A little mindfulness never hurt anyone.
Initially published on the Ramblers Association's website
For those of us who enjoy the countryside and the wildlife that inhabits it, it will come as no surprise that increasing numbers of people cite a direct link between nature and good mental health. It was only a few years ago that the government published a study by Natural England that taking part in nature-based activities helps those suffering from mental health problems like depression, anxiety and stress. In it, the phrase "green care" was used to describe the benefits and since then the ‘natural health service' has grown in popularity in helping to ease the pressure on the National Health Service.
And it's not just one study. The University of Exeter published a paper in 2017 on research carried out with the British Trust for Ornithology and the University of Queensland. They found that, people who live in areas alongside birds, trees and shrubs are less likely to suffer many mental health problems.
Recently people have also seen that there are ways to build on these recognised benefits by linking with the practice of Mindfulness (the meditative discipline that focuses on an awareness of your surroundings at a given moment in time). And it would seem it's gained in popularity with clubs, phone apps and books being published on the subject. All of which are aimed at helping those, who want to use the method, to focus on an awareness of the present moment. This may sound simple, but the idea is to do this while accepting that feelings, sensations and thoughts can come and go in the mind while meditating. It would seem that it is this acceptance and noting of what might be considered intrusive thoughts, that makes this method popular.
For anyone who's not tried anything like this the idea of meditating or becoming ‘mindful' might seem somewhat alien, but there are parallels with the benefits gained by spending time outdoors and highlighted in the studies carried out. Many of us see the desire to get closer to nature and to enjoy the outdoors, as a way to unwind and to relax. Walking, in particular, is known to help with stress, so by combining with disciplines like mindfulness the time spent outdoors can provide significant benefits.
After all, while walking, we often get absorbed in that particular moment in time. The sounds of birdsong, the smells of the fresh air, the feeling of the warm sun on our faces (sometimes at least) not only connect us to the world around us but often distract us from the stresses of our everyday lives. What is that if not part of the way towards a mindset that closely mirrors practices like mindfulness? In many ways, we are already practising much of what is taught when learning to meditate in this way. And with the focus on practices like this that being aware of the particular moment and place you are in, you may also become more aware of the variety and diversity of the wildlife that surrounds you. A very valuable skill for anyone who already enjoys the natural world and wants to learn more about it.
The great thing about this form of ‘green care' is that it's free and has no side effects, assuming you don't suffer a sting, bite or trip while outside! And although many of the studies undertaken have looked at the benefits of treatment for those already suffering problems, connecting with nature can also be a preventative too. Quite apart from closer connections to wildlife we there are, in many cases, increased connections with other people too. This form of engagement has been included in many studies where the improvement in the mental health of volunteers has been assessed and found to be significantly improved.
All in all, it would seem that more time spent outdoors, and close to nature, the better we will all be. Maybe this won't come as a shock to many of us but its good to see this is now being backed up by serious study. It may only confirm what we already knew, but it's just as welcome. And now that there are opportunities to undertake forms of walking meditation it looks like even more people will be able to benefit from a calm mind and an increased awareness of the world around them.
© Phil Pickin.