When you think about your wellbeing, where does it begin? Is it in your head, with thoughts or feelings? Is it in the body, like a way of being? Or does it start somewhere outside of yourself, like on a favourite armchair, or in a garden, or the great outdoors?
In our fast-paced world, it is all too easy to think about health as an afterthought when things break down. Powering through life, pushing limits, we wait for our health to be affected before turning to reactive solutions. But what if we thought about wellbeing less as a mechanical component, and more as a living system across mind, body and even the world around us?
My own work is about helping people to reconnect with nature, drawing lessons from natural systems to support healthier human systems (this could be anything from a business to a community, a social movement or ourselves). The more I do this work, the more I see that a healthy mind is not just a ‘black box’ inside our heads, but something related to how we move our bodies and how we spend time in our environments.
Reconnecting mind, body and nature
A key aspect of my work is about guiding journeys we call ‘Nature Quests’. Through a Nature Quest, we help people leave the busyness of modern life behind to be entirely alone in nature for anywhere from a day to four whole days and nights. I am constantly amazed by how this helps people find a special kind of stillness, balance and direction.
To help people prepare for Nature Quests, we do a lot to help people get back into their bodies. We go on walks, we swim, we eat and sleep outside, and we guide movement practices such as T’ai Chi and Qi Gong (pronounced Chee Gung). Throughout the process, and especially with these latter exercises, we place added emphasis on letting go, making space and finding flow.
Once, a very brilliant woman joined one of our retreats. She was feeling great pressure in her life and work, the tension building so much that she had become physically unable to raise one of her arms above her shoulder. Over the days, we went through our usual Nature Quest process: the walks, the movement practices, a beautiful ‘solo’ out alone in the wild, woven together with hearty meals and stories around the fire. By the end of the programme, the same woman was glowing, full of fresh and clear insights, and, amazingly, free to move her arm again.
The science of natural wellbeing
It’s through these experiences that I have come to see how our minds and bodies are connected in complex and intricate ways. It’s also how I’ve come to believe that wellbeing is supported by healthy conditions in all of the systems around us. If you were to ask me, I couldn’t explain the mechanics of what stopped this woman’s arm movement, but I know that taking time relax and return to the body and nature helped many parts of her system to re-balance.
We are seeing more and more evidence about the benefits of returning to nature. The Japanese practice of Shinrin-Yoku, or Forest Bathing, involving walks and reflection in nature, has been shown to reduce cortisol levels (our main stress hormone), lower blood pressure and improve parasympathetic nerve activity (associated with helping relaxation.) In other research, there is evidence that the practice of Earthing, connecting our bodies to open ground, has positive impacts on sleep, blood circulation, stress, inflammation and a general positive sense of wellbeing.
Wellbeing as a wider system
It might sound overly simple, but our minds and bodies want to feel natural. If we give them space and time to do so, they will try to find a healthy balance with the world around us. Even the gentle practice of gardening is good for us, shown to relieve symptoms of anxiety, stress and bereavement. At a microscopic level, contact with soil has a positive impact on our own microbiome (the many billions of living organisms that we rely on for the health of our whole system).
When we think about it, the root sources of our wellbeing span from the tiniest of microbes in our body to the vast expanse of the world around us. From this perspective, taking care is very much about tending to all of these wider systems to help us be well as a whole.
Making care a way of life
A big challenge with all of this is of course, how to make it part of everyday life. Here are a few things I think are helpful to creating a wider system, even a culture, of wellbeing.
- Take the time to walk mindfully. Give yourself just a few moments each day to notice what you are feeling and where you are holding those emotions. See if you can hold them with care, as if you could give them an energetic hug. Some would say this is the essence of mindfulness.
- Make relaxation a real life practice. Practice letting go and flowing. Don’t try to go anywhere. Instead see how light and lose you can be in the moment.
- Explore embodiment practices: T’ai Chi, Gi Gong, dancing, many forms of yoga. Anything that helps you connect your body.
- Make time in nature a regular routine. Find a favourite spot to go back to. Get into the rhythm of visiting for a moment of stillness. Let yourself feel wild.
- Put wellbeing at the centre of your life – the thing that all things contribute to, rather than the thing you try to do after a busy day, or week or year.
Our bodies and nature are wise wells of wellbeing. Let’s treasure them, and let’s take care of them, because they take care of us.
About the author
Andres Roberts is a guide dedicated to a new kind of progress, fit for a positive future for all. His work combines renewed ideas about learning and change, re-connection to nature, and the wisdom of ancient cultures to help more positive, and more systemic, change and growth. Andres is co-founder of Way of Nature UK and founding partner of The Bio-Leadership Project.