Spending Time Walking in Silence is Great for Your Mental Health

Spending Time Walking in Silence is Great for Your Mental Health

walking-with-stillnes

I spent several years as a social scientist researching the role mindfulness plays in the moment of leadership performance. Mindfulness has now become the ‘in thing’ with it being touted as aiding in everything from enhancing relationships, improving attention, helping a person manage their stress, aiding people in dealing with physical pain, to improving mental health, and the list goes on. The truth is, that at times both journalists and even scientists (who we could argue should know better) have overstated the physical and mental health benefits of mindfulness. As such there has been a growing skepticism with scientific data on mindfulness being woefully lacking.



Undeniably there is some solid evidence to show that the practice of mindfulness does in fact have positive benefits for the overall health of the human animal, and my own personal experience, and my research speaks to this. But, early on in my research I began to recognize that while it was one thing practicing being present on a mediation cushion in a quiet room, filled with candles, and the sweet scent of incense — that this experience was very far removed from being present in the chaos we call life. It is for this reason that I focused my research on two important aspects of being present. Firstly the ability to be present while in the action of living (i.e., in everyday experiences that we typically found ourselves engaged in), and in turn that it was done in such a way that one brought one’s entire self to the experience (i.e., embodiment).

For my leaders in my study this meant that they were intentionally at least in the beginning activating a sense of presence in their everyday work environment. The way I got them to understand how to achieve this was through a workshop I designed where through martial arts and other embodied movement experiences they discovered in real time how it felt to not be present, and in turn I then showed them ways to bring themselves back to the moment at hand.

My personal takeaway from this is that the real world benefits of being able to be present comes about by actively doing so, and practicing it as such in the crucible of life and not in some kind of artificially created environment first. Secondly, the success of being present comes from bringing all of yourself to the experience you find yourself in. In other words, its not just about getting your head straight. Drawing from this I have found a few ways to intentionally practice being present that has real world positive effects. One of the most profound is what I call, ‘Walking with Stillness’.

Practicing Walking with Stillness

For half the year I live on the Isle of Man. We have beautiful glens here, which is the ideal place to walk with stillness (if you don’t have a glen, a forest or something similar near by, even a park will suffice). The goal is to go for a walk, but to intentionally slow down. While you slow down, you try to walk as softly as you can, making as little noise as possible.

While you do so, you want to not only be fully aware of your body as it moves from one step to the next, quietly, and softly making your way through the woods, but at the same time be fully aware of what surrounds you. While you do so, you want to focus on your breath. Breathing in bring your attention to your body as it moves, breathing out bring your attention to the outside world. After a while, and with practice breathing in and out begins to merge, and you recognise that there is no longer a separation between inner and outer. 



Crucially while all this is going on your are doing so from a place of curiosity and non judgemental awareness. The step you make is the step you make. The bird you hear in the distance is a bird you hear. If you feel your mind wandering off to some other place, you gently remind yourself to come back to walking slow and soft, while connecting to your breath.

Whenever I have practiced this, 20-minutes in a sense of stillness falls over my entire body, even though all around me the sounds of nature are anything but still.

Stillness Embodied

It is this sense of embodied stillness you want to incorporate into your everyday life. The world can be moving a million miles around you, but you are not sped up by it, instead you feel calm, centered and focused.

After numerous practicing sessions of ‘Walking with Stillness’ I began to apply in all other journeys in my life, from walking to the store, or going into town. And that’s the thing, rather than it simply being a walk to somewhere, my walks became a journey. Each time a journey of self discovery to that place of inner stillness, even though life’s chaos continued as it always has and always will. 



Try it out this week. I would love to hear what you found.

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Why Hugging a Tree is Good for Your Health

Why Hugging a Tree is Good for Your Health

tree-huggers
The official definition of a ‘Tree Hugger’ is that of an environmental campaigner and the practice of embracing a tree in an attempt to prevent it from being felled. But more generally it is often used as a derogatory slang term to ridicule anyone who seeks fulfillment outside of the modern, civilized world. You know, those Hippies! Well, I will confess I am an unashamed Hippie in the making. But before I get to why we have the whole ‘Tree Hugging’ idea completely wrong, I want to briefly tell you how I got to hugging trees myself. It all begins with surviving one of the worst storms of my life.

Surviving Being Shipwrecked

You see, at the end of 2018 after suffering years of depression, along with the fall out and struggles I had been having with cervical degenerative disc disease (the Cervicogenic headaches are the worst) I was at my wits end. After being honest with myself that I wasn’t winning the battle against my depression — in fact just finally acknowledging that I was depressed to begin with — I began my healing journey. First this took the shape of the typical approach to getting better, seeking out the right medical professionals and therapists. By mid 2019 and thanks to the right medication I was able to function somewhat better. Even though things were better it was a little to late in respect to my marriage. Even though we now knew why I had been struggling for the past several years, the damage was done, and my now ex-wife asked for a divorce. I was devastated. A two decade relationship, with two amazing boys had come to an end. However, I wasn’t going to let this bump in the road derail my journey back to health, so I made the most difficult decision of my life: I had to leave my boys in South Africa and go in search for a way back to myself. I also realised that if I wanted to keep the lifestyle my boys had become accustomed too, I needed to head out to greener pastures. You see, my boys have had a life so different to my own childhood. My kids live in a great neighbourhood in Johannesburg, and go to private schools. I on the other hand barely survived government housing, near poverty, bullying, gangs on the street, and an abusive alcoholic Mother. I vowed when I had my boys I would do what ever I could to ensure they never had to endure the trauma I had as a child.

New Wind in My Sails

So off I went. First to Thailand, where my good friend and owner of Tree Roots Retreat Aaron graciously offered me a place to stay during my healing journey. This was the first stage of embodying my inner Hippie. For the first time in the longest time, I found myself consistently embedded in the natural world. Tree Roots Retreat is in Rayong, a couple of hours drive from Bangkok, nestled in a small fishing village. The retreats borders are surrounded by wild jungles, and it’s within walking distance to the beach. The whole experience of being there is so far removed from the hustle and bustle of city life. As each week went by, I walked everywhere barefoot, taking in the natural world through all my senses, and was feeling better for it.

Sailing into a New Port

In the beginning of 2020 I was back on the road again teaching martial arts. The bills had to be paid after all. I then found myself on the Isle of Man during some down time visiting my partner. Out of nowhere Covid hit, and I was stranded on the island, unable to travel and get back to Thailand. The Isle of Man is yet another beautiful part of the world, surrounded by natural wonders. High cliffs, beautiful glens, rolling green sheep filled hills and shingle beaches. Again, and in part because of my partners love of nature, and that I didn’t have much else to do, we found ourselves mostly outdoors. It was summer too, which made going out even more accessible. We went to every corner of the island, visiting Celtic and Viking ruins, walking in the country side, snorkeling in the sea, and absorbing every aspect of the beautiful glens. As each day passed, I felt my anxiety, something I had been overtaken by for the longest time slowly melt away. Mentally I continued to feel better too.

As the consummate researcher that I am, I began to delve into what science had to say about the natural world and its connection to improving the health of the human animal. I have always known intuitively that being in nature is good for you, and as most of us report, I have always felt better for my time outdoors. In fact, it was the only time I ever felt happy as a kid, spending school holidays at my Aunt’s small holding in the African bush. I was surprised to find that over the past while science had caught up to those intuitions. Rather than it simply being ‘old wives tales’ now research was convincingly showing how incredibly important it was for each of us to reconnect with our ancient roots, the natural world. As I noted in a previous article on this blog, Grounding the Embodied Warrior experience, if we measured all of the recorded history of planet Earth on a timeline of a year, what we consider the modern world accounts for 1-second. For the rest of our time as human animals on this planet we lived and were deeply connected to the natural world.

Back To Hugging Trees

Let’s return to those tree huggers. It turns out that we have a symbiotic relationship with trees, much like we do with the rest of the natural world. For example when you are walking among trees in a forest you are literally bathing and breathing in terpenes which they release. Terpenes which are the largest group of phytochemicals is bioactive plant matter found in forest air. Researchers have now found that terpenes strengthen important aspects of the human immune system. For example a day spent in the woods results in 40 percent increase in natural killer cells responsible for rendering viruses in the body harmless in a person’s blood.

It turns out that the limbic system in our brain also decodes and responds to terpenes, and in turn releases neurotransmitters and hormones that benefit our health. Terpenes also promote the formation of endogenous substances that protect the heart. In addition a walk in a forest leads to a significant increase in a substance called dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). DHEA has shown to be therapeutically effective against the severe form of depression called major depressive disorder. Time in nature has also shown to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is part of our autonomic nervous system designed to help us find internal balance, calming us down, and key to surviving unhealthy stress.

Here’s another interesting fact: tree bark is actually one of the richest sources of terpenes. So maybe those ‘Tree Huggers’ are not so nuts after all.

We Are The World

What fascinates me about all of this is that tree terpenes, as are many other plant substances not new to our bodies. In other words our bodies know what to do with them. It is clear then that we have as human animals not evolved separate to this planet, but along with it in such a way that we are able to interact with the network of life. As such we are co-evolved. It’s no surprise then that my time in nature had such a profound positive effect on my entire body and my overall health. I had in a real sense come home. I had rewilded myself, while allowing my instinct code to unlock once more. These experiences, along with my movement practice, breath work, inner state training, psychological work, and mindfulness practice forms an integral part of the Human Animal Retreat I have created. 


Looking for Fulfillment in the Wrong Place


Its become clear to me that often our hopes for fulfillment and flourishing is left as prayers on the alter of modernity. We now have people speaking about merging our selves with machines and artificial intelligence. The age of the cyborg is no longer a fantasy. I am of the belief that no amount of more technology in any of its guises and uses will ever answer our constant desire to be happy. Its clear from those around us that more affluence, comfort, technology, advances in medicine and the psychological sciences outside of making life somewhat easier, hasn’t become the gods of happiness we once thought they would. People seem more unhappier than ever and there is a meaning crisis all around us.

Maybe we have been looking for the answers to our happiness in all the wrong places. Maybe its right in front of us, right there all along and our ancestors were privy to this knowledge. While its not possible for most of us in the modern world to live like our ancestors once did, we can purposively reengage with the world as they once did, and in doing so open the door unlocking our instinct code. We need to rewild ourselves in the ways of our ancestors.

To this end I am taking on a new research and academic journey where I will be studying how we can bring the natural world back into our modern lives in such a way that we can all find the fulfillment we so desperately seek. And yes this includes hugging an occasional tree.

Interested in joining me?

Find out more about my The Human Animal Retreat  in Thailand.

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Grounding the Human Animal Experience

Grounding the Human Animal Experience

human-animal-experience

Non of us asked to be here, but here we are nonetheless. Although we find ourselves on planet Earth, non of us were born with an instruction manual on how to live our best life. Some seem to figure it out, but most don’t. Since I was a young child I have tried my best to figure out how to be both fulfilled and at peace with myself and the world at large. As all humans on this planet, my formative years on Earth were largely influenced and directed by the society and culture I found myself embedded within, and of course family. As it happens all to often almost all of my struggles as an adult could be traced back to the trauma I suffered as a child.

Added to this, for those of us living in the West, in fact anywhere in the world that seeks to emulate us, we have been indoctrinated into the pursuit of happiness and success through material wealth. However, even with all our modern comfort we still remain unfulfilled, searching for something to make us happy, yet not knowing what that is. I have experience the same, and why through my own healing journey I created the Human Animal experience.

We Have Only Been Here for 1-Second

Let’s look at all of Earth’s existence since it’s birth using a calendar year as a reference starting the journey at midnight on the 1st of January. 365 days later at 11:30am on the 31 December the final day of that year is when our hominid ancestors emerged (i.e., those first to come out of the trees and walk upright on the planes of Africa). Homo sapiens, which is us, have only been here for 23-minutes of that total year.

The entire industrial revolution which defines life as we know it for the last 200 years, culminates in only 1-second of that year.

Let that sink in for a moment:
1-second in the entire timeline of the history of this planet accounts for what we take for granted as our life in the modern world.

Clearly there seems to be a mismatch between our current modern environment and the way we experienced life on this planet since the dawn of our existence. We should question then if the answers to why we remain so unfulfilled can ever be answered by the modern world we find ourselves in. The modern world might be where we inhabit now, but it isn’t our home (and it may never be).


Reconnecting to Our Embodied Ancestral Wisdom

Through Mind, Body and Ecology

While for many of us it would be impossible to return to our ancestral ways, I have over the past few years been exploring our natural state, and how coming home to our instincts through exploring the natural world, invoking mind, body and ecology can lead not only to healing, but help us both rediscover our natural inner rhythm. While mind, body, and ecology are separated here as a useful heuristic device, it is important to note that they are in fact not separate, but one.



Let’s briefly explore them in turn:



Firstly that of Mind: There has been an increase in rates of anxiety, depression and loss of meaning among people in the developed world. It could be argued that our place of discontent is experienced first in the mind. It is through the mind, and its reflection on our experiences that we attempt to make sense of our lack of fulfillment. Having a greater insight into the workings of our own minds, and what is showing up as our discontent, and how to change it, is an important first step in rediscovering our natural rhythm.


Secondly Body: here the term ‘body’ encourages more than just our body in place, but rather embodied awareness in experience, which is to say the “the moment to moment process by which human beings allow awareness to enhance the flow of thoughts, feelings, sensations, and energies through [their] bodily selves” (Aposhyan, 2004, p.52). Aposhyan continues to note further that “embodiment, then, is a grounding and flowing relationship between ourselves and the rest of the world” (p.53). As such, we cannot experience the contrast from the difficulties we face in our urban existence (i.e., the developed world many of us in the West live in) and that of exploring our natural instincts without the awareness and understanding first of how our embodiment both shapes and shows up in our experiences.



In other words embodiment is not so much the antecedent to behavior, but rather that you are always in your body as you navigate the world. As such your embodied experience is the integration of perception, thinking, feelings and desires expressed through your active engagement and agency in experience. This implies that the positive experience of your natural way of being (i.e., deepening our relationship with our natural instincts), and the way in which it unfolds in helping you heal, may be directly related to the level of your embodied awareness and subsequently your ability to recognize what is happening within your mindbody in the moment. 



The realization here is that your moment-to-moment embodiment shapes all of your experiences, as such, there is no gap between your mind, body and your experience of reality. As with your mind, the body and how you experience both yourself in the modern world versus that of invoking your natural state becomes the grounding of important insights into understanding the before and after effects of that engagement. In other words, you need this to make what you have learned repeatable no matter where you find yourself. 


Finally Ecology: here I use the world ‘ecology’ to imply the relationships between us as living humans, and the natural world, along with the understanding of the vital connections between humans and the natural world around them.

Ecology therefore becomes a container for all experience that is in contrast to modernity (i.e., living in cities, being indoors, becoming immersed in the virtual world). In other words, it is through the experience of reconnecting to the natural world that you have the opportunity to rediscover ancestral ways of being, with deep understanding, while bringing into focus the discontent of modernity, and what you can do about it. This includes the importance of how being in nature impacts your health and wellness.


Don't Worry It’s Not All Academic, We Focus on

Experiential Embodied Learning

The above may sound a tad bit academic, but not to worry, I have made both the Human Animal training and experience very accessible. However, I do want you to understand the science and research behind what you are learning. For example, why grounding in nature reduces inflammation, or that breathing in terpenes which are phytochemicals mainly released by trees has a direct impact on lowering your stress levels via your parasympathetic nervous system. 



On a whole, we explore mind, body and ecology in practical, experiential ways. Rather than relying solely on ‘talk’ I will show you through easy to remember embodied tools, strategies and tactics how you can trust your intuition, while learning to manage your inner state. We achieve this through various methods, but mainly through learning to access your bodies natural intelligence.



Sometimes we will be lying on the beach as we discover the powerful impact breathing has on helping you overcome fear, or rolling around on the mat where through jiu-jitsu you learn to stay calm, improve focus and invoke the flow state. At other times we sit around the fire pit as we explore how to harness the full potential of our minds, discussing Stoic philosophy or walking in nature as we reconnect to the home we know we have lost. 



There is also ample downtime to explore, and to re-energize your metabolism by eating healthy fresh foods, along with trips to nearby temples and learning to play drums with my eldest son Egan. All of which takes place at my 2nd home, Tree Roots Retreat in Rayong, Thailand.

Tree Roots Retreat is nestled in a small fishing village far away from the hustle and bustle of the city, but near enough to all amenities you might need. There are no TVs in the rooms, but there are many communal spaces to meet new friends, a gorgeous pool, beautiful bungalows, and only five minutes walk to the beach, where you are spoilt for choice when it comes to local cuisine.

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