Wild Mind Blog
A Personal Reflection on Working as an Outdoor Therapist in London

1. “A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.”

The outdoors is all; undivided and continuously revealing. We warm ourselves in the red glow of the summer sun and are quickly cooled by a freshening breeze. We stand exposed to a sudden downpour on the incline of a muddy hill and move to shelter under the welcome, dense canopy provided by the leaf filled branches of a cavernous oak tree. I choose to spend my days outdoors walking in the footsteps of the seminal artist, poet and printmaker, William Blake, along the pathways, greenery and woodlands of London. I work as a mindfulness-based gestalt therapist and supervisor. My passion is to walk side-by-side with my clients in the many open, green spaces available in London. Together we observe the flowing, spiralling processes that emerge, sustain and dissolve. Each session offers a cocreation between myself, the client and the nameless ground that the outdoors holds an open doorway to.

I cycle from session to session along the veins and arteries that link and connect my hour-long outdoor sessions. The wind blows, the rain often pours, the sun rises, occasionally blazes and falls, the clouds accumulate and pass. I am mindful in both my steps and gaze, to listen, to notice, to sense and to hold. The winter months are challenging and draining, the long summer days energising and giving. Each day is a new walk, different observations are made, and stimuli felt in the outdoor here-and-now. The walkways resonate with song and are filled with a gabble of ghostly Blakean angels and demons bound in their narratives of the infinite and the everyday. In the parks, dogs bark, chase and retrieve, the birds swoop, trill, and caw. Who I am both dissolves and reveals in this multisensory, post climate change outdoors experience.

From a therapeutic perspective, the outdoors provides the holding environment for each session. With a discerning awareness, we notice our body tense and tighten, and listen to the rush of narrative constructs telling us to get out of the rain knowing if we hang around in a downpour the clothes we are standing in will become soaked and we will potentially develop a chill. On a summer’s day, blissful in its warming rays, we may choose not to bring our attention to the intense heat on our exposed skin and become sore with sunburn. For myself, it is the effect of the wind that I often either fail to notice or react to out of habit and I am reminded of the contrary pairs of worldly winds that blow; those of pleasure and pain, loss and gain, praise and blame, renown and shame.

The outdoors provides the therapeutic frame with an everchanging flux of figure and ground to sense, notice and bring awareness to how we, in one instance, will expansively respond to our environment as it is and how, at others, will see us bump into what is with either a grudging, felt resistance, an isolating sense of separation or perhaps a childlike reactive urge for things to be the way we want them to be which leaves us feeling frustrated, worn down, anxious and betrayed.

We observe how we naturally open and close in our ability to be with things as they are, as if echoing the fluid motion of our lungs inhaling and exhaling the air we breathe and the valves of our heart pumping the blood through our body. We bring an understanding that the aim is not to seek a constant openness to what is. We are aware that, as part of the natural flow of things, we also contract and close. The art of outdoor therapy is in how we develop a discerning and empowering awareness towards when we choose to close as opposed to an acting out a habitual defensive closing off from what is.

Just before the lockdown of London’s cultural life in early 2020 in response to the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, I was at an event at the Tate Britain art gallery in central London discussing the contemporary relevance of William Blake. I was struck by the suggestion of one of the panellists as to whether one would like to go for a drink with William Blake given his reputation for falling out with his friends and his blunt, abrasive manner of speech. He was not one to suffer fools gladly and would quickly shift from expansive joviality to sharp temper. The invitation I offer here, is how it would be to go for a walk with William Blake, a visionary man who sought freedom from limiting beliefs to observe a “world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower”.

Blake would walk extensively from his home in Soho to the then fields of outlying Peckham, Highgate and Primrose Hill and experience hallucinatory visions of a deeply felt sense of stillness and harmony. I have given sessions in over a hundred outdoor locations within London. Like Blake, I head out from my base of the Thames to the heights of Hampstead Heath in the north, Greenwich Park in the south-east and Battersea Park in the south-west, and the more contained parks of Bermondsey, Dulwich, Peckham Rye, Westminster and Kensington to name a few. Outdoors with my clients, I have witnessed Blake’s “doors of perception” cleansed to reveal a fusion of unity between the perceiver and what is perceived.

When we close, we often do so with a need to control how we perceive things to be. As Blake observed in
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, we become “closed” and see, “thro’ narrow chinks” of our restrictive “cavern”. When we open, however, there is an expansive quality to being with what is. We are more able to see ourselves in others and can better accept the foibles of our friends without seeking to change them or want them to be a certain way. When in this open state, we can hold our desire for things to be as we want them to be with a lighter touch.

My approach here is to offer a flowing sequence of synchronous acts, a repeating threefold process grounded in our being conscious to what we experience in the here-and-now. The first of these movements is of closing, exhalation, dissolution, contraction, leaving, separation and forgetting; of how we reactively conceal and close ourselves from the experience of what is and how this is brought into awareness in outdoor therapy. The second is of opening, inhalation, emergence, creation, embodying, connection and remembering; of how we respond with a revelatory openness to what is and fully open to our experience outdoors when we rest in this expansive state. The third is a merging movement, a new gestalt, a coming together of the aspects of our opening and closing, a marriage of Blake’s heaven and hell; the awareness that provides the stillness and ground to be with the inexorable ebb and flow of the polar qualities of expansion and contraction, inhalation and exhalation, forgetting and remembering.

At the heart of these threefold processes there is a fusion and union of being. If we were to place a trident, like the one traditionally held by both the storm brewing Olympian god of the sea, Poseidon and the Hindu god of destruction, Shiva, with its three prongs above a body of water, it can appear that there are three separate parts. However, when fully raised above the level of the water it is seen that there is just the one trident. This is the nature of my outdoor work with clients, bringing awareness to what appears to be and to what is and realising our innate capacity for discernment and choice in any given moment.

2. What Happens When It Rains?

The question I am most asked when I say I work as an outdoor therapist, walking with my clients in the varied urban settings London provides, is what I do when it rains. Repeatedly, I observe the intrinsically held belief we have for a sense of being in control continually bumping awkwardly into the reality of how things are. It would appear there is a hard-wired, instinctual, primal mechanism within all of us that seeks to attempt to control life in order to avoid pain. Working outdoors, the unpredictable London weather is a gift in terms of allowing clients to see for themselves their own conditioned mechanisms towards control, concern, and contraction. A thought arises. It is sustained for a period of time and then dissolves away from our attention.

Rain, or more specifically the thought of getting drenched in a therapy session, is prescriptively viewed in a forthright negative manner, rarely neutral or positive. There is a truth in this. If we linger outside in wet clothes, we open ourselves up to the prospect of getting a chill or cold as well as a felt sense of dis-ease in being uncomfortably sodden. However, my experience is that this reaction can become habitual, mechanistic and overplayed. I remember a client cancel an outdoor session in Burgess Park in South London twenty minutes beforehand with the fear that it may rain and, as often happens, the heavy clouds passed on their way without spilling a drop. We did, however, a year or so later get caught in a monsoon downpour in the same park and the client laughed as he remembered how he had cancelled that previous session. The next time you go out for a walk in the sunshine and the clouds appear and it unexpectantly begins to rain you might pause for a moment to notice your response.

There came a point their history when the marauding Viking tribes of the highlands of northern Europe ceased from their annual pillaging of the southern lowlands in favour of making the lowlands their home. I imagine the need for a more sustainable way of growing food was a key element in this shift. The milder weather and less jagged landscape offered a more sustainable lifestyle. It makes sense that there was a similar movement seen upwards from the equator and eastwards from the Steppes towards the direction of the Mediterranean and mainland Europe. Today most of us live in the lowlands with the detached understanding that the landscape is there for us to control and manipulate as we wish.

Last summer, I travelled to the north of Wales to particpate in a vision quest. A few days before the individual quest began, we each had to decide upon whereabouts we would spend our five days in isolation. I chose a corner at the edge of the wooded land we were staying on that looked out to the valley below. There was a small circle of birch trees from which I could hang my tarp and a surrounding tangle of wild brambles.

I quickly set to clearing the thorny brambles away. In full lowland mode, I industriously cleared the patch of land and formed a small walking circle next to the rectangle of flat ground I was going put my groundsheet and sleeping bag. Within a few hours I had satisfyingly cleared a pathway to my site and cut out a view to watch the sun both rise and set. I had erected the tarp, laid the groundsheet, brought up a foldable chair from the main camp. It was starting to feel like a place I could call home for the coming five days.

Then it dawned on me what I was doing. I had brought my lowlander mentality and had sought to manicure the environment to fit how I wanted it to be. I had been caught up in project mode; sleep here, view straight ahead, jacuzzi over there. A jacuzzi over there would have been a lovely addition, but not in keeping with the contemplative process I was about to undertake. It was at this point I paused and finally began to slow down. I started to talk to the land around me apologising offering explanations of being a lowlander who had gotten carried away with my thoughts, as lowlanders have a habit of doing, planning this and that.

Gradually, I began to ground in my body and notice the array and natural balance of lifeforms around me. Letting go of lowlander project mode, there was the space to be with whatever was going to happen over the course of the following five days. I was shocked at my initial lack of presence and my disdain for the natural wildness of the site. I told the trees and brambles there would be no more clearing away.

A couple of days later on the first night of the quest at midnight, I sat in a small nook next to where I was sleeping where I had laid a circle of stones in order to perform a death lodge ceremony. As I sat in the pitch black, I opened and waited to see who would come. I felt held and relaxed sitting in the opaque silence. A warrior in vivid blue and yellow clothing with long locks of blond hair appeared. He was young and handsome. He didn’t say anything and wasn’t threatening. I was curious as to who he was and why he had come.

The next day, I recounted the experience as I walked around the circle I had previously cleared and sat looking out beyond the brambles I had cut and pulled away. I thought of my near namesake Hereward the Wake, a headstrong Anglo-Saxon warrior who had fought Wiliam the Conqueror at the time of the Norman invasion. My attention shifted to the vivid blue and yellow of his tunic, the colours of the Swedish flag. He definitely could have been Swedish.

As I pictured the vast wilds of the highlands of the Scandinavian landscape, the penny dropped. The warrior represented the qualities of the highlands that I had lacked when I arrived for the quest. Living in a northern climate where the weather is wild and unpredictable for the majority of the year, there is no choice but to be with what is. It is not possible to impose how you want things to be upon a blizzard blowing snowscape. Things are as they are and you become a part of them. The same is true of life in less developed countries where people have to be in tune with the wildness of their surroundings to have a fighting chance of survival.

Living in the developed world, with our years of education and our expectations as individuals, we need to take time to unlearn and be once again present in our environment as and where we are. In the UK, there are numerous wild spaces that we visit for pleasure. Often though it is with a sense of competition to climb a particular mountain or complete a particular walking trek or cycle route. I sense that it is only after time is repeatedly spent coming back into these wild spaces that we open again to our intrinsic natural being with what is and let go of our conditioned cultivation of wanting things to be a particular way.

Our environment affects us. If we stay comfortable in our urban lowland existence our innate capacity to be with things as they are is obscured. We need regular exposure to the wilderness to give ourselves a more realistic sense of what it is to fully be in the world. Otherwise, we fall prey to the illusion of a life that seeks to manipulate and control the world around us as something separate to us. It makes sense that the warriors of the highlands came south, but our taming of the known world ultimately leads to a tameness of our own existence.

As the Vikings came south from the highlands to the lowlands, over the coming decades we will likely retrace their footsteps in reverse as we adapt to our post climate change environment and relocate cities to more northern locations. I wonder if this shift back into wilder environs will facilitate a greater sense of a wholeness of being or if we will still be asking what happens when it rains?

3. If you go into the woods today...

I was initially drawn to bringing therapy outdoors by the health benefits observed in the Japanese practice of forest bathing,
shinrin yoku, and in other traditional rewilding practices. A dive into the lush green of Dulwich and Sydenham Woods in south east London does give the joyous sense of being immersed in a tree bath. The World Economic Forum has reported that merely being around trees can lead to improved levels of health and well-providing beneficial effects to our immune system, lower blood pressure, reduced stress hormones and greater levels of energy.

Trees and woodland provide the ground of awareness in a therapy session. The client as the perceiver will notice a particular tree, maybe one of the many aged chestnut trees in Greenwich Park or one of the distinct silver birches tucked away on Hampstead Heath. The tree is the object of the client’s experience and their perception is the means of their experience, possibly the beauty of the tree or their felt sense at having seen it. In Eastern philosophy we find a deep contemplation on the interconnective relationship between that which is perceived, the perception, and the perceiver. I sense it is this embodied knowing of unity and fusion that entices us from our urban routines to meander outdoors with the trees and foraging birds of the forest.

The natural way for human beings is to follow the ways of the Earth. We are like the London clay we walk on, which neither hardens to the point that it is beyond moulding, nor is overly soft that it does not retain form. Our brain is divided into two distinct hemispheres, left and right. All creatures appear to share this same asymmetric division. One hemisphere evolved with a direct, narrow focus to seek out food, the other a wider, peripheral vision vigilant for the arrival of potential pretadors. The brain has, over millennia, evolved this skillful capability to achieve these two disparate tasks simultaneously.

Our mind, whilst whole, replicates this dual differential. One part of the mind is literal, paying attention to what is local and graspable. It adheres to fixity and certainty. It makes quick, dirty judgements; good or bad, safe or dangerous. Its function is to keep us alive and safe. 'Am I safe?' is its constant refrain. The other part is global in aspect and can hold complexity and ambiguity. It is the realm of metaphor, poetry, irony and humour. It is circumspect, seeing things in the round. Both the explicit and implicit qualities of mind are available to us in each moment.

We draw upon the more literal part of our mind to live in the contemporary urban world we find ourselves. It centres upon identification and classification. It is our egoic mind with an identity of self that is separate from others; I am here and you are there. The more explicit part of the mind is essentially a witness observing what is happening. It has no need for judgement as there is no separation. There is just the direct experience of what is happening right now.

We are walking in the woods. The explicit part of our mind says, 'tree' and walks by not paying a second glance. Its work in identifying potential risk is quickly done and it is already on the lookout for the next potential threat. The implicit part notices the tree and has the direct experience of an intricate, abundant biosphere of life. The explicit mind provides a representation of the world it sees in language. The implicit mind has a more expansive direct experience of what is happening that can partially be captured in context, metaphor and myth and with an openness of not knowing.

Our Celtic anscestors who lived in the Great North Woods, of which the Dulwich and Sydenham Woods are ancient remnants and from which the local area Norwood takes its name, tormented the Roman centurions who had erected their settlement on a nearby hill. The Celts survival depended on their attunement with the natural environment in which they lived. Like us walking in the woods today, they would have drawn on both the implicit and explicit qualities of mind available to them. However, they did so in a different way. As a community, they saw themselves as an intrinsic part of their environment which, as a consequence, removed any fear of death for where could they go, whereas today, with our egoic minds believing themselves to be in control, we implicitly believe and identify ourselves as being separate.

In his book
The Master and His Emissary, Iain McGilchrist defines what has become known as 'The McGilchrist Manoeuvre'. The 'Master' in our hectic city life where we find ourselves as separate from each other and the natural world is the explicit egoic mind or, at least, it would like you to believe so. Our Celtic tribe of warriors living from moment to moment within their natural surroundings would have drawn on a greater wholeness of both the implicit and explicit qualities of mind. 'The McGilchrist Manoeuvre' defines the implicit mind as being the natural 'Master' and the explicit, egoic mind as it's 'Emissary'. The implicit mind engages in a direct experience and then draws on the explicit mind to make sense of it from which a new gestalt, or shape, arises that informs the experience.

When we go into the woods today, we go typically with our explicit egoic mind leading the way and then, bit-by-bit, as the trees bathe us in their glow, our dualistic, mechanical sense of things being discrete and fragmentary falls away to an extent revealing our more natural state of implicit mind. This expansive quality of mind resides in the wholeness of things, like a snowflake in its multitudinous complexity and beauty, allowing us to breathe in, expand and feel the implicit joy of the timeless present moment as it is. The map of the literal mind gives way to the experience of the whole and that, in essence, is both the heart and art of outdoors therapy. We temper the direct focus of repeatedly questioning, 'Am I safe?' with the release and ease that comes from the embodied experience and knowing of the interbeing of all existence that, like the Celtic warrior, 'I am safe!'

We are walking in the woods. I stop, turn to face you and hold out my hands. Two hands, palms up. Left and Right. ‘Let’s split your mind in two and play,’ I suggest. I look towards the palm of my outstretched left hand and say that the task of the left part of your mind will be to have a precise focus to find food on the floor of these woods. You drop your head to look down at the ground. Meanwhile, I say, turning now to look at the right palm, the job of the right part will be to have a wider, more peripheral vision to keep a look out and make sure you don’t become food for something else.

It is a warm summers day and the ground is dry. I suggest that we get down on all fours, closer to the ground. Moving gently across the bare earth with alternate leg and arm movements like a bear I ask what you need the left part of your mind to do to find any food that might be laying on the ground. “I need to concentrate my sight and scan the ground,” you say. At the same time, I remind you, how will you keep a peripheral awareness of what is going on around you? You pause, “I’ll have to look up every now and then,” you respond.

It sounds as though you are using the same left part of your mind to do both functions, I say. How might you use the right part of your mind to keep the wider awareness? Screwing up your face, you say, “I’ll just have to sense what is around me with my body and hope for the best.” We walk like human bears awhile around a gathering of fragrant pine trees. How’s it going? I ask. “I can’t see any food,” you reply standing up. I jump up to stand with you and ask if you get a sense of how the two hemispheres of the brain work in different ways. “Kind of,” you say.

I hold out my hands again. We have this evolutionary capability, like a lizard scampering over the ground, or a robin hopping down from a nearby branch to peck at the earth, to use our mind in two ways simultaneously. The two hemispheres of the brain have evolved over millennia to both act in different ways at the same time. It did seem that you were more at ease using the left part of your mind, I say as I drop my right arm to my side. We could call this part the thinking mind. “Am I safe?” might be its constant refrain. With this part of our mind we develop a sense of a separate self, an identity, to be able to make meaning of what surrounds us to ensure we keep ourselves and our family safe.

The right part is maybe not so clear to visualise or available to use, I suggest. You nod. It is what is available to us when we are born, receiving from the nervous system all the bodily felt sensations that we experience. It’s more of a witness. It notices what is happening from moment to moment. Such as the sense of the warmth of the sun on our skin, I say looking up through the trees. The sound of the crows cawing up in that tree, I point. The feel of the uneven ground beneath our feet. A flow of embodied sensations being experienced, nothing more.

When we become stuck in thoughts and narratives, I say rotating my left hand around and around, we have the capacity, I hop to the right, to switch to the right part of our mind and observe what we the left part is doing. Rather than get caught up in acting out our thoughts and feelings, we have the possibility to discern a different response. In this way, we utilise the two different parts of our mind, I say holding out my two hands again. I draw my right hand under my left, to exemplify the spacious capacity of the right part of the mind.

If we identify with the left part of the mind, our sense of who we are, then the right part connects to a more expansive sense of being, I say. The left is like the wispy clouds above us, coming and going, forever changing whilst the right part connects to the constancy of the sky. Whilst the left part continually asks, “Am I safe?” the refrain of the right part is a deeper sense of a life confirming, “I am safe.” Do you get a feeling of how the right part of our mind is a resource we can draw on to better be with the inexorable ebb and flow of thoughts and feelings of the left? I ask. I bring my two palms towards each other. Your mind is whole, I say clasping my hands together. This was just a playful practice to give you a sense of how the mind is and how you can utilise its different qualities when you become stuck in the mud.