Practicing Mindfulness in Nature

Going into the wilderness refreshes the mind and body
By Caitlin Standish

After just two days in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, my body has already begun to reset.

When the sun sets shortly after 8pm and the sky begins to darken, I start to prepare for bed. I am awake when the sky lightens at 6am, pulling on my jacket to face the cool, damp morning.

I have decided to head up to the Sierra high country for a few days of camping, hiking, and relaxation. After hours of driving on long twisting mountain roads, I find a secluded spot perched above a creek, in a valley dotted with granite cliffs. Sitting and drinking tea at my quiet campsite that first night, watching the mountains turn pink with alpine glow, I can almost feel my whole body exhale. The stresses and concerns that have been at the forefront of my mind for the last several weeks seem to recede. I am more attentive to what’s going on around me – the cascading sound of the creek, the chill of the night air, the moon rising over the mountains. When two other campers join me and we begin to talk I notice that I am more relaxed and quicker to smile than I have been in awhile.

Remembering to Forget the Inessential

Despite having spent a large portion of the last eight years bringing young people into the wilderness for extended trips, I can sometimes get so caught up in “front-country” life that I forget how powerful and important spending time outdoors can be. So many unseen forces seem to pull me to my computer and phone – email, work, bills, family requests… Just a short trip is enough to remind me to re-prioritize so that I can spend more time in the wilderness.

Recently, when I told a former co-worker that I help lead wilderness retreats for iBme, he asked, “What is the advantage of practicing mindfulness outdoors?” To me the answer, though not always easy to verbalize, feels intuitive and simple. Much like a residential meditation retreat, the wilderness removes distractions like television, smartphones, and the internet, from our grasp. Additionally, we can align ourselves more with our instinctive human rhythms – sleep when we’re tired, eat when we’re hungry, rest under the shade of a tree when we’re hot. These things sound so basic and yet how often do we not really pay attention to our bodies or listen to what they’re trying to tell us?

When I really think about it, I think one of the most important things about being outside is that it forces us awake. Unlike air-conditioned cars or cozy houses where we can turn up the thermostat, we don’t get to have control over temperature and comfort. We are forced to be present with our discomforts and this, I think, can help us to be more present. Many of the things that allow us to numb out, not feel, and distract ourselves, are absent. Instead we can be there for the whole range of emotions and experiences that arise – the warmth of the sun on our skin, the crisp iciness of an alpine lake as we wade in, the delicious fullness that comes from a simple meal after many hours of physical activity, the sharp bite of a mosquito, the wincing pain of a tender blister, or the incredible feeling of slipping into a comfortable sleeping bag after a full day.

The Three Day Reset

Recently, a flurry of books and magazine articles have touted the benefits of time spent outdoors – on our brains, our mental health, and our bodies. Here’s a snippet from the article, “This is Your Brain on Nature,” from National Geographic speaking to the idea of “involuntary attention:”

“Attending to the stimuli in peaceful, natural environments – trees, flowing water, mountain shadows…doesn’t require a prolonged effort or an act of will to avoid distractions. Researchers say this kind of focus allows the brain to disengage and restore its capacity for directed attention.”

In the same article, University of Utah cognitive psychologist David Strayer talks about what he calls the “three-day effect”:

“Our brains… aren’t tireless three-pound machines; they’re easily fatigued. When we slow down, stop the busywork, and take in beautiful natural surroundings, not only do we feel restored, but our mental performance improves too… the three-day effect… is a kind of cleaning of the mental windshield that occurs when we’ve been immersed in nature long enough.”

Getting back into my car after my three-day trip I notice this renewed sense of mental clarity and ease. My body is sore from a long hike, yet my mind is peaceful. I drive the first hour of my journey in silence, looking out at the trees and the valley below. I know that when I re-enter the San Francisco Bay Area and hit a wall of traffic this “wilderness glow” will start to fade. Remembering the idea of impermanence and change helps. Remembering that the wilderness is there for me to return to helps as well. Taking a walk in the park or the open space near where I live – even if it’s 20 minutes or an hour instead of a few days or a few weeks still makes a difference. For now I’ll turn off my computer, go outside, look at the stars, and go to sleep to dream of granite domes, cascading creeks, and clear skies. That helps too.

Caitlin in the wilderness of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

About the writer: Caitlin Standish has worked for iBme in multiple roles including Retreat Manager, Outreach Coordinator, and Wilderness Logistics Coordinator. She has spent the last eight years leading teenagers and young adults on extended wilderness trips in Joshua Tree, the High Sierra, the Colorado Rockies, the canyons of Utah, and the North Cascades for Outward Bound and other outdoor programs. An avid rock climber, backpacker, and cyclist, she is passionate about protecting the West’s wilderness areas and passing her love of the natural world on to the people with whom she works.