Awake in the Wild
I mentioned Mark Coleman’s book in an earlier post, coincidentally a few weeks ago Shambala Sun published a short piece where Coleman briefly describes how nature came to play an important role in his spiritual practice. I recently attended a daylong workshop with Mark and throughly enjoyed it – I recommend you check out his book.
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.
… 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.
… 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.