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Never Mind the Cold

By Rob Lewis


This blog post was written by our very own Rob Lewis and delves into the psychophysiological reasons why it can be very good for us to brave the cold in Autumn and Winter and get outdoors. Rob is the EEAI Interim Committee Chairperson


 

One of the most common phrases I hear from people who have moved to Ireland from warm countries is that, in Winter, it is too cold to do anything – and it often is! With shorter and colder days, many of us leave for work when it is dark, wrapped up, figuring some way to avoid the cold, and end up getting home when it is dark again — never getting to engage with nature.

If you are on this website, I’m going to assume that you have some connection or delight in the outdoors and our natural world. You may have noticed the spectrum of yellows, reds and browns that the trees have been showing off over the last few weeks, but as Winter arrives, we can find ourselves retreating indoors more than we would like; many of us choose to head home to warmth or to be dry.
In these short, dark and cold days, instead of coming home and going to the Phoenix Park and hiking at the weekends, I find myself retreating indoors. My cycle to work becomes a kind of battle against the elements as I try to see how much rain I can keep out, which means taking an extra 5 minutes of prep before I leave. We leave for work when it’s dark and return home when it’s dark.

 

We have moved from the long warm days of Summer, the colourful, crisp Autumn. It can be hard not to build up a negative association with Irish weather, or even the outdoors. Our brains have a negative bias and an amygdala that is continuously scanning our environment looking for threat and danger that need to be avoided, and Winter can offer a vast amount of stimuli that can present as danger: The cold! The barren trees, darkness and rain… lot’s of rain. When the amygdala senses a threat, it activates our sympathetic nervous system – our fight or flight response. Our brain takes over our thinking and begins to create feelings and emotions that help us avoid the harmful or threatening stimuli. When that is nature – we avoid the outdoors and, thus, we avoid connecting with something that often energises us, reduces stress and makes us feel better.

 

There are many theories as to why nature makes us feel good; it can give us perspective as we see the vastness of our world; endorphins are released (more than exercising indoors) as we hike or exercise in nature. The biophilia hypothesis says that since we lived in nature for millennia, when we reengage with it, it is like coming home for our mind and body.

 

What research is showing us though is that this is true. MIND in (2007) carried out a study of 108 nature psychotherapy participants. They found that 71% reported a decrease in depressive symptoms after spending time walking. 53% experienced a reduction in sadness and anger from time spent outdoors versus 33% from time spent indoors. 71% experienced a decrease in stress from a green walk. Overall, 81% experienced an improvement in mood from the green walk, while 43% experienced a reduction in mood from walking in a shopping centre.

 

As mentioned earlier, when our brains experience a threat, it goes into a fight or flight mode – instantly. This happens in a part of the brain where we are not often engaging in conscious thought. Instead, we get feelings and automatic thoughts. This is the activation of our sympathetic nervous system. During Winter – these can be manifested in decisions not to go outdoors and to choose to stay by the fire or watch Netflix, etc.

 

Part of why we get a good feeling from engaging with nature is due to its activation of our parasympathetic nervous system; this is the part of our nervous system that releases calming chemicals and hormones. When we are relaxed and de-stressing, it is the parasympathetic that is being activated.

 

We can measure some of this in the body through the presence of cortisol in saliva. When we are stressed, the body produces cortisol. Research from Hartig, Evan, Jamner, Davis and Garling (2003) demonstrated that when participants went for a walk in a rural environment (parks or nature reserves), they recorded lower levels of cortisol in their saliva – in essence, they reduced their stress levels.

 

So as Winter deepens, and you feel the desire for comfort, warmth and to be dry, take a risk, get your wet gear and thermals and get outdoors. Find a way to be one with nature; not just went it is warm, but also when it is cold and wet. You will still get all the benefits, but also you will be getting that chance to reconnect with something that is part of you. Enjoy the beauty of Winter.

 


Hartig, T., Evans, G., Jamner, L., Davis, D., & Gärling, T. (2003). Tracking restoration in natural and urban field settings. Journal Of Environmental Psychology23(2), 109-123. doi: 10.1016/s0272-4944(02)00109-3
MIND. (2007). Feel better outside, feel better inside: Ecotherapy for mental wellbeing, resilience and recovery. MIND.org. London: Mind. Retrieved from
www.mind.org.

On Being Witnessed by Nature

 

By Therese O’Driscoll


This edition’s volunteer contribution explores, through personal anecdote, the ways in which human beings can be humbled when we remember that natural beings are just as alive as us. It was written by Therese O’DriscollTherese is an EEAI committee member and a much valued eeai volunteer.


 

“To touch the course skin of a tree is thus, at the same time to experience one’s own tactility, to feel oneself touched by the tree. And to see the world is also, at the same time to experience oneself as visible, to feel oneself seen” (Abrams 1996, The Spell of the Sensuous, 68).


Some  years ago I  had the privilege of travelling to New Zealand and Australia; a brief gap of unobligated time in a busy life. I spent glorious hours walking in the beautiful landscapes of the South Island where I was witness to new people, different modes of expression, new sounds, smells, cities, towns. I walked in open landscapes with birdlife and incredible vegetation the like of which I had never seen before. I loved it. I describe it as a retreat in journeying. I practiced being with my Ecological Body ( Reeve 2010),  noticing how “ body and environment. . . co-create each other through mutual influence and interactional shaping” (Reeve, 2011: 48) and developing my own ecological consciousness which is open to “…‘the environment’ or ‘world at large’ not as a mere backdrop but rather as Being itself” (O’Sullivan & Taylor, 2004: 15). Like all good journeys the outer journey became an inner pilgrimage of awareness and recognition of how I move in, among and through spaces, places and people.

During this period I travelled through many airports, train and bus stations . Usually such places are teeming with people going in all directions. Corridors tend to be long, made of stainless steel or some such material that is often cold, sterile and impersonal. I found myself walking through these places with my head and eyes down, clear in my direction, keen to get to the end of the corridor and out to wherever I was going. I was rarely called by these places to stop and stare. Usually I just wanted to get through them and out the other side.   

 Walking in rural pathways of Ireland recently, I noticed I was doing the same. I became aware of my own forward movement with little regard for what I was moving through.  I suddenly realised I had made these trees merely a backdrop to the direction I was walking in and to the thoughts going on in my busy head. I had walked the pathway almost as if it were a sterile corridor the likes of which I describe above. I was walking through it.


I stopped. Perhaps it is more truthful to say I was stopped, halted in my tracks by a tree. To my eyes it was majesty and beauty itself.  It possessed a strong trunk, elegant limbs, and was on the point of budding. But my seeing was not what stayed with me. Rather it was the felt sense of my own body/being in conversation with the being/bodyfullness of this tree, striking in it’s beauty, rootedness, reaching upward and outward into the space that I call a road. In that moment I felt the reciprocity of our shared life in this world.  The tree asked nothing of me, spoke no words but was full of character, of life, of unique and inimitable presence. I bowed.. . . . somehow keen to bodily acknowledge our meeting and to acknowledge the gift I had been offered by recognising I was not alone on that road. I was no longer passing through. I was among other living beings as I journeyed on. I had experienced being witness and being witnessed .

This kinaesthetic awareness of the reciprocity of our being in the world is a key principle in my psychotherapy, supervision and movement practice. Arising from it I have developed a form of supervision which I call Eco Supervision, a process of embodied, embedded, emergence. It is work which is aware of mutual learning and multiple intelligences. Specifically I work with 

  1. a) Kinaesthetic or bodily intelligence through the body moving and stillness, (embodied)
  2. b) Natural intelligence, i.e awareness of place and the witnessing of nature (embedded).
  3. c) Emergence as the final principle.This refers to the emergence which occurs when we stay connected or in conversation with both our bodily and natural intelligence with equal value to our cognitive and verbal intelligence. It is a “letting go to let come” (Scharmer & Kaufer, 2013: 29), an openness to stay with the not-yet-known and therefore uncertain, until the new arises.

 

The schedule for 2020 workshops will shortly be on my website http://www.thereseodriscoll.ie/. Please feel free to take a look and join me should you feel drawn to anything there. I look forward to meeting you and moving with you among our natural world.

 

 

 


References

Abrams, D. (1996). The spell of the sensuous. New York: Vintage.

 

O’ Sullivan, E. & Taylor, M. (2004) Learning towards an ecological consciousness – selected transformative practices. USA: Palgrave MacMillan.

 

Reeve, S. (2011) Nine ways of seeing a body. Axminister, UK: Triarchy Press.

 

Scharmer, O. & Kaufer, K. (2013). Leading from the emerging future. San Franscisco:.BK Publishers.

 

Lit

By Aidan Ring


Gifts from the Natural Word |  This edition’s research contribution explores humanity’s relationship with fire. It was written by Aidan Ring.  Aidan is our interim newsletter co-ordinator and a much valued eeai volunteer.


‘Níl aon tinteán mar do thinteán féin’ 

(There is no hearth like your own hearth)

Old Irish proverb

 

Scholars from many ancient civilisations identified four classical elements as the essential materials from which everything else was made; Earth, Air, Water and Fire. Now, while modern Chemistry has identified over 100 unique elements, the actual building blocks of matter, the four classical elements symbolise humanity’s quest to understand the nature of things. This quest has shed light upon our history, a story which we can now tell with more precision than ever before. And none of this illumination would be possible without fire, the most elusive, dangerous and mysterious of the classical elements but also the most vibrant, playful and alive. Why is it so relaxing to watch flames slowly play over a log in a fire? Why do young children play with matches? Why is the red light of early dawn such a feast for the eyes? Though we may not realise it, we are creatures of fire. Human beings, uniquely amongst Earth’s species, have unlocked its secrets… and boundless potential. As Pyne (2012) points out ‘So while the earth had long experienced fire, it had not truly known a fire creature… The creature that possessed fire had a power unlike any species before it.’

 

Living Flames

In the natural world, a fire regime refers to the pattern of frequency and intensity of wildfires that occur in a particular ecosystem over an extended period of time. Like climate, a fire regime is a statistical composite. Fire-dependent organisms are ones which, to survive, depend on fire regimes at some point in their life cycles. Sound strange? Well, consider the scrublands of Australia’s Outback which are regularly lit ablaze in the dry season, or western North America, where wildfires have become endemic and infamous in recent decades. The plants living in these regions, known as Pyrophytes, actually depend on seasonal wildfires as a trigger for germination. Indeed, fire-adapted ecosystems exist all over the world (Kozlowski, 2014). Wildfires clear out dead vegetation, enrich the soil and facilitate reproduction. Perhaps fire is not the first thing that one would associate with survival… but hardly anything could survive without it.

And that includes us.

 

Camping in Cobram at Easter

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Meet our People


eeai |  New Interim Committee Chairman | Rob Lewis

About 7 years ago, I was out for a walk in the Wicklow hills with two of my housemates and close friends of many years. We lived together, socialised together, stayed up late chatting to each other and played on the same sports team, yet in this moment with them, as we hiked, I noticed that we were talking in much deeper and more connected way than we usually did at home, and thus began my introduction to Ecopsychology and Ecotherapy.

I grew up by the beach, surrounded by lots of open space, so nature has played an important role for me. Everyday I would come home from school rush through my homework or at least pretend to rush through my homework so that I could go out, I would grab my dogs and my football cycle past the beach and meet my friends in the fields to play football. If they weren’t free I would take my dogs and just walk with them, if I was tired I would call the more lazy of my two dogs, she would lie down and I would use her as a pillow and watch the clouds, listening to the birds. When I was energetic I would explore the hedgerows looking for places to build a hut or climb some of the trees.

In the summer we would go down the countryside and stay in a place for weeks at a time that had no electricity, we ran the lights of the car battery. Here I would spend my days playing tip the can in the dunes, swimming or just going on long walks. One of my favourite days was me and my friend spending two days digging the biggest hole on the beach that we could manage. I feel lucky, especially in today’s world that I grew up with so much access to, and interaction with, Nature.

But to return to that fateful walk in Wicklow, after completing a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology, I enrolled in a H Dip in Counselling and Psychotherapy, and it was during this time that I was out for that walk with my friends in Wicklow. Our experience out there led me to this Aha! Moment of why don’t people combine nature and therapy. I went home and began researching and came across Ecopsychology and Ecotherapy.

I got to read articles by Hayley Marshall and the late Martin Jordan. I got in touch with Martin who was a great support in guiding me towards more research and articles, and more importantly introducing me to David Staunton. My engagement with Ecotherapy and Ecopsychology was initially as a consumerist; I felt good in nature, it helped me relax and I figured clients could benefit from it too. This led me to research less from a interconnectedness with Nature, rather a scientific look into how nature affects the body and mind.

As a Psychotherapist, I do enjoy knowing why things work, the growing evidence supporting the importance of nature on both our mental and physical health excites me a lot, but more importantly the biproduct of this interaction with nature is hopefully a renewed desire to protect and preserve our natural environments. Over the years my focus has grown to recognise the interconnectedness between us and our environment on a deeper level.  

My Psychotherapy practice is called “Kinship” as a key factor of how I work is helping clients gain deeper relationships with those around them and within themselves. Kinship, though, takes on a deeper meaning developing more than just human to human, recognising a kinship with the planet too.

Will Parfitt writes “I live my life in relation to other people, other creatures and the earth herself… we are all part of a bigger relationship that includes all of life”. This symbiotic relationship can be related to the Native American proverb: “We breathe what the tree exhales; the tree breathes what we exhale. So, we have a common destiny with the tree.” (Floyd Red Crow Westerman, 2012).

In Ireland Ecopsychology and Ecotherapy is still relatively new, what excites me though is how associations like the EEAI can firstly help increase awareness in many areas of society, not just Psychotherapy. As we connect together sharing knowledge, resources and experience we will hopefully see an increase in outdoor activities and ecological behaviours. Our planet is suffering, but the more we help others reconnect with her, the better her chances of recovery are, and, as I can do that while working, I’m in my element!

Nature’s Houses

 

By Aidan Ring


Gifts from the Natural Word |  This edition’s research contribution is by Aidan Ring.  Aidan is our interim newsletter co-ordinator and a much valued eeai volunteer.

 

Trees are magnificent

A friend of mine once remarked to me that ‘trees are nature’s houses’. As a fact, this is indisputable; the older and larger trees in forests can house thousands of species of plants, animals and insects. As a metaphor, it works perfectly; where we human beings make our homes in buildings made of concrete which will, one day, fall, the animals inhabiting the world’s forests make their homes in trees which will, one day, fall. However, it is well to remember that there was once a time when trees were our homes too. And the difference between our old homes and our new homes? The old ones are alive. This is why they will continue. Buildings are an invention of very recent human history. Before cities, there were trees. And after cities, there will be trees. In fact, the oldest tree in the world, a Bristlecone Pine on the east coast of North America, has been growing for over 5,000 years, since 3000BC. It was around this time that the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities were first being constructed by our ancient forebears. Think of how many generations of human beings have come and gone in the meantime! There are living trees on Earth which pre-date recorded history, pre-date writing itself! Very few human beings will ever have the privilege of watching the entire life cycle of a tree, myself, at 25 years old, included. However, I can imagine few more inspiring privileges.

Indeed we have much to learn from the natural world about growth, patience and the nature of change. Although they are biologically engineered to fulfill one task, (that of growing as high as possible) they pursue this task with a passion! In our modern world of impatience and instantaneous gratification, the idea of engaging in one project for your whole life is so alien. READ MORE