The Neuroscience of Walk and Talk Therapy

Susan Greenfield is a leading thinker on the neuroscience of consciousness, so my ears pricked up when I heard her talking about how walking can help us think. Do her ideas help illuminate how ‘walk and talk’ ecotherapy works? Walk and talk therapy is much like conventional counselling but takes place outdoors. Therapist and client walk side by side exploring issues just as they would in the consulting room. Walking and talking in the park feels familiar to most people and being alongside the therapist avoids the potentially uncomfortable feeling of sitting opposite them.

Walk and talk therapy is increasingly popular and Susan Greenfield’s work suggests that it might also be very effective. Walking in natural environments has been shown to boost cognitive capacity, improve working memory and enhance recall. Susan describes other benefits:

“It is you who decides to examine a plant more closely or to focus on the far-flung horizon one moment, then perhaps to lean up against the tree the next: this internally driven sequence of events will then have the additional benefit of restoring a sense of control, of giving you a longer time frame in which to develop and deepen your thoughts” (Greenfield, 2016).

Although Susan is writing about walking in nature, she has perfectly described a typical ecotherapy session.

A path through a park

Follow the path …

Susan suggests that as thinking is basically a series of steps, it can be seen as “a kind of movement: the longer the journey, the ‘deeper’ the thought”. She adds:

“the actual physical act of walking could amplify and thereby perhaps enhance this inner process: by reflecting in external movement what is happening in the brain, by having a clear causal link between one step and the next, with the mental being enforced by the physical, the repetitive contraction of muscles could help insure against the mind ‘wandering’, going, literally, off-track” (Greenfield, 2016).

Everything that Susan Greenfield says about walking in nature suggests that walk and talk ecotherapy will enable clients to think more deeply and powerfully. Furthermore, the therapist will benefit in the same way, so we can do our job better. Susan Greenfield may have never heard of walk and talk outdoor therapy, but the fact that her neuroscience research unintentionally supports what we’re doing is exciting news.




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Focusing: A tool for troubled times

I’ve been feeling unsettled over the few days and I’m not alone. Many of us feel the chill shadow of uncertainly cast by the events of the last few months. What’s the best response to such troubled times?

The American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr offered us a prayer which I find valuable:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

Reinhold’s prayer implores God to grant serenity, courage and wisdom. I’m going to take some theological liberties, and suggest that an embodied approach – which for some of us is fundamentally spiritual – can facilitate that work beautifully.

Experiential Focusing provide a means of accessing the wisdom of the body. I’ve written about this elsewhere, but it’s worth repeating because it reminds us that we have the power to find serenity, courage and wisdom within.

First serenity. Ann Weiser Cornell draws on Focusing to offer a simple but effective way to be with difficult feelings. Instead of identifying with your emotions, which often means they overwhelm you, she explains how to be with your feelings.

Next, let’s consider how we might find the courage to create change. Mary Hendricks-Gendlin claims that:

“Focusing is a force for peace because it frees people from being manipulated by external authority, cultural roles, ideologies and the internal oppression of self attacking and shame”.

If you’re intrigued to know why Mary holds that belief, read her article on Focusing as a Force for Peace: The Revolutionary Pause.

The ‘revolutionary pause’ is just one of the valuable tools Focusing offers to help us change things. Focusing skills have been taught to activists to since the Vietnam War protests of the 1970’s. Rather more recently I’ve facilitated training in Focusing skills for activists and advocated using it as a tool for the Transition Towns movement.

Where does all this leave prayer? I have no doubt about how the divine – however you understand that – provides spiritual inspiration. The BioSpiritual Focusing website puts it well:

“In their connection to the Universe our bodies are our direct link to the Spirit that fills the Universe”.

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Mindfulness in Nature

Mindfulness and ecotherapy are two of the most ancient and powerful approaches to healing mental distress. What happens when you bring them together? Last week-end I spoke about practicing mindfulness in nature at a conference on ‘Psychotherapy and the Natural World’ at the Eden Project.

The original invitation to deliver a presentation had been open ended; I could have chosen any theme related to therapy and the natural world. Mindfulness in nature came to me almost immediately, but I wondered if I could say anything about it that was worthwhile.

Once I sat with the notion it opened like a flower, revealing a pattern of connections with other core aspects of my thinking: Ecotherapy of course, (Mindful weeding), spirituality, (Aboriginal deep listening), Focusing (Focusing in Nature), Barry Patterson’s “listening to the threshold brook”, and on and on.

sunlight through pine trees

My PhD research identified meditation as one of the pathways to connection with nature that inspired and supported environmental activism. One participant explained that his “connection with the earth” had become “a major part” of who he is. Mindfulness in nature had become a core practice for him:

“just spending time out in nature, just listening. Just looking. Not really thinking too much. It’s good to kind of not think, just become, just let it flow through you I guess” (Harris, 2008).

I’ve realised that the nature connection workshops I’ve been running for years are really mindfulness in nature sessions. Participants do experience a deeper connection with nature, but framing the practice as mindfulness really captures the essence of the work. It also shifts our perception of it: instead of focusing on some outcome – getting a deeper nature connection – it emphasises the process itself. That’s fundamental because mindfulness isn’t about making something happen; it’s simply about being.

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Ecosomatics: An Embodied Ecology

Most people accept that our behaviour is destroying vital ecosystems, yet there’s very little being done about it. Why? There are several factors, but a key part of the problem is that we’re in denial. I find it pretty hard to be with the fact that we’re responsible for the sixth mass extinction. How about you?

My opening paragraph might have made you feel less centred and at least a little more fearful. But being in a state of fear tends to make us less caring,  less open and inevitably less environmentally aware. Reminding you about environmental destruction has – perversely – made you less able to respond to it. But what if I were to give you some simple tools to stay centred and calm while we talk about climate change and mass extinction? What if you could respond to this massive challenge from a place of grounded openness and calm?

I’ve written about Paul Linden’s work on embodied peace building in this blog before; he teaches techniques that enable us to embody peace and calm. About a year ago Paul suggested to me that my work with being embodied in nature and his work on embodied peace are powerfully complimentary. He proposed that we synthesise the two into an embodied ecology; ecosomatics. In this video by Steve Savides, Paul explains our work together.

Originally posted on Facebook by Steve Savides – exploring intention on Monday, August 8, 2016

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Make it real

Right now in a park or garden near you there are real spiders weaving real webs. If you watch this video, you’ll probably have forgotten it by this time tomorrow. If you ever watch a spider weaving a web in the real world, you’ll never forget it. I was in my 40’s before I watched a spider weaving, which is pretty sad but makes the point that this isn’t something we usually do. I remember the moment very vividly: There was this astonishing creature creating a thing of exquisite beauty just inches away from me – right here and now!

I was living outdoors at the time, close to the slow cycles of life. I was exploring the many ways in which we can reconnect to the other-than-human world, practising mediation and studying ecopsychology. I was learning how to really be in nature. Does it take all that to be able to watch something as common as a spider weaving a web? No, but it does require you to step away from the habits of everyday life.

First, you’ll have to let go of expectations, because if you go looking for something like this there’s a good chance you won’t find it. We’ve been trained to expect immediate gratification; if you want to hear a song or watch a tv show, it’s there, on demand. Can you make the effort to look and accept whatever happens? Then you’ll have to slow down: Our stressful and frenetic lives leave us little time to just smell the roses. Next, you’ll need to practice looking with open attention. The weaving spider is there, but can you learn to see it? We live in a world awash with images vying for our attention so we tend to screen what we actually see though a dense sensory filter. All this will take patience.

The rewards for releasing expectation, slowing down and allowing your senses to expand will fall on you as gently and countless as blossom. You may feel deep calm, a sense of wholeness, and a quiet joy. Or perhaps child-like wonder and inspiration. You may even see a spider weaving a web!

Right now in a park or garden near you there are real spiders weaving real webs. Why don’t you just go outside and look? The dismal alternative is to stay in a disconnected virtual world.

Related posts:

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Follow the science: fashions in personal development

Those who’ve been interested in personal development for a while may recall when the right hemisphere of the brain was the place to be. Our left hemisphere is dominant in language and logic, while the right is generally more concerned with spatial skills and imagery. Our culture was criticized for emphasising ‘left-brained’ logic over the more creative ‘right-brain’, and personal development gurus recommended right-brain exercises to rebalance yourself. (See Edwards, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, 1979).

But getting more ‘right-brained’ was gradually superseded by excitement about brainwaves. During everyday awareness our brainwaves are predominately in beta (12 – 38 Hz). When you relax – or meditate – they slow to alpha (8 – 12 Hz), while deep sleep is charactered by delta waves (0.5 – 3 Hz). Holosync, and similar brainwave entrainment systems, stimulate the brain to produce the brainwaves found in meditation and claim – erroneously I believe – to thereby put you into deep meditation itself.

brain scan image

You are not your brain

Of course things have moved on now and brainwaves are a bit old hat. Holosync started in the late 1980’s, and a decade later neurotransmitters like endorphins were the new elixir. Personal development is still pretty keen on neurotransmitters. It’s not hard to find bloggers promoting dopamine, and I’ve been lauding the endorphin effect myself! But the latest thing seems to be brain structures, with therapists and savvy bloggers now discussing the limbic system and frontal lobe.

The danger in chasing the latest neuroscience research is that we oversimplify it. Brain structure, brainwaves and neurotransmitters are all important to our understanding of mental wellbeing. During meditation, for example, left/right hemisphere communication tends to increase, brainwaves slow, the balance of neurotransmitter shifts and the signalling relationship between the limbic system and frontal lobe changes. Focusing on one aspect makes it much easier to understand – or blog about – but it misses the point; body-mind and place form the most complex system in the known universe. Just remember that the next time someone tell you they’re ‘left-brained’!

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Embodied spirituality

I’m running a workshop on the Endorphin Effect later this month, so I’ve been paying particular attention to my practice. As I was sensing into the endorphin flow during yoga, I realised that what I practice is embodied spirituality. A quick web search reveals that ’embodied spirituality’ is a bit of a buzz phrase, so I need to be more specific about what it means to me. My embodied spirituality integrates;

  • an earth-based Paganism,
  • an intention to ground spirituality in scientific understanding and
  • an embodied daily practice.

Let me unpack that a little.

Some Pagans have discerned two currents within contemporary Western Paganism. Those who are inclined towards the study of occult tradition and formal ritual we might characterize as ‘esoteric Pagans’. Earth-based Pagans eschew formal ritual, and are more likely to simply “go outside to commune with nature” (Crowley, 1996). For Vivianne Crowley these differences effectively mark “low and high church, field and temple Pagans” (Ibid.). My own research suggests that earth-based Pagans use what Gendlin calls Focusing as a way to tune into the spirit of place (Harris, 2011). Learning more about Focusing and applying it with awareness has enriched my spiritual practice. (See Imbolc: The Pulse of the Seasons).

The idea that we might want to give spirituality a foundation in scientific understanding provokes a range of responses. For many it’s a misguided or pointless project, while I think that science and spirituality can illuminate each other. For now, here’s one pertinent example. Endorphins were discovered by a brilliant molecular biologist called Candace Pert. Endorphins provide “a mechanism in the brain for creating bliss and expanded consciousness” (Pert, 1977), and embodied practices like ecstatic dance, mediation and yoga stimulate endorphins. As I write this ‘Faithless’ are telling me that ‘God is a DJ’. Yeah, that works for me, and the many clubbers who find transcendence through dance (Hume, 2007).

Which segues us into embodied daily practice. I start my day with an endorphinated variation on a body scan meditation. That sets me up nicely before I even get out of bed! Morning meditation and a short gratitude ritual follow after breakfast. After work, yoga is a much more effective way to de-stress than a gin & tonic. I can imagine sceptical smiles at that suggestion, but yoga stimulates the production of GABA, the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter in your central nervous system, which means it creates a sense of calmness.

Arguably, all spirituality is embodied, but embracing that understanding with awareness helps guide my path.

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How to keep your New Year Resolution

Every year people make New Year resolutions but 92% of them will fail (Journal of Clinical Psychology). Maybe it’s time for a different approach. Forget ‘I should’ and embrace ‘I want!’

New Year resolutions are typically something like “I’m going to lose weight”, “I’ll get more organized” or “I’ll save more”. If you’re thinking along those lines, I suggest you take a moment to reflect on why you’ve chosen that goal. Is it because you think you should or because you actually want it? If your resolution is prompted by a ‘should’, then I doubt it’ll last long after the midnight celebrations.

But if you focus on what you want to do rather than on what you think you should do, your chances of success improve hugely. Those with a more Puritan perspective might argue that if you want to do something, then it hardly counts as making a ‘resolution’. Perhaps, but how many of us have seriously considered what we want from life and then done something about getting it?

Aoraki /Mount Cook at sunset

Aoraki /Mount Cook at sunset

So, what do you really love doing? Grab a piece of paper and write a list of activities that make your life richer. It’s even better if you can use post-it notes, but paper is fine. Keep to three rules:

  1. be concise;
  2. describe activities;
  3. make sure every one is something you really love.

The acid test for this last rule is to imagine you life without it. Check into the felt sense that arises. If you get a sinking feeling in your body, then it qualifies. You might find that what you’ve written isn’t quite ‘it’, so be prepared to dig around. Is there something else behind what you’ve written? Again, let your felt sense guide you.

If you have listed something that isn’t an activity, modify it. If you want to list something about your love for nature or your kids, think of a related activity. ‘Nature’ might become ‘spending time in nature’; ‘my kids’ could be ‘playing with my kids’.

Once you’re happy with your list, stick the post-it notes or piece of paper somewhere where you’ll see them everyday. Now ask yourself: Are you devoting as much time and energy to each of those activities as they – and you – deserve? The chances are that at least one or two are getting short changed and frankly you’re cheating yourself. So, how can you get to do more of what you love? Use that question to come up with a New Year’s resolution. It may be your best ever!

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Christmas presence: the perfect gift

Love it or loath it, Christmas is a stressful time for many people. Money worries, anxiety about ‘getting it right’ and spending extra time with the family can all crank up the pressure. Perhaps part of the solution is to bring some mindful presence into your Christmas.

Christmas presence: the perfect gift

Mindfulness practice is an excellent way to reduce stress. John Kabat-Zinn, who developed Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, defines mindfulness meditation as “the intentional cultivation of nonjudgemental moment-to-moment awareness” (1996). In essence, mindfulness is about being present to the moment. Typically mindfulness mediation will focus on the breath, but you can use any aspect of your immediate experience. If you find yourself starting to get stressed about what to buy someone for Christmas, just pause for moment. What is happening for you right now? Be with the experience, however unpleasant it feels, and try not to make a judgement about it. You may find all kinds of narratives going on in your head: ‘They’ll hate that’, ‘I’m running out of time!’, ‘She/he is so hard to buy a present for’. Can you hear yourself for a moment? Can you just listen to that narrative without getting caught up in it? The key here is to be with the feelings and thoughts but not be in them. It’s as if you’re sitting next to those feelings and worries with compassionate awareness.

If that seems impossible, then just try to become more aware of your physical sensations. Feel the ground beneath your feet. Notice your breathing; there’s no need to try to change it, just watch it for a few breaths. Listen to the sounds around you. More than likely it’s Christmas music, but don’t judge it as good or bad. Can you just listen to the way the sounds come and go around you? By simply paying attention to what is going on for you right now you are becoming more present. Even 30 seconds of mindful presence can help reduce your stress.

Often the most tricky part is noticing that you’re getting stressed in the first place and that’s where a regular mediation practice really helps. If you spend 10 or 15 minutes a day practising watching your breath, you begin to notice what’s going on for you during the rest of the time.

By calling presence ‘the perfect gift’ I risk making it sound like a commodity and it’s true that ‘mindfulness’ is now a business for some. But presence is not something you can buy and it can be transformational. Being more present will help you manage Christmas stress, but mindfulness practice also nurtures compassion, calmness and wisdom. So although the immediate benefits are mostly for you, your mindfulness practice will benefit all beings. That’s why I call it the perfect gift.

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Protest Marches: What’s the point?

I was at the Climate Change March in London on Sunday. I hadn’t planned on going. “What’s the point?” I thought. I’ve been to many protest marches over the years and I’d begun to doubt if they made any difference. Maybe they even served the status quo by fooling us into thinking we were doing something worthwhile. A mate of mine summed it up in his Facebook post: “If protest worked it wouldn’t be legal”.

By chance or unconscious design, I was in London on Sunday anyway and it felt right to go along to the march, despite my doubts. I had a great day meeting up with old mates, enjoying the creativity and feeling part of a global community of climate change activists. But did it change anything?

Climate Change Marchers 2015

Climate Change Marchers

On the train back to Exeter I started reading a book I’d had on my Kindle for months: Psychology for a Better World, by Niki Harre. What I read was remarkably pertinent to my dilemma. Niki shifts from the more typical focus on the problems we face to emphasise “sustainability as a collective, social enterprise aimed at new ways of managing ourselves.” If you see our lack of sustainability as a problem to be solved, then whatever solution you pursue will be contentious. But if you are “helping to create a viable alternative to our current ways of life, the meaning of what you do changes” (Harre, 2011). This side-steps the rather simplistic cause and effect model adopted by those sceptical of the value of protest. If you’re looking for a simple, directly measurable effect of protest, you’re looking in the wrong place for the wrong thing. “The ‘best’ action is not best in terms of having the most dramatic effect on the physical world, it is ‘best’ in terms of having the most dramatic effect on the social world” (Harre, 2011).

What kind of useful effects might we see from the climate march? I had a good time, met some mates, danced a bit and saw some beautiful art. So what? Maybe that’s the whole point! Positive emotions enhance our creativity, expand our understanding of the world and spur us to greater achievements. They also make it easier for us to face challenges. Niki claims that “positive emotions are not only useful for creative tasks, but also for tasks that involve re-examining our personal practices”. By being at the march I enhanced my ability to face the challenge of climate change, boosted my creativity, made it easier to re-evaluate my personal behaviour and spurred myself to achieve more. Not only that, it renewed my sense of being part of a community with a common cause. If we are going to tackle climate change, we need more of all of that. Going on a protest march isn’t the whole solution, but it’s very far from being pointless.

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