The mid-twentieth century sociologist Aaron Antonovsky once asked, If the world is so crazy, what makes us able to keep sallying forth? I don’t know about you, but it sure seems to me that these days, the world around us is spinning more out of control by the minute. The rat race becomes ever more desperate, speed and efficiency are now primary measuring sticks for productivity and success. As if that was all there is to a happy and fulfilled life.
So, what makes you and I keep sallying forth?
BEING GROUNDED: THE ART OF SLOWING DOWN OUR DAILY LIVES
“Life is a searching movement, we are constantly in movement. That makes it all the more important that we find ways to slow down,” Ruth Allen writes in her book Grounded - How Connection With Nature Can Improve Our Mental and Physical Wellbeing. Allen, a counsellor and eco-psychotherapist, has dedicated her life to exploring the intersections between the natural world, health and wellbeing, movement and story. And as such, I consider what she has to say critical context for my artistic endeavors, which are based on the idea that the timeless beauty of the American West is the antidote to a life of haste and worry.
Now, I realize that in an age when “mindfulness” and “selfcare” have become popular culture buzzwords, the act of slowing down can seem like an abstract concept that sounds good in theory but is hard — or damn near impossible — to achieve amid the chaos of everyday life. You may think, ‘Slow down’ is easy to say for a guy who takes photos for a living.
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So let’s state the painfully obvious here, first: I am not some enlightened guru who has all the answers to take you on the path to happiness. Duh. In fact, I struggle with taking time to slow down myself every single day.
But I’ve learned a thing or two about the influence of nature on our well-being in my line of work, and I have put my formal training as a reformed journalist to use to study a lot of what Ruth Allen and her colleagues offer as practical advice for feeling more grounded and creating a more balanced life. The bottom line is this: The more we can fit nature into all the cracks of our busy daily lives, the happier we’ll be.
Allen writes that in her therapy sessions, the number one thing her clients want to work on is feeling more grounded. So what follows are some ideas and actionable advice I’ve gathered, in hopes that it helps you make seemingly small changes in your everyday life that hopefully will, over time, accumulate to big improvements in your overall happiness.
HOW TO BECOME MORE GROUNDED
When I started doing this research into the art of slowing down, I did so out of personal necessity, quite frankly. I have always believed that time is our most cherished possession. I also live my life in a way where I choose to work hard to follow my dreams today rather than putting them off until tomorrow, as I’ve found this to be the safest way to avoid losing sight of them along the way.
But at the same time, the demands of running a thriving small business, for a long while working a second job to help further support my family, and being a good husband, friend and son all spread my time exceedingly thin. I needed to recalibrate my own days — or risk losing the very thing that I hope my photographic artworks inspire: Creating spaces in our lives that invite and allow us to dream.
“You owe it to everyone you love (including yourself) to find pockets of tranquility in your busy world” — George Bernanos
I am by no means the first creative to address the onslaught of busyness. In fact, exploring our romantic relationship with time and space has a long history in both the arts and literature. Jack Kerouac, in On the Road, laments the pitfalls of “rushing through the world without a chance to see it.” Edward Abbey, in Desert Solitaire, wonders what might happen if we could learn to “love space as deeply as we are obsessed with time.” And Daniel Firth Griffith, in Wild Like Flowers, bemoans the idea that haste has somehow come to suffice as a measurement for productivity. Meanwhile, the American poet Theodore Roethke maintains that, “Art is the means we have of undoing the damage of haste. It’s what everything else isn’t.” So there’s always hope, after all.
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HOW TO FIND BALANCE IN LIFE, EVEN INDOORS
I believe that we can all use a dose of that hope, because I know how helpless our seemingly ever-growing to-do lists can make us feel at times. Honestly, the most depressing statistic I found early on in my research was that these days, we spend 80 to 90 percent of our days inside — when there is a growing body of research, including that of the likes of Ruth Allen, which proves that feeling close and connected to nature is essential to living a balanced, grounded and happy life.
That 80 to 90 percent number is so high that it’s pretty obvious that the fix to our busy lives is not as simple as “well… just go outside more”. Sure, building healthy habits like going for a walk regularly, visiting your local park at least once a week — those are crucial things that all need to be thrown into the mix.
But I wanted to know how the healing power of nature can still help us find more balance in our lives even if the demands of daily life force us to be inside most of the time. What can we do on those many days where we can’t just run off to the mountains or the woods to unplug and hit the mental reset button? In other words: How can we blend the inside and the outside — a question that’s at the core of The Homeward Journal?
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WHAT DOES BEING GROUNDED AND BALANCED MEAN?
When Ruth Allen talks about being grounded, what she really talks about are feelings of presence, resilience, calm and balance. “The world constantly conspires to unground you,” she warns, and: “losing our connection to nature is symptomatic for losing our connection with ourselves and each other.”
How do you know if you are a grounded person? These are some of the qualities Allen lists:
- Has a healthy mastery of their emotions
- Demonstrates resilience and robustness
- Appears to embody a sense of peace; others feel calm around them
- Often humble and willing to hand attention to others
- Encouraging and supportive of others
- Lives and works with a sense of purpose and direction
- Has a sense of what’s “right” — an inner moral compass
- Has a higher tolerance for stress or is seemingly less affected by stress
(If you are eight for eight, kudos. I still find myself struggling with a few of these, especially the managing stress part.)
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STRATEGIES FOR A MORE BALANCED AND GROUNDED LIFE AND HOME
But how do you do it? What can you do that will inspire you to feel grounded, balanced, to slow down your busy mind? One piece of practical advice Ruth Allen offers is to create rituals like planting a flower or caring for plants — acts which, as Robin Wall Kimmerer puts it, turn our attention into intention.
But that’s just a start, and it may collide with the absence of green thumbs attached to your hand. Allen has a host of other suggestions, like…
- Engaging the body through movement (think walks, yoga, pilates, etc…)
- Seeking out stillness and solitude to build self-reliance
- Committing to small daily acts of wildness to increase your confidence (the concept of do one thing every day that scares you).
“Making meaning”, Allen writes, “is a way of understanding and bringing order into our lives.” A large part of that meaning is finding a way to put our busy days and worries into healthy perspective — something that nature is intrinsically good for. Says Allen, “Nature can help us understand that we need to find a way to accept ourselves and carry on as best as we can.”
This is where she, this is where we, come full circle to the idea of A Sense of Home (remember Vol. I of the Homeward Journal on finding A Sense of Home?). Grounding is coming home, Allen writes. It is, she says, putting our feet on solid ground and finding safety in ourselves, knowing that we are capable, adaptable and here. “While time spent in nature will not always be a cure for what ails us, a connection with nature can be transformative.”
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MORE STRATEGIES TO CREATE BALANCED DAYS AND SPACES
I have incorporated several rituals of my own into those days when I am not out in the field producing new work, strategies that are designed first and foremost to slow me down and allow my busy mind the time to think what Mary Oliver calls long-limbed thoughts.
- Every morning, before I start work, I grind my own coffee beans and manually make a cup of pour-over coffee that I then enjoy while reading a physical book rather than the news on my phone for a half hour, while the morning light shines through the window. It’s the opposite of a to-go mentality, something that makes me look forward to getting out of bed 30 minutes early.
- I’m a very diligent note taker. This is a habit that I first got used to when I was working as a journalist. These days, my phone is filled with little vignettes, notes, thoughts and feelings that I jot down when I feel particularly well or sometimes when I feel particularly down. Writing down what makes a moment memorable creates awareness, awareness for the moments that — if preserved in some form — have the power to lift me up on a bad day. These notes also often inspire the stories that accompany my photographic artworks.
- My wife and I have a large panoramic photograph of the mountain we got engaged on hanging in our bedroom — a place that means the world to us. The piece is also a daily reminder to appreciate my wife for the gift and light of my life that she is.
- We have several other photographic artworks of meaningful places hanging in our home. All of them take us back to some of the highlights of our relationship every day. They are a reminder that spending time together in nature is something that we cherish deeply — because even though we do, quite frankly sometimes we still need that kick in the behind to get our butts off the couch and go see the beauty that awaits out there, especially on our bad days. Research shows that natural views, even in artworks and photographs, reduce stress levels and generate an overall improvement in mental wellbeing.
In her book Kindling the Flame — The Art and Science of Cognitive Replenishment, fellow West Seattle-based author Michelle Sherman suggests taking a “braincation”, quoting Rachel Carson’s seminal tome, Silent Spring: “Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something indefinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature - the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”
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Sometimes slowing down is as simple as looking at nature, the touch of our favorite blanket, the smell of a fresh cup of coffee or the way the light shines through the window. The challenge is to open our minds enough to acknowledge those moments and how they make us feel.
Finding such balance in our lives, the give and take, means finding balance in our relationship with the land, Daniel Firth Griffith writes in Wild Like Flowers: “The ability to nurture awareness is enough to see the remarkable and to capture regeneration. Yes, humility is regeneration.”
Realizing how any given moment makes us feel is a conscious effort, one that comes easier to some than to others — but I believe it is a worthwhile pursuit for any of us as it will open our eyes to all the good and the beauty that is around us. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my creative pursuits, it’s that the little moments can outweigh a lot of the emotional baggage we carry around daily. Opening ourselves up to experience those micro-breaks harnesses what nature knows best: how to rest in simply being. It’s the centuries-old Chinese practice of Wei wu Wei — doing not doing. Establish moments of quietude, Michelle Sherman advises, “and the breakthroughs will come.”
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MINDFUL HOME DESIGN AS AN ACT OF SELFCARE
In practice, this is how I recently heard one Seattle-area home owner describe the positive effects of creating a grounding space: “A sense of groundedness, healthfulness and balance is a mainstay during a difficult time. It’s a foundation that allows you to roll with the chaotic circumstances in the world, knowing that you have a place to come home to that is regenerative to your well-being.“
Just imagine having a space like that…
The idea of creating spaces that remind and invite you to take micro-breaks is a crucial component of my photographic philosophy, an idea(l) that I am calling A Comfortable Escape. Like I’ve said a few times throughout these Homeward Journal articles, I believe that the timeless beauty of the American West is an antidote to the haste and worry of our daily lives. Out in the stubborn lands of the West, time seems to lose its speed — “on days lingering and long, spacious and free as the summers of childhood”, as Abbey put it.
Capturing that spirit of the West leads to artworks intended to celebrate the charms of romance, artworks that don’t just inspire you but recharge your mental capacity to see the beauty in your own surroundings — something that unfortunately always falls victim first to feelings of stress and general overwhelm.
"We received our print of “The Valley of the Rising Sun” recently, and I know we will love presenting and cherishing it it in our home for many days to come. Monument Valley is such an iconic area of the west and always speaks to the spiritual place in my heart. Thank you so much for giving me these special opportunities to ponder our amazing natural wonders through your beautiful nature photography each and every day!" — Macie W., collector
What I aim to do is create art that makes a statement in your space, that this is a home, a family (or a company), that has its priorities straight, that this is a space where dreams and aspirations are encouraged, where experiences outweigh to dos, and life is celebrated.
It all starts with a conscious decision.