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Alex Douglas-Kane shares her experiences and understanding of Discover Nature Awareness

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

I will never forget that day...

Before I met Geoffrey I had only a vague idea of what Nature Awareness was. I mainly believed it to be a way of reconnecting with Nature but not much more. I certainly didn’t realise how powerful this work is and how it can be integrated into more mainstream treatment methods. I am a Consultant Psychiatrist and a few years ago I was working at a recovery centre where Geoffrey was working as well. One day Geoffrey suggested I join a group of patients to see what kind of work he does. Out of pure curiosity I went along. I observed and observed and finally participated and became part of the experience.

I will never forget that day. My whole perception of the power of nature, our inner power and how the two are connected completely changed. I saw my patients gradually shedding their fears, truly connecting in ways that I didn’t believe were possible for them. In my work I treat a wide variety of psychiatric disorders including addictive behaviours. Many of my patients struggled with feelings of emptiness, isolation and lack of connection with others and the world in general.

Traditional treatment methods often alleviate symptoms but struggle to timely reach many of these patients. By working with Geoffrey I had the privilege to observe how Nature Awareness is able to make a difference in patient's recoveries. Nature Awareness was able to create the bridge that we were unable to create. Suddenly these same patients started to feel connected, related first to Nature, then to others and finally to themselves. What we call resistance or defences simply melted away and the true self was able to freely express itself with no fear but with all its power.

Many experiences in life have the ability to make us feel better. Unlike them, Nature Awareness is able to enhance people’s capacity to trust, connect and have a wider vision of things, enabling them to respond to more traditional treatment methods.

In the scientific community, experiences like Nature Awareness are still widely unknown and unexplored. I strongly believe though that this kind of experience is able to create the missing link between what we call “pathology” and a life of emotional fulfilment.

Although my field is mental health, I see a much greater potential to this work than the mentally ill only. Opening up this language to children for example can allow them to grow feeling more grounded, connected, empowered in a way that is unique and mostly unavailable to them nowadays. This book is a beautiful gift to all those who are willing to try out some new fun games and unexpectedly find themselves moved and empowered by Nature, others and our own true selves.

Dr Karin Dorell
Consultant Psychiatrist

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Natural Awareness How Does It Work?

Natural Awareness as medium motivates internal/external communication helping to 1) promote confidence and self-esteem while 2) creating a sense of trust 3) in the “here and now” (Ward, 2007), 4) allowing individuals to connect with their hearts to a sense of place, 5) encouraging participants to be honest and take responsibility for their actions, 6) developing independence and creativity by, 7) helping individuals to see that they can achieve things in life they never thought possible, ultimately helping to restore self-respect and belief in oneself while experiencing a spiritual-awakening in nature, i.e. healing oneself.

Natural Awareness employs the following games ‘Meet a Tree’, ‘Blindfold Tag’, ‘Drum Stalk’, ‘Fox the Fox’, ‘Tread of Intent’, ‘Plant Meditation’ and ‘Tracking’ also musical instruments; metaphor, guided-meditation, blindfolds and sit-spot to support people with an addiction. Some games originated from Cornell and Brown, while others came from sources unknown. Fox the Fox was created by McMullan & Nicholls (2000), there after the majority of the games then meta-morphed beyond their original form as a direct result of working with addicts throughout the UK & Europe. Nature-Awareness unfolds, when participants are taken into what they perceive as an alien high risk environment, by being with like-minded people they get a sense of [1] feeling supported by the group while [2] being externally/internally challenged, they’re presented with an opportunity to buy into (3) a process of establishing a healthy-relationship through developing trust with their peers/therapist, and ultimately with themselves, [4] for some individuals just the act of venturing into a woodland, putting on a blindfold is a ‘Huge Personal Challenge’.

Employing Rohnke's (1984, 1989) attitude of “challenge by choice”, participants can freely withdraw from a Nature-Awareness activity. By taking personal responsibility, they empower themselves to move forward, having made an informed choice, disengaging from an activity is seen as a positive lesson. As a metaphor I sometimes use ‘The Stone in the Still Pond’ by dropping a stone into a pond, the concentric-rings spread outwards until they reach the bank, they then return to the centre. Let’s break this down. [1] The stone represents the addict in their addiction [2] the falling stone represents old behaviours being acted out [3] the concentric-rings are the consequences of that action i.e. family, relationships, police, society more importantly [4] the concentric-rings returning to centre, represents the consequences of their actions. In this simplified explanation we are not dealing solely with an isolated event within the concentric-rings, rather the whole of someone’s process including their spiritual-inter-connectedness.

‘Meet a Tree’ is the first game I start with, as it presents addicts with a physical-experience which raises questions like how did I find a tree in a wood, while blindfolded. It has been my experience, that when addicts take part in Natural Awareness, and are open to exploring new experiences, it creates an environment where they will ask questions. It is at this time they are encouraged to find their own answers. Professionally, I use the language of the treatment-programme I am working under I discovered that addicts engaged better because of this approach.

With ‘Meet a Tree’, (which is not just about finding a tree), if someone does not find their tree that’s okay, I liken the process to a dartboard, the bulls-eye means they have found their tree, whereas the green is when they choose a tree next to theirs or stop just short of it, I consider these as hits and therapeutically allows me to work with their confidence and self-esteem. Its also about being a student/teacher at the same time, e.g. before starting one game, a participant set herself up to fail by stating to the group, that she would not find her tree. When she didn’t find it, she became very agitated and verbally aggressive. I expressed surprise at why she was upset, I thought she would be happy, when she asked what to do you mean, I reminded her of what she had said before starting the game and because she had not found her tree. I saw no reason for her to be upset, as she got exactly what she asked for.

She fell silent, then agreed she had said that, at which point she changed how she felt about the situation, choosing to continue she went on to find her tree. Her joy in achieving her goal was immense. While she worked on her negative thoughts and feelings (student) during the game and beyond, this allowed the group to observe they’re behaviour through her (teacher).

The games have no time limit other than what the treatment-programme allows, e.g. one person decided that it was a load of ‘tree hugging’ rubbish and was going to prove it. He took his partner around the centre, went inside the building made a cup of tea, sat his partner down (still blindfolded), had a smoke and after twenty minutes brought him back to me. He was not prepared for what happened next, blindfold removed, his partner turned and walked straight to his tree. He was totally shocked; it raised lots of questions for him. This is exactly what I want people to do, ask questions, in fact question everything, but in essence question. [1] What has happen here (the physical) [2] internally what’s it telling me (the energetic) and [3] what does this mean, to me in my recovery (the spiritual)?

Natural Awareness gets participants to connect with their heart and to transfer the lessons learnt from nature (be it connecting with a tree, an animal, plant or another human being) into an opportunity to change old behaviour thus creating the potential for new healthy behaviour to manifest, by becoming more self-aware. Within an established therapeutic-programme, individuals can reflect upon their experiences through listening, discussing and processing with their peers/counsellors who have shared a similar experience, by abstracting practical insights about their behaviour and that of others.

Natural Awareness could be seen as a “Halfway House” (Greenway, 1995, p. 133), who introduced this concept along with alternative methods like yoga and meditation into his wilderness-programme, the outcome of which was that before and after a wilderness-experience he found that “…dysfunctions almost completely ceased” (p. 133). Because Nature-Awareness comfortably functions between a residential and wilderness setting, (reducing our physical impact on the wilderness), nature becomes more accessible as part of an individual’s healing process. Lau & McMain (2005) state that “… recent innovations in psychological treatments have integrated mindfulness meditation techniques with traditional cognitive and behavioural therapies, challenging traditional cognitive and behavioural therapists to integrate acceptance - and change-based strategies” (p. 863), with the emergence of mindfulness (the so called Third Wave) models like CBT are advancing, creating the potential for greater integration of alternative-therapies.

While not a stand-alone intervention Natural Awareness promotes behavioural, cognitive and affective change demonstrating an integrated approach which synergistically works with other therapies, such as Cognitive Behavioural Techniques (CBT), Transactional Analysis (TA), Gestalt (GE), 12-Steps (STEPS) which is used to deliver an end result GREATER than the use of a single therapy used in isolation, as an intervention Nature-Awareness can and does compliment main stream models.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Working with the Heart...

what do I mean by that, well here is something to think about...

The Heart, Mind and Spirit

Professor Mohamed Omar Salem

The concept of mind is of central importance for psychiatrists and psychologists. However, little attention has been paid in most formal textbooks to this important issue, which is usually studied under the section of ‘Philosophical aspects of psychiatry/psychology’. The practicing psychiatrist should have some working model of the mind to help him understanding his patient’s problems (Salem, 2004). This review discusses some aspects of the components of mind, which is only one step on a long road.

In many cultures throughout history, the heart has been considered the source of emotions, passion and wisdom. Also, people used to feel that they experienced the feeling or sensation of love and other emotional states in the area of the heart. However, in the past, scientists emphasized the role of the brain in the head as being responsible for such experiences. Interestingly, recent studies have explored physiological mechanisms by which the heart communicates with the brain, thereby influencing information processing, perceptions, emotions and health. These studies provided the scientific basis to explain how and why the heart affects mental clarity, creativity and emotional balance. In this review, I shall try to summarize and integrate the interesting findings in this area.

Heart and emotions
It is long known that changes in emotions are accompanied by predictable changes in the heart rate, blood pressure, respiration and digestion. So, when we are aroused, the sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system energizes us for fight or flight, and in more quiet times, the parasympathetic component cools us down. In this view, it was assumed that the autonomic nervous system and the physiological responses moved in concert with the brain’s response to a given stimulus (Rein, Atkinson, et al, 1995).

The heart and brain
However, following several years of research, it was observed that, the heart communicates with the brain in ways that significantly affect how we perceive and react to the world. It was found that, the heart seemed to have its own peculiar logic that frequently diverged from the direction of the autonomic nervous system. The heart appeared to be sending meaningful messages to the brain that it not only understood, but also obeyed (Lacey and Lacey, 1978). Later, neurophysiologists discovered a neural pathway and mechanism whereby input from the heart to the brain could inhibit or facilitate the brain’s electrical activity (McCraty, 2002).

The brain in the heart
After extensive research, Armour (1994) introduced the concept of functional ‘heart brain’. His work revealed that the heart has a complex intrinsic nervous system that is sufficiently sophisticated to qualify as a ‘little brain’ in its own right. The heart’s brain is an intricate network of several types of neurons, neurotransmitters, proteins and support cells similar to those found in the brain proper. Its elaborate circuitry enables it to act independently of the cranial brain – to learn, remember, and even feel and sense. The heart’s nervous system contains around 40,000 neurons, called sensory neurites (Armour, 1991). Information from the heart - including feeling sensations - is sent to the brain through several afferents. These afferent nerve pathways enter the brain at the area of the medulla, and cascade up into the higher centres of the brain, where they may influence perception, decision making and other cognitive processes (Armour, 2004).

Thus, it was revealed that the heart has its own intrinsic nervous system that operates and processes information independently of the brain or nervous system. This is what allows a heart transplant to work. Normally, the heart communicates with the brain via nerve fibres running through the vagus nerve and the spinal column. In a heart transplant, these nerve connections do not reconnect for an extended period of time; in the meantime, the transplanted heart is able to function in its new host only through the capacity of its intact, intrinsic nervous system (Murphy, et al, 2000).

The heart’s magnetic field
Research has also revealed that the heart communicates information to the brain and throughout the body via electromagnetic field interactions. The heart generates the body’s most powerful and most extensive rhythmic electromagnetic field. The heart’s magnetic component is about 500 times stronger than the brain’s magnetic field and can be detected several feet away from the body. It was proposed that, this heart field acts as a carrier wave for information that provides a global synchronizing signal for the entire body (McCraty, Bradley & Tomasino, 2004)
Heart field interactions between individuals

There is now evidence that a subtle yet influential electromagnetic or ‘energetic’ communication system operates just below our conscious awareness. Energetic interactions possibly contribute to the ‘magnetic’ attractions or repulsions that occur between individuals, and also affect social relationships. It was also found that one person’s brain waves can synchronize to another person’s heart (McCraty, 2004).

Communication via hormones: the heart as a hormonal gland
Another component of the heart-brain communication system was provided by researchers studying the hormonal system. The heart was reclassified as an endocrine gland when, in 1983, a hormone produced and released by the heart called atrial natriuretic factor (ANF) was isolated. This hormone exerts its effect on the blood vessels, on the kidneys, the adrenal glands, and on a large number of regulatory regions in the brain. It was also found that the heart contains a cell type known as ‘intrinsic cardiac adrenergic’’ (ICA) cells.

Theses cells release noradrenaline and dopamine neurotransmitters, once thought to be produced only by neurons in the CNS. More recently, it was discovered that the heart also secretes oxytocin, commonly referred to as the ‘love’ or bonding hormone. In addition to its functions in childbirth and lactation, recent evidence indicates that this hormone is also involved in cognition, tolerance, adaptation, complex sexual and maternal behaviours, learning social cues and the establishment of enduring pair bonds. Concentrations of oxytocin in the heart were found to be as high as those found in the brain (Cantin & Genest, 1986).

Increasing psychophysiological coherence
Data indicate that when heart rhythm patterns are coherent, the neural information sent to the brain facilitates cortical function. This effect is often experienced as heightened mental clarity, improved decision making and increased creativity. Additionally, coherent input from the heart tends to facilitate the experience of positive feeling states. This may explain why most people associate love and other positive feelings with the heart and why many people actually feel or sense these emotions in the area of the heart. So, the heart seems to be intimately involved in the generation of psychophysiological coherence (Tille et al, 1996, & McCraty, 2000).

The heart and amygdala
Research has shown that the heart’s afferent neurological signals directly affect activity in the amygdala and associated nuclei, an important emotional processing centre in the brain. The amygdala is the key brain centre that coordinates behavioural, immunological, and neuroendocrine responses to environmental threats. It compares incoming emotional signals with stored emotional memories, and accordingly makes instantaneous decisions about the level of perceived threat. Due to its extensive connections to the limbic system, it is able to take over the neural pathways, activating the autonomic nervous system and emotional response before the higher brain centres receive the sensory information (Rein, McCraty and Atkinson, 1995 & McCraty et al, 1995).

The heart and intuition
A very interesting research finding has been that the heart is involved in the processing and decoding of intuitive information (McCraty, Atkinson & Bradley, 2004). Previous data suggests that the heart’s field was directly involved in intuitive perception, through its coupling to an energetic information field outside the bounds of space and time (Childre & McCraty, 2001). Using a rigorous experimental design; there was evidence that both the heart and brain receive and respond to information about a future event before the event actually happens. Even more surprising was that the heart appeared to receive this intuitive information before the brain (McCraty, Atkinson & Bradley, 2004).

It has long been thought that conscious awareness originates in the brain alone. Recent scientific studies suggest that consciousness emerges from the brain and body acting together (Popper & Eccles, 2000). As has been shown, a growing body of evidence now suggests that the heart plays a particularly significant role in this process. The above findings indicate that, the heart is far more than a simple pump. In fact, it is seen now as a highly complex, self-organizing information processing centre with its own functional ‘brain’ that communicates with, and influences, the cranial brain via the nervous system, hormonal system and other pathways.

The involvement of the heart with intuitive functions is another interesting piece of information. However, as persons with transplanted hearts can function normally, the heart can be considered here as a medium or tool, for an underlying more sophisticated integrating system that has the capacity to carry the personal identity of the individual. These new visions might give better understanding to the concept of mind as a multi-component unit that is not only interacting with the physical environment through demonstrable means, but also has the capacity to communicate with the cosmic universe through non-physical pathways (Lorimer, 2001).

This gives rise to the concept of the spirit as the non-physical element, or the field, of the mind that can communicate with the cosmos outside the constraints of space and time. The evidence for such communication comes from the reported phenomena of extra-sensory perception (telepathy, precognition, and clairvoyance), psycho-kinesis, psychic healing and religious experiences (Radin, 1997 & Henry, 2005).

Possibly further advancement in quantum physics may one day give us further insight into how we can formulate this new model of the heart, mind and spirit.

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© Professor Mohamed Omar Salem 2007