By Susan Morgan
Note: This article is the second of a two-part series connecting the power of awe inspired by nature, mindfulness, and guided imagery from a therapeutic horticulture perspective. Read the first part, “The Power of Awe and Nature.”
Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, recently found a correlation between the positive emotions from awe-inspiring experiences of nature, art, music, or spirituality and lower levels of cytokines in the body, which reduces chronic inflammation and risk of associated negative health issues. “Awesome,” sensory stimulating moments experienced in the garden or nature cultivate mindfulness – “a psychological state of awareness” – and engage both participant and practitioner in the moment. Mindfulness has become widely accepted in various therapeutic approaches as well as the mainstream consciousness in the last decade. Research supports how mindfulness techniques, meditation, and guided imagery can provide a multitude of physical and mental health benefits, such as reducing rumination, alleviating symptoms of chronic pain, improving emotional regulation and concentration, cultivating a sense of well-being, and promoting prosocial behaviors, among others (Davis & Hayes, 2011; Rau & Williams, 2013; Bresler, 2005).
Guided imagery and mindfulness techniques can be utilized by horticultural therapy practitioners to work toward participant and group goals. I have used a simplified and shortened form of guided imagery with some groups in memory care settings in order to increase awareness in the present moment or stimulate reminiscing. “A mental image can be defined as a thought with sensory qualities. It is something we mentally see, hear, taste, smell, touch, or feel. The term ‘guided imagery’ refers to a wide variety of mind/body techniques, including simple visualization and direct suggestion using imagery, metaphor and story-telling, fantasy exploration, game playing, dream interpretation, drawing, and ‘active imagination’ where elements of the unconscious are invited to appear as images that can communicate with the conscious mind” (Bresler, 2005). Gently guiding the imagination can evoke positive mindful responses, particularly if consistently practiced (Naparstek, 1994, 2005).
Curate the Mindful Narrative
Imagine taking a walk through a forest near the mountains OR a visit to a lavender field in the south of France. Develop a script based on the full sensory experience of immersing one’s self into the environment, taking into account the following questions and using as much description and detail as appropriate (not shown in extended detail below).
What do you see? A mixed evergreen and deciduous forest of pine, cedar, oak, maple, and other trees – is it fall or spring? Do you see the autumn leaves blending into an evergreen forest? Or the first signs of the buds breaking? OR, a field with rows of purple flowering lavender in the sunshine. Off in the distance, there is a centuries-old barn constructed of stone with a thatched roof, and inside, there are bunches of lavender flowers hanging upside down to dry. A tall, old tree stands next to it.
What does it smell like? The pungent aroma of pine needles. OR, the sweet fragrance of lavender.
What does it sound like? The leaves on the trees rustling in the breeze. OR, the buzz of honeybees foraging the lavender – so much buzzing that you can feel the vibration in your chest.
Is there something to taste? The air is thick with the smokiness and earthiness of a damp fall morning. OR, the floral tasting honey produced by bees foraging off the lavender fields.
What does it feel like? The cool, moist breeze making its way through the woods. The rough bark of a nearby tree. OR, warmth of the hot summer sun on your face and the feeling of sweat rolling down your forehead.
Once the narrative is created, I invite group members to participate in the activity and provide a brief description of what the guided imagery session entails, including approximate length and general information about the format and goals. I sometimes use printed images of a forest, a stately tree, or a field of lavender to aid in imagining the scene. We might make a sachet stuffed with lavender or pine needles and cedar shavings to stimulate the olfactory sense. As I read the narrative script aloud to the group, I encourage good posture, deep breaths, and a relaxed state throughout the session. Following the session, we process the experience, noting the emotions and elements of the experience that stand out and sharing any associations or other mental images that came to mind. Allow the group’s responses to inform future sessions.
Where appropriate, cultivate opportunities for participants to experience moments of awe, positive emotions, and mindfulness through engagement in horticultural activities and/or guided imagery.
Resources and further reading
Anwar, Y. (2015). Can Awe Boost Health?
Bresler, D. (2005). What Every Pain Therapist Should Know About Guided Imagery.
Davis, D.M. & J.A. Hayes. (2011). What Are the Benefits of Mindfulness? A Practice Review of Psychotherapy-Related Research. Psychotherapy.
Felger, J.C. & F.E. Lotrich. (2013). Inflammatory Cytokines in Depression: Neurobiological Mechanisms and Therapeutic Implications. Neuroscience.
Gregoire, C. (2015). Experiences of Art, Nature And Spirituality May Help Prevent Disease, Study Finds.
Gregoire, C. (2014). How Awe-Inspiring Experiences Can Make You Happier, Less Stressed and More Creative.
Keltner, D. & J. Haidt. (2003). Approaching Awe, a Moral, Spiritual, and Aesthetic Emotion.
Naparstek (1994, 2005). What is Guided Imagery?
Rau, H.K. & P. Williams. (2013). Better Living Through Mindfulness: U Study Connects Traits of Mindfulness to Emotional Well-being.
Stellar, J.E., N. John-Henderson, C.L. Anderson, A.M. Gordon, G.D. McNeil, & D. Keltner. (2015). Positive affect and markers of inflammation: Discrete positive emotions predict lower levels of inflammatory cytokines. Emotion, Vol 15(2).