Within each of us resides a maverick spirit. This series delves deeper into those people who's maverickness paves a way forward in business, creativity and sustainability – awakening our own inner maverick.
Ruth Allen (whitepeakwellbeing.com) is an outdoor counsellor and psychotherapist based in the Peak District. In our recent film 'Here', Ruth invites us to explore our connection to nature. Curious to know what inspires her work, we caught up with Ruth to discover what role the outdoors play in her own journey.
Watch the film here.
Words by Ruth Allen | @whitepeakruth
Film stills by Sim Warren | @simwarren
Your film gives us an insight into your practice and work, but who is Ruth Allen outside of work?
This made me smile, largely because my work is so much part of me these days that it’s hard to forget that there is an ‘outside of work’. But, there is a place outside of work because there has to be.
I try and hold enough space for things that are purely for ‘me’. This looks like spending time alone outside wandering. It looks like really small moments of having a swim, a run or going to a HIIT session, buying myself a nice lunch, reading a book that’s irrelevant to work, drinking tea and staring mindlessly out of the window. It also looks like spending time with my chickens or in the garden shed. As I think about it, my activities outside of work aren’t that different from my work. Perhaps what is different is my way of being when I’m not working. My work is very people-focused. There is a lot of talking and relating. Outside of work, I spend a lot of time being quiet, moving my body and simply being. It’s also space where I get to be grumpy or angry or irrational. I need space to retreat, have a rant about the world, and not be as calm and measured as I am in work. We all need that, right?
As a society, we are not used to therapy in the outdoors, what inspired you to practice this way?
I came to the world of human emotional support a long time ago when I worked for the Samaritans. Whilst there, I lead a prison team – the very opposite to outdoor practice. Perhaps that sowed a seed about what healing needed. But more consciously than that, the rest of nature has been so much part of my own life and journey that when I decided to do my psychotherapy training it was because I wanted to take therapy outside. I wanted to do that before I knew anything about therapy inside! I knew on an instinctive level that being outside was how I regulated my emotions, got a sense of perspective and worked my ‘stuff’ out – so it seemed obvious to me that this would appeal to others. Drawing on nature for healing is as old as it gets, it’s just that we have collectively forgotten in the modern age and need people to help us back.
In the last few years, I have explored the power of nature connection for human and planetary wellbeing ever more deeply; looking at the science of it and listening to other people’s experience of nature to see what it is that works. I am learning by doing and seeing, and feeding that back in with every new client I work with. Working in this way feels more important than ever. The planet needs us to heal it, as much as we need healing by it. That becomes possible when people learn to really love nature and find their place in it. Outdoor therapy continues to this.
How do you introduce a new client to outdoor counselling?
More often than not people come to me and say ‘I want to try this outdoor thing you’re talking about’. This makes things easier for me, but there is a certain need to explain the work and how it is different from indoor therapy. It’s not just ‘we go outside and talk’. I am also wanting to explain other elements of how the landscape in our therapeutic relationship can make a difference. This is necessary because as you recognise, this is not the normal way of doing therapy and so there is a need to say ‘this is what is going to happen’. As yet, I haven’t ever suggested we go outside to someone who wants indoor therapy, though I will often find a way of talking about my work outside.
I also think you’re an outdoor therapist whether you work inside or out because it is more about a way of being in the world, for the world, that sits in your approach and philosophy. It’s not just about ‘being outdoors’ – it is really about being aware of the ecology of your life.
Last year you finished a solo-run across the Bosnian Alps, could you tell how you felt when it was all over and what learnings you took home with you at the end?
I felt a strange mix of melancholy, euphoria and anti-climax. Those all rushed in within 30 minutes of crossing into Montenegro and it was quite emotional. But when I got back I had the profound sense that I had thrown my inner critic a bone to chew on for a good while. I said to myself ‘I’ve finally done something I am really proud of’ and that was a shock because I have done lots of cool things over the years, but nothing generally holds the self-critic at bay for long. I think I settled a score with myself that day in October and since then my inner critic has not been as active.
I learnt a lot from that trip. I learnt a lot about what it is to go without water (!), I learnt about my own fragility, but also fortitude. I learnt about dreaming a dream bigger than yourself and not waiting until you’re ready to live it. I learnt that you train on the job. I learnt that I belong to myself. I don’t have to fit some ideal around who or what adventurers do or look like. I learnt so much, I could go on and on and on.
What message from the film do you want people to take away with them?
I want people to know that there is a relationship to be had with the rest of nature that can help you live your life less painfully, and with deeper flourishing and that this relationship is two way. Nature will give to you – teach you – and you can offer it something back. This is reciprocal connection. Relationship is not a one-way thing.
Related to this I would like people to know that they are not alone. That suffering is everywhere in everyone, and that we can all connect through that to some degree. I hope that this isn’t diminishing of individual experience, but offers hope against loneliness and isolation. It is a flaw in the thinking to imagine that ‘time outside’ is a cure-all – it isn’t – we also need each other, we need each other outside and inside, we need connection with our species, we need to reach out to each other more and make time. Take action. Outdoor therapy is a certain type of magic to me because it is a chance to bring nature, you and me together as a three. Already then you are more than One. And you are more than a lone person walking through the woods hoping to heal. Sometimes another person is vital.
What does the outdoors mean to your own mental wellbeing?
It’s just so vital to my life that it’s hard to untangle the threads. But for me it’s a chance to escape, be both active and still, it’s a chance to de-stress, decompress and reconnect with my intuition. It is a route to mindful, intentional living. As long as I have a touchpoint with nature I’m OK. It can be a huge adventure or a little while outside stretching my legs. I’m not hugely fussy. I just need a touchstone to that place that is deeper, bigger, quieter, more beautiful than me. This keeps me in good emotional shape.