Monday, October 8, 2012

Healing Spaces and Michigan Fall

A week or so ago, I was walking Bonnie on a Sunday morning. It was quiet. The trees were starting to turn, and the morning sun backlighted the leaves. I was listening to an episode of On Being, and concluded that one of the benefits of having a dog is that she regularly forces me to get out and enjoy such pleasures.

The On Being interview was with Esther Sternberg, the author of Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-Being. Sternberg asked, do our surroundings have an effect on us? Talking about her family, she said
... my parents explicitly instilled in me the knowledge that we should look, hear, smell, touch everything in our surrounding environment and savor it because this could be your last day. They actually said that to me a number of times, especially the sunset. Look at it as if it's your last.
That idea resonates with me. I love walking Bonnie, in all seasons, and marvel at the constant beauty. Admittedly, some days I drag my feet about getting started, but I am always happy once we're on our way. (And Bonnie, of course, is beyond happy.)

Later, Sternberg described an experiment that I found fascinating:
Roger Ulrich is an environmental psychologist who took advantage of a naturalistic experiment, if you will, where in patients were admitted to a ward for gallbladder surgery. Back in those days, you actually stayed in hospital for a number of days after you had gallbladder surgery. And some of them randomly were assigned to beds with a view of a brick wall and others had a view of a grove of trees. And he simply took the clinical data and measured how much pain medication these patients needed during their recovery, how long they had to stay in hospital, in other words, how quickly they healed, the number of negative nurse's notes where they were complaining or had pain or such, and he controlled for everything: age, sex, you know, med — other medication use, other disease use. And all of these patients were taken care of by the same doctors and nurses. So it was an extraordinarily well-controlled study. And even with all these controls where the single variable that differed between patients was the view out the window, what he found was that the patients with a view of a grove of trees left hospital on average a day sooner, needed less pain medication, and had fewer negative nurse's notes than patients who had a view of a brick wall. 
Imagine that - just looking out the window at trees made a difference in the healing process; just looking out the window at trees was therapeutic.

Sternberg talked a lot about creating an environment where healing can occur. I thought about my office at home, where I spend a good bit of time. It is, to put it mildly, a disaster area, and not the least bit peaceful or healing. Shelf space is taken up by things I don't care about; books and magazines I want to keep are stacked on the floor; my paper trail winds from piles to boxes (and avoids the filing cabinet). I need to take the time to cull and throw away a lot of stuff (I have been making progress, but there's a long way to go), and paint, and rearrange things. But my heart isn't in that effort. I prefer to just put up with it, and find my healing spaces elsewhere.

On the other hand, I do love our living room. In our house, this really is the room where we do most of our living. Clutter is under control here. There is plenty of light, from north- and west-facing windows. And those windows look out on trees and bushes, so there some greenery, and a bit of privacy. I enjoy sitting there with my knitting, or a book, and find it very relaxing.

Sternberg also pointed out the need to find our healing places within us, through prayer and meditation - something I'm not particularly good at, but continue to work at.
I think the most important point that I came to in my own journey in writing this book is that we really can create places of peace not only in our real world, in our physical environment that surrounds us, but in our own mind's eye. And those kinds of places of peace are portable. As you said, in many different traditions, like the Buddhist tradition or in virtually all religious traditions, you close your eyes and you visualize something. That's a way of carrying these environments, these healing places, within you. It's wonderful if you can go to them, but if you can't, you can bring them to yourself.
Here are some photos I've taken over the past week or two, as fall has settled in. These were all taken on walks with Bonnie - either in our neighborhood, or in the woods and fields behind Friendship Village. I've tried to capture the wonderful colors, and the light at different times of day. It's what makes fall so beautiful, and gives me such pleasure and joy.

Warning: there's a good number of photos here... I deleted some, but - there's still a lot. I'll try not to overdo it the rest of the season. But - no guarantees...

1 comment:

  1. What beautiful pictures. And yes, folks, the scarf and hat really do match--and are quite nice, whatever Miss Perfectionist says.