Whether by nature or by design, I am admittedly an anxious human. Standing at five feet tall, I spend a great deal of my time on the lookout for stray elbows and trying to avoid being plowed into by much larger mammals. I also make a living sitting behind a computer for a majority of my day, effectively sending a massive amount of energy to my head and narrowing my focus to finding cafes with the strongest coffee and most robust Wi-Fi signals. This inevitably results in too much attention paid to deadlines and other first world, inconsequential stresses. Without a good, solid hike, I become so tightly wound that tiny annoyances become burdens and I feel as though I can actually hear my nerves grinding against one another.
Disclaimer: I am by no means an expert at mindfulness meditation and acknowledge that I will forever be a student. If I am to remain enrolled in this school of enlightened attention, I prefer to learn from the wisdom of nature. While there is great value in the writings and lectures of people profoundly adept at embodying compassionate detachment and non-judgment, the wilderness offers lessons that speak in an entirely different language. I am solidly convinced that there must be a space in the human soul that can only be reached through the direct interaction with the natural world.
The goal of mindfulness meditation is paradoxically not having a goal at all. This perplexing riddle of “trying not to try” is enormously hard for me to grasp with my rational mind, but is made easier when attempted under the guise of going for a walk in the woods. Done in solitude, my journey is made with the intention to care for my inner wellbeing. Without any other purpose in mind, I do not have to fixate over the nuts and bolts of everyday life, such as making rent, scrounging enough quarters for laundry, and making sure the dishes get done before the food crust fossilizes.
Tackling a peak or navigating a particularly gnarly piece of geography is an excellent way of almost forcing a heightened state of awareness. Scrambling over scree, ducking under branches, and circumnavigating muddy stretches of trail will immediately key me into my senses. The angry burn of muscles and stretching pull of bursting lungs is always an effective means of pushing my concentration out of my head and back into my body. Physical exertion and pain obliterates all of the cognitive hang-ups that are not useful for basic function and a justifiable use for my limited glucose supply. The rhythm of walking itself becomes a tempo for mantra recitation as I literally put one foot in front of the other on the path towards heightened awareness.
While I would like to pretend that my excursions out into nature are full of blissful self-discoveries and attainment of a monk-like, serene calm, most of the lessons I learn from nature are uncomfortable reflections of myself. The desire to mash up a trail must be tempered by an internal control restricting my mad craving to summit a peak without paying any attention whatsoever the approach. Mindfulness asks the practitioner to abandon the internalized rules of how fast and how far to climb the mountain, metaphorical or otherwise. Instead, the striving mind takes a back seat in order to allow the less aggressive nature of awareness to emerge.
As a naturalist and rabid fan of John Muir, I know I have a tendency to look to nature as a form of salvation. There is no doubt that the sheer beauty of some stunning scenery can conjure feelings of the sublime, but at the end of the day, nature has no obligation to heal me or save my soul. There is a kind of freedom in understanding that simply breathing is enough to fill any responsibility to the world, and I am ultimately accountable only to myself. Why would it bother a mountain if I didn't file my tax return on time? Would it fluster a redwood if my car got a flat on the way to work? Does a river fret about my credit score? That being said, there is also comfort in the understanding of the Earth as being a whole, living entity in which I have a place even if the part I play is a very small one. Integrating these thoughts is much easier when actually out among other forms of life.
Perhaps most important for my practice, the great outdoors provides me with an opportunity to relax and play. Becoming overly serious and rigid can be a deathblow for mindfulness meditation, turning focus into a stale rut. Looking for a particular plant or animal keeps the higher “monkey mind” busy and allows the background, always present “observing” self to surface. Humming, talking back to birds, and turning over logs in search of crawlies generates a mindset that lets air into the dusty corners of my psyche. Meandering along a trail alone allows for an element of play that a regimented workday does not permit.
Scientific journals are beginning to fill with hard proof of the beneficial and stress-reducing effects of nature. As researchers scan our brains and measure our pulses, a gathering body of evidence is beginning to prove that living closer to plants and animals lowers blood pressure, improves sleep, encourages exercise, and even stimulates brain wave patterns similar to those generated during meditation. Yet ultimately, the personal value of immersing myself in the outdoors is in the practice and ultimate benefits of mindfulness; less anxiety, a feeling of connection with the universe, and enjoyment of what time I have among the world I am lucky enough to experience.
Cover photo: Andrew Slaton
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Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.
Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph.