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East Meets West: Lessons In Wellness From Japan

07/03/2017 13:45 GMT | Updated 07/03/2017 13:45 GMT

You may have already heard that Japan is looking to give its workaholics a break. In fact, Premium Friday a scheme by the Government and the country's largest business lobby Keidanren, has already kicked off.

This new initiative encourages workers to leave their desks on the last Friday of every month at 3pm and it's the latest effort to reform a culture of punishingly long office hours and to fight karosh or death by overwork.

Neither would it seem that this is a one-off seeking to encourage wellbeing across Japanese society. The country has more than a wee bit of a track-record in trying out novel and innovative approaches to promoting general wellness.

Ever heard of Shinrin-Yoku?

For instance, when people in Japan want to escape from all the madness - the constant 24/7 assault of motion and commotion - they often head out to the parks, woodlands and other open and natural spaces, to sit in complete silence - with no phone, tablets, music or other distractions.

Although people had probably been doing it for eons before, it wasn't until the early 1980's that this practice was formally recognised and named Shinrin-Yoku and since then it has become a cornerstone of preventative healthcare and healing in Japanese medicine.

There is no exact English-language equivalent, but roughly it translates as forest bathing, or taking in the forest atmosphere.

This intrigues me

In another recent wellbeing, well doing and well living piece for The Huffington Post I unpacked a whole kitbag of life enhancing and life affirming practices from Scandinavia, including Sisu - the Finnish term for being brave, determined, resilient and stoic - although perhaps not all at the same time.

The practice of Shinrin-Yoku might originate from the other side of the world, but I think it's certainly something else that we should all seriously consider and also add to our day-to-day wellbeing and well doing kitbag.

Silence really is Golden

A 2006 study in Heart found that silence really is golden. It can release tension in the brain and body in just 2-minutes.

In fact, the same research found that just silence on its own, was more relaxing than listening to relaxing music.

Whilst in 2011 a World Health Organisation report called noise pollution a modern plague and it has been proven that loud noise can raise stress levels by activating the brain's amygdala and causing the release of the stress hormone Cortisol.

Silence is good for the Brain

It replenishes our mental resources

It relieves stress and tension

It can help improve memory by stimulating brain growth in the hippo-campus

It enables us to tap into the brain's default setting; an inner stream of thoughts, emotions, memories and ideas that help us to understand and make meaning; &

It can also regenerate brain cells too

Diggin deeper

In my book 'Uncovering Mindfulness: In Search of a Life More Meaningful' I talk about Mindfulness as something that is within each and everyone of us to be uncovered - and we do this uncovering by the simple act of living our lives in a mindful way, with passion, compassion, purpose and love.

But the big question is, can we ever truly escape? As I explain in Chapter 2 if we were able to look through a gigantic, super powerful electron microscope, we would see something quite surprising and it's all part of an inherent tension and contradiction with which we live.

What we thought was form and substance, shape and colour, would turn out to be almost emptiness. In fact, we would see patterns of sub-atomic particles as far apart as specks of stars in outer space.

And if we looked at ourselves we would find that our body had disappeared.

If we were then able to look through a microscope with even more resolution, we would see that the sub-atomic particles are actually not particles at all; they are concentrations, or as Neils Bohr first advanced in his Complementarity Principle in 1928, they are waves of energy without a definite boundary.

In a word, Universal Consciousness?

The Japanese call this state Kensho or Satori, whilst the Chinese word for it is Wu, and these words reveal a shared understanding and acceptance dating back a millennia or more, that the whole universe is actually a continuous spread of energy and consciousness, without differentiation.

There are no boundaries separating one sub-atomic particle from another.

There are no boundaries separating you, or I, from anyone or anything else.

And if true this would mean that the Indian author and spiritual master, Dr Amit Ray, is right on the money when he writes, "You are never alone. You are eternally connected to everyone".

So, how do we escape?

"Refuge for the brain is the mind and refuge for the mind is mindfulness".

Silence and solitude give us the space to think, act and play catch-up with our mind, and can be profoundly beneficial for both physical health and mental wellbeing.

Whilst the daily practice of mindfulness can enable us to become comfortable with silence and stillness, accepting whatever is in the moment, and it also works with the brain to alleviate stress and quieten the amygdala too.

So, make these 3 things part of your daily routine, or at the very least do them whenever you can:

Set to mute - deliberately act to quieten the constant chatter, commotion and distractions that surround you

Go in search of wide open spaces - not necessarily where the antelopes and buffalo roam, but broaden your horizons just a little further afield (no pun intended) and find places near you of natural, contemplative beauty; &

Go for a mindful walk - Be zen, so when walking walk and pay full Attention in the present moment; practice tuning into what's going on immediately around you, the sights, sounds and smells and you will saviour all the new things that you'' see and discover

And then you really will start to see life through a different lens, or maybe even what William Blake described as, "...The world in a grain of sand, and heaven in a wild flower, infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an hour".

Paul Mudd is the author of 'Uncovering Mindfulness: In Search of a Life More Meaningful'. As well as being an occasional contributor to The Huffington Post, he is also a contributing writer to Thrive Global. Through The Mudd Partnership he works with business leaders, organisations and individuals in support of change. leadership excellence, business growth, organisational and individual wellbeing and well doing, and introducing Mindfulness. He can be contacted at paul@themuddpartnership.co.uk and you can follow the continuing journey Uncovering Mindfulness on Twitter @TheMindfulBook and @Paul_Mudd.