Mindfulness looking through a window

Making mindfulness more mindful

I first explored the link between mindfulness and behaviour change through a research project that Rachel Lilley and Mark Whitehead (with other colleagues) ran while I worked at Global Action PlanMindfulness, Behaviour Change and Engagement in Environmental Policy. I thought the topic was fascinating and enjoyed being challenged about how mindfulness linked to how I behave, and also how we can work in a mindful way with others to help them to make changes. It was fascinating to be part of a study looking at how mindfulness could be used by behaviour change practitioners in three very different organisations – GAP, Welsh Government and Ogilvy & Mather.

So, it was great to catch up again and explore things further, in a webcall that I felt sure would result in a set of circles something like this:

  • Mindfulness
  • Behaviour change
  • Environment

I’m glad that things didn’t develop along these predictable lines, although it was a good starting point.

The first theme to jump out was that of definition – what do we mean by mindfulness? It’s a term that has become increasingly frequent in the media and we can have long conversations with people without realising that we mean quite different things. I’m certainly guilty of this – I have a keen interest, but have dabbled, rather than committing to a specific form of practice. My interest came initially through taking part in a Christian silent prayer retreat.

Rachel asked a few pertinent questions – does mindfulness mean calming our overactive nervous systems – hugely beneficial, but not all that mindfulness is about. Does it mean becoming more embodied, i.e. present in our own bodies, with the feelings that we have and in the situations where we find ourselves. Or even, does mindfulness mean being ‘in flow’, dancing, journaling, going for a walk? Or is it about specific practices, about a 10-day silent retreat?

Much of this depends on the route that we have approached mindfulness from, whether this is secular Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, religious mindfulness or just through a newspaper article or bestselling colouring book.

Which brings us to depth. There are so many physical and emotional benefits to being more mindful – to taking more time to be still, to stop, to notice our feelings and what is happening right now. But there is the potential for greater change and transformation for those who engage more deeply with mindfulness, and in particular with a specific and ongoing contemplative practice.

This led directly to the theme of enquiry. As Rachel expressed it,

“Buddhist mindfulness is about self-enquiry, it’s about seeing through deluded states. I would question whether people see through deluded states through dancing or even walking, although they might feel calmer and a bit more settled… It’s that real cutting through, which is why I believe it’s linked to behaviour change, but only if people see it as that.”

In a Buddhist sense (as I understand it) this is about recognising the world for what it is, and what it is not. And Mark’s view is that

“as an academic the definition of your job is enquiry. We’re never really told how to enquire.  We’re told how to research, but that’s not really enquiry. … The one word I’d add to that is critical enquiry and that’s one thing that mindfulness has enabled me to do a lot more effectively.”

Mindfulness - definition, depth, enquiry

So, while being more mindful may improve my stress levels, enable me to be more present and help me engage more meaningfully with others it won’t necessarily change the way I do things, or see things, or challenge my preconceptions or unconscious biases. This doesn’t mean it is worthless, but does indicate that the impact is limited, that I miss the opportunity to be changed.

From our conversation I do feel that enquiry is a powerful concept to consider. It overcomes some of the criticisms that have been levelled at mindfulness, summarised well in the BBC Radio 4 programme Mindfulness Panacea or Fad? – that mindfulness programmes can be seen as a way to make people more passive, or simply to improve business productivity and efficiency. But what if mindful employees and citizens enquire more, ask more questions and challenge the accepted norms and preconceptions more critically?

There is a lot more to explore from our conversation, and I will be returning to other themes in a later article.

Exercising in rural and urban environments. Exercise bike image courtesy of Global Action Plan

The benefits of exercising outdoors

My last blog item concluded that it didn’t really matter where you walked, just that you walked – that it was the movement in itself that makes a difference to mood.

However, another All in the Mind episode has explored in more detail the link between exercise taken outside (“green exercise”) and the impact on well-being. This time, instead of people sitting and standing on treadmills we had to imagine the scene of a pair of exercise bikes in the great outdoors.

Claudia Hammond and Dr Mike Rogerson were exploring evidence from the University of Essex’ Green Exercise team about the impact of exercising outdoors. Their research has shown a link between where the exercise takes place, people’s enjoyment of that exercise and a change in their intention to exercise more.Three circles: exercise, green spaces and emotions

Mike quoted research from Scotland where people exercised moving between a built-up environment and an urban park and back again, with brain activity being monitored

“As someone moved into a greener environment their brain showed traces which are more akin to meditation and lower state of arousal and therefore being stressed. When they moved back into an urban environment it flipped.”

There are plenty of researchers exploring why this happens, and there’s a great summary by Miles Richardson from Derby University in his Finding Nature blog. I particularly like the three circles they use to explore the links between our emotions and the physiology that underpins them.

  1. Drive – positive feelings needed to seek out resources
  2. Contentment – Safety, soothing, affection
  3. Anxiety – feelings and alerts generated by the threat and self-protection system.

It is the balance of these three things that determines whether our experience of our environment is a positive or negative one.

Obviously people differ, and some people feel more comfortable in built up environments than parks, or even the countryside. Not everyone feels at home in nature, particularly if it evokes fears or anxiety. This highlights the importance of well maintained and well visited urban parks, as reported in a recent Public Health England blog. It also shows how vital improvement projects by organisations such as Groundwork, Wildlife Trusts and The Woodland Trust are in urban areas.

We can help people to make use of their local urban parks and it can be easier for people to walk or exercise together – to gain confidence from being in a group. This is something that Living Streets found in Leicester, where an older people’s group were keen to visit an outdoor gym together. They had never been before, and were only confident to use it within the safety and encouragement of a group.

Group taking part on an outdoor gym in a guided walk lead by Living Streets
Guided walk led by Living Streets in Leicester

Which brings us back to Mike Rogerson:

“We found … that people tend to report enjoying their exercise more when it was outdoors in this environment compared to indoors in a lab. We also found that … people tended to talk more outdoors, compared to indoors, to a really significant extent.”

So, being outdoors gives us a different opportunity to be with people, which is one factor that has a definite improvement on our emotions. Those of us who love the outdoors, and who feel comfortable and safe there can plan an important role in helping others to have a similar experience – and it may have a huge impact both on how they feel and on what future actions they will take.

Walking - one foot in front of another. On Great Dun Fell

Walking, wellbeing and ?

Sometimes my favourite Radio 4 programmes overlap. This time it started when Clare Balding walked with Geoff Nicholson for her Ramblings programme. Geoff blogs about walking in Hollywood, and was reflecting on his move to the States and the impact that walking less was having on his wellbeing.

“I found myself becoming incredibly & inexplicably depressed […] it took me a while to put two and two together, but it suddenly occurred to me that I wasn’t doing any walking. I was driving down the hill, I was driving around, I was driving to the beach and it didn’t agree with me. Or at least my life had to include walking in some form. And so I thought, ‘yeah, you’d better start walking kid’. And I did.

“I’m still enough of a melancholic that the gloom comes on from time to time, but that’s the moment I know that I haven’t been doing enough walking and I get out there. And it can only be 20 minutes up the road and 20 minutes down the road or it can be a major hike, but for whatever reason it does me good and it seems to be essential – this is a good thing to know about yourself. I didn’t really know it until I didn’t do it.”

Clare shared the same experience.

“When I’m away on long trips working I’ve got to walk every day – every morning. Otherwise I get myself into a state of not enjoying it. I’m doing wonderful jobs, but I just need to walk first.”

On a much smaller scale I can relate to this too. The combination of working from home and applying unsuccessfully for jobs earlier in the year made me feel increasingly isolated and unhappy. It was only through walking that I found that I came back to myself, and felt increased energy and focus to keep going. This culminated in me doing a pilgrimage as a Duke of Edinburgh Diamond Challenge that I’m hoping to write about soon.

The second time I heard about walking on Radio 4 was on Claudia Hammond‘s All in the Mind, in an episode enigmatically titled Tasers, Amnesia Museum, The dangers of diagnosing Donald Trump. Here Dr Catherine Loveday from University of Westminster was talking about research from Iowa State University, which looked at which elements of walking (for example, exercise, sociability or being in nature) are enough to improve our mood. The fascinating study ended – somewhat bizarrely – with participants either sitting, standing or walking on a treadmill and watching a video. This showed that the physical act of walking is enough on its own to significantly improve our mood. This is even true when faced with doing something difficult.

“It was better to go on a walk and then write an essay than it was to just sit and have some peace and quiet.”

This suggests that walking and wellbeing are just made for each other … that maybe nothing else is needed. In a quote from Catherine Loveday:

“Emotion and motion are combined concepts.”

Walking, wellbeing and ...

I’m currently doing some work with the charity Living Streets, the UK Charity for everyday walking. It’s great to be contributing to a project that is all about getting more people walking – specifically with over-50s as part of Leicester Ageing Together. There’s a huge social element in people walking together, and it also helps people explore their local community. But it’s also really exciting to know that just the simple act of walking can make a huge difference to wellbeing.

So, the message from this must be to walk when you can, where you can… it doesn’t matter as much where you walk, with whom or how.

There’s more to explore from the next episode of All in the Mind, which I’m also hoping to explore further. But, just off for a quick walk first.

Update

On reflection, maybe there’s a better set of three circles to describe this…

Walking wellbeing and whatever ... just walk

Welcome to the three circles blog

My three circles is a simple way of exploring what it is about the environment that is important to people and how that informs how they work to protect or cherish it.

When I explain where the three circles name came from people often respond by telling me what their three circles would be. This has led to conversations about

  • Values
  • Faith, beliefs or spirituality
  • Connections with something bigger than us
  • Careers, jobs and hobbies
  • Walking, running and being in the outdoors

The three circles can be viewed like Venn diagrams – exploring what happens when the three circles overlap.


greencirclehanddrawnsmallMy starting point is to ask what word is most meaningful when talking about the world we live in; “environment”, “nature”, “earth”, for example.

 

bluecirclehanddrawnsmallThe next step is to choose two words which relate to the first, for example why the natural world matters to you, how you work for the benefit of the natural world or what brings you closer to nature.

 

purple-circle-handdrawnsmallThirdly, what happens in the spaces where they overlap? How does this motivate you, or influence how you do things? How does it connect you with other people, and things that are important to them?

 

This blog is a record of some of the conversations I have had. Please get in touch if you want to take part, or scroll down to see previous conversations.

Not just the environment

Like many people I’ve been challenged and helped by Brené Brown’s work on vulnerability and shame. In particular I’ve been working through her book “The gifts of imperfection, your guide to a wholehearted life”.

It feels like a good time to be exploring the issues in the book, as I have recognised traits of perfectionism in my habits and routines, in a way that has been profoundly unhelpful over the years. I’d recommend reading the book to help navigate the move from living “as you think you’re supposed to be” to embracing “who you are” (the sub-title of the book).

Of particular interest to this blog is the foundation on which Brené bases her work, which centres on three concepts:

  1. Courage
  2. Compassion
  3. Connection

 

courage-compassion-connection2

These are described as “the gifts of imperfection” and Brené talks about how important these are as daily practices – things we need to live out every day. I thought that these make another nice set of three circles.

Brené’s books aren’t written with “the environment” in mind, but the themes in the books touch deeply on our relationships with each other and on the relationship we have with the planet and the other creatures we share the planet with (a similar theme emerged in my conversation with Jean Leston).

In particular, there is a definite sense of vulnerability in relation to the environment at the moment, and most positive responses rely on a sense of wholehearted living (for example the Transition Movement).

So, to explore these three words slightly more…

Courage

Described in the book as “To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart”, it feels completely appropriate that any response to the state of the world requires a response of heart and mind. Not just an intellectual but an emotional response.

Compassion

Brené defines this as “to suffer with” and quotes the work of Pema Chödrön, whose writing speaks very powerfully into this theme:

“Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”

I like the idea that compassion brings us into a place of equality, rather than seeing ourselves above or different from others, and from the natural world.

Connection

“The energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard and valued”. Connection, in the specific form of ‘nature connection’, is one of the words that made me start to re-think about how I would define my own three circles, and is one of the reasons I started this blog, to make connections with new people, and deeper connections with those I already knew.

 

I feel that I am just scratching the surface with these words. To avoid perfectionism, and waiting till my thinking on this subject is complete, I have decided to publish now, so I can continue to explore.

Pilgrimage to Paris

Reconciliation and rebuilding

I caught up recently with Jean Leston, whom I originally met through WWF-UK. We discussed Jean’s recent multi-faith pilgrimage to Paris, as part of the build up to the UN Climate Change Conference in December 2015 (COP21).

We talked about the growing movement among faith communities to respond to the challenge that climate change presents as a justice issue, particularly as the world’s poorest are worst affected by climate change but have done the least to cause the problem. The importance of caring for the earth is something that many people of faith share, and can form the basis for interfaith dialogue which is important at this time of religious conflict and division.

As a Christian, Jean’s first circle is Creation, which for her is the most appropriate word to start with. More than just ‘environment’, which suggests our surroundings, and more than ‘nature’, which tends to distance humans from the rest of the ‘natural order’. Creation sets everything in the frame of a Creator who has made all things.

“All of Creation is interconnected. Man, as well as plants and animals are all a part of Creation.”

We got to talking about the state of the world, and the way in which our lifestyles pollute, spoil and tear apart habitats and threaten species. I shared the feelings I often had at the end of the David Attenborough Life on Earth programmes I loved watching while I was growing up. As I remember it, the last words were generally, “but all this is threatened by changes that humans are bringing about…”

Whilst Jean recognised this, she also pointed to the growing Christian interest in reconciling a wounded planet (Jean’s second circle), by rebuilding the broken relationships between us and Creation, as well as between us, God and others. Other words we talked about were ‘rebuilding’ and ‘restoration’.

In this light, our care for Creation is one way we can live out our values – one way to show our love for the Creator and all he has made. It is also a way to ‘love our neighbours as ourselves’, considering how the climate impact of our lifestyles affects other people.

Unsurprisingly, Jean’s final word was pilgrimage:

“If ‘what brings you closer to nature’is the key question, it’s my love of pilgrimage, walking along spiritual paths in the natural world, that really brings together my ‘circles’.”

Creation, Reconciliation, Pilgrimage

I was very encouraged by our conversation, which pointed to action, to hope and to looking forward rather than backwards. There is obviously a lot left to do, and there is a level of apathy and inertia within faith communities that needs to be overcome, but there are also so many signs that people care and are doing something about it.

I am also excited by the idea of pilgrimage as it speaks of journeying in other people’s footsteps and walking with purpose, but at a pace that allows for conversations, shared experiences and seeing the world with new eyes.

Environment or nature?

When I first had the idea for this blog I was convinced that “environment” was the right word for one of my three circles. After all, I’d studied Environmental Science, and worked in the environmental sector.

I had a nagging feeling, though, that the word environment didn’t work for everyone. This is partly because environment means a lot of different things to different people – quite often when I spoke to people at community events they connected it with problems of dog poo or litter. These were obvious concerns about their local environment, but it wasn’t necessarily what I meant when I talked about environment.

In 2015 I attended a Nature Connections event at the University of Derby. I started wondering if the word I was looking for was really “nature”. Is nature a more meaningful word than environment, and one that gives a fuller picture of what we’re trying to protect when we save energy, save water, or recycle?

It was a fascinating event and I took lots away that I shared with colleagues at Global Action Plan and on the GAP Blog. It made me realise that there are a whole lot of words that have meaning for people, and on different levels. Words like “meadow”, “oceans”, “sharks” are very vivid and provide strong emotional responses in us. Others, like “environment”, “nature” and “climate” are collective terms for lots of things, and don’t generally provoke the same response.

Nature words: climate, nature, bees, wildlife, meadow, gardens, oceans, animals, sharks
Nature words – what means most to you?

That’s why I want to explore words with people through this project:

  • What words make us want to respond to something?
  • How can exploring these words with other people help us to connect and share our motivation to make a difference?

In the beginning

I had the idea for this blog 8 years ago when I finished working at OperationEDEN (the forerunner for Faiths4Change). In looking for “what next” I kept coming back to the idea of three overlapping circles, and seeing how they inter-related, a classic Venn Diagram.

At that time, the three circles for me were:

  • Faith
  • Environment
  • Community

 

FaithCommunityEnvironment3.png

I was keen to meet up with different faith groups and explore the questions that emerged from those overlapping circles, for example:

  • What does your faith say about our responsibility to the world we live in?
  • What does it mean to live in community – both with those who share your beliefs and values, but also with those who live next door?
  • What does the environment mean in your local community – what opportunities do you have to protect local green spaces, or make better use of natural resources such as energy?
  • How does ‘the environment’ help you to build bridges with other people from different faiths?

The blog never happened, but the questions haven’t left me.

As I’ve considered further I’ve realised that other people will have different circles which explain why they care about the world we live in. I’ve also realised that there are other circles that matter to me, and I want to explore that further.

Over the next few months I plan to meet up with people I’ve worked with over the last few years, and ask them to draw their circles. What does the environment mean to them, and what other aspects of their values or beliefs are linked into that? Is ‘environment’ even the best word? Will I ever draw good circles?

I’m keen to hear from others too, so get in touch if you want to share the circles that matter to you.