“Kids will grow like weeds on a fence,
She says they look for the light they try to make sense.”
I live very close to a canal. VERY. As in, about 2 minutes walk. I walk along it (almost) every day. I try to walk for a mile within about an hour of waking in the morning. This primarily does two things:
- Getting natural, unfiltered (ie, not through a window) daylight as early as possible in your day tells your brain that it’s morning and that it’s daytime. This sends messages throughout your body and brain to start working. This also sets your 24 hour internal body clock so that, in 14-16 hours time, your brain and body get the message that it’s time to sleep.
- Moving forward through space, creates optic flow, a sense of the world going past us. When we self-generate that forward movement by walking, cycling etc, soothes the amygdala, reducing the sense of threat or anxiety. We also have an opportunity for panoramic vision, where we are less focused on what’s immediately in front of us but taking in a wider view which also has a calming effect.
Anyway, as much as I like to evangelise on the benefits of a morning walk (see the work of Dr Andrew Huberman for more), that’s not what I’m writing about. The existence of the canal itself is something I’ve thought about a lot as I’ve walked along it each morning. I tend to walk along a for 10 minutes, then join it before walking back along the canal (I prefer circles to retracing my steps). And the point that I join the canal is rather industrial. There are dilapidated mills, a concrete plant, and an abandoned Becks distribution centre. It would be easy to write them off as an eyesore along a beautiful waterway.
But that would be forgetting that the canal IS industrial. Canals are man-made and artificial. They were created to transport goods and cargo. The British canal – which at it’s peak totally nearly 4000 miles in length – boomed during the Industrial Revolution. It’s only now that we use them for leisure and pleasure, and that nature has taken over.
And nature will always take over in some way. The canal I walk is beautiful. If I’m lucky and paying attention, I see kingfishers and otters along with ducks and fish (I’m sure I’ve seen a turtle as well!). Sometimes our industrialisation will actually give nature a new place to thrive. I was surprised (and felt somewhat uneducated) to find out that the Norfolk Broads are entirely man-made. They are a result of digging for peat as fuel in the Middle Ages, which were then flooded as sea levels rose. Nature has taken over and made the space it’s own.
And here’s the metaphor (you know I love a metaphor). We map out our lives. Well, more often than not other people map out our lives. We have that expected pathway of school, education, job, marriage, kids, career, retirement. We might even set ourselves paths that aren’t our true nature, desperately trying to adhere to them. But if it’s not your true nature, your nature will find a way out.
And you might think this is me saying that a leopard can’t change their spots. This is not true and completely contrary to what I believe! Because we CAN change our neural pathways, in exactly the same way that we CAN carve out a new canal or build a new road. But we have to do this in a way that is congruent to our true selves.
And a lot of those so called “spots” are not nature, they are nurture. Most of our “personality” is shaped from our experience and our education. It’s easy to look at the world and think that human beings are pretty awful creatures sometimes, but we are not born that way. Very few humans are born to be driven by hatred, anger or greed. Indeed there is sizeable evidence that we are naturally compassionate, empathetic, social creatures.
The important question isn’t “What is our inherent nature?” but rather, “How can we cultivate the best qualities of human beings in ourselves and others?”Zoe Weil
Maybe writer and speaker Zoe Weil has a good point here. While driving down into the kernel of the Self is something I am fascinated with (it comes with the terrain of being a student of yoga), we live in a world with other humans and we do need to consider them. I’ve never had much time for the trope of, “I am who I am and if you don’t like it you can eff off.” Well, it’s a perfectly fine attitude, but you cant then complain when people DO eff off (and my goodness, don’t the people who say that like to complain!)
Maybe we should at least make some pathways – or roads, or canals – that lead us to being someone who people don’t want to eff off from. Not in a way that makes us LESS like our true selves, but because it is our true selves – as human beings – to have good qualities that improve the lives of ourselves and others around us. That’s not about burying our true nature. If anything, lowering our barriers, removing some of the layers that life covers us in, is like nature seeping into our industrialised world. We might try to make the world cold and clinical and hard. But the loveliness will always find a way back in.