Spring (as the other seasons) has offered a great outdoor opportunity for attention training. This time, it was my youngest daughter, Veronica, and Dad who hit the training trail. What a great “organic” parenting experience: learning how to tune your mind together, experiencing the earth together, and getting the sense of a sometimes self-regulatory healing power within the grasp of your mind-body together. For all the ups and downs of trying to parent well, moments like these feel right to me.
The activities described in this post are intended to help children (and adults) find a place of balance between calmness and alert.
So what is calm? Calm, for our purposes in this post, is a state of reduced stress and anxiety, and focus is “generally” used (here) as putting your attention on specific sensory detail. Each is guided by a different brain network, and each is necessary to maintain your mental and physical stability, as well as accomplish imminent and longer range goals. The tricky part is in finding one’s balance between the two, for children and adults.
One possible path to balance can, however, emanate from one of our most loved pastimes: Music.
When you think about it, your mind-body connections to calm and music are nothing less than dazzling. Powerful enough to bypass all cognition in milliseconds, these connections are comprised of sounds and rhythms experienced by your purest, most primitive self. In fact, the first music encoded deep within your memory can be traced to the earliest vibrations that made you, you—the rhythms and tempos of your first cells. Imagine this: as these cells began to develop in nothing short of luxury—e.g. the comforting rhythms of your mother’s heartbeat and whooshing frequencies vibrating through your umbilical cord—these first “songs,” began to entrain your brain and “orchestrate” your entire being. So from your first sparks of life, throughout your life-long, this early exposure to patterned sound remains significant.
Consider this: Your first cells (stem cells) have the power to become anything they want, from an eye to a heart valve. A friend and colleague of mine, Dr. Donald Ward, an Upstate New York biologist who has conducted extensive work in stem cell, explains. “During development, cells are in constant communication with each other, working to determine what their roles will be as we mature as an organism. Over time, this results in the creation of a nervous system with an architecture that is refined to function at a high level. This higher level executive functioning is based on the integration of all the previous windows of development that have progressively built upon each other. Combine this nervous system with all the other systems of the body, and we observe the ultimate level of synchronicity with many different cell types taking on different roles and performing different functions for the “greater good” of the whole being.”
As such, the sounds, rhythms and tempos of your unique construction are threaded through the entire epic. It’s no wonder that you can go to the beach on any given day and see a middle-aged man or woman lying in the sand, eyes gently closed, listening to the whoosh of waves and easy hush of wind, smiling like a baby, not really knowing why it all feels so good, just loving it, comfortably, and calmly. Like a colleague of mine says metaphorically, “It’s as though nature has planted a computer chip in your limbic system.”
And in this case, I believe it is triggers deep primitive pleasure at the slightest echo of the sounds that were your making.
What’s more, these musics that synchronized your creation are now capable of balancing your internal physiological rhythms (heart frequency, pulse, brain waves) with your external world through live or recorded music, as well as through the sounds of your natural world environment.
And so, back to Veronica and me and our outdoor attention training: For three weeks we have traveled to a mountain park in the Adirondacks to sit and quietly let nature help orchestrate our brains and more naturally guide us to that place of balance between calm and alert.
Or choice place has been a beautiful, sparkling stream, with small natural whirlpools, and quick waves, cascading down a succession of mostly small waterfalls. The banks of the stream are plush with tall pines and miles of huge rocks, boulders and flat-rock.
The first time we hiked the area, we concentrated on only the sounds of the stream. I asked specific sound questions: “What does the stream sound like? Can you make the sound?” To my delight, Veronica was able to make the sound and had fun making it. I asked her several times on our drive home to imitate the water sound, and she did with enjoyment. I asked her how it felt to sit by the water listening to the sound. She responded, “Good.” “Did you like it?” I asked. “Yes,” she said. I tried to get her to explain why it made her feel good. Later I reinforced this by asking her to tell Mom about her experience at the stream. She repeated the sound of the water for Mom. And until we visited the stream again, we would talk of the experience—gently. We repeated our hike to the stream several times, each time zeroing in on the sound of the water and other sounds as well: birds, wind, and the occasional splashes. Once home, I subtly added to our conversations that she should remember the sound of the stream when she gets anxious or upset. At one point when she got upset, I asked her to recall the water—didn’t work, but it put the idea in her head and a little over a week later, I was in for a pleasant surprise.
The last time we visited the stream, we went as a family. I couldn’t wait to share the experience with them as well. We concentrated on all the senses: First we named the senses. Then: “What can you see? What do you smell? I recall my older daughter (5) said she could smell the pines and the water. She said she could taste the water in the air. And I followed up with questions trying to establish how these sensory experiences made her and Veronica feel. This, I believe, is important to help facilitate intrinsic reward and transfer of this mind-body experience to other life situations.
As for my wife and I, the experience was just what we needed. For me, it took the edge off of the end of the semester rush (we both teach at area colleges) and yet, thanks to the reduction in stress, I felt pretty alert at the same time. This is an interesting effect because it involves the balancing act your mind and body require to attend to regulatory processes and as such optimize performances. The point is that there are many benefits to being able to cool down while on task and vigilant. So balancing between the two becomes important.
My surprise came just a few days ago when Veronica volunteered to voice gratitude among us for the goodness we have experienced lately—a little ritual we enjoy daily. In her 3-year-old wisdom, she all on her own said she was grateful “for the sound the water makes.”
From here, I will encourage Veronica and her sister to make a mental sound bite (although I won’t call it that) of the sound and start using it to relax themselves when they need.
I believe these early experiences with sound will help my children reach balance amidst the hectic days that are sure to become part of their life eventually. I further believe that it is never too late to begin your own training.
My family and I have started to explore the sound of campfires and have found that this is a tremendous substitute to watching television after dinner. If you have a fireplace or live in an area where you can have an open fire—or near such a place—I highly recommend this activity as well.
It’s never too late to begin such experiences (as a parent or for yourself—parent or not). No matter how old we are—outdoor attention training activities—are enjoyable and beneficial, and what an incredible tool to begin to access young—the younger the better.
In my next post I will explore some sound and music ideas for tipping the scale the other way—toward alert. Enjoy.
For a scientific adventure into the world of human attention see my newest book [amazon 1601630638].
Image by: Flickr.com