by Don Ingwerson
I live at the beach – or more accurately just above the beach – and have for quite some time. The name of the beach indicates why exercisers are particularly attracted to it: “Thousand Steps.”
Because the steps by my house are the only way to the sand, there is a steady flow of people from all over the world trekking up and down from sun up to sundown. Sometimes hundreds of people in a day also go by – lugging tents, coolers, and barbecues.
The surfers come first, before dawn. Then the “before work” exercisers. Then families and other beach goers come and go for the rest of the day. But these are more than just people trudging up and down some stairs. I hear words of encouragement to those having a difficult time and almost no foul words. There are smiles and compliments. People express gratitude when I’m cleaning the beach area, and I’ve had deep, meaningful conversations with many beach visitors.
Lots of these people clearly want to promote their own wellbeing, so a natural question is: how helpful to their wellbeing is their time in the ocean/beach environment?
To find out more about how natural water environments promote wellbeing, Dr. Lora Fleming and her colleagues at the University of Exeter’s European Centre for the Environment and Human Health have been working on the Blue Gym project. What they found was that people who lived closer to the coast reported better wellbeing and health.
But is it just the physical environment – the air and water – that is the key? Both my family and the many visitors to the beach have commented on the sense of beauty, serenity, and freshness they find here. Bodies of water like rivers, lakes, and oceans, have historically been places for healing. A great example of this is the Bible story of Naaman, captain of the army of the king of Syria, and also a leper. The prophet Elisha told him he would be healed by washing in the river Jordan. The Bible says: “Then went he down, and dipped himself seven times in Jordan, according to the saying of the man of God: and his flesh came again like unto the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.”
The story makes the point that Naaman first had to be receptive to healing, showing his recovery was less about dipping in the water and more about his willingness to change from anger to humility.
Perhaps this is the link between natural water elements and harmony – that they symbolize higher, spiritual qualities of mind like purity and buoyancy, which tend to free thought from stress and tension and give way to natural healing. Many think of the ocean as signifying the infinite nature of the divine, and I have often found that meditating on this sense of infinite goodness has brought me peace, joy, and healing.
As physical entities, the sand and water at Thousand Steps beach can’t guarantee wellbeing, but if someone lifts thought to the infinite to foster joy and appreciation, that certainly has a good impact. And whether someone can visit the Blue Gym or not, humility and reverence for beauty can promote harmony anywhere.