According to the mental health charity Mind, about 1 in 4 people people will experience a mental health problem each year. Across the world, there’s a growing effort to find better ways of providing support for people who struggle with their mental health. Mindfulness entered the general consciousness several years ago and has since only grown in popularity: even the NHS has a whole webpage dedicated to the act of mindfulness with tricks and tips to achieving this possibly enigmatic state of mind. Mindfulness-Based therapies have been found to be effective at treating depression, anxiety and stress.
Becoming mindful isn’t an overnight event. You can’t wake up one morning, look out the window at the growing light and say to yourself – this is it. Today I am mindful. Like any skill, it requires practice and perseverance. By actively engaging with mindful practices, we can start to become more relaxed in our day-to-day lives and be less prone to the effects of stress and anxiety. So how can we incorporate mindful practice into our everyday lives?
Why not look to the skies?
No – I’m not talking about parachuting.
Last year a group of scientists published research showing that watching birds had a positive impact on your mental health. Focusing on office workers, the researchers showed that people reported lower levels of depression, stress and anxiety when they could see more birds in the afternoon. To reap the benefits of local wildlife, participants didn’t even need to actively interact with the birds in their lives: simply watching the birds was enough to register an improvement in people’s mental health. In fact, lots of research shows people’s mental wellness can be improved by watching birds.
‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
How do we start? First, you need to set aside time to practice mindfulness – in this case, by watching birds. Trying to engage in mindful practice while you’re otherwise preoccupied isn’t likely to be very successful – this isn’t something you can do when driving the kids to school or staring out of the window at work. You don’t need hours and hours – just five minutes every day, or every other day, which you set aside purely for watching the birds in your garden.
You can be outside, with them, or if you can’t face the chill then a window is just as good. There is never a “must”, never “you have to”. You can’t watch birds in the wrong way. If on Monday you feel up to sitting in the garden then that’s great, but if on Wednesday you just want to curl up inside then that’s fine too.
Focus on beginning to notice the birds in your garden. Even if you live in the UK where the most exciting thing you’ll ever see in your garden is a woodpecker, you need to remember that this isn’t about seeing the “best” or rarest birds. This isn’t birdwatching how you might imagine it with a pair of heavy binoculars and a long list of birds which need to be meticulously ticked off. This is probably one of the most important things to remember: This is not a competition.
It’s not about categorising the birds in your garden – chances are you can already list the birds you see every day anyway. In my garden live a couple of robins, blackbirds, some pigeons. If you stand on my driveway and look out towards the Thames you’ll see at least three Red Kites, their pointy tails steering them as they battle the wind. If you wait for long enough, the birds will come to you. The hopping robins perched next to your trowel to look for worms, the blackbird watching you from the fence, the big fat pigeon who doesn’t care whether you’re there at all.
Next, you listen to their calls, to their tweeting. Even if there aren’t any birds in your garden right at that moment, what can you hear from far away? A pair of robins, perhaps, at opposite ends of a garden twittering at each other. An angry blackbird chirruping at a cat in your neighbour’s garden. Even a seagull who’s flown too far from the ocean. If you’re lucky to live somewhere with a high number of birds of prey, you may even be able to hear one of them screech across the sky. Try to really focus not just on the noises themselves, but how they rise and fall, their pitch, how far away the song is and if it’s getting closer or moving further away.
Now focus on what you can see. Focus on the birds’ wings, their eating, their beaks, their playing together. Focus on the young ones. Now the old ones. Look closer at the patterns on their wings. Even the most boring pigeon is beautiful if you look at him the right way. And I should know: I love pigeons.
Pick a bird, any bird. Focus on it. Follow its path around your garden, into the sky, until it disappears. Pick another one. And another. The point, of course, is not to observe the bird but rather to focus your mind. You’re aiming for what psychologists call “flow”: a sense of feeling at one with the world, of having such strong focus on a task that you’ve let go of your own feelings and worries without even really realising it.
Achieving a state of “flow” can also be described as “being in the zone” – Imagine trying to perfect a new physical skill like roller-skating or rock climbing, or maybe even doing something as simple as watching a movie in the cinema or the final episode of a season of your favourite TV show. You are so engaged, so engrossed, that the thoughts which can often plague us go unnoticed. There’s no room for negative thoughts when your mind is focused on keeping your balance, which hold to grab next or figuring out who’s just killed your favourite character. Finding yourself in a place of “flow” leaves you feeling more relaxed and content. By knowing how to enter a state of flow and making sure we regularly do, we can make this feeling of contentment a more prominent presence in our everyday lives. It’s virtually impossible to feel happy all the time, but we can all strive to feel content and secure more often.
By watching the birds in your garden, it’s possible to get in the zone and engage in mindful behaviour without even realising you’re doing it. By taking time out of our busy, hectic days to reconnect with nature we can feel more relaxed and at ease with the world around us. There’s endless research showing how interacting with wildlife and spending time outside is beneficial for both our mental and physical health, yet we’re all lingering inside more than ever before. Perhaps as spring rolls around again, it’s time we all ignore the typical British weather and spend a little more time in our gardens.
For more information on garden birds and how to attract (and keep!) birds in your garden, check out our other blog posts:
Lotti works with the Primrose Product Loading team, creating product descriptions and newsletter headers.
When not writing, Lotti enjoys watching (and over-analyzing) indie movies with a pint from the local craft brewery or cosplaying at London Comic Con.
Lotti is learning to roller skate, with limited success.