I just got back from the “Art of Mentoring” camp in Fife, Scotland – a week of nature connection, creating a thriving temporary village, of learning about what helps us to really come alive as connected, energised humans. I was really struck, hearing their teachings again, by how close their model of what a human being is to what I’ve arrived at after years of Inner Transition work. The analogy the teachers were using is of a “koosh ball” – an American toy that’s a ball with lots of tendrils coming out from the centre – so when you throw it they spin out – see this picture from wikipedia. The intention of the camp is to give an embodied experience of nature connection and human culture that helps us to stretch out all those tendrils we have flattened, and to see how vibrant and happy we feel when we can do that safely.
The programme is a week long camp based around nature connection and what they call “cultural repair”. Around 250 people came together, including 50 staff, a number of squirrels and foxes (toddlers and young children respectively); a teenagers’ group that camps for 4 days off site and a large number of adults of all ages on the introductory Ring 1 programme. This year in addition to the “Ring 2 – Nature immersion” programme for returning adults they introduced a “Ring 2 – towards Eldership” group.
What are those tendrils and what happens to them? I’ve been talking about the simplest form of Inner Transition as just being about whether we’re creating conditions for more openness, more trust, more presence, more connection, or less – in our meetings, in our lives, in our communities. When humans are in that open state we’re generally more balanced, we make better decisions, we can see other people’s reality as well as our own, we can learn new things and take a wide view of the world. When we’re stressed and closed we get defensive, we resort to old, often limited or distorted ways of seeing the world, we’re in a state of needing to protect ourselves.
One teacher at the camp session described how as infants we “put out the call” to our carers and each time we don’t get the response we need our tendrils for connection get a bit flatter. If there’s not much response, and even more if the responses we get feel hurtful or shameful, we end up kind of armoured – with layers of shell like protection instead of open receptors. In the right environment we can start to feel safe again to open these out, to extend them and make connections. And when we do that our life feels connected, joyful, meaningful.
This felt like a very close parallel to how I’ve been understanding healthy Human Culture – as the conditions where people want to be open, to extend their comfort zone, to take risks with connecting to others, to feeling things, to including more of their potential. One of phrases I have is that as humans we need to be held in life – the image is a web of loving connections that hold us here. We have such a capacity for feeling pain when things are wrong that we need to be constantly called to be here, and reminded that there is joy, love and connection available when we show up.
I’m going to add another model which I learnt from Jeremy Thres, who takes people out onto the land on Dartmoor, which he learnt from a traditional people in South America. They describe the different layers of holding for an individual – as a child, but also as an adult. The layers are like a cone or mountain, with the individual standing on the top. The first layer of holding is from mother, father, immediate family. If that fails for some reason the extended family step in. If the extended family can’t for some reason the community picks up. And if the community fails there is, unfailingly, the natural world, the Earth, always present, available and responsive.
I know that as part of my journey when I felt the holding of my family wasn’t working, there was no extended family in that role. We’ve lost the sense of community holding us as children or young people except in the most extreme cases where children are taken into care (or detention). Like many with the privilege and knowledge I found a lot of solace in nature, at first making up my own way of being there, and over time learning that there were more developed practices I could learn and use.
Core Routines to Connect with the Natural World
In the Art of Mentoring a lot of emphasis is put on connection with Nature – the organisation setting up in Scotland is calling itself Nature Connection Scotland. A set of practices help the thin threads of understanding and connection to the natural world to develop into strings and then ropes. These include:
- Sit spot.. coming to one place time and again and just being there. Observing. Listening. Tuning in. The heart of the practice.
- Telling the story of the day.
- Aimless wandering.. going out without an objective and just letting the natural world (which could also be a cityscape) speak to you – invite you. Again the emphasis is on receiving, listening, rather than pushing and intending.
- Changing our perception – perhaps going with closed eyes and using other senses. Or looking with “owl eyes” – softening the focus so you spread awareness across all of your field of vision, taking in the whole.
- Being like an animal.. how does it feel to move like a dog.. a mouse.. an owl.. an ant? What do you learn about these creatures experience?
- Tracking – ask questions about everything, like a detective. What? Who? When? Why? Where?
- Others including mapping.. learning through field guides.. survival living.. developing the imaginiation.. listening to bird language.. giving thanks. (see below for book reference).
Along with these practices comes teachings about how our brain works – the loop of perceptions leading to beliefs leading to our routines for how we are in the world, which determines the input and focus of our minds, which create brain patterns which in turn set up our perceptions. Our culture shapes which perceptions are given value, how we interpret and make meaning of the sensory input, what beliefs we create, and how we then choose to act. Changing core routines is a powerful way to make an opening in the closed loop of culture creating habits creating experiences creating beliefs creating culture, in the same repeating patterns.
Many people ask whether it’s possible to do this work in urban environments, and the answer which came back is – yes – and the wilder the place is the greater the opportunities for wonder, for meeting something other in its wholeness and intricacy.
There are many great projects that are supporting different ages of humans to explore and deepen our connection to the natural world – with names like nature connection, wilderness work, ecopsychology, bushcraft and survival skills. Most use at least some of the routines suggested above, to disrupt and then repattern the pathways of habit, belief and behaviour. In my understanding all intend to support a greater sense of connection to the natural world – to restore well being, health, vibrancy; to help people find out more about themselves; to encourage more responsive and responsible behaviour through a greater sense of connection and identification with the natural world which we are impacting so profoundly through our culture.
All of which brings me back to the image of the koosh ball. How is yours right now? Feeling a bit impacted, compacted? Feeling open and available? Sometimes it’s wise to have our tendrils drawn in – but good to give them a stretch when the conditions are right as well.
As this post closes I invite you to take a moment to close your eyes and notice with other senses – sounds, smells, air, breath. All these things connect us deeply to all other living beings on the planet – whether we like it or not. We exist in this web of interdependence and connection. Would it be good to let yourself feel a little more of that as you go through the rest of your day?
Connections and links
See the Art of Mentoring website for many more links to connected people and organisations, and to receive information updates.
In the UK the Art of Mentoring work will be offered through a new organisation in Scotland called Nature Culture Scotland (soon to be launched).
The UK based Ecopsychology network has many practitioners, programmes and organisations connected.
You can find a much fuller explanation of these – and the whole Art of Mentoring philosophy and practice – in the wonderful book: Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature by Jon Young, Ellen Haas and Evan McGown.
Details of the two day Inner Transition workshop in September exploring how we can create sustaining and life enhancing culture for ourselves and our organisations can be found here.