We’re in the last throes of winter here in the southern hemisphere and I’m so over the rain now, not to mention the chilly wind that is causing the Zamia’s branches to brush noisily against my window as I write this. So, when the sun came out yesterday, it propelled me onto my bike and took me to my happy place by the lake. As I sat under a paperbark (Melaleuca Quinquenervia) tree, a family of black swans drifted slowly by on the stillness of the water that surrounds the little island that gives me refuge. I stared in awe at the calm order of the parent swans as they gently ushered their five fluffy grey cygnets away from danger. It’s at moments like this that I feel my anxiety melting away, and the noise in my head dissipating.
Embracing sobriety and recovering the person I was always meant to be isn’t just about giving up the booze. It’s about doing all the things I know that will improve my levels of life satisfaction and my psychological wellbeing. An important part of this process is being in touch with my feelings, my thoughts, and my behaviours. It is only when I am alone and quiet that I find the space to do this.
Fear not the listening
I know many people struggle with the idea of being alone with their thoughts. I don’t always like what comes up either. The other day, I was talking to my counsellor about my messed-upness and how it makes me feel uneasy. He reminded me that it is our messed-upness that actually makes us human and the sooner we can accept that, the better. The last thing he said to me at the end of our session was to remember to be less judgemental and more self-compassionate. If we take a moment to listen to the voice that has been on repeat in our heads since we were small, we might hear stuff like ‘you’re dumb’, ‘nobody likes you’, ‘you’re a loser’, ‘there’s no point in even trying to be better’, ‘life’s just not fair’, ‘I’m destined to fail’ etcetera, etcetera. Unless we give ourselves the time and space to listen, we might never notice this destructive voice that is always there, picking away at our confidence and self-esteem. I find it hard to believe that there is a human alive who doesn’t have some element of this going on in the back of their head. When we become aware of it, understand where it originated and challenge the things it tells us, we can remove much of the power it has over us.
This is one of the reasons that mindfulness and meditation have become so important in today’s busy world. Both these practices give us the chance to check in with ourselves and make any necessary adjustments to thought patterns and behaviours that often result from unhelpful and sometimes destructive thoughts. By becoming mindful of the messages that are spewing forth from that unruly voice in our head, we can choose thoughts that serve us well instead. We have the power to choose the thoughts we wish to keep and reject those that drag us down.
Into the woods I go
I’m getting close to the last furlong in my Counselling studies now and it’s got me thinking a lot about how best to put my learning into practice when I’ve finished. Given my love of nature and the pleasant feelings that are evoked during and after I’ve immersed myself in it, I am keen to combine my counselling skills with a deeper understanding of the healing power of nature. I’ve been doing some digging and I am so excited to be learning about Shinrin-Yoku, a Japanese practice developed in the 80s known as ‘forest bathing’. Studies show that being amongst trees can reduce blood pressure thus helping to alleviate anxiety, lower cortisol levels and improve sleep, concentration, and memory. What’s mind-blowing to me is that trees and plants release a chemical called phytoncides which, when absorbed from the air around trees and plants, have been found to boost the human immune system. This is all backed up by scientific research!
Take a healing breath
While being around trees is clearly good for us, it is even better if we do it in a mindful way. This means putting the phone away and being fully engaged in the present moment. It’s not about walking briskly either. It’s about moving slowly, touching the trees, observing the colours, the textures and the patterns of the leaves and mindfully breathing into the diaphragm so that we take maximum oxygen and healing phytoncides into our lungs. When we ground ourselves in the here and now and fully experience the wonder and beauty of our surroundings, the unruly voice gets switched off and we become one with our natural world. For me this is a spiritual experience, one where I feel that everything is OK, and I am OK with everything because I feel a deep connection to the greater good of the universe. A peace washes over me then and I carry it with me into my relationships with others.
We’re living in an era where more and more people are leaving religious establishments in favour of freedom of thought and conscience. While I understand this, I do believe it causes many people to feel lost. We all need to feel a sense of belonging and to find meaning in our lives. This is where I believe that the awe of nature can help us to feel that connectedness with a higher power and to know that we are all connected through nature. Watching the swans nurturing their cygnets reminds me of my own desire to nurture and to contribute positively to this beautiful planet of ours in whatever way I can. This is my conscience. This is my guide. I take my inspiration from nature, and I am grateful for the space it gives me to be able to figure it all out. Hippocrates, the Greek physician, said more two thousand years ago,