So yesterday I talked about looking at plant photos as a way to relax. Today, I’m going to offer an easy way to relax with trees. First, we need to refer back to the benefits of looking at fractal patterns, which I explored the other day. These are the patterns that our eyes are naturally in sync with, where a simple design repeats itself over and over to form a complex whole. That complex whole can exist in several ways in nature. One of the most common is in tree branch formations.
The Beauty of a Leafless Tree?
In the Northwest, we’re blessed with conifers that hang onto their needles all year. But in much of the U.S. winter brings leafless trees, turning our horizons brown and making things feel a bit depressing. But in those leafless tree skeletons, nature has created an elegant network of a main thick trunk dividing into thinner trunks that divide into thinner branches and thinner branches until the tips gracefully end in a motif of little points. That elegant design is the beauty of nature’s work.
Ever notice a poorly pruned or topped tree that grows in a strange abrupt tangle of trunks and branches? How do you feel when you see it? Maybe a bit sad. Or if it’s Halloween, like it captures a dark mood. The perfection of a naturally grown tree actually pleases us (despite a lack of leaves in winter). We know it’s form to be “right” or “whole” because the fractal pattern fits with the natural way it needs to grow.
Relaxing Within the Elegance
Every day, my husband and I take a walk after lunch. It’s only about a twenty-minute walk up the gentle hill of our street and back. But because we live in a forested suburb, we’re immersed in a cathedral of fir, cedar, and pine trees. We usually chat about what we’re up to that day or our kids or the latest news, but as we do we’re unconsciously taking in the fractal patterns of our trees. They rise before us as we walk, both presenting themselves close to us and on our view’s horizon.
A Double Benefit
Because we’re taking a walk “in the woods,” we’re getting a double benefit: we’re looking at fractal patterns and we’re mildly exercising. Of course, I don’t need to go over the benefits of walking, but I do want to emphasize how refreshed and vibrant I feel afterward. My mind is clear, my body’s warm, my ability to tend to complex issues restored.
The bottom line is if you can go for a walk among trees, even down a busy city street with leafless trees, you’ll engage in a relaxation break exercise on steroids. You’ll gain the relaxation benefit of the branches’ fractal patterns and you’ll give your body the exercise it needs to renew your system.
It turns out taking a walk down a leafy street isn’t just a nice break from the work day but also a scientifically proven way to relax with trees and lower your stress. How awesome is that?!
Photo by Craig Vodnick
Do you often feel like you have so much going on that taking a break is out of the question? Or perhaps you feel like taking a break is important but you can’t seem to find the time? If you’re a busy mom like I am, you may also feel guilty for taking a break. It feels too luxurious, too indulgent, too all about you. But I’m here to tell you that the breaks you take are the single most important thing you can do today for your health.
Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin has studied the human brain for decades. He says every decision we make depletes glucose, which is the brain’s fuel. We spend too much energy thinking about tasks that aren’t happening in the moment and we’re overwhelmed with information. Americans take in five times more information today than we did in 1986. He also talks about how constantly switching our attention from one thing to the next, even for a few seconds, depletes our brain’s energy. Think multitasking. Then, by the end of the day, we get “brain fog.” So as difficult as it is, we need to restore our attention on a consistent basis. The only way to do that is by taking a break.
How Plants Can Help
Taking a break restores our attention and lets us refuel our brains. Levitin recommends for every couple hours, we take 15 minutes off. Also, going into the “task negative” or daydreaming mode is the single most effective way to restore attention. This includes taking walks, naps, and vacations, reading books, and exercising. And you know what the best news is? Doing any of those things in nature restores our attention extra efficiently.
So What Do We Do?
To start, I’d say you have to want to take a break. You have to understand its value. You probably pay attention to a whole bunch of other people in your life, so why not pay attention to yourself for 15-30 minutes? The result will make you a much happier person. And besides, you deserve it.
Five Steps to Taking a Plant Break
If you’re ready to take a break and want to do so with plants (read biophilia), here’s what I recommend.
1. Shut off the Screen
First, shut off your screen. Close your laptop, click off your tablet or phone. Turn off the TV. It may feel weird, almost lonely at first, but let that loneliness be and feel the chatter go dark and silent. If you have to, say, “See you later, Screen. Time for real life now.”
2. Take a Deep Breath
Second, take a deep breath. Then another. I mean, really big. Then a third. This will help you shake off the angst you might feel at losing the company of the voices on TV or conversations scrolling by in Twitter. Sit with that silence for a minute. Allow your heart rate to slow and become aware of where you are.
3. Find a Plant
Third, find a plant in your home, outside your window, or in your neighborhood. Even a photo in a book or pattern on a pillow will do. Notice that plant. What is its form? Is it a tree, a collection of leaves, a flower? Tall and narrow? Is it wide and full? Does it spiral like a vine or hang like curly hair? Maybe it looks like a funny hat. Does it have an elegant branching pattern? What’s its color, its qualities? And if it’s near you, can you touch it? If so, what does it feel like? Smell like? Relax into assessing it for 5-10 minutes. If you’re outside, try for longer.
4. Let Your Mind Focus, Then Wander
You’re now in daydreaming mode, where your mind wanders in a non-linear mode. So allow it to. Let the loosely connected thoughts flow — as long as they’re not about stuff you should do. No shoulds. Let only random ideas and snippets wash through you mind. When you feel yourself getting worried or tense, whisper, “Stop” out loud, then direct your thoughts back to the plant.
5. Harvest the Good
While your mind wanders for a few more minutes, are you having a realization or memory you hadn’t thought of before? Once, when I did this exercise by looking at a neighbor’s willow, I remembered playing as a child near a willow tree at my grandmother’s house. It was a fond memory, full of quiet and warmth. Another time, I realized I loved the color purple. Another time I realized I loved the antique chandelier in my dining room (which is decorated with vines). Where did you go? If it was some place good, promise yourself to return to that place again. In the meantime, silently (or aloud if you want) thank the plant for helping you.
The Rest of Your Day
I hope you felt a little calmer, a bit more whole. Like you could re-enter the whirlwind with more strength. If you were only able to focus for a few minutes, that’s okay. It will come more easily with practice. However long the break was, I encourage you to schedule another one. On a post-it note, write the time two hours ahead: 10:40am, 12:15pm, 3:50pm, etc. and stick it to your computer or fridge. This way you won’t skip it when the time comes again. And when it does come, try doing something different if you can. If you visited a houseplant, try drinking tea by a window. If you gazed at a picture, try leafing through a book.
Just remember, the point is that there is no point. No goals, no productivity, only you and your directed attention. Taking a break is about just that, breaking away from tasks and dreaming for the sake of your soul.