Connecting with nature – Part 2

‘If you will stay close to nature, to its simplicity, to the small things hardly noticeable, those things can unexpectedly become great and immeasurable.’ Rainer Maria Rilke

Staying close to the small things hardly noticeable – this is one of the gifts of children, to be enraptured just as much by an ant cautiously making its way across a slippery leaf as by a magnificent sunset which lights up the sky. If we try to approach nature from an intellectual level, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. Nature exists on scales which can be difficult for us to comprehend. There are the infinitesimal dimensions of the elements which make up a single cell, and then there is the vastness of space which we can’t really understand. Geological time moves over tens of millions of years, and some insects only live for a few hours. There are more microbes in a teaspoon of soil than people on earth. For so many aspects of nature, the human scale is either too large or too small.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why as humans we sometimes want to place ourselves apart from nature, leading to a sense of disconnection.  Our education often encourages us to approach life intellectually, trying to make sense of the world through ongoing learning. Yet as Albert Einstein said,

‘The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.’

Mindfulness can help us to feel more connected by allowing ourselves to simply be present with the experience of being in nature. The Japanese call this shinrin yoku, forest bathing, and they have developed therapeutic ‘forest bathing’ centres where trained guides assist people to be more mindfully present in a forest. We can develop our own ways of ‘forest bathing’ by turning down the volume of our thinking mind, being aware of the vitality of our bodies through our senses, and engaging with our environment with openness and curiosity.

Even ten minutes of being in a natural environment such as a garden or a park can make a positive difference to our sense of wellbeing. Our mind and body will thank us for looking at flowers or trees instead of a screen. As Rabindranath Tagore said,

‘The butterfly counts not months but moments, and has time enough.’

Those moments of feeling connected with nature can also become our ‘time enough.’

Mindfulness practice:

For the next week, set the intention to connect every day with nature in a way you hadn’t done before. One day it could be taking notice of any trees in your area, the next listening for the birds, another time going for a walk at lunchtime. Notice each time how this feels.

Anja Tanhane

Connecting with nature – Part 1

‘Komorebi (Japanese)– the interplay of the light and the leaves when sunlight filters through the trees’.

How delightful that the Japanese have a word for the play of sunlight in a forest! Regardless of where we are in the world, when we stand in a forest, the light has a special quality to it. There are also the sounds of nature – complex sounds which our bodies enjoy hearing, unlike the mechanical sounds of much of city life. Trees give out chemicals called phytoncides, which they use to fight of pests and diseases. Just being near trees means we’re also breathing in phytoncides, which has been shown to increase the activity of our natural killer cells in the immune system. Our bodies are biological systems, and for most of our evolution we lived in close connection to the natural world. It makes sense that we find being in nature relaxing and restorative, and through mindfulness we can deepen this experience even further.

One of my favourite mindfulness practices is called ‘walking outside with awareness of the senses.’ I often include it on retreats or in workshops, and it is very simple, but can be quite profound. We simply spend twenty to thirty minutes walking outside by ourselves, tuning into our different senses. We use sight to look at the landscape as a whole, or the softness of the tips of branches against the sky, or the delicate detail of a single leaf. We hear the sounds around us – birds, the wind, sometimes insects, or a falling branch. We notice the ground under our feet as we walk – the softness of grass, the different feel of a path or stones, the way the ground is undulating. At times we may feel a gentle breeze against our face, or the warmth of sunlight on our skin. I invite people to use their sense of touch to explore the different textures of leaves, bark, stones or grass. Smell, of course, is one of our most powerful senses, and highly evocative. When we close our eyes, we may find that our sense of smell is finer, and picks up the scents in the breeze as well as stronger scents like a rose or eucalyptus tree. And sometimes we can also use our sense of taste, if there is something which is safe to eat.

When we walk outside in this way, with a sense of discovery and delight, we notice how rarely we look at something closely, or are really present within it. As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it so eloquently:

The wonder is that we can see these trees and not wonder more.’

Mindfulness practice:

Set aside twenty minutes to practice ‘Walking outside with awareness of the senses.’ It could be in your garden, a park, or out in nature. What do you notice, when you are present in this way?

Anja Tanhane

 

Finding connections

‘He says he has learnt, especially with depression and anxiety, to shift from asking “What’s the matter with you?” to ‘What matters to you?”’

In his wonderful book ‘Lost Connections: uncovering the real causes of depression – and the unexpected solutions’, journalist Johann Hari introduces us to the work of Dr Sam Everington from the Bromley-by-Bow Center in East London. In addition to the standard treatment available at any GP clinic, this center also is a hub for over a hundred volunteer groups. When a patient with anxiety or depression comes to see a doctor at the clinic, they may be prescribed anti-depressants, but they will also be advised to participate in one of the volunteer programs. The doctors call it ‘social prescribing’, and have found it to be remarkably effective.

One such program at the clinic was to turn a nearby wasteland full of weeds and broken equipment into a beautiful garden filled with flowers and vegetables. A group of twenty volunteers, many of whom had been socially isolated for years, were supported by a staff member to clean up the area and start learning about plants and seeds. They talked about how they wanted to park to look, discovered through trial and error what worked and what didn’t, learned about being patient and working to nature’s rhythms, and gradually saw an ugly unloved area turn into something valuable for the local community. They spent hours outside in the sun and fresh air, and slowly began to form connections to others in the group. As they worked, locals walked past and thanked the group members – who had often spent years being shut away and feeling useless – for their work. They met in a cafe after each gardening session, and discovered similarities in their stories as they slowly began to share them, at a pace which felt comfortable to them. One member was homeless, and others in the group lobbied the council until they found housing for him.

The participants in the program discovered two kinds of connections – connections to other people, and connection to nature. Yet what was important for the participants, at least initially, was the prescription by their doctor, and the support of a staff member. For someone with severe depression or anxiety, it may not be enough to be told – ‘just go out and find something to keep busy with, you will feel much better.’ This approach may work for those on the milder end of the spectrum of anxiety and depression – and we’ve probably all had the experience where we felt like collapsing on the couch but got busy with something enjoyable instead and felt much better for it. Yet when the condition is more severe and long-term, some skillful support is required while the participants start to slowly rebuild connections and develop their resilience and strengths.

An increased sense of connection is often described by people as one of the benefits of mindfulness meditation, and over the coming months we will explore the themes of disconnection/connection, drawing on Hari’s book and the work of others as well as our own experience, and discovering how consciously cultivating connections might help to gradually enrich our lives.

Mindfulness practice idea:

Set aside ten to twenty minutes with a pen and notepad, and finish the sentence ‘For me, connection means…’ and keep writing. What emerges from this? Another time, you may also like to start with the sentence ‘For me, disconnection means…’

Anja Tanhane

Silence

Silence is essential. We need silence, just as much as we need air, just as much as plants need light. If our minds are crowded with words and thoughts, there is no space for us.’ Thich Nhat Hanh

What is the place of silence in our lives? We might call for a minute’s silence to honour the memory of someone. We might go for a walk by ourselves, and allow ourselves to fully absorb the sights, sounds, smells and sensations around us. Most meditation retreats have periods of silence, and we may also practice silence during our own meditation at home, or during a yoga class. Yet for many of us, silence is in short supply – it’s quite common to be bombarded by sounds just about wherever we go. Over time, we can become desensitised to sounds, and barely notice their effects. Yet sounds can have quite a profound impact on our bodies and minds, and can add to our level of stress and anxiety.
Of course there is no such thing as complete silence – there will always be some sounds around us. Yet we can consciously take time out from talking and interacting with people, from filling every available space with radios and TVs, and simply come back to a sense of ourselves, just as we are, without distractions or busyness. If we’re not used to being in silence, this can feel uncomfortable at first. Over time, however, we might find that these periods of intentional silence can be very nourishing for our spirit. It’s as if we open up more space in our lives, instead of feeling hemmed in by too many thoughts and words. By giving ourselves this space, we allow ourselves room to breathe and to grow.
Not all silence is beneficial. We might have been the unfortunate recipients of the ‘silent treatment’, which is really a form of aggression. Or we may have been silenced in some way when we wanted to speak out, to be heard. Some people yearn for a lot of silence in their lives, while others are content with brief periods. We may not wish to join an order of silent monks, but still find great benefit from bringing more periods of intentional silence into our lives.
Practice idea:
Choose one way in which you can bring more silence into your day. It might be driving without the radio, or setting aside ten minutes for sitting in silence, or eating one meal in silence by yourself. What do you notice?
Anja Tanhane

Holiday favourites – Healing with Gold

Kintsukuroi – the Japanese art of repairing pottery with gold or silver lacquer and understanding that the piece is more beautiful for having been broken

It is a beautiful image – a broken ceramic bowl, put back together with glue of gold, so that the strands of gold weave through the bowl and it looks more beautiful than before it was broken.

In our lives, the gold we heal with is love, kindness, compassion. We sometimes come across people who seem to have a ‘beautiful soul’, who emanate kindness and strength. Usually, when we hear their story, we find out that they have been through some very difficult times in their lives. Sometimes suffering can make us bitter, cynical, disengaged from those around us. Other times, suffering can infuse our lives with qualities like love, patience, equanimity. It’s difficult to know why some people seem broken by suffering, and others are strengthened. It’s a complex interplay between our attitudes, personality, upbringing, the supports available us, the attitudes of our society to suffering, and a range of biological and neurological influences. One person might have a plethora of supports available and reject them all, while someone else might get only one brief opportunity which they grasp with both hands and use to transform their lives.

The image of the wounded healer is a person who is able to support others in their healing, because they’ve been broken and put back together themselves. When you work in the helping professions, you find that most of your colleagues have their own back story of suffering and healing. In certain shamanic cultures, the signs that someone might be called to be a shaman include – being hit by lightning, having a serious illness which nearly kills them, or having a nervous breakdown. They are broken apart and have to put themselves back together in a new, transformed way. The current shaman will support this person as they go on their healing journey, and eventually, if all goes well, that person will become the next healer of the community.

We can see the past suffering of someone as the gold which has strengthened them and made them more beautiful, rather than a shameful secret which needs to be hidden from view. It can be tempting to attempt to repair our broken lives with invisible glue, so no one will ever guess there are any cracks in us. To repair a broken bowl with gold is no doubt patient and taxing work. It’s not a matter of sticking a few pieces together and hoping for the best. Sometimes, the repair may not be successful. The bowl which has been repaired with gold does not wallow in its brokenness, but nor does it hide it. Life goes on for the bowl – it is transformed, and it has become more beautiful.

Weekly practice idea:

Put aside some quiet time and reflect on what is the gold in your life which you have used to repair the cracks in you? Think of this gold as precious and healing, rather than something which needs to be hidden. How does it feel to think about healing in this way?

Anja Tanhane

Enthusiasm for life

Throughout our daily work as doctors, we see the body’s “enthusiasm for life”.

Dr Tamara Mackean, Australian Aboriginal doctor

This is a beautiful expression – the body’s ‘enthusiasm for life’. Our bodies, and also our minds, do seem to carry within them a wonderful potential for healing. Occasionally people exaggerate this internal healing potential, as when someone claims that thinking the right kind of thoughts, or uttering a particular prayer, will automatically heal someone from a serious illness. This can potentially mean that the patient doesn’t follow up on more conventional treatment, and they can become very ill or even die as a result.

Yet to dismiss our inner healing potential altogether is also misguided. As Dr Mackean goes on to say,

‘For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander doctors, healing goes beyond treating the disease. It is about working towards reclaiming a sense of balance and harmony in the physical, psychological, social, cultural and spiritual lives of our people, and practising our profession in a manner that upholds these multiple dimensions of Indigenous health.’

Such a holistic view of health does indeed allow us to unfold our full potential for healing – whether we’re healing from illness, past hurts and traumas, or simply the exhaustion which can come from living an overly busy life. We can become active participants in our own health and wellbeing rather than a passive patient, by making choices in our lives which allow this healing potential to flourish.

Living a busy and engaged life is good for us – but so is finding times for resting and rejuvenating. We know best what the right balance is for us, and mindfulness can be one of the ways in which we can keep touch with what our needs are, and learn to live a more balanced life.

Weekly practice idea:

Most of us probably think about our physical and psychological health, but what about our social, cultural and spiritual health? Take twenty minutes to reflect on these dimensions of health in your life, either during a meditation, or by journalling, and see what emerges.

Anja Tanhane

Therapeutic mindfulness

One of the most exciting developments in mindfulness over the past four decades has been its increasing use for therapeutic aims – to support people who are dealing with chronic health issues, life-threatening illnesses, depression, anxiety, trauma and a range of other physical and mental challenges. There are thousands of studies which validate the use of therapeutic mindfulness, and countless people have been helped by learning mindfulness as part of their treatment plan. From better pain management, improved immunity and decreased inflammatory response to improved mood, lower anxiety and improved relationships, there is clear evidence that mindfulness can be used therapeutically. It’s not a replacement for medical treatments, counselling or medication, but it can support these other therapies and enhance their effectiveness.

Unfortunately, this is also an area where mindfulness can do more harm than good, if it is taught by inexperienced practitioners to people with certain vulnerabilities. Learning mindfulness can initially increase our experience of pain, difficult thoughts and negative emotions, as we slow down enough to really become aware of them, and this can be unsettling. Even people who are not dealing with major difficulties are often quite dismayed when they start to meditate and realise just how frantically busy their mind always is, and how little, if any, time they actually spend in the present moment. With the right support and guidance from an experienced and trained practitioner, these early stages can be worked with and can lead to increased affect tolerance, personal growth and resilience. Often people learn mindfulness while also supported by counselling and/or medication, and this can be very effective. Yet, at the moment, anyone can call themselves a mindfulness teacher, whether they’re highly qualified, or whether they simply like the sound of it and are making it up as they go along (I’ve met a few people in the second category!). Mindfulness may also be contra-indicated for people who are experiencing psychosis, schizophrenia, or other conditions where dissociation may be present.

When taught by someone suitably qualified, therapeutic mindfulness has the potential to significantly shift our relationship to the difficulties of our lives. As we practise non-judgmental awareness, acceptance, beginner’s mind, letting go, we slowly and gradually learn to become less caught up in emotional reactiveness and unhelpful thought patterns. I’ve been teaching the eight-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course for eight years now, and consistently, by week four or five, participants report significant shifts in how they are approaching the challenges of their lives. They describe being more calm, less reactive, less caught up in painful emotions, being able to see the bigger picture. They find they often have a choice of how to respond to difficulties, and they talk about exploring new and better options, which is very empowering.

Weekly practice idea:

Take ten to twenty minutes to sit somewhere quiet and notice your breath coming and going. When the mind wanders off, gently bring it back to the breath. What do you notice in your thoughts, your body sensations, your emotions?

Anja Tanhane

Becoming more connected

‘When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.’ John Muir

It’s one of the ironies of modern life that the more connected we become through technology, the more people report feeling disconnected. Researcher Brandon T. McDaniel coined the term ‘technoference’ to describe the way technology can interfere with close partner relationships. In one of his studies, couples whose time together was frequently interrupted through technology reported lower relationship satisfaction, more depressive symptoms, and less life satisfaction. Of course it could also be that unhappy couples use more technology to distract themselves from their problems. And on the upside, technology has also helped marginalised people feel connected to others who share their experience, through online support groups and blogs.

Nonetheless, the fast pace of modern life leads to many people reporting feeling increasingly disconnected – from themselves, from their community, and from the natural environment. It can be tempting to idealise cultures which still seem more connected – for example Indigenous cultures, or those who live more simple, communal lives. Yet there are many ways we can increase our own sense of connectedness, without having to jump ship and abandon our culture, and in the coming weeks we will explore some of these in the weekly reflections.

A good starting point is increasing our awareness of the impact our chosen lifestyle has on our mental and physical wellbeing. A lot of our difficulties stem from insidious stress – choices we make which look perfectly benign, but which over time can add up to an overcrowded and chaotic headspace. It could be checking our emails for the tenth time in an hour, going for a walk in nature with headphones blaring music, collapsing on the couch and watching five hours of TV, or getting caught up in a war of words on Facebook with a bigoted stranger. All of these may have their time and place, but can add up to precious little mental downtime. And rushing from one stimulation and distraction to the next is a pretty good recipe for feeling disconnected from ourselves.

Scientific experiments like to set up control conditions, and we can do the same with our lives. How does it feel to turn technology off for a day? To walk to the corner shop instead of driving? To read a book instead of watching TV? We are the ones who know ourselves best, and we can make good choices based on this knowledge. To do this well, we need to develop our non-judgmental awareness, which is one of the qualities we develop with regular mindfulness meditation.

Weekly practice idea:

Choose something you do regularly, which you suspect may contribute to feeling disconnected at times. Notice how it feels to take a break from this activity. What can you learn about this for the future?

Anja Tanhane

Repairing with gold

Kintsukuroi – the Japanese art of repairing pottery with gold or silver lacquer and understanding that the piece is more beautiful for having been broken

It is a beautiful image – a broken ceramic bowl, put back together with glue of gold, so that the strands of gold weave through the bowl and it looks more beautiful than before it was broken.

In our lives, the gold we heal with is love, kindness, compassion. We sometimes come across people who seem to have a ‘beautiful soul’, who emanate kindness and strength. Usually, when we hear their story, we find out that they have been through some very difficult times in their lives. Sometimes suffering can make us bitter, cynical, disengaged from those around us. Other times, suffering can infuse our lives with qualities like love, patience, equanimity. It’s difficult to know why some people seem broken by suffering, and others are strengthened. It’s a complex interplay between our attitudes, personality, upbringing, the supports available us, the attitudes of our society to suffering, and a range of biological and neurological influences. One person might have a plethora of supports available and reject them all, while someone else might get only one brief opportunity which they grasp with both hands and use to transform their lives.

The image of the wounded healer is a person who is able to support others in their healing, because they’ve been broken and put back together themselves. When you work in the helping professions, you find that most of your colleagues have their own back story of suffering and healing. In certain shamanic cultures, the signs that someone might be called to be a shaman include – being hit by lightning, having a serious illness which nearly kills them, or having a nervous breakdown. They are broken apart and have to put themselves back together in a new, transformed way. The current shaman will support this person as they go on their healing journey, and eventually, if all goes well, that person will become the next healer of the community.

We can see the past suffering of someone as the gold which has strengthened them and made them more beautiful, rather than a shameful secret which needs to be hidden from view. It can be tempting to attempt to repair our broken lives with invisible glue, so no one will ever guess there are any cracks in us. To repair a broken bowl with gold is no doubt patient and taxing work. It’s not a matter of sticking a few pieces together and hoping for the best. Sometimes, the repair may not be successful. The bowl which has been repaired with gold does not wallow in its brokenness, but nor does it hide it. Life goes on for the bowl – it is transformed, and it has become more beautiful.

Weekly practice idea:

Put aside some quiet time and reflect on what is the gold in your life which you have used to repair the cracks in you. Think of this gold as precious and healing, rather than something which needs to be hidden. How does it feel to think about healing in this way?

Anja Tanhane