Back to Nature

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We live in a world full of stressors, attention grabbers, busyness and distractions. Between work and family, many of us are pulled in so many directions that we aren’t able to think straight. And science is proving that when we are in stress mode we don’t think, we react. We do what we’ve done before. Not because that’s the best way of doing it, or even if it didn’t work the last time. We do it, we react, because that is what we know. We are in a state of self preservation.

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When we are living in a state of constant stress, our brain goes into that automatic mode. The amygdala, one part of the autonomic nervous system, the sympathetic side of it, the often called ‘reptilian’ brain takes over. This is the ‘fight or flight’ part of brain where numerous chemicals flood the system and cause us to jump into action. The other half of the system is the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the ‘rest and digest’ brings our bodies into a balanced state of calm and increases our use of the prefrontal cortex of our brain. Both of these sections of our brain have been with us and have preserved us since slithered out of the primordial ooze onto land, telling us when to run and when to relax. If we are stressed for long periods of time, as many of us are today, it’s our reactive reptilian brain that we are using.

There aren’t lions chasing us anymore. But the brain doesn’t recognize the different stress levels between a chasing lion and a deadline. Our nervous system tells our heart has to pump faster, that adrenalin and other hormones need to be secreted, that we breathe faster and all of this makes us more reactive. We say there’s so much going on that we can’t think straight, and that’s true because, according to our brain, that lion is going to get us and we have to keep going. The constant stress taxes our energy, our spirit and our body.

Did you know that studies have proven that people in hospitals who have a window in their room looking out into nature heal quicker than those without a window or one facing a wall? Did you know that a plant in their room or even a photograph of nature will speed recovery? Did you know that science has proven that walking in nature reduces the levels of adrenalin and cortisol, the hormones of the amygdala in the bloodstream? Did you know that the scent of cypress and sandalwood also help to calm us and bring us into a rational state? Nature heals.

Nature heals us in so many ways. This is not just your mother telling you to go outside for a walk to calm down. It’s nature at work. This is stopping to smell the flowers because it really does help with stress and other emotional responses. I confess that I thought that ‘aroma therapy’ was a little too new age for me, but the science is proving it to be valid. There is good reason to walk the dog in a park or practice yoga in the forest or meditation by the sea. Nature heals our minds, bodies and spirits. Nature pulls us into the calmness of the parasympathetic nervous system. It helps us live and respond to life in ways that are new and fresh to us.

The first civilizations developed about 5,000 years ago. In the grand scheme of things, that’s a few moments in our evolutionary history. We are only a few generations from when 80% of us lived in rural settings. We came from nature and we were surrounded by nature all the time. And if we are to thrive, we need to return to nature. There’s a reason why we gravitate to the mountains or the beach when we’re on vacation. There’s a reason why gardening is the number one hobby in America. We need to get outside in nature and soak it in.

I am grateful that I live on a small plot of land that is surrounded by tall trees and is bordered by a creek and where birds and butterflies pass all year round. But even if you live surrounded by city, there is always a tree nearby. Walk to a park, soak in the sunlight or moonlight. You can always have a few plants in your room. Even the soap scent you choose can help to keep a sense of calm. And we all need that, in our hearts, minds and bodies. We need nature to thrive.

Read about your connections to nature and other ways to thrive in: Brain Wash, by David Perlmutter MD and Austin Perlmutter MD. Getting back to nature is but one of its many suggestions for a healthier lifestyle.

Starting With Me

I was told from a young age that having both Irish and Dutch roots, I would be doubly stubborn. I’ll let those around me decide if that is true or not. For my part, I do know that I haven’t always agreed with the status quo and have tried things just a bit differently. I wasn’t a trail blazer, but did things my own quiet way and I lived a lifestyle that differed greatly from my family’s. I was different not just to be different because the pressure to conform was great. However, I knew that I wouldn’t be happy living the way that was ‘expected’ of me.

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In both career and lifestyle I chose my own path. It wasn’t without it’s challenges and I am sure that part of the pressure that I felt led me down a dark road that, fortunately also led to the doors of a recovery program a little over ten years ago. And also fortunately, I was not told how be or act, but was given suggestions that I was free to follow in order to begin living life on a more balance keel. These ‘suggestions’, the twelve steps of recovery, were up to me to follow and implement in my life at my own pace. I was still quite stubborn and this way of applying the program suited me well. And while I am hardly the poster boy for recovery, I have learned to live life on life terms, one day at a time.

I think that recovery has worked for me because it isn’t forced: nothing used to arouse me more than telling me what I ‘had’ to do. This is the philosophy of ‘attraction, rather than promotion’. I was given suggestions, the members shared their own experience, strength and hope, and I could take it or leave it. There is a lot of wisdom in this philosophy, with a far greater reach just that of sobriety.

Gandhi told us: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” You can’t force people to change, but you can give them the option of living life another way. Telling people what to do rarely works. Showing them how to do something has a much better chance at success. Letting others see what you are doing and how you are living allows them to make a choice. If, indeed, the changes that one makes in their life are attractive, others will follow suit and make similar changes in their own lives.

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I know there are a lot of problems facing the world: economics, climate change, and health challenges have such far reaching effects that as a rather stubborn individual, I have little chance of making any impact upon. In truth, few people ever do. However, I can live the changes I would like to see in the world. I can put out my recycling. I can live a healthier lifestyle. I can respond with kindness and compassion to situations. I can share. It may not seem like much to pick up one bottle off the street when there’s litter everywhere, but I am living my beliefs. And I am making my little part of the world just slightly better. Perhaps your neighbour will see what you have done and decide to help. Even if that neighbour doesn’t change, I have still made my world, and therefore, the world a whole, just an iota better than is was yesterday.

I can’t control what others do. I have learned that my circle of control has a radius that only stretches a few centimeters beyond the tip of my nose. I can’t tell people what to do or how to do it: many are just a stubborn as I am and just as intransigent to change. But they may be attracted to make a change when they see positive results in others. Demonstrating changes and offering suggestions won’t instantly move the world but it does make a small difference. And if the only difference is a little less stubbornness and a bit more peace of mind, then that’s fine with me.

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Slip, Slide or Thrive

I came to a realization this past week: I’ve let go of many of the things that keep my life stable, balanced and smooth. I’d let go of the things that keep me physically, mentally and spiritually sound.

It’s sort of like when you stop looking after your car. You don’t bother with an oil change. You put water into the radiator instead of coolant. Those filters really don’t need to be changed, they’re fine for now. The brakes squeak a bit, but they still work. The effects of not maintaining the car usually aren’t sudden. Maybe it takes a few more cranks to start the car than before, or braking time is lengthened. Perhaps the exhaust contains more hydrocarbons than before, but I wouldn’t know about that because, well, it a slow process and I’m not aware of it. One day, the car fails to start, or stop, because maintenance, regular maintenance, is necessary to it’s function.

For me, it started about seven or eight months ago. I came back from a short vacation and the friend I always went to the gym with decided he was too busy to go and so I stopped going too. There was always next week. Then, somewhere along the line, I stopped getting up earlier and meditating because I thought I wasn’t getting enough sleep. I stopped reading enlightening and educational material and focused more on Netflix and YouTube for my entertainment. I stopped blogging and I let go of journaling.

I visited my family for the month of December, knowing that I would have plenty of time to get back to, at least, meditation and reading, but somehow I let myself be distracted by social media, the news and spider solitaire. I did buy a new book for journaling, but no words were written into it. I also let my eating habits include loads of sugar because, well, I’m spending Christmas with the family for the first time in 20 years.

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When I returned home in January my clothes weren’t fitting as well as they used to. I made the effort to go to the gym and committed myself to a minimum of three workouts a week. In fits and stops I have started a morning meditation, I’ve done some journaling and I am working on getting back to a comfortable sleep pattern. I am nowhere near being back to what was my ‘normal’ way of life, but I am working on it, and it’s getting better.

A human has three very important facets in its being: physical, mental and spiritual. All of these function together whether we realize it or not. Letting one facet get out of balance affects the others and though these effects are subtle, like the car that isn’t maintained, they happen none the less, resulting in a slow spiral downward. For me, my moods became darker, my emotions more volatile and my motivation pretty much got up and walked out the door.

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I am grateful that I didn’t go further down the dark path I was starting to get used to. I know that it is the work that I have done on those three important facets of my life in the past that reminded me that my life didn’t have to be this way. Personal maintenance my not always be easy, it takes a lot of self discipline to do the work in the gym and diet, to commit to a daily writing, meditation and educational practice, but I know that it is the difference between just existing and really thriving in life.

Physical, mental and spiritual health are not separate. They work together. It’s my choice whether or not to commit to the practices that are best for me. I know which I prefer. I know how I wish to feel about my body, my mind and my soul. I’m working my way back onto the pathway I wish to trudge in this life.