Photo of the sacred site Uluru, reproduced by kind permission of Harry Noel-Smith
As the march of time takes us inextricably towards the Spring Equinox and the cold snap here in the UK has finished, my mind is turning towards the arrival of warmer days.
So I decided on writing again about the beauty of nature (something a lot of us take for granted) and how that helps us lead a healthy life. I was taken to do this by two things really:
First, I received an incredible shot of Uluru from my youngest son who is out travelling in Australia. The awesome sight of this sacred rock is something to behold. His photo leads this post, and what great justice to the beauty of nature he has captured.
Secondly, now that the last vestiges of snow have all but disappeared here in the UK, tiny flowers and buds on trees are beginning to emerge everywhere, and with them come all the emerging animals. You would have to be blind not to notice the splashes of colour appearing out there.
The arrival of Spring also heralds new beginnings and the hope(s) we have for those new beginnings. Hope is an interesting word…
In Greek mythology, Pandora was the first human woman created by the gods. Zeus ordered her to be moulded out of earth as part of the punishment of humanity for Prometheus theft of the secret of fire. According to the myth, Pandora opened a jar, in modern accounts often mistranslated as Pandora’s box, releasing all the evils that visit humanity like pain and suffering, leaving only hope inside once she had closed it again. The "moral" of the story, so to speak, was that even though there is all this evil out in the world, there's still hope, so not all is lost.
And connecting with nature allows us to see hope, which in turn gives us hope. But not just hope, because being in nature also has undoubted health benefits.
In recent years, numerous experimental psychology studies have linked exposure to nature with increased energy and heightened sense of well-being. For example, research has shown that people on wilderness excursions report feeling more alive and that just recalling outdoor experiences increases feelings of happiness and health. I would 100% agree with that, having spent two periods ‘in solitude’ and always returned to the 'normal world' feeling more vitalized and calmer within myself.
Other studies suggest that the very presence of nature helps to ward off feelings of exhaustion and that 90% of people report increased energy when placed in outdoor activities.
People are more caring and generous when exposed to nature. We have a natural connection with living things. Nature is something within which we flourish, so having it be more a part of our lives is critical, especially when we live and work in built environments and buzzed the whole time by technology. The importance of having access to parks and natural surroundings and of incorporating natural elements into our buildings through windows and indoor plants cannot be overstated.
Now, a large body of research is documenting the positive impacts of nature on human flourishing—our social, psychological, and emotional life. Over 100 studies have shown that being in nature, living near nature, or even viewing nature in paintings and videos can have positive impacts on our brains, bodies, feelings, thought processes, and social interactions.
In particular, viewing nature seems to be inherently rewarding, producing a cascade of positive emotions and calming our nervous systems. These in turn help us to cultivate greater openness, creativity, connection, generosity and resilience.
In other words, science suggests we may seek out nature not only for our physical survival, but also because it is good for our social and personal well-being.
Also, nature often induces awe, wonder, and reverence, all emotions known to have a variety of benefits, promoting everything from well-being and altruism to humility to health.
If there was one thing I would encourage you to do in order to get full benefit from being in nature it would be:
Here is an extract from my solitude diaries to explain the importance and health benefits of truly grounding (sometimes referred to as ‘earthing’).
“The feeling of cold water and fine sand on the toes and ankles was amazing! I had read once about the importance (and health benefits) of properly connecting with the earth by getting your shoes and socks off and exposing our naked feet to the ground.
The reason is quite simply.
Our planet has electrical currents running all over it, literally everywhere. There are some major lines and these were coined with the term 'Ley Lines' by Alfred Watkins in the 1920's, and these feed off the mega grid system that encompasses the whole of the earth. Think of it like B class roads leading to A class roads and in turn all the way up to the motorway system. Never mind the country paths, tracks, railways and airways as well! So, if us humans can connect via roads and railways, we are then only copying the planetary communication lines laid down since the birth of earth.
These planetary 'energy' lines are far more special though, as they are a direct link to Mother Earth or Gaia. The whole subject about the earth’s energy lines would take a whole book to describe and there are plenty of those out to read if you are interested. As far as I am concerned, it's what it means to me being able to 'ground' and to enjoy the earths energy given to us 'free'. I honestly believe that it's good for us both physically and spiritually, to connect to those energy frequencies that are being sent out from the earth”.
So, given the chance, get those shoes and socks off (an obstacle to connection) and walk around in your back garden, the local park or across fields. You will love it!
So, really take in the environment around you as you escape the walls of your dwelling. It is so beautiful to notice the small things and how perfect they are - tiny snails climbing baby fern shoots with beautifully formed spiral shells with the rain glistening on their bodies. The endless drifting flight of birds in the sky, making tiny changes to the wings to bring about effortless change in direction.
This morning the sound of woodpeckers hammering at a branch, the arrival of yellow and green spotted toads around the lake and the beauty of old and ancient trees gave me a real ‘boost’.
These small things we often take for granted, yet they are all around us if we choose to look. And deep down they help us if we just take 5 minutes or more of our lives enjoying nature!
For thousands of years, there was no way of testing scientifically whether meditation really worked. It was a purely internal experience discovered and verified by each new practitioner within their own mind.
In the last few decades, new technologies have allowed us to objectively measure some of the effects of meditation. We are far from a complete understanding, but early findings are fascinating.
At the same time there has been a revolution in the field of neuroscience with the discovery that the brain is not hardwired and fixed, even in adulthood. It is constantly changing throughout a person’s life.
Everything we do changes the brain in some way. When we practice a skill, the brain regions we use actually grow bigger, and when we don’t use parts of our brain, these regions shrink. This is what scientists call neuroplasticity.
All this adds up to the tantalizing question: How does meditation change the physical structure of the brain? Scientists are just beginning to answer this question, but we have already unearthed some pretty cool answers.
1. Increased Inter-Connectivity
In neuroscience these days, there is a lot of focus on how different brain areas do different things.
These functional units of the brain, made up of grey matter, are like little modules, each doing its own special task, such as speech, memory, vision, or movement.
Yet, in order for the brain to work as an integrated whole, the different brain regions need to send and receive information to and from each other.
This is done through the brain’s white matter. Think of white matter as being like fibre optic cables connecting the various modules—the brain’s version of the internet.
One of the most intriguing findings that emerges from brain research is that meditation increases the amount of white matter in the brain. Unlike most skills, practicing meditation does not just train a few specific brain areas. It develops the channels of communication between them.
The corpus callosum is a huge bundle of white matter fibres that connect the right and left halves of your brain. Without this connection, the left side of your body wouldn’t know what was going on in the right side! Two studies found that after just 4-weeks of mindfulness training, the corpus callosum and other white matter structures in the brain had grown physically larger.
These studies also found increased white matter density in the sagittal stratum and corona radiata linked to improved mood among participants.
There is another white matter structure that is consistently found to be larger in meditators. The superior longitudinal fasciculus bridges the front of your brain to the back, connecting attention and reflective thinking with basic body sensation.
These increases in white matter enable better communication between different parts of the brain. This could help explain how meditation increases our ability to regulate intense emotions and stress. It might also reveal why long-term meditators start to perceive all of reality as one great interconnected whole.
2. Younger Brain Age
As we age our brains lose mass, literally shrinking inside our skulls. The brain of the average 50 year old is smaller than that of the average 20 year old. But one study that compared the brains of meditators with non-meditators by age found that cortical thickness of 40-50 year old meditators was the same as that of non-meditators aged 20-30.
The brains of meditators seem to maintain their overall mass, and on average they appear to be 7 years younger than those of non-meditators.
In addition to this overall effect, meditation leads to increases in grey matter in key brain regions. For example, meditators have increased volume in brain areas linked with attention, sensory awareness, global body awareness, and visual processing.
This fits with the logic of neuroplasticity. The more we use certain abilities, the larger the brain structures related to those abilities become.
3. Calming the Brain
Many of us know that meditation helps regulate stress, but until recently scientists didn’t know why.
Some skeptics see meditation as just a glorified form of relaxation. But an increasing amount of evidence is showing that practicing meditation causes physical changes in specific parts of the brain that govern the stress response.
One clear indicator of this is the finding that the amygdala is smaller in meditators than non-meditators.
The amygdala works like a trigger to fire off the body’s fight or flight response. A smaller amygdala might indicate a reduced tendency to freak out in the face of stressful situations. Therefore its very likely that meditators will be mentally more resilient to external stressors.
But could it be that people who are drawn to meditation might have smaller amygdalas to begin with? Could naturally calm people like to meditate, rather than meditation making them calmer?
A few MRI studies have directly addressed this question by scanning the brains of non-meditators and then teaching them to meditate for 8-weeks. Afterwards, they scanned participants’ brains again and found that the amygdala got noticeably smaller.
Of course, the shrinking amygdala is only one part of the story. There is also evidence that meditation enlarges several brain areas responsible for regulating emotion. For example, meditators have a larger than normal lower region of the hippocampus, an area shown to act like a break to stop the release of stress hormones.
4. Higher Pain Threshold
As a kid reading Batman comics, I loved the idea that his super meditation skills allowed him to shrug off pain. Well, turns out that’s partly true (although much less dramatic). Scientists hooked up serious Zen meditators as well as non-meditators to a device that produced heat close to their skin.
The labcoats upped the temperature slowly until the participants cried uncle (don’t worry, nobody was harmed). Sure enough, the cool Zen practitioners were less sensitive to pain even though they were not meditating during the experiment.
Looking at the participant’s brain scans, researchers found that the dorsal anterior cingulate of the meditators was thicker. This increased thickness was correlated with the reduced sensitivity to pain. We know from other studies that this area of the brain is central to the emotional response to pain. So perhaps the greater size of this region allowed the meditators to tolerate a higher temperature by unconsciously regulating their response to the painful stimulus.
5. Groovy Brain Waves
To detect rapid changes in brain activity, scientists use EEG sensors – those little scalp electrodes that look like a cyborg’s shower cap. EEG allows scientists to detect rapid electrical fluctuations called brain waves. These are classified according to the number of times per second that they rise and fall, different frequencies relating to different states of consciousness.
Alpha waves are the soft lighting of consciousness. In alpha we feel relaxed and available, not overly fixated on any specific thought or action, yet awake and alert.
Mindfulness meditation has been shown to boost alpha levels in the brain, even outside of actual meditation. This could be part of why we sometimes feel calmer and more relaxed after a meditation session, and why long-term meditators report feeling more at ease overall.
The other scientific finding I love is the link between increased gamma waves and loving-kindness or compassion meditation. Gamma waves are the fastest brain waves, oscillating at a frequency of 25-100 times per second.
A study of Tibetan Monks highly practiced in loving-kindness meditation found their gamma waves were off the charts, higher than any humans previously recorded. This led to one of the monks, a man named Matthieu Ricard, being dubbed “the happiest man in the world”.
Article by Robert Theobald
In the mid-19th century, a boy was born into a wealthy family. From the beginning, the boy suffered serious health issues: an eye problem that left him temporarily blinded as a child, a terrible stomach condition that forced him onto a strict diet, and back pains that would plague him throughout his life.
Despite his father’s disapproval, he aspired to become a painter when he grew up. He practiced his craft, but for years and years every attempt ended in failure. Meanwhile, his brother went on to become a world-renowned novelist. As he entered adulthood, many of his health problems worsened, his relationship with his father fell apart, and the young man began to struggle with severe bouts of depression and suicidal thoughts.
Desperate to fix his son’s situation, the young man’s father used his business connections to get his son admitted to Harvard Medical School. Fortunately, the young man was smart. He could handle the coursework. But he never felt at home or at peace at Harvard. After touring a psychiatric facility one day, the young man mused in his diary that he felt he had more in common with the patients than the other doctors.
Dissatisfied with his medical training, the young man looked for other opportunities within academy that may suit him. He was desperate. He was willing to try anything, even something radical and completely different.
He soon discovered an anthropological expedition to the Amazon rainforest. The young man signed on, excited to get away and start fresh, to perhaps discover something new and interesting about the world and about himself.
In those days, intercontinental travel was long, complicated and dangerous. But the young man made it to the Amazon. There he promptly contracted smallpox and nearly died alone in the jungle. He was rushed back to civilization and the expedition left him behind. Upon recovering from smallpox, his back spasms returned worse than ever. He was emaciated from the disease, stuck in a foreign land alone with no way to communicate, and continued to exist in a daily excruciating pain.
The young man managed to return home to a disappointed father, nearly 30 years old, still unemployed, a failure at everything he had ever attempted, with a body that betrayed him and wasn’t likely to ever get better. Despite every advantage and opportunity he had been given in life, he had failed them all. The only constants in his life seemed to be suffering and disappointment. The man fell into a deep depression and planned to take his own life.
But first, he had an idea.
He made an agreement with himself. In his diary, he wrote that he would try an experiment. He would spend one entire year believing that he was 100% responsible for everything that occurred in his life, no matter what. During this period, he would do everything in his power to change his circumstances, no matter the outcome. If, he wrote, at the end of one year of taking responsibility for everything in his life and working to improve it, if nothing in his life had actually improved in that time, then it will be apparent that he was truly powerless to the circumstances around him. And then he would take his own life.
The young man’s name was William James, the father of American psychology and one of the most influential philosophers of the past 100 years. Of course, he was not any of these things yet, but he would go on to become them in large part due to his experiment. James would later refer to his experiment as his “rebirth,” and would credit it for everything he would later accomplish.
There is a realization from which all potential personal growth emerges. This is the realization that you are responsible for everything you do in your life, no matter the external circumstances.
In 1879, fifteen years after making the deal with himself, William James gave what was perhaps his most famous lecture, titled “The Will to Believe.”
In it he argued that whether religious or atheist, capitalist or communist, everyone is forced to adopt values or some degree of faith. Even if you do not believe in faith, that is itself a value requiring faith. He went on to say that if we all must value something, then we may as well find out and pursue the value(s) that are most beneficial for us and others.
When we become responsible for our own values, we no longer have to struggle to make the world conform to our needs, rather we can adapt our own values to fit the circumstances that confront us in the world.
It is that simple choice to take responsibility for ourselves and our own values that allows us to feel in control of everything that happens to us.
It allows us to transform our negative experiences into empowering experiences. It is completely counterintuitive – the idea that being responsible for all of the horrible misfortunes that befall us could somehow liberate us from them – but it is true. Our responsibility for ourselves releases a deeper fulfillment by allowing us to construe whatever we confront into a value that fulfills our needs.
Unruly children grant us the opportunity to be a good parent and teach some manners and responsibility. Becoming unemployed at work grants us the opportunity to experiment with new career paths that we always daydreamed about. A terrible breakup gives us the chance to take an honest look at ourselves and how our behaviors affect our relationships with loved ones.
Without doubt, these experiences still hurt. But negative experiences are part of life. The question is not whether or not we have them but what we do with them. Responsibility allows us to leverage our pain for empowerment, to transmute our pain into strength, our loss into opportunity.
James was not dumb though. He knew that values require more than a simple choice to believe them. You do not just wake up one day and decide, “I am a happy successful person!” and become it. Values must be cultivated, consciously tried and tested and steeled by experience. Values are worthless if they don’t contain some sort of real-world manifestation, some tangible benefit in the form of positive experience.
We do not always control what happens to us. But we always control a) how we interpret what happens to us, and b) how we respond to what happens to us. Therefore, whether we consciously recognize it or not, we are always responsible for our experiences. Choosing to not consciously interpret events in our lives is still an interpretation of the events of our lives.
Whether we like it or not, we are always taking an active role in what is occurring with ourselves. We are always interpreting the meaning of every moment and every occurrence. We are always creating values about ourselves and others. And we are always choosing our actions based on those values. Always.
Whether we realize it or not, we are already choosing our actions. We are already responsible for our negative experiences. We just are not always conscious of it.
Time to be more conscious…
On Saturday, I attended a Wassail ceremony in our small village in North Somerset. The custom of wassailing dates back to pagan times and in many villages this custom has occurred for literally hundreds of years. Its traditions are based on the fertility of the apple tree. Perhaps unbeknown to the general public, this ancient English tradition is still very much thriving today.
Traditionally, the wassail is celebrated on Twelfth Night (variously on either January 5 or 6). Some people still wassail on "Old Twelvey Night", January 17, as it would have been before the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in 1752.
In the Middle Ages, the wassail was a reciprocal exchange between the feudal lords and their peasants as a form of recipient-initiated charitable giving, to be distinguished from begging.
In the cider producing West of England (primarily the counties of Devon, Somerset, Dorset, Gloucestershire and Herefordshire) wassailing also refers to drinking (and singing) the health of all trees in the hopes that they might better thrive.
A gathering of village folk (and wedding guests from a soon-to-be wedding ceremony!) met at the New Inn Public House and were treated by lady Morris Dancers resplendent in mauve and white dresses and with plenty of bells attached to ankles ands wrists dancing several historic dances. We were even encouraged to ‘have a go’ ourselves which added to the fun (particularly for the observers!). After fun, laughter and dancing we made our way to the orchard by way of the churchyard and across a field.
The purpose of wassailing is to awake the cider apple trees and to scare away evil spirits to ensure a good harvest of fruit in the autumn. The ceremonies of each wassail vary from village to village but they generally all have the same core elements. A wassail King or Queen leads song, dance and/or a processional tune are played/sung from one orchard to the next. The wassail Queen will place toast soaked in wassail from the cup as a gift to the tree spirits (and to show the fruits created the previous year). She will also pour cider around the base of the apple tree before an incantation is usually recited.
The one we were all encouraged to join in with was this:
‘Here’s to thee old apple tree
Long may you bud, long may you blow
And may you bear apples enou’
Hats full, caps full, bushel, bushel bag full
And my pockets full too
Hurrah, Hurrah, Hurrah!’
It is then expected for the assembled crowd to sing and shout and bang drums, possibly even pots & pans but basically to make a terrible racket. We did our best to make a noise and the final act was Allen, (a gunman armed with a shotgun) firing a great volley through the branches to make sure that the work was done and the evil spirits sent on their way forever!
With a New Year right in front of us, I decided that instead of making a New Year Resolution(s), that I would make good old fashion promises instead.
The word promise comes from the Latin ‘promittere’, meaning “to send forward.” When you make a promise, you send forth your honest intentions to manifest into reality. In this way, we commit to others on a daily basis.
Some promises are kept valiantly while others are broken remorselessly.
Still, our word remains the almighty root of trust.
But if a promise is indicative of our dignity, what about the promises you make to yourself? Do you really respect your personal pledges? Better yet, what have you sworn to yourself today that will serve you tomorrow, next week and throughout 2018?
I decided to make myself the following 10 promises — virtuous vows that will strengthen my willpower and reaffirm my future potential and respect of myself – maybe you could pick some of these up to use in 2018? If nothing else, I hope they act as a catalyst for individual thought.
I promise to honour my true worth.
Between the demands of daily life and taking care of others, we can easily forget our true worth. In actual fact we merit more than we know. We deserve to be blessed with prosperity, good fortune and great health, and the moment we acknowledge this is the moment we begin to attract the abundance to which we are truly entitled.
I promise to make clear my intentions.
Intentions are the bridge linking conscious thought within our brains to bona fide and ‘proper’ external action. Think of 6 important things you need to accomplish soon, and list your intentions in a clear, concise way, emphasizing the method of action you will adopt to bring your objectives to life. I found it quite hard to do, but once I had written them down, they themselves inspire me to get them done!
I promise to educate myself as much as possible.
Education does not necessarily entail school or books, but it does imply learning — about different beliefs, the past, our planet, world events, and future concepts. There is a profound magic in learning and knowing that is seldom present in other activities. That is because learning instantly empowers us. And all you must do to learn is watch the world with vigilance and curiosity. Knowledge endows us with an understanding and acceptance of the world as it was, is, and will be. As the Roman poet Virgil said, “Happy is he who has been able to learn the causes of things.” And as I like to say – be curious!
I promise to show more compassion to the world around me.
We each possess compassion, an often neglected grace. Full resolution to our problems is only possible through empathy and patience. Whether it’s letting a car enter into your lane or recycling to save our environment, compassion takes many forms. Remember always to extend compassion to yourself as well.
I promise to stand up for myself.
Certain situations in life will reek of unfairness. Stand up for yourself in a polite but firm way. Defending your rights demands respect from others. Do not be afraid to voice your opinions and make others understand that you seek justice for yourself. After all, if you do not stand up for yourself, who will?
I promise to finish what I started.
Leaving a goal halfway finished means you will never know what could have happened if you would have completed it. As difficult as it may be, there is no greater compensation than getting something done through genuine effort and ambition. Practice discipline to meet the finish line of your aspirations.
I promise to evolve.
Evolution is the law of the universe and what does not evolve dies out. We, too, must shift and change, little by little, day by day. Promise yourself to strive for betterment. It can be as simple as taking up an exercise routine or ending a long-standing, negative habit. Through careful reflection and honest introspection, you will realize exactly what areas of your self need to be cultivated to spur personal progress.
I promise to end patterns.
Patterns of detrimental behaviour keep us stagnant and stuck in the same recurring cycles. Often we can become trapped in one phase of life without even knowing it. From a bad relationship or series of similar relationships to a dead-end job or the wrong career choices, all patterns can be broken by acknowledging our faulty actions and steering our future in a different direction. To end the repetition of negative events, we must understand what needs to be changed and modify our actions to yield different results.
I promise not to allow others to affect me.
Realizing that your happiness is in your hands is the only key to unwavering joy. When someone tries to jeopardize your mood, go within yourself and re-stabilize your emotions. Affirm to yourself that no one is allowed to harm you. Say, “I am the keeper of my joy, which is whole, unhurt, and intact.”
I promise to take nothing for granted.
We’ve all heard the phrase, You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone, but not until we lose something special do these words really hit home. This is because the greatest sadness lies in remembrance. Once we can no longer have something, we begin to think, Why didn’t I enjoy it when I had the chance? Immerse yourself in the tender moments you are given each day. Let a tight embrace, a family moment, or a long kiss add to your treasure chest of cherished memories. As tiny or fleeting as they may be, they are yours.
Promises are our word of honour that something will come true in a certain way. Before you make another promise to anyone else, commit to yourself the empowering ideals above (or your own of course). These oaths will fortify your strength and solidify your self worth.
With these, you can walk bravely into 2018 with the sun on your face and warmth in your heart.
Happy to be a regular blog contributor to a fantastic website in Alaska - check it out at: