I love to hear about the latest uses of augmented and virtual reality, but when it comes to our own sense of balance and wellbeing there is nothing to beat some ‘real’ reality. And there is nothing more real than getting up close to nature.
It’s well documented that much of our time is spent with a wandering mind, revisiting past events and immersed in future plans and worries. It’s simply part of being human. A Harvard Study (Gilbert and Killingworth, 2012) found that on average our mind wanders away from what we are actually intending as our focus 46.9% of the time. Obviously this varies according to the activity and from person to person but the message is clear; that humans have a lot going on in their heads. According to the same study a wandering mind is, on the whole, less happy than one that is engaged in what we are actually doing.
So how can we step away from a busy mind? Not by fighting with it for sure. Getting self-critical brings a host of thoughts of it’s own. One approach is to activate our senses and to give ourselves a bit of time and space to engage with our experience. And in this regard nothing beats a first hand encounter with nature.
Last weekend whilst walking around a tarn high in the Yorkshire Dales, I had little choice but to let the raw forces of nature take centre stage in my experience; crashing shoreline waves, bursts of sunshine and cloud, a crisp cool wind on my face and the unmistakable vibrancy of the autumn colours. ‘Tis indeed the season to be grabbed by the neck and to be reminded of what delights we have right before us. And in doing so we are more likely to ‘come to our senses’ and have a bit of a break from our busy thoughts. And, if we are lucky, we may end up with a sense of solid ground and perspective in our lives.
In case this sounds a bit flaky and new age, hard science backs this up. The fMRI scan evidence suggests that an experience of nature reduces rumination in the mind; particularly in areas of the brain associated with busy self-referential negative thinking. One study carried out in 2015 by Stamford University academics looked at the neural brain changes that resulted from a series of 90 minute walks in a natural parkland setting compared to a 90 minute urban roadside walk. No prizes for guessing which walk resulted in beneficial neural changes.
There are numerous other studies where participants report experiencing reduced anxiety through the experience of being connected to nature. The specific benefits of woodland experiences in Japan are particularly well documented; Shinrin-yoku, or its direct translation of ‘forest bathing’ involves taking in the forest atmosphere through all the senses And then there are studies into the importance of natural light for getting a good nights sleep… and one could easily go on.
As often seems to be the case with my blogs, this all seems to come down to a dose of common sense. Getting out to stretch our legs in a local urban park or patch of wildnerness simply feels good. As Henry Thoreau noted over a century ago,
“I feel a little alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily without getting there in spirit…. What business have I in the woods if I am thinking of something outside the woods?”
What Thoreau would make of our obsession with social media is another question… so while you grab your walking shoes maybe think about leaving the smart phone behind too.
Martin delivers Mindfulness in Workplaces and for the Public in the North West of England and is on the UK network listings of Mindfulness Based teachers. Martin also has a background as an outdoor instructor in the Lake District and combines these two areas of professional expertise to deliver mindfulness and wellbeing experiences in nature. See anchorpoint.org.uk for more information.