‘No thought, no action, no movement, total stillness: only thus can one manifest the true nature and law of things from within and unconsciously, and at last become one with heaven and earth.’
- Lau Tzu
In contemporary Britain, most of us live in cities and are painfully aware of the obstacles they can throw in our paths. Roadworks, public transport, busy crowds and the daily rhythms of the rat race are a necessary side effect of putting so many people in such close proximity.
There are great advantages to urban living, but there are also losses, like the relative paucity of nature. In a poll conducted by the Natural History museum, fewer than 25 percent of Britons could identify a sycamore tree, and yet the hardy London Plane crossbreed is one of the most common in our capital. This ignorance may seem unimportant, after all, what use are the tall tress lining a city street? Yet the benefits of connecting with nature are widely established – at the most basic level, everyone prefers a room with a view.
Even the most committed urbanite has a brain that evolved to operate in the great outdoors. Studies suggest that our mental abilities – even abstract processes like arithmetic – improve after time spent in a natural environment; patients in hospital with a room overlooking a natural scene seem to spend less time convalescing.
In many ways, this is hardly controversial. Any change in our sensory input is clearly going to affect how we feel. Think of a sunny day, birdsong, or even a muffling cover of snow. Each of these elicits a response that goes deeper than words.
So, changes in our frame of mind can be achieved through changes in our environment. They can also be accessed through pure imagination, concentration, or meditation, but this is much more difficult than a change in our actions. Perhaps this is best explained by the fundamental connection between our central nervous system and movement. Our brain is an extension of our nervous system, and as Daniel Wolpert’s explains in a fascinating talk on TED, almost every thought and emotion may stem ultimately from the need to make intelligent movements, to adapt to our environment.
Rob and I travelled across Britain when writing Skimming Stones, and as a born-and-bred Londoner this was the one thing I noticed more than any other: the change in my state of mind. And this was not ephemeral. The contemplative, reflective mode that we achieved when slowing our movements and focusing our attention to track animals, or sitting in one spot carving a whistle while the daylight sank around us, may have been engendered by nature, but ultimately it was all in our heads.
Returning from a week spent fishing, skimming stones and damn building, the sense of peace stayed with me. A moment's reflection still calls up the chatter of the river and the bite of cold water around my ankles. A moment's pause is enough to remember that the trials and tribulations of a 9-to-5 are trivial compared to the rolling of the seasons. There is always another spring.
You can experience much more of this connection than one might assume in a city. Because it is a mindset as much as anything else, it is all down to our ability to draw upon internal feelings of connection. But how can you get these in the first place?
Obviously, the first thing is to get out and experience nature! A stunning vista brings an immediate sense of awe, but even a small copse can call forth the same feelings if you give it enough time and attention to work its magic. The risk inherent in the smaller green spaces you get in urban environments is that it is all too easy to believe you have taken the whole thing in, to feel you have taken its measure with one circuit and then move on or focus on other things.
This is the beauty of activities like tracking, foraging, carving and so on – they help us to spend the time required to unwind. In contrast to the attention-grabbing horns, lights, signs and crowds of the city streets, being in nature allows your attention to float freely from the backdrop to the innumerable details. A more philosophical outlook quickly establishes itself, and even when you leave the oasis of a park or garden, this can help sustain you through the urban grind.
Leo Critchley is co-author of 'Skimming Stones' with Rob Cowen. Both will be taking part in our one day escape to the Urban Wilderness on Saturday 28 April. For more information click here. Also joining them will be Gavin Pretor Pinney, founder of the Cloud Appreication Society.