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Archive for July, 2016

My Internet provider has just supplied me with a free replacement modem intended to speed up Internet traffic to and from my computer and thus save me time. The old modem was working fine as far as I was concerned but I was pressed to make the switch.

AQH3419.TIF

AQH3419.TIF

Isn’t this typical of technological development in our society? All of it is oriented towards increasing speed and saving time. If the truth be told, much of our way-of-life today is shaped by a pre-occupation with speed and “clock” time. Speed helps us to fit more into the day and respecting time enables us to schedule all that we need, want or are obliged to do.

But not all societies share our regard for clock time – what the Ancient Greeks referred to as chronos. In Nepal, for example, especially in the rural villages, the daily schedule is much more likely to be shaped by the timeliness of activities and events than the hands anddr A typical pastoral scene numbers on a clock. This is understandable in an agrarian society where daily activities are indissociably tied to rhythms set by the sun, seasons, crops, and animals. Conformity to these rhythms takes precedence over meeting clock-regulated schedules. Smart Western visitors to Nepal quickly learn to accommodate to the reality and elasticity of “Nepalese time”.

In significant ways “Nepalese time” is closer to the second notion of time that the Ancient Greeks had. That was Kairos, which is time that is referenced to events or activities or more precisely the “right” or opportune moment for such things. As is said in the book of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible,

To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die;

A time to plant, and a time to pluck up that what is planted… and so on.

In all, there are 26 events or activities listed in the Ecclesiastes passage but I doubt that the list was intended to cover “everything”. There are quite a number I would be happy to see added to the list – all to do with nature. A time to walk (sit, meditate, swim, cycle, canoe, ski tour etc) in nature, for example, a time to experience challenges in nature; a time to find peace in nature, a time to seek healing in nature;

and a time to slow down in nature.

Writing about friluftliv, the Scandinavian tradition of embracing an open air life, Hans Gelter speaks of “slow experiences”. Many in modern societies are caught up in high-tempo family and working lives where finding the time to do all that has to be done is difficult. In such a regime, the risks of unhealthy fatigue (the kind that leads to burnout) and stress are great, not only from the frustration of not getting the main jobs done but also from little things – the disruptive hassles that cumulatively can also be very wearing. “This speedy life”, says Gelter, “has resulted in the longing for an alternative to such a hectic life, a search for ‘slowness’, for an opportunity to get a break to breath and regain energy”.

He adds: “Urban stressed-out people are searching for ‘slow experiences’ designed to temporarily ‘stop the speed’ of the hectic everyday life”.

Perhaps the most effective slow experiences are the ones that appear to suspend time altogether. These are the ones that involve personally meaningful activities that completely absorb us and give us deep joy. They are the activities that provide the experience of “flow” that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes. In a state of flow, self-awareness almost disappears and there is no consciousness of time.

All manner of activities can do this, especially ones that are freely chosen and are personally very meaningful. Art, sport and hobby activities are commonly associated with the experience of flow.

Nature provides ideal settings for “flow” activities. There are several reasons for this, a very importantIMG_0346 resized one being that natural settings help us to have the “being away from it all” feeling. In natural settings also, we are much more likely to be “fascinated”, that is, to have our attention captured by the sights, sounds and other sensory stimuli around us. More than any other context, natural settings help us to withdraw and slow down.

Hans Gelter is a strong believer in the power of nature to provide the kind of restorative slow experiences that urban dwellers are needing and seeking. To test his belief, he conducted a study in which 221 people undertaking field trips in nature were asked to have a short solo experience. They were asked simply to sit silently in a natural setting. After 10 minutes, the participants re-joined their groups and wrote down how the solo experience was for them – their thoughts and feelings during it.

Most (96%) wrote positively about their encounter with nature, many expressing gratitude for the experience and reporting feelings of happiness and freedom. The most common (66%) observations were about the impact of the experience of mood as expressed in terms like calm, relaxation, stillness, quietness, peace, harmony and restoration. Almost as common were thoughts about sensations – the sights, sounds, smells of the surroundings and the increased awareness of details.

Although this was not a rigorous study, the results are totally consistent with the findings of many formal, peer-reviewed investigations. It is particularly interesting that a mere 10 minutes spent alone in a natural setting was sufficient to alter people’s moods, mental rhythms and time sense.

 

Hans Gelter’s study is mentioned in his chapter in Nature First: Outdoor Life the Friluftliv Way, edited by Bob Henderson and Vikander and published by Natural Heritage Books, 2007

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Imagine this scene –

  • a rock ledge overlooking a six metre almost vertical drop to a small rocky creek bed
  • a doubled climbing rope, anchored to a large tree, falls from the ledge to the creek
  • Julia, a largish, middle-aged woman in a climbing harness, is attached to the rope and is striving vainly to lean back in the harness and let the rope support her
  • a second person, obviously an instructor, is gently coaching her to trust the equipment, to keep her legs straight and to let the rest of her body slowly slide to the abseiling position
  • a third person (also an instructor) is at the foot of the drop holding the rope in readiness to help the woman control her descent
  • after struggling for several minutes to overcome her fear and let herself lean even a few degree backwards, the woman suddenly loses patience: “This is bloody ridiculous. Make me do it Les. Bully me!”

Yes, I am the Les to whom the order was addressed. The amusingly ironic thing is that Julia, a well-known political activist, human rights champion and all-round formidable campaigner was certainly NOT a person to be bullied. Needless to say, I disobeyed and resorted to plan B which involved a shorter and gentler rock face on which Julia could build trust in herself and her equipment.

Julia was one of the 500 or so people that passed through a beginning bushwalking and camping course

Backpack workshop

Backpack workshop

for adults with which I was heavily involved for over 25 years. Guided by the principle of “gradualism” (as distinct from the “into the deep end” approach), the course took people through a series of activities, beginning with an

This the way you build a fire

This is the way you build a fire

 

indoor introductory workshop and culminating in an overnight, moderate grade, full-pack bushwalk in the Blue Mountains National Park.

“What has abseiling to do with basic bushwalking and camping?” you ask.

“Nothing”, I once would have said, but my mind was changed by a chance occurrence on the very first presentation of the course.

This is what happened. With a view to underscoring the message that safety in outdoor activities is largely of one’s own making, my co-leaders and I hit upon the idea of illustrating the principle in a demonstration of abseiling. There was no intention to do other than show the course members safety procedures before and during an abseil. But when we had finished the exercise, one of the participants said, “I’d like to have a go at that”. And he did – successfully and without fuss – and, in doing so, encouraged almost everyone else in the group to follow his lead.

The group that returned from the abseiling site was noticeably different from the one that walked there an hour or two earlier. Morale and camaraderie had surged and one sensed a heightened motivation for the course and for bushwalking more generally. The sentiment seemed to be, “If we can manage an abseil, bushwalking and camping will be a breeze”.

Just a matter of walking backwards - down a cliff

Just a matter of walking backwards – down a cliff

This change was not lost on my co-leaders and me. It was clear that the abseiling “demonstration” had to be a fixed part of all future courses – to be conducted in the same way with the move “to give it a go” coming from the participants (which, quite remarkably, it always did).

I am sure that Julia was fully aware of the value of giving challenges a go. She knew intuitively what she stood to gain from walking backwards down that drop. On another occasion during the course, she had this to say (in her characteristically forthright way) to us course leaders:

There should be more courses like this for older people. Everything is done for the young these days. We have to stop older people bringing down the shutters.

Her urging not to bring down prematurely the shutters on life has stayed with me – indeed inspired me – ever since.

Nature-based activities, including those like bushwalking or hiking that are not usually associated with “adventure”, are especially good ways of keeping the shutters wide open.

  • They take us into a world that stimulates our mental faculties and emotions, sometimes very powerfully;
  • They increase our openness and resilience to novelty and the unexpected;
  • They help us to discover mental and physical resources within ourselves that we may not know we have;
  • They nurture friendship, foster empathy and co-operation in personal relationships;
  • They can help us to re-frame and resolve personal problems and issues – and even to give added meaning and purpose to life.

And you have more than my word for all of this. Susan, a course graduate who became one of my regular bushwalking companions, was kind enough to let me record some of her thoughts about the benefits she derived from walking in nature.

This is a summary of what she said:

  • From the physically challenging walks, she gained a sense of accomplishment and heightened self-esteem. The camaraderie that came from sharing challenges with others fostered a sense of belonging and of being accepted by the group. Interestingly, she had valuable periods of alone time even when walking with and in the security of a group.
  •  In addition to increasing her existing friendship network, she also saw her socialising in bushwalking as an important part of maintaining connections and engagement in her more senior years.
  •  Susan valued the non-competitive nature of bushwalking and appreciated very much the way the activity could encourage caring attitudes and behaviour.
  •  Her bushwalking also strengthened her sense of purpose in life and her desire to keep well (“I do not want to be a little old lady with osteoporosis”).
  •  Not surprisingly, Susan admitted to having a “craving” for nature, revelling in its beauty, tranquillity and peacefulness.    
Susan and friends

Susan and friends

 

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Before the “miracle” happened, Michael was a seriously underachieving and troublemaking “rank outsider” at Kambrya College, a Melbourne secondary school. He is featured in a recently telecast documentary about the remarkably successful strategies Kambrya is using to transform its culture, academic performance and community standing.

Michael with a Kambrya assistant principal

Michael with a Kambrya assistant principal

We meet Michael first as a member of Darrabi, a class formed to cater for year 9 boys with serious behavioural and learning issues. Like most of his classmates, Michael joined Darrabi with negative attitudes about himself, learning and the school. Despite the best efforts of his class teacher, he along with most of his classmates failed to respond to the Darrabi program, despite its laudable emphasis on one-on-one attention, respect, expectation raising and confidence building. Academic performance actually went backwards and a couple of serious behavioural meltdowns, one being a classroom break-in involving Michael, finally compelled the teacher and one of the school’s assistant principals to devise a relatively radical remedial strategy.

Although few if any of boys had done any bushwalking, the two staff members elected to take them on a four-day full-pack (20kg) hike in Wilson’s Promontory, a very beautiful coastal wilderness area.

Michael was not at all excited by the prospect. “At the time they told us, I said, ‘No damn way’ ”, he laterwilsonspromb reported. “I had never walked further than going to the shops or going to my mate’s house – that’s two kilometres”, he also recalled.

The 62.5 km walk challenged the boys mentally as well as physically. They had to dig very deep at times, arriving at the campsite after dark on one occasion. There were blistered feet and fatigued muscles in abundance but also displays of endurance and helpfulness. Around the campfire at the end of each day the teachers were able genuinely to commend the boys for their efforts, resilience and support of one another.

The physical and mental challenges of the walk, the immersion in nature, the camaraderie that developed and the patient encouragement and counselling from the teachers had an astonishing impact on the boys. They finished the four days with a new and more positive image of themselves and their capabilities. This is what Michael had to say about the experience:

Physically it [the four-day walk]sucks, but I feel so proud of myself

If you can get to do a 62.5 km hike without crying, you can do anything.

 These are the remarks of a boy who had grown in self-respect, confidence and resilience. Indeed, for Michael, the experience was life changing. He returned to the regular Darrabi program with a commitment that brought not only academic success but also made him a “better person” (his own words). Such was his transformation that he wanted to share it for the benefit of others. In his speech marking his graduation from the program, he said, “I want to show other kids how Darrabi has helped me”.

But there is more to his metamorphosis. The boy, who was once called a rank outsider, who once broke into a classroom, who once was a menace to himself and others, was selected for the prestigious leadership position of Sub-school Captain. It is hard to find the words to describe Michael’s delight on learning of his election.

Michael and his classmates had received and benefited from “wilderness adventure therapy”, even though the teachers responsible may not have used that particular label for the experience. But the experience had all the hallmarks of an adventure for the boys – perceived by them as risky (even though the actual level of risk was very low), physically and mentally challenging and an unfamiliar outdoor location. The walk took the boys on the archetypical hero’s journey that is re-told in countless legends – a venture into a novel world, valiant struggles against mental and physical challenges and a fulfilling reward at the end.

All manner of nature activities can draw out the hero in people. A day-walk along a wide bush track can be a hero’s journey for one person as much as a full-pack trek in trackless terrain could be for another. What matters is not the activity as such but its meaning to the individual.

As the story of Michael and the other Darrabi boys illustrates, outdoor adventures can have positive, powerful and enduring effects. Studies of formal and informal wilderness programs including Outward Bound have consistently found that wilderness activities, especially ones of longer duration (two to three weeks), produce noticeable improvements in independence, self-esteem, personal sense of control and other personal attributes that strengthen self-belief and confidence. Interestingly, there is evidence that such benefits are likely to be greater for adults than for young people.

It is my conviction that one of the best things we can do for ourselves is to have a “wilderness adventure” or two in our lifetimes. There are plenty of organisations that can help you do this. Outward Bound immediately comes to mind of course, but there are other options including joining a group or club that is engaged in engaged in outdoor activities such as bushwalking, canoeing and canyoning. And, if you are prepared to spend a little time getting yourself walking fit, why not think about a supported walking or trekking holiday in Nepal, India, New Zealand, Canada or Patagonia? You may

Why not put yourself in a picture like this?

Why not put yourself in a picture like this?

find that the wilderness adventure you have will do for you what an Outward Bound program did for the woman who made this remark:

It [the program] gave me the opportunity to take a risk. It strengthened my sense of self. It gave me a feeling of purposefulness, self-respect, and strength that I never had before. When you are confident in yourself, it affects every aspect of your life.

 

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