A Year of Living Mindfully: Nature can release us from mental turmoil


This week I spent a day in the country with people who are real pros at living in the now. Being in their company, I slowed down and found it easy to be mindful.

I spoke to a conference on social farming in the border counties but before I did, I wanted to experience it firsthand. I visited one of the 20 farms that welcome adults with special needs and mental health difficulties into their family life. These people all have labels but when they step on to these farms, they leave their labels at the gate.

I pulled into the driveway feeling slightly apprehensive. Would I feel awkward in their company? Would they feel awkward in mine? Would I say something stupid and spoil the party?

I walked around the back of the house and found everyone sitting at a kitchen table that they had carried outside into the sun.

It was one of those perfect days, where the sun warms your bones and beautiful fragrances grab hold of your senses.

I was welcomed with smiles and handshakes and everyone seemed to take my joining in as no big deal.

We sat around drinking tea and coffee and we feasted on warm scones the farmer, Vincent Coyle, and the “participants” had baked earlier. A glass butter churn was passed around and we each took turns to rotate the handle with its silky smooth action.

Time to listen
We spoke about things that mattered: “My sister got married, I have some pictures.” “Look at that white smoke in the sky. That’s a jet on its way to Lourdes. ” “I miss my Da, he died last year.”

There was time to listen and time to hear what people were saying underneath their words.

The day was not crowded with pre-programmed activities, but I can’t recall any day that felt so full. We moved at a slow gentle pace.

We collected eggs, we sunk our hands into the soil and pulled out food for the dinner; we visited the cow and the donkey and Vincent guided us in how to touch and brush down these animals.

For those of us who live our lives between concrete and brick there is something spine-tingling about touching an animal in the flesh.

I watched my new friends overcome their natural caution as they reached out to the animals. As they stroked and brushed down these animals, their faces lit up.

Complete trust
The animals returned the kindness in quiet appreciation and complete trust.

What struck me was the way these participants were able to be completely themselves, without anyone making them feel they were lacking in any way. To the animals they were perfect, exactly as they were.

After a life of being at the receiving end of other people’s giving, these men found they now had something to give.

Farming can be a lonely business because it can isolate a person with their worries and sorrows. Welcoming others, whose lives are so removed from nature, into what feels like a “secret garden”, breaks open their isolation.

With social farming, reciprocity is the key. Everyone brings something to the table, be it their expertise or an open sensitive heart; people are nourished by each other’s company.

“The world is too much with us.” Those lines of Wordsworth we learned in school came back to me. “Late and soon, getting and spending, we lay waste our powers. Little we see in nature that is ours; we have given our hearts away . . . ”

Social farming earths us back into contact with nature, where our hearts are waiting for us to pick them up again. It offers us a chance to feel connected to the cycles of nature that move slowly and unperceptively. Without taking time, the white blooms of hawthorn bush can come and go without us even noticing.

Nature is a great mindfulness teacher. It can release us from our mental turmoil, and remind us that, whatever we may be feeling, whatever is happening in our lives, we too are part of a amazing cycle of change.

Tony Bates is founding director of Headstrong – The National Centre for Youth Mental Health

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