Sunday, 28 June 2009

Urban Nature!

I've just finished leading a week long Urban Retreat. A retreat in which the participants did not retire to some idyllic venue in the countryside but instead developed practices which helped them be mindful as they went about their daily lives at home and work. Although the retreat started with a full day of practice and discussion and ended the same way (what one participant referred to as bookended), the main practice was engaging with the days in between. One really powerful practice which all appreciated was a daily dedication ceremony. In this participants pledged to practice amongst other things developing their awareness, their sense of connectedness, tranquillity, harmony and contentment; dedicating themselves to the practice for the benefit of all beings. What a powerful activity, imaging committing your life everyday, to be for the benefit of others, human and non human, our green and open spaces, nature and the wider environment. Working to create a better place. Not getting depressed when things don't happen in a manner or as quickly as we'd like, instead recognising the beauty that is there, sharing what we have in common, our hopes, fears, pain and joy even the air that we breathe. The other key area, other powerful practice was to have a reminder to be mindful. Have something natural to look at, a flower, plant, view, pet; something to remind you of the beauty all around if only you take the trouble to look.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Little things

I'm taking part in an 'Urban Retreat' this week. Which might sound strange, after all don't we normally go on retreat to somewhere in the countryside - away from urban? But the idea of being on this retreat is to maintain a retreat like practice while getting on with daily life! Putting into our daily routine some of the things we do when on retreat. For me this includes extra meditation, trying to eat together at a table rather than food on the go (or on my knee!). No TV (though I'd already taken this step). Practicing with my partner and friends rather than in isolation.

But I've noticed it is 'little things' that are making a difference. I'm wearing a string around my wrist which constantly reminds me I'm on a retreat, reminds me to stop and think about what I'm doing and why. I'm ringing a friend to see how she is getting on with her Urban Retreat this week (there are thousands on the same retreat, some virtually, reporting in on the internet, others actually, we met at the start and will do so again when the retreat finishes). I start each day with a dedication ceremony, a commitment to getting the most out of the day, to engage with life. I've realised the value of having small reminders to keep practicing, whether it is a timer to say 'you're sitting at the computer for too long' or a small sticker that says 'take a deep breath' it doesn't matter, they are a reminder to press the 'pause' button, realise you're dropping back into a state of rush and do something to reengage with being mindful. Look at the view, hug a partner, have a walk, stroke the dog.

Thursday, 25 June 2009


I'm in the fortunate position that I sleep underneath a skylight without curtains. When I wake in the morning the first thing I see is the sky, how blue it is, how cloudy or grey it is, no other thoughts just the sky. I can search, go deeper. Be amazed at the depth of the blue or on other days the grey tumbling clouds fighting with each other, the birds soaring, crows squabbling with each other, the sound of pigeons scratching around on the roof tiles, the rhythmic drumming of rain drops on the window. Only then do other thoughts creep in. The contract to be signed today, a brother who is ill, family relationships, more work stuff and it occurs to me that being mindful of the morning sky and specifically that going deeper with the search kept out the other thoughts, the more difficult thoughts, and at first the feeling was great if I'm mindful the other stuff doesn't get in!

But (a) that's not true; and (b) it's missing the point.. The point about mindfulness is that by being aware, in this present moment, the one with the blue sky, birds, raindrops, I can also be aware of all the other stuff going on in my life. Importantly and especially when thinking of Mindfulness in Nature, the awareness of all the 'outside' stuff, birds, grass, laughter of children whatever, helps me to hold all the 'inside' stuff, worries, thoughts and feelings, more gently. By holding them more gently (what breathworks trainers refer to as equanimity) I'm able to respond to them more effectively. Rather than recoiling thinking not again! I can engage more fully. My mindfulness in nature practice helps me with my mindfulness of everyday life practice.

Seeking out the wonderful each day, no matter how small (hence the snail!), recognising the life around me and my connectedness to it, helps me live my own life more effectively.

Mindfulness in Nature and Ecotherapy

Mindfulness in Nature and Ecotherapy are closely linked. I regard the key difference as being one of guidance. Mindfulness in Nature can be undertaken by anyone, anywhere, anytime - yes even in a city at night! It is a matter of being awake to what is going on around you, being aware of yourself and your connection to the bigger world that we are all part of. Ecotherapy can be a way of developing this mindfulness, certainly the ecotherapist would be encouraging you to become mindful in (and of) nature. The ecotherapist shouldn't be using the natural environment as simply a 'bigger office' but should be highlighting the therapeutic effects of engaging with and supporting nature.

Coping strategies

Stand still, breathe gently, now relax the knees. Such a simple activity can have an instant effect on our mood. Combine with a walk in the park, looking at plants in the garden, being mindful of something else living or simply looking at the sky and the effect multiplies.

When we set out, our mind may be full of problems, thoughts, emotions, so by picking a specific focus, whether the way you are breathing, or changes in the colour green as you look at leaves, grass, hillsides, or searching for something you haven't noticed before, the other intruding thoughts will lose prominence, we realise other things are happening, we are not trapped by the issues which so frustrated us sat in front of the computer, by the telephone or at a desk.

Give yourself permission to spend a few minutes simply noticing the breath, the view, something different and you'll start to feel better - just try it!