In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous – Aristotle
When I think back on fond memories of childhood, so many of them are rooted in nature and symbolized wonder, play, and freedom. I remember the wind on my face riding my bike exploring my neighborhood. Sometimes when walking home from school, I would pick fresh mulberries appreciating the deep rich colors and savoring the sweetness of it all when a ripe berry hit my mouth. With winter came the joy of touching snow and packing it firmly out of curiosity and play. Then marveling at the puffs of smoke formed by my own breath as it hit the cold air. The joy of climbing trees, smelling pine and feeling sap are so tangible even after all of these years. Our senses can pick up on so much in the natural world and nature and appreciation and awareness of that innate process draws us closer to our own internal self of inner peace and calmness. While as a child that process was more fluid and natural, I have found as an adult life has found a way to make that space more difficult to access. It has taken some intentional rebuilding and awareness as an adult over the past few years for me to regain an appreciation of the need for that space in my life.
Growing up led to more time indoors for my education and medical training with the many different things of life including career aspirations as a physician, desire to learn new things, and trying to meet the needs for my family all competing for my time, energy and limited attention. Before I knew it I found myself in a whirlwind of activity and chaos. My body was feeling tense during the day and I noticed more regular tense headaches. I often wondered if this pace was sustainable or even worthwhile. This realization led me to explore ways to manage the overwhelming moments of life.
I began to seriously explore mindfulness as a way to help reorient myself with the hope of finding a way to attain inner peace. Mindfulness is defined in the Oxford dictionary as “the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something OR a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique”.
While I innately knew that the intentional pursuit of mindfulness was what I needed to pursue, I found this path to be challenging. There are so many books, techniques and teachings in this space and at times that can be confusing and daunting. Eventually I learned to appreciate how I felt when in nature and the power of it as a tool when I am intentional and present to its beauty, wonder and sometimes chaos. Over time, I was able to re-connect to my inner self with wonder, play and freedom through intentional experiences in nature. I found that simple hikes, kayaking or just going on walks was very helpful to use as anchors into that mental space of “being mindful” and attain moments of inner peace and meaningful connection to the world buzzing around me.
The sound of a bird chirping can be a beautiful opera when I slow down and take the time to appreciate the moment and be present. The fresh sites and smells in nature with its many flowers, honeysuckles, evergreens and pines all are invitations to our senses to appreciate.
With open curiosity, I began to notice how my body felt when in nature and was able to identify a sense of calming and relaxation. That fueled a desire to slow down and take another look. On quick glance I see simplicity, but when I slow down I see more details – the veining pattern in the leaf, the extra bright star that is twinkling in the night sky, and these calls for deeper observation or attention bring me into a mindful moment. During this active mindfulness in nature, the autonomic nervous system has the potential to shift a low grade fight or flight state we commonly find ourselves, in a world full of micro-stressors, to a more balanced state – drawing from the sympathetic to provide heightened awareness but allowing the parasympathetic to balance its effect with calmness, control and peace. As a child with more time for play outside, I would experience this sensation without an intention for relaxation but that was a natural byproduct of my engagement with nature as we are all hardwired to do.
A few years ago I had the opportunity to attend a retreat in Costa Rica. The teachings helped me connect deeper with the five elements of earth, water, air, fire, and space. By exploring how I could connect with the element by using my senses, it started a journey for me rediscovering in more depth my childhood experiences of joy and relaxation in nature. I also felt empowered to rebuild an intentional relationship as an observer, and layer in an appreciation for what nature had available to me, as a support on my journey for better understanding myself and how I truly connect with the natural world around me. As I explored the earth element, I could see how my desire to travel to the mountains also comforted me with stability, and the protection helped me feel safe. On the retreat though, I also learned how too much or too little of certain elements can lead to dangerous conditions. Too much of the earth element can leave me stagnant and so stuck in routine that I forget how much I need adventure and spontaneity. Each day on the retreat, from the 7 am yoga class through the group meetings and talk, focused on one of the elements and explored it in many different ways. By slowing down and exploring the element, I was able to experience it in many different ways. When I stood on a rock, I would now try to sense the stability underfoot with each of my toes while also appreciating the strength that gave me. The power of the water and air elements in cleansing and clearing stagnation became more evident to me and I could see how I hadn’t tapped into those as freely when I was focused on the grounding and stability of the earth element. In exploring the element of fire, I recalled how my own passions for some areas of life had been extinguished with the busyness of caring for young children but how thinking about those passions stirred up excitement and joy inside. I found myself getting more and more curious around where I was with each of the elements in connecting to their reminders and appreciating their innate nature. The elements were leading me to more mindful moments and also providing guidance on how to assess the balance in my life.
When I take those exploratory lessons back to my time outdoors, these mindful moments in nature are the crisp breeze on my face or the noticing of how invigorating a cold stream can truly feel when I dip my feet or hands or whole body in. The embodiment of the elements was a new experience for me and I was enjoying exploring nature with this new lens. The lack of perfection or uniformity and rather the splendor in the imperfections in nature are what comprise the beauty as we can see when observing clouds and their tumbles and shadows. Nature brings chaos and there is beauty in that chaos. Seeing that over and over, from holding a piece of igneous rock that was made from volcanoes many ages ago, or seeing the beauty of flowers growing after a wooded area burned, reminds me too that in the chaotic nature of life, there can be beauty and peace. When my children are arguing or the world seems to have so many demands I can retreat to a mindful moment by stepping outside and appreciating the night sky, or feeling the texture of a leaf, or noticing the details of patterns in a flower or leaf. What I found helpful is to start to notice which senses made me feel most calm and then start to look for ways to access that in nature and then explore how it felt in my body.
If you are looking for some ways to discover nature and the power it holds, here are a few suggestions: think back upon a pleasant memory from your childhood that involved nature – was it looking out a window upon a snowy roof, a day at a park jumping in piles of leaves, or time spent fishing with a loved one? Can you close your eyes and try to recreate your sensory experience? Was there a smell or a sound that you recall bringing peace? Can you take that experience and look for it now in nature and see how your body feels when you do? There is right or wrong in how you go about it, but rather the key is to just slow down and “be”. When you find these elements, can you explore how to add more of this to your day?