‘Nature’s cure for all our ills’

Have you ever wondered what nature could offer you and your clients… especially those that are affected by chronic stress, mental health issues, physical pain, despair and heartache?

I have just completed an initial week’s training intensive to become a certified Nature and Forest Therapy Guide.  I can attest to both the physical and mental health benefits that being in nature offers.   I had a heightened awareness that back and groin pain which has been niggling me for 12 months suddenly disappeared.   I noticed that stress that I had been carrying in my jaw and neck from my fast-paced, outcomes driven, work life floated away with the clouds that passed overhead.   I was connecting and communicating with beings from the more-than-human world in an intimate way, that I had never felt before.  I also discovered a tall tree overlooking a valley held a message of hope for my heart despairing at the state of our planet.  It was freeing for my mind, body and soul.  But don’t just take my word for it.

There is a lot of emerging evidence about the health effects of being in the forest.  Scientific research on the practice of Shinrin Yoku (or forest bathing) in Japan has found that simply being in the wilderness can increase immune function, reduce blood pressure, reduce stress, improve mood, increase focus and concentration, improve rates of recovery from surgery and illness, increase energy and improve sleep.

How is that so?  Well, the same compound that trees emit to protect themselves from germs and pests is the same essential oil that improves our immune system.  They are called phytoncides and they produce cancer-fighting natural killer cells in our body.

Guides-in-training and members of the public experience the ‘Pleasures of Presence’ on a Forest Therapy walk in the Redwoods of the Yarra Ranges (Sept 2017).   Photo: Jana Norman.

We always knew that being in nature felt good, didn’t we?   Now there is real evidence to prove that living a fast, active, technology dominant lifestyle is counterproductive and could potentially promote chronic physical and mental illness.  People on regular forest therapy walks are also reporting feeling happier, developing deeper more meaningful relationships, feeling more connected with the land and its species, having more energy and developing a more attuned intuition.

It seems as though the Western world, is just catching up to what Indigenous peoples have always known.  During my time on the Tiwi Islands, as both a drug and alcohol counsellor and children’s counsellor, Elders and other strong women repeatedly spoke about ‘going out bush’ as the best remedy for ‘wrong thinking’ and wayward behaviour.  Within my capacity and resources, I drew on the knowledge of these wiser ones to host healing camps out bush with families who were going through hard times and to reconnect children who were going off the rails with a traditional healing ceremony on country (or if that was not possible at least use the metaphors of the natural world in our therapeutic conversations).

What can ‘walking on country’ practised for thousands of years by Aboriginal people do for our health and wellbeing?

In Forest Therapy, the medicine we need is waiting to be discovered in nature and it is up to the client to do the hard work of discovering what the forest is telling them.  The Guide simply opens the door for people by offering them mindful invitations, being open to listening to the messages of support, encouragement, healing or survival that are communicated by all living things.  This concept sounds very familiar too, observed in the way Aboriginal women demonstrate their spiritual connection to the land.  I’ve been woken up in the middle of the night by the barking owl to be advised that (insert name) must have passed away.  I’ve been out hunting when a branch has fallen from a tree, a sign from the ancestors that there is a possum there to be caught for dinner.  I’ve watched women scouting the bush for ‘just the right vine’ which will yield a big, long, fat yam two feet underground, left wondering how do they know, when all vines look the same?  And I’ve heard numerous stories of miracle cures for persistent ailments using bush medicine, where modern medicine has failed.  The knowledge for living a good and healthy life is right there on country, if we are in tune.

Unfortunately, the government policies of today are forcing Aboriginal people off their country and into the towns to be closer to services, and along with this, alcohol, drugs, unhealthy food options and other social issues like overcrowding and domestic violence.  We are seeing the health effects of this lifestyle for Aboriginal people and it’s not good.

As a social worker, this has got me thinking seriously about nature as a form of intervention for people who come to us for help.  The forest provides healing in gentle and profound ways, that we as humans cannot.  It requires a step away from evidence-based talk therapies from Western culture towards intuitive traditional healing practices and spiritual connections to nature that have been used for thousands of years.

If we don’t believe the anecdotal evidence from Aboriginal people about the positive health effects of being connected to country, then we can at least take notice of the emerging evidence from shinrin yoku practices in Japan.
Nature has something for everyone.  Even those of us whose heart is aching for the destruction of nature itself.

The Practice of Dadirri and my Work as a ‘Ranger’

germination-after-bushfire“Dadirri recognises the deep spring that is inside us.  We call on it and it calls to us.  This is the gift that Australia is thirsting for.  It is something like what you call contemplation.  Many Australians understand that Aboriginal people have a special respect for Nature.  The identity we have with the land is sacred and unique.”

These are the words of Miriam-Rose Ungurmurr first uttered in 1998 during the Pope’s visit to Australia and echoing in my mind on recent occasions.   Last weekend I had an opportunity to experience first hand, how it is we can tune into our true selves through the process of Dadirri. With other like-minded people, we gathered under the big shady tree overlooking the community oval at Daly River.  Miriam-Rose was there, as this is her home.  Also holding us in this space, was Judy Atkinson, another wise Indigenous soul, known for her trauma-informed work with communities.   My interest in attending this gathering is mostly about how I, as a non-Indigenous woman can walk alongside my Indigenous brothers and sisters on their healing journeys.  I have a strong sense of ‘we’re in this together’.

Miriam was quick to point out that dadirri is not just an Aboriginal thing.  It’s just that White fellas have not been given an opportunity to practice it.  There is certainly a lot being written in the Western world at the moment on mindfulness meditation and this is probably the closest thing there is to understanding the practice of dadirri.  Judy says mindful practice is “being put up as the mantra as the response to trauma”.  Dadirri goes deeper.  It goes to the heart of what it means to be connected spiritually to the country, being in nature and listening to the rhythm of the land.  While I won’t ever fully understand Aboriginal people’s unique sense of belonging, Miriam gave us some clues as to how this comes to be.  She asks us to sit in quiet still awareness and contemplate ‘Who are you’ and ‘how do you know who you are?’  This requires further and deeper reflection.  Who are you with?  Who are you connected to?  Who are your ancestors?  Where did your ancestors journey from to allow you to be in this place at this time?  This is something every human being can come to know if you find the stories and listen intentionally.  It is like finding and listening with purpose to the spring that is bubbling within each of us, a source of energy, of answers to life’s questions.  I couldn’t help but imagine that for someone who has experienced the effects of intergenerational trauma, this could be quite confronting.  Consider adult children who were removed from their families and don’t know who their family is, their language or their country.  This spring may be full of tears –  a well too deep to access.  For me in my white skin, going within, is much less threatening.  For I have had a privileged, safe and nurturing upbringing.

I sometimes feel overwhelmed with the level of despair, self destruction and pain amongst Aboriginal families and communities.  The science of epigenetics tells us that trauma is now altering the genetic material of children being born today.  And so even if the trauma did stop now (which it isn’t – families are still having their children removed from them at greater rates) how does one begin to even start the process of healing?  I saw this despair on the face of an Aboriginal woman in our gathering whose heart was crying out for help for the fifth generation of children being sexually abused in her community.  Can healing begin when the trauma is still happening?

Judy’s reflection advocated that becoming mindful and knowing who we truly are, allows us to have a clearer vision on how we can change the systems of injustice.  Judy’s notion of ‘community of care’ is like the tree we sit under that is connected underground through root systems to other trees.  These roots, although unseen are continuously connected through strong kinship systems and culture.  Not even a bushfire can destroy 40,000 years of these connections.

growth-after-bushfireMiriam went on to offer a reflection on the Pope’s words.

 “We are like the tree standing in the middle of a bushfire sweeping through the timber.  The leaves are scorched and the tough bark is scarred and burnt, but inside the tree the sap is still flowing and under the ground the roots are still strong.  Like that tree we have endured the flames and we still have the power to be re-born.”

There was a sense of hope restored in the group.  Even though bushfire after devastating bushfire sweeps through the land, scorching the trees, this is always followed by refreshing wet season rains, new leaves, new growth.  Miriam says it’s a natural thing for trees to drop their leaves and the growth always comes back.  Her people always cry in excitement when the first rains arrive.  They cry for the people that have passed away in the previous year and their tears wash the bad things away.  The plants, the trees, the land is cleansed.  A new season is starting.  Hope returns.

So here were Miriam’s final words to us.  ‘The person you are now, is it really who you are?  Is this your true spirit doing what you’re doing now?  Is there something in you, that is really you?  If so, use this gift to help others.  Believe in yourself.  There is only one of you.  You are special.  ‘There are always dreams dreaming us’ says Judy.

The practice of dadirri helps me to tune in to my purpose in being here.  I am not the firefighter.  I am the ranger burning off and establishing fire breaks.  With more rangers in the world working from a harm prevention framework, we can minimise the number of devastating bushfires, knowing that nature will always be there to heal, regenerate and restore.

Mindfulness: A new fad OR a practice used for thousands of years in Australia?

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Nature has a way of bringing us back to the moment.

Has anyone noticed how busy, how violent, how damaged, how lost the world is lately?  Sometimes it feels like I spend more time defending some right, advocating for some justice or worrying about some worthy cause, than I spend with my own children just living and being.  My Inbox is flooded with agencies wanting my signature on their petition or money to fight their case.  As a peoples, we seem to have lost our sense of self – our humanity – distracted by the temptation of technologies and drawn into the seduction of social media.  We have been sucked into believing that our leaders and politicians have our collective human interest at heart.  We have been disconnected from what our intuition, our bodies and our earth is telling us.  We are detached from relationship to each other.

It seems like there are quite a few of us out there who are despairing at the ravaging of the planet and the inhumane treatment of human beings at many levels.  It has been refreshing to witness the emerging movement of people standing up for human and environmental rights around the world.  There is change on the wind.  Some have called it the time of the Great Turning.  There is also a movement of people simplifying their lives, ridding themselves of the possessions of consumerism, growing and sharing free food, moving into a tiny house, cutting back their work hours and looking for a tree change.  These are not what might be called hippies or tree huggers but average people. Yes it is the average person that is waking up and looking within for what is true and just.

Mindfulness is also making a comeback with a wider audience than just the yoga-loving types. Mindfulness teaches us to stop, to breathe, to reconnect, to listen.  Seigel (2015) calls it taking ‘time in’ (as opposed to time out) inviting us to become aware of our bodies, feelings and thoughts at this moment in time.  Not the past.  Not the future.  Now.

Professionals in the field of neuroscience now have the evidence that mindfulness really is good for our human brains.  So evidently the human services sector is jumping on board with mindfulness being the answer to all manner of human problems like addictions and mental illness, manifestations of the crazy, stressed-out world we have created.

I would argue that Aboriginal people in Australia have been practising mindfulness for thousands of years. It appears to be very close to what Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann, from Daly River calls ‘Dadirri’.

Dadirri is inner, deep listening and quiet, still awareness. Dadirri recognises the deep spring that is inside us.”

“The contemplative way of dadirri spreads over our whole life. It renews us and brings us peace. It makes us feel whole again.“

“There is no need to reflect too much and to do a lot of thinking. It is just being aware.”

Miriam has said that dadirri is not just an Aboriginal thing, it is deep inside each one of us.  Sitting in nature is one way we can become more connected with the practice of dadirri.  Sit, feel and listen – to the birds, the wind, your breathing, your heartbeat.  Allow yourself to be quiet and be still in this moment.  It won’t fix the worries of the world.  But it will allow you to just be.

It’s pretty ironic that the one culture we have tried to destroy in Australia is the same culture that can teach us how to live in peace with ourselves and the earth?   If only we had just listened.

References

Siegel, D. 2015 ‘ Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain’.