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Posts Tagged ‘Restoration’

I find my back garden very relaxing and restorative. I was sitting there yesterday enjoying the display of spring blooms – orange clivias, yellow cymbidium orchids, mauve bromeliads, white rock lillies and yellow hibbertia – against the backdrop of differently shaped, coloured and textured vegetation.

My pleasure was tinged with regret because I was aware that the garden would not be mine for much longer. This prompted me to take these photos:

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As you can see the garden is more informal than formal. I cannot really claim that it was planned to be this way. It is more an evolved than a designed garden, the product of intuition rather than horticultural expertise – of luck rather than good management you might say.

What I find interesting, however, is that the combination of intuition and luck seems to have produced a space that works very well psychologically for me (and others I have reason to believe). And this is really what matters.

As the pioneering psychiatrist, Carl Gustav Jung pointed out, “nature” and “landscape” (and “gardens” by implication) are psychological constructs or products of the mind. A contemporary writer on the psychology of visual landscapes, Maarten Jacobs, makes much the same point with this diagram:

psychology-of-visiual-landscape

One important thing this diagram tells us is that, as far as all natural landscapes including my garden are concerned, the “experienced” landscape is different from the “real” one. This can mean that what passes as a horticulturally excellent garden landscape can miss the mark psychologically.

This is demonstrated in a well-designed American study that compared the restorative potential of informal (or organic) versus formal (or geometric) gardens. The authors of the study did more than make a simplistic comparison between gardens at the extreme of natural and formal; variations within each of these broad categories were also compared.

The 295 male and female participants in the study represented a broad range of ages and ethnic backgrounds. They were each shown 40 photos of gardens chosen by a horticultural expert to form two sets – formal gardens from most to least and informal gardens from least to most. These are examples of the photos used:

formal-versus-informal-most-formal

Each participant ranked every photo according to four attributes:

  • Perceived restorative potential (how good a place it would be for a break when you are feeling overwhelmed, stressed or anxious)
  • Informality
  • Visual appeal
  • Naturalness (degree to which natural versus built features are present)

A sophisticated analysis of the responses revealed that the gardens having the highest perceived restorative potential were:

  •  Visually appealing
  • Informal
  • More natural than built

According to other research, features that give gardens their greatest psychological power include:

  • Unaltered terrain
  • Graceful curvilinear shapes
  • Few architectural elements
  • Many native plant species following their normal habits of growth
  • Natural looking water features such as ponds and streams
  • Partly open rather than dense vegetation
  • The absence of geometrical shapes and properties like axes and symmetry

It is no accident that these are much the same features our earliest human ancestors would have recognised and welcomed in their savannah woodland homes. It is strongly suspected that we modern humans are drawn to informal and natural landscapes because of predispositions and preferences that are inherited from our forebears and encoded in our genes (the biological factors in Maarten Jacobs’ diagram). So it is probably the case that my back garden is as much a product of my green genes as of gardening guidebooks or anything else.

 

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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 never thought I would think, much less say, that taking a mobile phone on a nature walk could be a good idea. Mobile phones have become technological tyrants in the lives of many people. Sure, they are a great communication tool, but they are an insistent source of distraction that can almost run our lives if we are not careful. And they certainly have no place in nature-based activities undertaken to find stillness, inner calm and tranquillity – or at least so I believed.

My mind was changed by Matthew Johnstone’s story. Having had a long struggle with depression himself, Matthew is now creative director at the Black Dog Institute. He has been greatly helped by what he calls “eyes-wide-open” meditation (EWOM). This, he says, is a form of mindfulness meditation that is for people who are turned off by conventional insight or mindfulness meditation (MM) – or who find it difficult.

The cover of Matthew Johnstone's book on how to use photography in mindfulness meditation

The cover of Matthew Johnstone’s book on how to use photography in mindfulness meditation

MM involves quietening the mind by channelling attention onto an object, such as a candle flame, a feeling, a word or mantra – “om” is a popular one – or one’s own breathing, and then observing in a non-judgemental way the thoughts and feelings that pop into your head. The key ingredient of mindfulness says medical academic, Dr Craig Hassed, is that “we are conscious of what is going on but not in a self-conscious kind of way – so paying attention rather than thinking about ourselves”.

In contrast to MM, which adopts an inward looking perspective, EWOM turns our observing to the world beyond ourselves. It requires us to slow down, look around, and let our attention be attracted and held. It centres our awareness on the “out there” and enables our senses to dwell on “beautiful light, beautiful shapes [and] beautiful colours”. It locates us in the present and the here and now and, in so doing, quietens the sometimes unpleasant and damaging “busyness” of our minds.

Matthew found that a camera can be a great aid to EWOM.

“A camera in your hands is the reminder to consciously slow everything down from your breath, to your walk, to your thoughts… To take photographs, we have to stop, look around, focus and capture. It brings our awareness to what’s going on.”

The camera does not have to be a fancy one. The camera built into most mobile phones is quite suitable for the purpose. Indeed, a mobile phone camera is the perfect tool for EWOM, he says, especially for people on-the-go. A great advantage of your phone camera is that you probably have it with you all or most of the time. It is also convenient to carry and easy to use.

Based on Matthew’s remarks, I have identified some simple guidelines for using your camera phone as a EWOM tool (no doubt Matthew would suggest others):

  • Switch the phone to aeroplane mode so that you’re not distracted by texts, tweets and the like.
  • Let the camera remind you to consciously slow everything down – from your breath, to your walk, to your thoughts – and then take time to look.
  • Imagine the camera is asking you questions like, “What can you see that no-one else can? What grabs your heart? What makes you smile?”

This last guideline underlines the importance of photographing only what resonates with you – what you find yourself drawn to happily and involuntarily. These will be subjects that you find intrinsically interesting and attractive; subjects that you attend to effortlessly and without direction from your conscious mind. Psychologists refer to this involuntary, interest and emotion-driven attention as “fascination”, and contrast it with the fatiguing, voluntary, choice-driven (or directed) attention that is so much part of day-to-day life.

In the human mind, nature and fascination go together. Just as directed attention is an inescapable part of life in modern environments, fascination is the “normal” or typical form of attention in natural places. The psychological relationship between fascination and nature is forged by our emotions. The emotional centres in the human brain evolved long before the thinking parts and continue to have a big say in our behaviour including where and how we focus our attention.

There is now overwhelming evidence that fascination experienced in natural environments is therapeutic. Apart from countering stress, it enhances recovery from mental fatigue and associated mood problems. It is not hard to imagine that regular doses of fascination help relieve depression and anxiety, perhaps by giving the brain time-out from negative thoughts and feelings.

Matthew Johnstone practices EWOM in all kinds of settings. But I think that natural settings have more than most to offer as far as EWOM is concerned.

Matthew Jonstone b

And if the phone camera can help with EWOM then I am willing to concede that there is a case for taking a mobile phone (switched to aeroplane mode, of course) on a nature walk. If you are going to be “in the present and the here-and-now” anywhere, the “present and the here-and-now” in nature are as good as it gets.

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When the horrific news of the fall of the Twin Towers saturated the American media on September 11 2001, Richard Louv bundled his then 13 year old son into their VW van and travelled to a favourite nature haunt on the beautiful Owens River which runs through the Sierra Mountains. Owens River California

We fled from the great pain that would lead to greater pain, and drove the six hours from San Diego to the Owens, and parked next to the current that washed out all the sound and all the fury. That night, inside the van, we flipped down the table and ate granola bars and drank hot chocolate and watched the window screens grow opaque with a late hatch of insects.

And all the next day and the day after that, we cut the electrical cord to the outside world, and found a sense of equilibrium.

As people have always done, Louv and his son turned to nature for escape, solace and restoration at a time of emotional turmoil. The place they chose had happy associations for them as well as being one that comforted them directly through its naturalness, beauty and serenity.

The TV journalist, Geoff McMullen is someone else who has turned to nature in search of equilibrium or “balance” in emotionally difficult times. As a foreign correspondent for many years, he covered a number of horrifically violent events, including the civil war in Rwanda. Asked in a TV interview how he coped with the horrors he had witnessed, he replied:

You’ve got to go looking for the wonder and the beauty. If you see a lot of horror, and you want to stay balanced, you’ve really got to seek out the beauty. So I went to great extremes to find the naturalness in the antarctica_2642820bGalapagos Islands, or in particular for me, Antarctica. And I came out of that unearthly kind of beauty thinking, “God, it’s good to be alive,” and in love with every minute, every day. That’s what extremes do to you, they make you relish the now. The everyday, the opportunity of, “Don’t waste it,” you know, “Use every breath.” That’s what the beauty does to you as well.

 Jeff McMullen’s testimony to the balancing and healing power of natural beauty echoes a theme found in reflective writings through the centuries. John Muir, 19th century pioneer conservationist, naturalist and writer declared that Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to the body and soul. Rachel Carson, one of the most influential scientists of the 20th century, agreed. Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. This is so, she said, because the affinity of the human spirit for the earth and its beauties is deeply rooted. This affinity is a bond that unites all of us with the rest of nature. This is the bond forged by biophilia, the trait in all of us that makes other creatures our kin and the environments they inhabit places to which we are drawn.

I have heard and read a number of similar testimonies and comments – as I suspect we all have. Even the crushing burden of loss and grief is not beyond nature’s comfort and healing. In 2006, Maureen Hunter, then a nurse working in a small country town in Western Australia, lost her youngest son in a car accident. As she journeyed through her grief, she realised she could draw on her experience to help others. She does this through her website and blog. She found spending time outdoors one of the things that particularly helped her.

I went outside every day. I listened to birds, held out my hands to the fury of the wind and sat on the veranda and felt the rain come in. Nature connected me to life, to renewal and to simple pleasures again. I also looked for signs. I saw messages in clouds, picked up butterflies with a smile and rejoiced when I saw an eagle soaring, taking strength from something greater than myself.

eagle-wedge-tailed

Of course, not everyone has the opportunity or ability to seek out nature in difficult times. That’s a fact of life as is the reality that nature itself is often an agent of destruction, loss, death and the consequent fear, anguish and grief.Woam_carrying_child_through_wreckage_78504_1220x763

But, as Richard Louv reminds us – in dark times, one human impulse is to find kinship with other species and connection to elements beyond the headlines, where we feel larger forces at work, and know that all things must pass.

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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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Kate’s comment on my last post really got me thinking. (It will be helpful to read it now, if you haven’t already done so). In it, she tells of the difficulty she and her husband, Roo, had tolerating car travel following seven weeks of walking through natural and rural countryside. They found that their brains had to re-adjust to a “non-natural” flow of visual information and the pace of movement.

What Kate describes strikes me as a dramatic instance of directed or voluntary attention fatigue (DAF). The term  “directed attention fatigue” may be unfamiliar to you, but you will know the experience itself. You may associate it with driving, crowded citywith the close reading of documents for work purposes rather than for pleasure or with staring at a computer screen for hours. You may know it from being in a job that puts you at the hub of different channels of communication – email and phone as well as talking face-to-face, for example.  Even negotiating busy footpaths and shopping malls requires directed attention. All such situations set us up for DAF because they require us to maintain attention in the face of many potential distractions. Carefully focussing on information from one source while we try to block out the information from others involves mental effort.

Psychologists have long distinguished between two kinds of attention – voluntary and involuntary. You aConcentratingre engaged in voluntary attention right now as you read this post. You are aware of what you are doing and you are mindfully in charge of the process. Your attention is directed to the words on the page because that is what you have decided. You are making the effort to pay attention or concentrate.

Now imagine that you hear an unusual bird-call right outside the window of the room you are in. What Fascinationhappens? Straight away you would have your head turned and eyes directed at the window and beyond. No volition or thinking would be involved. Your response would be involuntary or automatic. You would not be able to resist the attraction of the sound. You would be under its spell so to speak. This is involuntary attention or “fascination” (from the Latin word for “spell”, fascinum).

Whereas voluntary or directed attention requires effort and is fatiguing – often damagingly so, involuntary attention or fascination requires no effort and is restorative – often therapeutically so.

Interest is the primary driver of attention. High interest makes us attend in an automatic, involuntary and centred way. Low interest, on the other hand, leaves the brain with the options of paying attention Wonderor not doing so. What happens will be largely a matter of choice. As it is associated with high-level interest, fascination is sometimes spoken of as interest-driven attention. Voluntary attention, on the other hand, is described as choice-driven attention.

Because it is our biological “home”, nature holds an enormous amount of intrinsic interest for us, more than we instinctively find in the fabric and artefacts of the constructed world. As part of biophilia’s legacy, we are born with a disposition to experience nature as interesting, but we have no such innate disposition in relation to created environments. That is why, in the human mind, nature and fascination go together.

The distress that Kate and Roo experienced was produced by their wrenching transition from the comfort of fascination to the challenge of directed attention. It illustrates vividly the mental and emotional burden that voluntary attention, especially under conditions of sensory bombardment, can impose.

The worrying thing is that we can “get used” to living with sensory or information overload. This does not mean that we are freed from the hard work of voluntary attention. It just means that we manage to “put up with it”. We can even be duped into thinking that operating with directed attention is “normal”. Kate and Roo’s experience should tell us emphatically that it is not.

Certainly, the intensity of their experience was exceptional, probably because they are both highly nature-aware and nature-sensitive individuals. I can hear some people saying that such an experience would never be theirs, insisting perhaps that they are more comfortable mentally and emotionally with urban sights and sounds. So, they might ask, what does this say about fascination and biophilia?

Sadly the question should be, what is it saying about them – about their sensitivity to nature in particular? We may have inherited brains that are geared for mental and emotional engagement with nature, but this awesome complex of abilities (our biophilia in other words) has to be cultivated through use. Neglect these abilities and they atrophy. Dulled, they no longer serve our own well-being and indeed the well-being of the planet.

When we divorce ourselves from nature we lose one of the most life-enriching and life-affirming parts of ourselves. We owe it to ourselves, our loved ones and humanity not let that happen. Come to think of it, these two sentences sum up very nicely my rationale for writing Claim Your Wildness and publishing this blog.

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If you were in this scene, standing on the rock shelf in the foreground, it’s a safe bet that you would be feeling relaxed and mentally refreshed.

This spot is an example of what Stephen and Rachel Kaplan would call a “restorative environment” because it:

  • gives us the feeling of being “away from it all” or at a distance from daily life – remarkably the spot is only a kilometre or so from the southern suburbs of Sydney,
  • is full of “fascination”, with things that attract our attention without being exhausting
  • is easy to understand because it “fits in” with what we already know about natural environments, and
  • allows us to engage in activities that we would want to do there like walking, swimming, photographing or just looking.

Time spent in such a spot helps us to put our mental house in order – clarifying and ordering thoughts and reflecting on personal concerns, goals and priorities. It also relieves the concentrated attention fatigue that is an inescapable part of urban life. From the moment we wake to when we fall to sleep at night, we constantly have to pay attention in order to cope and even survive.

The Kaplans have developed their Attention Restoration Theory (ART) to explain why natural scenes are superior to any other in restoring concentration, increasing mental energy and reducing the stress of information overload. “Fascination” is a key concept in the theory. We are “fascinated” when we find ourselves involuntarily paying attention to something. The mental “muscles” we use when we force ourselves to pay attention or concentrate are not involved when we are fascinated. When we are looking at a scene like the one in the photo, we are giving our senses and brain the chance to recover from attention fatigue.

Why we respond to nature with fascination is not known for certain but it seems likely that evolution has prewired our brains to absorb information about nature easily. In contrast our brains have to work harder where information from “non-natural” environments, like cities and towns, is concerned.

While visiting “real” nature is the ideal way to find relation and restoration, it is not the only option. There are “restorative environments” in all sorts of places, parks and gardens, for example. Here’s one of the places I go in my own garden for a spot of R & R (when it’s not being used by other members of the family, of course).

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