Shiva & Buddha Together

After all the years in which several girlfriends and I sat around planning grand trips involving sky-diving, snorkeling and weeks in Bali – we decided just like that, to set off to Sedona, Arizona. It sounded like the most exciting place on Earth. Like the son said, there is such a matching ring to it, that it is fun to say it together.

Driving to Sedona from Phoenix, Arizona was surreal and giggly. The full moon shone down on the desert landscape with giant cacti illuminated in the glow of the moon. The constellations traveled with us. I gazed out the window, not really knowing how harsh the environment was. It was all muted and beautiful in the moonlight. The cacti stood out tall and distinct, and I was wondering how tall they must have been to stand out like that. I was to find out two days later that they could be as tall as 40 feet tall, and not for the first time I thought of how precious life must be to thrive in environments like these. Arizona is of course very proud of its cacti: The Arizona State Bird is the Cactus Wren and the State Flower of Arizona is the Saguaro Cactus Flower.

Hiking in Sedona is an experience unto itself. The vast expanse is humbling, the red rocks, layers upon layers of it, that were once the ocean bed is mesmerizing to look at. Hiking to a vista point, each of us I am sure had different things in mind. I had my backpack on for no real reason. When quizzed about its contents, I sheepishly acknowledged that I had in there a book and a kindle among other things so I could sit in the wilderness and read. The friends had an amused expression on their face, and teased me about it, but found me a good spot nevertheless in which to leave me to it.

As I settled in to read, there was much head-shaking, but indulgent smiling. I tried to calm my senses to the levels reading requires. I had with me a travel book : The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen. The book won the author the 1979 National Book Award in the category Contemporary Thought[6] and the 1980 National Book Award for Nonfiction (paperback)

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Traveling through the plains of the Ganges and eventually going up to the upper reaches of Tibet, it is a book that I have long wanted to read. The Buddhist teachings and Zen mode of life are especially attractive to me because of the restlessness that underlies our mode of life. If centuries ago, when technology was not as pervasive as it is now, philosophy saw the wisdom of building in pockets of stillness into our lives and forming affinities with nature, how come we are remiss in finding access to these fundamental things after all our progress?

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Do we need Science to point us towards these again? Science has already started acknowledging the importance of exercise, sleep, meditation. For Nature, there are now studies being instituted in various countries to see the effect of nature as we cluster round closer and closer to each other in urban surroundings. Forest bathing as a concept has long been practiced by the Finnish and Japanese. Known as Shinrin Yoku in Japanese effects on our well-being are now being studied from a scientific perspective. Would we embrace nature if Science pointed us to?

While I started out fake reading for a pose, pretty soon, I was transported to another world. Sitting in the hot lands of southern Arizona – the land of soaring eagles, vast expanses and red stone, I was joining the author on a journey to glimpse snow leopards in the Himalayas, passing stupas and taking in the Buddhist teachings on his journey. Shiva’s abode in the Himalayas is fierce and awe-inspiring as was the desert in which I sat.

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“Hey Girls! listen to this – Let me read out a passage out to you – see how Shiva comes alive here in Fay Canyon, Arizona?” I said, and started reading:

“Yet in Varanasi there is hope of life that has been abandoned in such cities as Calcutta, which seems resigned to the dead and dying in its gutters. Shiva dances in the spicy foods, in the exhilarated bells of the swarming bicycles, the angry bus horns, the chatter of the temple monkeys, the vermilion tikka dot on the women’s foreheads, even in the scent of charred human flesh that pervades the ghats. The people smile – that is the greatest miracle of all.”

By the time I looked up, there was much laughing and I looked to see that Shiva did not really need to dance in the spicy foods of the Ganges plain, A Shiva-ni was attempting a Shiva Tandavam right there. The poses were fierce, powerful, sloppy and funny all at the same time, and somehow totally at peace with the Garuda-esque surroundings of Sedona.

The giggling photographer looked slightly abashed and said “These girls lost you at Calcutta, and started dancing instead!”

I landed up giggling too, and like a bunch of tickled snow leopards fleeing the thudding of Shiva’s feet, we made our way out of the canyon lands towards our next stop.

I don’t know how much one’s readings can alter one’s surroundings, but I was quite astounded at our next stop. We were in a stupa with a Buddha statue. Sedona Arizona is well known for its mystic yearnings in its rustic surroundings, but I was still pleasantly surprised to find a quaint Stupa nestling in the canyons surrounded by naturally formed stupas of red stone, and a Buddha statue carved of wood.

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There probably is a reason for our richest myths and stories to emanate from awe inspiring places in nature, for it is where we can lose ourselves in order to come back to ourselves better.

When Deserts Are Cool

I was calling the parents in India, flushed with excitement from the week-end trip. A Girls Trip to Sedona, Arizona! I twirled the words around in my mouth relishing the effect it would have on the mater in particular. She was bound to be critical for ‘leaving’ the children on this ‘unnecessary jaunting’, and I looked forward to telling her about the trip, for this very reason. (My teenage years have been long drawn out, I know)

I had seen the pictures of all-girls trips on Facebook with a tinge of yearning for so long.

I had read the slightly romanticized version of Kate Harris’ version of two girls traveling on the Silk Road in The Lands of Lost Borders.

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I had followed XPD 2470, the all- women’s group that set out on a road trip from Coimbatore, South India to London via the vast plains of India, through the mountainous regions of the Himalayas, the difficult (socially and physically ) terrains of Afghanistan through Iran, Iraq – emerging into Eurasia and traveling on towards the heartlands of Europe over 72 days and passing through 24 countries in all.

How marvelous it all sounded?

Our own modest trip was nowhere close on the adventure scale or on the hardship scale, but it was exciting nevertheless. I did not have to take care of everyone’s packing, hygiene, hydration, and food? Liberation comes in various doses and forms I tell you.

Anyway, the mater picked up the phone and launched into a Grade 2 complaining session about the pater almost soon after saying Hello. I listened amused – “He doesn’t allow me to go alone and he won’t accompany me either!” she said.

I don’t know whether Jhansi Rani got an opportunity like this when she came in to lay down her sword after a rigorous day of training. Imagine, Jhansi Rani’s mother or aunt complaining to her how that she is never allowed to yield the kitchen knife. I felt like that.

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Lakshmibai, Rani of Jhansi 

Image: By Lakshmibai, Rani of Jhansi – Gallery, which that says it is from the British Library’s ‘Images Online Collection’, but the provided link to the Collection is dead., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5624069

I launched into my version of “Take up your own butter knife!” with gusto.

“Why do you care what he says? You go where you want. As though you don’t know how to get around. Its your own fault for listening to him.”

“As if! I cannot be like you people. Just go wherever I want whenever I want!” she said. I ignored the dig.

The pater sensed what was going through my head and quickly chimed in, “Nothing of the sort ma! I allow her to go anywhere, do anything!”

“First of all – who are you to allow her to do anything may I ask?” said I.

“True True – she allows me to allow her to go anywhere she wants!” said he.

“Secondly, what are you holding her back for? If she goes, you can have some quiet time of your own too, can’t you?”

He chuckled.

Then, in all grand glory, I told them all about the amazing trip we girls took to Sedona, Arizona. “Isn’t that a desert area?” said the pater who had touchingly moved to the map of the United States that hung on the walls of the home, and was now tracing his finger on the places I was telling him about.

“Yes it is! But when the girls go together, even deserts are cool!” I said and beamed. Lost on them of course, for they couldn’t see me, and by the sounds of it barely hear me as well.

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“What did the children do when you weren’t there?” the mother asked.

“Why?! Had fun of course -what do you think they did?” I said smartly and felt the glow of a battle won.

 

November Novelty

The quality of the evening was ethereal. The cold November evenings had begun to set in. I had turned the thermostat up a couple of notches, the white light effused a warm glow against the fall colored curtains. Halloween was still fresh in everyone’s memory, Diwali had snuggled in, and spread its share of warmth and joy even amidst some moments of disquiet with raging fire and wind whipped storms.

 

 

I surveyed the house and felt a surge of warmth course through me. Dear friends and family were visiting, and I was glowing with pleasure at the companionship of the evening. The house had been through the cleaning wheel: which is to say that the closets were groaning and stuffed to their very brims. I warned guests to open any closet with care warning them that a dozen things could tumble out. All the children – residents and visitors, nodded with sincerity, but I found them an hour later playing hide-and-seek, and amazingly finding place to hide in the very closets that I thought sent me a clear memo to not put anything else in there. Oh well!

The conversation was ebbing and flowing with the fine food and beverages among the young and old alike. Jesty topics were making their way towards hefty ones, and laughter was being sprinkled with wrinkled looks of concentration as differing viewpoints were proffered, and evaluated. The beautiful feeling of minds changing slightly from their earlier stances mingled with the exasperation of trying to string complex thoughts into words – one word at a time, were at work, and I marveled at humanity once again.

“The art of conversation is the art of hearing as well as of being heard.”
― William Hazlitt, Selected Essays, 1778-1830

Can we get better? Absolutely. But I sometimes feel we lose sight of marvelous gift we have of empathy and of trying to understand one another. Moments in which we bestow upon one another the inestimable gift of attentive listening with a view to understanding. I was reminded of the saying, that I read somewhere a while ago.

Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity – Simone Weil

When we talk of meaningful moments, it is moments like these that we wish to savor. November is unusually so – whether it is because it is my birthday month or the time for Thanksgiving, and therefore a time for gratitude, or something else, I cannot say, but I find it is a good time of year to look back on the past year, reflect on the grains that made up the texture of the preceding months, and those months layered upon years, like a tree adding a ring to its makeup.

Sappy perhaps? But so is life. 

 

 

It is the time of year when I select books with happy endings, the time of year I make it a point to snuggle in with my books and children,  buckle down and write more for November is Novel Writing Month.

The air is nippier, the nights longer. It is also the time for crunch parties for in the area I live the trees are resplendent with the colors of Autumn. The gingko trees are turning gold (post coming up soon). There is no greater joy than seeing life scurry about in these changed surroundings. The promise of rain is in the air. Misty mornings make for a magical start. Even the waxing and waning of the moon brings with it a new joy for the nights longer and the evenings bring with it a different texture of joy. Kawaakari is sooner (Kawaakari – a beautiful Japanese word denoting the rays of the setting sun on a flowing river)

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It is a time to send thanks for all the small and big things in life. A time in short for us to enjoy Hygge. A wonderful word the Danish have, denoting the warmth emanating from inside even as the winters outside grow colder.

Here is to a wonderful season of the upcoming holidays, of nurturing light in a dark world.

Tick-Tock Tick-Tock

“October 29th, 1969 is the day the internet was born did you know that?” said the husband. I have seen pups don that look when out and about in sunny meadows with a new bone to boot.

“Google icon huh?!”

I suppose life has taught him to take in his leaping enthusiasm with our barely noticeable uh-huh with equanimity. “Hey! Let’s try again. Today is the birthday of the internet!”

“No….just fun fact. Oct 29th, 1969 – The first-ever computer-to-computer link is established on ARPANET, the precursor to the Internet. And then in 1974, the first protocol for communicating over the Internet was conceptualized. T-C-P – tada! Finally, in November 1977, the internet was functional as the ARPANET for the Defense.

“It wasn’t until the late 1980’s and 1990’s even that the internet was functional the way we know it!”, he said awe dripping from him. “I suppose in a way we were the perfect generation to see the wave take off.”

“So you guys are as old as the internet?! Oh my gosh – that is so old!” quipped the little fellow, mentally slotting us with the dinosaurs. “How did you guys live without the internet? ” , said he puzzled. He has taken to asking Google Home all sorts of things during the day:

“Okay Google – what is the atomic number of Boron?”
“Okay Google -what is the time right now?”
“Okay Google – tell me a Halloween joke.”

“Well – we lived quite well I suppose.” said I, throwing in a bit of philosophy about the simple life needing few things other than sustenance for the body and the mind. “We did not need the internet to entertain ourselves. We played outside, made forts out of mud, ran around, and had fun all the same. No battles on that game of yours – Clash Royale is it?!  We battled it out with sticks and stones.” I said, and the more I talked about our lives pre-internet, the more I realized that humanity had truly passed a technological milestone. It was like the power of electricity – it changed our lives forever, and though life is possible without electricity, it has become so much harder to sustain without it. Looking at the children born after the age of the internet, I realized that connectivity is much the same for these children.

 

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“You want to know what I did with the Internet today?” asked the teenage daughter.

“I’ll show you!” she said in her effusive tones. There was then a rather jerky video of her popping into her mobile phone’s camera from various angles – one upside down and by the sounds of it rather clumsily, for we heard a dull thud followed by an “oww”.

“Not my best video – but how about this one? ” She then went on to show us another jumpy jerky video with some sort of a meme thrown in for good measure. I groaned.

“What is this?! Does anyone even see stuff like this? Tick tock is it?” I looked appallingly at her, and said, “Oh goodness child! You don’t tell me you actually posted this!”

I feel it is worth noting here that the App is called TikTok, not Tick-Tock as I thought up until a minute ago when I went looking for the wikipedia entry – sigh! I am as old as the Internet I suppose!

“For your information Amma, tons of people see this stuff. It is original see? This is the one that is going viral now. Already 30,000 likes and 100,000 views.”, she said, proud of herself.

My jaws dropped. “For this?!”

“Supportive. Mother. Supportive – remember?”

“But I’ve seen plenty of videos – even your own that are much better than this – even the one you showed us before where you banged yourself on the floor by the sound of that dull thud had a comical quality to it. ” I said, and she laughed hard, agreeing wholeheartedly.

“Fame doesn’t need merit Mother.”

“Fame is a fickle friend Harry!” said I in a brilliant imitation of Professor Lockhardt from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

“Fame is as fame does!” said she, and we all laughed.

“Just goes to prove that all our inventions and resources take on a life of their own, and that is what will keep us busy as a race I suppose.” I said.

“All the brilliant protocols developed and conceptualized for dumb Tick-Tocks like this to go viral. What is the world coming to?” said the husband.

“What a tangled web we weave when we choose to connect?” I said paraphrasing not Shakespeare as it turns out, but William Scott in the poem Marmion, and looking around proudly for acknowledgement. Completely lost on the group of course. I sighed and continued – there are times when you explain your jokes and times you don’t. Not when something viral is competing for attention.

“Poor appa! Let’s throw him a bone and listen to him about the philosophy of the internet dears. ” said I, and we listened to him as he explained – his own fascination overtaking him, about how the internet developed and (d)evolved into what it is today.

Here is an interesting video with all the leading websites over time.

More videos here : Data is Beautiful

How we will continue to evolve is anybody’s guess, which leads me to a wonderful essay I read by Ursula Le Guin on the different types of fantasy. (coming up next)

The Magic of Story-Telling

“Stop being a Jellyfish!” said the husband.
“I knew you were going to say that – you are such an open book yourself!” said I.

We both giggled like children at our own pathetic joke. T’was the time for hulking men with or without mustaches and serious women to quack like ducks, twirl like fairies, flex those non-existent abs, and find that little teeny bit of whimsy that adulthood so expertly hides away beneath the layers. Halloween was here.

 

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T’is the time people astound you with their imagination. Who doesn’t like having 3 spidermen knocking on your door all at once? Or to see the twin toddlers dressed as Nemo & Dory? The super-heroes and ninjas cowering behind their larger siblings in Vampire clothing, or the witches cackling hard?

There is something so uniquely beautiful about Halloween – the one festival where we can display our idiosyncrasies with grace, be accepted for whatever we are. You want to be a skeleton? That should be fine. Here is some candy for you. Really, buddy? You want to go out in the world in that costume? Well, if this appeals to you, then I suppose you deserve some candy anyway!

How many times in our lives do we get that kind of universal approval?

The husband and I were very proud of our last minute Halloween costumes: an open book & a jellyfish.

The little fairy lights I had taped into place made the jellyfish glow, and I received many compliments – I must say I glowed all evening with the praise, though I did credit the Internet with it.

When people asked me where I got the inspiration from, I replied truthfully that I have always wondered what it must be like to live under the sea, and they invariably laughed at my answer.

But it’s true. Every trip to the aquarium rekindles the magic of another world – right here with us. Reading Gerald Durrell’s essay about scuba diving is enthralling.

I have often wondered how we would have adapted if we had evolved under the ocean. Would we have figured out the laws and physics of the Universe to the extent we have, or would the medium have made little difference in understanding. The Octopus’s evolution to have more neurons than us is truly astounding.

Quanta Magazine: What shape is the universe? Closed or Flat?

It is why I like reading about the intelligence of dolphins and whales: the fact that they have epics the sounds bits of which are roughly the equivalent of our Iliad is amazing. Quote from Carl Sagan’s essay on Whale song:

If the songs of the humpback whale are enunciated as a tonal language, the total information content, the number of bits of information in such songs, is some 10 to the power of 6 bits, about the same as the information content of the Iliad or the Odyssey.

What must their epics say? For all our anthropological worldview, I wonder whether humans figure in them at all. That will be a fine thing to hear – a Dr Dolittle who finally translates a Whale Epic, only to find their world far richer than our own.

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Art work by Daughter

I recently re-read the Voyages of Dr Dolittle by Hugh Lofting. I must say I thoroughly enjoyed visualizing myself sailing the seas with his motley group – either by skimming along like a porpoise, or better yet by getting a place inside the giant snail’s back as it sailed along smoothly churning the ocean as it went.

Swimming with Dolphins

We are all children of stories. We need epics and tales of fantasy. Our very own imaginations need an outlet, and Halloween gives us just that. I know my enthusiasm rubs off on the children as they go about planning their costumes. While I am out with a big smile on my face, a number of people give me an indulgent smile as if to say “Aren’t you a bit old for this?”

Mary Oliver gently reminds me to react with this nugget of wisdom:

“You must not ever stop being whimsical. And you must not, ever, give anyone else the responsibility for your life.” 

― Mary Oliver, Wild Geese

Privately, I am happy that our inner child never really leaves us.

Authors:

The Great Quivering of Autumn

“I just witnessed the Great Quivering of 🍂🍁🍃 Autumn!” I said as I stepped into the house flushed with the exercise and thrilled with the beauty of a blustery day. “Luckily, I checked the weather before heading out.” I said taking off my light jacket.

“What’s she saying?” said the daughter, raising her sleepy head from the couch, and pulling her teeth out of a bagel.

“Its windy outside!” said her little brother, already practicing that teenage eye roll, and the art of turning poetry into the prosaic.

I rolled him up and said, “You too buddy?! Come here – you would have loved it. you know that? I saw so many hawks – I have never seen so many of them soar up together in great big circles like this. All of nature quivered. Trees shook, branches swayed, waves lapped at the shores of the lake, and leaves, oh my goodness – so many leaves went quaking to the floor. I stood with my arms apart like this and just stood there!”

“In the middle of the road?! Appa, I told you not to let her out alone!” moaned the teenager, and we all laughed.

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No amount of pictures and videos will do the least bit of good when you catch glimpses of the rays filtering through the quivering leaves, or feel the light caress of falling leaves against your skin or catch the beautiful leaves of all colors against the blue skies. How does one capture the beauty of seeing a dozen hawks soar overhead, or the awe of seeing the pelicans do their little ballet dance of fishing, or the susurration of the leaves murmuring in the wind. There is a word for this: Psithurism.

As I gathered my little brood around me for a hot cup of tea after that invigorating walk, I shushed them to peek outside to see what I meant. The leaves were fluttering down in our garden, but there was another creature up and about at work regardless of the winds. 

“Bulby!” said the son excited.

“You named the squirrel? He can give you rabies you know that?”

“He can, but he won’t, and certainly not for naming him! You talk as though he is yearning for our company. I assure you, he isn’t. Just watch what he does. Bulby never fails to entertain.” I said, and the son nodded fervently. 

After sometime, we all burst out laughing at the squirrel’s antics. We have seen him hide great nuts in the soil every now and then, he nibbles and gnaws at the fruit on our trees, I have seen him scamper on seeing us sometimes, other times he watches us as though he doesn’t mind allowing us to enjoy a spot of nature with him. Today, he dug up my recently planted flower shoots, and dug something out, looked at us and furtively patched the garden up as though nothing had happened, and scurried. He had something on his mind, maybe a gut feeling of what was to come.

The morning out amidst nature, and finishing up with Bulby’s antics made me think of one of Mary Oliver’s poem:

From the Book of Time – By Mary Oliver

I rose this morning early as usual, and went to my desk.
But its spring,

and the thrush is in the the woods,
somewhere in the twirled branches, and he is singing.

And so, now, I am standing by the open door.
And now I am stepping down onto the grass,

I am touching a few leaves.
I am noticing the way the yellow butterflies
move together, in a twinkling cloud, over the field.

And I am thinking: maybe just looking and listening
is the real work.

Maybe the world, without us,
is the real poem.

The wind whipped and whooshed around all day. By evening, the winds had gathered speed alarmingly, trees that had swayed earlier in the day were lying broken, roads closed, emergency responders were keeping the populace further up North informed about the situation, power was down. It astounds me every time how forceful nature can be. But it also made me stop and think – the hawks had been more fitful than usual that morning, the squirrel was bustling more too. The animals knew we were in for a rough time, and responded, while we waited by our gadgets to give us the news.

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It is marvelous how Mary Oliver puts her finger on the pulse of the Earth :
Maybe just looking and listening is the real work,
Maybe the world without us is the real poem.

Biophilia

Oh! What a surprise amma?! The book, Nature’s Fix appeals to you.” said the daughter peals of laughter barely concealed in the sentence.

“I know right?! I always keep an open mind to see how else I can improve, my dear!” I said not to be undone in the sarcasm department. 

“You are cooped up in a dull office building in the bustling city – you need a change. I get it! But I am quite happy and young enough to not ‘stretch my limbs’ in nature walks! Nature kook is what you are! I suppose you will now use bits of the books to convince us to come on walks with you. I’ve got homework to do, bye! ” said she mock-straining at my tug to come on a walk with me. But she came. 

As we walked around our neighborhood, watching the leaves slowly turn colors, birds making their way home against the brilliant sunset, children playing and biking, I felt calm. How much of that was due to the fact that I could take the time for a walk at the end of the day, and how much of it was Nature’s work, I am unable to say, but I felt a wonderful shiver as I watched the evening breeze rustle through the large trees in the neighborhood. Slowly, as I watch the wave of leaves tremble in the wind, some of them shaking loose, and others just swaying to the orchestra of the evening, there is a definite sense of belonging to this wonderful planet.

 

As I move around the office or often when I am walking to and from work in the city, I feel a concrete shudder. We are so proud of concrete as a structural material, we pour it everywhere. I feel a lonely stab when I see our gleaming imperfections reflected back to us in the gleaming glass panes of the concrete structures. Even the trees on our city sidewalks seem to be lonely, surrounded by concrete footpaths, and millions of people jostling by them everyday. 

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The book, The Nature Fix by Florence Williams, details studies taken up in Japan and South Korea around the effects of nature. It studies blood pressure, release of  how long the effects of nature remain with us – does it only last as long as we are with nature, or does a weekly hike contribute to our wellness over a period of time? More interesting questions such as these are handled in the book. 

I was lured into the book reading about the concept of Shinrin Yoku & Salim Yok(Forest bathing in Japanese & Korean respectively) The Japanese are also probably the only people in the world who have a word for commute hell – Tsukin Jigoku.

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Excerpt:

Study in the Nippon Medical School:

Qing Li is interested in nature’s effect on mood states and stress as manifested in the human immune system, Specifically, he studies natural killer immune cells called NK, which protect us from disease agents and can, like cortisol and hemoglobin, be reliably measured in a laboratory. 

Only in 2016 did we officially became an urban species – for the first time, population in cities outnumbered population in rural areas. As we cluster around in larger numbers, it is even more important to study the effects of nature on ourselves. After all, our biophilia has evolved over millennia and this abrupt change from it is bound to bring changes in the ways we can adapt.

Definition of biophilia. : a hypothetical human tendency to interact or be closely associated with other forms of life in nature.

Is Nature the next wave after Meditation, Exercise and Organic Foods? 

There have been days when I have wondered how the children found out whether I indulged in a spot of meditation. 🧘‍♀️ 🧘‍♀️ I might have, but did they find out because I had taken the time to meditate and therefore already in a better mood, or did the meditation itself help with specific stressors? Nature studies have similar questions, though I am truly grateful for its personal influence on our well-being. Whether it is because of my beliefs or something else, Nature soothes.

Read also: Music & Gardens by Oliver Sacks

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The joy and importance of walking – Solvitur Ambulando – It is Solved by Walking