In my early thirties I took a job as a psychology intern at a private residential treatment center for emotionally disturbed adolescents. Many of the residents came to that center having been physically, emotionally and sexually abused as young kids. As a result they had to be removed from their upper middle class home environments.
The center was located on an abandoned farm up in northwestern Connecticut – a bucolic paradise, replete with old barns converted into cozy bunkhouses and comfortable work and meeting spaces, with acres of gardens and lovely hiking trails woven through the evergreen forests.
It was ironic for me to be hired there – only the week before I’d been a resident in a not-so-similar place in downtown New Haven. I had voluntarily committed myself to this free, urban mental hospital in the wake of an “extreme grief reaction” – a three-decade backlog of ungrieved losses finally claiming their due expression.
Who’s in Charge Here?
Two things have stayed with me from that internship at The Country Place: first, there was very little difference that I could discern between the patients and the staff. And in fact, as I later learned, when patients got better, many elected to become staff. The second thing that has stayed with me: The beauty of the place itself seemed to work an active, healing magic. In less than a year, my brain became completely reorganized and my soul fully restored such that I could resume pursuing the graduate degree I had unexpectedly interrupted by taking my own psychiatric time out.
From that experience I’ve come to think it’s not an accident that monasteries, convents and spiritual retreat centers are beautiful and orderly environments – as within, so without. One of the clearest “tells” that a resident was getting better at The Country Place, was the point when they would begin to automatically put their living space in good order – making their bed each morning, picking dirty clothes up off the floor, organizing their desks.
Ever since that restorative stint in the country, I have been continually drawn to inspiring environments, places that are nourishing for the soul, and not by accident, I don’t think. I spent two years attending classes to earn a master’s degree here, and I spent ten years as part of a team keeping the grounds of this think tank on the hill overlooking Silicon Valley environmentally inspiring. I seem to be irredeemably drawn to create and spend time with beautiful environs.
Environment, it turns out has tremendous impact on everything living. Our genes and every cell in our body, especially our brain cells, have been designed to creatively adapt to changing environmental conditions. Here’s what MacArthur fellow and Stanford neurobiologist, Robert Sapolsky, in his book Monkeyluv, has to say about the importance of environment:
… it is at least as valid to think “genes can be convenient tools used by environmental factors to influence behavior,” … and “evolution is mostly about natural selection for different genetic sensitivities and responses to environmental influences.”
My interpretation of what Sapolsky is saying is that the safer and more beautiful the environment we spend our lives in, the greater the potential for optimal genetic, neural and cellular organization, especially during our early formative years – not to mention, improved health, as this study suggests. We can’t consider our own or our children’s welfare without simultaneously consciously considering the environment that surrounds all of us.
It is not surprising to me in the least that neuroscientists have discovered that environments, particularly natural ones, positively impact neural development and integration, especially those of us most vulnerable to disorganization. Even watching the Ken Burns’ PBS special, The National Parks has the power to positively affect me in body, brain, mind and spirit – it inspires me and makes me want to immediately get out into the wild.
The point of this piece is that beauty and order are something that children need to be regularly exposed to. And they need to have the importance of both gently taught to them and modeled on an ongoing basis. They aren’t born with full-blown capacities for appreciating beauty and order. And if you’re anything like me, you can teach and model – much like charity and self-compassion – that there’s no better place to begin beautifying brain, heart, mind and body than … right at home.