Last week was Mental Health Awareness Week, which meant it was a very full week for me, and what followed was a weekend of tending to my own mental health. Even now, with all my meditation and mindfulness tools at my fingertips, I still need to check in with myself regularly and not fall into some of my old bad mental health habits!
Mental health is an incredibly broad topic, and it doesn’t just apply to people with diagnosed mental health issues. Looking after your general wellbeing and state of mind absolutely falls within the remit of managing mental health.
One thing that continues to be incredibly important to my mental health regime is regularly connecting with nature and the world around me. This can be through time in the trees, with animals or food that grows in the ground. (Which is also one of the MANY reasons I love chocolate, as the whole processing of growing cacao right through to making of the final bars brings brings this connection to life.)
I’m lucky enough to live just outside London which means I have an abundance of nature on my doorstep, but I also spend a lot of time in London and it always amazes me how many nature connection moments are possible in the city.
Why time in nature is so important
There are many studies that have shown how time in nature can be beneficial to our mental health. There’s also the beautiful Japanese tradition of shinrin yoku, or forest bathing, as a means of finding calm and connection.
I also recently listened to a fascinating episode of BBC Radio 4’s Ramblings, in which the person interviewed talked about the way that stepping on plants while out walking in nature releases their calming volatiles (no that’s not an oxymoron!).
While I value time in deep nature, there are many places in the city, particularly one like London, where you can experience some of these benefits. These include parks, river or canal towpaths, and if you’re lucky enough to have one, a back or front garden.
Sometimes it feels like we need to take ourselves far, far away to ‘retreat’ locations, but actually, when you look, there are many opportunities to experience nature on our doorstep.
But apart from the general mental health benefits I’ve already mentioned, why does it even matter?
It’s very easy to get dislocated from the soil and the planet that sustains us. And through this we can also lose a sense of connection with ourselves. Traditionally people lived a life much more in tune with the seasons and I think many of us have lost this way of living in our always-on, always-available world. Spending time with plants and the natural world, can help to heal this loss of connection and realise our role as part of the wider web of nature.
If you don’t have the time, money or wherewithal to escape the city, how can you build this nature connection back into your life?
Some simple ways of connecting with nature in the city
1. Grow something (and even a little something is a great start!)
One very simple way to start to build your awareness of the seasons and a little up close plant life is to get down and dirty with some growing.
This could be a herb pot on your window or just one of two container edibles if you have some outside space (potatoes and strawberries both work well in tubs). Even just having some general pot plants around can really benefit your mental health; start small and gently build up your collection.
Getting your hands in some soil is very therapeutic and I find it particularly motivating if I’m growing and tending to something I love to eat. I’m a particular fan on the rhubarb I grow in my back garden as it needs very little tending to and comes back again and again every year. I also love rhubarb crumble so it’s a definite winner for me.
Not only is there extra pleasure in eating something you’ve grown yourself, the taste of something fresh and in season is SO vastly different from shrink wrapped air freighted fruit and veg. And if you can’t grow your own, at the very least start to buy fruit and vegetables that are in season and, where possible, grown in the country in which you’re living.
2. Be quiet & listen
Sometimes we are so ‘busy’ that we don’t take the time to stop and listen to the nature that’s all around us in the city.
I run my Saturday morning chocolate meditations at a lovely venue in Islington in London, which is a very bustling and urban part of the city. I often start the sessions with a sound awareness meditation, tuning into all the amazing sounds outside the room. Nearly every time, as if on cue, a couple of birds in a tree outside the window start chirping. The first time this happened someone actually thought I was playing the sound as it was amazing to hear the birds so intensely in city surrounds.
The sounds of birds, the rustling of leaves, buzzing of bees or even just the wind whistling through buildings are just some of the notes of nature you can tune into if you take time to listen.
3. Take a walk on the wild side
There are actually a surprising number of places that have an element of the wild in cities, especially as the importance of these areas is now so much more recognised in city and town planning. Find a patch of wild and take some time to ‘bathe’ in it, shinrin yoku style. This could be a park, a peaceful back alley overhung with trailing plants, a riverside escape or a little pond. You might even want to stand by a tree in a street and have a sneaky touch, remembering that even in the most apparently urban of places nature creeps in.
4. Take your shoes off
Don’t underestimate the power of a little physical connection with the earth. Whenever you can, if it’s safe to do so, take your shoes and socks off and let your feet sink into a little grass. I used to do tai chi in the park in the summer time in West London and it was an amazing experience to plant my bare feet on the ground. And it doesn’t have to be in public if you prefer not to; you can totally go bare footed in your (or someone else’s) garden every now and then.
5. Visit an urban growing project
If you want to go one step further, explore growing projects or city farms in your area as most major cities now have an amazing selection of city farms, urban growing charities and community gardens. It’s really exciting to see what can be cultivated in places that don’t always seem the likeliest of locations.
If you’re in London, just a few places/organisations I recommend checking out include:
Hackney City Farm (Hackney, East London)
Spitalfields City Farm (Spitalfields, City of London/East London)
Hackney Herbal (Hackney, East London)
Culpeper Community Garden (Islington, North London)
Skip Garden & Kitchen (Kings Cross, Central/North London)
Salopian Garden (Isleworth, West London)
If you fancy exploring how to get a little more connection in the city, check out a special upcoming event I’m running in collaboration with The Mindful Kitchen.
Urban Connection Retreat: breaking bread is our very first event, combining reflective walking, nature connection and meditation, along with a little food making and sharing in a beautiful half day event in London. And yes there will be many bready mouthfuls to enjoy along the way. Just get in touch if you’d like to know more!