Natures Role in Mindfulness
By Christopher Joseph
“Look, over there on the mountain – A Dragon!” I shouted to the rest of the group as we scaled the Minford path up to the summit of Cadair Idris in the bright sunlight of Saturday afternoon. Some turned and looked, and acknowledged with their own delight the Dragon shaped shadow of the clouds on the mountain the opposite side of the valley. As I stood there three quarters of the way up the mountain with my back to Llyn Cau watching this incredibly realistic shadow of a dragon gradually unfold and then disappear, I felt great intrigue, wonder and awe and also at the same time very humble, small and insignificant.
These simultaneous feelings of awe and insignificance were repeated several times over the weekend ‘Close to Nature’ retreat on Cadair Idris: When watching the sun set over the sea beyond Barmouth, when listening to the sounds of the rain and wind on the tent during the night, and when smelling the muskiness of the swirling mist as it licked it’s way up the slopes and over the craggy rock outcrops the following morning.
The healing effects of spending time in nature have long been acknowledged. Regular walks in the countryside have been shown to provide real benefits to people both in terms of their physical and mental wellbeing, but what role can nature play in developing our own mindfulness practice?
After spending the first five weeks cultivating awareness and focus the second half of the 8-week Breathworks mindfulness course deals with broadening our awareness. An important part of this is becoming more aware of our surroundings. It is easy, however, to become complacent about our everyday surroundings – We often don’t really see what’s around us! It becomes all too familiar to us. Nature, however, with its great intrinsic beauty and ever changing form can often provide us with sufficient sensory delight to snap us out of our inner-world of mind-chatter by compelling us to fully engage with our senses and to open to the outer-world around us.
An important aspect of mindfulness practice is learning (or re-learning) to see, hear, touch, taste and smell things as if for the very first time.
This process of simply ‘taking in’ nature with bare attention in an untainted and unfiltered way can often feel anything but simple! We are taught to conceptualise things from a very young age in school and at home. We learn, for example, that this is a tree, this is a leaf and this is a rock. And yet, when I tell you that I have seen a tree you might nod in acknowledgement and say “Yes, a tree!”. However, on further examination it becomes quite evident how little I have really told you!
Concepts can of course be very useful and are important building blocks in the development of intelligence, but they can also get in the way. When we conceptualise things we split reality into parts. We make things static – My dragon was not the same as the dragon that the other people saw, and of course there was never a dragon in the first place!
Anthony de Mello in his book ‘Awareness’ recounts the words of the great Indian writer and speaker Krishnamurti: “The day you teach the child the name of the bird, the child will never see that bird again”. De Mello goes on to explain: “The first time the child seed that fluffy, moving object, and you say to him, “Sparrow”, then tomorrow when the child sees another fluffy, moving object similar to it he says, “Oh, sparrows. I’ve seen sparrows. I’m bored by sparrows.””
During weeks six and seven of the Breathworks course we practice listening to sounds and looking at objects not as a child but with the ears and eyes of a child. Nature performs an important role in the development of mindfulness since it provides us with such a rich opportunity to truly engage our senses, to look beyond any preconceived ideas and concepts that we might have and to take in all that is around us. It provides us with a wonderful smorgasbord on which to feast with all five of our senses.
In practicing awareness of our natural surroundings in this way with the bare untainted senses of a child we can gradually learn to extend this level of awareness and curiosity to our everyday more common surroundings including those that are man-made.
Through cultivating this level of awareness for our external landscape we can then begin to hold the pleasant and unpleasant aspects of our inner landscape of thoughts, emotions and physical feelings with a greater sense of equanimity and perspective. Through retaining an awareness of this backdrop of our outer experience even at times of inner turmoil we are far more likely to remain mindful, balanced and objective. In this respect, nature really does provide us with a wonderful opportunity to grow as human beings and to cultivate the sense of becoming ‘bigger containers’.
So… go and take a walk in nature today!
It certainly doesn’t have to be the top of a mountain or the depths of a forest. It doesn’t even have to be a new walk, since the constant flux of nature means that all walks are new. To quote Heraclitus: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man”.
When you go however, remember to take not only the sight of a child with you but their hearing, touch, taste and sense of smell as well, for as Richard Wilkins points out in the following poem, there is a reason why we don’t see Angels.
Why we don’t see Angels
Did you ever see the fragrance of a rose?
Did you ever see the wind that pushes clouds across the sky?
Did you ever see the perfect note of a black bird’s song?
Did you ever see the tender love that touched your heart?