Mindfulness refers to an awareness of the present moment, what is happening around you as well as what is happening within you, noticing without judging it, and without being lost in all of our thinking about the past or future. It is like a form of wakefulness and attentiveness to the present, as opposed to an autopilot mode in which we go about our day with our minds full of expectations, wants, regrets, and recollections as well as a restless “busy-ness.” Mindfulness involves observing yourself and your surroundings with an attitude of acceptance, without getting caught up in planning and critiquing.
It is an integral practice within Buddhism, but it is not a religion and does not require any particular belief or ritual. You cultivate mindfulness by meditating, and that simply means spending time with the intention of being “present” and attentive to what is happening right now. Your meditation could take place while sitting or walking, and you could be outdoors or within your room at home. While most of what I write about is mindfulness in nature, there is no special place you have to be in order to practice mindfulness.
I’m spending a lot of time talking about what mindfulness is not, and that is because mindfulness seems to me to be fairly simple. However simple it may be, it is a discipline that requires practice. As Jon Kabat-Zinn puts it, “While it may be simple to practice mindfulness, it is not necessarily easy.”1 What do we do when we practice? Well, the practice is more about non-doing. To help bring attention to the present, often we spend some time paying attention to our breathing because that is something which is always there and happening in the present. Noticing each breath in and each breath out brings our attention fully to the present moment. Once again, there is no special “thing” to do with the breathing and no right way to do it. Just feel each breath and the rhythm of breathing in and out.
At the same time that you are paying attention to breathing, let go of thinking, planning, deciding if this is going well for you, and so on. You can’t make all those thoughts stop by pushing them away or “trying” not to think them. Instead, you have to let go of them and bring yourself back to the present moment. And then you will have to do it again, because the pull toward such thinking is strong and automatic. So is the urge to do things and stay busy. Of course we all have things we have to do, and as a culture we highly prize being busy and getting things done. That’s great as far as it goes, but it may leave us feeling restless and bored if we stop doing things, even briefly. Sitting quietly, without watching screens (TV, phone, etc.) or listening to something, may be difficult.
Practicing mindfulness may lead to an ability to be still with less boredom or restlessness, and an ability to be more focused and intentional when it is time to do things. It may result in an easier time handling stresses, but it will not eliminate all stress or make you “immune” to it. If you tend to get stuck thinking worrying thoughts over and over, that may get better. The research on the benefits of mindfulness has found that many people experience less psychological distress, less worry, better ability to handle stress, more ability to think flexibly when solving problems, greater focus and less distractibility, and greater satisfaction in their relationships. When used in training new therapists, mindfulness is associated with greater empathy, compassion, and ability to listen and be comfortable with silence.2
Mindfulness while out in nature
When you arrive at some place in the field, there is a transition that may need your conscious attention in order to shift from traveling to being there. It is easy to just start walking, noticing our surroundings but not settling into a mindful state. What I mean by “settling in” is that sense of stillness even while we are walking, and that clarity of experience that is less obstructed by distraction and the mental restlessness that says, “OK, seen that, let’s move on.” There are things we can all do to help with that transition and be more mindful right from the beginning of the visit.
Remember that mindfulness does not require complete physical stillness and silence, but those things are very helpful at the beginning of a walk and at intervals during the visit. Stillness, quiet, and attention to breathing are probably the best ways to start a visit. If I lapse into distraction, too much talking, too much anticipation and planning for what to do next, or other things that pull me away from a welcoming focus on the present, stillness can bring me back.
So consider the following to be a way to establish (and come back to) a mindful state while you are out there:
Close your eyes and take a slow breath. Feel the movement of the air as it fills your lungs. Notice the moment of stillness when your lungs have filled, and then listen and feel as the breath moves out of your body. Keep paying attention to the waves of breathing in and then out.
At least for this short time, don’t talk. If friends are talking, ask them to wait for a bit, and maybe explain that you need some quiet time in order to get the most out of this visit. Take out any ear buds and mute your phone or turn it off. There may be environmental noise from a highway or airplane, but if possible let that be in the background as you notice nature-related sounds around you, your footsteps, and your breathing.
Pick a place, get comfortable, and minimize movement for a little while. Notice how your body feels as it rests (either sitting or standing) on the ground or, as the case might be, in the water. Is the earth’s support spongy and soft, hard and strong, or – in the water – gently swaying? How does it feel to stop doing for a little? It might feel restful or like you are gathering energy. If you experience restlessness, see if you can wait just a little before moving around.
After the first few breaths, and while being silent and still for a little, open your eyes and notice what is around you. Take time to be immersed in what you see and hear, and also what you smell and feel. Stay with each thing and study its details, learning about it as if this was your first time to see a tree, hear a bird, or smell a woodland. Looking at a tree, you can imagine how its bark would feel to touch (or go touch it and wrap your arms around it), and how it would be to climb up and feel the sway of its branches and the breeze through the leaves. Try that for whatever you notice around you, whether it is water, grasses, or clouds.
That’s it. If you periodically take a short “reset” break and practice breathing, silence, stillness, and observation, it will likely make your time in nature more mindful.