Outdoor Mindfulness – In Nature, through Movement and Stillness, with Awareness, by John Arnold.
Nature, the outdoors and physical activity create a perfect context for the practice of mindfulness. Ego-centric thinking softens in the face of nature which seems to foster eco-centric thinking. We see the deep connections within nature and learn that we also are a part of this matrix of energy, cause and effect and acceptance. Physical activity and movement with awareness brings us closer to the wonders of our body and mind and we begin to appreciate that the forces which are inherent in nature are also in ourselves and influence our daily lives.
Mountain summer retreats are a great way to enjoy being in the mountains, have fun exercising and doing something which has lasting health and well-being benefits. The exhilaration of hiking, the stillness of meditation and the grounding of yoga, making journeys over land and internally, can lead us to seeing ourselves and others more clearly.
During the winter the outdoor mountain environment and oneself can be explored in the same way through skiing, whatever level of ability. The common threads of learning which weave through Outdoor Mindfulness, whatever season it is, are awareness, compassion for self and others, and insight into who we are and what we are doing, thinking and feeling.
Combining light physical exercise and sporting activities, such as hiking, yoga and skiing, with mindfulness practices can teach us much about our connections with nature and the natural environment. When these connections are purposefully nurtured health benefits follow; stress in reduced, the nervous system is calmed, body is soothed and the mind quietens. Outdoor Mindfulness has the partner of Nature which is a powerful force for health and personal growth. Some of the benefits of Outdoor Mindfulness that I have seen in others and experienced myself include:
- Extending your appreciation of nature and foster connections to its energy.
- Experiencing the exhilaration and vitality of exercising in the outdoors.
- Learning new meditation practices and renew your approaches to sitting.
- Engaging in mindfulness activities and sharing with others your experiences.
- Exploring how mindfulness supports you in being centred and grounded.
- Energising yourself and learning ways of maintaining your energy and focus in everyday life.
A bit of background.
The context is, ‘growing in our capacities’ for awareness, compassion, insight and wisdom. The environment is outdoors, in nature where the elements of the natural world are prevalent. The activities are walking, hiking, yoga, Tai Chi, Qui Gung, mindful movement and meditation. Seeking a soothing of the integrated self is a natural phenomenon, one which humans have done consciously and often without knowing it for thousands of years, there’s a primordial drive to sooth and recuperate. We acknowledge this and view seeking quietness, stillness and being grounded and centred as natural instincts. As William Bloom describes in his ground-breaking teachings that meditation is a natural behaviour;
‘In this time alone, quietly in peaceful solitude, they develop a deeper, subtler awareness of …everything…nature, themselves, all that is, the mystery, the wonder, the field of consciousness…’, Bloom page 2, 2017.
The separated self is something we encounter with in our society today, the view that we must be independent is fundamentally at odds with how we live our lives within connected interdependent communities. Presently we do not live as independent beings and this view, where it prevails, sees society’s struggling with psychological ill health.
We seek to relate with the five essential elements of Earth, Water, Air, Wood and Metal. The Earth we find through the mountain terrain, hills and land; Water in the rivers, streams, land and plant moisture, rain and snow; Air found in our breath, in the space outside of our body, through the wind and air currents in our atmosphere; Wood as explored through the plant life, forests and moorland and Metal as an element of the rocks and stone. Whilst moving through the natural landscape we notice the elements as they are represented to us and purposefully move towards them connecting with their energies and vibrations and what they symbolise.
‘While our contemporary way of living separates us more and more from nature (which only exacerbates our mistaken belief that we are independent from the natural world), the truth is that our minds and bodies area as intertwined with the moon and stars as they are with the air we breathe and the water we drink.’ Coleman, page 61, 2006.
Physical activity triggers the production of hormones, such as endorphins, which have a positive influence on our sense of well-being and emotions. Hiking and skiing in the mountain environment further shape our emotions through terrain and weather changes and physical exertion. Yoga, Tai Chi, Chi Gung create safe places where our bodies can move freely with no limitations from the environment, we experience time and space to grow awareness of body, its movement and our mental activity.
Mindful movement is moving with purpose, intention and being aware of it. Using all our senses to witness the sensations of the body, whilst also observing the rhythms of the mind and emotions – perfect training for entering ‘flow’ states.
‘Although we might think of emotions as non-physical, in fact they ripple throughout our body. For this reason, staying as close as possible to the raw sensations of the body becomes particularly important when we are dealing with high emotion.’ Russell, page 52, 2015.
In stillness we see movement of the mind, in movement we see stillness of the mind. The combination of physical activity with periods of stillness merges the boundaries of each. What we learn on the mat is applied on the mountain, trusting the process and adopting the attitude of a beginner’s mind.
The experience of sitting shows us that the mind is anything but still. The contrast of the stillness of the body is the movement, the busyness of the mind. We move to the breath and here we notice movement, the body movements to facilitate the breath, the flow of air which is the breath. In seeking stillness our busy mind is illuminated and while this can sometimes be uncomfortable, it is a transition we must make to becoming more open and less judgemental.
‘Try to be mindful, and let things take their natural course. Then your mind will become still in any surroundings, like a clear forest pool. All kinds of wonderful, rare animals will come to drink at the pool, and you will clearly see the nature of all things. You will see many strange and wonderful things come and go, but you will be still.’ Achaan Chah, 2008.
Experiencing with awareness the nature of thoughts, that they arise, exist and pass, is hugely liberating. The realisation and acceptance that we are not our thoughts, that they shape our lives but do not need to shape our identity, is often a breakthrough. The stillness of mind arises from not interfering with it, not engaging with it; instead we observe, notice and witness, that which we observe, and our reactions to that which we observe.
Physical activity done with awareness brings about a realisation of movements, motion and muscular tensions. We learn to trust our bodies, beginning from where we are in the present moment, we learn to be in our moving bodies with the absence of striving and judging.
‘We are all like waves rising and falling on the surface of the ocean, and when the wave looks deep within, it finds the ocean. When we do not hold on to the past, cherish the future or take hold of the present, we see imperturbability.’ Titmus, page 168, 2000.
If you enjoyed reading this piece you may like:
William Bloom, How to Teach and Lead Meditation, Spirit Companions Trust, 2017 (v8).
Mark Coleman, Awake in The Wild, New World Library, 2006.
Dr Tamara Russell, Mindfulness in Motion, Watkins Publishing, 2015.
Achaan Chah, A Still Forest Pool, Quest Books, 2008.
Christopher Titmus, An Awakened Life, Shambhala, 2000.