The vast majority of us live a fast paced life. We’re busy, work long hours in pressure-filled environments and perpetually operate at maximum capacity in order to pay the bills, make deadlines and meet our targets. Life is often frenetic, intensive, stressful and downright exhausting. It’s hardly a surprise that we’re seeing rates of depression, anxiety and suicide rise sharply in societies around the world.
All of us could do with slowing things down, taking a step back and, ultimately, making personal wellness a priority. Practising mindfulness and spending time in nature are two great ways of doing just that. Put them together and (for reasons I’ll go onto explore) you have an ideal combination for enhancing your well-being.
So, let’s take a look at mindfulness and nature in turn, before considering the benefits of combining the two!
Mindfulness is ‘non-judgmental awareness in the present moment’. Now, that’s a terse and uninspiring definition, so let’s elaborate a bit.
Mindfulness is a skill that shines a light on our internal and/or external worlds; to be mindful is to be aware of and accept everything that’s going on in the here and now, while remaining free of judgement, compassionately observing whatever’s there.
Unfortunately, as humans, we’re almost always locked into an interminable internal dialogue that dominates our mental experience. Physically we are present; mentally we are not. We drift hither and thither on a tide of mental activity of which we may be utterly unaware. It just happens: oftentimes, our thoughts have us- not the other way round. In consequence, true awareness of the present moment is rare.
Keep in mind that where our struggles are frequently either past or future based (ruminating over historic troubles or worrying about possible ones to come) the present moment offers some respite from it all.
‘The Now’ is a safer space in which to be mentally and spiritually situated. Thus, despite the undeniable defensive value of our ability to think and plan, our typical inability to reside in the present moment is usually to our detriment.
And this is where mindfulness comes in so handy. It is to the present moment what the remote control is to the TV. Mindfulness uncovers that internal chit chat, exposes our predominating thoughts and feelings and then prescribes acceptance and openness to whatever’s there.
In practice, this usually entails a focus on something sensory, such as your breathing, or sounds in the environment, but really it could be anything: feeling the heat of the sun on your face, the taste of the food in your mouth, or the weight of the bag on your back. There’s power in the present moment.
Though its roots stretch back all the way to ancient Buddhist practices, these days mindfulness is an increasingly common and clinically verified mental health treatment. Initially it was used to alleviate chronic pain; now it is an accepted treatment for all manner of mental illnesses, such as anxiety related disorders and depression.
Thus, taking the time to incorporate mindfulness into your routine is a fantastic way of cultivating greater well-being. If you’d like to read more about mindfulness here’s my piece on mindfulness and travel where I go into more depth about the what, why and how of it.
“The art of healing comes from nature, not the physician.”
Paracelsus - 16th Century physician
Nature has an incredible healing capacity. And, though I’m in definite danger of generalising here, I reckon most of us intrinsically know this to be true. For a life-long city dweller like me, forays into nature are veritable ‘food for the soul’. I come away from any exposure to it feeling replenished, enlivened and restored. Nature relieves the stress of city life, calms me down and pacifies my feelings of restlessness. Physically and spiritually, it helps me breathe.
And it isn’t just me! As the quote from Paracelsus shows, long have we known that nature has the power to heal; not just from a pharmaceutical perspective but from a spiritual, mental and emotional one too. Indeed, the virtues of nature have been lauded throughout history.
Think of the Romantic poets of the 18th and 19th Centuries: Wordsworth (“Come forth into the light of things, let nature by your teacher”), Coleridge (“In nature there is nothing melancholy”) and Blake (“...to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself”). This poetic celebration of nature offers insight into the importance of its role in the minds of their contemporaries.
In Alain de Botton’s brilliant book, ‘The Art of Travel’, he devotes an entire chapter to the subject of nature’s power and focuses on Wordsworth’s poetic devotion to it as a tool to demonstrate his point. Botton quotes the following section from Wordsworth’s poem ‘Lines Written a Few Miles from Tintern Abbey’:
"..[Nature] can so inform
The mind that is within us, so impress
With quietness and beauty, and so feed
With lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues,
Rash judgements, nor the sneers of selfish men,
Nor greetings where no kindness is, nor all
The dreary intercourse of daily life,
Shall e’er prevail against us, or disturb
Our cheerful faith that all which we behold
Is full of blessings."
Thus, nature augments what is already beautiful and protects us from what is less so. There can be few better ways of cultivating well-being than immersing ourselves in nature.
What’s more, the positive impact of nature is no longer just an intuitive idea, but a scientific fact.
In this great article from Lonely Planet about research into the cognitive effects of nature, it is written that living in close proximity to green space is associated with decreased mental distress and lower incidence of depression, anxiety, heart diseases, diabetes, asthma and migraines; not to mention increased heart and metabolic health, reduced stress hormone in the blood and lower mortality.
As evidenced in the arts and now science too, nature is a key ingredient in the process of enhancing our well-being.
Mindfulness and Nature
Having looked at the respective value of mindfulness and nature, let’s now look at how they might work in collaboration. What do they have to do with each other, and how might they interact in our desire to cultivate personal wellness?
Well, for me the two simply go hand in hand. Like bread and butter, they’re the perfect match. I mean, if we recall mindfulness’ emphasis on non judgemental awareness in the present moment, to be mindful in nature is surely a winning combination.
Being in nature is one thing (we’ve already seen how this has a positive impact) but to be entirely present and aware of our environment (which has positive benefits in and of itself) at the same time, is surely a way to enhance its restorative, healing effects.
Here’s another segment from Alain de Botton’s ‘The Art of Travel’ which nicely highlights this intrinsic compatibility:
“...I looked out across a field to a clump of trees by a stream. There were a host of different colours in the trees, sharp gradations of green, like someone had fanned out samples from a colour chart. These trees gave off an impression of astonishing health and exuberance. They seemed no to care that the world was old and often sad...It seemed extraordinary that nature could on its own...have come up with a scene so utterly suited to a human sense of beauty and proportion."
"...I was unaware of having fixed the scene in memory, until one mid-afternoon in London, while waiting in a traffic jam, oppressed by cares, the trees came back to me...These trees provided a ledge against which I could rest my thoughts, they protected me from the eddies of anxiety and, in a small way that afternoon, contributed a reason to be alive.”
In his beautiful description of the trees he’d seen and the ensuing surprise memory of them, Botton demonstrates the state of mindfulness he was in at the time. Without the absolute awareness of his environment in the present moment, there would have been no trees to remember in the traffic jam that was to come; no memory to protect him from the encroaching anxiety and no ledge to rest his thoughts.
Thus, in Botton’s example we see mindfulness and nature working in tandem to enhance his well-being and even, in his words, give him reason to be alive.
Wordsworth expressed much the same idea in his famous poem 'Daffodils' in which he celebrates not just the beauty of the flowers at the time they were seen, but the impact on his well-being of recalling them later:
"For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils."
Being in nature is one thing and being mindful is another; the truest benefits of nature are surely revealed when we are mindful of it. So how do we go about being more mindful in nature?
1) Slow down.
2) Make the effort to really attend to your environment.
Accomplish number one and number two becomes far more straight-forward. I’ll use the example of John Ruskin, a famous 19th century artist, to briefly elaborate on both.
“No changing of pace at a hundred miles an hour will make us one whit stronger, happier or wiser. There was always more in the world than men could see, walked they ever so slowly; they will see it no better for going fast. The really precious things are thought and sight, not pace...Glory is not all in going, but in being.”
For me, Ruskin is advocating a mindful approach to life: “Glory is not all in going, but in being.” Don’t rush mindlessly through life; strive for presence and find joy in the journey itself. By slowing down, we have the opportunity to notice, feel, see; to be present.
In nature then, don’t rush. Focus less on the objective and revel in the process; take time to sit, observe and reflect; walk, hike, swim and climb slowly, pause along the way. Take your time. And having slowed down, pay attention to what’s around you.
Ruskin was famous for ‘word paintings’- a term he coined to mean describing a scene in words as artistically as if you were painting it. Unsatisfied with overly simplistic use of descriptive language, Ruskin advocated taking the time to really note what’s seen before us; to pay heed to detail and acknowledge colour, line and form.
Here’s an example of one of his descriptions of the sky, from November 1st 1857:
"A vermilion morning, all waves of soft scarlet, sharp at the edge and gradated to purple. Grey scud moving slowly beneath it from the South West, heaps of grey cumuli- between the scud and cirrus- at horizon...Note the exquisite effect of the golden leaves scattered on the blue sky, and the horse-chestnut, thin and small, dark against them in stars."
In nature, and in life, slow down, stop and notice; and be unsatisfied with basic, mono-syllabic descriptive words; question and attend to any feelings evoked within. In this way, you’ll have an experience of mindfulness in nature and be onto a well-being winner.
To sum this all up then, in an increasingly fast-paced world, mindfulness and nature are two great ways to enhance our well-being. And, if we manage to combine the two, whereby our experience in nature is invigorated by a mindful approach to it, the potential positive impact on our well-being may be exponentially increased.
by Danny Newman
Danny Newman is a travel enthusiast with a passion for writing and inspiring others. He runs a blog called Coddiwomp, which is dedicated to helping aspiring travellers travel for the first time. Danny is an advocate of what he calls ‘Mindful travel’ and uses his background in mental health to support his writing on this subject. You can reach him on Facebook @coddiwomp and Instagram @coddi_womp.