Rainforest Mind: Shhh, listen. Being, doing and love.
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I’m standing with my eyes closed in the middle of a busy street and listening. Why? And what can I learn from that experience? I talk about the false opposites of being and doing, and why I prefer lovable to perfect.
It’s that time of year again. We’re just in to the second
week of January and many of us will have broken our New Year’s resolutions
already. What’s going on, and how can we really change?
The New Year is often a time for reflection and
contemplation. We look at the past year, celebrate some things and feel regret
about others. We imagine some ideal self that we would like to be, and aim
ourselves towards it, making promises and resolutions.
I’ll go the gym more, I’ll eat a better diet, I’ll phone my
mum more often, I’ll be kinder to myself and so on and so forth.
I have a rule of thumb for myself: If it takes a small push
— go for it; if it takes a big push — think again.
Why are some changes
easier than others?
We are made up of a whole mix of different habit patterns
and impulses. Some parts of us see the downside of old behaviours and are
desperate to change. At the same time those old patterns of behaviour think
they have very good reasons to keep doing what they are doing.
Internal Family Systems teaches us that whilst some parts of
us might produce harmful and unhelpful effects in the short and/or long term; those
parts are convinced that they have our best interests at heart.
For example, part of us wants to do more exercise in the New
Year. Another part baulks at the idea and instead of going to the gym we find
ourselves pulling into a fast food drive through, or into the car park of our
favourite shop, or simply not leaving the house.
We’re convinced that more exercise would be good for us and
yet over and over again we find we just can’t do it.
Those slightly hidden parts that are keeping us away from
the gym are sure they are doing the right thing? What’s going on?
Perhaps somewhere hidden deep inside there is a part of us holding a wound around exercise. Maybe some shaming in P.E. at school, for example. Our young system learnt that the way to avoid that experience was to stay away, and those stay away parts have been busy keeping us safe ever since.
Of course the ‘stay away’ parts don’t want us to go to the
gym, whilst we’re there, they think, we might get shamed again. And then the
New Year comes along and we say that we are going to push past all of that so
called resistance and just do it! To those parts protecting us from being
shamed this feels like a great threat, so of course they push back even harder,
and we find ourselves back at square one.
So what can we do?
The way forward is to respect all the different parts of our
system: to respect both the impulse to change, and the protective parts that
want to avoid change.
Sometimes simply noticing the protective parts is enough for
them to begin to relax. We can remind them that we’re not at school any more,
for example, and that we have different choices about how to respond if things
do go wrong.
Sometimes we need to work with these parts a little more
before they are willing to relax. This is when it’s helpful to get support from
With your therapist alongside us we can get curious about
these parts. Why are they doing what they are doing? How old do they think we
are? What wounds are they protecting?
Sometimes there are just a few parts involved, and the
process doesn’t take long. Sometimes there are more parts involved, or more
powerful parts and we need to hang out with them for a while before they begin
revealing themselves to us.
This is true for lifestyle changes like going to the gym,
and it is true for addressing anxiety, depression and the effects of trauma.
When things aren’t changing as we would like it’s a sign
that there are different parts involved, and the way forward is not to push
through but to work with all of the parts. When all the parts involved are
ready for change, then change will appear.
In our Buddhist community, at the invitation of our local XR group, we dedicate one practice session each month to the living earth. In our most recent session I talked about and made a space for grief, and I’ll share some of those same thoughts here.
I remember a childhood holiday to Cornwall. We drove down from the West Midlands in our blue-grey Lada and at the end of the journey, after we had set up camp, my dad washed the car windscreen. We had hit so many bugs on the way down, and their splattered bodies were spread across the glass. Last year I drove to Scotland and the windscreen was almost clear.
People older than me might remember having to pull over to
wash the windscreen on long journeys, or the moth ‘snowstorm’ that appeared in
the headlights of cars driving at night.
You will have your own experiences of the loss: how you used
to be woken up the dawn chorus as a child, but now the early mornings are much
quieter; a favourite wild place that has been built over; or the loss of people
and places to extreme weather events.
I am moved as I write about and name these events. I can feel tears and grief in my stomach wanting to rise up and find expression.
We often shy away from feeling such powerful emotions out of fear that they will overwhelm us. Not wanting to feel this pain is completely understandable, and this denial can prevent us from taking action to support of the living planet.
Understanding our own reluctance to feel grief can allow us
to understand why others don’t want to feel this grief and why they don’t take
the action we might like them to take.
A Second Kind of Grief
I am a child of the 80s and 90s. We were promised endless
material wealth, if only we would work hard. We were fed endless material
“Get this, buy this, things will make you happy!”
“When you grow up you can choose to spend your
money however you want.”
“Travel the world!”
I recently looked into my heart and found a place that grieves for not getting what it wants. A small boy who still wants those promises to be fulfilled, “But you told me I could!” he cries. When I first discovered this about myself I was ashamed. These are not the feelings of a conscientious person. And yet, the feelings we have are the feelings we have. I have found a way to be kind to that part of me, and to allow its grief to find expression.
Again, understanding these places in our own hearts allows
us to more deeply understand those others.
It’s important to find places to express grief; to find ways of allowing the pain to exist which aren’t overwhelming. When we can acknowledge our deep feelings — anger, blame, hurt and sadness —we allow them to move and shift and change. They become a source of strength rather than a source of fear.
What is it that allows us to process and experience our own
grief? It is love.
For me, much of that love comes from my Buddhist faith.
Knowing that I am loved and supported by the cosmic Buddhas returns me to a
feeling of safety, where I can name and feel powerful feelings without being consumed,
overwhelmed or traumatised.
Some of you will have religious higher powers that you can
take refuge in like this: God, the Tao, Krishna and so on.
Some of you will have loving communities and relationships
where you find this same kind of love. A love that accepts you just as you are.
Some of you will intuit something loving in the natural
world: watching a sunset, being in wilderness, looking up at the night sky.
Some of you will find a place inside yourselves that unconditionally
loves and accepts yourself and others.
Some of you might find it in professional therapeutic relationships.
Some of you might still be searching for this.
As we find safe spaces to grieve we come to know ourselves
more deeply. We discover our pain, and
our resistance to pain. We come to know the human condition more deeply.
This knowing is essential for our work in relationship to
others. As we process our own deep feelings it is easier to come into
relationship to the deep feelings of others, and to find ways of standing
And as we find ways of letting grief in, we come into a more
intimate relationship with the natural world and are more able to celebrate and
champion the diversity and life that still flourishes.
I encourage you to find spaces to grieve in, and to support the grieving process of others. That can only be good for us, and for the living planet.
We come to therapy when we want to change. Sometimes we are desperate to change, and that urgency makes complete sense; we feel awful and we want to feel better, or we can see the downsides of our moods and habits and are worried about getting into more trouble.
If our whole system was ready to change, we would have already changed and we wouldn’t need to be in therapy. We are a mixture of feelings and habits – we all have many different aspects. We come into therapy and some parts of us want us to change, and some parts of us are afraid of change.
I’ve just returned to personal therapy. I’m confident this is a good thing for my clients, as well as for me personally.
Being a client reminds me how it is for my own clients to be
in therapy. How strange it is to come to a first session, and the nerves that
come with imagining sharing the deepest parts of ourselves. How vulnerable we
Being a client supports me to have more empathy and understanding towards the various parts of myself, on more and more subtle levels, and this self-empathy increases my capacity to empathise and be with my clients and what they are bringing.
Being a client reminds me that we are all in the same boat. I know how it is to be wounded and to have fears and triggers. As a therapist I’m not working from a place of, “I’m all sorted” but from, “I know how it is to be human, and to support other humans like me”.
Being a client means that I am getting support for my own fears and triggers, and when my own wounded parts feel taken care of it’s much easier for me to take care of my clients, and what they are bringing to sessions.
I’m half-way through my training in Wild Therapy. You may have seen me writing about the power of working outside before (here and here). We work outside a lot on the Wild Therapy training, but it isn’t the whole story. As well as appreciating and coming into relationship with the wild out there, Wild Therapy is also about coming to appreciate the wild inside: Wild Mind.
Let’s start with a definition of wildness.
I like that one of the Chinese characters for nature means something like ‘self-leading’: left alone the natural world takes care of its needs.
A rainforest is a good example of a wild eco-system. There
are many different elements that exist in relationship to one another, birds,
animals, insects and trees. Some of these live off one another, but the whole
system is in balance. Populations find ways of existing alongside one another
without one element taking control of the whole forest.
There is no manager at the centre of the forest directing activity, and yet when all of these different elements come into good relationships with one another, something beautiful is produced.
I’m not using wildness to mean crazy, but complex, self-led and diverse. This is wildness as ecologists understand it.
How does that relate to inner wildness?
Our mind/body systems are made up of different parts. There is the sympathetic and para- sympathetic nervous system, other biological systems, and the mind itself which has many different aspects. Some aspects of the mind we are conscious of, and some we are less conscious of. These different aspects motivate actions, and create different thoughts and feelings.
When all of these different parts are in good relationship
to each other, we probably don’t notice them at all, and generally feel relaxed
and at ease. When one part comes to dominate, or different parts develop
oppositions to each other – we might start to notice the downsides.
An inner-critic might be predominate, for example, or the desire for quick change might be fighting with a part that wants things to stay just as they are.
One way of understanding why these parts take over so forcefully
is that they have lost trust in the whole system – in the rainforest mind, so to
So wild therapy is about restoring trust and it is about
appreciating that there is a place for all of these different parts – that therapy
is not about getting rid of anything but of bringing the whole system into balance.
Nothing gets thrown away, and each part finds its way into better relationships with the other parts, and them the whole system operates like a rainforest, like that Chinese word for nature ‘self-led’.
When we have a complete eco-system, a completely wild-mind, we don’t have to manage it, we don’t have to push ourselves or control ourselves, because naturally we engage in the world in a healthy, easy way.
Want to learn more? Listen to these episodes of my podcast, Rainforest Mind:
This is a piece about songlines, and about maps, and about one thing you can do to improve your mental health.
A couple of weeks ago I was walking through a valley on the edge of the Forest of Bowland. I crossed over the river Roeburn at the bottom of the valley, and the woodland opened out into a meadow. There were a few fruit trees here, and some wildflowers scattered through the grasses. Later in the woodland I was struck by the elm flowers on young elm trees, by the bluebells and by the ferns. Birdsong filled my ears, along with the buzzing sounds of bees, wasps and hoverflies.
I was following a human trail. It was crisscrossed with the
trails of other animals — deer, I guess and maybe foxes and badgers.
Humans see in one range of colours, birds and animals in
another, insects in another. My view of the forest is from nearly six feet above
the ground, a badger’s view is just a few inches from the ground, and the
smells are much more significant. All of our experiences of the forest are very
A badger’s map of the forest is very different to mine. I
want to know where the fences and gates are, and which way the paths go. A
badger’s map is about food, and sniffing out the territory of other animals.
Naturalist Charles Foster experimented with a badger’s map
of the woods. He slept on the ground, wore a blindfold and learnt to recognise
the different smells on the forest floor. Even then his map of the woods would have
been subtly different, I’m sure.
And what of a tree’s map of the woods? What does a tree
notice? They respond to the seasons, to chemicals that other trees emit, to stress…
Songlines are the songs handed down through Australian aboriginal
communities that mark the journeys of the creator gods. The songs are maps,
very different to our own, and vast tracts of Australia can be navigated using
them. We all have different ways of seeing the world.
What has this got to do with mental health?
The more able we are able to appreciate that others have different
experiences, and ways of seeing the world to our own, the more likely we are to
have good mental health.
The more we can see that we are not at the centre of the
world, the more likely we are to have good mental health.
Good mental health is about landing in reality, and reality is complex. The more we can appreciate that there are many (human and other than human) ways of experiencing the world, the more likely we are to have good mental health, and the more likely we are to behave in ways which are better for the whole plant. And behaving in ways which are good for the whole planet tends to support good mental health.
So that one thing you can do? Begin to appreciate the many
different ways of seeing the world.