We may have mixed emotions as we begin to move out of our current lockdown lives. Joy, excitement, relief to worry, anxiety even dread. I thought I would welcome the map with an open heart and eagerness to move on. And yet I sensed an internal ‘draw back’ too. I suspect I might not be alone.
Mindfulness and psychology helps me to remember that all of this is okay. And natural. It’s how we are wired. Our friends in neuroscience tell us we are social beings who need the physical presence of each other to feel ok and we are picking up cues of safety and danger all the time from each other’s facial expressions, voice tones, gestures and movements. We also have brain systems that evolved to give priority to the negative – and to dwell on it – in order to ensure our physical survival. This natural human biology came under massive pressure in the past year as the very thing that can help us to feel safe – other people – was a new cue of danger. And we adapted. By keeping a physical distance, we are keeping each other safe. Going online and outside, we found creative ways to stay social and connected. And we will adapt again.
We also know from research that transitions in life, even the welcome ones, can be stressful and increase anxiety. When we find ourselves “in between”, we may find ourselves not quite knowing who or how to be. With neuroplastic brains, operating a ‘use it or lose it’ basis, we need not be surprised that our social interaction muscles have lost some of their strength and flexibility. So how do we strengthen these now? Science and nature can be our allies.
Research shows there are even more gains for our physical and mental health when we take our mindfulness outdoors. Being in nature with mindfulness, many people report better sleep, creativity, well-being and mood, concentration and focus, immune function, heart functions and less mind-wandering, stress hormones, anxiety and blood pressure while also helping us to increase our sense of purpose, space and perspective.
Mindfulness can be understood as awareness – of what is happening as it is happening, without judging it to be anything else. This natural human quality can be trained, offering us a way to approach rather than avoid life, especially in the uncomfortable moments. By paying attention with curiosity and care we can grow our sense of ease and connection, with ourselves and our world.
Moments in nature can revive, inspire and connect – waking us up through the senses. From the fresh taste of summer air, the compelling aroma of forest greens or wildflowers, the touch of warm earth beneath our feet and fingers, the delightful sight of a red squirrel scampering up treetops to the vast orchestral sounds of our bird friends. We evolved in nature so beneath our fast and busy minds, our bodies know comfort and connection in nature.
Being in nature with mindfulness
Joining a group to experience mindfulness outdoors with nature offers a safe way to be together as we learn how to strengthen our social interaction muscles and make our way through this latest pandemic transition. We have guided monthly mindful outdoor experiences throughout the summer that you are welcome to book in and join.
We can also weave moments into our day ourselves, noticing and naming how our bodies and minds respond:
- Listen to what your body tells you and give yourself time to adjust
- Arrange to meet one or two people in familiar and less populated green spaces
- Take a green pause in the midst of it all – between tasks, picking up kids, waiting anywhere
- Dip back and forth between steadying yourself and venturing out
Sip some earthy breaths
Breathing in the gift of oxygen from our tree friends and breathing out, gifting them back carbon dioxide
Savour with your senses
Look: up and around, with soft fascination and curiosity – I wonder what is here to be seen? And what is seeing me too?? Even having a view of nature as you work or recover from illness has been associated with greater productivity and satisfaction and less time in hospital and on painkillers.
Listen: open your windows to the sounds of birds, water, the wind and the woods. The most stressed seem to benefit the most.
Smell: spend time with the oak, the pine and garlic – their essential oils or phytoncides boost our immune functioning as well our feel good hormones. While jasmine and lavender improve sleep and ease our stressed nervous systems.
Feel: the sun on our skin for our Vitamin D shot, the earth on our hands, our pets, bare feet on the ground, exercise in green spaces – all have proven gains.
Taste: seasonal plants and fruits. Our brains enjoy the novelty and diversity of our natural environments.
‘Adopt the pace of nature’ by deliberately slowing down when walking, greeting the earth with each step.
Sit or Stand quietly in one spot
- Take a break from talking and let nature invite you to stop and sit quietly.
- Soak up the rhythms and movements around us like the clouds moving through the skies, birds flying paths, moving streams or tides, windy leaves in the trees. When we are open to what is fascinating, it is easier to connect with the present moment.
Stop for gratitude and share your experience with others or in a journal
- What is there to be grateful for – right in this very moment?
So why not take a few moments each day, to slow down and open our senses to the wonder that is right here, ready to offer us care, joy and solace and discover how this can help to navigate the next steps on our pandemic paths?
Article commissioned by Irish Mail on Sunday and published 2 May 2021