Moya Lothian-McLean searches for an oasis of calm, taking Wellcome Collection’s ‘Tranquillity’ exhibition as a point of inspiration.
Moya Lothian-McLean visits St Bartholomew’s Hospital to experience the installation ‘Regarding Forests’ by Chrystel Lebas. Hear tips from staff and visitors as they share how they find a moment of peace in the middle of a bustling hospital.
Moya speaks with three young people from RawMinds, Fawaz Sajid, Malika Sandover and Tahmina Sayfi and they talk about whether phones can ever help us to find calm in our busy, modern lives.
Brain-injury survivor and gardener Keith Emmanuel and environmental psychologist Dr Eleanor Ratcliffe talk with Moya about the importance of being in nature for our health and wellbeing. They meet in the garden at Homerton Hospital Mothers and Babies Ward, where Keith volunteers.
Even if you can’t escape to a green oasis, you have the right to rest wherever you are. Artist Rhiannon Armstrong has created a meditation to help you do just that. The meditation is part of a larger work called Public Selfcare System, shaped by Rhiannon’s lived experience as a disabled artist with chronic debilitating conditions, which means she has become an expert at resting in public.
Presented by Moya Lothian-McLean
Produced by Debbie Kilbride
Sound design by Micky Curling
Music by Sola
Meditation by Rhiannon Armstrong
Executive producer Emily Wiles
Moya Lothian-McLean (0:03): Welcome to ‘Hello Happiness’, the podcast that’s all about positive emotions, brought to you by Wellcome Collection, the free museum and library in London. Wellcome likes to challenge how we think and feel about health. I’m Moya Lothian-McLean, a journalist and podcaster. And I’ve got question for you. When was the last time you felt utterly tranquil?
I’ll give you a moment to think about it. Can you transport yourself back there in your mind’s eye? What are you doing? Or not doing? How does your body feel? Tell you what, I’ll let you into my moment. One of the first properly autumnal days a few weeks ago; it’s Sunday. I have no work and nowhere in particular to be. My hand is clasped in that of someone I love. We are meandering down the street, I suppose a battered, clearly very aged door, set into the wall and flanked by off-licences.
I stop, ponder the door, and wonder what it’s led to and seen in its many years on the street. And that’s it. A moment of perfect, wonderful tranquillity. In this episode, as you may have guessed, we are searching for an oasis of calm, taking the Wellcome Collection’s ‘Tranquillity’ exhibition as a point of inspiration.
I want to know if tranquillity is always synonymous with nature and silence, the way it’s been framed by everyone from Romantic poets to digital mindfulness apps. What does it mean to achieve tranquillity in our busy modern lives? Is tranquillity necessary for our health? And how can we carve out tranquil pockets of time amid the bustle of the everyday. Join me as we attempt to block out the noise and discover what tranquillity really is.
Hospitals are probably not high on our list of locations you associate with finding tranquillity. But tucked under the austere arch of St Bartholomew’s, Britain’s oldest operational hospital, is a multisensory installation, aiming to create a pocket of peace in the middle of central London. Duck into the North Wing at St Bart’s, and you’ll find yourself surrounded by vivid pictures of ancient forests, and this accompanying soundscape.
Created by artist Chrystel Lebas, this is a small slice of a larger work, called ‘Regarding Forests’, that appears in the Wellcome Collection’s ‘Tranquillity’ exhibition. Stressed staff, patients and the public alike have been encouraged take a moment among the trees. So, on a busy afternoon, I zip down to St Bart’s to see how things have been working out.
Dan (3:17): My name is Dan, me and my colleagues manage the Trust’s historic museum and archive collections. Hospital environments, you know, have changed very significantly in the last kind of 100 years or so, you know; oftentimes staff would live on site, and there would be kind of dedicated sitting rooms and things like that.
There was an expectation that there’d be space, not only for recreation, but for people to unwind and relax; spaces that essentially replicated the kind of domestic environment but on the hospital estate, and obviously, for various reasons, many of those spaces no longer exist.
Steward (3:54): I’ve been helping steward this event. And what I’ve noticed particularly is the proportion of people who come in on staff, and quite often they’re coming in at lunchtime. So they’ll sit down, just sit quietly for a few minutes. And they should appreciate, then, the busyness of the hospital, and just come and sit here for a few minutes and enjoy the tranquillity of this room.
Anna Bakowski (4:31): I’m Dr Anna Bakowski and I’m a clinical psychologist at Bart’s Heart Centre.
Moya Lothian-McLean (4:34): When in lockdown, was that difficult for you?
Anna Bakowski (4:37): My lunch hour, it was very rare. So I would sometimes just go and look at St Paul’s Cathedral from the outside with no other person in sight. It was actually a very emotional moment because we were carrying a lot here. I remember just looking at it and seeing the really thin columns that are holding it up and I felt really emotional. I think it represented the fragility, something enormous. We will try to hold.
Grace (4:46): Hi, my name is Grace. I work in customer service. But in my free time I work with influencers. I know it’s not the real world, but it’s like when I see other people doing well, I’m like, what am I doing with my life?
Steward (4:59): Retired! So that’s what I did to handle stress. I retired.
Moya Lothian-McLean (5:04): What would you say tranquillity means to you?
Steward (5:08): Personally, either sitting looking at nature, or listening to sea, or listening to music, those are things that help me be tranquil.
Moya Lothian-McLean (5:18): Do you think of yourself as a relaxed person?
Anna Bakowski (5:21): I have mechanisms to take myself to a mind space where I can start with a blank canvas. Being in nature is very calming to me. I’m not a religious person, but I definitely seek spaces that are peaceful.
Dan (5:38): it can be really difficult to get that kind of tranquillity and that stillness and that sense of separation from the outside noise. And I suppose the kind of churn of what else have I got to do? Have I answered that email? Yeah, oh, I should look at my calendar – all of those kind of things.
Grace (5:53): All my life, I’ve lived in London. I’m used to noise, I’ve grown up in a big family, so there’s never any peace and quiet in the house. So yeah, I find it hard to actually be in a peaceful place.
Moya Lothian-McLean (6:13): When was the last time you think you felt really properly tranquil, even if it was just for a couple of seconds?
Grace (6:18): I don’t know. I don’t know how to answer that, because I haven’t really had the time unless I’m on holiday, which I haven’t been on holiday for like a year and a half due to Covid and everything. But I can’t really put my finger on when that actually felt this way.
‘Regarding Forests’by Chrystel Lebas (6:39): [Forest sounds; birds and cicadas]
Steward (6:55): It reminds me of when I have visited a rainforest. The major difference is it’s a bit colder, the rainforest I visited, but the sounds are very authentic. And that’s some unexpected call from behind you. But it’s not alarming because it’s part of this, it’s natural. And of course the smell that you and I can smell to emphasise that as well. And that smell of a wet forest. I think it helps to have a space like this to come to. Certainly organisations I’ve worked for in the past, we’ve had quiet rooms, sometimes called prayer rooms, sometimes they’re called first-aid rooms for places people can go when they need to sit and think.
Dan (7:47): I think it’s really beneficial to provide a space on our hospital estate that feels fundamentally different. I think you know, most of the spaces are either explicitly linked to people’s jobs or they’re often spaces where, in order to kind of take time out, there’s a kind of financial transaction involved and I think you know, when you think about kind of London as a city, often getting respect from workers going and buying a cup of coffee and sitting in a coffee shop. I think what’s different about this is it doesn’t kind of ask that of you; it’s not transactional, there’s not the idea that you kind of buy your time out.
Anna Bakowski (8:29): I can feel my body calming down, walking. I used to be more like that, but you’re more likely to have your phone now. I find even when you’re walking, which sounds bad; it’s a bit like if you really need to go to sleep. But I don’t always need to go to sleep or sometimes need to go to what I call the precipice, which is just that feeling of falling before you’re then refreshed.
Grace (8:52): Falling asleep! Peace, no stress. Yeah, just the wilderness, fresh, fresh air and nature.
Moya Lothian-McLean (9:06): As a psychologist, are you very aware of the sort of stresses of modern life and for you what is the answer to try and fight for tranquillity in modernity?
Anna Bakowski (9:18): It’s trying to have boundaries for things that you know cause stress and you know, constantly looking at your phone, it’s quite hard to not do that. But you know, you feel better if you don’t do it. So for me, it’s about ensuring that there are moments; it doesn’t even have to be very long, but just moments of stepping away from that, whether it’s walking and not looking at your phone or whether it’s going to something which just takes you outside of yourself.
Dan (9:50): When I go on YouTube, the algorithm is always really keen to recommend me these videos that are kind of Tokyo, 11 and a half hours of rain from a tower in Shibuya and things like that. In the absence of being able to experience those things directly, they act as a kind of digital surrogate for that experience. And I think that maybe gets to the core of a lot of kind of lived experience in 2021. In kind of late-era capitalism, that it’s a replica of those things is maybe as much as some of us can attain.
Grace (10:25): Haven’t been for a walk in the park since the beginning of the year. And I think working from home has made it even worse. There’s no point for me to leave the house any more. You know, I don’t know if the past generations had this issue. But I think because social media has opened another world into seeing things differently, I think young people have been the pressure of having it all figured out. This generation, we lack peace.
Moya Lothian-McLean (11:05): Thanks to Grace, Dan, Anna, Robin, and artist Chrystel Lebas. Is Grace right? Is tranquillity harder to find the younger you get? And are the little black mirrors in our pocket to blame, or could they provide a solution? Technology has begun to try and answer the problem of how to achieve a state of tranquillity.
Like the yoga booms of the 20th century, over the past few years we’ve seen a huge rise in mindfulness apps, programs designed to give us easily accessible calm via our smartphones. Is this even possible? Common wisdom has it that handheld devices are to blame for rising levels of anxiety and depression, with warnings particularly focused on a mental health crisis among young people, the so-called Gen Z Grace referred to, who have grown up fully digitised. But new research is starting to challenge these assumptions.
One 2020 meta-study examining over 40 existing studies found the link between social media use and depression and anxiety among teens is small and inconsistent. And while we’re exploring emotions here, rather than mental health directly, it’s interesting to see how tranquillity rubs up against those deeper ideas. So can we adapt our ideas about tranquillity to find peace when we’ve got the whole world buzzing away in our pockets?
To discuss their relationships with their smartphones, I got together three teenagers from RawMinds, a group of young people who meet at Wellcome Collection to explore ideas about science and art. I asked each of them to review one of the many relaxation apps on the market. But first off, do they think their phones are a source of calm?
Fawaz Sajid (12:52): I believe it has a potential to be, but in general, it’s not. It’s usually a distraction, like social media. Just binging, to those of us. But yeah, it’s not, really not a source of calm.
Moya Lothian-McLean (13:01): How do you feel about your phone when you’re on it? Like scrolling? What’s the emotions, like what’s your body doing?
Fawaz Sajid (13:08): My mind is telling me you need to get up, you need to do this email, do this exam, do this x, y, z, and I’m improving. But there are those times where I’m just, I go like, three, four hours. And it’s terrible. You sound so bad. But I’m just like one more video, one more video.
Malika Sandover (13:23): I think it can make me feel calm. For example, if I use my phone to listen to music, then I feel calm. If I use my phone to do schoolwork, because I haven’t got access to my laptop, that’s really helpful. But then there’s times where like I might have be scrolling through social media. And then a couple of hours later, thinking about things that I’ve seen. And then because I have been constantly on my phone, I’m never really calm.
Tahmina Sayfi (13:44): I think for me a word I’d use instead of calm is probably chaos. It’s just all getting faster and faster and smaller and smaller. I won’t even watch Netflix any more, because it’s too slow, I need to watch TikTok. And I think that also leads to us thinking, “Just one more video – it’s just 15 seconds.” And then when you really think about it, like I’ve looked back at the spread of all the TikToks I’ve liked and there’s some I don’t even remember watching!
Moya Lothian-McLean (14:09): I think that’s a really interesting point. When you guys envisage things that cause you anxiety and stress, is the pace of life part of that? Like what are the main things that bring up the opposite of tranquillity to you?
Malika Sandover (14:23): The pace of TikTok, the pace of how quickly everything’s posted, and the pace of how quickly everything’s moving. But that’s not necessarily connected to my phone. Even when I look outside in London, I’m seeing how fast the buses go by; time doesn’t wait for anything or anybody. And that’s reflected onto our phones, on the news, on everything. That’s why I said there’s never really a true state of calm. And I don’t know if you can find tranquillity on your phone,
Fawaz Sajid (14:48): I think because our devices are so central to our lives. You know, there’s apps that might help us meditate or x, y, z, but because it’s all in the phone, it’s all a space of confusion. And I’ve heard I think that sleep experts say that your bedroom should just be for sleeping, not working out or not exercise or nothing. And it’s the same thing with the phone. Because our phone is at the centre of our lives. I don’t think we’ll ever feel calm.
Tahmina Sayfi (15:12): I definitely agree. And I think the difficulty with the pace associated with our phones, with social media, is that we don’t know how much of it is real. We don’t know how much of it is advertisement, or people being paid to say this. Where’s that motivation coming from?
Fawaz Sajid (15:26): That being said, I can use my phone to meditate. And I can also use my phone to book a meditation class, and I can use my phone to talk to my friends. That made me feel calm. So it’s good with the bad. It is both.
Moya Lothian-McLean (15:38): What actually makes you feel tranquil? If you think in your head, when is the last time you remember being properly calm and thinking like, “I feel quite peaceful right now.”
Malika Sandover (15:46): I would say like immediately, mine would just be at my mum’s house – I don’t live with my parents – or like when I’m in my mum’s house, my mum’s food, or what, the smell of my mum, like, that makes me feel instantly calm. Even if my phone is beside me.
Tahmina Sayfi (15:58): I would add to that and say the time I feel most calm is when I know I don’t have to wake up for a certain time. Like when you can just fall asleep and you know that there’s no assignment, the next day is like all free to yourself. Just like what my, like I said about being a student is that everything since, like, the lockdowns has gone on to Teams. So it’s not no longer the case that you’re getting set work for the next week, you’re getting it set with a deadline of like midnight on a Saturday. So it’s like you can’t even separate your work life from your home life.
Moya Lothian-McLean (16:28): what seems to jump out and what you’re outlining is something that we’ve talked about in some previous chats we’ve had, where the feeling of tranquillity comes from when you are escaping, pulling out of your life, somehow pulling out of the stressors. And what we’re seeing to identify with this idea of the phone is that the problem is it is your life, like all you have, everything connects to your life there.
And there’s no separation, because it’s always when it’s carried around with you. It’s just always in your pocket, kind of reminding you of all the things that you have to do. So it’s not that the phone itself as a device that’s the problem. It’s all the stuff that’s in it. Would you agree with that?
Fawaz Sajid (16:59): Yeah. I was just reminded me of a time that I lost – this is the dumbest things ever happened to me – but I forgot my password to my phone, the four-digit one, and I had to reset the whole phone. I had to take it to like a phone shop. And I lost everything. I think I was so upset when it happened and then actually realised was one of the best things that happened to me because I was like, you don’t get so precious about your phone and things that are on it. So yeah, no, I never have 100 per cent trust in my phone.
Moya Lothian-McLean (17:24): Tahmina, can you tell me about the social-media cleanses that you’ve done? And also what age you were when you started them?
Tahmina Sayfi (17:29): I think I started this routine of cleansing quite early on. So essentially what I do is I look through what, like, my most offending apps are. And I either delete them or offload them or just get rid of the whole phone altogether. And it’s like this nice little understanding I have between my friends where we just post something on our story saying, “I’m on a cleanse. If you need me, text me, and I’m going for like this long, or this how long I’m going to try for,” but it’s just a way of slowing things back down.
Moya Lothian-McLean (17:56): Malika, we asked you to try out the Calm app. What was your experience like?
Fawaz Sajid (18:00): To be honest with you, it didn’t really make me feel very calm at all. I’m familiar with Headspace. These kinds of apps, like I have a whole folder on my phone.
Moya Lothian-McLean (18:08): What does that make you feel like using all those apps to manage your health? Does it make you feel more control and calmer or does it is it just like—
Fawaz Sajid (18:14): I can’t remember the last time I use them. To be honest, I’ve downloaded them, trying to organise them and think, “Oh, I’m one of them organised people that’s got everything together on their phone.” But actually I don’t use it; most of them need re-downloading.
But yeah, to do with Calm. When I first downloaded it, it was seemed very neutral, almost like going to a spa on an app, like the sound effects they had. And it was very easy to sign in; I could connect it to my school account, which is really important.
One big criticism, I would say, of the app, and this is the biggest one, I didn’t have an opportunity to play any one of the sessions because you have to be a subscriber. So you have to pay £30, I think it is a year, which is not, I mean, in the grand scheme of things that’s a theatre ticket, or maybe like two cinema trips or whatever. But if you’re a young person in education, maybe that’s not your first priority.
Moya Lothian-McLean (19:00): How does it make you feel when you’re trying to log on to an app for a bit of calm, and asked just pay 30 quid just to access the first session?
Fawaz Sajid (19:06): It makes me feel like it’s not accessible. I might as well be one of those people that go for the spa weekends that can afford it. Because like if I’m having to pay to feel calm, that’s a problem. Because it means that these things aren’t actually for people like me. For the people that can’t afford the spa weekend and the yoga retreats and everything like that.
Moya Lothian-McLean (19:26): Tahmina, so you tried out Hold. Could you tell us a little bit about what Hold is, because I’ve not heard of it.
Tahmina Sayfi (19:32): Sure, so Hold is quite similar to a couple of other apps I’ve seen. Essentially they incentivise you to stay off your phone. So you go on to hold and you kind of click and it gives you lots of different options. So if you want to study, if you want to work out, whatever it is you’re aiming to do, and then you just basically leave your phone there and it counts the time.
So once you’ve kind of lost yourself in whatever you were doing, you can actually see how long you’ve stayed off. The reason I think it’s better than those other apps that do similar things is because the way it incentivises you is monetarily, which I know could be a bad thing for some. But I think, in a world where we want discounts, we want things that would be practical for us and help in real life. And knowing that oh, me staying off my phone for 20 minutes is this many points, especially as students, are super helpful.
Moya Lothian-McLean (20:18): What do your points let you do on Hold?
Tahmina Sayfi (20:20): For example, like free trials to things, discounts on things, similar to, I’d say, Unidays or Student Beans, but you have to do a little bit of work, which is stay off your phone to get them.
Fawaz Sajid (20:30): For Headspace, in terms of the app itself, the user interface is pretty cool. It’s got like five different things to focus on. What I really like is when you click “Help me sleep at night”, the screen goes dark as well. And you’ve got sort of three things before subscribing to a trial, which was really useful as one, there were certain things I wanted to do. So I went in for the annual trial, because you got two weeks free.
Moya Lothian-McLean (20:52): So I just want to ask about sort of the way stress makes you feel, anxiety makes you feel, opposed to how you feel when you’re calm. How do these apps make you feel?
Fawaz Sajid (21:02): Physiologically, stress, for me is cloudiness, mentally, and so when I’m in those days, I’d be paralysed. And these apps, I was actually pretty good in terms of making me feel the, you know, a certain way, even the colours that they use, it was like a nice, gentle orange. It did a pretty good job.
Tahmina Sayfi (21:20): I think quite similarly to that. I really liked Hold in that before you started your period off your phone, you kind of got to set an intention, like what am I actually going to do with this time? So I think I have tried similar apps a lot, but I think that I will definitely keep giving this one a chance. My only difficulty is like using your phone, which is the thing causing you stress, to get yourself out. And I still find that difficult to grapple with. But I will definitely keep giving it a chance.
Moya Lothian-McLean (21:47): Do you ever get nostalgia for sort of like an ideal, tranquil past, because I always have this idea in my head of the Seventies. And I’m always like, wow, before phones, basically. Because I’m always like thinking pre-internet, wow, I’d be so calm.
Fawaz Sajid (22:00): Yeah, but I also realised the power in technology and I know that in recent history has been so revolutionary to get justice for so many different things wrong with the world.
Moya Lothian-McLean (22:09): Tahmina, do you have any thoughts?
Tahmina Sayfi (22:11): We try and optimise our time we try and measure your step count, wear a Fitbit or a ring that tells you how much you’re breathing or how many times you woke up in your sleep. And it’s all things that I just don’t think we think about and now that we can, we’re like becoming concerned with things that don’t really matter.
Fawaz Sajid (22:29): So Malika earlier touched on how she lost her phone and everything reset, and I’ve got a quote from my friend here – shout out, Layla. This is her quote. She goes, “How tiny we are, carrying whole universes in our little hearts, capturing pictures of the sky as an attempt to immortalise that which has always outlived us. Are you worried it will fade away? It’s us who leave; the sky will stay.”
Moya Lothian-McLean (22:51): The sky will stay. Thanks to Fawaz, Malika and Tahmina.
It’s become clear there’s no one-size-fits-all idea of what tranquillity is. But patterns are popping up. Tranquillity seems to relate to the brief removal of external pressures. Whether that’s having a schedule perfectly aligned to what you want to do, or feeling our personal stress is made small and manageable in relation to, say, a macro picture of history. I think if we can crack just what ingredients go into the mix to produce the feeling of tranquillity, we can understand better how to incorporate that into our daily lives, tailored to us as individuals. To dig into this, I headed to another hospital, Homerton University Hospital in east London to speak to Dr Eleanor Ratcliffe, an environmental psychologist at the University of Surrey and Keith Emmanuel, a volunteer gardener at the site and a member of Headway East London, an organisation that supports people living with brain injury.
Keith Emmanuel (23:55): This ward here – this is the mothers and babies unit. These is all brand-new plants that just been done. And it’s a new garden that they actually put in. So it has to be watered at least three times a week. Had my injury roughly 20 years, I think. They thought I would never walk and never talk. But I did pull through with the help of my family; I had them all behind me, looking after me. I had to sort of learn everything again. I was actually in this hospital as well. While I don’t remember anything about myself, personally, that’s my life at the moment.
Moya Lothian-McLean (24:40): But you do gardens.
Keith Emmanuel (24:42): I do gardens. Yeah. And I’ve been doing it now for coming on four, five years.
Moya Lothian-McLean (24:56): So what we’re looking at is some purple flowers. We’ve got some grasses and what we’re also standing on is some grey paving that goes all around. There’s, you know, there’s a very calm structure and what’s that, an olive tree? Yes. Looks like an olive tree to me. What’s that doing here?
Keith Emmanuel (25:16): They put it there because they thought it might be a good feature with little flowers around the bottom. It’s nice to see it’s done out here; they got rosemary, they’ve got all other different types of plants that could make them relax, and enjoy the garden. The babies, they come out with their babies, sit down, sing songs to them, and get the baby sort of like, enjoyed the gardens as well, you know, nice fresh air.
Moya Lothian-McLean (25:48): When you’re gardening now, what’s your mood like?
Keith Emmanuel (25:51): It makes me feel very relaxed, and I do enjoy gardening. And I like to see other people enjoy the gardens that are maintained or enjoy gardening. It’s very relaxing.
Moya Lothian-McLean (26:09): Ellie, tranquillity... from your studies, what does that concept mean?
Eleanor Ratcliffe (26:14): I think it’s the sense of being away from everyday stresses and strains. And also particularly things in an urban environment, maybe negative sounds, noise, crowding, other sources of stress. But it doesn’t mean complete silence or the absence of everything. So in the space we’re in, we have the presence of plants. You know, maybe if we were very quiet, we would hear some birds as well. So it’s also the presence of these positive aspects, especially of nature that people seem to associate with tranquillity.
Moya Lothian-McLean (26:47): Can you tell me what might be going on someone’s body when they sit in a garden like this, or go to a very quiet space, or any space where they can find that tranquillity.
Eleanor Ratcliffe (26:57): When especially around nature, we know that if people have been stressed previously, maybe it’s elevated their heart rate, or their blood pressure or their skin conductance, so how sweaty their skin is. We know that spending time in nature, or even watching nature videos can reduce those physiological signs of stress. And also, there’s evidence to suggest that if people are kept to concentrate very hard on a computer task, for example, some kind of office work, spending time in nature and taking a nature break can help people to replenish those cognitive abilities.
Moya Lothian-McLean (27:29): When we talk about tranquillity, it seems overwhelmingly like people can see that of something based in nature. Whereas in the city, we think of that as sort of the opposite. It’s always the source of the stresses, even if that’s not completely accurate.
Eleanor Ratcliffe (27:43): People have this kind of dichotomy in their head that the city is very busy, very vibrant, but also potentially quite stressful. Whereas the opposite of the city, we tend to think of as nature. And I think it always has to be that way. And we’re in the middle of London, but we’re in a little oasis almost, and it has these elements of nature, but it also has buildings surrounded by walls on all sides. So I don’t think it has to be this black and white picture.
Moya Lothian-McLean (28:08): And so if you’re in the city, let’s build on that there. How would you go about building up sites that might feel tranquil to you?
Eleanor Ratcliffe (28:14): I think it’s about giving people that sense of escape or being away. So that could be a kind of an enclosed space like this, or maybe a sense of something being a secret almost, so other people don’t know about it so much. And then of course, like we were talking about the presence of elements of nature, so we have trees and plants. It’s not just looking at them, but also multisensory experiences. So the smell of the lavender, or I think Keith mentioned the rosemary as well. Even things you can touch.
And also I noticed this olive tree, which you know, you wouldn’t expect to find in London, but it to me it’s giving you a sense of being away from London, from the UK. It’s almost like you can imagine being in Italy or Portugal when you look at this tree. So it’s not just the physical attributes, I think, but the associations that come to mind when people look at these elements in the garden.
Moya Lothian-McLean (29:10): Keith, your mum was a keen gardener, was she not?
Keith Emmanuel (29:13): Yes, she a was very keen gardener. She did really enjoy gardening. And it was her that sort of like encouraged me. You could say to get into, because in my garden it was all types of flowers. She always used to come home with a different flower. And me and her used to go out and spend like half a day, you could say, literally planting and tidying up the garden, weeds coming in, or pull them out so that they don’t gain ground.
Moya Lothian-McLean (29:47): It’s very methodical, isn’t it?
Keith Emmanuel (29:49): Yes, you have to have a very keen eye.
Eleanor Ratcliffe (29:52): I think it’s a different association, a different memory, but particularly smells. So these other non-visual sensory experiences, sounds and smells, they’re very much associated with memory, particularly of important places, or important people in someone’s life. And so we’re listening about Keith’s mother; people’s memories from childhood, I think, very much come back.
Moya Lothian-McLean (30:14): It’s really interesting hearing you break down what might go into constructing a tranquil place, because the two places that come to mind for me personally, one is the garden at my mother’s home. And the other is the very top of St Paul’s, which is obviously this very important place in sort of like national memory, but almost feels a bit secret.
Eleanor Ratcliffe (30:33): What you’re saying there, it really correlates with some of the scientific research as well, this idea of being away, you know, through being above and looking from above, at the city below, getting that sense of distance from what’s going on, maybe both physically and also psychologically as well. And I think this feeling of, you know, maybe being a small part of something bigger as well, people will say that a lot about nature, you get a sense of, you know, your position in a wider ecosystem. But you can also get that in the city by getting a kind of an overview, and feeling like oh, maybe my problems, you know, are just part of something a bit bigger.
Moya Lothian-McLean (31:08): And these weeds – look at this, my eyes are getting better!
Keith Emmanuel (31:11): Yes, you can spot them, there they are, always hidden right beside the plant.
Moya Lothian-McLean (31:18): God, it’s deep, it’s gone so deep.
Keith Emmanuel (31:21): You don’t have to go too deep. Just pull them out.
Eleanor Ratcliffe (31:26): These are ferns, right? There’s a theory in environmental psychology that one of the reasons people respond so well to nature is because it’s easy to process. And that one reason for that might be because nature contains a lot of fractal shapes, shapes and patterns that repeat. And if you look at the fern, it’s a great example of that, because each frond of the fern is made up of leaves that are smaller versions of the whole. And so in theory, the brain finds that easier to process, because it’s just a repetition of the same pattern.
Moya Lothian-McLean (31:57): Is that why this entire garden seems to be in very, like, soothing, bevelled shapes, but also repeating shapes?
Eleanor Ratcliffe (32:04): I would imagine that that’s one reason underpinning the design as well. So using organic shapes and curves.
Moya Lothian-McLean (32:11): That’s absolutely fascinating. I never thought about how soothing that is when I look at something and it’s got the same the same outlines and the same shapes.
Eleanor Ratcliffe (32:18): And this is a big area in our garden design for wellbeing, horticultural and healing gardens. This is really a very growing area.
Moya Lothian-McLean (32:27): Do you have a favourite plant?
Keith Emmanuel (32:28): Lavender is really my sort of favourite. My mum used to go look for lavenders. And she loved them, the colours, the purple colours, and when they flower, you know, she just loved it and I do love lavenders myself.
Moya Lothian-McLean (32:44): We feel so peaceful – can be anywhere, right, Ellie? My question is, is it possible for me to hold on to the feeling of being tranquil? Or is the whole point of being tranquil is it won’t last, and you have to sort of seek it out where you can?
Eleanor Ratcliffe (33:00): I’m going to be annoying and say it’s probably a mix of both, isn’t it. You have to try and find opportunities to bring these tranquil moments into your everyday life. There’s evidence to suggest that getting around two hours of nature exposure a day, this leads to greater happiness and sense of wellbeing. And it doesn’t matter if you get that all in one go. Or if you break it up into smaller chunks.
But I would say it’s probably easier for people in a busy city life to try and you know, take a 15- to 20-minute walk; you need to take those breaks to find something tranquil around you that’s different to your everyday environment. But more than that, I think if you have a really meaningful experience, you can carry it with you in your memory. You don’t have to be in a place to make the most of the benefits you’ve found there.
Moya Lothian-McLean (33:46): My thanks to Keith and Ellie. I feel like my understanding of tranquillity has been blown wide open. Tranquillity doesn’t just come from wandering lonely as a cloud through beautiful but isolated landscapes. It’s a potent mix of sensory stimulation, memory, and even feelings of awe.
What’s tranquil for one person will change for the next. I might find smartphone apps don’t do much for me in my lifestyle, but for a busy office worker, they could offer a vital space to grab a moment. Maybe the biggest obstacle to tranquillity is access and a feeling of not having the time or ability to go about finding it. We know health inequalities also encompass things like racial minority groups having less access to traditionally tranquil spaces like green spaces.
And then there’s the role of class and employment. People in precarious work, you have to do several low-paid jobs to pay the bills are likely not to feel as if they have time to find their tranquil place even for just a few minutes a day. But if we change our conceptions of what tranquillity is, then maybe we can make it more present and more present every day.
It starts with understanding exactly what tranquillity means to you. If people haven’t been able to identify what really makes them feel tranquil, how can they begin to make space in their day for it? With that in mind, we’re going to see you out with an immersion into the traditional side of tranquillity and meditation with a twist.
In the next episode, Bidisha is back, and she’ll be taking us forward on the ever-upward emotional trajectory. Next episode, joy. As well as thinking about the pleasures of food and music, Bidisha will be asking how joy intersects race and ethnicity. And if you want even more inspiration, you’ve got until January 2022 to experience Wellcome Collection’s season ‘On Happiness’, and it’s free exhibitions, stories and events.
‘Hello Happiness’ from Wellcome Collection is produced by Debbie Kilbride, sound design is by Micky Curling, original music by Sola and the executive producer is Emily Wiles. I’m Moya Lothian-McLean. Thank you for coming with me on this journey. I hope by now that you found a tranquil space to head to, either real or in your memory. And if you need me, I’ll be in mine at the top of St Paul’s.
But for now, I’m going to leave you in the restful arms of artist Rhiannon Armstrong. Her meditation is part of a work called ‘Public Selfcare System’ and is drawn directly from Rhiannon’s own experience of a chronic condition that means she has to lie down in public spaces and rest. You may want to sit or lie down wherever you are. And you can; it’s time to rest.
Rhiannon Armstrong (37:08): Take a look around. This is your resting place. Breathe in. Breathe out. You can close your eyes if you want to. Let yourself be pulled down by gravity. Let your body connect to the ground. Let your head be heavy.
Breathe in. Breathe out. It is okay to stop. It is okay to rest. It is okay to take up space. Next time you breathe in, breathe in to your lungs as fully as possible, let your body stretch out with that breath. Let it connect to the ground again as you breathe out.
You have a right to be here. You have a right to rest. You have a right to want to rest. There may be things we can hear going on around us. But they don’t need to intrude on our rest.
We’re here to take time out to stop. We are in a pause; the rest of the world can carry on.
This is necessary. This is important. This is needed. I need this, this rest, and that’s okay, you need it too. And anybody else who needs it, this rest. That’s okay. We are okay to lie here. We’re okay. Keep breathing and let’s stay inside this pause