Walking in nature has become such an important practice in my life, I can't really imagine a reality without it. Yet it's only recently that I've stopped to wonder why it has had such a positive impact on me over the years.
There has been significant research to show that nature enhances our physical and mental well being. Probably the most notable is a study by Roger Ulrich (1972) who observed a quicker recovery time for hospital patients who had a view onto a natural setting from their hospital room window, than patients facing a brick building.
Many have embraced nature by engaging in practices such as tree-hugging, and tree-bathing. In the world of therapy, many of us have begun offering walk and talk and eco-therapy. But what is it that is so healing about nature? There are plenty of scientific explanations, but I believe there is also a longing for connection with the natural world etched into the human psyche.
Those of us living in the highly-developed Western world experience so much of our earth indirectly. We consume food which has undergone many processes before reaching our plates. We learn about our planet by watching documentaries on T.V. We live in a ready-made world with little need for interaction with the original source. Whilst we may feel gratitude, we may have little appreciation for where our consumables come from, or how they arrived there.
What we forget, when we talk about nature, is that as humans we are nature. If we have lost our connection with nature, we have also lost our connection with ourselves. This leaves us feeling alone, lost and stressed from the continual pressures of living in a fast-paced, complex world with an ever-increasing emphasis on productivity and over-reliance on digital devices.
So, how do we re-connect with nature and with ourselves? I have listed a few ideas below, but would encourage you to find your own creative ways too!
"Everything in nature invites us constantly to be what we are"
This quote by Ulrich is one of my all time favourites. It is so true. In nature, we find a space to be ourselves. We can relax and feel the joy of being grounded and present. Nature teaches us many things. It reminds us of the cyclical nature of life. The ebb and flow. When we see a dead leaf, or a rotten tree, we are reminded that nothing is ever perfect, yet there is always continuation. All nature is connected, existing in harmony. And we are part of that, of something bigger than our individual lives. And we remember that we are not alone.
When we face a bereavement, it can feel as though the ground has given way beneath our feet. Although we know intellectually that everyone will one day die, we tend to dissociate from this knowledge and the fear it can bring. In the words of Yalom, "We know but we do not know" (Love's Executioner, 1989).
The loss of a loved one can shake our assumption that life will just carry on as it always has done, bringing death and our own mortality into sharp focus.
Grief is the natural response to loss- a process. Theorists (e.g. Kubler-Ross, Worden) have described stages, or features of this process. While it is helpful to understand a bit about grief theory, it's also wise to bear in mind that there is no right (or wrong) way to grieve, and that there are as many different ways to do so as there are people in the world.
So, if grieving is totally normal and to be expected, why might someone get counselling? Well, problems can come when there are complications which prevent people grieving in a way that is helpful to them.
Take Hilary, for example. She has just lost her husband of 40 years. They were married young, and she can barely remember what life was like without him being around. It is approaching a year since his death, but she still feels a deep sorrow and regularly breaks down in tears. Her children think she should have moved on by now. They tell her to stop moping around and feeling sorry for herself. They want her to start looking after the grandchildren again and are advising her to get out and meet new people. She can't face it, and feels completely alone with her grief.
Hilary is a fictitious woman, but she represents so many who face the challenge of living in a culture which does not necessarily cater well for grieving people.
Counselling can help by offering a safe space for the feelings which arise from grief to be acknowledged and expressed, without judgement. It can allow the grieving person to process and make sense of the events that took place around the time of the death, and to understand what it means to go on living without their loved one around.
Finally, counselling can help the bereaved to find meaningful ways of continuing the bond with their loved one, through rituals such as marking occasions like the anniversary of their death.
You may be wondering where creativity fits into all this? Counselling involves two people coming together to construct new perspectives and ways of understanding, which makes it a creative act in itself. Add creative materials and exercises to the mix, and you have the potential for a highly creative scenario whereby endless possibilities for insight and growth are opened up.
In my counselling practice, I offer clients the opportunity to use art, images and symbols as a way to access thoughts and emotions which may be out of conscious awareness. It's amazing how something as simple as a colour can tap into some buried memory or feeling.
In our western culture, we tend to place more emphasis on left-brain functions such as language and rational knowledge, and are generally not so focused on the right-brain which is associated with intuition and emotions. While talking is incredibly helpful in the counselling room, creative methods can offer another way of knowing when there simply are no words for what is being felt.
A great example of how creative methods might be woven into a counselling session is working with metaphor. Waves, black clouds, long dark tunnels, bottomless pits- all common grief metaphors. If a client brings a metaphor, I might ask them to visualise this as an image in their mind. I then invite them to represent this image on paper, and to draw themselves too. This allows an increased empathy as I see something of what they are experiencing, but we can also work more deeply with the underlying emotions through reflecting on it together in a safe and supportive way.
Many people will claim that they are simply not creative, and are reluctant to use creative methods because they have judged themselves as being "bad" at art. Or perhaps someone else has told them this. I always explain to clients that in our work together I will not be making any judgments. There is no right or wrong way to create. The focus is on the process and what comes up for the client.
We are all creative. Every time we make a decision, solve a problem, imagine a dream, we are being creative. Recognising this, and harnessing the power of creativity in the counselling room can bring healing and release for the grieving client.