How Nature Changes the Mind

Summertime, especially around the Fourth of July, is a time many of us in North America spend outdoors. It actually can be a hard time to sit indoors and meditate, because it’s so beautiful outside. Fortunately, being in nature can, itself, be a doorway to a valuable and refreshing capacity of mind that I call “natural awareness.”

Every year, I lecture to thousands of people about meditation. In an introductory session, I will typically ask the audience, “Who of you has been in nature and felt connected, peaceful, at ease, and present?” Without fail, the majority of people will raise their hands.

What is it about nature that is so rejuvenating?

Some of the scientific research being done about the effect of nature on our bodies and mind may illuminate the reasons. Studies out of Japan show that leisurely forest walks decrease cortisol levels, decrease blood pressure and heart rate, and reduce anxiety. Some Finnish studies show that people receive long-term emotional boosts after spending five hours a month in nature.

Some theorists believe that human beings have a deep-rooted affinity to nature due to thousands of years we spent living in the wild. They suggest we are genetically predisposed to prefer natural environments and in such environments our bodies function at optimal health and well-being.

It’s possible, then, that nature invokes some primal, pre–industrial state. Or maybe the inherent beauty of nature relaxes our mind. Perhaps, the fact nature that is untouched (or minimally touched) by human activity has a kind of freedom associated with it.

Often, we can experience more than just rejuvenation. Sometimes, being in nature often brings about feelings like relaxation, peace, connection, love, joy, and ease. Sometimes it even brings on a simple sense of “just being” – natural awareness. This quality of mind is actually always accessible, but it is frequently obscured. And nature brings it out.

Let me tell you a story that illustrates what I mean.

I am lucky enough to live only a short car ride away from the beach, and the other day I went walking there. It was another typically gorgeous sunny Southern California day. The beach was not too crowded, since it was only 10 in the morning. The waves were a bit choppy, but nothing that deterred the surfers.

At first, I was lost in my thoughts, walking quickly by the edge of the ocean. But after some time, something began to still inside me. Natural awareness spontaneously arose in me. I didn’t do much; I let the thinking play itself out until I found my mind resting, alert, aware, present, radiant, and at ease.

Everything became increasingly amusing. I felt a palpable sense of connection to all the bathers on the beach—the woman with an elaborate tattoo in the center of her back, the children rushing out to the water on their mini boogie boards. I felt deeply content.

Then I walked too close to the water, and a giant wave soaked me! I thought it was hilarious. I didn’t freak out, I didn’t think it was a problem. It was just another manifestation of life.

After some more walking, little thoughts began to creep in. At first I let them be there, like clouds in the sky, but then a few work worries seemed compelling. Like really compelling. Oh no, I forgot to send that email! The next thing I knew I was caught up in a cascade of worries about work; my habitual mind took over.

And it often goes like that; natural awareness surfaces, then becomes concealed again. We feel freedom, joy connection, and the next thing we know we’re thoroughly caught in our worries and plans. These are natural cycles and really not a problem. Our minds are constantly being caught in something, and then, with awareness, letting go. And then caught again. And again. And then free. Sometimes you can even be aware of the whole process happening.

I encourage you to give this a try for yourself.

With practice, natural awareness can become a familiar state, accessible in daily life and regularly experienced. It’s extremely refreshing. It can feel like your mind is completely aware and undistracted without you doing anything in particular. Or like your mind is like wide open space, and everything in it is just passing by. You might notice that your mind feels at rest even if thoughts pop in and out. You are simply being—without agenda—and this ‘beingness’ creates a feeling of ease.

See if nature can be your guide into this remarkable way of being in the world. If possible, spend some time alone in nature this summer. I know it’s not possible for everyone, but even a park can positively impact your quality of being. Let your mind relax out there; let go of the worries of the day. Then see if you can tap into the connection with natural awareness that nature can bring about.

Diana Winston is the Director of Mindfulness Education at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center and the author of several books including her new book, The Little Book of Being: Practices and Guidance for Uncovering your Natural Awareness.

Diana Winston