The Microenvironment – Achieving Calm from the hectic world around us

As a young medical student in 2001, with long locks of brown hair down to my shoulders, I first read Marcel Proust’s wonderful work, “À la recherche du temps perdu” (In Search of Lost Time) first published in 1913. One of the pervading themes in this work (of which there are many) is that of experience. He seeks to unravel a series of memories in immense detail, that has no clear focus yet invites the reader to reflect on their own memories and draw meaning and understanding from these.

Whilst reading this, I was struck at the time, how easy it is for us to glide over the environment immediately before us. Yet there is so much benefit to be derived from a return to the detail around us, no matter how mundane it may seem on the surface. Far too often, we are unfairly encouraged to seek out a glorious mountain range, or sandy beach basked in sunshine being kissed by a deep blue ocean, as a means to seeking some degree of inner peace. Yet it need not be anything as exotic upon which we choose to focus.


In his collection of works ‘The Essay’s, the French philosopher Michael de Motaignne, pays remarkable and satisfying attention to the world around him. Like Proust, he effortlessly embarks on a focus of the minute detail of his world. He draws attention to the senses and in doing so, strengthens his awareness of ‘living in the moment’.

Whilst travelling the world in 2003 with my brother, I found myself reflecting on Montaigne and drawing upon his observations during his travels. I immersed myself in the environments as much as possible. The boat ride to see the Statue of Liberty was a chance to pay attention to the docks at Battery Park, the people who service/clean the boats, the chairs that were slightly damaged on the rough voyage out to Ellis Island. The multitude of tourists and locals who travelled with us. The sounds of the boat engine and the appreciation that we have constructed such marvellous machines that make travel/life so rewarding.

When I taught at Monash University recently, I visited this concept with the medical students. I asked them to look at the microenvironment contained simply within the room we were in. To take note of the walls, the colour of the paint (who painted it?, what was their name?, what worries do they have?), the sounds, the people in the room, the varied clothes we were wearing (who made them, when were they made, where were they made).

The purpose of these exercises are to help guide ourselves towards a sense of calmness.  Returning the focus to these raw senses helps to clear the mind of ‘clutter’ (albeit for perhaps just a few minutes) perhaps just long enough for the mind to take a deep breath. Similar to effect of gazing up to a night sky and taking in the constellations of Orion and Canis Major, attention to the world (environment) around us has the unexpected but welcomed side effect of muting many of the anxieties that befall all of us – the worries of our appearance, weight, status, self worth, community significance, popularity etc. We are compelled to consider the time and effort that has gone into much of the world around us. We are encouraged to consider past events and people who we never met/knew but whom we are thankful for. A focus and clarity of this world (even in something has humble as a tutorial room at a University) also begins to showcase the imperfections in the world around us. Similar to stars that grow increasingly bright as darkness falls, these imperfections are a gift when embraced for what they truely are: beauty.

The traditional Japanese concept of Wabi-Sabi centers on an acceptance of this imperfection. It celebrates the asymmetry,  roughness, simplicity, economy, austerity, modesty, intimacy, and appreciation of the ingenuous integrity of natural objects and processes. It is sometimes defined as ‘flawed beauty’.

It unravels the idea that the world is somehow perfect and instead, helps us to establish calmness with our own flaws and faults. It gives us permission to allow ourselves to be…imperfect and yet beautiful.

It helps us to appreciate the many jigsaw pieces that make up the picture of life, and; on a deeper level, to see that we too are flawed and imperfect.  That is is our imperfections which make us unique and beautiful. In doing so, we derive much comfort from this awareness because deep down we know ourselves to be composed of many different and unique pieces that make us who we are. Pieces that are insecure, envious, grateful, happy, jealous, loving, angry, content etc. Seductively drawing our focus to the flawed beauty around us instills a very strong sense of calmness.

We return to our hectic modern world with a new sense of appreciation for the material, and for the souls around us. We perhaps extend a polite smile to someone as we leave the room; we offer a “Thank you” or “Have a great weekend” to someone whom we normally would not notice. We perhaps choose to not make a scene when the waiter takes a few extra minutes to clear our table – instead we consider their story, their background, their day, their anxieties and troubles.

It is therefore always helpful to remind ourselves, that the ‘finished product’ around us, just like ourselves, is allowed to be composed of a few rough edges or deformed branches and yet still fulfil it’s duties admirably. We are allowed to have faults/imperfections and furthermore, should embrace them as being beautiful and unique aspects of ourselves. They are in keeping with the world around us and importantly, with every one else.  Even for those of us who no longer have the long locks brown hair we once did.