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“Can we do the sunshine thing again?”
It was a warm morning in early October in a hallway of the public elementary school where I worked as a counselor. Even as I turned to respond to the small voice, I knew who it would be. For several weeks I had been working with a very smart and very angry little girl, who had a propensity for hurling both insults and books at her teacher. Now shy and quieted, she stood before me requesting a guided meditation activity I had only just introduced to her. I smiled and led her into the sensory garden just outside the door.
Like almost all guided meditations, our sessions began with an invitation to notice her breathing. As she breathed in, I asked her to simply notice: notice the feeling of fresh morning air; notice how it feels as it travels from nose to throat to belly, then back out again. This simple noticing of breath forms the basis of mindful meditation. It also soothes the vagus nerve, a nerve responsible for fight-flight-freeze responses, emotional regulation and self-soothing. Breathing slowly, especially elongating the out breath, is a simple way for any of us to get out of the emotionally-drenched narratives we hold onto when upset, and get into the safety of a grounded and embodied here-and-now experience. With some children, I use games to help them stay aware of their breathing. Others require little to no guidance.
With this particular girl, I often used guided imagery to help her self-soothe: the fresh morning air can be imagined as blue light, traveling down into her belly, a place she had previously named as the location of her anger. Soothing, cool blue light in, carrying hot, red anger out. In and out, in and out. Visualization has well-documented effects on our blood pressure and decrease stress, so much so, that medical doctors often prescribe it prior to a major surgery. After years of using this technique, I’m still amazed at how much we can achieve by simply using our imaginations!
After several moments of this visualization, I asked my client to focus on the physical feeling of her feet on the ground, her bottom in her chair, her hands in her lap. Here, I am asking this student to take a step outside of her inner world and back into the physical world. Awareness of our physical sensations can be a major resource in managing emotional overwhelm, and kids can especially feel a sense of control over confusing internal experiences.
In our final mindfulness activity, I included nature to help us connect more deeply with the sensations provided by the outside world, while staying anchored in the safety of her body. In this fast-moving, sensory-overload world, connecting with the outside world (i.e. a loud and smelly cafeteria) isn’t always optimal. The world we live in often trains us to shut down. That’s why I use nature whenever I can.
“Let yourself notice the warmth of the sun on your skin.” (Here I may ask her where she can feel the warmth of the sun.)
“Notice how the sunlight looks through your eyelids.” (I might have her turn slowly to notice the difference in brightness depending on which way she’s facing.)
After a moment, I asked her to use her growing sensory awareness to find the sun’s location without opening her eyes. Smiling, she confidently pointed up at the rising sun. Using her body to stay tuned into the external world can be applied to many different natural stimuli:
“What direction is the wind blowing?”
“Can you name three different sounds you are hearing right now?”
“How does the ground under your feet feel?”
The sensory garden was full of plants with different textures, tastes and smells. At different points throughout the school year, this child would come and silently experience these plants, using her sensing body to soothe her anger. Eventually, she was able to simply imagine the smells of, for example, lavender, while in her classroom.
On this particular day, still early in the therapeutic relationship, she was able to simply use her own body’s sensations and imagination to self-soothe. At the close of our exercise, a deep sigh told me that this child was feeling ready to go back to her classroom. She had opened the door to self-understanding a little bit more that morning.
Anger, sadness and other difficult emotions can easily overwhelm a triggered child or teen. In my sessions, I try to follow a direct path that leads the client out of chaotic, often fear-filled emotions and thoughts and into the slow, calming dimension of sensory experience. This journey is not meant to replace or avoid the difficult emotions- indeed, the client discussed above required more depth and empathy than simple mindfulness could provide. Instead, we used those exercises to create a necessary base camp of calm from which to venture forth and explore the rocky terrain of shame, sadness and anger.
Nature plays a key role in this work: study after study shows us that natural, “non-human” settings soothe our weary, twenty-first century nervous systems. Because the truth is, our nervous systems aren’t made by or for the twenty-first century. Our bodies, brain and sensory-systems included, evolved to interface with the natural world and are largely the same systems that our ancient ancestors used to thrive in the natural world.
Noticing our bodies and selecting “wholesome” sensory input such as sunshine or wind and birdsong, is inherently comforting and relaxing for human beings. Practicing this skill can lead to deeper experiences of self-knowledge and self-soothing when we hit rough moments. The little girl I worked with had never been camping and was not aware of the regional park system in the Bay Area. She had little common knowledge of nature and almost no experience with it. But day after day she requested time in the school’s sensory garden, time in which she could engage with her senses and nature and “do the sunshine thing again.” Whether you’re 8 or 80, tuning into your body and it’s connection to nature is one of the simplest and most effective ways to feel good about where you are.