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.
We have all been there. Those moments when city life feels too full—too many people, too much noise, too much everything. We long for some peace and quiet and a chance to regroup.
For most of us the immediate answer is not a holiday. We have families to care for, and bills to pay. That means we need to be able to work with our feelings of being overwhelmed by the city from within ourselves—to find inner space even when there does not seem to be any on offer.
When we feel overwhelmed it’s easy to withdraw, to close in on ourselves and try to put up a wall. This tends to solidify our feelings and cut us off from managing our feelings. To cope with feeling overwhelmed in the city in the long term, we need to be more daring.
Here’s some things we can try.
1. Take a moment
Think about how you begin your day. You jump out of bed to get started on the list of things that need to be done—get ready for work, hurry the kids up for school. You rush into the shower but instead of being present in the running water and enjoying the moment, you are thinking of that conversation you had with your boss the day before or worrying about getting your son to the dentist after school.
Research carried out at Harvard University in 2010 showed that for almost half of our waking hours we are thinking about something different from what we are doing. In other words, we are not fully present for many of our actions. This means that we are neither bringing our full resources, or, appreciating the moment we are experiencing. As life is uncertain, the only moment we can be sure of is the present moment—so it is ironic that we so frequently miss it.
Try to break up your day by taking short moments to nourish yourself. City life offers many good times to do this are when you are on tram, or bus, waiting in the queue at the supermarket, or changing from one activity to another.
Pause in what you are doing
Bring your attention to your body
How do you feel?
What is your mood?
Take a few slow, deep breaths
Feel the richness of the moment you are living right now
Continue with what you were doing
2. Stay open and curious
City life offers many opportunities to be open and curious. When you are going about your day you pass all kinds of people, lots of different activities and situations. Perhaps there are buskers in the metro, maybe you see a mother struggling to get her small children on to a tram or a bunch of visiting students laughing and excited about their visit to your city.
Cities are usually vibrant places with lots of energy. When we are tired or stressed it can be hard to go with the flow. We want to shut ourselves off from the noise and bustle. Instead, if we are being present, we can simply see what is happening around us. It’s not necessary to get into all kinds of opinions and judgements—we can just notice. We can stay open to new experiences, to new ideas and let them unfold around us without resisting. That way the activity can nourish and engage us, instead of exhausting us.
Try taking the time to look about you.
Look up, rather than looking down at the sidewalk.
Do you remember when you were a child being told, ‘Patience is a virtue’? It sounded really boring, didn’t it? Certainly, not a way to get what you want and to cut through the crowd. It took me a long time to appreciate the value of patience and to recognise the extent to which it eases stress.
There are so many moments in an average day in a city life where impatience can flare up—standing in line in a shop, waiting your turn in a café only to have someone barge in ahead of you. When everyone is in a hurry there are so many moments where people can act thoughtlessly—walking in big groups on the sidewalk, pushing you out of their way to get past. An angry reaction can rear up even when we are in a good mood—if we are tired, or worried it happens even easier.
The thing is, going with our impatience is exhausting and the emotions that impatience stirs up, such as anger and resentment, are not good for us. They increase our stress levels and can lead to higher blood pressure and heart problems. Positive emotions like kindness and tolerance, on the other hand, do promote wellbeing.
Being able to respond to challenging situations with patience is not a passive activity. It requires self-awareness and a capacity for seeing things from other people’s point of view. It involves flexibility and a degree of openness.
Next time your patience is challenged:
Try taking a moment to come home to yourself
Open up your awareness to view the whole situation you are in
Be aware of the needs of other people around you
Don’t focus exclusively on your own agenda
Engage your sense of humour
4. Do something for someone else
A couple of weeks ago I was on my way home and feeling pretty tired. It was a relief when the tram showed up. As it happened, I had a lot on my mind. A work project I was working on was taking much longer to compete than I had anticipated, and it was causing me concern. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a young mother with two small children—a toddler and a baby. I didn’t pay so much attention because of the problem I was working with in my mind.
It turned out that we got off at the same stop and the mother had all the struggle of collecting her buggy and getting the baby into it. As they moved off, I noticed that one of the children had dropped a soft toy on the pavement. Everybody was too busy to see. Luckily, I could pick it up and return it before it got trampled. The toddler say the toy and grabbed for it joyfully—it must have been a favourite—and the mother gave me a grateful smile.
In those short moments, my mood changed completely. I went from being self-focused and worried to feeling a great sense of wellbeing. Taking a moment to help someone else lightened my mood and helped me to feel less oppressed by my own concerns.
It’s all too easy as you go through an average day in your city life to put your head down and carry on. We are busy and we want to get on with what we have to do.
Even if we don’t see an opportunity to do something for someone else, we can at least smile. There is more to smiling than we think. It helps us to feel more open and accessible and it is pleasant for other people too.
6. Be grateful
Research is showing that people who make gratitude an active part of their lives are happier. It’s relatively easy to feel grateful for big things like promotion or moving to a new house but it’s harder to feel grateful on a daily basis.
If we look around and pay attention there is plenty that we can find to be grateful for in city life. Noticing the richness that we have in our lives is nourishing and will help us to feel stronger and more able to cope.
Here’s some ideas:
Before you go to sleep think of something that happened in your day that you feel grateful for
Keep a gratitude journal
Have a gratitude jar in the kitchen where everyone can contribute
Hold a gratitude session once a week with your family, where each person shares something that they were grateful for during the week.
7. Remember common humanity
It helps to remember that all the people in your street, in your neighbourhood, in your city want to be happy and they don’t want pain. It’s a fact of life. Maybe some people have strange ways of trying to be happy, but they still do. The longing for happiness is part of being human. Yet we all know that life can be hard and difficult times come for all of us. When city life seems too much to handle, remember to see all the people as a collection of individuals—who will have a lot in common with you on a fundamental human level.
Here’s a simple exercise you could try.
Pay attention to the people you pass in the street
Notice if you make a comment in your mind about someone
Be aware of the people you feel drawn towards and the ones you do not like the look of
Try to imagine how they might see you as you pass them by
Take a moment to be aware that everyone you see wants their day to go well and to avoid any unpleasantness —just as you do
Then realize that inevitably for some people things will go wrong during the day —let that feeling touch you and help you to feel a common humanity with your fellow travellers.
What’s it like for you as you arrive at work to start your work day? Are you gritting your teeth to face a problem that’s waiting for you? Is there a work colleague that you dread meeting? Are you interested and stimulated by the thought of the work day ahead, or are you already feeling bored? Whatever is going on for you, the chances are that your mood as you go into work will impact your whole day. If we feel that we are gearing up to force ourselves into ‘work mode’ then before we even see what the day holds for us, we’re putting ourselves under stress.
Instead of being poised to respond to the demands of our work day, we have already put ourselves on the defensive. Check out these four ways to start your work day with a difference.
Today really is the first day of the rest of your life
Actually, we don’t know what our work day will bring even though we might think we do. Sure, it’s likely that we’ve walked in through the entrance to our work many times; we’ve seen our workplace every day for quite some time, the faces of our colleagues are familiar to us. All this is true, but it is also true that we’ve never gone into work today before. We’ve never greeted our colleagues on this day. Our job has not unfolded exactly as we will do it on this present day. The trouble is we think because things have gone along in a particular way in the past, we know how things will go along today and in the future.
We can change all that in a heartbeat. Think of an early spring morning and that feeling of freshness and renewal. There is no reason not to have that kind of sparkle in any given day. By staying open to all possibilities and being willing to be available to whatever happens, we can feel vibrant and alert even with things we’ve done many times before.
Switch off the automatic pilot
Research carried out by Gilbert and Killingsworth at Harvard University in 2010 shows that for almost 50% of our waking hours we are not thinking about the thing we are doing at that time—we’re thinking about something else. Almost 50%% of our waking hours—that is almost half our lives.During times like these we are not fully present to ourselves, to our environment, and to our colleagues! It’s as if we are going through a lot of what we do on automatic pilot. We’re going through the motions but not fully experiencing what we are doing.
If we are not fully present, then things lose their sparkle. We are not noticing the details of our lives, the subtle changes that each moment brings. If we go into work with our minds full of a problem we need to solve, or a disagreement we had with a colleague, or even just the boredom of a day we would rather spend at home then we are robbing ourselves of the chance to appreciate the possibilities that the day holds. Perhaps our boss has a lead on the problem that’s troubling us; maybe our colleague is looking to apologize for their irritation and maybe it’s someone’s birthday and there’s cake to share! We don’t know but we could give the day the benefit of the doubt.
It is not just the day we can give the benefit of the doubt to, but our work colleagues could also benefit from a bit of friendly understanding. We might have all kinds of thoughts and ideas about the people we work with—she’s friendly, he’s a pain, why is she so bossy? Generally speaking, we divide up the people we work with into three broad categories—the ones we like, the ones we don’t get on with and the ones we are not interested in. Funnily enough, after a while it is quite hard for people to move from one category to another.
The bottom line is that we all just want to be happy, to manage our work as best we can and to avoid difficulties and pain. Whoever we are, we pretty much have that in common. Bearing this in mind when someone irritates us or has a different approach from us it can help to remember this. Just as we have anxieties and insecurities, so do they. Just as we want to be successful in our work, so do they. Just as we want people to like and respect us, so do they.
It’s worth asking ourselves how we might appear to the people we work with. Could we be one of the people they dread meeting when they come to work? Is it possible that there are people who are not comfortable with how we behave? If so, we would like to be given the benefit of the doubt ourselves—then it helps if we can do that for others.
Give yourself a break – lots of them
So, when you go into work the next time try to notice the feelings you are carrying with you—be aware of your assumptions about how you think the day will go and the worries that go along with those assumptions. Then try to dissolve it all and simply allow yourself to be present and to notice what is actually going on—your breath entering and leaving your body, your feet touching the ground as you walk, the feeling of the air on your face. Take in the weather and allow yourself to see the sky. Observe all the other people around you setting out on their working day—make an effort to see them as individuals, rather than a crowd.
All this only needs to take a few moments but in those few moments by allowing yourself to become present you are cutting your cycle of stress and opening up new possibilities for how you live your working day.
Something that happened to me the other day
Something happened to me recently that really brought this home to me. It was not work-related. There was some maintenance work going on in our apartment block. I did not take so much notice until we woke up one Saturday to find all the water had been turned off with no warning. There had been a mix up with letting people know and the correct notification had not gone out. There I was—no shower, no morning tea, no normal routine. It was horrible! We were warned the water could be off for 5 hours but happily, within two hours it was back on.
Those first moments of seeing the water rush out of the taps, flushing the lavatory and standing under the shower were so precious. All of them ordinary activities that happen day after day without me paying special attention to any of them. The shock of them not being there brought home to me that nothing is ordinary in itself—it’s how we choose to view it. It is actually a miracle to have easily-accessible running water in my home and when I come off the automatic pilot, I can see that clearly.
The underlying truth is that we might think we more or less know what to expect from our work day but we don’t. Anything can happen. Each moment really is all that we can count on, and it is incredibly precious.
Try answering these three questions to bring sparkle to your work day
As you leave the house: remind yourself that really is the first day of the rest of your life.
With that in mind, how do you want to set off for work?
While you are on your commute: try switching off the automatic pilot and being present to each stage of your journey.
What are you noticing that you have never noticed before?
As you arrive at work: bring to mind all the other people entering your work place and how, just like you, they want to have a good day.
What does that change for you?
It would be great to hear your answers in the comments section.
Do you cycle to work, or drive in your car? Maybe you take a tram, or bus? Perhaps you use the metro or ride a train. Whichever way you make the journey, your commute is a solid chunk of time twice a day, every working day. You’re not at home but you’re not in work either. The time is your own but not really. You’re free to be as you wish but within strict parameters. On the way in to work, the tasks of the day are already pressing for your attention. On the way home, anticipating a pleasant evening competes with processing what has gone on during the day.
Maybe we choose to use the time travelling to fend off the thought of the working day ahead by catching up on some good reading. Perhaps we shut ourselves off from the crowd by turning up the volume on our headphones. I hear of an increasing number of people who watch Netflix during their journeys. Alternatively, we could use this time to steal a march on our working day by scanning through our emails on our phone, or tablet and running through the schedule for the day.
Taking a fresh look at your commute
Here’s another idea—to take charge of this time by yourself and use it for your wellbeing.
In research carried out in 2010 at Harvard University it was found that people spend almost 50% of their time thinking about something different to what they are doing and that it undermines their happiness. One of the most common times when people were ruminating in this way was on their commute.
So how do we take a fresh look at our commute?
A lot of the people that I work with, who are interested in making meditation part of their lives, find it difficult to make the time they need for meditation. Quite a few are experimenting with using their commute as a time to do a meditation session. Some use a meditation app and listen to a guided meditation. Others simply wait to find a seat, and then sit quietly and focus on their breath.
Here is a very simple way to do this.
Try being mindful and come home to yourself
Take a few moments to check in with your breathing—pay attention to the sensation of your breath entering and leaving your body
Notice how your body is feeling—do you have any places that feel tired, or weary, or are you feeling fresh and up for anything?
Check in on your mood—are you feeling good about the day ahead, or is there something worrying you?
Try to become aware of the thoughts passing through your mind—notice how quickly they change and turn into other thoughts
Just register all this—try not to get drawn into feelings of liking, or not liking any of it.
What does this accomplish?
When we connect with ourselves in this way we are tuning into the present moment and getting in touch with how things are for us. We try to do this without judgement, without wanting to change anything—just with the aim of coming home to ourselves and settling our minds.
This will help us to move into our work situation in a more relaxed and stable mood ready for whatever comes our way. On the way home, it helps us to shake off the concerns of the day and get ready to spend an evening with our friends and family.
Consider other people as just like you
So much of the stresses and strains of the day come about during our interactions with other people. Often, we focus on the things that separate us from others, when in fact, there is a great deal that we all have in common.
If you still have time on your journey, try to turn your attention to your fellow passengers.
Notice who your neighbours are—take a few moments to scan the compartment, tram or bus and to see as many of the other passengers as you can.
Take note of the thoughts and emotions that pass through your mind as you do this:
—notice if you make a comment in your mind about someone
—notice the people you feel drawn towards and the ones you do not like the look of
Try to imagine how they might see you as you sit, or stand alongside them
Take a moment to be aware that everyone travelling with you wants their day to go well and to avoid any unpleasantness
—just as you do
Then realize that inevitably for some people things will go wrong during the day
—let that feeling touch you and help you to feel a common humanity with your fellow travellers.
What does this accomplish?
Reflecting in this way reminds us that everyone wishes for a happy life and wants to avoid pain and suffering but that pain and suffering are an inevitable part of life. Coping with all this gives a common thread to all our experiences. It enables us to see that however different our interests are, we are all in the same boat. This can help us to develop a feeling of equanimity towards others as we engage in our working day.
It’s up to us
Of course, sometimes we just want to read, or listen to music and that’s completely fine but we do have the option to take a fresh look at our commute. We can prioritise self-care and use this limbo-time in our day to develop our mindfulness—both of ourselves and of others. Spending a bit of time each day in this way will help us to deal with our work from a less stressful perspective. It will also help us to actually relax and enjoy our time when is over for the day.
Do drop a comment in the comment section and let me know if you have tried meditating during your commute and how you got on with it.
If you found this post useful you might like to check out our free 5-day e-course
There is a great deal of information out there about meditation. To meditate is very simple but to make time and space for it in our lives can be tough. We need to find simple, practical ways to make it a habit – just like cleaning our teeth – so it becomes a natural part of our daily schedule.
Here is a simple checklist that outlines the main stages of a session of meditation.
Over the next few weeks, we are going to look at each part of the checklist and go into more detail.
Until then, please get in touch and let us know if you think we have missed anything out. We always like to hear from you.