I’ve been doing a lot of walking in the city recently. I’m preparing a set of green space workshops designed to help people who work and think inside to bring some of the energy and refreshment that can come from walking in the landscape into every day life and business. More about these in a later post…
Undoubtedly it can be hard to find green space in the city – especially Manchester. I find myself upset on behalf of trees whose root systems are compacted under concrete. Peter Wohlleben in his book, The Hidden Life of Trees, calls these the street children of the tree community. And I recoil at the rubbish that floats in the canal. Nature in the city often isn’t pristine. But the thing that gets me again and again is that even when all we can find is a few trees and a patch of grass, we are still in nature. The city is just a thin skin on the crust of the earth. So often we think about nature as a place to visit, but in fact we’re already there.
We’re wrapped in layers of brick, plastic, social convention and culture that disguise us as sophisticated urban and suburban technophiles, but nonetheless we are natural organisms engaging with air, food and water just as a lilac, earthworm or a blackbird does. I love the fact that however our economic and political systems commodify it, we are set up to fit into the complex, amazing, interconnected ecosphere in which we live independently of all these accoutrements of contemporary life. Breathe in, breathe out and you’re doing it, being in nature.
Many of us look to green space for refreshment precisely because it’s an escape from the constraints of a life lived inside and the organisations and social structures that operate there. But maybe we could bring some gentle radicalism into our thinking by looking at it another way. By fully understanding that we are in nature already, all the time, we might shift our perspective on who we are as human beings and how we are in the world. We might escape some of those constraints of urban thinking even while we are still in it.
And another thing. Such shift in perspective has the potential to be better not only for us, but better for the sensitive, powerful, all-encompassing natural system which both gives to us and takes from us to support our existence alongside the rest of the planet. This process might nudge us to think not just about what we gain from nature, but what we can give back to it too. We all know we can’t go on as we are.
We could take ten minutes this week – wherever we are, inside or outside, city or countryside or park – to absorb the fact that here we are, in nature. We don’t have to visit it to be in it. Breathe in, breathe out. What light might that shed on your current thinking? And what might you give back? What might your business give back?
Want to explore this process with a qualified coach? Or get your team outside to take a fresh look at working practices, relationships or culture? Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
I was lucky enough to visit Scotland this year – the Cowal Peninsula in Argyll and then the Inner Hebridean Island of Jura. There’s something about Scotland that draws me back again and again. It could be its sense of ‘otherplace’ that makes me feel I’m away from home both literally and metaphorically; or it could be its knock-you-down gorgeousness or its real and gritty history. I adore it.
Anyway, as I sat with a glass of wine on the side of Holy Loch on the first evening, I thought, in a good coach-y manner, “What would I really like to get out of this holiday”. I decided that I wanted to it be like retreat, where you get away from everything, calm your mind, DON’T look at everyday stuff for a while and then when you come back to it, hey presto, great clarity emerges. AND, I wanted it to be a really good rest – goodness me, I slept HOURS on this holiday – and when it was done to be fizzing with energy. AND, I wanted it to be full of fun, adventure, new things, exciting things, interesting things. Things that live in your mind for years afterwards, enliven your memories and inner landscape and make you feel that having done them, you can conquer the world.
At the bottom of the my glass of wine, I thought, “I might be expecting a tad too much of my holiday.”
I told a good friend about this, and he laughed and said that what he wanted to do on holiday (I paraphrase) was to walk about and eat some chips. I think he might have got it about right.
So, I decided to let the holiday be what the holiday was. A dose of walking, a good deal of swimming, lots of sleeping and unfeasibly large quantities of Scottish Tablet. Larger issues and life-fixes will be part of my longer term personal, practical and spiritual development (by which I mean, meaning of life stuff rather than religious stuff). These things are better thought of as a long-term everyday project rather than a supercharged thoughtfest shoehorned into a holiday. A programme that ebbs and flows with enthusiasm and circumstance, but which is always going on. And, of course, for me, walking is an essential ingredient of that process.
So, I wanted to say: Enjoy your holidays, and I hope they’ll be wonderful. I’d encourage you, though, to let them be joyful, restful and exciting, but don’t fall into the trap of wanting them to fix everything. Not even gaffer tape can do that. Did I mention before my love affair with this practical and humble material? Another time maybe.
I’d love to know how you got on.
And, when you get back, if you feel like making a longer-term work of where you want to be in life, I’ve got an offer on…50% off coaching booked in August 2018.
This includes, if you’ve been coached by me before, phone coaching. Some people put a package together of phone and walking over a few months so that they can really get to grips with an issue.
By the way, for walking in Scotland, I love the Walkhighlands website. The right to roam may be a wonderful thing, but it makes planning a walk tricky without local knowledge. Walkhighlands to the rescue…
All my walks have their own story. The route, the weather, the mud, the café, the companions, the cows (or hopefully not..), the copulating frogs, the wild garlic, the wood anemones, the lamb carcass 6 foot up in a tree (I know, ugh. I’m not sure what this says about our Cheshire buzzards). You know the kind of thing.
But there’s another story that is woven in with this one – the stuff I bring in my head. And with this stuff, I notice a pattern, a rough gathering together into a beginning, middle and end that echoes the unfolding of the walk.
After I set off but before I get going, there’s a sense of meeting myself in that place. Are my feet comfy in these shoes, am I tired, grumpy or does my back ache? What have I got to do this week, who’s annoying me, what tricky interactions have I got to manage? Why can’t I get enthused about gardening these days and why am I avoiding painting and decorating the bathroom?
As the walk goes on there’s a kind of settling. My body gets used to the pace, I warm up, I adjust my shoes and get my hair out of my face. Many thoughts fall away and I’m absorbed in finding the way and a steady, gently paced examination of the things that have remained. Inner thoughts and outer experience are woven together, holding each other in a comfortable relationship. There may be special revelations, or maybe not. Often it’s about noticing the line of molehills in a field or a weird cloud formation as much as realising that I could approach a problem with my work in a different way.
As the walk draws to a close, thoughts turn to food, fireside, ice cream (delete according to season) or the drive home. Or what’s got to happen next. There’s a kind of line drawn under the space, maybe with a colon pointing to what’s next:
This is not to say that I come away from a walk with all the answers to my questions, but that the mishmash of worries, ideas, interests and just plain chaff is settled into a framework that allows me to hold it all there for a while while I think about what to do with it.
One of the things that I do as a coach is to create a space and a structure for my clients to examine their own thoughts and decide what’s important. Answers or advice are less important than creating a constructive, fruitful space full of the potential for brilliant thinking.
It’s my experience that a walk has many of these characteristics too, albeit in an informal way. This is the raison d’être for Natural Thinking, my coaching business. Working with a coach provides a respectful companion with a listening ear and a sheaf of techniques to enhance your thinking, and bringing this together with being outside is what I do.
But the joy of walking is that it’s available for free to those who are inclined and able to get out in some way. A walk is a natural coach.
I bet those of you who walk regularly – and I know many of you do – have noticed this or something like it. I’d love to hear about your experiences if you’d like to share them.
I’ve made much of the fact that walking helps us think. And you might justifiably say that I would say that, wouldn’t I…I am a self confessed walking junkie after all. It could all be down to some time away from the office, or the fact that I just like it – who doesn’t feel better doing something they love?
But there is more to it than that. Various scientists with various different angles have been exploring how exercise, walking and being in green space affects our thinking.
According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, just 30 minutes of moderate exercise (taken as a whole or broken down into bits) 5 times a week can improve the mood, help you sleep, focus the mind, calm you down, help you to feel more resilient in the face of life’s ups and downs and even address mild cases of depression and anxiety. What’s not to love?
And green space? A recent scientific enquiry by a Finnish research team found that we do indeed think more clearly, are more focused, more creative, calmer and energetic in natural landscapes. They found that just 15 minutes in nature saw a marked response, and that 45 minutes was even better. ‘Five hours a month’ in nature is what they suggest to get your brain firing on all cylinders. What’s not to love even more?
But why would nature helps us think? Around three and a half to seven million years ago – scientists debate the precise timing- our ancient ancestors climbed down out of the trees and made their first tentative steps on the Savannah. And there they wandered for a very long time – mostly in East Africa. We’ve only been in farms and settlements for the last 10,000 years, and urban environments for even less. It’s likely that we are genetically programmed in some way to to function optimally in nature. Environmental psychologists have adopted the term Biophilia to describe this.
Apparently this shows up in many different ways. One of the is that humans simply like these environments, and they consistently name these kinds of features when asked to identify their favourite kind of landscape. And another is that we are especially sensitive to snake patterns and movements – it’s been proved that we spot and respond more readily to these kinds of signs than we do to others. Another is that being in nature has been shown to quickly lower blood pressure and reduce other physical signs of stress – things that happen without our consciously thinking about it. This theory, which glories in the name Psychophysiological Stress Reduction Theory, suggests that those of our ancestors that were able to use nature to recover from stressful survival situations – hunting, fighting, scavenging – lived to pass their DNA onto their children and eventually onto us. Not so much survival of the fittest, but survival of the nature lover, which turns that particular cliché on its head in quite a pleasing way.
I’m sure it’s unscientific to have favourite theories, but the one coming up has a special place in my heart and walking boots. There’s something about the way that the rhythm of walking combined with the gentle attractions of weather, trees, view and wildlife that settles the mind but allows it to roam freely as well. This is one of the reasons that for me, walking and thinking are so comfortably connected. It is a fundamentally restorative process.
So, meet Attention Restoration Theory, which says that normal brain function lies somehow in the balance between the things we need to make ourselves focus on – often a tiring task – and the interesting things around that easily draw our attention. Survival meant paying attention when you needed to, and those of our ancestors that were able to use nature to restore their attention to predators or pitfalls became our ancient mothers and fathers.
The evidence continues to mount – most often gathered and highlighted by agencies that are keen to underline the value of our natural assets – The Forestry Commission, Natural England, The National Gardens Scheme and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds amongst others. There are even pilot studies around the country exploring the prescribing of green space for certain physical and mental conditions. I should say though, in the spirit of scientific openness, that although the data is good, most of the surveys and many of the studies are commissioned or conducted by enthusiasts. And there’s a need for long term, carefully designed studies measuring practical outcomes (like long term relief from depression for example), and for understanding how personal preference and history plays out.
So, it’s not just a matter of perception or preference. And although it’s an emerging field, science bears this out. The act of walking in nature does make us think and feel better, and we can bring that to bear on the stuff we need to sort out and the things that we want to achieve. This is what ‘Natural Thinking’ is all about. If you bring two things that help you think – coaching and walking – together in green enironments, you get the best of both and maybe a little bit more.
Me: Stand on there and I can take a picture of you for my website….
My sister, mother of three, family law solicitor, seeker-out and destroyer of bullshit: I can see Blencathra!
Me: OK, so look over there and think about Blencathra as a metaphor for your life and career….
Picture taken, and we begin to pick our way down the hill. A few seconds pass.
My sister: Blencathra as a metaphor for my life and career?
Me: I thought I got off lightly….
The landscape has an astonishing capacity to inspire us. Remarkable places like the Lakeland Fells especially so. Seeing the snow-speckled saddle of Blencathra shining away in the distance from Lingmore Fell is an uplifting sight, that’s for sure. But a metaphor for your life and career? Making forced comparisons between our inner mind and aspects of the outer landscape puts us (ahem) on shaky ground.
But, here’s the thing; our inner and out landscape do reflect one another. You can see it in the everyday language we use. We might find ourselves on shaky ground, as we did a moment ago on Blencathra. We might seek a clear view or engage in some blue sky thinking. We could be plodding along, moving mountains, or not be able to see the wood for the trees….. Daily conversation is peppered with images and ideas from landscape and the way we experience it, which is surprising for people who live mainly in towns and cities. And if we bring the landscape into everyday life, it follows that we bring everyday life into the landscape. Whether our spirit soars in lofty mountain grandeur or sinks during a rainy riverside trudge depends as much on our inner thoughts and feelings was it does on the actual environment and conditions. There’s a local hill that gives me a fabulous birdseye view of the town where I live. My desire for a little perspective on my life is overlaid onto an actual perspective of the place where it’s lived.
So back to Blencathra. You might, when you are out walking, ask yourself if there is anything in the landscape that really speaks to you. Describe what you see. That description will reflect your emotional response as well as your descriptive powers. Is there anything that you can see that helps you to visualise where you want to be in life? Or that reflects your current reality?
I remember a coaching session when someone was describing how they wanted things to flow – a rigid routine wouldn’t work. They needed to allow for obstacles and adjustments in everyday life, but keep moving forwards nonetheless. We noticed we were standing by a stream. Holding that metaphor in your mind can be a useful way to carry the coaching session forward into when you are back in everyday life. But I don’t think that you should force it. That way lies Blencathra as a metaphor for your life and career.