Erica: A deeper conversation about the needs of people and nature is often seen as secondary at best to the ‘practical’ aspects of sustainability
Anthony: Perhaps then its about redefining what we mean by practical
Erica: Yes good point, the meaning we personally bring to language seems to be at the crux of this culture change. Language is so powerful and goes unnoticed consciously most of the time. Perhaps the starting point of culture change is an awareness of our own lens and language and filling our own words with meaning. It is easy to use words like sustainability without actually defining what that means to us personally, this is certainly the practice within workplaces.
Join the conversation at The Inside-Out Project (www.inoutproject.com)
To create social change in the world we must understand who we are as individuals, what we stand for and consider what we are going to create through our own actions and ways of being. I picture this process of meeting ourselves to be like a set of lungs in that we breathe in, there is a tiny pause before you breathe out again. The air that comes out is a different composition than the air that went in, it has fundamentally changed. Otto Scharmer describes this process of transformational change as Theory U, looking in ward at one self down one side of the metaphorical U before pausing and then acting out in new ways as you come up the other side.
Creating change as the words suggest is a personal but also a creative pursuit!
In our society people think they are uncreative if they can’t play piano like Mozart or paint like Michelangelo. We dont often associate creativity with how we explore and experience the world. For me it is not enough to just imagine different ideas I find an urge to live them and then upon reflection I try make sense of what I have done intellectually. Its through these actions – through everyone’s actions that society and culture is created. We are responsible for the world we create – for better or worst.
I suggest then that the key to social change is to live a creative life and to live a creative life means to just be your self. Its harder than it sounds, it means letting go of judgement, fear and ideas about what is worthy to do and then having the courage to live in a more expressive, inquisitive and authentic way. It is worth the effort, in fact is there any thing more worthy to do than this?
“You think this is just another day in your life? It’s not just another day. It’s the one day that is given to you today. It’s given to you. It’s a gift. It’s the only gift that you have right now, and the only appropriate response is gratefulness. If you do nothing else but to cultivate that response to the great gift that this unique day is, if you learn to respond as if it were the first day in your life and the very last day, then you will have spent this day very well.” (unnamed elderly man in film by Louie Schwartz in Ted Talk Nature Beauty Gratitude)
Being grateful is to be thankful and appreciative and expressing this gratitude in your own heart or out loud can make you a happier, more mindful and a more positive person. There are many things to be grateful for and nature inherently provide us with this opportunity. Nature provides humans with 6 main gifts; the gifts to hear, taste, smell, touch, feel, and see. These gifts allow us to experience what the rest of nature offers, awe inspiring sites, sounds, smells, textures, tastes and that extra something that words can not describe.
“Oh my God.” Have you ever wondered what that meant? The “oh” means it caught your attention, makes you present, makes you mindful. The “my” means it connects with something deep inside your soul. It creates a gateway for your inner voice to rise up and be heard. And “God”? God is that personal journey we all want to be on, to be inspired, to feel like we’re connected to a universe that celebrates life. (Louie Schwartz in Ted Talk: Nature Beauty Gratitude)
How do you cultivate gratitude?
Gratitude is a form of mindfulness and so as with other mindful practices it involves simply using your senses to notice what is around you and then adding a ‘thank you’ to that experience.
Some people keep gratitude diaries in which each day they write or draw a message of thanks, others incorporate silent thanks into their daily meditation. I like to encourage people to make ‘Tokens of Gratitude’.
Have a piece of paper or perhaps even a leaf handy as well as a pen.
1. Close your eyes and picture an experience in nature today that left an impression on you. Perhaps it was the bird outside your window, perhaps a flower in your garden finally bloomed, perhaps you walked through crunchy Autumn leaves, took your dog for a walk?….
2. Now ask yourself, in that experience what did nature give you that you are grateful for? Perhaps it was a beautiful sound to wake up to, a burst of colour and scent, a reminder of kicking through leaves as a child, fresh air and companionship…?
3. Write your answer on the tag/leaf
4. Now on the other side of the tag/leaf/paper write down what you could do for nature to ensure that you can continue having that experience? Perhaps you need to protect it , love it, recycle, plant more trees, drive your car less….?
5. Hang this tag/ leaf/ paper somewhere you can see it or pick a natural object that adds some meaning and attach the tag/leaf/paper to it, then hang it as a reminder.
Expressing gratitude is a corner stone practice of most if not all spiritual faiths and indigenous cultural practices, the western world is just now catching up. However, typically we are doing this through the lens of Science in particular Psychology. Martin Seligman the so called ‘father of positive psychology’ has championed gratitude as one of the core virtues of human beings that if practiced can lead to a happier and more fulfilling life. As a result there is now an enormous amount of interest in positive psychology in clinical, education and research settings.
But my advice is this: Put science aside, just go outside and look around, open up your heart and notice, really see, smell, taste, feel and touch nature. Be amazed, inspired, mindful and appreciative of what and who is around you, smile and say thanks.
I interviewed therapeutic workers recently and uncovered what I think is a serious oversight in our modern psyche. The conversations went something like this:
Erica to therapeutic workers (several) – “Do you incorporate nature in some way into all your clients wellbeing plans?”
Therapeutic workers to Erica – “no, individual wellbeing plans are linked to individual goals, interests and values”
Erica to therapeutic workers : “But humans actually need nature for survival and for their wellbeing, do you think this is overlooked in the context of your wellbeing plans? ”
Therapeutic workers to Erica- “yes you have a point……”
Nature isn’t an optional extra we need nature for our physical survival.
From the trees that provide the clean fresh air we breathe, the environmental systems that create the water we drink, the bees that pollinate the flowers to provide the vegetables we eat, the bacteria in the soil that colanise our body and stimulate healthy immune systems, the sunshine on our skin …. its simple, if the rest of nature is not well then humans can not live. Whats more, who on this earth wants only to survive, we all want to thrive don’t we?! There is now mountains of objective evidence as well as what we know in our hearts from everyday experience that tells us that we are happier when we can see nature even a plant on our desk, we feel a greater sense of contribution and purpose when garden or take care of a pet, our creative imagination is sparked when we marvel at a shooting star, we feel refreshed when we walk out in the breeze, we feel expansive when we look out at the ocean …..the list of reasons to notice nature is endless and necessary. Why is this so? because we are part of the natural world that is why our brains, our physical body and our ‘gut feeling’ responds and reacts to our experiences with the rest of nature.
Nature is not just a recreational option that we can take or leave if we feel bothered or not. We must all take responsibility and find the way that we can notice nature more and contribute to the wellbeing of the system that includes humans!
How do we notice nature and keep it in our consciousness after we go inside and shut the door ? In the next 4 weeks I will write 4 posts with 4 solutions that are all forms of contemplative practice. The first solution, in the spirit of Mindful in May is this:
Cultivate mindful awareness in and/of nature
Mindfulness can be described in several ways, here is one definition:
This kind of mindfulness is often cultivated through mindful meditation, a kind of mental training that gently brings back the wandering mind to the moment. A common experience of this involves closing your eyes and focusing your attention slowly to each part of your body from your toes to your head and noticing how it feels.
You can learn and experience more about that from modern mindfulness guru John Kabat -Zinn. The reported benefits are staggering:
- Structural changes in the brain associated with enhanced mental performance
- Reduced stress and its negative impact on the body and mind
- Improved physical and mental well being
- Reduced genetic ageing through its protective impact on gene expression and degeneration
- Increased happiness
- Enhanced immune function
Why not do this outside and get a double dose of wellbeing from the powerful effects of mindfulness and the powerful wellbeing effects of being in nature.
Here is a simple mindful activity to do outside:
For a few minutes, close your eyes or lower your eyes and for every new bird sound you hear raise one finger. Notice how your that sound makes you feel. To explore this more, draw the sounds that you hear, what shape do they have? what colour are they? or if you are feeling really brave, try and mimic the sound.
Outdoors based mindful practice does not need be restricted to passive activities. in the outdoor adventure activity world it is called ‘flow’.
For me on my mountain bike there is no mind in this at all it is pure fleeting ‘being’ as I become whole with the bike, whole with the contours of the earth beneath me, the very second I am aware of it is the second it ends.
Don’t be confused, the word mindfulness is not the same as awareness and a good simple description of the difference is provided by Wildmind Buddhist Centre:
“Knowing that you are eating is not the same as eating mindfully”.
In saying that I have found that the enduring quality of mindful practice outside is a heightened ‘mindful awareness’ of the nature that is around and this opens up the opportunity to experience awe in the every day and to cultivate empathy, connection and care for nature.
So, seize this moment: Go outside now, look up, look around, take a deep breathe and feel the air in your lungs. . That’s all it takes to start!
Last night I had the privilege of witnessing the birth of my friends baby girl. For those of you who have been there I’m sure you will agree that in terms of the most awe inspiring and humbling nature connecting experiences of them all, this has got to be it!
The raw emotion, the excruciating pain, the phenomenal power of endorphins and then….
peace, connection, joy, new skin touching skin and eyes meeting eyes.
The natural world is truly amazing, I am so grateful to be a part of it!
This gallery contains 6 photos.
On the beach last summer, one stone became two became three became 50… The next day, my brother… one stroke in the sand … ….became 2… became three…became… well, a lot And then, it was claimed by the sea! There … Continue reading
This is what I think I know:
A connection to nature is a sense of joined destiny and belonging between humans and the rest of the natural world. We may exist in relationship to each other physically distant or close but a sense of connection keeps nature close to the heart, it is intimate. Like any relationship there is a range of feelings: mutual respect, understanding, love, awe, empathy, belonging, fascination, need, happiness, joy and on the flip side may be discomfort, pain, sadness, guilt, longing, expectation; these in balance are also the components of wellbeing. Our sense of connection begins when we are born as part of the natural world, into the natural world. How we sustain that relies on our ability and willingness to recognise our conjoined destiny and do what is required to keep the spark of connection in any relationship, make an effort! Psychologist James Hillman captured this well when he said:
“…stop imagining the earth as a good mother passive, nurturing and supportive and recognize the idea of earth to be a complex phenomenon requiring efforts of thought and imagination”
What does making an effort look like?
1. Experiencing nature. You can keep a sense of connection strong by experiencing nature often, through all the senses: going for a walk with the dog, gardening, feeding your fish, adventuring in the bush, swimming in lakes or the ocean, beach combing, making nature themed art, smelling the rain; even in the city you can do these things. Returning to a place or experience repeatedly, builds a stronger relationship as you get to ‘know’ more about it and collect stories of experience over time.
BUT people do this every day and they still don’t necessarily feel connected so what is needed to make this meaningful?
2. Reflection and mindfulness. Mindfulness is the name given to the moments when you are focussed with your body mind and spirit in an experience. Contradictory to its name, mindfulness usually has no mind involved at all but is just about being! Reflection however is where the mind comes in and acknowledges the feelings and actions you experienced; it is part of the process of meaning making. Reflection about experiences in nature may be simply noticing how you feel/ felt e.g: how the warmth of the sun is making you feel sleepy and content; how you come up with creative ideas when you go for a walk in the park; how you cry when your dog is hurt; your sense of amazement at the colours of the autumn leaves; how small you feel when you look out on an expansive view or a brilliant sunset
How do you reflect? i.e how do you become aware of these feelings and actions?
Through conversation, art and music making, thought, telling stories, writing poems, keeping a journal….anything that helps ‘bring to mind’ the experience.
This reflection creates a sense of awareness of the nature that is around you and the kind of relationship you have with nature. Depending on your experience it may be a relationship of love it may be one of love – hate, perhaps of respect but hopefully what is discovered is that we do have an effect on each other, both physically and emotionally our destinies are intertwined. This is a sense of connection and this is at the heart of wellbeing!
So to strengthen your connection to nature or facilitate this for others, my advice is this:
- Experience nature often and provide the opportunities for others to experience the rest of the natural world too.
- Help the process of reflection and meaning making by talking, writing, thinking or creating about the feelings and actions involved with the experience.
- Do it again! Get involved in or provide activities that expand yours and others experiences.
These actions create feelings, which nurture connections to the natural world, which create values, which lead to caring actions toward nature, which ultimately lead to harmonious co-existence, which we call sustainability!
For a more academic description of nature connection, have a read of the post: Connection to nature vs contact with nature: The wellbeing link.
From March to May I had the pleasure of working with an adult community mental health group; our aim to explore the natural world using creative expression.
A bit of context
Once a week for 6 weeks we gathered together for a day of mindful, creative engagement with nature in a social group. My hope was to enable participants to increase their conscious awareness of the nature that might be around them where they live and to discover the joy that little bits of nature can offer. I was also keen to offer locations that people could confidently get to in their own time beyond the program. As a practitioner I identify with the broad field of Bush and Adventure Therapy (as it is known in Australia – see www.aabat.org.au. ). This program was not strictly ‘bush’ in that we worked in urban parks and gardens and some bush areas; it is not considered adventure by many people’s definition but for people with a mental illness an adventure may be just leaving home for the day. The program was therapeutic in its broadest possible definition and that is with the inference of creating wellbeing; in this case that was achieved through participants:
being in nature; being in a social environment; engaging in creative expression
It was not designed to work through participant’s ‘stuff’ but rather the activities were sequenced around three themes that I have developed and use in most of my programs.
To ‘see nature’; to ‘see self in nature’ and To ‘see nature in wellbeing’
Each week different activities were introduced to address the themes. So here’s how it went.
There’s more to nature than anyone can know
Where the train was we were there
Edwarde’s Park with the weather fair”
(A participant’s reflection -verse 1)
We were blessed with a gorgeous sunny day at Edwardes Park Lake and we met each other for the first time. The theme for the day was ‘seeing nature’ and to do this we were focusing on the activity of ‘seeing’ through touching. After a few ‘get to know you games’, a cup of tea and a chat we set off on a short mindful walk with a purpose…to feel everything and anything (within reason), finding as many different textures as possible including spiders webs, stones, bark, flowers, feathers…. we collected some of these things for later. Part way round the walk I handed out some frames made of paper with a square cut out the middle for participants to place over the top of different natural surfaces and to observe them inside the frame. This is very effective in seeing textures that you would otherwise not notice. We then created ‘pictures’ inside the frames with natural found objects using the natural surfaces as the canvas. This could have gone on for the rest of the day, there was alot of enthusiastic creating but finally we left our ephemeral creations to blend back into the surrounds. Sadly I forgot to get photos of this activity which on reflection turned out to be a favourite of the group.
When we got back 2 hours of intensive art making began using paints, modelling paste, texture mediums and our found objects to experiment with and create a collage or painting that was inspired by the textures they had found. One participant churned out picture after picture: big paper, small paper, black paper; paint, glue, painted blue tac; natural objects bottle tops, bread ties…you name it. another participant was very considered in her approach wanting to recreate and/or integrate a piece of soft beautiful paper bark that she was particularly enamored with.
After lunch we began what was to become a weekly ritual and the key component of experiential learning and that is to reflect upon our day through a chat as a group. This could include sharing insight about the art making if participants wished. All but one was very enthusiastic about sharing, his comfort level to do this was not reached until week 5; but for those that did as they spoke I wrote down a few key words that they said an invited them to name their work using (or inspired by) the key words that were written.
A BBQ at Bundoora without a care
Oriental cliffs that week
Which evolved from a rubbing technique”
(A participant’s reflection -verse 2)
We welcomed 2 more participants to the group and spent our day at Bundoora Park. Again the weather was beautiful making it very conducive to more fossicking but this time for patterns and shapes in nature. We set off with magnifying glasses and pastels to make rubs. Funnily enough our walks often didn’t get very far; once we tuned into the details in nature, there was soooo much to see. That day as an act of sharing and gratitude and as a way to build connections within the group, we randomly swapped a piece of art work.
The weather bodes impending doom
But we slowly paint and nest
And no one seems to be distressed
(A participant’s reflection -verse 3)
Today saw us head to the Plenty Valley Gorge area only this time the cool Autumn weather had caught up on us. In anticipation of this wet day we were lucky enough to be rescued by the Plenty Valley Arts Group who occupy Le Page homestead. They graciously allowed us to use their beautiful premises. We had planned to ‘see nature’ through sound today but two things changed our mind. We were awe struck by the amazingly beautiful Autumn leaves all around the homestead grounds; this in combination with the weather inspired us to change our creative lens. We focussed on ‘seeing self in nature’ we discussed the way animals and plants change their behaviour in Autumn and reflected on how we change our behaviours ourselves when the cold weather sets in. To reflect on this further, half the group built Autumn nests representing their homely retreat in cold times. One group member wrote about his journey with mindfulness.
The Autumn colours really inspired the work this week as did a massive tree with the most amazing bark. When the rain stopped we managed to make it outside for a walk and some fun incorporating a couple of games to help us focus in nature more closely. Some participants also chose to complete their nests by hanging them in trees in the garden outside.
Which warms our minds up for the day
The human camera is an amazing thing
Enough to make the senses ring”
(A participant’s reflection -verse 4)
Back at Le Page – more rainy weather! Only we did get some breaks this week which allowed us to start with some sound mapping outside. We then took the outdoors in with some sounds scape and considered what we valued about the natural world in a discussion about sustainability – ‘Seeing self in nature’ and ‘seeing nature in wellbeing’. It was really heartening to hear one participant in particular telling the group how she had been doing art work at home using the techniques she had learnt. She also said she was going out side more for walks and really noticing textures, sites and smells more than she had before. Another participant really tuned into the mindful aspect of this program; this was something he was practicing and he realised that engaging with nature was another way to calm his mind.
And towards Emily they are bound
It’s a beautiful day under the tree
Enough to inspire poetry
(A participant’s reflection -verse 5)
Having now decided that they were enjoying the program so much we decided to add on an extra day. Given the lovely hospitality of the Plenty Valley Arts Centre at Le Page we decided to finish our last two days there. This week however, we had some nice weather back and so we went up above the Homestead to the Red gum Picnic area with sweeping views and fields of Kangaroos. This was the perfect day to GO BIG. Starting with a short walk, we found a rock each to sit and be inspired by a story about Jackson Pollock. We quietly admired the view up and out and then found ourselves a table and some ground space to break out the BIG PAPER. The task today was to paint or draw BIG; a chance to let loose with abandon and without care for what it looked like. . because then were going to cut it up and stick pieces back together in a new creation! This was a very fun day, lots of laughs, lots of paint, lots of paint flicking, cutting creating. This was challenging for one participant in particular who was a perfectionist and very considered in the way she approached her creating. Once she had the flick technique right however, she was loving it! Once cut up the reconstructing allowed her to work in the way that she is familiar with and with so many pieces to play with, she took this home to reconstruct; and boy did she reconstruct….14 new pieces!!
The final day comes and we’re having soup again
But then the sun comes and all is fine
I hope you like this poem of mine.
(A participant’s reflection -verse 6)
The final day was a day to look back on everything we had done; the feeling, listening, seeing, thinking, touching, walking, painting, rubbing, stamping, constructing, cutting, relaxing, eating and smiling. The group unanimously agreed that 4 more weeks would be enough, 6 wasn’t quite! All loved being out in nature in particular and the enjoyed the way the program focused their attention in a mindful way on the beauty and detail in nature. One participant really found his stride for his writing today; we sat together as companions, he described more about mindfulness to me and I wrote down the key words he said and gave them back. He then put the words together in a multi-verse poem. We did the same for the program reflection. After chatting about our 6 weeks together, he constructed verses out of the words that were said. This was such a fitting way to sum it all up and capture the time that we had spent exploring nature through creativity expression.