It’s been… a time, hasn’t it?
Earlier this year the World Health Organization released an alarming report that the global prevalence of anxiety and depression had increased by a whopping 25 percent during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. But those were statistics from 2020.
There’s no need to catalogue the calamities since then, but suffice it to say that humanity is continuing to experience record levels of stress and not a single one of us has been unaffected by this era we’re living in. Even with an ever-metastasizing army of apps designed to perform an array of tasks for us at the tap of a finger or voiced command, none of these seems to be enough to address our most genuine needs.
So what devices do we have to fall back on?
As it turns out – our own.
Suzanne Jewell will tell you it all goes back to mindfulness. As the recently appointed CEO (the ‘E’ stands for Experience) at Patch of Heaven Sanctuary in Miami-Dade County, Florida, Jewell is overseeing the installation of what she believes is the first-ever-anywhere Mindful Pocket Park.
Later this month, volunteers from the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce’s latest “WeOneMiami” leadership program will be joined by local community members and students from a nearby branch of the college-readiness program Upward Bound for a two-day plant-a-thon in the newly-designated pocket park. Consistent with the conservation/reforestation plan for Patch of Heaven’s 20 acres overall, this half-acre space will provide a lush setting of trees, shrubs, and flowering plants.
But there will also be some extra ingredients at work here: five stations, each dedicated to one of the five senses (sight, sound, touch, taste, smell), will be tucked into this new garden for a total immersion experience. A central meditation circle will provide space for guided visualizations that help visitors tune in to what they are experiencing, both physically and emotionally. (And yes, there is an app for that.) A check-in at the beginning and again at the end of the pocket park visit will give visitors a chance to “name, claim or tame” their feelings.
Jewell is basing this concept on her own studies. In the midst of a high-powered global career in strategic marketing and communications (Jewell has wielded her skills for enterprises ranging from DirecTV to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to Art Basel Miami Beach) – she reached a point where she’d had enough.
“Burnout is what put my tush on a cush,” she said in a recent interview via Zoom.
But as a lifelong go-getter (Jewell calls herself a “brainiac”), she couldn’t totally put her left-brain tendencies on hold. Instead, she came up with a whole-brain solution, turning to the University of California-Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center Awareness Training Institute to do a deep-dive into sociology, psychology, and the neuroscience of well-being. She emerged from that graduate program with certification as a mindfulness meditation teacher.
More recently, she’d been living at a Buddhist center in Miami for 18 months and seriously contemplated becoming a Buddhist nun, when she noticed that every time she went into a park, she felt better. That direct experience coincided with her learning about research from the University of Michigan, which indicated that spending just 20 minutes outside, in nature, can lower stress hormone levels significantly. Scientists say that the benefits are manifold: reduced inflammation, improved immune function, better focus, better sleep. And – get this – a greater sense of awe.
All this in 20 minutes? Some are calling this a veritable “nature pill.”
Jewell loved the idea, but knew from her own life experience that not everyone is easily able to escape the demands of their fast-paced lives and find enough nature to get that daily reprieve.
But then she dreamed up the concept of a pocket park that could amplify the natural benefits by incorporating mindfulness exercises and intentional interactions with the nature that - even if limited - was at hand. This would give visitors a chance to note both what was going on in the green space around them, but simultaneously what they were feeling inside of themselves.
This, Jewell felt, might be a small-scale solution that could be implemented widely.
Patch of Heaven has offered her the space to test this idea. This initial park will be targeted particularly toward people who have served others over these last few years of crisis and who haven’t received any health or wellness support themselves: teachers, first responders, workers at nonprofit organizations, and so on.
“We can help people before they land in burnout,” Jewell promised. “You can find equanimity. Come take the ‘nature pill.’”
If it proves successful, the Patch of Heaven’s Chief Experience Officer sees potential for these rejuvenation spaces in urban areas everywhere, especially in neighborhoods that typically have experienced inequitable access to parks and trees.
Interactions with nature not only build more individual resilience, but also more resilience within communities, and ultimately more climate resilience. That’s win-win-win.
If you’d like to learn more about this project, or would be interested in contributing to its success, visit www.weonemiami.com
Barbara Lloyd McMichael is a freelance writer living in the Pacific Northwest.