I am truly happy to be heading to the scenic south-east at the kind invitation of the excellent Wexford Walking Trail collaboration to facilitate four ecotherapy walks this November. Wexford is a county which I have many fond connections with.
On the 5th of November, I look forward to walking with a group in Courtown Woods in the morning and Ferns in the afternoon, whilst on the 12th of November the ecotherapy walks will be in Carrigbyrne and Lacken. (Booking your place is essential and to do so please contact Mary on 086 163334).
It is the intention of the Wexford Walking Trail organisation ‘to enhance the visitor experience and raise awareness of the quality, diversity and location of our trails’. This intention and ethos is of course ‘music to my ears’ as it helps to heighten our connection with nature and explore the bonds between not only ‘people and place’ but ‘human and other than human nature’. Many of the benefits of being outdoors in nature are fairly obvious in that it increases both our physical and psychological wellbeing but increased awareness and respect for all forms of nature is the essence of ecotherapy and ecopsychology.
As anybody who has sauntered their way through a pile of autumn leaves knows, there is a beautiful truth and honesty in nature and it so often encourages us to connect in with a more authentic version of ourselves. For all its beauty and magnificence, nature does not try to impress us humans, it is just…there. When we recall past wild winter storms, we are reminded that nature is harsh at times and may leave us acknowledging our own sense of fear and awe or perhaps evoke feelings of powerlessness when we are faced with its indiscriminate energy and might.
If we ignore the needs of nature or attempt to subjugate the ‘other than human nature’ that surrounds us, not alone do we cause untold harm to our planet but we do so at the cost of much of our own personal health and wellbeing. Why? Simply because as human beings we too are an integral part of nature.
I look forward to meeting you on our ecotherapy walks in Wexford and I could not agree more with Wexford Walking Trail when they suggest that we… ‘Let nature lead the way’.
‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ and Vitamin N (Nature)
A child was quoted in Richard Louv’s remarkable book ‘Last Child in the Woods’ as saying that he preferred to play indoors because “…that’s where all the electrical outlets are”, and although we may smile at his reasoning many of us adults often choose to stay indoors for the very same reason. When we are indoors, although we may be ‘plugged in virtually’ to the world around us through radio, television, social media etc, this also means that we are separated and isolated from the ‘actual’ world by a layer or indeed layers of technology. As human beings (Homo sapiens), we have been evolving for approximately 200,000 years (and indeed for millions of years previously), to be in close communion with not alone other humans but with ‘non-human nature’. If we deny ourselves this connection and spend too much time indoors, it may well result in increased levels of anxiety, fear, low mood and feelings of isolation. I amongst many would argue that this process of disconnection is well established and to the detriment of our communities is fostering a growing mistrust of others.
It is important to remember that ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ although a clever phrase from Richard Louv, it is not a ‘listed’ medical classification but rather “…to serve as a description of the human costs of alienation from the natural world”. However, much more importantly Louv in his work provokes us to look at our obsession with ‘labelling’ particularly in the area of mental health. As a counselling psychotherapist, it is neither within my role nor desire to ‘diagnose’ or ‘label’ another human being – people attend for support as they are and together we work out a agreed plan to move forward. I do of course continue to offer an indoor practice for those clients who prefer a more traditional approach, but generally speaking clients who decide to work outdoors never ask to go back to indoor therapy.
Taking ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ in the light that I believe Louv intended, I would say that the signs are all around us. Signs that are experienced both in our personal lives and in the communities which we have built such as isolation, anxiety, fear, denial and our obsession with ‘mindless consumerism’. This is not sustainable on either a personal level or a global level. Cataclysmic climate change is occurring and most of us are far more concerned with what Netflix will offer us next season. This is a denial of nature’s needs. We are nature, therefore we are denying ourselves what we need and we become unhappy and detached. We busy ourselves with what the author Ivor Southwood refers to as ‘Non-Stop Inertia’ i.e. we are very busy people going nowhere fast.
When I was a child in 1970’s and ‘80’s our primary school (a large school of around 600 pupils) did not have a telephone. The pace of the development and the universal availability of technology here in Ireland since that time are nothing short of astounding. Today, all of us have access to what we would now perceive to be ‘common gadgets’ in our pockets or handbags which are far superior and sophisticated to the available technologies which sent human beings in an aluminium container all the way to the moon only a few decades ago. It is because the available technology today is so amazing, so creative and so fascinating – that we all want to own it, to use it and to live our lives through it. It is enticingly addictive not because it is bad but because it is so good. Technology gives us a sense of control and security and allows us to present ourselves in a ‘polished’ way to others… although so often we are simply lonely and fragile people hiding behind our fingertips which tap out a binary coded message to our virtual friends in a nonexistent virtual world.
I am a keen advocate of the work of Dr Peter Kahn in the University of Washington, who coined the phrase ‘technological nature’ and whose work recommends us to give very careful consideration to the role of technology in our lives. Although Dr Kahn suggests that whilst we may express feelings and emotions towards technology, it is important to remember that there is no technological substitute for life and to be ‘alive’ means being in actual contact with other humans and other species. Moreover, we are nature and any attempt by us to disconnect from nature in any of its forms, is a rejection of our unique individuality within the interconnectedness of all other matter and beings. Not being outdoors enough and not being in communication with nature is a fractious denial of our very selves.
I sometimes ask people, (particularly people like myself who live in a busy inner city), where is your nearest tree? It is surprising the number of people who do not know the answer. This question may evoke a realisation which is often followed by a poignant sadness and/or feelings of loss. Thoughts about a tree often stir long hidden memories about a less busy time, a less built-up environment and perhaps a longing or even a grieving for a sense of community in a less isolated, gated concrete cage which has become home for many of us in this post celtic-tiger era.
Think about how we have constructed our urban areas. Here in Dublin we have run several harsh traffic filled lanes in, around and through the Christchurch area which is the very birthplace of our city. We negotiate and tolerate so many narrow miserable footpaths in our towns and cities, which require us to be constantly aware of not walking into an unforgiving stream of vehicles. This is no fit environment for human beings – at best it is a poor compromise and at worst it is a blind worship to an outmoded transportation model which is grossly unsustainable. In short, much of our urban public space is just not pleasant to be in. We did not evolve to breathe the exhaust fumes of cars.
Roger Ulrich’s work in 1984 remains some of the best known research on the positive results experienced by post operative patients in a hospital who enjoyed a view of trees outdoors as opposed to patients who did not recover as quickly nor as serenely, having been left to recuperate with a view of a brick wall. I have had an interest in architecture and planning all my life and also had the privilege to work closely in the past with people in transition from homelessness. This gave me an opportunity to learn so much from their experiences from having grown up and lived in built environments, which in their opinion (and mine), condemned them to a life of personal and communal pain and tragedy, leaving them bereft of any opportunity for effective healing. It is only with admirable effort that people recover from such an ‘unnatural’ disassociation with nature. Our public spaces, roads and streets in villages, towns and cities across Ireland must be beautiful, welcoming, fun and relaxed. They need to be full of trees and full of nature. There is a healing to be had in green spaces, spaces which are free from the noise and pollution of traffic as sadly all too often there is a strong correlation between social deprivation and a lack of tree-lined roads and green healthy parks and public spaces.
A major influence on my ecotherapy and ecopsychology work is the psychologist Theodore Roszak who reminded psychotherapists and other mental health providers to pay more attention to the relationship between a client and their immediate environment, particularly the alienation between what Roszak called the “…recently created urban psyche and the age-old natural environment”.
When it comes to improving our mental health, I believe that ‘simple stuff works’. Routine, healthy diet and exercise can all bring us a long way towards feeling better. So can being outdoors. The good news is that nature, despite our best/worst efforts as humans at times, is never too far away. For many people, just being in nature evokes inspiration and transformation. It’s no secret and it is increasingly accepted that there are numerous health benefits for mind, body and soul when we simply ‘take a walk’.
We all practice some form of ‘ecotherapy’ from time to time such as a walk in the park, gardening or growing our own fruit and vegetables. These are simple and effective ways to ensure more positive mental health. Recent research tells us that soil contains microbes which mirror the effect of ‘anti-depressant medication’ in the brain (without the side effects), but if you are an avid gardener, you are probably not too surprised by this.
As a counselling psychotherapist and a great lover of walking and being outdoors it was a very natural progression for me to integrate that which personally keeps me psychologically well, with the approach I offer people who wish to work on improving their low mood or increase their wellness levels. In offering counselling psychotherapy outdoors in healthy natural green spaces, nature becomes a co-therapist in the process, supporting the client with regulating their feelings and emotion.
And the simplest thing we can do and the ‘first step’ we can take to help improve our mental health is WALK,
And remember being outdoors is free.
It does not, nor should not cost you a penny to go for a walk. If you are serious about reconnecting with nature, your ‘first step outdoors’ should not necessarily be to a shopping centre. And if you find yourself doing so, gently ask yourself why you are doing this it may help you to become more aware of some behaviours which may not be helping you. Of course I would advocate having suitable clothing and footwear, but the minute you find yourself ‘buying the look’ – bring yourself back to reality. I find that most people who enjoy the Walk Inniú outdoor ecotherapy workshops (Ecotherapy Hedge School / Walk and Talk’s etc) are generally a very relaxed bunch and place far more emphasis in being outdoors in nature rather than indoors choosing gadgets and expensive clothing.
Sometimes the things we own can end up owning us!
If the term ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ is evoking a feeling that you may not be in connection with wild spaces and natural surroundings as much as you would like then the antidote is very simple – you need a regular dose of what Louv refers to as ‘Vitamin N’ – that’s right N for Nature.
How to begin your Ecotherapy and take your dose of ‘Vitamin N’
All my life I have benefited from the healing affects of nature and being outdoors. Having been fortunate enough to grow up in the west of Ireland and being no stranger to the natural wildness of the landscape, I developed a deep appreciation of the connection we can feel as human beings to a space and place. Having now lived in inner city Dublin for most of my life, some years ago I became aware of a growing disconnection with nature which created a personal unease, an unease that cleared the more I supported myself through engaging in ecotherapeutic activities.
I believe that Ireland is incredibly well suited to providing ecotherapy and ecopsychology, as we all have ready access to open countryside through trails, walks, mountain paths and a very long winding sea shore. Our nearest neighbours in the UK are ahead of the ball to the extent that many GP’s in the UK will prescribe you a course of ecotherapy and it is widely respected and recognised by the NHS as an efficacious and cost effective approach for supporting people in need. And as a ‘bloke’ I also recognise the cultural and stereotypical stigma that many of us Irish men feel (both real and imagined) when it comes to getting help.
Finally, climate change is the number one challenge of our time but it is often met by ‘avoidance, denial and projection’. However, us psychotherapists are trained to work with these ‘all-too-human’ defensive behaviours and I believe that by integrating growth, healing and learning in a more ‘eco – centric’ approach, it is possible to offer people a more positive and cohesive path towards better mental health with increased happiness and wellness.
The positive side-effect of ecotherapy is that when we truly nurture ourselves, we become better able and more likely to nurture our planet.
If you wish to learn more about David Staunton, Walk Inniú – Counselling Psychotherapy Outdoors or the introductory ‘Ecotherapy Hedge School Workshops’ feel free to check out www.walkinniu.ie , follow him on twitter @Walkinniu or contact David directly at 086 033 99 33 or email him at email@example.com
Ravaged, cut, split, torn,
Growing heather, rushes, bushes, thorn.
Lakes and rivers without boundary,
Spilling into a vessel which can hold no more.
Patches and tufts of green misplaced,
Hold miserable animals wishing themselves elsewhere.
Driving, wetting, cruel mists and sheet rain,
Assuring a long hard winter before the next fine day.
Promising lower land will sleep dead underwater.
The men who pull and drag,
Life, rocks, clay and whins bush,
Suffer an eternity of forcing and cursing.
Trying to make land…
Instead of making time.
I wrote this poem not because I felt I could write poetry of any great merit – but because I had to. It was written at a time when I was attempting to make sense of my world as I experienced it, to reconcile with dark memories from the past and acknowledge my fears and anger at the time of writing. As I look back and reflect on the poem, I see my harsh projections of anxiety, negativity and anger at that time. Thankfully when it comes to exploration of a mindful manner, nature has an infinite holding capacity. From a train window travelling through the west of Ireland in 2010, I became deeply aware of field after wet waterlogged field, passing in my gaze. The fields seemed to invite me to explore my own busy, troubled and frightened self at a deep level – ‘to find Jung’s gold in the shadows’ as it were. And for too long I had mined a lot of ‘fool’s gold’ – but I now felt more ready to look for the real thing.
Self analysis, self care and ongoing reflection is paramount for all counselling psychotherapists in order to provide a kind and therapeutically effective space for their clients. Those wet fields and bogs of Connaught supported and held me as I wrote, inspiring and encouraging me to accept that the meaningful courage and strength I sought was accessible within my very being. Ecopsychology and Ecotherapy at work.
‘We do not see things as they are we see them as we are’ Talmud
Given how new and unique the idea of counselling psychotherapy outdoors is here in Ireland, I was delighted to be featured in the Irish Times’ popular contribution ‘Behind the News’ by Sylvia Thompson. Raising peoples awareness around ecotherapy and ecopsychology is very much my aim and I felt fortunate to say the least when Sylvia asked to interview me about my psychotherapeutic work at Walk Inniú and the Wellness Workshops at our Ecotherapy Hedge School.
Why are you are ‘giving up’ biscuits?
Wednesday the 18th of February, 2015 – is known to many millions as Ash Wednesday. I have no idea how many Christians will make ‘Lenten vows’ today after their pancake splurging last night. However Christian or otherwise, old habits, traditions and culture seeps far and deep into the psyche of a nation.
I overheard some very young kids on their way to school the other morning checking in with their friends as to the veracity of their proposed sacrifice. They were sizing each other up and making running adjustments to their own vows and I believe I could hear cogs turning as one of them worked out that it was ok to ‘give up’ crisps but continue with a well known energy drink and what seemed like a very complex but not all together concrete junk food plan until Easter Sunday. How very innocent it all seems and how very like children us sensible adults are.
“We have tested and tasted too much, lover-
Through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder.”
Advent, Patrick Kavanagh
I am quite fascinated with abstinence and fasting. The opening lines of Kavanagh’s poem Advent has for decades resonated with a personal desire to simplify and live a more mindful life. It is no accident that most religions in the world use abstinence in some form or other as a method of communicating their ideology. It is highly effective. Without the distraction of or the fleeting and false comfort of a large doughnut or glass of wine, we may actually begin to tune in to ourselves – our real selves and just be, rather than do. We can begin to really listen to ourselves and check-in and in so doing, relieve ourselves from the constant clamour and expectations which rain down on us like a never-ending shower.
The subject of abstinence is highly evocative. Many, including myself for various reasons take care to separate their fast and abstinence from that of the traditions of the Christian and other religions. Blind faith combined with fasting and abstaining does not, I believe serve the humanity of the individual and may well leave us as feeling powerless and vulnerable. Signs of a similar tension and unease are currently being played out by the controversy over the alcohol giant, Diageo funding the ‘Stop Out-of-Control Drinking’ campaign and those at ‘Ireland Unlocked’ who believe that the drinks industry has no business telling us how much or how little we drink’. I welcome that many respected people on both sides are daring to look at the subject of alcohol abuse in Ireland as this raises awareness and subsequently creates solutions. I suspect a rational and valid fear or anxiety around ‘the element of control’ is present and I believe that this is a healthy discussion and debate – with great dynamic depth. The Ireland Unlocked campaign are asking ‘why’ and ‘who’ – and these questions are both vital, necessary, honest and healthy in order to introduce an element of healing with real and lasting societal change in Ireland.
Some years ago, in a conversation not totally unlike the aforementioned children’s discussion on the way to school, a friend of mine was speaking about ‘giving up a particular brand of biscuits’ for lent. She was an adult at the time and she was speaking with great conviction and sincerity. I listened. She then stopped mid-sentence and started to crease with laughter. I think it dawned on her that perhaps working out the ‘why’ she was giving up her favourite snack was more important than the ‘what’ or the ‘which’.
We will never really get to know ourselves if we don’t attempt to abstain from a substance or behaviour.
Only ourselves can work out what substance (biscuits, coffee, heroin, alcohol, hash, marshmallows) or what behaviour (overeating, gambling, pornography), if removed from our life will assist us most in becoming centred and whole. In Buddhist Vipassanna meditation, the term ‘annicha’ is used to remind us of impermanence and that whatever ‘craving’ we are experiencing following the loss of a behaviour or substance from our system – will pass. However, we will only experience this warm and healing consolation if we actually sustain our fast and stay with the challenge.
Good ideas are usually simple ones. Good ideas last the test of time. Fasting and abstinence may sound ‘old hat’ because they are… they are approaches as old as the hills. However, own your fast, own and take responsibility for your choice. Make sure it serves you well and that the reasons ‘why’ you are committing are clear to you. Fasting and abstinence may be used to ‘self-punish’. Questions and reflections are key. Are you being punitive with yourself? Why are you being punitive with yourself? What are you really feeling when you are experiencing a craving? Who are you doing this for? Is somebody expecting you to fast or abstain? I know…far more questions than answers.
This abstinence stuff, although at times may seem like a nostalgic nod to an Ireland of the past with black tea without sugar and a meatless 40 days – is a powerful way to find inner peace and develop loving kindness towards ourselves and others.
So no matter what you ‘give up’ take some time to work out ‘why’. The results may astonish you.
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