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 email@example.com
I have to admit that when it comes down to it, I can be a bit of an avoider of groups. I lean, in general, towards one to one interactions and very small gatherings.
Having said that, I am not a loner. There are groups that I positively enjoy and seek out. Some are light and energising, and some are rich and complex, and as you might expect, some have a good dose of annoyingness mixed in. Groups can be hard work, frustrating and stifling, but also warm, inclusive and accepting. And there’s not usually a clear, binary division between the two. I’ve come to know that my life is richer for the groups that I am a part of.
Anyway, I’m saying all that because I discovered a wonderful thing about coaching small groups of people, and I have built these experiences into my occasional ‘Making Stuff Happen’ group coaching walks – one of which is coming up in July. Check it out here.
One to one coaching in the outdoors is a wonderful thing. You have the undivided attention of a professional to listen to your goals and gently and almost invisibly structure the conversation to help you work towards these things. And all the time, the outer landscape has a way of reflecting your inner landscape back to you, offering the wider view, a new perspective and a steadying rhythm.
But coaching in a small group also has a kind of magic. In this case, though, the structure must be clearly visible. There has to be a well defined framework to help a group of people who may not know each other come together, and to provide the pegs to hang their questions on.
It works by pairing people up to explore an opening question, then each pair is changed and the next question asked. At the start, some basic active listening skills are reviewed so that everyone can tune in their listening ear. There are formal and informal moments to enjoy the landscape and give it a chance to impact on your thinking. And a good deal of laughter and lightness too – even when serious issues are discussed.
You may not have the one to one attention and invisible structure of a highly trained coach, but you do gain a supportive network and a variety of experience that brings a bit of ‘otherness’ into the mix. Plus there’s the sense of all working together – even if that is on very different things. It’s amazing how quickly this creates a rich, honest and potentially transformative space.
People I know have used these sessions as an introduction to coaching – as a way to get to know me as a coach and to make a start on articulating and shaping their goals. They may go on to book a one to one session, but equally, a group session may be enough to get started on moving forward and making things happen.
So, if you’d like to give it a try, I’d love to see you there!
Some landscapes make you ask questions. There’s a spot between Buxton, Flash and Chrome Hill where I experience this intensely. From Axe Edge, I can see several long, sharp slivers of rock pointing up to the sky. Are they natural or chipped out of the rock by ancient humans? There’s lots of quarrying around here – it could be either. Sometimes mist settles in the dips and all you can see are the strange lumpy peaks poking up through a blanket of mist.
Looking at the map, it’s noticeable that the local pathways multiply in this area to become a tangled mass of tracks, footpaths, bridleways and byways. There are several 5-8 way junctions, and in one place four footpaths wind in parallel through a single narrow valley. The river Dove rises here, and near Tenterhill, far away from the road, there’s a robust stone packhorse bridge over the river, designed to take some heavy use that it doesn’t get now.
Here you start to see pale limestone crust the hillsides, rather than the darker millstone grit, and the land is arranged into narrow valleys and hidden ravines that can take you by surprise. Some of the house and farms seem suspended mid-renovation, but they are places full of recycled invention and creative husbandry. The other day we came across a pig in a cosy handmade shed, and some extraordinary bear-like sheep flourishing around Howe Green. And up near Dove Head, a memorial stands in what seems like the middle of nowhere commemorating the men and boys who lived and worked in communities on Brandside who died in the two World Wars.
The look and shape of the land is, of course, bound up with the people who used it in the past and the people who use it now as well as the ancient seas that lay down sediment, the ice that scraped it out and the human events that tore it apart and put it back together. Walking the land is more than a means to get fit or feel good – it’s a participation in a small way in a place formed from world shaking events and everyday human use, and as such I like to think that sometimes the thinking that happens in these amazing places works its way back into the world for practical good.
If you feel it’s a good time to do some work on how your own hopes and aspirations could leak out into the wider world, I’ve got a special 60% off spring offer on 1-1 coaching walks. Book by the end of May 2018 for a session that can take place any time this year.
To book, contact me – Victoria – at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 01625 425049 and quote ’Spring walk’.
Are you fairly confident in your map reading skills and fancy exploring yourself? You can download of copy of the GPX file for this walk here.
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.