Dr Elizabeth English, Mindfulness Practitioner in the Cambridge University Counselling Service, reports back on her team’s efforts, through Green Impact, to improve biodiversity and staff wellbeing through the creation of an innovative ‘mindfulness garden’.
It’s my first day at work. I’ve met the staff, and now it’s time to meet my office. I’ve big plans for my office, as it happens – so it’s with some excitement that I’m led down … and down… and down. Yes, we’re heading to the basement, descending a cranky set of stairs, emerging abruptly into a dark windowless lobby, and passing, dreamlike, through a dilapidated storeroom buzzing with old fridges, broken furniture and dead batteries. Now, more trepidatious than excited, I find myself taken through an ominously dim, square concrete tunnel (no place for the fainthearted), and into a second lobby defined only by a vast number of greying doors. As the doors all look the same, I’ve no idea how my guide knows which one to push open. But she does, and with a hopeful smile, reveals my office: a crowded, windowless space, with a pot plant and a few pencils kindly laid out as a welcome – or a consolation prize, I’m not sure which. My heart sinks.
At second glance, I see a pair of ankles walk past us at ceiling height, and deduce a tiny strip of window patched in, just below ground-level to the path outside. And, left alone to regard my fate, I contemplate a second window, old-fashioned and paned, and beyond it a dark, dingy, dusty backyard with broken concrete on the ground, grey with late November light, imprisoned within crumbling walls. I catch my expectations as they crumble in sympathy. Then the phone goes, mysteriously (how did anyone know I was here?) My new, ground-breaking post has begun: to set up and deliver up Mindfulness courses for students across the Collegiate University.
In the tumult of my new job, my lack of real estate bothered me. I would hunch over my lunchtime sandwich, seated in my low chair, peering through the tiny panes of glass. I found myself day-dreaming the ragged concrete ground into daffodil haven, smothered in spring flowers. When I plucked up courage to face the grey reality (and find out which door led to the yard), I day-dreamed a covered loggia, tumbling with climbing roses and clematis, surrounded by pots of geraniums. I was off, my wintry imagination caught by a colleague’s hard-to-believe remark that the yard was a sun-trap in summertime.
Gardening is like pudding. However full up you feel from your first course, there’s always space for a little chocolate dessert. So even when my mind was full to bursting with To Do lists for my job, the idea of a garden played at the edges of my consciousness. I saw it in my minds’ eye. And that is the first step. To let your idea grow, to feed it with hopes and dreams –then to share it, and hope no one laughs. Luckily, no one laughed…. my colleagues seemed keen on the idea. So the second step was easy, too: a Grand Clear up, many hands on deck, sweeping away the debris with brooms and laughter. Throughout the spring and summer last year, the garden began to emerge: geraniums in pots, all donated, and a wooden bench appearing one day out of the blue, as the Green Impact Team worked their magic. And, gradually, staff found their way through those strange basement passageways into the – yes, amazingly sunlit – garden.
So this is the Mindfulness Garden. Because it’s hidden and enclosed (the old walls now add a rustic charm) it creates a perfect place for staff to unwind; to soak up the calm and beauty of nature. Our Green Impact Team has secured a small budget, too; so our next hope is to encourage biodiversity, bringing wildlife into the garden in different ways, starting with a bird box. Soon, the Mindfulness Garden will be blooming in earnest with vivid primulas and pansies. This is also a testament to the way that nature connects us. Seeing our enthusiasm, the kind Head Gardeners of Trinity College generously gave us their very own seedlings, bringing them round in person to lend us encouragement. Now, when I sit beside my little window, I gaze out onto blue pansies just peeping through, and a golden primula leading the way towards spring. Now, I wouldn’t swap my office for anything. So this is the third and vital step: To pause, to take time to be … and enjoy.
Visit the Counselling Service's news page for more on their Green Impact activities.