Becoming Healed by Nature

In the previous post, I discussed the stress-reduction effects of trees.  Florence Williams takes this discussion and research focus further when she explores the healing power of nature. Florence, a journalist and writer, is the author of The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier and More Creative. She draws on the latest science, proven practices from around the world and individual case studies to promote the healing power of nature.

Experiencing “nature-deficit disorder”

In a TED Talk given in 2016, Florence described the effects of her own nature-deficit disorder resulting from moving home from the openness of the wilderness environment of Boulder, Colorado to the dense, built environment of Washington D.C. She explained that her sense of wellbeing declined rapidly – she experienced depression, anxiety, irritability and a “sluggish brain”. She was hyper-sensitive to the sounds of planes and noise pollution that surrounded her. However, her saving experience was to be assigned to write for Outside Magazine about the Japanese practice of “forest bathing” (Shinrin-yoku) – absorbing nature through your senses
(sights, sounds, smell, touch, taste). This, in turn, stimulated her interest in the power of nature to make us happier, healthier and more creative.

Global trend to use the power of nature to heal

Following on from the research and writing project in Japan, Florence undertook a global project on behalf of National Geographic. In researching practices involving the use of nature for healing, she discovered different practices in a range of countries. Besides Japan’s “forest therapy trails”, Korea has established “healing forests” along with “forest healing rangers” to take children on programs designed to overcome everything from digital addiction to bullying. Based on their experience and scientific research, Finland has recommended that people spend at least 5 hours a month in nature – a minimum that reflects how nature-deprived we are in the cities of the world. where so much time is spent indoors and on digital devices.

Florence describes the research and practices she uncovered in her global project in a video presentation titled, Your Brain on Nature. This video summarises her book on the power of nature to heal. She gives examples from across the world where nature has been used to help troubled teenagers, people suffering from depression, adults who have experienced trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and people working in jobs that create a lot of stress such as the role of firefighters.

In her introductory chapter, Florence points to Wordsworth and Beethoven as creative people who drew their inspiration from nature, thus serving as forerunners to modern day neuroscience research which is exploring the impact of nature on our brains – and on our health, happiness and creativity. She points out that the research from the Mappiness app (daily mood monitoring by thousands of people over an extended period) concluded that people are much happier outdoors in nature than they are in urban environments devoid of natural features. She notes the research by Elisabeth Nisbit and John Zelenski that suggests that because of our habitual “disconnection from nature” we tend to “underestimate the psychological benefits of nature”. Their research highlighted that even green spaces in urban environments can elevate mood and generate happiness.

Science shows us how we can be healed by nature

In a landmark article on the impact of time in nature on our wellbeing, Kevin Loria advances 12 science-based reasons we should spend more time outside:

  1. improves short-term memory
  2. helps us to de-stress
  3. can reduce inflammation
  4. reduces fatigue by restoring energy
  5. helps overcome depression and anxiety
  6. my have a protective impact on vision (e.g. reduced rate of myopia)
  7. improves capacity to focus
  8. enhances creativity
  9. improves the immune system
  10. lowers blood pressure
  11. promotes the production of anti-cancer proteins
  12. lowers the risk of an early death.

The science in support of the benefits of nature on health, happiness and creativity is building rapidly as scientists and medical professionals become increasingly aware of the negative impacts of “nature-deficit disorder”.

As we grow in mindfulness through mindful immersion in nature and growing awareness of nature’s healing powers, we can begin to enjoy the benefits of improved health, happiness and creativity. In turn, we can deepen our awe of nature – its energy, beauty and majesty.

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Image by Sven Lachmann from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Happiness Through Mindful Eating

Megrette Fletcher reminds us that mindful eating can be a source of happiness in multiple ways. Mindful eating not only brings physical health benefits through improved digestion but also mental and emotional benefits through savoring the senses, enjoying the pleasure of eating tasty food, experiencing gratitude for the food that we have and enjoying the company of others.

The happiness benefits of mindful eating

When we are conscious enough to eat mindfully, we can be more in tune with our senses. This involves not only taste but other senses as well. We can enjoy the smell of freshly cooked food with the different aromas of spices, sauces and the core ingredients. We can experience the benefits of texture through touch as well as through our mouths (maybe this is why cooking shows put so much emphasis on incorporating different textures in our cooking). Sight plays a key role in mindful eating as we learn to appreciate presentation, including the varying colours of different foods and the artful colour matching. Sounds when eating, too, can play a role in our experience of happiness during mindful eating (providing they are experienced as pleasant, such as the crunch sound from eating pork crackling).

We can enjoy the pleasure of stopping from the busyness of our work and other responsibilities and savour the moment. There is a sense of satisfaction that derives from stopping, focusing and experiencing the moment – increasing our awareness that we are enjoying good food. There is also a sense of accomplishment when we can concentrate on the act of eating itself.

There are clear mental health benefits and positive emotions elicited when we express gratitude for the food we eat. Gratitude can emerge when we are mindful of the good fortune of having food to eat, enjoying plenitude (where many in the world have insufficient food) and experiencing quality ingredients and inventive cooking.

Being mindful of the company we enjoy when we eat is a key element in the happiness experienced through mindful eating. We can experience the pleasure of eating as a family on a regular basis or on special occasions where the extended family gets together. We can enjoy the company of colleagues and friends with whom we share a breakfast, lunch or dinner meal or just a cup of coffee. The experience of positive relationships enriches our lives and this benefit is accentuated when we mindfully share a meal together.

An article on the mindful.org website offers 7 reminders for mindful eating. The article provides seven practical ways to eat mindfully to experience nourishment of the mind and emotions, as well as of the body.

As we grow in mindfulness and awareness of the moment through mindful eating, we can experience genuine happiness and joy, enhance our positive mental state and develop a deep sense of gratitude for all that we are privileged to experience in life.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of moerschy on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog. 

Identifying Our Blind Spots through Mindfulness

One of the realities of human existence is that we all have blind spots – what others see in our words and action but we can’t see ourselves.  Our blind spots may be obvious to other people who can see patterns in our behaviour.  The problem is that we can never eradicate our blind spots completely but we can learn to identify them and learn to better manage our responses – to effectively reduce the hurt to others and to ourselves.

Kelly Boys, author of The Blind Spot Effect: How to Stop Missing What’s Right in Front of You, suggests that our blind spots have a number of dimensions:

  • Visual– we actually have a physical blind spot in our eyes. You can check out your physical blind spot in each of your eyes through this link.
  • Attentional – we can suffer from an attentional blind spot because of our lack of ability to truly focus.  Daniel Goleman suggests that the capacity to focus involves the triad of awareness – focus on ourselves, focus on others and focus on the wider context.
  • Cognitive – these are the fixed thoughts we carry about the world and ourselves in the world – “I’m not good enough”, “The world is not safe”.  These may have worked for us over time but will lead us to diminish ourselves and devalue the energy and support of others.  Cognitive blind spots can cut us off from experiencing the world as it is and limit our opportunities.
  • Behavioural– we may be totally oblivious to persistent patterns in our behaviour that are very obvious to others.  It may be the way we respond to criticism or attempt to please others all the time -what Harriet Braiker calls, The Disease to Please.
Identifying the core blind spot

Kelly, in her interview with Tami Simon, offered a simple exercise to help people identify their core blind spot – “the way we hold our perception of ourselves and the world around us together”.  Identifying the core, which often relates to a sense of separateness, can lead to a major transformation in our lives.

Kelly suggests that being still and open to the present moment is a key way to access our blind spots and to understand the underlying pattern in our perceptual, cognitive and behavioural responses. In the exercise she led during the interview she encouraged people to become grounded; be open to, and aware of, their senses (sound, sight, breath) and to notice any tension, tightness or contraction in their body.  Staying with this bodily feeling is a way into understanding the underlying blind spot – “Where does this tension come from?’ “What am I saying to myself about my looks or capacity?’ “How am I perceiving the world or the actions of others?” “How am I planning to respond – why?”

As we persist with this kind of exercise, where we use our bodily awareness as the gateway to our blind spots, we can delve deeper into our core blind spot and open up the way to respond very differently – we can better understand our reactivity in certain situations and increase our response ability.  This self-awareness and self-regulation are key outcomes of mindfulness practice.

As we grow in mindfulness we begin to recognise patterns in our thoughts and behaviour and what we pay attention to.  If we persist in the relevant mindfulness exercise, we will come to understand our core blind spot. This growing realisation opens up new possibilities for us as we free ourselves from the limitations in our perceptions and responsiveness that arise through our blind spots.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of pixel2013 on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Engaging With and Accepting Death

Annie Robinson, in her article, How Mindfulness Can Ease the Fear of Death and Dying, asserts that there is a strong movement in the West to reengage with death, encourage open conversations about death, and to pursue choices in dying that respect the values and vision of the dying person.  This is also the theme of Lucy Kalanithi’s TED talk and Paul Kalanithi’s book,  When Breath Becomes Air, which he wrote while suffering from terminal cancer.

There are a number of characteristics of this movement and approach which involve dying mindfully:

Acceptance of death

Acceptance involves not only acknowledging the onset of death but all the feelings and thoughts that go with it.  This includes denial, sadness, suffering, anger, fear, grief and sense of loss associated with declining mental and physical capacity as well as the ultimate separation from loved ones.  It also includes accepting the loss of our old identity and an envisioned future and progressively forging a new identity and vision of dying.  Mindful acceptance does not remove the suffering but can reduce the pain and fear of death.

Being attuned to sensory experience

This involves paying attention to our senses – touch, taste, sight, hearing and smell- and experiencing the sensations such as a beautiful scene or sweet-smelling flower to a heightened degree.  It involves resting in these sensations while we can still experience them.  Some of these sensations will be intensified as we focus on them with our waning energy.  Annie suggests that being attuned to our sensory experience can develop joy and mindfulness.  Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of Coming to Our Senses, has demonstrated that focused attention on our senses can alleviate pain and help us to rewrite the narrative in our heads (including the narrative of fear and depression).

Finding balance through openness to love

Remaining open to love and caring of a partner, parents, children and relatives enables the dying person to find some level of balance as they alternate between pain and joy.  This requires vulnerability as their faculties decline and dependence increases; it also means that bitterness over loss on every dimension is not permitted to gain a stranglehold on emotions.  In his book, Paul Kalanithi was able to talk about marriage difficulties arising from his extreme workload as a neurosurgeon resident, working from 6am to late at night, 7 days a week.   His wife, Lucy, in the Epilogue to Paul’s book acknowledged that the cancer diagnosis enabled them to reinvigorate and deepen their love for each other and, in the face of  Paul’s dying, “to be vulnerable, kind, generous, grateful”.

Lucy wrote about the balance that emerged through their complete acceptance and trust in each other:

Although these last few years have been wrenching and difficult – sometimes almost impossible – they have also been the most beautiful and profound of my life, requiring the daily act of holding life and death, joy and pain in balance and exploring new depths of gratitude and love (p.219)

Lucy acknowledged that as you grow in mindfulness, you can find joy amidst the pain and grief, meaning when all seems lost and a profound gratitude that engenders fortitude and courage.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of realworkhard on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

 

Who is in the Shower With You?

Jon Kabat-Zinn, in discussing sensory awareness as an aspect of mindfulness, asks the question, “Who is in the Shower With You?”

He makes the point that our minds are always wandering – even when we are in the shower.  We could be thinking of a conflict with someone at work, a criticism from the boss or poor performance by a colleague.  In consequence, we are not attending to the physical sensation of the water on our skin – we are someplace else, basically at work.

Jon Kabat-Zinn suggests that sometimes our whole work team is in the shower with us as we reflect on a meeting while showering – who said what about what issue, what conflicts arose, what we are committed to do in the future, what changes are coming up.

He argues that we cannot access the healing power of mindfulness, if we are not present and fail to be aware of our sensory perceptions – the major theme of his book, Coming to Our Senses.

In the following video, Kabat-Zinn discusses other ways that we can become aware of our surrounds and our senses.  He maintains that to grow in mindfulness and access the healing power it generates, we need to come to our senses, both literally and metaphorically.

 

Image Source: Courtesy of tookapic on Pixabay

Mindful Eating

Jon Kabat-Zinn, in his book, “Coming to Our Senses”, suggests that his call to awareness has to be interpreted both literally (being conscious of the senses of the body) and metaphorically (behaving sensibly).

He describes each of the senses as a terrain and discusses mindful eating in a section of his book called “tastescape” (“touch”, for example, constitutes the “touchscape”).

Kabat-Zinn argues that we often eat mindlessly, unaware of what we are eating, with limited consciousness of taste and texture (we are too busy talking or thinking about other things).  He suggests that we have lost the fundamental purpose of eating:

Thus eating has has become increasingly separated from survival and maintenance of life in our consciousness.  For the most part, we eat with great automaticity and little insight into its critical importance for us in sustaining life, and also in sustaining health (p.231).

In his Stress Reduction Clinic, he starts his training with getting people to eat a raisin slowly and sensuously because it brings participants into the moment, the present, and dispels all misunderstanding re the nature of meditation.  He suggests that such an exercise increases “wakefulness”:

Eating one raisin very very slowly invites you to drop right into knowing in ways that are effortless, totally natural, and entirely beyond words and thinking.   It is an invitation that is unusual only in that we tend to eat so automatically and unconsciously (p.230).

Not long after first reading about mindful eating in Kabat-Zinn’s book, I was travelling interstate and purchased a packet of “goodies” to eat, comprising almonds, pistachio nuts and cranberries.  I decided to experiment with mindful eating as he describes the process.

I started with an almond and felt the ridged exterior and firm texture with my tongue and gradually bit into its firm surface.  Slowly, I tasted the distinctive flavour of the almond and appreciated this sensation which tended to be short in duration.  I followed this up with putting a pistachio nut in my mouth and felt the smoothness and wave shape of its surfaces. As I bit into the pistachio, I had a stronger sense of flavour than with the almond and this tended to last a bit longer.  Lastly, I placed a cranberry in my mouth and felt its wrinkled and rough surface with my tongue.  Biting into the cranberry was a very different sensation again – an explosion of flavour that tended to linger.

Normally, I would have thrown a handful of these nuts and cranberries into my mouth and, in the process, lost the distinctive sensations of differences in taste and texture. Kabat-Zinn suggests that we often eat with “stunningly little awareness of what or how we are eating, how fast we are eating, what our food actually tastes like, and when our body is telling us it is time to stop” (p.232).

He suggests that if we take time for mindful eating we can experience the rewards both physically and psychically:

If we slow down a bit, we can intentionally bring awareness to tasting anything we are eating, to be with this mouthful of food, and to really taste it, chew it and know it before we swallow it. (p.233)

Elsewhere in “Coming to Our Senses”, Kabat-Zinn explores the connection between our brain and our senses, as well as with our memories and awareness.  To appreciate this, you just have remember the last time a bit of food evoked a distant memory.

Image source: Courtesy of Pixabay.com

Building Mindfulness through Open Awareness

Open awareness is something that you can practice anywhere.  It is basically being fully present through your senses.

From my lounge room and deck I can see Moreton Bay with Stradbroke Island in the background.  I used to wake up of a morning and note the sunrise across the bay on my way to making a cup of tea in the kitchen.  I would walk past what is an ever-changing  view.

Now I am developing the habit of standing still and taking in the view for the few minutes while the water in the jug is boiling.

In this way I can practice open awareness – listening to the sounds of birds waking, watching the changing hues as the sun comes up, observing the breeze in the trees and sensing the weather.

I find that my body immediately relaxes and I am able to quickly drop into mindful breathing as a matter of course.  So one mindfulness practice leads onto the next.

What you can do to develop open awareness is to link it to something that you do on a daily basis – a morning walk, the morning cuppa or coffee, the early morning bike ride.  If you structure open awareness into your day, you will be more likely to persist with the habit and progressively build mindfulness.  You will also find that you will more frequently stop what you are doing and become openly aware of your surroundings.

Image source:  Copyright R. Passfield