“When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”
– Wendell Berry, The Peace of Wild Things
I’ve always had strong sense-memories; crystal-clear visual snapshots of places I’ve been, transportation back to another moment with the whiff of a familiar smell, that feeling of déjà-vu with a certain combination of temperature, light and sensation. My senses are impacted most deeply when I’m alone in nature, where I most easily connect with my inner self and with God.
The vibrancy and delicacy of a fresh bloom or the dramatic contrast of squiggly, green-clad tree branches against an electric blue sky can make my heart want to explode with joy.
One thing I realise now, with sadness, is that I used to feel this a lot more; the sense of being three-dimensional in space, of being ‘here’. Whether it’s the busyness of life, the leaving behind of the self-consciousness of youth, or the loss of touch with real space and time through a life lived increasingly through screens, I have become, without doubt, less aware of being ‘in space.’
I read a post recently about the practice of ‘earthing’, and while the whole thing sounded a bit new-agey for my liking, I definitely resonated with the sense of wellbeing it associated with putting your bare feet on the bare ground.
Born and bred in the Aussie suburbs, I pretty much grew up without shoes and was outdoors a lot. During languorous summer holidays, I also learned to appreciate the desperately cooling sensation of droplets from a sprinkler, and the feeling of freshly dunked hair in pool water on a stinking hot day. Perhaps these moments were where I learned to associate being in touch with nature with a sense of freedom and joy.
For the adult me, being consciously present in a natural setting is about the discipline of focusing on the here and now. It’s about getting out of my head, where I live a lot of the time and where I can easily get swept up in overthinking and worry spirals. It’s about embracing a sense of still and calm and gratitude for what I have. It’s about stopping and resetting, being energised by the warmth of the sun and the beauty all around me.
I feel that sense of groundedness in nature far too rarely nowadays, but I have been trying to get back into the habit when walking my dog. On Sunday afternoons, I take her to the park, where we have a little break halfway and sit in the shade under a generous-limbed tree. She dozes, I just take in the green and breathe.
When I’m struggling to get out of my head, or am distracted by responding to something on social media, I put my phone away and go through a little practice that used to help me de-escalate when I had bad anxiety a few years ago. I go through each of the five senses, one at a time, and simply notice and list to myself what they are picking up.
Here’s how it went today. Hearing: I can hear some high-pitched birds over here, some more birds over there, now a plane, and some children laughing. What about smell? It smells like summer and, faintly, like freshly cut grass. Taste? The lingering tang of sauce from the banh mi I had for lunch. Sight? I can see a bright blue sky, a huge apartment block I’ve never noticed before, vibrant green grass dappled with shade, some kids playing and my gorgeous pet greyhound enjoying the sunshine.
And my favourite sense for grounding myself? Touch. What can I feel? Some tightness in my neck, some pins and needles in the leg I am sitting on, some spiky blades of grass poking into my knee, the cool caress of the breeze on my skin, a full and satisfied tummy.
This practice not only anchors me in the moment, it also brings to the fore all the little blessings in my life to be thankful for, and some more underlying discomforts that need to be addressed. Often when going through this little ritual, dormant emotions pop up too. Suddenly my mind is clear to process the things that busyness and distraction of everyday life have pushed to one side. Creativity starts to bloom as well, and I feel like writing, drawing.
It’s probably nothing groundbreaking, just a little application of mindfulness principles that I developed once a while ago to get me through a tough time. But after busy weeks like this one, I feel an ache deep within me for the greater sense of presence and connection to nature I felt as a child. I may not feel it as often now, but when I do, it’s still profound.