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
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 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.
The gigantic half cup of the Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank sets its open rim to the sky in the distance. Today there’s a low dark mist that blends with the trees on the plain, making the dish look like it’s floating on a murky, blue green sea. Beyond are the welsh hills – I can’t normally see that far, about 60 miles. The natural Rorschach test of Tegg’s Nose and Bottoms Reservoir look like a butterfly today. A quirk of the air quality and humidity means sometimes I can almost pick out the sheep on the hill at Rivington Pike just 30 miles North Eastish, and sometimes I can’t see beyond, well, my nose.
Up here, a different drama unfolds every day. I’m not quite sure if what I see depends entirely on the weather and conditions, or whether I’m miserable, satisfied, muddled or elated. There’s a deep conversation going on between my inner and outer landscape that often directs fresh light onto my daily preoccupations and shifts things a little. However I feel when I go up there, I feel like a different person when I get back.
This is something that many of us know from experience: there’s something about a walk that boosts the mood, settles the mind, gets creative juices going and puts things into perspective.
Artists and writers have waxed lyrical about this for centuries, and continue to do so, and scientific studies back this up. The data is robust and well established on the benefits of exercise to thinking, as well as giving lots of other health benefits too. But what’s the difference between walking in nature and walking on a pavement? Is is just a cultural one? Perhaps partly because we feel we need to build a case for nature’s value as it becomes increasingly threatened, there are more and more solid, scientifically proven connections emerging around being in nature and green space and how we think, feel and relate to one another. Florence Williams’ book The Nature Fix is a rigorous but readable review of the work happening in this area.
That’s all well and good, and very ‘internal’, but walking has made social, practical change too.
Getting out into the open to hear someone speak about ideas that were difficult to explore in more socially patrolled spaces was a common practice in 18th and 19th Century Britain. The spiritual, the starving, the unrepresented, the poor and the just plain angry have gathered and walked to demand change.
But it’s not just that lots of people speak more loudly and emphatically than one, or that they might be prevented from meeting in spaces owned by their masters. There’s something about the value of collectively visualising new ways to live which might be easier to imagine in the open air away from the dominant structures of the day.
One thing, then, we can be really sure of is that walking helps us think. This is how Natural Thinking came about – a conviction that investing time in walking and talking and thinking things through can sort stuff out and make stuff happen, and even sometimes work a kind of magic on our personal and professional lives. And that in turn can result in positive personal and social change.
Coaching, put simply, is helping people to think brilliantly. It springs from the idea – and the experience of good coaches – that the key to change is not in the head of the expert, or hidden in some book or on the lips of some guru, but inside each one of us. It has its origins in sports coaching. The American sports coach Timothy Gallwey (The Inner Game of Tennis, Golf etc.) noticed that his charges achieved more when he asked them to pay attention to their own experience rather than when he told them what to do. These ideas were swiftly picked up and applied to business, career development and personal change.
Natural Thinking is built on the idea that walking helps you think; coaching helps you think. It brings the two together and puts them to work on our jobs, our lives, our communities and our boxes. It aims for change, and even (whisper it, because I don’t make rash promises) for making the world a better place.
Come on board and discover what you can do
Resources on walking, thinking and social change
Wanderlust, Rebecca Solnit
The Art of Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit
The Nature Fix, Florence Williams
Ramble On, Sinclair Mackay. Explores many of the ways that walking and social change have worked together.