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Posts Tagged ‘Peace’

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.

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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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I was intrigued by this photo of an intensely interested Zoe taken when she was seven months…Watching a tree The scene Zoe was watching

…because this is what she was looking at – not just once and briefly, but repeatedly for minutes at a time.

It may have been the leaves that captured and held her attention but I think that it was more likely the blue sky.

A couple of months before, I was watching her as she was being pushed along in her pram. The hood was down as the sun was low in the sky. She was lying on her back but it was obvious that something was attracting her attention. She kept tilting her head backwards clearly intent on taking in the view overhead. All there was to see, as far as I could tell, was the sky, which on that day was an expanse of blue. Those with me, including her mother, agreed. We realised that this might well have been Zoe’s first experience of the wide blue sky.

Zoe’s response is not surprising. The colour blue, especially sky blue, has a distinctive and spontaneous effect on all of us. It works on our brains to stimulate feelings of calmness, relaxation and well-being. Little wonder that sky blue is a universally popular colour, which enhances enormously the appeal of real, painted and photographed landscapes. It also plays and important part in heightening the attractiveness of water views.

Landscape painting b Zhang's study 3 more beautiful

Strictly speaking it is not the “blueness” of blue that produces its emotional effect. Blueness is the product of brain activity stimulated by short-length light waves falling on special colour cells (cone cells) in the retina at the back of our eyes. Because our brains can differ in the way they process the information from cone cells, it is possible that the “blue” you see is not the same “blue” I see. This is true for all visible colours. But even if my blue is your red, both of us will still say that the sky is blue and a strawberry is red.

Where blue is concerned, however, the picture is a little more complicated. Scientists have discovered that there is a second colour-sensitive pathway linking our eyes and brain. This pathway begins with cells in the retina that contain melanopsin. This is a pigment that is sensitive to blue light. Its presence enables our eyes to gauge both the amount of blue and yellow in incoming light and the intensity of that light. The pathway carries this information directly to parts of the brain involved in emotion. So the emotional effect of blueness is the same for all of us regardless of any differences in the blue that we are actually seeing.

The information is also transmitted to those parts of the brain responsible for the regulation of the circadian rhythm – the daily cycle of waking and sleeping. Bright blue light signals daytime and prompts wakefulness while its absence triggers the production of the sleep hormone melatonin. (Yellow-red firelight on the other hand makes us drowsy.)

Another interesting thing about blue light is that it improves memory and the expansive kind of thinking involved in creativity. For example, researchers gave over 600 participants six different cognitive tests presented on computer monitors that had blue, white or red backgrounds. If the task was creative, like brainstorming or drawing a picture out of a bloodstain, participants did twice as well with blue backgrounds as they did when the background on the monitor was red.

Why blue encourages us to be broader and more flexible in our thinking is not understood. Perhaps it is because we associate blue with the vastness of the sky and the ocean, and this somehow enables us to broaden our mental horizons.

I would like to think that Zoe was beginning to discover the vastness as well as the blueness of the sky.

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After his release from an Egyptian prison, Australian journalist Peter Greste wasPeter Greste asked what he would most like to do. His answer was:

Watching a few sunsets. I haven’t seen one of those at all for a very long time, watching the stars, feeling the sand under my toes — the little things.

He went on to say:

You realise it is those little beautiful moments of life that are really precious, and spending time with my family of course.

That’s what’s important, not the big issues.

It is interesting and significant that the “little things” Peter mentions are all centred on nature. Being deprived of them reminded him of how precious and important such little things are.

I am grateful for his reminder because it is easy to forget that simple encounters with the natural world are essential for mental and spiritual wellbeing. They are literally “mind changers” – lifting our mood, calming and refreshing us, making us more sociable and providing us with restoring moments of stillness.

Prompted by Peter’s remarks, I have compiled a list of ways of having these encounters at home or relatively easily in other places. Most of the list come from an excellent blog, Be a fun mum. The blog’s author is “Kelly”, herself a mum with four children. I was greatly impressed by what Kelly had to say about herself and about the purpose and aim of her blog. Her site is well worth visiting especially if you are a parent.

Although the list of activities Kelly has drawn up is intended for parents and children, many of her suggestions are suitable for people of all ages. These are the ones I have chosen along with a few of my own.

Why not try some today, remembering to focus as completely on the experience as you can. You may find that breathing slowly and deeply helps you to immerse yourself in some of the more passive activities – watching a sunset, listening to birds and lying on grass, for example.

 

1. Go outside and feel the sun on your face for 1 minute.Clouds 2

2. Look at the clouds.

3. Watch where the wind moves for 2 minutes.

4. Walk along a beach at dusk.

5. Watch a sunset.

6. Look at the stars.

7. Look at the full moon.

 

IMG_1426 cropped8.Watch the birds in nearby trees.

9. Count the birds (and perhaps try to identify them).

10. Listen to bird songs and calls.

11. Look for a bird’s nest in spring.

12. Listen to a CD of bird calls.

 

 

IMG_114613. Drop pebbles into still water and watch the ripples.

14. Listen to natural running water for 5 minutes.

15. Notice the reflection of the sun on water.

16. Skim a rock on water.

17. Paddle in a shallow stream.

18. Visit a waterfall.

19. Notice how the raindrops look on a flower, leaf or go outside in the early morning and look at dew on grass.

 

20. Look for butterflies.

21. Watch how a beetle moves.

Watching fish in garden pond22. Watch ants carry food to their nest.

23. Watch goldfish in an indoor aquarium or garden pond.

24. Watch skinks and/or other lizards in your garden.

25. Study the webs of orb spiders.

26. Smell flowers.

 

27. Crumple leaves (of aromatic plants like eucalypts and native mint bushes) and smell them.

28. Feel the bark of different trees.

 

29. Take photographs of nature and make them into a photo book.

30. Climb a tree (onto the lower branches will do).

31. Have a meal in your garden.

32. Lie on grass for a short time.View up an angophora

33. Walk on grass barefoot.

34. Sit under a big tree and look up into the branches.

35. Read a book outside.

36. Climb on rocks.

37. Go for a short walk to look at neighbourhood gardens or to a nearby park.

 

38. Look at greenery outside the window for 5 minutes.

39. Arrange flowers inside your home.

40. Go for a drive and look at the scenery.

41. Borrow books about nature and wildlife from your local library.

42. Go for a “green” walk in the rain.

43. Cook on an open fire.

44. Go for a family torchlight walk in a garden or park.

 

Something else you might find interesting to do is to think about the answer you would give to the “thing you would most like to do” question, if you  found yourself in Peter Greste’s situation.

My own list would include: listening to bird calls at dawn, looking at my fernery in dappled sunlight and looking at the photos of my bushwalking and trekking trips.

You are more than welcome to share your list as a comment.

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A stress-free picture if ever I saw one!

Jerusalem2002

These walking friends of mine are relaxing on the Walls of Jerusalem in Tasmania. But you don’t have to backpack your way into remote wilderness areas like this to be de-stressed by nature. A few moments in your own garden, a public park or simply contemplating the office plants can have beneficial effects of blood pressure, stress hormone levels, central nervous system function and mood.

I talked about the de-stressing power of nature in my post on bush bathing, our biased brain and office plants. In the first of these I made the point that it takes only a few minutes of exposure to a natural scene or even a picture of one for the physical and mental symptoms of stress to decrease and be replaced by the relaxation response.

I am returning to the topic of nature and stress simply to highlight the fact that ameliorating stress is one of the important pathways by which nature affects wellness. More importantly, I also want to underscore the value of connecting with nature as a way of dealing with the stress and strain of daily life.

But rather than labouring the point with more theory, I want to suggest a way you can discover the calming effect of nature first-hand and indeed make a habit of using nature to de-stress.

If you have access to Claim Your Wildness, you will find the exercise I have in mind described in last chapter. If not, this is an outline of what to do.

  • Choose ways of spending at least 30 minutes connecting with nature at home, work or play. This is easier than you might think. Go to the David Suzuki Foundation’s website,  http://30×30.davidsuzuki.org, and click on the “What you can do” link for ideas. If you are not yet ready to attempt the challenge of 30 minutes, it is OK to set a smaller target and perhaps build up.
  • Measure your stress symptoms before you start using one of the questionnaires available on the Internet, for example http://stress.about.com/library/symptoms/bl_stress_symptom_quiz.htm and http://www.stresswinner.com/nhnpdfs/Stress%20Symptom%20-%20Quiz.pdf
  • Measure your symptoms again after the 30 days. But bear in mind that the extent of your contacts with nature will be just one of the factors likely to influence your stress levels, so be realistic as well as optimistic in your expectations. Remain alert also to other benefits you are likely to be receiving, enjoyment, the beauty buzz and tranquillity, for example.

If you do this exercise, please consider using the comment box to let me and others know how you got on.

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This stunning photo of Barn Bluff in central Tasmania was taken by my bushwalking friend, Jodi Griffiths. The photo captures the essence of tranquillity, another of biophilia’s gifts.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The serene stillness of the scene matches perfectly the emotional colours of tranquillity. To experience tranquillity is to feel calm and peaceful and to be free of disagreeable sensations and thoughts.

A tranquil mind is not busy or idle, neither is it preoccupied nor inattentive. It is a mind that is present in the moment but free to wander into its own inner world of thoughts, memories and feelings.

Once in that world, our minds can attend to the memories, images, ideas, beliefs, assumptions, values and the like that are there. The process of thinking about such things is called reflection. Reflective thinking can be shallow, as in day-dreaming or reverie, where we are conscious only of our thoughts meandering about aimlessly. But it can also be purposeful, productive and therapeutic, especially when it follows pathways of self-reflection, self-discovery, creativity and problem solving. Often these pathways lead to new and helpful perspectives on problems, issues and possibilities in our lives.

Reflective thinking, along with an awareness of beauty and feelings of serenity, makes tranquillity the distinctive and important experience that it is. As soon as beauty and serenity are registered in one region (the temporal lobe) of our brain, reflective thinking is triggered in the region that initiates reflection (in the prefrontal lobe). It seems that the quiet, peace and solitude of tranquillity signal to the brain that it is OK to ease off monitoring the external world and to spend time paying attention to itself. Other factors, including the time available, will determine how much reflection actually gets done and how “deep and meaningful” the reflection turns out to be. But tranquil sights and sounds set the scene, so to speak, by spurring the brain’s reflective thinking centre into action.

As well as feeling good, tranquillity is good for us – by helping us to recover from mental fatigue and the effects of stress and, very importantly, by creating the physical and psychological space that supports reflective thinking. As the famous Roman statesman, Marcus Cicero, declared, “… a happy life consists in tranquillity of mind”. Cicero would have known that to expect a lifetime of unbroken tranquillity and happiness is unrealistic. But he was really making the point that seeking tranquillity needs to be part of everyone’s for happiness,  tranquillity is a state worth seeking. Lifelong serenity may be an unattainable goal, but seeking regular “doses” of tranquillity to fortify ourselves for the hurly burly of modern life is a wise thing to do.

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I had planned in this post to talk about “restoration” another of biophilia’s “gifts”. Instead, I would like to reflect on a point Tory Hughes makes in her comment on my bush bathing post.

She writes: I’ve always experienced what you described, the calm, healing, tonifying effects of being out in nature, away from machines and power tools and automobiles… but I thought it was a particular quirk of mine.

Tory is far from alone (or quirky) in experiencing nature’s calming effect. As  one of biophilia’s “gifts”, it is potentially available to everyone.

How we come to be “biophilic creatures” able to be calmed and enriched by nature in so many ways is not fully understood. The evidence supports the view that biophilia is innate but it is obvious that it is not present, fully formed , in our brains at birth. How, then, is it formed? In what sense is it innate?

All the children in this picture are clearly “biophilic kids”. Even Pippa, the two-year old delights in nature-play.

As a result of some fascinating research done by Judy De Loache and Vaneesa Lo Buc of the University of Virginia, we can begin to understand how Pippa and her siblings, Lochie, Henry and Annie, have come to be nature lovers. The fact that they are country kids has had a very important bearing but that is far from the full story.

What De Loache and Lo Buc’s work tells us is that the human brain has a “biophilic bias” (My phrase not theirs). Before they can walk and talk, infants:

  • display a preference for animate over inanimate objects
  • can identify animals much quicker than other objects
  • learn emotional responses to living creatures very quickly and permananently

In these and other ways , they have brains that have been “prepared” by evolution to learn about nature and how to behave in it. It is not difficult to understand why the human brain evolved this bias. Those of our ancient forebears who were better at learning about natural environments were more likely to be successful hunters and gatherers and less likely to be some other creature’s meal. They were more likely to survive, reproduce and pass on their nature-biased genes to succeeding generations.

As these “smart” genes accumulated, they gave rise to biased brains that strongly favour the emergence of biophilia. Given appropriate learning environments, the genetic seeds of biophilia will flower. Sadly this does not always happen, but it certainly has for Pippa and Annie. Here they are watching an echidna dig its way to obscurity. What a study of rapt attention! The girls’ interest and delight are obvious

When next you enjoy the calming effects of nature you might like to say thanks to your biased brain.

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