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
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