My partner and I have just got back from a short break in Drenthe, a province in the NE of the Netherlands. It’s a beautiful area and we got to spend lots of time in nature. We were both struck by how relaxed we were when we came home and how well we slept. It reminded me of a recent article reporting on research carried out by researchers at Exeter University in the UK and Uppsala University in Sweden. The study found that people who spend 2 hours a week in nature were ‘significantly more likely’ to report good health and psychological wellbeing.
Perhaps it comes as no surprise that spending time in nature is beneficial for us. The thing is, what about all of us who live in cities and don’t get the chance to be out in nature every weekend? The study points out that you don’t need to get your two hours all in one go. Shorter, frequent doses of nature are also beneficial. It got me thinking about how to maximise the nature we have in the city, so we can really feel the benefit.
1. Start your day with a moment outside
Take a look at your morning routine. Do you have time for a cup of coffee in the garden before you start your day? Where I live in Amsterdam, most people in the city don’t have a garden but they do have a balcony. Dutch people are great balcony gardeners. It can be just wonderful to step out on to your balcony while the city is waking up. The birds make more noise than the traffic and the flowers are fresh from the cool of the morning.
2. Make sure to go out for a bit at lunch-time
Are you caught up with working through your lunch break? Maybe think about taking a short break outside. You don’t have to go far. Just find a spot under a tree, or maybe find an office window with a view. Just a few moments in the calming atmosphere of nature, outside of the busyness of your workplace will be nourishing.
A psychologist colleague of mine recently messaged me to share that she was making time to sit out in the garden in between seeing clients. What a great way to settle and prepare for a session.
3. Look at the stars
For a few years, my partner and I used to go regularly to a small cottage in rural southern France in the summer. The cottage was in a tiny village and by 10 pm most people were in bed. My partner would finish each day with some time on the terrace, just looking at the sky and the stars. He said it was a wonderful thing to just be with the night sky in the quiet.
4. Use the city parks and squares
Although I live in Amsterdam now, I am a Londoner by birth. Both cities have plenty of green areas. London is well-known for its green city squares with lovely, old trees. In Amsterdam there is a deliberate policy of planting as many trees along the streets as possible. I can stand on my balcony and look along a long street of beautiful trees. The Japanese favour forest bathing as a way of increasing your wellbeing. Even if you do not have regular access to a forest, you can get a lot of nourishment from the trees in a city. I find quite joyful to watch the birds flying in and out of the trees. The patterns of the branches against the sky can be dramatic. It helps me keep things in proportion.
5. Bring nature into your home
I came across a lovely article the other day. One of the universities in Amsterdam is opening a plant hotel. The idea is to provide a place where students can leave their plants to be cared for while they are away from the university for the summer. The university recognises the benefit to students’ wellbeing of keeping plants in their rooms and wants to support it.
We have window boxes on every window ledge in our apartment. It feels as if we are surrounded by flowers. When we look outside, we are immediately connected with nature.
Another good idea is to have a bird box by a window to encourage birds to visit. You have the benefit of watching them throughout the year.
If you do have a garden, you might consider re-wilding your lawn. By stopping regular mowing and trimming you can encourage the growth of wild flowers. This in turn will encourage bees. This is already happening along some motorways, where road side meadows are springing up.
6. Look for 5 beautiful things each day
You might like to get into the habit of looking for five beautiful things you can find in nature in your city each day. When we are busy and caught in our routine it is all too easy to miss them. Keep an eye open for a new window box in your neighbourhood, or a newly planted tree.
7. Stay mindful so you don’t miss it
In fact, a key to finding our 2 hours of nature when we live in a city is to be mindful. If we are continuously checking our phone, or always hurrying we will miss a lot. If we can be present to where we are and what we are doing, we will notice so much more. When we notice, it will help us to quieten down. So much of the beauty of nature is in its deep quietness and unhurried rhythms. We will be more deeply nourished by tuning into that
A while back I was having quite a bit of knee trouble and it was hard to get around. I fly a lot for my work and so I needed to rely on airport assistance for a couple of trips.
Basically, you get put into a wheelchair, or on to a buggy and are zipped through passport control and security at top speed with minimum inconvenience. Unless you feel being delivered like a package to your plane counts as an inconvenience.
Like most of us, I value my independence and was not too keen on having to ask for help. Added to that was the worry that this temporary situation might turn out to be longer lasting than I wanted. All in all, it was a vulnerable time.
Meeting the people whose job is as to provide me with assistance was an eye opener. I came to sort them into one of four groups.
The young people who don’t relate to what is going on with you.
These are generally young people on the first rung of the ladder who just wants to get the job done. They absolutely do not want to spend their time imagining what it must be like to spend any time at all in a wheel chair. It has nothing to do with them and the prospect seems too remote from their own experience.
With this group you just feel vaguely irrelevant.
The more experienced worker who has been assigned to airport assistance temporarily and is enjoying the novelty.
At one point, I spent the half an hour waiting for my gate to come up and my ‘carer’ had to wait with me. She spent the time telling me about the problems she was having with another member of staff making unwanted advances to her. There was an underlying subtle message that I was expected to give back something for the privilege of being driven around the airport. My assistance provider had a captive audience and wanted to make the most of it. I played my part and did my best to listen and give whatever advice I could.
At least I felt like a human being, even if one that was supposed to work for their care.
The expert carer with pride in their work.
Make no mistake, once you sit in the wheelchair you are a captive audience for whatever comes to you. One of my most unnerving encounters was with an airport assistance person who actually took immense pride in his work and tried his very best to give top quality support.
He explained that he preferred to do without the lifts and pulleys that can be used to get people on and off planes and resort to the strength of his own arms. This sounds good but it meant that as we transferred to the airport bus to take us from the ‘plane to the terminal, he tipped my wheelchair almost on its back to get me on to the bus—without using the lift.
At one point I felt quite worried. I could imagine him lifting me bodily into the car that my friend had waiting for me at the airport. In spite of his enthusiasm, or perhaps because of it, I felt like a project rather than a person.
I have met people so solicitous of my feelings that I have felt concerned to reassure them that I am all right and do not expect to have to do this procedure more than a few times.
In some ways, this was the most difficult group to handle. They were so sorry for me and so anxious to get things right. I felt burdened by their concern.
What did I learn from my wheelchair experience?
Overall, the whole experience touched me very much in seeing how natural it is for us to wish to help others. Everyone who helped me as part of this service was kind and polite and many have done more than was asked of them. Happily, I did just need the help for a limited period of time, but it has changed the way I look at other people in similar situations. I hope I can see a bit more deeply.
The main thing that I learnt was that wanting to be a help is not enough. To really help, with no fuss, you need to have the extraordinary skill of being able to put yourself in another person’s shoes—or in this case, wheelchair. It is possible to tell instinctively if someone has cared for a friend or relative with mobility problems because they know how to do this. People with this experience know you have to drop you own ideas of how you think the job needs to be done. Instead you try to imagine what you would need if you were in that position. It’s not easy but those who can do it stand out a mile from the rest.
It’s a pity that the people who do this work do not receive some basic training on mindfulness and empathy skills. They give so much already it would be great for them to have support to know how to do it even more effectively.
Photo by AbsolutVision on Unsplash
It must be one of the most dreaded moments in life—the moment when the worry that there is something wrong with your car turns into a certainty and you have to head for the hard shoulder of the motorway and search for the nearest emergency phone.
It happened to us on our way back from spending two months in our cottage in the south of France. We were fifty kilometres south of Orleans with a hotel booked in Paris. It was starting to get dark and we were waiting for the road service to arrive. Our joy on seeing the truck draw up in front of us was short-lived. The car needed a new dynamo. It was Saturday evening, and nothing would be open until Monday afternoon. There was nothing for it but for the car to go on the back of the truck and us to be transported with it.
An unexpected kindness
We felt pretty miserable as we tried to mentally re-juggle all our plans for the next few days, and there was a definite sense of being very alone and far from home. We had to stumble along the edge of the hard shoulder to get to the truck. I have been having problems with my knees for some time, which meant that I limped along well behind my partner and wondered how on earth I was going to get on board. The maintenance man spotted my difficulty and came around to help me. By guiding my feet on to the steps, he helped me make the climb. In those few moments, I felt less alone and the maintenance man became another human being, rather than a just deliverer of unwanted news.
In fact, he turned out to be a bit of a hero all round. He drove us to his garage and let down our car. Telling me to stay where I was, he directed my partner to gather together the things we would need for an over-night stay. He phoned several local hotels until he found one that could accommodate us and then he drove us there. He gave us his phone number and directions on when and how to contact him and drove off to continue his work of rescuing stranded motorists throughout the night.
A kindly hotel
The hotel we found ourselves in was a small, family-run hotel on the main street. We were greeted warmly by the lady of the house and shown to our room. As my partner struggled up the stairs with all our various bags, I followed along with my rucksack but found the stairs difficult because of my knee problem. I felt my bag lifted from my shoulders and turned to see someone who I presumed to be the daughter who had come to help. She took the bag all the way to our room.
One of the things that I find challenging about certain parts of France is that after nine o’clock it is impossible to find anything to eat. As it was now well after nine o’clock, we feared we would go to bed hungry. The hotel had a restaurant run by the husband of the family. We timidly asked his wife if there was any chance of an omelette and after consulting her husband, they agreed to keep the restaurant open and to serve us a simple meal. Rarely has an omelette tasted so good as when it is eaten in a strange town you never meant to visit and is served with such generosity, while your car sits in an unfamiliar garage waiting to be repaired.
This generositywas a feature of our enforced stay at the hotel. It carried on in all kinds of small ways culminating in the chef-husband driving us to another hotel nearer to the garage, because his hotel closed on Sunday nights and there were no taxis to take us. When we thanked him, he replied simply, ‘It’s normal.’
The family in the hotel, and the maintenance man were all doing their jobs. We paid for the services we received and yet there was a distinct feeling that we received something we could not have paid for or put a price on. Without fuss they all offered small acts of kindnessthat transformed their services into more than a business transaction. They seemed to understand how awful it is to be in that situation without us having to say anything at all. By being prepared to connectwith us, as human beings—and even human beings in a difficult situation—they became more human to us and we could be comforted by their kindness and generosity.
The transformative nature of kindness
We ended up being stuck there for three nights. It turned out that the dynamo could not be delivered before the Tuesday. When I think of the occasion, it is the kindnessthat I remember more strongly than all the inconvenience. No-one did anything very out of the ordinary—as the chef said, it was normal—but by infusing their work with kindness they helped to transform a worrying and stressful situation into something manageable. Not a bad result for a day’s work—and the kindness really did conquer all!
Meditation is quite easy to learn and it’s not hard to practice. What can be hard is to make it part of your life. Do you find that there is a lot of stuff that gets in the wayof your meditation?
We are not used to meditating
There is a lot of talk about how mindfulness and meditation are so popular these days. It’s true that things have certainly changed from when I was a child. Nowadays everyone knows what meditation is, or thinks they do. We hear of various famous people who are said to practice meditation. It’s easy to find books, articles, apps and lots of courses on meditation.
This is all great, but it does not change the fact that we are not used to it.
For those of us living in the west, it’s really only in the last fifty or so years that meditation has been available to us. It’s a new addition for most people. It is only beginning to be accepted in certain areas of society—it’s certainly not something that everyone does. You don’t walk down the street and see billboards urging you to meditate. TV shows are not full of people meditating.
When I was a child there was even less talk of meditation. I would have loved to have had lessons in school. My life could have been quite different. Now meditation is beginning to be taught in schools. This is a wonderful development. Our education system is so focused on getting across all the right information. It’s a shame that learning how to work with our minds is just down to us.
Those of us who are meditators support each other through our communities but we are not mainstream. We are still working out how to make meditation part of our lives.
It is not always comfortable to sit with your mind
One result of not being used to meditation is that we can feel some resistance to it. Although we have heard of all the benefitsand we want to try it ourselves, it is not always comfortable. Sitting quietly with your mind is not always easy to do. Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia led a piece of research into how people react when they are asked to sit quietly without anything to occupy them. People reported feeling uncomfortable. Shockingly, in some cases people went for the option of giving themselves electric shocksjust to have something to do.
Part of our unfamiliarity with meditation means that we are not always sure if we want the benefits that it brings. We want inner peace but secretly worry that it might be boring. When we don’t feel like meditating it can even feel like we don’t really want to let go of our old habits. We like what we are familiar with—even if it causes us problems. Often in workshops I have had long interactions with people who are convinced that their stress is just ‘how things are’ and that there is nothing they can do to change things.
When you have been meditating for a while, your confidence grows in the feeling of stability that it brings. You stop looking for answers and begin to accept the quietening down of the mind as a way of it returning to its natural state.
There never seems to be enough time
On a more practical level, thinking that there is not enough time certainly gets in the way of your meditation. Most people live busy lives juggling work, family and trying to have some fun. We might want to meditate but we don’t know how to fit it in. Trying to do it in the morning means we have to get up too early. When we come home in the evening, we are too tired. Forget trying to do it during the day because things are happening much too fast.
At the risk of being repetitive, a lot of this comes down to not being used to meditation. If you look carefully, there are actually lots of timesfor short meditations during the day. It helps if we can just be quite natural about it. Taking a moment to watch your breath while standing in a queue is like a tiny meditation session. There can be many times like that—stopping at traffic lights, waiting for the bus, when you go to the loo.
You can also use all the ordinary, routine activities that you do every day as mindfulness exercises. Try cleaning your teeth mindfully or taking a shower. When you cook dinner, notice each of your actions and stay present with them. Try not to let your mind wander to what you have to do next.
All these small moments help us to get used to meditation. They make room for meditation in our life and help to make it a habit.
There is so much stuff going on in our minds
Traditional Buddhist teachings on meditation the mind is likened to a wild elephantthat needs to be tamed. Although we might not like to think of our minds being like a wild elephant, we do know that for much of the time we don’t seem to have so much control over where our minds go, or how they behave. In fact, if we are honest, we know that there really is nothing that our mind cannot think about, or how far out it can get.
All this noise in the mind can get in the way of your meditation. It’s not that we don’t want to meditate but our minds are so busy that it can over rule our intention to meditate. That’s why it is important to do regular short sessions. It helps our mind get more used to quietening down.
It’s easy to get discouraged
We hear so much good stuff about meditation that it can be disappointing when we do not see an immediate difference in our experience. Society is geared towards the quick and the instant result. We can see from how we surf the internet how impatient we can get when things don’t open fast enough.
Once we start meditation, we want to get it right. We want to be experts. It is easy to get frustrated at how much our mind wanders.
The thing is that there is no such thing as a bad meditation. Every time we meditate we are managing to create new neural pathwaysin our brain that will help us to make mediation a habit. Research is showing that changes can be found in the brain after practicing meditation for just eight weeks. We can learn to be patient with our wandering mind. Each time it strays from the method, we just notice and bring it back. That’s how meditation happens.
What to do when things get in the way of your meditation?
Having an enormous sense of humour about the whole thing really helps. Meditation is important but we don’t need to take ourselves too seriously. We also don’t need to give ourselves a bad time about it all.
I remember so clearly the moment when it really dawned on me that it was my choice to meditate. Yes, my meditation teacher was encouraging me, but no-one was forcing me to do anything that I did not want to do. I had adopted an attitude towards meditation like taking a nasty medicine because it was supposed to be good for me. Suddenly it hit me that if I truly realised the benefits of meditation, then it would seem natural to want to try and make space for it. It was such a relief! I could drop all my attitude and just get down to trying to find a way to fit it in.
Now I see meditation much more like cleaning my teeth. It’s something that I do several times a day. It helps my dental hygiene and I understand that it’s necessary and important. Just like I don’t want to go out with my mouth smelling bad, I want to work with my mind. If I don’t want my mind to run away with me and go wild, I need to meditate. There’s nothing to struggle about any more.
My niece is stressed at the moment because she has an end-of-year presentation for her PhD. My neighbour has been stressed for some time because she has a mysterious leak in her shower, which the plumber has so far been unable to fix. A colleague of mine is on extended sick leave due to high blood pressure and has been told to avoid anything likely to cause her stress. My friend had a headache for three days because he was stressed with over-work.
Divorce, bereavement, moving to a new house and even going on holiday all rate high in the stress scale. Troubles at work, economic instability and unemployment are also possible sources. We can even feel stress if caught in traffic or standing in a slow-moving queue at the airport. When we worry about our families, our health, our job, our weight, we are creating scenarios in the mind that can create stress. A short-term physical crisis, such as falling over or scalding an arm can be termed stressful, as can longer-term physical challenges like facing chronic illness or disability.
What is stress?
We use the word ‘stress’ to cover a multitude of experiences—things we are afraid of, things we don’t like, feelings we have, worries that plague us—we refer to all of them as stress. So, we find ourselves using stress to describe moods we have, sensations in our bodies, our reactions to events around us, things happening to us, or things we are worried will happen to us.
In fact, our stress responseevolved to help us avoid threat and survive as a species. Our bodies respond to stress in much the same way as any other mammal. However, the way this works in modern life it is not so simple. We subject ourselves to low grade stress for long periods of time. This means that our bodies are continuously being subjected to all the effects of the stress response even when we do not need it.
We get stressed by the very things we created in order to make our lives easier. When my internet goes down it drives me crazy. If I have computer trouble it feels, it can cause stress.
Having a flat tyre is not usually a life-threatening situation and yet it can cause our stress to erupt. Once we have got upset, it is hard to find our off switch and reset. The stress tends to rumble on. Any other mammal experiencing a stressor being removed simply returns to its normal activity. If a zebra escapes from the lion who is trying to eat it, it just goes back to grazing.
On top of that, as humans we have the capacity to think, imagine, and project. No zebra would understand how anyone could lie awake at night worrying about a presentation that they have to make at work the next day. When we worry, we are causing ourselves stress about stuff that might not ever happen.
How we react
We can also help ourselves by looking more closely at what is going on for us when we talk about being stressed. Often we say we are stressed when things are simply not going the way we want them to—we just miss the bus we were running for, the person before us in the supermarket picks up the last loaf of our favourite bread, a colleague at work does not perform how we think they should.
Of course, all these things can be annoying, but we can tip them over into stressful situations by how we react. If we shrug and look for the next bus coming along instead of cursing the driver for not waiting for us; if we mentally offer the bread to the person who got there first instead of resenting them and if we take the time to talk to our colleague to find out why their performance is under-par we can things on a manageable level and avoid a full-stress impact.
There is a Buddhist teaching about two arrows. It describes how when something difficult happens we suffer and feel pain, as if being shot by an arrow. That in itself is intense enough but then we often react to what is happening by complaining, blaming, or hitting out. The pain that this causes us is like being shot by a second arrow. Maybe we cannot avoid the first one, but we do have some choice about the second one.
Stress is inevitable
Hans Seyle, the father of stress research, once said that if you do not experience stress, you must be dead! We know that life is full of challenges. Some are huge and seem overwhelming. Many are small and relatively unimportant in themselves but can add up to a lot of hassle. Training ourselves to accept this, rather than fight it is can be a big help in working with stress.
Meditation can help with this. It helps us become more present, which cuts our habit of ruminating over our worries. Our perspective opens up and we are less likely to take things so personally. Through meditation we can build resilience and learn to how to come back more quickly from a difficult experience.
We can also learn to be more kind to ourselves and stop beating ourselves up about things that go wrong. Telling ourselves off for finding things hard is certainly being hit with two arrows, instead of just one.
Understanding the stress of other people
When we can take a look at how we react, as well as beginning to accept the inevitability of stress it opens up some space. Then we can look around us and see how stress affects other people.
Maybe we find ourselves having to drop into our local super-market on the way home from work. If we take the time to look around us as we push our trolleys through the laden shelves, it is not hard to find opportunities to observe many of the ways we human beings experience stress.
Consider the middle-aged man in a smart suit buying an easy-to prepare meal for one. Perhaps he is recently divorced, living alone for the first time in years and dealing with the stress of change and upheaval. Spare a thought for the young mother with a baby in a buggy and a toddler clinging round her legs. She looks as if she has not had a propernight’s sleep for two or three years. The lounging teenage boy sulking around the soft drinks has an air of aimlessness and boredom about him. Maybe because he left school with such high hopes and now does not seem to be able to find any kind of job that lives up to his dreams. Take care as you pass the older woman, walking carefully, who underwent major surgery two months ago and is feeling low and vulnerable as she tries to get her strength back.
Recognising our shared humanity
As we select the items, we need to cook our evening meal, perhaps we are rubbing shoulders with people suffering from exam nerves, having relationship problems, shouldering the care of elderly relatives–the list is endless.
If we can create space around our own stress, it enables us to see more clearly what is going on for other people. Recognising stress in other people brings home how we are all in the same boat. Whatever our differences, we all just want to be happy and avoid suffering and pain. Yet we know that life brings challenges that we all need to face from time to time.
When we allow ourselves to take account of the difficulties other people face, it opens our hearts. Instead of being focused on our own problems we find room for concern for those of other people. We feel more connected with others and less likely to isolate ourselves with our own worries.