When two super powers join forces
Both mindfulness and green prescriptions now have a strong evidence base supporting their utility for restoring and nourishing mental health and well-being. For those of you who are new to the party, mindfulness is the practice of letting one’s conscious attention rest in the present, whilst relaxing one’s body to a deep level and bringing all one’s senses into awareness. Mindfulness exercises often involve taking the conscious perspective of a witness to one's own stream of consciousness. Green prescribing is when a healthcare professional (usually a primary care giver) refers a patient to some kind of green activity, such as joining a rambling club, going on a bird song identification course, or even taking on an allotment, as an alternative to prescribing a pharmaceutical solution, such as anti-depressants.
The cross over episode
This post is a short guide to drawing on the benefits of mindfulness and green prescribing (that’s right – you don’t have to wait for a doctor to send you out into nature) by involving yourself in both as one integrated practice. The combination of these two approaches can be highly efficacious for enhancing well-being. Below, I offer an example exercise you might like to try. Then you can decide for yourself, and if you want to, share your experience in the comments section.
Make sure you’ve set aside enough time for this exercise. How long will depend on your proximity to a natural space, so read through the following first and then you’ll be able to estimate how much time you’ll need. Then, before you go out, check the weather so you can dress appropriately.
Leave your house and find the wildest area of nature you can. If you’re in the city, look for a woodland park – or just a natural space where you are most likely to find solitude. If you’re living out in the sticks, set off on foot and seek out a place with several natural features, such as trees and a river for example. The richer the environment the more you will have to be mindful of. That’s not always the goal; but for this exercise it will help.
Once you’ve arrived at your natural space, enter it slowly, walking slowly. Start to shift your attention to the immediate and the physical, feeling your foot fall as you walk, and the sounds made as your boots meet the ground. Maybe you are aware of the gentle thud of your weight against the grassy earth, or the crunch of leaves, or the squelch of mud. Breathe deeply, taking a few really deliberate lung-fulls. Be conscious of your chest expanding as you breathe in, the movement of your muscles. When you let your breath out, can you see it? Can you feel it’s warmth against the roof of your mouth? Be aware of how your body feels as you’re walking along, and at the same time, look around at the place you’re walking through. Let your awareness of the your body and your environment join together as parts of the same place in the same time – the here and now.
Even if you cannot completely escape the presence of other people, seek out the place where you are least likely to be interrupted, or distracted by social life. Perhaps it’s a solitary bench overlooking the whole park, or a comfortable patch of moss at the base of a tree, or a river bank. When you have chosen your place, sit or stand. This is where you will be for the remainder of this exercise.
Close your eyes. Give all your attention to everything you can hear: birdsong, the sound of flowing water, an orchestra of rain drops drumming on the leaves of the tree you’re sitting under, a distant woodpecker, rustling in the undergrowth, the whooshing sound made by a breeze moving through the forest canopy, the sound of the air entering and exiting your nose as you breathe. Forget all other senses except your hearing. Discover the reality all around you by listening.
Now give all your attention to everything you can smell: pine sap, dank pond weed, gorse flowers, the scents you brought with you. Don’t strain to smell anything; just be attentive to your sense of smell.
Now give all your attention to your sense of touch: the contact between you and the surface you are sitting on, the awareness of your clothes against your body, the gentle brush of a light wind against your face or back. Feel everything.
Now be attentive to everything you can taste: move your tongue around in your mouth. Swallow. Open your mouth slightly and taste the air.
Now, gently, begin to open your eyes. See the world around you. Give all your attention to the information as it floods in – you’ll find the more you look the more you’ll see. Observe the complex flow of water, the twisted trajectory of a tree as finds it way upward, the amazing array of colours present in everything from leaves to bark to rocks. Observe the light adding a numinous quality to everything, the movement of thousands of species rustling through the leaves, crawling, climbing or leaping through the trees. Don’t search for things; just look – and discover.
After having given all your attention to everything you can hear, smell, touch and see, each in turn, you are going to culminate this exercise with a final step. It’s very important not to force anything here. Just stay relaxed, and begin to bring all your senses into awareness; all of them – at the same time. You may find that for a while your attention is dancing between your senses. That’s perfectly fine – in fact it’s wonderful – enjoy it. With practice though, you will develop a capacity for experiencing an awareness of integrated senses, without forcing anything and without effort, as you move more and more into the fullness of the present moment.
Tips and benefits
There is no limit to how long the above exercise should take. Take as long as you like. It doesn't really matter if it's two minutes or two hours. If you'd like some initial guidance though, I'd recommend starting with around five minutes. You'll find that with regular practice, your attention strengthens, and with that, your engagement with the exercise will lengthen. A quick tip at this point – never look at the time while you're doing this. Set an alarm if you must, but never monitor the time during the exercise. It ruins everything.
The benefits of green mindfulness are multitudinous, but may include restored mental focus, a sense of well-being and relaxation, emotional equanimity, and a deeper feeling of connection to the natural world. One more thing. If you're not used to this sort of exercise it can be challenging not to just end up mind wandering the whole time. Whatever you do, don't chastise yourself if you become conscious that you've been thinking about something completely different and far removed from the present environment. Just return to the exercise and continue. With practice your attention to the here and now will improve effortlessly. So enjoy your first adventure into green mindfulness, and feel free to share your experiences of this exercise in the comments below.
Philosophers have long argued for the importance of emotion when it comes to developing a healthy relationship with our environment. Emotional responses to nature can include awe, reverence and wonder, and these often numinous feelings are understood to be the foundation of environmental ethics. Perhaps this is why climate scientists have such a hard time prompting people to pro-environmental behaviours. Although the statistical predictions for our planet’s future should send shivers down anyone’s spine, they generally don’t. Why is this?
Enter psychological science!
Part of the problem is due to the fact that numbers may stimulate our minds, but they don't tend to stir our hearts. It's our emotions that motivate us to action, not information. Based on this, a whole body of psychological research has shown that internalised emotions about nature are more effective drivers of pro-environmental behaviours than factual knowledge of environmental issues, especially when those facts are disseminated in the form of percentages and other statistics. A lot of these findings have come through the use of special psychological surveys called 'scales' that offer a way to measure strength of feeling toward a certain psychological construct. Scales to do with nature connection have been used to analyse relationships between how people feel about nature, and their pro-environmental actions. I’d like to focus on just one of these scales here: the Love and Care for Nature (LCN) scale, developed by Perkins (2010).
The Love and Care for Nature Scale (LCN)
The LCN scale focuses on measuring the intrinsic value of nature to a person. That is to say, the LCN scale taps into the extent to which someone values nature in and of itself, rather than as a resource available for human use. Furthermore, among the numerous scales developed to measure aspects of nature connection, Perkin's (2010) LCN was developed to specifically target our emotional relationship toward the natural world. In response to 15 statements, respondents mark their strength of agreement to each statement along a series of ranks which include ‘strongly agree’, ‘agree’, ‘neither agree nor disagree’, ‘disagree’, ‘strongly disagree’. The ranks are given a numerical value in order to make them amenable to statistical tests. With a large, well chosen sample, such tests are capable of making general inferences about the population of interest.
What did Perkins (2010) find?
After developing a way for capturing an empirical measurement of a person’s love and care for nature, Perkin’s (2010) found that people who scored highly on the LCN scale were more likely to make personal sacrifices for the benefit of the natural environment, such as taking the time to recycle, signing petitions, abstaining from unnecessary car journeys and showing a willingness to pay higher prices for goods and services if that would serve protecting the environment. Therefore, our love and care for nature can be a reliable predictor of our likelihood to act on behalf of nature.
Let's get interactive!
Let's do a bit of community science. Below you will find a link to download a pdf file of the Love and Care for Nature (LCN) scale. I’d like to invite you to fill out the scale for yourself. Once you've done this, use the contact page to send me your results; or just post them in the comments, and I'll do the analysis for you. See you in a bit!
So, I'll use your results to conduct a Wilcoxon’s signed ranks test. Put simply, this is a way of mathematically deciding whether your score sets you aside from a theoretical population of people who are indifferent toward the natural world. I will get back to you (via a private email if you wish) with your results. If your score is statistically significant we can decide with confidence that you are in the population of people who love and care for nature under Perkin’s (2010) definition of the construct. But what if your score fails to reach significance? Don’t worry. Firstly, no scale can usurp what any individual feels in their heart, so at the end of the day, you’ll always have the last word on that one. Secondly, failing to reach significance could be useful for you: you get more interesting questions from it. Why didn’t your score reach significance? Were you surprised? Is your support for environmentalism more of a rationally thought out thing perhaps? Finally, if your score doesn’t reach significance, but you would like it to, you might ask yourself if there’s anything you can do about that. If that’s the case, I've got good news for you – you can! Stick around for my posts on developing a deeper connection to nature.
The take home message
Perkin's (2010) research, along with many other studies, offers a useful insight for promoting pro-environmental behaviours: environmental education needs to be as much about inspiring as informing. Not many people will make sacrifices for abstract information, but people will fight tooth and claw for what they love. Of course, you can't love what you don't know, so whilst nature documentaries may evoke a variety of transient emotions - perhaps even enough to motivate pro-environmental action - the most powerful driver of sustained lifestyle change will come through regular, meaningful connection with nature. This is the context within which we can develop that real, living relationship, whether is be with the house plant we've nurtured since it was a seedling, or vast, wild nature. This is the context within which we start to care. So let's remember not just to share links to those important reports on the latest climate change warnings - share your own experiences of our one beautiful earth. Mention how awe-struck you were by the that exquisite sunset, the close encounter you had with that fox, the joy you felt listening to an orchestra of bird song on a woodland walk. Let your own inspiration be an inspiration to others.
Perkins, H. E. (2010). Measuring love and care for nature. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 30, 455-463. doi: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2010.05.004
is a PhD candidate researching under the topic 'Understanding Behaviour Change toward Sustainability'. Damien is also a strong believer that knowledge should be freely available; a belief that motivated him to start One Beautiful Earth as a way of informing earth lovers everywhere on what behavioural scientists and social psychologists are up to and what we're finding out, all in human readable language! It's not all science though: expect a smattering of environmental ethics, philosophy, interviews and the odd opinion piece thrown in. Enjoy!