Joseph Bharat Cornell and “Flow Running”

Joseph Bharat Cornell began running in junior high. He never joined the track team. For Joseph, running grew out of his love for nature.Joseph

In a recent interview, Joseph described his first experience of inspiration in the natural world, at his family’s home in Chico, California:

I was five years old. I was in the backyard, looking intently up into the thick fog, when a flock of pearl-white snow geese burst through a gap in the fog. It seemed as if the sky had given birth to them. Seeing the snow geese thrilled me deeply, and ever since I’ve wanted to immerse myself in nature. By the time I was twelve, I was waking up at dawn to run through the wildlands near my home. I took such delight in everything I saw that I often ran right through the ponds and marshes. (Photo: Joseph Cornell today.)

At Chico State, Joseph designed a major in Nature Awareness. And after working for several years as a nature educator, he wrote Sharing Nature With Children, which was first published in 1977 and has since sold half a million copies worldwide in 15 languages. In Japan alone, 12,000 Sharing Nature teachers now teach Joseph’s methods to other teachers. The Japanese government has endorsed the Sharing Nature activities for use in public schools.

Joseph came along at a time when nature educators were desperate for a change. Most nature books and teaching methods were based on cramming kids’ minds with dry facts. But Joseph’s new ideas reflected how he had always preferred to study nature – up close and personal.

He recalls, “Most nature education books engaged the intellect, but I wanted to engage people’s hearts and intuition, so that they could deeply experience nature for themselves. The book was practical, with easy activities and inspiring stories that captured people’s imagination.”

on-nature-trailJoseph’s work is centered around “Flow Learning™,” a series of outdoor games that give people their own, direct experiences. Joseph says the activities take the player through stages of focus, absorption, and expansion – but absorption is the key to deep personal nature experiences. (Photo: Brazilian children playing the “Unnature Trail” game in the Mata Atlantica rainforest, which is older than the Amazon jungle. Photo courtesy of Sharing Nature Brasil)

I think it might not be coincidental that I met Joseph in 1976, and that I helped edit his first book. The Flow Learning concept is eerily similar to the “method” I arrived at 20-30 years later, for running with “absorption and expansion.”

I suspect that Joseph’s ideas seeped into my pores, and leaked out decades later in my book. And I thank Joseph for helping me find the way.

The Stages of Flow Learning are:

  1. Awaken Enthusiasm
  2. Focus Attention
  3. Experience Directly
  4. Share Inspiration.

Joseph’s workshops always begin with lively games that get kids’ energy flowing. Once they’re feeling awake and enthusiastic, he leads them in quieter games that focus their attention. For example, he might have them sit with their eyes closed and count the number of sounds they can hear in nature: bees buzzing, birds chirping, the wind in the trees.

As the Flow Learning experience progresses, the games get gradually more refined, until the kids are deeply absorbed in whatever is happening in nature all around.

The stages of “Flow Running” are similar. But whereas Flow Learning begins with high-energy games, a body that’s starting out on a 2-hour run may need more warmup time.

bharat smiling Dscn1214It all begins with energy. Without energy, the body limps along, the mind can’t focus, the heart can’t expand, and the spirit can’t soar. Thus, the best time to try Flow Running is when we’re rested and our energy is high. (Photo: Joseph in 1976; photo by yours truly)

Once energy begins to flow, it automatically stimulates the heart – we begin to feel more upbeat, positive, and enthusiastic. In turn, positive feelings fuel our will.

Flow Learning is based on a simple insight – “expansion equals joy.” Joy comes when we wisely use the five instruments through which we interact with the world: body, heart, will, mind, and soul. We find joy when we run in ways that expand our health, love, strength, wisdom, and awareness of Spirit.

Flow Learning says that if you can get kids to really focus on nature, they’ll become absorbed in its wonders, and their hearts will open. But if you simply feed children facts, they’ll never truly care about nature. There has to be a personal connection of the heart. Joseph is fond of quoting a famous Japanese conservationist, Tanaka Shozo, who said, “The question of rivers is not a question of rivers, but of the human heart.”

In the 1970s and 1980s, I attended several of Joseph’s workshops and took pictures for his brochures. I found it remarkable how the kids, who were initially impatient and distracted, would quickly become drawn into the hijinks and fun of the Awaken Energy games, and how the Focus Attention activities would bring their energy into intense concentration on interesting aspects of nature. And finally, how the “Experience Directly” activities would take them into deep inner communion with nature.

In the last stage, “Share Inspiration,” I could feel that their hearts had been truly opened, as they shared moving stories about their experiences. Mind you, these weren’t trained Buddhist monks, but typical American kids of the pre-Nintendo generation.

Joseph says, Through the experience of absorption, people achieve a level of peace and joyful expansion. Often they become interested in forming a meditation practice to enhance the feeling they had during the workshop.”

If these ideas seem perilously close to spiritual practice, that’s because they are. In many parts of the world, spirituality is held to be an accepted, eminently practical feature of daily life. Joseph has shown how universal spiritual principles can deepen an important aspect of our lives: our relationship with nature.

Joseph says: “I recently gave an ‘Inner Nature’ workshop at a Zen community in Devon, England. The leader told me, ‘We wanted to include environmental awareness in our programs, but didn’t know how to do it and stay true to our spiritual calling. The Sharing Nature activities are perfect for us.’”

You don’t often hear people talk much nowadays about “spiritual runs,” as we did in the early 1970s. Today you’re more like to hear them discuss their stock portfolios. Still, I suspect that many people do yearn to discover a larger meaning when they run. Joseph’s methods can take us there, in a practical way that works with energy.

I hope that Fitness Intuition will be a worthy stepchild.

To learn more about Joseph Bharat Cornell, Sharing Nature, and Flow Learning, visit the Sharing Nature website. The Nature Awareness Activities page will give you a taste of the Flow Learning nature games. And for a lovely online nature hike, see the Trail of Beauty slideshow on the Sharing Nature site.

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