Sharing with you the chapter that I have written for a mindfulness eBook (Mindful Approaches in Challenging Times), which will be available soon for free for a limited period on Amazon – link to follow as soon as I have it!
Mindful Nature Connection
At times in my life when I have faced stress or a difficult challenge, I have found peace and often a solution by “taking the problem for a walk” – either going and sitting on a hillside, watching the view and feeling the wind on my face and in my hair or by simply putting one foot in front of the other until my mind became more quiet. Scenes of dozens of people in parks in the coronavirus crisis suggest that I am not alone in finding comfort in nature. In fact, it seems that it is an essential part of our wellbeing.
What is Nature Connection?
Much of our experience of nature involves activities in green spaces – often walking, playing or sitting for a picnic. It might possibly involve feeding the ducks or bird spotting. These activities involve contact with nature but not necessarily connection.
There are certainly benefits associated with contact with nature. Plants emit immune system-boosting chemicals, called phytoncides – these are actually used in some aromatherapy oils; Researchers at the University of Bristol have discovered a microbe in the soil which may help to reduce symptoms of depression. So, simply investing time in nature can have positive effects on our mental and physical wellbeing.
Nature connection or natural mindfulness is far more about the felt experience of nature than it is about knowledge or simple exposure to the natural environment. In short, it deepens and reinforces the experience. I would liken this to a visit to a museum. When we walk round the museum, reading the facts and looking at the exhibits, it can certainly be interesting or even amusing. However, when we start to empathise with historical figures (maybe putting ourselves in the shoes of someone living in the Middle Ages or feeling for ourselves what it might have been like for an inventor or for the very first people to be given antibiotics before such treatments were available), the experience is much richer. We are perhaps able to engage much more of ourselves and our human experience.
Where does mindfulness come into it?
Arguably, without mindfulness, any kind of connection is impossible. Imagine for a moment having a conversation with someone, except that you are not listening, your mind is somewhere else. I am quite sure, at some point, we have all done this. We certainly are not connected with the person who is talking to us at that point in time. It is very much the same with nature connection. In order to connect, we need to bring awareness. This may sound quite tricky, but many of us find that we can be mindful of nature very easily, often without even intending to.
Let’s suppose that a deer suddenly runs across your path when you are out on a walk. I would not imagine, at that moment, that your mind would be on your to-do list. It is much more likely that the deer has your full attention and has perhaps drawn some gentle curiosity. You may be aware of feeling more alert, possibly even aware of the sound of your breath or the feeling of your pulse as you try to remain still and quiet. This is a moment of connection and mindfulness.
Most of the time with nature connection, there is not such a strongly attention-grabbing moment like this – it is necessary to adopt a mindful approach, and this may take a little practice.
Why practice mindful nature connection?
There is lots of evidence of physical and mental health benefits for people investing time in nature. Even listening to birdsong recordings or seeing pictures of nature have been shown to have a positive effect. The benefits include lowered blood pressure, enhanced immune system function, recovery from illness and reduction of pain, relief and possibly prevention of the symptoms of depression and anxiety. However, what brings me and many others back to nature time and again is far harder to measure. There is a sense of belonging, of not being alone, even when we are the only people around for miles. A feeling of “coming home” is commonly reported, as well as a sense of joy and of deep relaxation.
I first truly noticed when I was housebound for a period of time. I started to struggle with low mood. I decided to try walking a 30-minute loop from my home, taking in a local park with a river and some small wooded areas. The combination of the birdsong in the trees and the sunlight dancing on the surface of the river had an almost immediate effect. I caught myself smiling and noticed a heart-warming sense of joy starting to flood my body. Scientific research suggests that experiences in nature reduce rumination, which is a key factor in depression and anxiety.
Some suggested practices
Firstly, there is no “right way” to practice mindful nature connection, as long as you are kind and respectful of all nature (including yourself and other people) – experiment and have fun! We are aiming for awareness of what is here – inside and outside of us. It’s simple, but not always easy!
I always start by stopping. Even if the intention is to walk in nature, I start by standing still. I take a few deep breaths and notice my breathing as a process of nature and also an exchange. Breathing is a life process, actually it is a sequence of many, many processes, all working together to transport the things you need into your body and some of the things you do not need back out again. The oxygen you breathe comes almost entirely from the plants and a great deal from phytoplankton in our oceans. They also use the carbon dioxide we breathe out. So, in every breath, we are both a living embodiment of nature and we are also part of an interconnectedness with other organisms. Just by being and breathing you are an essential part of the cycle of life on Earth.
You could choose to stay with the experience of breathing and reflect on it. It is a practice in itself – just breathing with nature. (Resting against a tree and breathing is a lovely connection and I have provided some audio guidance to do just that – see the links later in the chapter). Otherwise, it is a nice signal to bring yourself to the present moment before moving to the next part of the practice.
I might next notice the Earth beneath my feet. Your body is supported and held in every moment by a whole planet. So, it is good to take some time to notice the ground beneath you and the feeling of being supported and held. You could even sit or lie down on the ground and feel what that is like.
The possibilities from here are almost endless. You could choose to sit or lie in your chosen place. This is known as a sit-spot practice. I have a sit-spot in my garden that I return to most days. Alternatively, you could start walking, slowly and mindfully – taking things in as you go, pausing when you are drawn to do so. You may not get very far, but that is not the purpose of the walk.
Whether you are sitting or walking, you can continue with the breathing and noticing the ground beneath you. You can also open up your senses further. Listening to the sounds around you – allowing all the sounds to “land” on you, including man-made ones, remembering that people are nature too. You may notice judgements or thoughts come up about the sounds – some things you find pleasant and some things you find unpleasant and maybe wish were not there. Invite some curiosity towards that and possibly see if you can explore what those sounds are like without the judgement. Does your experience of them change? What do you notice most strongly and are you able to “tune through” the sounds, a bit like listening to the radio – some things moving more into the background, others coming to the foreground.
It is lovely to notice also how the sounds fit together like a piece of music and to include any sounds you make (maybe your breath or any movement). If you are walking, something I like to do is to map out the soundscape. As you travel, just noticing how each part of your journey sounds or feels to you. If you have started from a built-up area or road, this may feel different to a later part of your walk, but it might also feel quite different if you walk back towards your starting point.
You can do the soundscape activity with other senses too (maybe air temperature or scents) and with a general gut feeling. I love to pause and just ask myself “how does this place feel to me?” Sometimes it will feel peaceful or cool, dark or busy. Noticing your feelings and what emotion or body sense is connected with your present moment experience is an important part of nature connection. You could even make a map at the end of your walk, with “landmarks” based on your experience rather than physical objects – it could be something like the smell of a moss-covered log, a still, peaceful spot or where you climbed a mound like a child – “king or queen of the castle!” The map will be different every time even if you follow the same route on your walk!
There are many natural mindfulness guides, who will hopefully be able to guide you on an experience near to where you live or online. This has the added benefit of being able to share your experience with others and to get different perspectives, which is a very powerful part of any mindfulness practice. Even as a guide myself, I get a great deal of benefit from joining other guides and allowing myself to experience nature through their connection with it.
Other activities you can try include:
- Listening to birdsong recordings – even 5 minutes a day has been shown to have a beneficial effect
- Paying close attention to a natural object (listen to the 3 minute audio for a guided practice)
- Growing something – maybe some wildflower seeds or herbs in a window box
- Watching the birds or clouds or look at the stars
- Noticing the weather or changes in the seasons
- Connecting with a pet
- Going camping – even in your own garden – as a kind of mini retreat
Audio guided practices
A 3 minute guided practice with a natural object is given here – this will need an object from nature – it could be a stone, pot plant, pine cone, feather etc. I would encourage you to be kind to nature in choosing your object – definitely not picking wildflowers unless they are growing in your garden and even here I tend to leave these for the bees. I only pick up leaves and pine cones where they have fallen on a pavement and are destined from the road sweeper rather than ones that have fallen on the ground and will either be valuable food or provide seeds for the next generation.
A longer guided tree meditation is given here. You are invited to follow this near a real tree, but I enjoy it when I cannot get to a tree too.
- We are nature – we are not separate from it
- Nature connection has many physical and mental wellbeing benefits and is a very accessible path to mindfulness
- There is no “doing it right” – even distracted time in nature has benefits and it is certainly OK, actually it is helpful, to practice nature connection when your mind is busy or perhaps a little stressed. There is a zen saying “You should sit in nature for 20 minutes a day… Unless you are busy, then you should sit for an hour.”