When I moved from England to the U.S., I fell in love with America’s vast wilderness and bountiful areas of natural beauty. As a longtime meditator, I had spent many years practicing indoors in meditation halls. But it wasn’t until I began exploring the natural terrain here that I began to see what an invaluable support nature can be for our hearts, our minds, and our overall well-being. Seeking this support, I have spent much of the past two decades in an exploration of the relationship between meditation and nature. This has taken me to remote places in Alaska, ancient sandstone canyons in the southwest, and the rugged beauty of the Sierra Nevada.
No matter where I’ve traveled, I’ve received valuable teachings along the way. I’ve learned how nature allows for mindfulness to develop effortlessly and spontaneously. I’ve witnessed in myself and others how contact with the natural world brings a sense of peace, greater perspective, profound joy and wonder, and a deeper connection with life in all its forms. Being in nature in a contemplative way, especially when we are alone, provides the perfect arena to explore our mind and our interrelationship with the world.
Recently, I went solo backpacking in the eastern Sierra, a place that is beloved to so many backpackers. I walked up to high-altitude lakes where barely a soul had been since the winter snowmelt and I entered a pristine realm that reflected back the purity and luminous clarity of mind. The air was crisp and clean, and the water dazzled. Spending time in environments such as these allows the mind to dwell in a spacious lucidity that contrasts with the stuffiness of many meditation halls. Of course, the mind can touch these realms of clarity anywhere, even in a New York subway, but it’s a delight to see how the natural world so effortlessly invites spacious qualities to emerge.
That said, as anyone who knows the wilderness is aware, it’s never a bed of roses. This particular trip, because of various life circumstances, I was unusually unsettled and restless. Contrary to the expression “wherever you go there you are,” my experience on that trip was “wherever I am, there I don’t want to be!” I was in a gorgeous environment—I even hiked to the naturalist John Muir’s favorite lake in the Sierra—and yet it did not stir the usual awe and inspiration I was accustomed to feeling. Instead, a pervasive dissatisfaction seemed to follow me wherever I went. Perhaps it was the relentlessly biting mosquitoes, or maybe the daily rainstorms and lightning bolts, which instilled both waves of awe and fear as I went over the 10,000-foot passes.
No matter, it was a great practice to simply allow this experience to be as it was. Regardless of where we are or what circumstances we are in, we inevitably have to show up and receive whatever this moment is presenting to us with awareness and acceptance. If not, we drag suffering around with us like a heavy backpack, thinking the problem is somewhere out there—in the rain, bugs, and other people or places. It was almost comical to watch my mind try to come up with strategies to escape to a “better” experience: “If only I’d stayed at the other lake… If only I can get to the next mountain… Yes, there I know I’d be happier.” I have now come to appreciate how being outdoors in less than comfortable conditions asks us to dig a little deeper into our resources and our equanimity, and to cut through the delusion of the mind with compassion and humor.
Having found my own outdoor meditation so fruitful, I began leading silent mindfulness retreats outdoors in 2001 as a way to allow others to experience the challenges and rewards of practicing in nature. One particular rafting retreat in Utah, we floated serenely down the milky Green River for seven days. Usually the desert landscape there is exquisitely arid, but this time, instead of brilliant sunshine, we traversed through seven days of torrential downpour. Flanked by towering canyon walls 300 million years old, there was no turning around or escape.
The choice was to open and receive or get swamped in the mind’s quagmire of complaining, aversion, and anguish. It was on that trip that I realized my waterproof clothing did not live up to its promise, so I spent many a meditation cool and damp. That was a great lesson in cultivating patience and equanimity. Despite the circumstances, it was possible to taste sublime moments of silence and mystery in those beautiful river canyons. Experiences such as these remind me what opportunities await if we can stay open amidst adversity.
Another invaluable fruit of taking our mindfulness practice outdoors is how the heart can be touched by contact with other species. When we leave the shelter of our manufactured world and are graced by seals swimming in the bay, tender fawns walking silently through the woods, and vulnerable gophers nosing their way up through garden soil, our hearts resonate upon sensing our mutual vulnerability, and the truth of our interconnectedness becomes evident. On kayaking meditation retreats in Alaska and Mexico, we often encounter pods of dolphins or humpback whales. Last year in Baja, while doing a floating meditation in our kayaks in the Sea of Cortez, we began to hear the profound breathing of a large whale.
At first, the misty spout appeared to be about a mile away. Then slowly we began to see the graceful motion of a huge whale swimming and diving, coming ever closer toward us. We were right in its path! We could make out that it was a finback, which can be seventy feet long and weigh up to fifty tons, making it the second largest species on the planet. We felt vulnerable floating in our little kayaks, waiting and not knowing where this whale would come up for air. It eventually surfaced barely a hundred feet from us, so close we could see its eyes. It is hard to describe the love and reverence that overcame our group as we got close to this magnificent being.
After you have had contact with such amazing mammals, it breaks the heart to think they are being wiped out simply for consumer products. As we all know, species are becoming extinct at an alarming rate and the ecological health of the planet is under dire threat. It is also known that we rarely take action on behalf of anything unless we love what is being harmed. When people have direct contact with the wild, whether on nature retreats or elsewhere, it becomes hard not to fall deeper in love with forests and mountains or the farmland and woods that fringe our neighborhoods. And it is this living connection that inspires the call to protect and preserve all life on this precious planet. Conversely, in this era of technology and decreasing contact with nature, it is the lack of connection and, hence, lack of relationship and care, that poses a real threat to the health of the planet.
Recently, I was teaching mindfulness and nature meditation in Big Sur to a chapter of the Young Presidents’ Organization at a hotel tucked into the Ventana wilderness. To inspire some wakefulness after a day of meetings indoors, we did a short walking meditation in the forest and then some standing meditation among an exquisite circle of coastal redwoods. The serenity and vitality of those ancient trees allowed an immediate clarity and peace to emerge, as participants left behind the mental clutter of talking and felt how their minds attuned to the natural quietude. It was obvious in that moment how supportive nature is in calling forth qualities like clarity, focus, peace, and openness that we work so hard to cultivate in meditation. What was equally instructive was how effortlessly these qualities emerged, and how little we had to venture outdoors. An Alpine trek wasn’t required. We could simply take in the presence of the woods that were on our doorstep.
The second day just happened to coincide with the wildest, wettest storm of the year. One of the things I’ve come to appreciate about outdoor retreats is never quite knowing what’s going to happen. Nature constantly reminds us that if we can just meet and accept the moment as it is, there is ease and peace. But if we resist reality, there will be suffering, as surely as the cart follows the ox.
In this case, whatever grand plans I’d prepared for outdoor meditation had to be overhauled in the face of seventy-mile-an-hour winds and falling tree branches. Instead, we practiced hearing meditation, listening to the relentless fury of the howling gale. It was the perfect anchor into the present moment—the ideal way to find the still point in the center of it all, rather than being pulled into the fearful scenarios the mind wanted to create. This event wasn’t deep in the wilderness, and it was another reminder that we don’t need to go far to glean wisdom from nature. The natural world always surrounds us and we can learn from it wherever we are.
Even in cities we cannot ignore how nature is always teaching us about interconnection, selflessness, and impermanence. We are never far from the changing seasons, the waxing and waning of the moon, or starry nights reminding us of a vast universe. Our houses are made from forests; our clothing is made from wool; and even this magazine was once a tree with roots deep in the earth. Even the water we drink, coming from faucets and pipes, was once ocean, lake, rain, mist, iceberg. And—as we are 70 percent water—we too are rain, mist, and mountain stream. Trees that line city streets grow in eccentric ways, completely exposed to the elements. They teach us how to live life in graceful surrender, to wisely yield to the moment, and mature in beautiful ways.
It’s important to inhabit the senses in order to incorporate nature into daily practice. The senses are always in the present moment and so to bring awareness to them can awaken joy, wisdom, and gratitude. Thich Nhat Hanh invites his students, even in war zones, to go outside at night and smell the herbs in the garden as a way to wake up to the preciousness of this unique moment—and we can learn to do the same. How many moments pass us by when we could appreciate the fresh, crisp morning air, sunlight dancing on the water in the park, the delicate leaves rippling in the oak trees, or the soothing sounds of rain?
As a way of consciously using the support of nature, we can practice cultivating wholesome states of mind by simply turning our focus to the ever-beckoning beauty and vitality of the natural world. We can let the natural world draw us into the preciousness of the moment through our senses and, thus, away from our restless thinking mind. Each day, you can practice bringing awareness to one of the five senses as a portal into the present. Consciously take time to look at the life-giving buds and blossoms emerging on the trees in spring. Listen to the birdsong of hardy, wintering birds in the morning. Smell the freshness of the air after rains moisten the earth. Sense the softness beneath your bare feet as you walk on spring grass. Nature reminds us that this moment is always precious, alive, and abundant. It invites us to wake up, to be here for this fleeting, magnificent display, to appreciate, love, and protect, and then to let go as blossoms fade and grasses wither, and trust in the vast cycles of life that are constantly revealing themselves.