can make to the world.

Learning From Nature

In nature, everything is in a constant state of balance, with species and processes working together to maintain equilibrium. This teaches us the importance of balance and harmony in our own lives and of finding ways to work with others to achieve common goals.

By observing the natural world, we can learn about the behavior and habits of species and understand the processes that shape the planet. This teaches us the importance of being curious and open-minded and of taking the time to learn and understand the world around us.

Yet another term that has emerged is “transparency.” Presumably, this is the nouveau equivalent of “the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” We can find true transparency in the mesopelagic and bathypelagic areas of the sea, which run from 650 feet to 13,000 feet deep. Most organisms here are never exposed to air, land, or sunlight, but they represent the largest ecosystem on the planet. Fish here really are transparent; they have no need to be flashy in total darkness, yet this is where bioluminescence often thrives.

Changes in sexual identity are also not new. Many species of fish, such as the Kobudai, can change sex, beginning as female and then changing to male. Limpets (sea snails) can change from male to female, as can clownfish. If an alpha female clownfish leaves the group, the dominant male will change to a female. This is called “sequential hermaphrodism.” Common reed frogs found in several African nations also can change; if the population has too many males, they can change to females.

And finally, we have inclusivity. African wildebeests and caribou comprise two of the greatest land migrations on earth, traveling hundreds to thousands of miles together with a host of other creatures. Birds called oxpeckers travel with the wildebeests, debriding them of ticks and other pests, thus demonstrating the symbiotic nature of inclusivity. Another example is the symbiotic relationship between algae and fungi called lichens.

Are we to expect that these attributes so prevalent in nature are totally absent in humans? Of course, we must be careful to avoid anthropomorphism — imparting human attributes to the so-called “lesser” animals, but it is an interesting question to ponder.

Most of these species are examples of remarkable adaptations. Perhaps the lesson for physicians and other professionals is that we must adapt as well. After all, change is the nature of the world. Nature is constantly changing and adapting to new conditions, and species that are able to adapt and evolve are more likely to survive. This teaches us the importance of being adaptable and resilient in the face of change and of being open to new ideas and ways of doing things.

Primary care physicians are now encouraged to address social determinants of health. Therefore, maybe the salient question is this: Can we do all this? And the answer? Oh, yes, we got this.

Centering Our Awareness

For better or worse, modern Homo sapiens, with our capacity for abstract thought and especially with our awareness of past and future, can seem alone in the natural world. Unlike other creatures, we can imagine our existence in timeframes other than the present. So characteristic is this tendency to meander through time that we’ve only recently coined the term mindfulness to prompt ourselves to re-center our awareness and focus on being present in the present.

In the natural world, for the most part, this present-mindedness is the essence of experience, not a discipline to be learned and mastered. Nature teaches us the importance of living in the present and of being mindful of the present moment rather than dwelling on the past or worrying about the future.

The other animals with whom we share the planet are nothing if not mindful. Indeed, the natural world is all about that part of mindfulness that prizes living in the present without the distraction of abstraction. It’s about purposely bringing all of one’s attention to bear on the moment, to being fully present and aware.

For those animals, such mindfulness is often a matter of life or death, of making a meal of a fellow creature or of not becoming that meal. Because we participate in a more elaborate and indirect food chain, we don’t deal so necessarily and exclusively in the present. For us, mindfulness comes, or returns, with training and practice, a habit from which we have been estranged by evolution itself. For the natural world in which we are no longer entirely at home, it remains the dominant and inevitable habit of consciousness.

Spending time in nature has been shown to have a positive impact on mental and physical health. It teaches us the importance of taking care of our physical and mental well-being and of finding ways to reconnect with the natural world.

So many things that we think of as contemporary and that we might even pride ourselves on creating have been observable in the natural world all along. We see those observations in Thoreau’s time at Walden Pond or the opening line of John Masefield’s poem “Sea-Fever”: I must go down to the seas again.

The world and nature offer a wealth of lessons about humans, and by observing and learning from the natural world, we can gain insight into our own behavior and motivations and find ways to live more harmoniously with the world around us.

Acknowledgment: I would like to thank the editors of PLJ as well as Professor Jeffrey Steinbrink for their help with the manuscript.

Gregory Bentz, Sr., MD, PhD, CPE, FAAFP, FACPE

Gregory Bentz, Sr., MD, PhD, CPE, FAAFP, FACPE, is with the Medical Staff Office, Inova Loudoun Hospital, Leesburg, Virginia.

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