Spiritual health is a new field of health promotion that has gradually become more important in recent years (Vader, 2006). Classical definitions of spirituality tend to concentrate on religious and ecclesiastical matters or matters concerned with the soul, but current studies adopt much wider definitions (Fisher et al., 2000). Spirituality is defined as having a meaning and a direction in life. Spirituality involves the development of positive morals, ethics, and values. Being healthy spiritually helps us to demonstrate love, hope, and a sense of caring for oneself and others (School District 6, 2009). Spiritual health is related to other aspects of health (physical, mental, and social) and is seen as a basic resource of other health aspects. Spiritual health leads to vitality and improved behavior and motivation (Hsiao and Huang, 2005). It also allows individuals to live more meaningful lives. Spiritual well-being is regarded as an essential need of human beings; however, there have been practical difficulties in identifying, defining, and measuring this dimension (Vader, 2006). Due to this difficulty in outlining spirituality, spiritual health studies in different fields are in their early stages.
Research on the restorative effects of nature (Bell et al., 2001) has focused on physical and psychological benefits instead of spiritual benefits. The physical and psychological benefits derived from natural environments can be applied to urban areas, but these are often transient (Hietanen and Korpela, 2004). Previous research has shown that to obtain long-term spiritual benefits, people must spend a greater amount of time in natural environments that have the potential to lead to deep restorative experiences that can provide the opportunity to reflect on life's larger questions such as one's priorities, goals, and one's place in the overall scheme of things, and the sense of “being at one with the universe” (Herzog et al., 1997; Kaplan and Kaplan, 1989). However, these studies have focused only on wilderness areas (Fredrickson and Anderson, 1999; Heintzman, 2002; Kaplan and Talbot, 1983; Williams and Harvey, 2001) or were conducted in locations with significant spiritual meaning, such as monasteries (Ouellette et al., 2005). There are few studies on how nature in urban areas leads to spiritual benefits.
Explanations of the restorative effects of nature are related to visual preferences (Kaplan et al., 1998; Ulrich, 1983) and follow the classical idea of disinterested contemplation of sensuous and formal properties (e.g., lines, form, color, or textures) of isolated and solitary pieces of art (Carlson and Berleant, 2004). Most of the research based on disinterested contemplation indicates that these restorative effects are temporary because the appreciation is usually trivial and superficial. On the other hand, “there is in the appreciation of nature, a movement from shallow and trivial to deep, serious aesthetic experience” (Carlson and Berleant, 2004). Serious aesthetic experience is an engaged experience that comes from the participant's point of view and occurs within an environment (Berleant, 1997; Carlson, 2002). It is an open, engaging, and creative mode of appreciation, guided by realizations on the character of the natural world (Carlson and Berleant, 2004; Hepburn, 1966).
The many-leveled structure of an aesthetic experience of nature can include a great diversity of constituents, from the most particular—rocks, stones, leaves, clouds, shadows—to the most abstract and general ways that we comprehend the world as a whole. The landscape can be viewed as ominous, cosmically ominous, or as revealing and concealing great beauty (Hepburn, 2004). During high-leveled aesthetic experiences, people often have philosophical feelings and an understanding of life, history, and the universe (Li, 2001; Ye, 1993). There are many similarities between an aesthetic and restorative experience (Yu et al., 2006). Thus, spiritual benefit can be considered a result of a highly aesthetic experience. To promote the spiritual benefits of nature, the aesthetic experience must be enhanced.
Metaphysical imagination is the contemplation of perceptible analogies between life and the scene before us and provides a superior aesthetic experience because it transforms scientific knowledge of scenes to metaphysical principles of life (Hepburn, 2004). It is a component of the experience of the present landscape; it is fused with sensory components, but is not a meditation aroused by the surroundings (Hepburn, 2004). Metaphysical imagination can avoid shallow or trivial appreciation that results from personal and emotional responses (Carlson, 2009). Thus, it produces convincing results that are persistent and are different from temporary fantasy (Hepburn, 2004). With metaphysical imagination, people can interpret nature as an inspirational, generalized, and metaphysical truth and can achieve a vision of the meaning of life, the human condition, and the human position in the universe. This concept is similar to the beliefs of the ancient Chinese; the principles of humans and the universe are based upon the same system, and by observing the ways of nature, people can recognize these principles of their own lives (Chuang Tzu, n.d.). Thus, a highly aesthetic experience could result in spiritual benefits.
Horticultural activities are interactive compared with static scenery appreciation; thus, they have more potential to result in highly aesthetic experiences (Yu et al., 2006). However, if the participants treat horticultural knowledge simply as scientific knowledge, they cannot achieve highly aesthetic experiences. The participants must be capable of metaphysical imagination to transform the scientific knowledge of horticultural activities into the metaphysical principles of life and acquire spiritual benefits (Yu et al., 2006). To determine practical approaches for triggering metaphysical imagination, this study reviews the content of classical Chinese literature and the Christian Bible and treats plant parables as trigger cues for metaphysical imagination.
The ancient Chinese often compared the characteristics of plants to personality traits (Cheng, 1992; Jin, 2005). For instance, in the Lotus Flower, the lotus springs out of muddy water without a trace of dirt, implying that when a person encounters a difficult environment, he/she will not be affected and his/her dignity remains pure. In the New Testament of the Bible, Jesus compares the results of spreading seeds onto different types of land to people's attitudes in accepting the Gospel from the Kingdom of Heaven, (Chapter 13, Matthew). People can better understand their lives by comparing them to famous plant parables.
Therefore, horticultural activities may have the potential to promote spiritual health. Because therapeutic horticulture currently refers only to physical, psychological, and social benefits (Relf, 1998), the purpose of this study was to understand participants' beliefs about the spiritual benefits of horticultural activities and to discover if these beliefs were enhanced after reading plant parables.
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