I went to the arboretum near my home the other morning for a hike and to clear my mind which has been particularly busy these days. I hadn’t been there in a few weeks and the change was nothing short of amazing. At the end of April I enjoyed getting lost there amidst the green and a few flowering trees, but last weekend I fancied myself Alice, spinning through a labyrinthine Wonderland of strange and beautiful sensory experience with spring in full swing.
The flora, a conglomerate of trees, flowers, and shrubs from around the globe, coupled with the pulse and hum of songbirds, soaring raptors, rabbits, and pollinators abuzz, helped me slide into a blissful state of FASCINATION and AWE… I entered easily into a “flow state,” a mindful experience during which I was entirely present and accepting of what is, undisturbed by distracting ruminations or anxieties.
This form of walking meditation, during which you immerse the senses in a natural surrounding, replaces focused attention (concentrated cognitive effort) with fascination and awe (minimal effort or concentration). Our bodies, minds, and souls yearn for a break from man made environments and naturally seek the connection to Source that is experienced when breathing and moving in nature.
The power of nature on our mental, physical, and spiritual wellbeing is well documented and backed by science. And as a seasoned practitioner of mindful meditation, I can attest firsthand to the myriad benefits of taking the practice outdoors under the ceiling of sun and stars. Here are a few:
The Source of Breath
During mindfulness practice, the breath is a common anchor. By focusing on the air as it moves in and out of our lungs, we consciously bring attention to our physical bodies in the present moment and away from distracting thoughts. Since air is basically everywhere, it is easy to take for granted its origin. When doing breath-work outdoors, however, we are immersed in the source of this amazing life force.
Plants produce oxygen and act as the earth’s natural air purifiers. Breathing in this fresh air during mindfulness practice more effectively oxygenates the body and brain and can invoke a sense of gratitude and connectedness with the plants and trees..
Nature provides the ultimate sense of (wireless!) connection. Sunlight on your skin helps your body to produce melatonin which regulates your sleep cycle. The sounds of nature have a calming effect on us as our brain does not need to decode them. City sounds and the artificial buzz of technology cause subtle stress because our minds struggle to attach meanings and associations.
Nature heals us. This is science.
It strengthens the immune system, reduces blood pressure, lowers cortisol levels, increases concentration, improves sleep, improves vision, and (get ready!) increases libido and sexual energy. Woohoo!
In addition to releasing fresh oxygen, trees emit biochemicals called phytoncides which are actually natural “poisons.” The quantities that enter our systems when we are in the woods are not harmful to us, but act upon our central nervous systems. It is the same stuff that gives essential oils their medicinal qualities. Phytoncides have effects that range from calming, to anesthetic, to antimicrobial, to purifying.
Analogies and Messages
As an avid reader, I am accustomed to both seeking out and uncovering analogies, both in text and in life. For some, it’s more of a challenge. Additionally, the synchronicities that occur in our lives are often missed as we get swept up in the busyness of the day-to-day. In nature, however, signs, symbols, synchronicities, and messages can be received loud and clear without as much mental effort or intuition on our part because natural metaphors are largely universal.
For example, a mindful stroll may reveal budding flowers which conjure thoughts of new beginnings. Ripples in water can reveal the interconnectedness of our actions. Spotting a predator and prey can be seen as a message from the universe that it is time to exercise caution.
Having any background in plant and animal symbolism is an added benefit. Many perceive a cardinal sighting as a message from a loved one who has passed, or owls as symbols of wisdom or secret knowledge. A ladybug landing on you symbolizes good fortune, and dogwood trees represent strength and faith, whereas the cherry blossom reminds us of impermanence and fleeting beauty.
Experiencing mindful awareness outdoors also provides an opportunity to learn about a natural environment firsthand, in the same way our ancestors did, not as we often do now, through books or online. I imagine native cultures from long ago exploring, foraging, and learning with the senses only.
Now I’m not suggesting we blindly consume any of the plants or wild berries we see growing here or there, but focused observation through sight and sound will reveal where different species of birds like to nest and how they feed, which plants thrive in shade or sun or grow well together, the temperature at which certain flowers bloom, and so on.
One of the objectives of mindfulness practice is to observe without judgment. In nature we can more easily access our true self without biases. Observing our thoughts and accepting ourselves as we are may require more effort depending on the place in which we practice.
For some, meditation and yoga in a studio with a number of seasoned practitioners may subconsciously generate comparisons or feelings of insecurity. You may perceive yourself this way or that in school, work, a large city, etc. In nature, you can more easily just be YOU without attaching any contextual narrative.
To conclude, practicing mindfulness both formally and informally, in a natural environment, fosters a superior sense of “oneness” as we are truly connecting to Source. As you step through the doorway from the human made shelter that you call “home” into the great wide open, do not think of it as going “out” but imagine you are returning, or going “in,” into the environment from which you came, which sustains you, fascinates you, and to which you will ultimately return.
Want to learn more about mindfulness in nature? Join me on a day retreat this summer!!!
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