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.

Enlightened Acceptance

I have read many books and articles on enlightenment. And there are so many ideas as to what ‘enlightenment’ really means and how to get there. For some it is achieving a sense of Nirvana or having some sort of ‘mystical’ experience. Some see it as achieving ‘persistent non-duality’ where we are ‘one’ with everything and the self, or ego, is subsumed by the spiritual. Teachers suggest that it’s achieved by certain methods of meditation, or yoga, or chanting. Others say that we need to dig deep into ourselves and remove all that is untrue until we arrive at truth. Every guru, every religion seems to have a unique way to attain enlightenment, often at the expense of the teachings and practices of others.

Enlightenment: The Age of Reason

In looking at the word itself, ‘enlightenment’ I believe that it is a lot simpler than much of the information I have consumed over the years. It simply means allowing more light onto a subject. History refers to the 17th century as the Enlightenment because of it’s focus away from the magical thinking and onto the intellectual practices to arrive at truth which swept away the cobwebs of the middle ages. The latter part of the 20th century began an new enlightenment in a return to the spiritual aspects of our lives, turning away from the material excesses. Eastern mysticism and spirituality came to the west, and Western beliefs in democracy and economics moved east. A movement of the pendulum back to the centre.

If I could define enlightenment briefly I would say it is “the quiet acceptance of what is.”

Wayne Dyer

I really like Wayne Dyer’s definition of enlightenment. And I think it is what we are all called to be: human adults who quietly accept the who, what, when, where, why and how of the present situation. It’s not pretending to be someone from our past or anticipating who I might become in the future. It is being in the present, using the power of this moment to find peace and know that at one’s core being all well and there is serenity. It means that I have ‘light’ in my life. It also means that I can change to allow even more light into my life.

Dyer used the same definition for enlightenment as I use for the word ‘humility’: the quiet acceptance of what is.

Are humility and enlightenment the same thing then? Quite possibly.

We often mistakenly equate humility with humiliation. They are not the same. Humility is a state of being, a character trait if you will. Humiliation is an emotion, an abasement of our pride. Humility is a character trait that I seek to cultivate in myself. And, if I truly know and accept where I am in life, nothing can humiliate me. If I really know myself, then I am solid upon the ground. I accept where I am in life.

However, Enlightenment, Humility and Acceptance do not demand that we must stay where and how we are in life. In fact, I think it is a challenge to improve. When I know how little I know, I am challenged to find out more. If I see that my lifestyle is not providing the health that I want in life, I am challenged to make changes in what I eat and how I exercise. If my financial situation is below where I would like it to be, I can alter my earning and spending beliefs. But I can’t make any of these changes if I don’t first ‘know’ how things stand at the present moment in time. The proverbial ‘light bulb’ comes on and we see exactly where we stand. We become ‘enlightened’.

That is why Enlightenment is the acceptance of how things are. It is the first step on a new journey to greater knowledge, greater understanding and infinite wisdom. It is a journey that I can work at every day and is, therefore, not a state of being or a moment in time. I became enlightened when I realized that teaching at an elementary school was not how I wanted to spend the rest of my working life. I became enlightened when I started a small business and grew it from the ground up. I became enlightened when I ended a relationship that was no longer nurturing to either of us. I look at my sobriety as a gift of enlightenment. And I can be enlightened by the little things in life too, like walks with the dogs, a sharing of like minds, or a new experience. All of these contribute to my own enlightenment journey; they add a bit more ‘light’ of knowledge, understanding and experience to where I am standing today.

Enlightenment is a process that takes time and patience as well as humility. It is part of my ongoing journey of becoming just a little bit better version of myself today than I was yesterday and for that, I am grateful.

A New Pathway

As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind . To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives. ~Henry David Thoreau

Mental and spiritual changes that are real, that are deep and that are lasting cannot be accomplished by a single action. The ruts of my past pathways are carved deeply in my soul. How I felt about myself while growing up, how I relate to the people around me and how I connect with higher consciousness have all created hardened ways of approaching life. And just like it takes an effort to get the wheel of a cart out of the rut caused by years and years of running along the same path, making a change in how I think and act as a result of consistent ways of thinking for many years, requires great effort. Even after years of trying to remove my father’s too often repeated admonition directed at me that I was ‘as useless as tits on a boar’, I still feel its sting.

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It comes at me during moments of my own weakness or when I feel like I am failing at something. It comes when I am in frustration because something is not going the way that I had intended it to go. My self esteem starts to waver, I remember that statement, and I fall further into my emotional state. I feel that I will never amount to much in life. I feel inferior to those around me. I doubt my abilities and my talents and my propensity for learning. I begin to believe that he was right, that I have no purpose in life. In my later teen years I rebelled against his frustrating cry by repelling anger with anger, telling him to fuck off and do it himself and leaving the scene. But the many repetitions of this statement by my father had already began to wear a deep rut indeed into my psyche. Alone and by myself I would use the same statement as self recrimination for an error or failure.

In the past years since I became aware of the impact of this statement on my life, now 25 years since my father’s death, I have battled with this statement. I have meditated on it. I’ve told myself that it isn’t true and listed my many accomplishments in life and challenges overcome. I have been in therapy, taken medication and symbolically thrown a rock with this statement written on it over the side of a cliff. And every once in a while, when I start to feel a bit down, it comes back to haunt me: ‘you’re as useless as tits on a boar’.

On an intellectual level I know that it isn’t true. I have disavowed the statement and I can enumerate many life accomplishments. And it is still there, lurking in a hidden nook of my brain waiting to jump out at an appropriate time to drag me back toward the abyss of depression and self loathing.

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Lately I have been examining it more closely. I have started to look at it from my father’s point of view. Now for the most part, we had a good relationship. But it wasn’t always easy. I was his first born son and like any father, he probably had his own hopes and dreams for me and my successes in life. He probably thought about me taking over the family farm. He may have wondered who I might marry and what his grandchildren might be like. However, I also think that by the time I reached my teens, we were both coming to realize that I might be gay.

I have looked at my father’s own readiness to be a parent and realized that he had his own challenges while growing up. His father was 55 years old when dad was born. As soon as he could lift a shovel, I am sure he was helping his older brothers and father in planting and harvesting of crops, tending to and milking the cows and butchering chickens that provided Sunday dinners. His father was more like an aging patriarchal figure, or a grandfather than he was a dad. And of the stories I’ve heard, he had infirmities that prevented him from being much of an active member of the farm work force as he aged. My father, fairly quick at school, passed his high school entrance exam just after he turned 14; he left school without finishing the year and pretty much took over the farming duties from his ailing father as his older brothers were now working at jobs away from home. Seven years later, his father died.

Dwyer Farm (circa 1944)

Looking at this past, I can understand how his youth did not prepare him to become the father he might have become. He had plenty of anger issues and seem to relish letting go a stream of words that would make Red-Beard blush and let every neighbour within earshot to know that I had screwed up royally again. Anger was the only strong emotion I saw him express growing up. Fortunately, I remember little physical punishment; the verbal chastisement was enough. And, as he aged, he mellowed. He became a more pleasant person to be around. We never developed a deep relationship. We never discussed feelings or our past mistakes. We never talked about my relationship with my partner or anything touching upon sexuality. In the only ‘talk’ we had had about sex, just before the subject was presented back when I was in grade eight. He told me that as humans we didn’t go around the neighbourhood like a dog looking for a bitch in heat. Sexuality was not talked about. Feelings were not talked about. Within the family, anything to do with an even slightly taboo subject was mentioned in whispers as if the soft speak wouldn’t attract a fouler curse. Nevertheless, I appreciated what my father had done for me, his personal sacrifices for the good of his family. And could appreciate that he too was growing in understanding of himself. We both did the best we could in our relationship, given its challenges.

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I understand this all. I get that it was a different time. And I understand that he was doing the best that he could under the circumstances of his own upbringing and beliefs. I see that much of his anger was really misdirected frustration at his situation in life and his inability to express himself. It doesn’t make it easier for me when I am reliving the past, but it does make it forgivable. I have a better understanding of how he got to that point in his life. And I would like to believe that if I had arrived at the point in my life before he died that I needed to talk with him about it, he would have reacted well and listened to what I had to say. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.

That doesn’t mean that this work I am doing on myself is finished. I still have to go back and fill in this and the other ruts of pain and hurt that were created early in life. I have to work on forgiving my father regularly. And I can work at changing my focus. I can focus on the good times that I had with him. I cherish the long hours I spent with him at the hospital as he lay dying; few words needed to be said then. And I will be forever grateful that I was able to spend his last night on this Earth at his bedside. With him, as a human, I have made my peace. With his words, it is still a struggle to overcome their power. But slowly, with constant work and the passage of time, I am moving beyond that perspective of my past and I am creating a new narrative of who I have become and who I will be tomorrow. Grass is growing again over the old pathway. Like an old scar, I can still see where the wound was inflicted if I squint a bit, but it is losing its hold upon me. I am working on digging in new thoughts to dominate my life, creating my own pathway in how I think about myself.

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