Three ingredients to transform a life
Some combinations work very well together. They do not have to be difficult or complex to have a great effect. The combination I explain here is exactly that, simple but blessedly strong.
Because it is simple you can try it out for yourself easily enough. I will share enough theory and instructions to start and you can develop your own variations.
The three ingredients are
Before I go into an explanation of each one, here are the broad strokes. I will talk about each ingredient in reverse order and outline how easy it is to miss their benefits in our daily lives.
Research shows that any three of the above ingredients can be beneficial to mood and health.
The science of awe¹ suggests that regular experiences, which make us feel tiny in comparison to something vast, send shivers up our spines or raise our skin in goosebumps, are good for us. They are associated with pro-social behaviours, generosity, improved critical thinking and overall well being.
I use the word wonder in place of awe for a few reasons. The first is because it is a verb, as well as, a noun. The second is that I find it more approachable than awe. Awe can be contradictorily intimidating and also devalued in a world where almost everything is awesome.
The benefits of time spent in nature have also been widely studied². Time in natural surroundings can lower blood pressure, reduce stress hormones, boost the immune system, reduce anxiety and improve mood. In my opinion that is just skimming the surface. A study suggests that these effects can be experienced with as little as two hours a week spent outdoors in parks or countryside.³
The third ingredient is focus. Just as I use the word wonder instead of awe, I offer focus as a substitute for meditation, since meditation can still be perceived as technical or exotic. However, studies on meditation⁴ show overlapping benefits to those gained from both awe/wonder and time in nature. Regular practice of focus or meditation has been demonstrated to change brain structure⁵ leading to greater choice as to how to place attention.
Those are the three ingredients. They are all easily available but often overlooked. How can we pass by something that could be so beneficial so regularly?
The answer I believe is in our focus, our attention. It has been hijacked. Hijacked by words on screens, by fear of the future, by flashing, beeping notifications, by issues that are both valid and manufactured.
As a result, when we go out of doors it is easy not to notice the sky carrying birds across continents. We barely glance at clouds that were recently waves rolling on the ocean until the sun lifted them heavenward. We step on or over plants that climb through the tiniest cracks between paving stones.
We are concerned instead with likes (or claps), with what people think of us, with a million thoughts - grand or petty.
Which is why we can start with focus.
To deliberately train our attention so it does not leap to the demands of every itching notification, to cover over every emotional ache, to win every imagined argument with that person.
That’s what meditation is about. Whether it is observing the breath, attending to body sensation, immersing in an activity or repeating a prayer. A few minutes each day is a good beginning. I am personally drawn to fields of focus that enrich the sense of the body. Why that is, I will explain soon. I offer an example in the link below.
Why I meditate standing up — and why you should try it too
Science has shown the benefits of seated meditation convincingly. Standing meditation is similar, but may have some…
Once we are out of the loop of thoughts we can begin to pay attention to Nature when we are outside. To be fair our attention would almost certainly start to expand outwards with time. But if the time we can spend in the company of tree is limited, it is a pity to forget the branches reaching above our heads for the screen in our pockets. Focus allows us to benefit more deeply, more swiftly from our time in nature.⁶
Which brings us to our third ingredient, wonder. Nature is the great source of awe and wonder in human life.
Scan your memories of awe. Where were you? What were you paying attention to?
How many rose out of landscapes, seascapes, sunsets or the stars on a clear night? How many were linked to the great cycles of birth and death? How many were brought about by human breaths channeled into song, the grace and strength of bodies?
This is why I like focused attention on the body as a practice. This body typing on a keyboard may be fifty something years old, but it contains within it structures that date back to the dawn of life on this planet.
Though this may seem abstract, the visceral experience reveals itself through simple scrutiny. The shapes and rhythms of breath and bone, of appetite and hearing of sight and smell are not separate from the forces that shaped the trees I gaze at.
If I cannot go out to meet the trees, my body can still link me to the stream of everything alive. If I focus, if I teach myself to notice there is a source of wonder in every breath and every moment. It is in our nature. I am grateful for that.⁷
As individuals, as societies and as cultures we face very real challenges. You can argue that a capacity to bliss out on demand is no magic solution to those problems.
Still, the benefits to our communities and choices of being able to access states that boost mood, improve health, foster connection and creativity are valuable. What if all these were more evident in your life and those of the people around you?
It’s just three ingredients: focus, nature, wonder. Mix and try them for yourself. Share the recipe.
⁶ If you want to call this a hack, a way to get more from nature more quickly so you can optimise your productivity, be my guest. I am curious for how long, how intensely can ramp up your awe for life.
⁷Should we look at the literature related to gratitude and wellbeing. You might be glad you did. Gratitude is the opposite of entitlement.