What is a Natural Mindfulness Walk?
Let’s start with what it isn’t! Very often when we walk outdoors, we are doing what I would call “hiking”, by which I mean walking at pace with the objective of covering some ground. The other thing we may do when we walk outdoors is either to talk continuously to another person or to be very much in our own mental chit-chat (that internal dialogue that can seem pretty incessant and takes us away from our present moment experience).
In addition, our experiences in nature tend to be a lot like a visit to a museum – we see an object, label it, get a whole lot of factual information about it (either at the time from a field guide, our memories or from local signage occasionally or we look it up afterwards). There is generally also a lot of taking pictures. These things are all great and have a benefit to us, but they tend to miss a really key part of nature experience. This key part is what I would term “nature connection.”
A nature connection walk tends to be a much slower, less moving-in-a-straight-line affair – in fact there might not be much walking, if any; You can potentially practise natural mindfulness indoors, from a window, for instance. It incorporates several possible elements, however it will almost always include the following:
- noticing your surroundings using your senses;
- feeling the experience in your own being (perhaps changes in your body sensations and emotions);
- either talking about the experience with another person or group, journaling or reflecting on the experience in some way.
The idea is to connect with the outer world, with our own inner world and possibly with other people. There is some lovely information about what constitutes nature connection at https://findingnature.org.uk/ In particular, the site talks about the five key ways we connect with nature –
- through our senses;
- through beauty (e.g. photography, painting);
- through meaning (e.g. natural navigation and natural signs);
- through compassion (e.g. conservation projects, gardening); and
- through emotion (the reflection and sharing mentioned above).
Why do Nature Connection?
There are lots of reported benefits of nature, but actually the truth is that it is so integral to our well-being and survival – it is not a case of it being nice to see the odd bit of wildlife every so often, but rather that we are likely to not thrive at all if we cut it out of our lives, intentionally or otherwise. It is pretty much impossible to do scientific studies at the gold standard (double blind) level of research in this area, so the scientific evidence is often criticised for this. However, it all points to health benefits such as reduction of stress, lowering of blood pressure, boosting of the immune system, increased happiness and easing of the symptoms of depression and anxiety. We are not talking about small, long term effects either – some of the reported drops in blood pressure from a single walk are really quite impressive. (For more on this, I strongly recommend reading The Nature Fix by Florence Williams).
In addition, time in nature is widely believed to increase creativity and problem solving. The reason behind this is thought to be because it takes us out of the executive (heavy analytical processing) bit of our brains and into the default mode, thus giving the overworked parts of our minds a much-needed rest.
There are other benefits too, such as connecting with yourself. It may sound like a strange thing, but we very often live entirely in our heads and can become completely out of touch with the fact that we are more than a brain with a pair of eyes.
As well as the personal benefits, there is a benefit to the natural environment. In a nutshell, when we realise that we are a part of nature, we are much more likely to want to protect it.
What to expect
For the experiences I guide, I would tend to start with an activity to quickly introduce everyone and then to help us to arrive where we are. That may sound like a very odd concept, but it can be really quite tricky to switch out of being in that problem-solving, analysing, busy thinking mode. Don’t worry about this – we are not trying to achieve any kind of special state, we are just hoping to set an intention and open the opportunity for your mind to have a rest. There’s no right or wrong state of mind and it is likely to change during the walk.
Then it’s really about the experience of nature – no two experiences are the same, but I would guide activities to incorporate some of the elements above. Above all, it is experiential, so no amount of reading about it equates to actually doing it. It really is a case of try it and see!
What to bring
The walks take place in all weathers, so it is important to have appropriate clothing and footwear (layers, waterproofs, shoes that support and protect your feet and provide grip etc). The only other thing to mention is that if you have any particular requirements (maybe mobility issues, sensory impairment, possibly dietary requirements if we are doing any kind of tasting, please get in touch so I can make sure that the experience is as good as it should be for everyone in the group).
I trained to be a Mindfulness Teacher with Shamash Alidina and a Natural Mindfulness Guide with Ian Banyard. Both sites have lots of great information about mindfulness and natural mindfulness and how to train to guide others yourself if you are interested.