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.

Beyond Diet and Exercise!

Over the years I have learned a lot about diet and exercise. I am, for the most part, conscious about what I eat. For the past year I have stayed away from simple carbohydrates (especially sugars in its many forms,) and gluten. It’s meant I have to forego some wonderful desserts, breads and pastas. But I have also dropped almost 15 kilos, I feel better, I have little back pain and pain in my knees and hips has all but gone. I have been going to the gym regularly as well, following a balanced program that uses free weights, exercise machines and cardio equipment to tone up my muscles. Someone commented jokingly at the beginning of the pandemic that we would come out of it as, chunks, monks, drunks or hunks. I’ve opted for the final option. No, I’m not going to be competing in any challenges or looking to participate in an Ironman competition. Nor am I trying to look like I drank at the fountain of youth; it’s a personal challenge to look the best that I can for myself, to be in the best physical condition and the best health possible for myself.

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I am not alone. There are many who extol the benefits of avoiding things that are detrimental to our bodies and all others in moderation. And there is no end to excellent information on-line with respect to improving and maintaining our physical health.

We are not just our bodies: we are also our minds. I have to ask myself, am I doing the same to build up my mind, and my thinking as I have done for my body? Do I seek out positive ‘foods’ for my mind, moderate some and avoid others? Am I making sure that I am exercising my brain by what I read, watch and listen to?

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I work hard to keep a strong and healthy body. Can I say the same for my mind? Do I guard my serenity and happiness with the same fervor as I wear a seatbelt and follow driving rules? Do I guard against the negativity that abounds in my social media as well as the news media? Do I protect my mind as well as my body? Do I allow random thoughts access to my head and give them access to peace of mind?

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For many people, the answer is an unfortunate no. Regardless of where we go, we see people ‘connected’ via their phones to social media. We have a moment of spare time and we dive into Instagram and Facebook, only to realize that an hour has gone by and we’re still scrolling the feed. Or we have the 24 hour news channel on the television playing in the background. Everywhere we are being bombarded by mostly trivial information. As I heard one person share last month, we have a device in our pockets that gives us access to all of the knowledge that humans have gained in the whole of history and we use it to look at videos of kittens.

If your body is important to you, then I suggest that you be as vigilant with your mind. It’s up to us to look after our physical health. It’s also up to us to look after our mental and emotional health. Be as discriminating about what you read and watch as you would with how you eat and exercise. I’ve discovered that I can get along just fine knowing about some of the facts that happen in the world. I don’t need to know all of the details. As much as we would like to see and read about more ‘good’ news, it’s not going to suddenly appear. We all know that breaking any of the ten commandments sells newspapers and attracts viewers. I can’t control what happens ‘out there’.

I have little control over what happens outside of my small circle of influence, and within, it’s pretty much a full-time job keeping track of my mind. Regardless of what’s happening around me, I can control what I let into my mind and how it affects my emotional state. Just because a thought comes into your head doesn’t mean you have to act on it.

I believe that we are integrated beings. I can’t focus on only one aspect of who I am, my body, and ignore my mental state. I am committed to work both my body and my mind with a steady diet of what’s good and positive, and exercising them both to keep me at my best possible condition. It’s my responsibility.

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