Don’t you love being outside in fine weather? Enjoying the environment, a swim, a stroll, a romp with the dog… It’s a real gift to be able to spend time outdoors – so much so that it can be hard to keep up your sitting practice when spring has sprung or Indian summer beckons. Good news: you don’t have to choose between meditation and taking advantage of nature. Meditating outdoors is a great way to invigorate your practice and keep it going strong.
Meditation in nature
Ever wondered why meditation retreats and monasteries of all spiritual traditions are often found in the mountains or deep in the forest? There are many benefits of meditation in nature—it’s a place where wisdom and perception come alive. Meditating outdoors activates our senses, making our practice more alert and wakeful. At the same time, the usual distractions seem far away and somehow less important. Many meditators find it easier to let go of their worries and their electronic devices when they’ve got such a satisfying alternative: mindfully communing with nature.
In Asia, the accomplished meditators of yore believed that isolation in the wilderness was conducive to advanced mindfulness training. They would retreat to hermitages carved into mountains or hidden among the flora of the jungle and spend time in deep contemplation. Many ancient poems and chants evoke the wonder of such retreats. A verse by Han-shan, a 7th century hermit who lived on Cold Mountain in China, describes this experience beautifully:
Today I sat before the cliff,
Sat a long time till mists had cleared.
A single thread, the clear stream runs cold;
A thousand yards the green peaks lift their heads.
White clouds—the morning light is still;
Moonrise—the lamp of night drifts upward;
Body free from dust and stain,
What cares could trouble my mind?
(From Cold Mountain: 100 Poems by the Tang Poet Han-shan, translated by Burton Watson, Columbia University Press)
What’s the best method?
Most mindfulness methods can be practiced outdoors. In addition to awareness-of-breath practice, walking meditation and focusing on sounds are great fits when you’re meditating outside. With walking meditation, you’ll pay attention to the contact of your feet with the ground as you mindfully advance.
When focusing on sound, try to maintain awareness of sound without judging (“I love/hate the sound of bumblebees,” for instance) or even trying to identify the source. If you’re a birdwatcher this will prove virtually impossible – your mind will immediately look to determine which precise bird is filling the air with song. For everyone else, however, this is a very agreeable method. Once you’re comfortable with it, awareness-of-sound meditation can be practiced everywhere.
When we sit on the ground during our nature meditations, our body’s rhythm synchronizes with the earth’s natural vibrations. This harmony greatly enhances the experience of meditation. It may seem that our senses are heightened – our hearing feels sharper and our skin receptors feel more sensitive. In fact, it’s the lack of ambient busy-ness and the sense of well-being that allow us to be more in sync with our senses than usual.
A word of caution nonetheless. As beautiful and restorative as nature can be, her power and unpredictability are not to be underestimated. People who meditate in nature should be aware of potential dangers: check the local weather to see if you’ll need protective clothing and a sunscreen or a rain cape, and bring bug spray to ward off disease-carrying mosquitos and ticks. Familiarize yourself with the local wildlife and stay safe: the presence of hornets, grizzlies or rattlesnakes is unlikely to benefit your meditation!
Can’t make it to the wilderness to meditate just now? How about your balcony, back yard, or the nearest public park? You’ll have to factor in the sounds of civilization, but in some ways this can reinforce your training in impartial awareness. Awareness is awareness, whether the focus is the sound of a nightingale’s aria or gridlocked traffic.
The beauty of meditation
And speaking of meditation, Maria Camara, PhD, a seasoned meditation teacher and psychologist, describes some of the powerful benefits of meditation in one of her Mind Talks on Mindworks App. She discusses how meditation can help reduce stress and improve our peace of mind, whether we choose to practice indoors or out.