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 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!
Even if you love the outdoors, it’s true to say that actually getting out can be a herculean task of time management, list juggling and inertia prodding.
Here are few things that help me to do it. They won’t be right for everyone, but I hope you can find something in here that helps you to get out more too. And please do share any tips that you have – the more perspectives, the richer the picture.
Find walks that interest you
Have you driven past a footpath sign many times and wondered where it goes? Planning walks around your interests can enliven the whole thing with a sense of adventure or exploration. It can be very satisfying to walk all the public footpaths in a particular area – and mark them off as you go. Or investigate a local historical or geological feature. A friend and I had an adventure seeking out the ‘Roman racecourse’ at Whaley Bridge mentioned in J D Sainter’s 1878 book ’Scientific Rambles Around Macclesfield’ (available from Macclesfield Library). Turns out it’s not a Roman racecourse at all, but we had great fun finding it. Finding good walks is the subject of a whole article all to itself – coming up in the near future. Friends, maps, libraries, local groups can all help. But bear in mind that…
If you can’t easily get into the country, it is possible to divert from regular journeys to a park or even tree-lined street. I have two walks to the local shops that give me a dose of green when I need it. One is through a recreation ground and the other has a short section along a tree-lined track by a field.
Walk with someone else first up
A bit of time on your own can be so refreshing, and frankly, if we always had to wait until a suitable companion was available, we might never go. But if you’re not a confident map reader and navigator, or a little afraid of countryside challenges, persuade someone else to plan and take a walk with you, or to take you on one they know already. Next time you can walk it on your own.
Be prepared to go it alone – but check in with someone
Walking on your own is great for thinking things through, and it also means you’re free to go when and where it suits you. But you do need to be aware of any potential risks. A key thing is to tell someone where you’re going, when you’ve left and when you get back. And do it before you leave in case you don’t have a phone signal. Carry enough warm clothes to enable you to comfortably wait for help if you have to, and take a drink and a snack. The Ramblers society has some great tips on safety here.
Keep it regular
Knowing that you’re going out for a walk at a particular time each week helps to minimise the tussle between your desire to get out and your to do list. And on that note…..
Early mornings rock
I find it much harder to break off from what I’m doing in the middle of the day than to go out first thing before anything else has claimed my headspace. Indeed sometimes before I’m even awake.
Have a sweet suite
Develop a suite of walks that you know like the back of your hand. That way, you can get out there before you’ve been been able to give yourself a reason why you’re too busy. Have a variety to avoid getting bored. And trust me, the weather and season will make a cluster of well walked routes seem like a different drama every time.
Plan around your challenges and, erm, fears..
In my case, mud and cows. Well mainly cows. Make a note of where they are and minimise your exposure if you can. Start small and then it’s never that far just to go back. You can build up your resistance over time, and you’ll probably surprise yourself. In my case, I started to overcome my fear of cows when I started doing long distance walks. If found that faced with extending a long walk when I was tired, cows don’t seem so scary. Nor mud so intimidating now I come to think of it.
By the way, the Ramblers offers some smart advice on how to walk around livestock
Use paper AND tech
Some people claim that if you can’t use a map and a compass, you shouldn’t be out in the countryside. While heading out on three hour hike on the moors with just a phone map is downright silly, the maps and apps available for mobiles today can be a godsend to boost confidence and confirm that you’re on the right track. The great thing about a paper map is that you can’t break it by dropping it in a puddle, and its battery doesn’t go flat when it’s cold, or if you look at the screen too often. And they’re much better for planning. The great thing about the map on your phone is that you can zoom in to make it bigger, and that it will tell you where you actually are. Why not have both I say.
So those are my tips for getting out more. Even on a day that’s grisly with rain, a bit of headspace and some different scenery can lift the mood and help to cast a more positive light on tricky issues or everyday gripes. And on a sunny day, the spirit can soar….
Worth every second of the time it takes to get out there.
How do you do it? I’d love to know what works best for you.
Fancy getting out more and thinking things through with a skilled coach? Book a coaching walk here
I am deeply, madly, emphatically in love with walking. You might have gathered that from the website and blog so far. I tone this down because enthusiasts can be quite annoying, but it does energise and infuse all my coaching work with clients. So here’s three reasons why I walk. There’s way more reasons than three, but I’ve stopped there today because of the aforementioned annoyingness. I’ll tell you a few more in another post.
It’s a great transition into the working week
I walk often and at all sorts of different times of the day, but I have one walking appointment that I always, always keep. And that’s first thing on Monday morning.
On Monday mornings I am mind-crushingly grumpy. I love my job (or more accurately, jobs), but I still find that waking up on Monday morning is like being thrown out of an airplane, as I once heard it described. This gets better or worse sending on how much work I have on (and that’s another story…), but a few years ago I discovered that if I put my horrified disgruntled-ness on one side, threw on clothes and breakfast, and headed straight out into the early morning hills, I returned a different person. Everything was just the same – the work, the multiple jobs, the crammed headspace and organisational skills required for these. But I was able to look more calmly and constructively at them. Sometimes I could make changes, sometimes not, but it either case, I was in a better place to think it through. The science supports this of course, but this is how that science plays out in my life.
It shifts my perspective of where I am in the world, opens up new possibilities
We all have a map in our heads of the places that are important to us. And these mental maps differ in all sorts of ways from actual, accurate, written-down maps. For instance, Macclesfield in my head is much bigger than London, even though an actual map would tell you that was daft. But my Macclesfield is full of detail and texture that London does not have. I believe clever people call this psychogeography. When I first started to walk a lot around where I live, I found a strange thing happening. Places that seemed far apart in my mental map turned out to be quite close. I’d always thought of Buxton as a good drive away from Macclesfield, but walking regularly on the moors between them told me that in fact in some places they are only about seven miles apart, and more significantly, walking that seven miles somehow draws the two places together. My view of the world around me has become less fragmented. I don’t know why I find this delightful. Perhaps cars and trains do fragment our lives. But also it may be that if I can shift my perspective on the physical landscape around me, then perhaps it will open up the possibility of seeing other things in a different way. And I find that infinitely refreshing.
It structures loneliness into solitude, which is an altogether more constructive state
At one time I found myself working on my own a lot. My contacts were mainly on the phone our my email – there were plenty of those – but mainly my workmates were virtual people. I was lonely.
This isn’t always an easy thing to change, and also, you know, I like my own company. But walking gave me some time during the week that was a positive, steadily paced time to do nothing much but just be alone in nature. It was a time marked for the presence of something – solitude – rather than its lack of people.
In have more people in my life now, but I still find solitude a constructive experience. It recharges the brain and the soul and makes me feel more like a proper human being in the world.
So those are just some of the reasons why I walk, and why it has come to underpin my coaching work. For more reasons, including how the ‘story’ of the walk helps frame my thoughts; how each walk is a small confidence building adventure (especially if you are afraid of cows), and the pleasure of getting to know people while walking, stay tuned.
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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.