On a rafting meditation retreat on the Green River in Utah, we glided effortlessly and silently through sandstone canyons—their walls ablaze with vermilion, crimson, and gold. Carved from the desert landscape, these cliffs are a testament to deep time, having existed more than 300 million years. After being in this terrain for several days in meditative silence, participants commented on how the stillness of the desert had brought about a quiet mind, become a deep presence in the body, and encouraged contemplation of the mystery.
Nothing supports the opening of the heart and mind like the beauty, tranquillity, and silence of the natural world. For centuries meditators have discovered the human potential to awaken in the temple of nature; that’s why many monasteries and meditation centers are located within the depths of forests and jungles.
When we meditate in nature, we bring a receptive presence to the natural world. It comes alive—and so do we. We no longer look at nature as an inert or pretty object, but as a living and breathing world of mystery and sensitivity, a realm of wisdom and learning that is always whispering its teachings to us. By watching the resilience of pines swaying in a storm, the patience of silkworm as it threads its way slowly skyward to a high branch, or the busy cheer of songbirds living simply in the present, we learn from nature’s innumerable metaphors about how we too can live well.
After many years of intensive meditation retreats in Europe and Asia, I came to the United States and spent a lot of time backpacking in the wilderness. Falling in love with the Sierra Nevada, I began experimenting with meditation in the crisp alpine air. I quickly discovered how natural it was to meditate surrounded by the elements. I noticed that I was more wakeful and alert and, at the same time, open, relaxed, and spacious. I saw how easy it was to fully embody the senses, which created a deep calm. I realized what Patanjali, author of the Yoga Sutra, was pointing to when he wrote, “The mind can be made steady by bringing it into contact with sense experience.”
After some years of exploration, I began to share the lessons, gifts, and joy I’d received outdoors by leading wilderness retreats. In these courses, we follow the ancient practice of yogis meditating in the forests of India and the Himalayas and experience the fruits of that contemplative relationship to nature.
I start with meditation practices that turn our attention inward. I do this to train our attention to remain centered in the present moment through, for example, a mindful asana practice, or by focusing on the breath or on body sensations.
Once attention is collected into the present moment, we open our attention progressively to include our senses. We start with hearing—being present to the coming and going of sounds (like birdsong, the wind, or waves) but without getting lost in thinking about the source of the sound. Next, we include the sense of touch—feeling the earth under our feet, the caress of the breeze on our skin, the prickliness of dry grasses, the tickle of bugs and flies. Last, we incorporate the experience of seeing, of using the awareness of the visual field—not to get lost in what we are looking at but rather to use seeing as support for presence.
After many years of practicing and leading retreats outdoors, I see clearly that mindfulness—the capacity to be present—becomes more accessible when we bring a contemplative attitude to being outdoors. Ajahn Buddhadhasa, a renowned Thai forest meditation master, called this “natural samadhi,” a state in which attention becomes more effortless. We struggle less. We become less hypnotized by our habitual tumble dryer of thoughts and are drawn instead to the aliveness of the present moment: the sound of the wind in the trees, the solidity of the earth beneath our feet, the warmth of sunlight on our face.
On the Utah retreat, the effect nature can have was obvious. People arrived tired and stressed. But it was clear that, after only a couple of days, nature lured people’s attention away from the endless dramas of the small self and into a quiet, contemplative presence where they became immersed in canyons that seemed older than time itself.
Cultivating a meditative awareness outdoors can also heighten sensitivity, bringing about a sense of wonder. One day Joanne Flemming, a Buddhist teacher, was meditating in a forest in the redwoods when she felt a tickle on her hand: A small spider had woven a delicate web between her fingers. “Though wary of spiders, in meditation I felt a rare and exquisite intimacy with this little being,” she says. “I felt touched at being considered a part of nature, suitable to make a home on. And yet at the same time, I knew I would shatter its home and our intimacy when I moved my hands. What intimacy, delicacy, and destruction! The touch of grace as delicate as a spider’s thread.”
You don’t have to be out in the wilderness to experience nature. Sandra Masters, an architect in Detroit, counteracts the fatigue of big-city life by spending time in her rooftop garden. “The moment I feel the spring nip in the air, I head upstairs to my garden and immediately feel a smile on my face,” she says. “Slowly, I focus my attention on the birds and the smell of the earth, amidst a chorus of sounds from cars and construction. With fingers in the soil, I get in touch with being part of the cycles of nature, and the stress begins to roll off my shoulders. After only a few minutes, even the man-made sounds of human existence don’t bother me. I begin to see myself as one part of the city that’s held in a much bigger web of life.”
Just as the earth holds the imprint of our steps, we too can be “impressed” by the environment. Let nature rub off on you! Contrast the effect on your body and soul between watching the cresting of aquamarine waves rolling into shore and staring at a flickering screen. Feel the difference between listening to the sound of a creek trickling over cool rocks and spending the day at the mall. We are more affected by our landscape than we might believe. Expose yourself to nature’s healing influence as often as you can.
Unlike our mind, our body and senses are always in the present. Being present in nature makes it much easier for us to inhabit our body and the realm of the senses. Unlike our temperature-controlled houses, the natural world entices our senses to wake up. When we step outdoors, our skin receptors enliven as we feel subtleties of temperature and breeze. Our hearing becomes sharper as we listen to nuances of birdsong, silence, and the rustling of leaves in a forest. Most of all, our eyes become captivated by the beauty, texture, and sheer diversity of color, shape, and form.
As we learn to inhabit our body outdoors, we have greater access to joy. As John Muir, the avid naturalist 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.”
On a recent kayaking retreat in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, we were silently meditating in kayaks when a blue whale surfaced nearby. In that quietude, everyone remained perfectly still. The whale continued to feed and play for about half an hour. We witnessed up close its beautiful spout, elegant body, and magnificence and mastery in the water. It was a once-in-a-lifetime intimate encounter magnified by our stillness. Our inner quiet had allowed the rapture and sacredness of that experience to penetrate deeper. In a world where we are bombarded with so much negative news and environmental tragedy, it is essential that we learn to stay inspired, to keep our hearts buoyant and minds bright, so we are not pulled into hopelessness and inaction. Nature nourishes the soul, and the more present we can be to it, the deeper we can drink from her well and, refreshed, bring positive change into the world.