Nature and the Imagination: Partners in Relaxation and Mindfulness

I am wondering about the power of nature imagery as a tool for relaxation.  Not everyone has access to beautiful landscapes or nature at their back door.  Access to the outdoors may be limited by mobility or circumstances.  Some of us live in cities where green space is lacking.  Recent studies show that prisoners watching nature documentaries are less aggressive and violent, so we know that one doesn’t need to actually be outside to receive the healing benefits of nature.

I am thinking about a refugee whom I support on Nauru in indefinite detention, who is unable to get outside due to chronic pain and continuing trauma.  He recalls fond memories of being a lifeguard on a beach before the detention centre was closed and all services were withdrawn from the island.  I have been trying to work with him to visualise that special beach in his mind.  This is challenging given the circumstances he finds himself, in chronic pain and confined to his room.

I think there is real value in present moment situations of chronic stress, depression or anxiety, to call upon nature as our friend to induce a state of relaxation.   To bring a sense of calm to the amygdala, activated by the sympathetic nervous system.  To reduce the negative effects of rumination on mood and wellbeing.  To open up a space to breathe while the unpleasant feelings pass.

We know that the brain cannot tell the difference between sitting in real nature or imagining a landscape in our mind.  The same physiological and psychological benefits of stress reduction are experienced in both of these situations.  So just by thinking about your favourite safe place in nature is enough to produce the required relaxation response.

Here are some simple instructions for a Tree Visualisation meditation, I gave recently at a Nature Therapy talk I did with cancer patients.  Another option is to have a basket of nature objects such as shells, stones, pine cones, leaves, feathers, gum nuts and other interesting objects.  Just holding one of these treasures in your hands with eyes closed, eliciting all the senses to engage with it, can bring forth a range of mindful responses.  Both of these activities elicit strong memories for people, of places they have been before, of experiences they have had and of traditions or rituals held precious.  I watch their faces as anxiety or fear is replaced by instant comfort and joy.

As quickly as the stress response is triggered, the brain has the power to bring a state of relaxation and calm to us.  Nature and the imagination are perfect partners to try this out for yourself!

3 Reasons Why You Should Go Forest Bathing

First of all, you might be wondering what exactly is forest bathing?

Forest bathing is a nature connection practice inspired by the Japanese where it is called Shinrin Yoku.

It’s not about getting wet.

The idea is to fully immerse yourself in nature and to bathe all your senses (more than 12 of them!).

Put simply, it is about taking a slow mindful walk in nature, breathing in the forest air, sitting and observing, and developing an emotional connection to the forest.  It is different from hiking, where the pace is faster and you miss a lot of what is going on around you.  It is also different from a naturist walk, where you might be identifying and naming species of fauna or flora.

A Forest Bathing walk covers less than a kilometre usually over two or three hours.  Its aim is to help you slow down and take a break from the stresses of daily life, and to appreciate things that can only be noticed when moving slowly.    Some people describe it like doing meditation or mindfulness in nature.

So now that we know what it is.  Why on earth would we want to do it?

1.  Forest Bathing is Part of Our True Nature

Humans evolved out of forests.   Our species spent millions years of in development within these ecosystems.  Then our world experienced rapid industrialisation and we moved into cities.  While genetically our bodies are optimized for the forest, we are now trying to survive in the busy, stressful conditions of modern civilization.

Our separation has caused what Richard Louv terms, ‘nature deficit disorder’.  He argues that our children are spending so much less time outdoors than previous generations, it is having a detrimental impact on their development.

Rather than seeing ourselves as separate from nature, we must remember, we are nature.

2.  Forest Bathing Promotes our Health and Wellbeing

In the Western world, rates of mental health problems are out of control.  Over 50% of people are stressed at work.  In Australia, 1 in 5 of us will go on to experience a mental illness.  Many physical illnesses and disease can also be linked to stress as an underlying cause.

The Japanese have been studying the effects of forest bathing since the 1980’s.  What they discovered was an antimicrobial organic compound called phytonicides that are given off by evergreen trees such as pines and eucalypts.  When you breathe in phytonicides, your blood pressure drops, your cortisol level (or stress hormone) reduces and heart rate variablilty improves.  Phytoncides are immune boosters which increase the natural killer cells in our body, associated with fighting cancer.

Other research has shown that being in nature:

3.  Forest Bathing Addresses Climate Change

I know, it’s a big call.  But I firmly believe that if we are more closely connected to Mother Nature, we are more likely to want to care for and protect it.  Ours is a reciprocal relationship.  When the earth is sick, so are we (see point 2).  We need healing and so does our earth.

Humans have become so separate from nature that there has been little regard to how we treat the earth.  It has been seen as a collection of resources to be exploited for our benefit.  On a guided forest bathing walk, there is particular attention paid to the practice of reciprocity.  In supporting the development of human-nature relationships, we foster the role of humans as givers, as well as receivers.

People who engage regularly in forest bathing practices, tend to spontaneously find themselves engaging in place tending on a personal level or want to get involved in environmental activism at a macro level.

So rebuilding our intimate connection to the forest again, will ultimately lead to the healing of the planet and of course, our own health too.

If one or more of these reasons has inspired you to try forest bathing, then feel free to join the Japanese where is it called “Shinrin-yoku” (森林浴), the Germans practising “Waldtherapie”, the Koreans engaging in “Sanlimyok (산림욕)” and of course, the Australians, Americans and Europeans, where we use the terms “nature and forest therapy”.

If you are in the Nambucca Valley or Coffs Coast region, you can join me on your very own private Nature therapy walk.  Or you can find other Certified guides in Australia here and elsewhere in the world here.

Happy Forest Bathing!

5 Intentional Ways to Bring Nature Therapy Indoors

After three days of constant rain, I feel myself starting to go a little ‘cray cray’.  I miss my daily walk up the country road where I live.  Not surprisingly, I come down with a cold and by day three it turns into a headache.   Does this happen to you?  After days of not venturing outside, your health starts to deteriorate?

It makes a lot of sense, given that being in nature or green spaces is scientifically proven to promote good physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing.

Don’t despair.   I have some tips for bringing the benefits of nature indoors, so you can enjoy the sensory experience even when stuck inside.

1. Pot up the pesky weed and bring it inside.

Plants are not only a visually pleasing and calming addition to your home, but can be a great source of air purification. Two of the best plants to remove indoor toxins and chemicals are Mother in Laws tongue (a weed in the garden) and the Peace Lily.  With increased oxygen levels in your home, you will also breathe easier.
Houseplants also reduce the incidence of dry skin, colds, sore throats and dry coughs.  Put a plant on your desk to give your eyes a rest from your computer screen, boost concentration and be more productive.   One study showed that hanging out with indoor plants can increase memory retention up to 20 percent.  Weird but true.

2. Knock on Wood.

A lot of research has shown that using wood indoors in the form of furniture, fittings and features helps us to relax.  Simply running your fingers across a wooden benchtop can calm your nervous system, lower your heart rate and reduce brain activity, promoting an instant soothing effect.  The smell of naturally dried wood has a similar effect and can be replicated by spraying some essential oils such as cedarwood, siberian fir or eucalyptus around your home.  Always choose naturally dried wood products, not heat treated wood for your home as the aromas produce very different results.  A good excuse to treat yourself to a new chopping board!

3. Create a nature table.

Dig out that shell collection in your bathroom, then go gather some stones, pine cones, feathers, or other forest finds that bring you pleasure. Not just for kids, a nature table or basket is a good ‘go to’ to distract us when feeling stressed, anxious or depressed.  In this situation, pick up something that attracts your attention, find a place to sit, and just explore this treasure with your sense of touch, smell, hearing and sight.  Notice how this feels in your body.  Notice what memories arise for you.   Does this natural object have a story to tell?  Allow yourself time to be mindful and present.  Let feelings arise and fall away.  Just notice without judgement.

4. Uber some fresh cut flowers.

There isn’t a human being around that doesn’t get pleasure from admiring and smelling cut flowers.  But did you know that flower arrangements also offer physical benefits too?  Simply looking at fresh flowers in a vase has been shown to decrease the sympathetic nervous system response to stress and increase physiological relaxation responses.  A similar result is experienced when smelling floral essential oils, inducing relaxation and comfort.  So go pick a wild bunch and knock yourself out.

5. Bring nature imagery inside.

This is a great one, particularly if you live in an apartment in the city, or have very little green space around where you live.  Science has shown that showing prisoners photos and videos of forests, glaciers and waterfalls reduces tension, improves sleep and results in less violent angry outbursts.
Install some nature artwork, change your screensaver to a majestic landscape or watch a nature documentary.  Or simply close your mind and put yourself in your favourite natural landscape.  The brain doesn’t know the difference between real life and mindful imagery.  You get similar mental health benefits either way!

So if you’re stuck indoors, know that nature with all its healing properties is there for you.  Go out there and invite it in.  Do it mindfully with intention and purpose.

You might like to also read:   5 Nature Therapy Habits You Can Start Today

For more quick and easy Nature Therapy practices you can incorporate into your day, sign up to my Newsletter and I will send you my free e-book featuring the 21 Day Nature Therapy Challenge.  That’s 21 days of Nature Therapy ideas to help you develop a healthy new habit.

References:

Miyazaki, Y. (2018).  Shinrin-yoku: the Japanese way of forest bating for health and relaxation. Octopus Publishing Group, London.
Rokas, L. (2017).  ‘NASA Reveals A List Of The Best Air-Cleaning Plants For Your Home’ at https://www.boredpanda.com/best-air-filtering-houseplants-nasa/
University of Utah, ‘Nature Imagery Calms Prisoners’, https://phys.org/news/2017-08-nature-imagery-calms-prisoners.html

5 Nature Therapy Habits You Can Start Today

Want to spend more time in nature?  Well if you need an excuse, here’s one.  Spending more time mindfully in the outdoors will boost your immune system, take away your stress, help you sleep better and boost your creativity.

With the explosion of scientific research on the benefits of being in nature for mental health and wellbeing, you really can’t afford to not go outdoors.  Here are five quick and easy ways to include more nature in your day.

1. Take your lunch break. Outside.

Too many of us work through our lunch break at work, either because that’s what everyone else does and we want to fit in, or we just don’t have time.  Well, the truth is you will have a more productive afternoon if you give your brain a break.  So turn off the computer, leave your devices behind and take your lunch to the park.  Leave work problems at work; they will still be there when you get back.  Sit and observe what is going on around you, breath the fresh air, listen to the birds.  Return to your desk feeling refreshed and ready to tackle that To Do List.

2.  Start a Sit Spot practice. Outside.

A Sit Spot is a spot in nature to simply connect, relax and observe.  The ideal sit spot is in a natural area where two ecosystems meet, such as the edge where a meadow meets a forest.   Choose a place you can visit frequently without too much effort, even if it is less than ideal.  Your backyard can make a great sit spot.

Sit still and quietly, so that birds and animals nearby get past the initial alarm they feel when a human shows up.  The longer and more often you visit, the more you’ll experience.   The local animals will get to know you and become more accepting of your presence.

Clear your mind.  Do nothing.  Just notice.

3.  Make a natural brew. And drink it outside.

Growing your own food is a great way to develop your connection with nature.  Start by growing a few herbs in pots to make refreshing teas.

Treat yourself to a natural herbal brew once a day.  Enjoy the pleasure of interacting with the plant using all your senses – sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing and bodily awareness, then go ahead and harvest a few leaves.

Find a place in your backyard to sit and enjoy your tea.  At first, explore the tea without tasting by using your other senses.  Then take a sip of the tea and explore its flavour and texture.  Drink a full cup and notice its effect on you over the remainder of the day.

4.  Do your exercise. Outside. 

 Apart from saving a lot of money on gym fees, exercising outside exposes you to the sounds of the leaves rustling in the trees, the feeling of fresh crisp air on your skin and the sense of spaciousness.

Rewild your body through real and practical natural movements like running, walking, leaping, dancing, throwing, balancing, crawling, climbing and hunting.  Moving the way our ancestors did promotes strong bone growth, natural conditioning and mental fitness.
Incorporate a way to get to work without using the car.

5.  Walk with your shoes off. Outside.

Once a day, take off your shoes and observe what it feels like to be connected to the earth. Bring the focus of your attention to the souls of your feet.  Step slowly and intentionally noticing the effect of contact on your body.

The earth is endowed with electrons which are absorbed through your feet.  There is evidence showing this grounding practice is good for your physical health like improving your sleep and reducing pain and inflammation.  Our great ancestors never wore shoes and they were a pretty healthy mob.

You might also like to read:   5 Intentional Ways to Bring Nature Therapy Indoors.

For more quick and easy Nature Therapy practices you can incorporate into your day, sign up to my Newsletter and I will send you my free e-book featuring the 21 Day Nature Therapy Challenge.  That’s 21 days of Nature Therapy ideas to help you develop a healthy new habit.

Riding out the Waves of Emotion with and in Nature

What would it be like if we responded to perceived ‘negative’ feelings in the same way we responded to ‘perceived’ positive feelings?  You know the feelings I’m talking about; the ones that make our body feel uncomfortable.  Anger, sadness, grief, guilt, pain, hurt, shame, jealousy and the like.   Growing up we learn to push these feelings away, ignore them, get over them, put a lid on them or deny them.  In fact, society expects us to.  And if we can’t, then we are told to go to a counsellor to learn how to, because there must be something wrong with us.

What if instead we were to normalise these feelings, rather than to see them as abnormal or bad?  After all, it’s only the behaviour that accompanies these feelings that may cause a problem, not the feeling itself.   Somewhere along the line society has labelled emotions ‘negative’ and ‘positive’.  The so named ‘negative’ ones we want to avoid.  The ‘positive’ ones we crave more of.  We should to be happy all the time, right?

What if we were instead to ride through the wave of perceived ‘negative’ emotion, like a piece of driftwood that rides the ocean currents, knowing eventually the rough and tumble will be over and it will wash up on the shore, ready to dry out and fulfil its potential in the sun?

Nature has much to teach us about living with our emotions, just as nature is a stimulus for experiencing emotion.  Nature shares with us her awesome presence and we experience feelings of awe and wonder staring at a sky filled with millions of stars.  We dwell in delight and joy at the sound of birdsong or a fleeting visit from a timid animal in the forest.  We are wrapped up in happiness and excitement as we discover unexplored, beautiful places that take our breath away.   Our bodies respond to these sensory experiences in pleasurable ways.  We are totally present in the here and now, relishing in the feeling of the moment.

The skill of being mindful in nature can be applied to all our emotions, not just the ones that give us sensations of comfort.  Nature provides some clues about this.  A fire sweeping through the bush is horrifying and scary.  Trees do not enjoy having their leaves stripped bare or bark scarred.  But they stand there, remaining steadfast.  They ride it out.  They slow down their breathing and conserve their energy.  Trees have learnt how to protect themselves from past experience by growing thick bark.  Eventually, the smoke clears, the rains come, and seeds burst forth in regrowth.

What if we were to sit with our emotion in the moment and bring the same kind of awareness to our experience, as we do with ‘positive’ emotions?  To sit and dwell in the pit of crappiness, to bring awareness to the tightness in our stomach, to be accepting of our vulnerability, to notice the change in sensations as the feeling eventually passes.

What if we were to treat our emotions like a friend to get to know rather than an enemy to run away from.  With curiosity, get to know its habits, its likes, its dislikes.  If you can recognise the signs of its arrival, you can be prepared, and find a place to sit and ride it out (preferably in nature which has immediate calming and relaxation effects).

Indigenous peoples do not push their grief away or hide it or try to move through it quickly.  They spend many days or weeks, sometimes months expressing their sorrow after the passing of loved ones.  They feel it shifting through their bodies as they dance and sing to the natural rhythms of the earth.

Experiencing and sitting with the full gamut of emotions is what it means to be human.

For those that have experienced trauma, the experience of sitting with emotions can be much more difficult.  Our response, driven by the brain’s need to protect us, might shut our body down completely so we don’t have to feel at all, or help us get ready to fight or run away from a perceived threat.  This is where nature’s healing powers can really do its work.  When uncomfortable or painful feelings come to the fore, nature provides the distraction needed to calm our over-reactive limbic system.  Taking some time to sit in green space with the sun on your face, the breeze drifting over your skin or the grass beneath your feet, is the first step to retraining your brain through a mindfulness practice.  Building up the muscles in your brain to bring awareness to your felt sense, slowly makes space for the more uncomfortable feelings to be explored in small steps over time.  Sometimes a support person or counsellor is needed to guide this process.

Every feeling we have is normal.  They are part of this journey called life.  They come and go.  Even those that are a result of traumatic experience can be healed, through a practice of mindfulness in nature.

Be gentle on yourself.  Sit with your emotions.  All of them.  Breathe through them.  Notice their passing.

Nature is brave enough to do it.  Humans are nature, so we can too.

‘The Earth is our Master Teacher’ with Bernard Kelly-Edwards

This week on ‘Talk the Walk’ I sit down with Bernard Kelly-Edwards in the middle of his tiny art shop in the thriving alternative community of Bellingen.   Bernard is surrounded by paintings, expressions of who he is, a local Gumbayngirr man, and symbols of the deep spiritual connection to country that he shares with others.

Bernard began his own journey of self-discovery attending a cultural program called Red Dust Healing and now reaches out to other individuals and groups to support Closing the Gap in cultural understanding.   It is his passion for promoting mental health amongst Indigenous young people using the healing capacity of Miimga (Mother Earth) that is the focus of our conversation today.

His business, BKE Consultancy is a unique mix of multi-media platforms of art, photography, short film, poetry and storytelling.  Bernard brings all these talents, along with skills of deep listening and knowledge of Aboriginal Lore, recognising sight and the feeling of cultural sites, passed down to him.

A few times in this conversation, Bernard speaks of the spirit being, the one with no mouth.  He is describing the image in the painting, he is seen holding here.

This is what we explore in Episode 22 of ‘Talk the Walk’:

  • Bernard’s approach to ‘counselling’ using the tools he has found most effective from his own experience and gifts from Mother Earth
  • What deep listening really looks and feels like, for our own and others’ health and wellbeing
  • Easy practices you can try at home to develop your spiritual connection with Mother Earth and your self
  • The elements of life such as water, animals and wind that make communication and connection possible
  • Lessons for how we are living our lives, from the Earth’s perspective
  • Awareness – Balance – and Integration; Bernard’s 3 step strategy for healing of the planet beginning at home
  • How Bernard uses the concept of perceptual positions to assist individuals to take responsibility in their own healing process
  • Making deadly choices and being in the present moment, using the model of awareness, balance and integration
  • How Bernard works with the triggering emotions of individual’s past traumatic experiences to change belief systems and move people forward
  • Bernard’s sparkling moment – a good news story of healing
  • Bernard’s painting and it’s interpretation of his own spiritual form

Image: Bernard K Edwards

To listen to this episode simply click on the Play button below or listen via the Stitcher App for iOS, Android, Nook and iPad.
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Don’t forget, if you or someone you know would make a great interview on ‘Talk the Walk’, send us an email from the Contact Page.

We apologise for some of the human-made background noise at the beginning of this interview.   That’s what happens when you are talking with real people on the job in the heart of their community.   Sometimes you just have to go with it.   Enjoy!

Things to follow up after the episode:

Connect with Bernard K Edwards on Facebook

Connect with BKE Consultancy on Facebook

Contact Bernard by email at bkeconsultancy79(at)hotmail(dot)com

“Why I love Trees”:  My Journey of Nature Connection

Today is ‘International Day of Forests’.  It is also the last day of my six month practicum of training with the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy.  Very soon I will be a Certified Guide.  In the last week I’ve been reflecting on this journey and how this all come about.

I think it all starts back in my childhood when I spent most hours outside on the farm in country Victoria.  I have fond memories of the vege garden, looking after animals, bike riding on country roads and driving the tractor for dad.  I didn’t spend much time inside, preferring to generally wander the paddocks amusing myself, kicking field mushrooms or throwing cow pats like discuses. I used to spend hours lying on a big branch in an old gum tree, making up stories in my head about the creatures that lived there.   Nature was my playground.

I’ve always loved playing in trees.

As you do, I left home at 21 thinking there was something better.  I got married young, had a family, bought my first house, travelled overseas and moved to a big city to get a degree and pursue a career.  It was about accumulating lots of stuff.  But Brisbane got crowded and I yearned to get back to a quieter life, so went back to Darwin 11 years ago with my beautiful family in tow.

I was drawn into bushwalking, taking up invitations to hike with friends in Kakadu.  I heard about permaculture and joined a community garden.  I also had the privilege of being out on country with Aboriginal Elders on the Tiwi Islands and an outstation in NE Arnhemland, where I felt, smelt, sensed and heard stories about their human-nature spiritual connection.

Hiking the Jatbula Trail near Katherine in 2017.

I can now appreciate how lucky I was to have been so close to nature as a child, as I find myself coming back around to many of the practices that kept me grounded and healthy.

Over the years while practising social work on the Tiwi Islands, I came to learn about narrative therapy and a groupwork methodology called the Tree of Life.  After sharing these ideas with some of the Tiwi Elders, I came to realise the power of the tree metaphor in helping Aboriginal people tell their problem stories in ways that were non-shaming and safe, as well as strong stories about healing from the ‘storms’ of their lives, working together like a forest.  I discovered that yarning about problems using nature metaphors helps to integrate trauma experiences without retraumatising people.  We used these ways of yarning in counselling, groupwork and family healing bush camps.  I also write a children’s therapeutic book called ‘The Life of Tree’ to help Aboriginal kids open up about their experience of violence in families.

Trees have become important metaphors in my work too.

In 2013, I caught an early diagnosis of thyroid disease and was told I would eventually have to go on medication.  Not accepting this fate, I turned to natural medicine for answers – taking supplements to make up for our mineral-depleted soils, cutting out foods that were contributing to my body’s autoimmune response, quitting my job to de-stress, joining the ‘slow living’ movement, and taking up meditation (although I struggled to make this a daily practice).  By 2016 I had no evidence that Hashimotos disease had ever been part of my life.  Once again, nature had shown me the way.

In the background, I had a growing sense of unease, helplessness and despair at the state of the planet.  I mulled about the future my children would have to deal with and noticed the global trends in increased anxiety, depression and suicide in young people coping with the pressure of modern, domesticated life.  I read about ‘nature deficit disorder’ as a result of children’s technology use and the detrimental affect excessive screen time was having on their development.   Something has to change and quickly.  The earth does not have the luxury of time if we are to repair the damage we’ve done, and at what cost to our own physical and mental health?

Fast forward to April 2017 when I find myself in the wild West of Tasmania.  My girlfriend had to pull out of our planned trip at the last minute because of her mum’s terminal illness.  I’d never travelled on my own before, and I was constantly thinking about my safety out in the wilderness walking alone.  But by the end of my holiday, I had come to enjoy my own company so much, that it took me a while to be around people again.  I was also in awe of the beautiful old growth forests that boasted trees that were more than four hundred years old.  Nature has always been important to my own growth, health and wellbeing.  But this experience took me to a level of nature connection and a sense of freedom, that I’d never experienced before.  I wanted more.  It was shortly after this that I heard about Nature and Forest Therapy (NFT) and decided to train as a Guide in September 2017.

Learning how to be on my own in nature in Tasmania’s wild West.

I experienced an amazing week-long intensive immersed in the Yarra Ranges engaging in mindful walks in nature every day.  NFT is inspired by the Japanese practice of Shinrin Yoku or forest bathing.  While learning the skills of helping others slow down using intentional invitations to connect with nature and ignite the senses, I learnt how to slow myself down even more.  Believe me, it is intensive.  Practising mindfulness every day takes discipline and practice when you are the kind of person that always has multiple projects on the go and a mind that never rests.  After a week, I just wanted to run or go for a long hike.  No more slow!  But seriously.  This is the practice that is going to sustain my health and wellbeing long into the future.  And there are a lot of scientific studies coming out now to prove it.  For me, it’s about finding the balance between living and working in the ‘real world’ and engaging with the ‘natural world’.  As Richard Louv says “The more connected to technology we become, the more nature we need to achieve a natural balance.”

Me and my fellow Guides during our training intensive in the Yarra Ranges.

Over the past six months I’ve learnt a lot about myself – about my ‘edges’ and how to dissolve irrational fears; about how to let go of agendas and trust nature will lead the way; what it means to live out your life according to your values and beliefs even when the chips are down; what it feels like to be part of a community of like-minded folk who also care about the planet and each other; the relief of discovering the beauty in humanity; and finding hope again after experiencing the resilience of nature.  I have a long way to go but I’m feeling much more connected to the more-than-human world than ever before.   On one of my recent Nature and Forest Therapy walks someone said ‘I’ve been practising mindfulness meditation for years, but I’ve never experienced anything like this before.’  I know right?  I’ve been there.  And now as an NFT Guide, I get to witness the personal profound insights others gain on my three hour slow wanders in nature.  I’m also buoyed by the possibility of people being inspired to take action against climate change and in their personal daily habits, because of their renewed sense of connection and care for the planet.  NFT has the power to do this too!

Guiding a Nature and Forest Therapy walk in Nambucca State Forest.

As I come to the end of my practicum I feel incredibly grateful for the support of my mentors, friends and family, the resources that allow me to follow my heart and dreams, and the start I had in life back on the farm that sowed the seeds of nature connection.

Happy ‘International Day of Forests’ to you.  Do your body, mind and spirit a favour.  Get outside, play, explore, skip, make art using nature’s treasures, gaze at water, climb a tree.  Don’t think about it too much.  Follow your instincts.  And when the forest speaks to you….listen.

Love yourself First:  A Valentine’s Day Message

I recently had the opportunity to go out on country with a respected Gumbaynggirr man living and working in the Bellinger Valley.  I’ve come to know him in a short time as a storyteller, photographer, culture man and healer.

Image by Bernard K Edwards, Never Never Creek in the Promised Land

Early in a conversation with him, I commented that one must learn to love themselves first, before they can love others.  Later that day, we are sitting on a fallen tree across the Never Never River in the beautiful Promised Land, looking out over refreshing, crystal clear water gently flowing over the river rocks.  I am reflecting on my happy life and questioning why I should be so lucky to have things always fall my way, while other people are not so lucky.  I’ve never had anything traumatic occur that has changed the course of my life, in fact, quite the opposite – I’ve been able to achieve all the goals I have been able to set myself, without any barriers or hiccups.  Putting aside the fact that my white skin automatically gives me privileges over other cultural groups, I attributed my “success” in life to my parents that had provided a safe, loving, healthy home, surrounded by nature and fresh air on Victoria’s farming country, protected from the worries of the world.  My companion politely pulls me up “do you not think, that YOU have had something to do with it?” and points out the contradiction with my earlier statement – YOU must love yourself before you can love others.  He goes on to share that once we have left our mother’s arms, we are out on our own.  As adults, we are responsible for our own decisions.  The choices we make in life are ours alone and cannot be attributed to our parents.

I think about this in silence as the water trickles below my feet and a tiny blue bird visits a nearby rock.  It would not have been possible to learn how to love myself without the love of my parents to show me that I am worth loving.  But I get his point.  There comes a point as adults when we have to take responsibility for our own choices in life.  This is what it means to love and respect yourself.  To know that YOU are truly worthy of setting the course of your life.  And no one else can do that for you.

I peer into the reflection of the water now cooling my feet.  Water knows how to flow.  It learnt this from mother earth since the beginning of time.  The fallen tree does not prevent the water from doing what it wants to do.  It finds a way to flow through, around, up and over.  And new life springs forth from the rotting tree.

As you reflect on the love that others have provided you this Valentine’s Day, consider what nature can teach you about loving yourself?  What choices will you take today, on the path towards love?  Make a decision today, knowing that the universe has your back!

Image by Bernard K Edwards

‘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.