‘If you will stay close to nature, to its simplicity, to the small things hardly noticeable, those things can unexpectedly become great and immeasurable.’ Rainer Maria Rilke
Staying close to the small things hardly noticeable – this is one of the gifts of children, to be enraptured just as much by an ant cautiously making its way across a slippery leaf as by a magnificent sunset which lights up the sky. If we try to approach nature from an intellectual level, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. Nature exists on scales which can be difficult for us to comprehend. There are the infinitesimal dimensions of the elements which make up a single cell, and then there is the vastness of space which we can’t really understand. Geological time moves over tens of millions of years, and some insects only live for a few hours. There are more microbes in a teaspoon of soil than people on earth. For so many aspects of nature, the human scale is either too large or too small.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons why as humans we sometimes want to place ourselves apart from nature, leading to a sense of disconnection. Our education often encourages us to approach life intellectually, trying to make sense of the world through ongoing learning. Yet as Albert Einstein said,
‘The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.’
Mindfulness can help us to feel more connected by allowing ourselves to simply be present with the experience of being in nature. The Japanese call this shinrin yoku, forest bathing, and they have developed therapeutic ‘forest bathing’ centres where trained guides assist people to be more mindfully present in a forest. We can develop our own ways of ‘forest bathing’ by turning down the volume of our thinking mind, being aware of the vitality of our bodies through our senses, and engaging with our environment with openness and curiosity.
Even ten minutes of being in a natural environment such as a garden or a park can make a positive difference to our sense of wellbeing. Our mind and body will thank us for looking at flowers or trees instead of a screen. As Rabindranath Tagore said,
‘The butterfly counts not months but moments, and has time enough.’
Those moments of feeling connected with nature can also become our ‘time enough.’
For the next week, set the intention to connect every day with nature in a way you hadn’t done before. One day it could be taking notice of any trees in your area, the next listening for the birds, another time going for a walk at lunchtime. Notice each time how this feels.
‘Komorebi (Japanese)– the interplay of the light and the leaves when sunlight filters through the trees’.
How delightful that the Japanese have a word for the play of sunlight in a forest! Regardless of where we are in the world, when we stand in a forest, the light has a special quality to it. There are also the sounds of nature – complex sounds which our bodies enjoy hearing, unlike the mechanical sounds of much of city life. Trees give out chemicals called phytoncides, which they use to fight of pests and diseases. Just being near trees means we’re also breathing in phytoncides, which has been shown to increase the activity of our natural killer cells in the immune system. Our bodies are biological systems, and for most of our evolution we lived in close connection to the natural world. It makes sense that we find being in nature relaxing and restorative, and through mindfulness we can deepen this experience even further.
One of my favourite mindfulness practices is called ‘walking outside with awareness of the senses.’ I often include it on retreats or in workshops, and it is very simple, but can be quite profound. We simply spend twenty to thirty minutes walking outside by ourselves, tuning into our different senses. We use sight to look at the landscape as a whole, or the softness of the tips of branches against the sky, or the delicate detail of a single leaf. We hear the sounds around us – birds, the wind, sometimes insects, or a falling branch. We notice the ground under our feet as we walk – the softness of grass, the different feel of a path or stones, the way the ground is undulating. At times we may feel a gentle breeze against our face, or the warmth of sunlight on our skin. I invite people to use their sense of touch to explore the different textures of leaves, bark, stones or grass. Smell, of course, is one of our most powerful senses, and highly evocative. When we close our eyes, we may find that our sense of smell is finer, and picks up the scents in the breeze as well as stronger scents like a rose or eucalyptus tree. And sometimes we can also use our sense of taste, if there is something which is safe to eat.
When we walk outside in this way, with a sense of discovery and delight, we notice how rarely we look at something closely, or are really present within it. As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it so eloquently:
‘The wonder is that we can see these trees and not wonder more.’
Set aside twenty minutes to practice ‘Walking outside with awareness of the senses.’ It could be in your garden, a park, or out in nature. What do you notice, when you are present in this way?
In both the Buddhist tradition and in the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course, the practice of cultivating mindfulness starts with developing greater awareness of our body. We can sometimes think of meditation as something which happens in our head, and we might get quite caught up in the imaginary battlefield of our mind, where thoughts are not ‘behaving’ in the way we’d like them to during meditation. And yet, thoughts are only one aspect of our experience. There is also our body – the physical presence of the body, its position in space, and where it connects to the ground or chair. Our body is also how we interact with our environment, particularly through the felt experience of the senses – what we see, hear, smell, taste and touch. We’re constantly receiving information through our body – about its physical needs, our emotional state, and how safe or unsafe we feel in a particular environment. It is a treasure trove of information, when we tune in and listen to it.
How we relate to our bodies is closely linked to how we relate to the rest of our lives. Valuing our body only if it lives up to some imaginary standard of weight, measurements and beauty is like valuing a little girl only when she is dressed up as a princess once a year. It is the ordinariness of the little girl, with all her emotional turmoils and mud-covered knees and fighting with her siblings which is precious, not some fantasy ideal which is unobtainable. Our bodies are also ordinary, and sometimes bear the scars of our life experiences, and yet, when we tune into our bodies with friendly presence and curiosity, we can feel in a sense that we have ‘come home.’
There are complex reasons why being present in our body might not be straight-forward. Our cultural upbringing may value thinking above body experiences, or have given us negative messages about our bodies. We may have had adverse experiences which could be triggered when we tune into our body. We may simply feel that we’re too busy to pause and tune in – that there’s no point when so much else is calling out to be done.
Sometimes it helps to start small – to notice the breath flowing in and out a few times, or the sensations in the soles of our feet as we walk down the corridor, or the breeze on our face as we step out the front door. A guided body scan meditation can be helpful, such as the one on this website. Most of us have a complicated relationship with our body, yet slowly becoming more present within it, and developing friendliness towards it, can help to reduce some of the anxious insecurity we can be prone to in our modern lives.
Mindful practice idea:
Think of a small practice which helps you feel more present in your body. It could be tuning into the breath, or noticing the contact between your body and ground, or going outside and feeling the wind against a skin. Each day, spend a couple of minutes tuning into your body in this way.
‘He says he has learnt, especially with depression and anxiety, to shift from asking “What’s the matter with you?” to ‘What matters to you?”’
In his wonderful book ‘Lost Connections: uncovering the real causes of depression – and the unexpected solutions’, journalist Johann Hari introduces us to the work of Dr Sam Everington from the Bromley-by-Bow Center in East London. In addition to the standard treatment available at any GP clinic, this center also is a hub for over a hundred volunteer groups. When a patient with anxiety or depression comes to see a doctor at the clinic, they may be prescribed anti-depressants, but they will also be advised to participate in one of the volunteer programs. The doctors call it ‘social prescribing’, and have found it to be remarkably effective.
One such program at the clinic was to turn a nearby wasteland full of weeds and broken equipment into a beautiful garden filled with flowers and vegetables. A group of twenty volunteers, many of whom had been socially isolated for years, were supported by a staff member to clean up the area and start learning about plants and seeds. They talked about how they wanted to park to look, discovered through trial and error what worked and what didn’t, learned about being patient and working to nature’s rhythms, and gradually saw an ugly unloved area turn into something valuable for the local community. They spent hours outside in the sun and fresh air, and slowly began to form connections to others in the group. As they worked, locals walked past and thanked the group members – who had often spent years being shut away and feeling useless – for their work. They met in a cafe after each gardening session, and discovered similarities in their stories as they slowly began to share them, at a pace which felt comfortable to them. One member was homeless, and others in the group lobbied the council until they found housing for him.
The participants in the program discovered two kinds of connections – connections to other people, and connection to nature. Yet what was important for the participants, at least initially, was the prescription by their doctor, and the support of a staff member. For someone with severe depression or anxiety, it may not be enough to be told – ‘just go out and find something to keep busy with, you will feel much better.’ This approach may work for those on the milder end of the spectrum of anxiety and depression – and we’ve probably all had the experience where we felt like collapsing on the couch but got busy with something enjoyable instead and felt much better for it. Yet when the condition is more severe and long-term, some skillful support is required while the participants start to slowly rebuild connections and develop their resilience and strengths.
An increased sense of connection is often described by people as one of the benefits of mindfulness meditation, and over the coming months we will explore the themes of disconnection/connection, drawing on Hari’s book and the work of others as well as our own experience, and discovering how consciously cultivating connections might help to gradually enrich our lives.
Mindfulness practice idea:
Set aside ten to twenty minutes with a pen and notepad, and finish the sentence ‘For me, connection means…’ and keep writing. What emerges from this? Another time, you may also like to start with the sentence ‘For me, disconnection means…’
So far we’ve looked at joyful mind and nurturing mind, which were two of the mindsets which the Zen master Dogen Zenji recommended for the monks in his monastery.The third one he called ‘magnanimous mind’. This is the mind which contains everything – all our experiences, thoughts and feelings, the various aspects of ourselves. In Buddhism it is sometimes called the ‘big sky mind’, which, like the vast sky, is always there, even when obscured by clouds at times. It encourages us to be present to the full range of experiences, instead of saying metaphorically ‘I don’t like rainclouds, I only like fluffy white clouds and warm (but not too hot!) sunshine.’
The magnanimous mind invites us to take a wider perspective rather than getting constantly bogged down in the minutiae of everyday life. Paying close attention to detail has its place, but we can find ourselves getting caught up in the proverbial storm in a teacup, where a more open perspective may have helped us to see the issue from multiple viewpoints, offering us a lot more information to work with. This can lead us to consider a range of options to respond to a situation, rather than jumping to conclusions too quickly.
Meditation encourages us to rest in both perspectives, sometimes simultaneously, other times separately. At times, we may pay close attention to some body sensations, or thought patterns, or the sounds around us. At other times, we may rest in a sense of open, spacious presence. In our daily life, we also tend to vacillate between the different states, and we may find ourselves out of balance at times. Perhaps we’re a bit too dreamy, and could benefit from becoming more grounded in the tasks which need to be completed. Other times we may be very conscientious with our obligations, but neglect the aspect of ourselves which might yearn for a sense of something greater than ourselves.
The joyful mind invites us to take notice of the aspects of our lives which are precious, and which can increase our sense of wellbeing and joy. The nurturing mind asks us to take good care of our environment, our self, and our relationship – those aspects of our lives which keep us grounded and feeling cared for. And the magnanimous mind helps us to also live with the sense of an expanded perspective, the deeper, more open part of our lives which are always present. Dogen recommended these three minds to his monks hundreds of years ago, but they can also support us in our modern life, as qualities to remember as we go about our day to day life.
Mindfulness practice idea:
Each week, choose one of the three minds, and aim to incorporate it into your daily life in a way which feels helpful for you. In the fourth week, use what you have learnt, and incorporate all three minds into your life.
‘Watching over water and over grain, shouldn’t everyone maintain the affection and kindness of nourishing children?’
Dogen Zenji, in his ‘Instructions to the Cook’
Last month we looked at joyful mind, the first of the ‘three minds’ which were recommended by the famous Zen master Dogen Zenji for the monks in his monastery. The second mind he called ‘nurturing mind’, or parental mind. I think of it as the mind of ‘taking good care’. Dogen was the leader of a community, and he wanted to encourage a culture where people took care of each other rather than expected to be taken care of. The monks in his monastery would have been very serious about their meditation practice – after all, to become a monk requires a significant amount of sacrifice. It’s easy then to be focused on ‘my meditation’, ‘my gains’ and ‘my progress’. Yet Zen has a strong focus on community – for everyone to take good care of each other and of the buildings, grounds and belongings. Dogen was asking the cook to watch over the rice not as a task to be completed so that dinner could be served, but with the ‘affection and kindness of nourishing children’. The same would have been true of the many other daily chores around the monastery – washing clothes, sweeping the hall, raking leaves, cleaning the toilets.
How would it feel to bring this nurturing mind into the everyday aspects of our lives? To bring affectionate attention to folding the laundry, paying a bill online, filling up the car with petrol? We can bring into our day either an underlying attitude of slight impatience, or else of kindly presence. This sounds simple, but in fact reveals a lot about our basic approach to life – whether we’re holding back a little, or are really prepared to commit ourselves to being fully present.
‘The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath.’
This famous speech by Portia from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice is about mercy, but we could also apply it to nurturing mind. At its best, nurturing mind is quiet and gentle, nurturing the soil of our lives with little moments of affectionate presence. While it requires a certain amount of intentionality, it’s not about trying too hard (straining) to be nurturing. Next month we will look at what Dogen called the ‘magnanimous’ mind, which is like a container providing a context for joyful and nurturing minds.
Mindful practice idea:
Pick an everyday physical task such as tidying, cleaning and so on, and for a week, experiment doing this task with either slight impatience, or affectionate presence. Do you notice a difference, and how does it feel?