Connecting with nature for your mental health
Brighton-based meditation and creativity teacher Helen shares her top tips for creating a relationship with nature to help your mental wellbeing.
It’s Mental Health Awareness Week and the theme is nature, which is no surprise, as nature has been a source of comfort and solace for so many of us throughout the pandemic. Even when all our usual haunts – the spa, the yoga studio, a weekend away – were off the menu, Mother Earth was there waiting with open arms. The daily dog walk, the family stroll, the forays into new hobbies (wild swimming, anybody?) all helped us discover our inner resilience and courage.
The real beauty of nature is that it’s there for all of us, just outside our front doors (or even in our houses, if we choose to bring nature inside). You don’t need any special equipment to develop a relationship with nature, or to benefit from it. And you absolutely don’t need to sit underneath a tree chanting and meditating – although you can, if you like!
Muddy spoke to Helen Forester, a meditation and creative writing teacher based in Brighton. Helen runs Prompted by Nature and hosts workshops in Brighton’s Stanmer Park and Wilderness Woods in East Sussex, as well as online. She also hosts the brilliant Prompted by Nature podcast in which she talks all things creativity with local experts. We spoke about her practice of connecting with nature, and grilled her for tips on ways we can all use the nature on our doorstep for health, wellbeing and healing.
Hi Helen! Tell us about yourself and Prompted by Nature!
I taught English in secondary schools for 10 years, and then I did my meditation teacher training. I’ve always been an outdoorsy person and it made sense to me to combine my three loves of meditation, creativity and being in nature. That led me to create Prompted by Nature in 2019, with sessions at Stanmer Park and Wilderness Woods.
I wanted to encourage people to get outside, not necessarily to a writing class or day retreat, but just get outside, as much as possible. And I also wanted to give people ideas for what to do when they’re out there. I personally often find when I’m out for a walk I have that feeling of ‘This is great but I want to do something else too’.
Yes! I’m always reading and hearing that I need to connect with nature but what does that actually mean?
For me, connecting with nature has always ended up as me connecting with myself. It’s going out for a walk and realising something I was unsure of, or coming to some understanding, or just finding peace as I’m walking.
Simple things can be really nourishing to my own creativity. For example, I started learning the names of the birds and trees in our local area. From that I got interested in Celtic mythology and how every tree has a meaning, significance and story. And that sparked ideas for creative writing – just from a yew tree in a graveyard behind my house.
The main thing is to create a relationship with what’s there, and see where that takes you. Follow your curiosity. You actually don’t need to go all the way to a big forest or open space, there’s nature right here on your doorstep.
What about meditation – doesn’t that involve being in a quiet room with a candle and minimising distractions? How does it work outside?
Meditation is about becoming absorbed in one point of focus. When I run day retreats the first thing we do is walk from the meeting point, to the space where we’re based for the day. It would only take five minutes at normal pace but we walk really slowly and it takes far longer. I always warn everybody that they’ll feel like they’re walking far too slowly and after about 5 minutes they’ll get to a point where they want to walk faster. That point is where your mind starts to put up a fight, telling you you need to go somewhere or do something. That’s the point you have to push past.
When we focus just on one foot going in front of the other we can allow the breath to slow down and the senses to really open. There is stillness that comes from allowing everything to move around you. In meditation thoughts are like leaves falling from the tree, they go from one place to another, and you become the anchor point.
A practice like this helps your mind find a bit of rest. Focus on what’s happening in the trees around you or the waves crashing on the shore, so your thoughts just pass. And then if you feel like being more creative this is the time to get out your notebook and start writing! By this point you won’t be thinking in terms of what you ‘should’ be writing, you’ll just be writing whatever comes.
With exercises like this we’re just trying to slow down to forest time. Trees aren’t in any rush, they take ages to grow. When we walk into a woodland we’re walking into their house and we’re slowing down to their time.
OK I’m outside, but I’ve got the washing up at home waiting and kids and work to do…..
Take the long way home. Yes you might have washing up to do, but taking the long way home from the shops or the post office only lasts 10 extra minutes and you’ll feel better for it when you get home!
If you want to be creative, especially with children, go out and pick up five things each – a pine cone, a twig, a leaf, whatever you can find – and bring it home. When you get home, make a picture with what you’ve found. Often people think they have to create something for a reason – otherwise it’s silly. Actually that’s the whole point. Enjoy what’s there, use it creatively, think of it as play.
Another nice exercise is to focus on just one sense. You might decide to focus only on what you can feel – the wind in your face, the leaves beneath your feet. Using your senses and your creativity is the best way to start creating a relationship with nature. Then you start to feel like you really want to go out and spend time in nature because you’ve experienced how good it can feel, and it’s not about fitness or anything like that, it’s just about being outside and listening to the birds.
We all have cameras on our phones so photography is a great way to challenge yourself. You could decide to only take photos of things that are yellow, or red, or green – OK that one’s easy. I went out with my kids to the beach the other day and I decided to only take photos of plants that I find at the beach. Prompts like that, and like the ones I share on the Instagram feed, help give me themes and ideas. If you have children at home, it’s great to get them involved too.
Inspired to get outside? Here’s Muddy’s favourite winter walks, and mountain biking hotspots, as well as some brilliant Sussex trails to explore on foot or by bike. You can also read our fab interview with local foraging expert Fern Freud here.