(on cities not being evil, stress, connection and slowness)
Early morning light, coffee cup in hand, I walk destination-less, and watch things: the neighbourhood crows as they chatter to each other and keep a lookout. The sycamores with each falling leaf become more stark against the blue sky. The crunch of leaves underfoot. Morning traffic noises get louder, people wake up and walk their dogs, saying hello to each other in their sweats and hastily thrown-on sweaters. A car alarm goes off, a trash truck passes, a few crows swoop down in its wake while their friends keep a look-out, birds crank up their morning song, a passionflower leaf unfurls from its vine with a satisfying pop.
These walks start my morning off on a reverent note. The way the light hits things, the way the trees in my neighbourhood change, the way plants push up through the cracks of the sidewalk, and the bougainvillea escape their bounds and curl up telephone poles. Its easy to forget, living in a city, that there is nature out there. Unless you get out and see that life follows the same patterns everywhere it goes: plants will always fight to reach for the sun; the sun warms everything in its path; wind moves around obstacles; earth absorbs. Nature patterns are fractal, spiralling, sacred geometry. These patterns are the language of our world, the form earth energy takes as it moves into existence. I believe that seeing these patterns and these things reaches for something inside us, lights up the same areas, nudging us back to something more primal, more connected to nature ourselves. This connection is something you can have anywhere.
It seems to me that stress and connection are inversely related— like an inhale and an exhale. The very purpose of stress being to narrow your focus to help deal with a tiger that’s chasing you or a deadline approaching, and the very purpose of connection being that no one thing stands out because everything is a part of everything else. And throughout life there’s this dance that goes on, between being connected and being focused, and sometimes more of one and sometimes more of the other but always that dance. As someone who responds to stress like a small bird convinced the sky is falling, I find myself constantly aware of this dance.
Have you ever heard a person talking and then at some point the words are just reduced to sounds? This happens to me on the phone a lot, which is one of the reasons I avoid phone calls. The words become sounds, and as sounds they lose meaning. Same goes for images: if you blow them up big enough they just become pixels. I used to tackle really difficult drawings one pixel at a time. I’ve started, on occasion, looking at it in terms of individual pixels, or, information outside the body and information inside the body. There’s always the same amount outside as inside (albeit sometimes it seems like more or less, but nature abhors a vacuum, so that space is filled with molecules, sounds, smells and light regardless of what type of molecules, sounds smells and lights they are), what changes is the way we react to it— our perception of the information outside, if you will. Perception is good. Its what distinguishes a tiger from a friend, or a looming deadline from a to-do list that involves cleaning the bathroom when its not even that dirty in the first place. Where this seems to get messed up is when we start to perceive every day things as major stressors.
I think there’s an ideal that a whole lot of people have, about moving to nature, about communing with nature, about living a life of meaning that usually has to do with nature and gathering eggs and foraging for food and a wood fire (there’s always a wood fire. and views.). But the fact of the matter is that everywhere on earth is on the earth, and everywhere is surrounded by other things. Connection is connection regardless of whether its with pure untouched wilderness or a plot of mud in a smoggy city. Its simply (ha!) a matter of whether we think we’re being chased by a tiger or not, and whether we choose to challenge this perception or not. The resistance to concrete and construction noises, the perception of one place being better than the other, creates this divide, when in actual fact its just a place and its just stuff. At its very core, its information hitting our senses, and in the process of interpreting we file it away into ‘like’ or ‘unlike’. Meaning is almost arbitrary: an afterthought, a flourish, a gesture.
What I am trying, most ineloquently, to say is that the difference between the two is partly in our heads. Yes, nature is peaceful and beautiful, yes, the city is noisy and chaotic. But at its basis its all just information coming in, being interpreted, then filed away into ‘I can handle this’ and ‘I can’t handle this’. When something goes into ‘I can’t handle this’ then stress begins to build. The key to changing the dichotomy is in changing the perception. And for me its necessary to change this perception because I DO live in a city, and love most aspects of it, but I love, even more, the feeling of being connected to the world around me, to the earth, and to nature. Its never going to be the same as being in the wild, of course— the wilds are different places entirely that feed our souls on a primal level. But the earth, the earth is there wherever we are. The world around us, that is there wherever we are.
Cities, to me, are places where people are starved for connection— to other people, to the world around them, to the earth, to themselves— I see folks hurtling around at the speed of light, talking on their phones, being stressed about work, stressed about money, stressed about life. These are some very busy and important people and they are starved for those things that (in my opinion) make life fulfilling. I firmly believe that to change this does not necessitate a move to the wilderness*. Instead, I think it involves a simple step back, a shift in perception, a change of focus.
For me, connecting to the earth from anywhere is a matter of flipping a switch. From stress mode to connection mode. From ‘ohmygodIhavetogetitdone’ mode to ‘I’m doing what I’m doing’. It breaks life down to the pixel level, where instead of a giant looming thing, its just a series of actions.
I do this in a few different ways:
I’m not quite sure what it is about cities that seem to speed things up. Sirens are going fast and cars are going fast and everybody is very busy and important (and don’t you know who I am??!) and everything needs to be done yesterday. I get it. We all have deadlines, and jobs, and things to do, and people who rely on us. But it is going to get done whether its done under stress or not under stress. Having tried, for years, to do things faster, to get through my crazy list, to be the most productive person on the planet and listening to more and more productivity tips, I just decided to… not. If I get through my list then I do. If I don’t then I’ll do it tomorrow. I don’t do things intentionally slowly, but I no longer try to hurry through them.
There’s something that happens amid all of this. For me personally, noticing that I’m connected to the world around me comes in an awareness of my body. I start to feel movement in my trunk, my muscles relax, I hear the sounds around me, the breeze coming in the window feels nice on my skin, I’ll notice that the light is hitting the wall across the alleyway just so and it is a perfect snapshot of something, the meaning of which lies outside my understanding, but I still understand it is. Maybe that it is is the meaning in itself. All the while, I’ll be doing things. Bottling tinctures, sticking labels on things, packing up orders, responding to emails, or, as the case is right now, writing. The difference is that while doing things I’m aware of my body and the world around me and the passage of time, instead of hyper focused on the stress of ‘gottagetitdone’.
Finding the threads.
Do you do the whole ‘sink into the ground and expand your senses and bleed out into the world around you until you can’t tell where you end and the tree you’re sitting against begins’ thing when in nature? If not, try it. It feels like everything clicks into place and like your body is sucking in nourishment from the earth under you and the world around you. I like to practice finding that wherever I am, even walking around a big city.
Its easiest to start out in the wilds somewhere where there’s less white noise. If not in the wilds then in a park, or even in the garden. Find a tree, sink into it, focus on each of your senses one at a time and then at some point just let them all go. Then find that thread between you and the earth and how its constantly feeding you. That. Then look for it everywhere. Because its always there, its just that we sometimes think its not.
In India I saw elderflowers, in the meridian of one of the busiest streets I’ve ever seen. in the middle of concrete I see weeds cracking up. Reach for that and realise that you have that spark of wild in you, and we too can grow anywhere. What we miss is that humm— the feeling of being cuddled and nurtured by something big and green and earth. And its still there, there’s just a lot more white noise. So reach for it— find that feeling. Its in you and its in the world around you, because no matter what, we are on the earth, just like everyone else.
Resistance is futile. Dive into the noise. Find the pixels. We had construction across the street for a year, and the noise sometimes became infuriating. Diving in to it to the point where the noise is just a series of sounds with no association— its no longer hammers hammering but percussion. A chaotic form of music that has no rhythm and goes on for longer than it should (the universe’s answer to prog-rock). Something happens when you shift perspective like this— it no longer seems like something being done TO you. It just is. And you just are. And its no longer bad music but just sounds happening in your environment.
*Yes, getting out to the wild is important. Its quiet, its soul-nourishing, there is wildness there like there isn’t in the city, but I don’t think its the only way or the only place to feel connected to the earth or to the world around us.