I’ve just returned home from a week camping by the sea. I visited a part of the coast so lovely that it almost makes me catch my breath every time I look out over the water. And yet… although I love to travel, there is nothing quite like coming back to my own place. I returned to one of my regular walking routes yesterday evening. The minute changes of a week – the slightly deeper colour of the beech leaves, the rowan berries more red and vibrant, the linden berries appearing on their long stalks, even the slight heaviness of the air that tells me we are into August now (Lúnasa in Irish: the time of first fruits) – all reminded me of my relationship with this place that is my home.
Relationship to place
Do you feel at home in the place where you live? Do you feel well there? Can you feel that you belong? We’ve all had the experience of arriving somewhere and feeling instantly at home, or landing somewhere else and feeling unwelcome. Sometimes a place just seems to suit; sometimes it doesn’t. Regardless, by consciously engaging with the place where you live, you can develop a relationship with it that can enhance your sense of well-being and connection.
Archetypes of the land
Dr Sharon Blackie writes beautifully about the importance of our relationship to our places in her books If Women Rose Rooted and The Enchanted Life. She describes how the archetypes of the land rise to inform our experience of it as our familiarity with a place grows. So, for example, a rocky hill can assume the aspect of a cranky old woman, or a bubbling stream the qualities of a playful child. These characters then come to people our imaginal worlds, teaching us about themselves, ourselves and life.
As Dr Blackie describes it, this is far more than the imposition of our mental constructs on to the land. It is rather a ‘coming to know’ the animate energy of the earth, in the way that indigenous peoples have always known it. This knowing may be lost to many of us who live in cities and have become divorced from the world outside. We may feel separate to nature or alienated from it. Perhaps we have lost the sense of being at home in the world, but luckily it can easily be rediscovered.
Benefits of time in nature
Many studies are now showing the benefits of spending time outside in nature (even the most recent issue of Clinical Psychology Review contains an article on the benefits of outdoor therapy). I would like to invite you to take that thought a step further.
I would like to ask you to consider that you are not separate to the ecosystem around you, but part of it. Not just part of the human community where you live but bound to the trees, the birds, the animals and insects. Your actions impact them, whether you let wildflowers grow in your garden to encourage pollinators, or spray pesticide, or feed the birds or drop litter. And not to forget, as you look at nature, it looks back at you. That crow on your front fence sees you, the urban fox that prowls your street knows your scent, the bees that buzz through your kitchen are aware of you.
The ‘sit spot’
One tool frequently used in ecotherapy that can begin to re-establish your relationship to place is the ‘sit spot’. This is precisely what it sounds like – a spot outside, easy to access daily (perhaps in your garden or a local park), where you can simply sit and observe what is around you. By making a daily ritual of going to your sit spot and simply sitting in silence for twenty minutes or so, you will begin to know the place and develop your relationship to it in a new way.
If twenty minutes sounds impossible, start by setting your phone timer for five minutes. Initially, you may not notice much, but if you stick with the practice, you will experience the seasonal changes. You will gradually begin to observe how the plants grow. You will see how different birds and insects make themselves known in different ways and at different times. Your sensitivity to nature and also to the currents of your own being will increase. It’s a very ordinary kind of magic but its effects can be profound.
Tips for getting started
- Make sure that your spot is safe – not too populated, but also not too isolated.
- Bring a mat if you plan to sit on the ground – especially important in the damp Irish climate.
- Set your intention as you arrive, whether it’s to increase your nature awareness, to connect with the spirit of the place, or something else.
- Take a few minutes to focus on your breath and relax your body, to become present.
- Focus on your sensory awareness – what can you see, hear, feel, smell?
- Observe what’s around you without assigning a value to it.
- Notice what images and impressions come to you – you might want to write these down at the end of your session.
- When you end your session, take a moment to appreciate and give thanks for what you have received. If you feel so inclined, you could make a ritual offering of water or perhaps some herbs or flowers.
Finding comfort in nature
I’ve had many sit spots over the course of my life, places I’ve been drawn back to repeatedly to reflect, rest, retreat and just sit. They’ve been varied – large flat rocks in country fields, low-hanging branches of ancient trees, grassy spots sheltered from the elements, even park benches with particular locations and views. Each of them has given me something different but I have learned from and been comforted by them all. When I’ve moved to new places and felt alone, finding a sit spot has always helped me to find my bearings, to feel at home.
More recently, during the lockdown experience, many of us were either deprived of our human connections or thrown into far too close company with them. Conditions such as depression, anxiety and even simple loneliness came to the fore for many people. In all of these cases, developing a conscious connection with the non-human world can help to restore balance, comfort and well-being. In times of trouble, a sit spot can quite literally save you.
I seek out my sit spot when I’m tired, when I need the sense of being held. The familiarity and the knowing of the landscape allows me to sit into it and be calmed. You don’t make a sit spot by going there once. It’s a thing formed by habit, by growing and tending a relationship with a place, just as you would with a person. It’s a slow courtship – a getting to know the air, the ground, the fragrances and aspects of the plants, the way particular creatures linger in particular ways. If you approach it with a conscious intention to build a connection, this relationship can nurture you and help you to feel at home in the world – wherever you are. I invite you to discover it for yourself.
If a sit spot practice sounds appealing, why not give it a try? There’s nothing to lose, it’s completely free and you can even do it while socially isolating. If you find that being in nature is healing for you, you might also find Walk & Talk Psychotherapy or Soul Care work helpful. I’ll be offering outdoor sessions again once Covid-19 restrictions ease. In the meantime, I’m available online, and I’d love to hear from you. Contact me here.