“There are moments when all anxiety and stated toil are becalmed in the infinite leisure and repose of nature.” —Henry David Thoreau
I couldn’t agree more.
On a beautiful wintery morning in December of 2014, I was walking to the classroom for the 3-day silent meditation program I was attending. Throughout the workshop, instructors lead us through several meditations in the day, nicely mixing it up with other activities such as walking in the nature, mindful eating, and other sacred interactive processes.
As I walked from my room to the classroom, I encountered the most gorgeous view of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I stopped to take it in and gave in to the enormity and grandness of nature. The silence at that moment was so deep I could hear every thought in my head, which seemed to gradually fade, allowing the mind to totally merge with nature. For those quiet moments, I wasn’t even sure if it was mindfulness or if the mind had emptied of itself and dissolved into the elements around. It was then that it struck me why monasteries and ashrams have been built in the lap of nature for thousands of years.
Nature as Your Therapist
Today ecopsychology is a well-established field of study of how our interaction with nature affects our physical and mental well-being and its myriad applications in emotional intelligence, work, and productivity, among other things. There is growing research, including one from Cornell, which shows time spent in nature (even just 10 minutes!) can reduce your physical and mental stress levels significantly. You may experience lower blood pressure, reduced heart rate, and less muscular tension, as well as a reduction in depression and anxiety symptoms, anger, symptoms of ADHD, and aggression and hostility. These benefits get quadrupled when instead of just a visual experience you make it an immersive one by meditating with nature.
The Magic of Meditation
The more you withdraw your senses and let go of the desire to experience through the senses, the more acute and sharp your sensory awareness becomes. It is one of the skills you develop while meditating in the wilderness—how not to get lost in it. Through meditative techniques, we learn to bring the mind to the present moment and our senses become heightened. You can smell more—flowers, trees, moss, dirt; skin is more sensitive to touch—your body on the ground, a breeze, the sunshine; and you actually hear the sounds of nature—the insects chirping, rustling of leaves, birdsong, water flowing in a nearby brook. Nature comes alive.
It Grounds You
Quite literally. If you can meditate sitting on the earth floor, you will feel the difference in the quality of your meditative experience as you align with the vibrations of mother earth, and feel her solid support to your body weight. Becoming aware of the earth beneath helps you surrender the physical and mental weight to it, and dive deeper into your consciousness.
For many people, meditating in nature makes it easier to fade out the distractions of social media, phone calls, ‘urgent’ work requirements, and drama from their daily lives. When you are meditating in nature, the mind becomes quieter more effortlessly, as it aligns itself with nature’s vastness around.
Nurturing the Mind-Body Connection
For most of our lives, we are not even aware of the mind-body connection. We are either physically active or mentally busy, but seldom aware of the gift of nature that is our physical body. We miss out on feeling our own presence in relationship with the outer world, the entire universe. Are we significant nothings in energy suits, or are we cosmic beings? Spending time in nature helps you begin this journey of understanding the mysteries of this mind-body connection.
Physical and Mental Benefits
In another study of 20,000 participants carried out by the European Centre for Environment and Human Health, it was found that those who spent just two hours in greener environments (even parks and smaller green spaces), reported better health and psychological well-being versus those who didn’t.
Research also pointed to improved cognitive function, better learning, better emotional well-being, and improved focus and concentration among those who spend valuable time in nature. The study mentions that our urban environment is full of stimuli begging us for attention—it often actually demands it (alertness to avoid accidents, mishaps, etc.). But, the time spent in nature enhances and restores our attention with its restorative effect. In fact, today corporates and institutions of higher learning actively encourage people to get away from the city—life as much and as often as possible. Why would they not? After all, who doesn’t want a happy, keen, and focused learner and employee around?
Studies also showed time spent in nature also promoted a feeling of calm, reduced sense of isolation, and improved mood, something we can use in an attention-starved modern life.
Types of Nature Meditations
Whether you choose a retreat center in the forest like ours or sit by yourself in a park once or twice a week or lay on the beach and immerse yourself in listening to the sound of waves crashing against your feet—these are all legitimate ways of connecting with nature in a deeper, sustained and mindful way.
Labyrinths have been around for thousands of years, but it was in the Middle Ages that they began to represent sacred paths. Walking the labyrinth is a technique that improves the mind-body connection, quiets the mind, reduces anxiety, improve creativity and focus, and provide a mindful opportunity for self-reflection.
In a labyrinth meditation, you’ll walk into the center of a labyrinth. As you walk the path, let everything beyond the labyrinth drop away and take your attention within. You can go about it at a pace that best suits you, there is no right or wrong. Once you reach the center, stop and observe your thoughts. You can also contemplate on anything you’d like to leave or take out with you—intentions or answers. When you’re ready, exit on the same path you entered. By the time you are outside of the labyrinth, you will likely be feeling recharged and refreshed.
Forest bathing, called shinrin-yoku in Japanese, has been found to help reduce blood pressure and lowered stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, and found to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for relaxation.
It is the art of immersion in the sights, sounds, and feel of the forest greens. It can be something as simple as hugging a tree or mindfully grazing your fingers over the ancient barks of redwoods—letting into your mind and body their enormity and the long passage of time they have stood for. It is said by Rishi Patanjali, who has cognized some of the most prolific works in yogic sciences, that wonder is the preface of yoga.
Forest bathing relies on this key principle, for you to experience the connection of our physical selves with the infinite existence and nature. It is this connection that has an incredible healing effect on our mind and body. It immediately calms the mind, relaxes, and loosens up the stiffness, anxiety, and tension we have been carrying in our system.
If you have access to coniferous forests, there is nothing else quite like it, but you don’t have to actually be in a forest if you don’t have one nearby. Choose a park, nature reserve, or suburban trail. The important thing is to experience nature through all the senses. Completely immersing yourself in a moment of listening, watching, touching, or smelling can yield profound meditative depth. This is how you can ‘bathe’ in the all-encompassing presence of nature.
Know that the silence you experience in the background of critters chirping, rustling winds, gushing water, is nature’s way of letting you in on its secrets. Make sure you are available to it! Trees are said to have emotional lives and wouldn’t it be a great way to connect with them non-verbally for once?
Walk slowly. Feel the leaves and foliage around you and beneath your feet. According to experts, you should start feeling the soothing effects in 20 minutes, though you are recommended to spend at least four hours in it.
This is a general curiosity amongst seekers if walking meditation is possible. Can one really meditate while walking?
Before we find an answer to this let us understand mindfulness. Mindfulness is the state when the mind is completely aware of the present moment and everything it entails—every thought, emotion, feeling, sensation of pain or pleasure and even surroundings.
During a walking meditation, one walks mindfully amidst nature. Typically while walking, people chat, look around, or listen to music; there is no attention on the body.
Experts recommend walking meditation should begin with a focus on a couple of breaths. This brings the mind to the present moment and it becomes easier to attend to the body. Inhale as you take one step and exhale while taking the other. Preferably, do not chit-chat. You have invested this time in yourself; you can delve deeper by really connecting with the earth now. Be completely with the natural beauty around and with what is happening in the body. When we are in nature, we often forget we are part of it. A walking meditation is an experience of this connectedness that can dissolve this sense of separation.
Once you understand how to walk mindfully, you can move to the next step. While walking with a focus on the breath and the body, also bring the focus on the soles of your feet. Just observe whatever is happening in the soles without analyzing it. Then you can move to the body parts in this order—knees, hips, stomach, chest, back, arms, neck, then face and head. Do it gradually with light attention and not a frenzied obsession. You just need to become aware of what is happening in each of these parts without getting stuck there. Regular practice improves blood circulation, keeps the joints healthy, improves digestive system and keeps the mind fresh and energized.
Meditation by the Sea
For hundreds of years, doctors have prescribed curative trips to the sea—this is largely due to the presence of sea minerals that have a therapeutic effect on one’s physical and mental well-being, similar to the relaxation produced by a salt bath. The negative ions found around the sea or water is said to enhance alertness.
Just the sounds or sight of the waves can put you in a deep meditative state, if you let it. These sounds create a soothing environment for the mind to dive right in. The rhythm of the waves in the ocean are said to align with neural waves in the brain, thus slowing thoughts and bringing the mind to a standstill.
Meditation in the Park
It can be a city park or a small patch of green you have nurtured in your own backyard or a terrace garden, or even just a sky full of stars worthy of intense gazing—any setting that can help you connect to the nature within which all life revs, rises and ebbs, a fact that can be lost on us while living in a concrete, neon-layered cities.
Start by picking out and observing the sounds around you—birds chirping, children playing, insects buzzing. You can then take your attention from the outer environment to your breath. Keep taking deep breaths with awareness. Slowly take your attention to your mind, the thoughts rushing in your mind, and do not try to chase them away and definitely do not judge them. Once you become aware of these thoughts, they’ll start slowing down. From the mind, go into your heart space and become aware of your emotions and feelings. Do not hold them in. Just let the emotions and feelings be, without judgment. When serenity dawns on all these layers, you will find you are pure unadulterated joy and peace. Sit here in the cave of your heart for a few minutes, before slowly emerging out of your meditation.
Spending time in nature can improve memory, sharpen thinking, enhance clarity, and improve mood and even immune function. We’re all a part of nature and the more time we spend in it, the more aligned our bodies, minds, and spirits feel.