How to Heal Yourself in Nature
The great naturalist John Muir wrote:
Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off you like falling leaves.
In these troubled times, Muir’s words seem more urgent than ever before. In the midst of an ongoing pandemic, being outside in Nature is perhaps the safest way to find healing and solace. The unsurpassed stillness, tranquility and wisdom of the natural world offer the possibility of renewal and resilience.
Adding mindful attention to our time outside can greatly enhance these benefits. Here’s one way to do that, which you can try on your own.
Go to a quiet place in nature where you can connect with the earth, whether it’s in an open meadow, alongside a quiet stream, in a city park, on a windy lane through a farmer’s fields, or on a long stretch of sandy beach. At first, you can just walk around this place in the way you normally might be in nature when you are not being mindful, which might include listening to music on your headphones thinking about or planning your life, or just looking at your environment casually without much depth or interest. Notice what it feels like in your body to be in a place while only casually connecting to it.
Then you can go a bit deeper.
If it’s comfortable to do so, remove your shoes and socks and stand, feeling your connection with the ground beneath you. Feel the weight of your body through your feet and toes, and feel the different places of pressure and density on the soles of your feet. Notice if the ground is cool, damp, hard, or yielding. Let your feet sink into connecting with the earth, noticing how it feels in each foot.
Begin walking barefoot on and in the earth. And, with each step, feel the tickling grasses warmed in the sun, or the cool refreshing waters of puddles tingling your skin, or the grainy sand shifting beneath you.
After you’ve done this for some time, you might even reach down and dig your hands into the earth. Feel the texture of the earth in your fingers—is it gritty, muddy, silky, or some other texture? Notice how it smells. Allow yourself to play with the earth, grasses and stones, like a child might play in a mud puddle or a sand box. Make shapes and figures with the soil, perhaps even rubbing it on your skin.
Check in. Do you feel differently now than you did just earlier? Observe how it feels to engage or participate through the sense of touch, and how that changes your relationship to this place.
You can also explore other sensory experiences. For example, try rubbing fragrant bay leaves or lavender or other flowers and leaves in the palm of your hands and inhaling their fragrance. Feel the roughness of the bark of an old tree trunk with your hands, fingers and arms. Taste some wild berries, feeling the bitter sweetness burst onto your tongue, or try some fragrant wild herbs, such as sage, rosemary, or oregano. Notice how using the sense of taste further engages and connects you.
Open your awareness to sounds, letting your mind expand to the furthest sound, so your attention is receptive and open. And explore what it’s like to absorb this place with your eyes – not looking for anything in particular, just allowing whatever you see to touch you, letting yourself become engaged with whatever draws your attention.
Finally, check in one last time. See how it feels to be in nature with this quality of mindful attention. Try to drop below the ordinary level of observing in which you hope to get a specific experience, and simply sense into being here without an agenda. Feel into the fact that you are a part of this living, breathing ecosystem, even if you can only sense this truth for moments at a time. Reflect how with each breath, you are intimately connecting to the photosynthesizing plants, leaves and grasses all around you.
As you conclude, be aware of any shifts in your body, your breath, your heart, and your mind. Be mindful of a simple joy or sense of aliveness that may come with this intimate contact. Notice if you can hold your fears and anxieties with a bit more tenderness, a bit more spaciousness of mind. See if Nature can help you to heal.
Mark Coleman is a senior meditation teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, a trainer for Search Inside Yourself, and the founder of Awake in the Wild, which integrates meditation and wilderness retreats. He holds a MA in Clinical Psychology and is the author of three books including From Suffering to Peace: The True Promise of Mindfulness.