A walk in a park or a forest is an ideal opportunity to experience the spring awakening with all your senses. A meditation teacher suggests a way to approach it.
“Mindfulness is the miracle by which we master and restore ourselves. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child – our own two eyes. All is a miracle.”
Thích Nhất Hạnh, “The Miracle of Mindfulness” , trans. Mobi Ho, published by Beacon Press, 1975
What is the most effective meditation practice? The one you follow every day – or at least aspire to make part of your day. I encourage anyone learning to meditate to create a personal ritual out of their practice. It is worth lighting a candle or burning incense, and sitting on a cushion to allow the speeding train called ‘Everydayness’ to halt for a moment; to hear the silence; to experience the regenerating impact that a moment of relaxation has on our body and mind.
The good news is that this can also be achieved without any props. You don’t have to wait for an ideal moment to start this mindfulness practice. It is spring, so use this time and try to meditate, even during today’s walk.
Here are some meditation exercises that will allow you to combine the pleasure of being close to nature with the benefits of mindfulness practice.
1. To the rhythm of your breathing
Breathing is our most natural and effective mechanism of self-regulation. It connects the body with our thoughts. Mindful breathing is the foundation of meditation, regardless of the tradition you follow.
Observe your breathing during your walk today. What is it like? Does it flow freely or does it encounter any obstructions? Observe it for a while without interfering with it. Now start to synchronize your breathing with your steps. Recognize your natural rhythm: How many steps does your inhalation last? And your exhalation? Breathe to the rhythm of your steps for about 20 breaths. Next, try to extend your exhalation by one or two steps while the inhalation remains unchanged. Again, repeat 20 breaths following this method. Any success? Try to add an extra step to your exhalation and repeat another round of 20 breaths. Then take a break for a few minutes. You can repeat these exercises a few times during one walk.
2. As slow as possible
Walking meditation helps us to find pleasure in a walk. The aim isn’t about getting to a particular location, but the walk itself. If you tend to rush as quickly as possible from one place to another without paying attention to your surroundings, this practice will be challenging for you.
In the first quarter of an hour, try to walk as slow as possible. Start your walk by getting acquainted with your breathing. Observe it for a while, what it is like, and then try to stay mindful of your breath till the end of the practice. Straighten your back to allow your breath to flow freely. Then concentrate on your body: what do your hands, stomach, back and face feel like? Turn your attention to your steps. How do you place your feet on the ground? What does it feel like when they touch it?
Once you have become attuned to your body, take your focus outwards. What does the world look like when you experience it in slow motion? Try to notice all the details that normally escape you. At the end of this practice, you can imagine that every step you take is a kiss offered to the earth. Walk in this way for a while longer.
3. One flower
During your walk, choose one flower (or a leaf, a twig, a blade of grass). Sit down and give yourself time – for example, 10 minutes – to observe it carefully. Focus and do not allow anything to distract you. Observe as much detail as you can, trying not to take anything away from the beauty of the flower.
Like with all of today’s exercises, remember to breathe mindfully. Become aware of your muscles, especially your facial muscles, and notice if you tense them unconsciously. Are you able to fully succumb to observing the flower while staying in touch with your breath and your body?
4. A pebble
This immensely pleasurable exercise comes from one of my favourite teachers, Thích Nhất Hạnh, the author of many simple meditations in the spirit of Zen Buddhism. I recommend them especially to those in urgent need of relaxation and release.
Stand still, breathe slowly, and imagine that you are a pebble falling to the bottom of a crystal clear water stream. Let yourself fall until you touch the soft sandy riverbed. Continue meditating until your mind and body become completely quiet, like a pebble resting at the bottom of the stream. Stay still for half an hour and observe your breath. No thought about the past or future can distract you from the present moment. The universe exists in this moment.
5. A sensuous walk
Walk slowly and breathe mindfully (following the first exercise). Add another step: observe everything that surrounds you. Pay attention to colours, shapes, distance, light and shadow. Give yourself a moment to fully absorb everything that surrounds you. After a while, return to observing your breathing.
Now it is time to use another sense and focus on what you can hear: the chirping of birds, the hum of the street, the sounds of a conversation, the rustling of clothes. Catch as much detail as you can and then return to mindful breathing. Now turn to what you can smell. What scents can you identify? Fresh grass, wet earth, exhaust fumes? After a moment of observation, return to your breath.
Now concentrate on the sense of touch. You may feel any objects around you and sense their texture. Don’t limit yourself, expand this experience: How do you experience the clothes touching your skin? How do your feet feel when they touch the ground? Allow yourself to experience the sense of touch fully. Afterwards, return to observing your breathing.
It is time for another experience: the sense of taste. Take a moment to notice what your taste buds are sensing. Perhaps you have brought along a cup of warm tea on your walk.
To close the exercise, allow yourself to fully experience it. Are you able to combine all sensual experiences into one, and add mindful breathing and awareness of your body to it? It is not easy to do for the first time, but with every consecutive practice your experience will become more profound.
How to practise mindfulness
Even one mindful walk through a forest will bring us relief and revival, but regular practice brings the best results. Choose one of the above exercises. Try to practise it every day for a week. Observe its impact on you and then follow the remaining exercises. It is a good idea to take brief notes on how you feel before and after each practice.
What to turn your attention to
During meditation practice, it is very important not to generate any tension in your body and breathing. When you work with your breath, allow it to flow freely. It doesn’t matter if the length of your breath lasts four or 20 steps today. Don’t force anything. If you work with your body, try to relax it only as much as you can on a given day. Another important thing to bear in mind is observing yourself without judgement. It is one of the greater challenges for beginners and that is why it is best to remain patient from the start.
Don’t get frustrated if at the start of your practice your muscles are still tense or you cannot sense anything. Body mindfulness can be achieved by taking small steps. See what you can allow yourself to do on any given day. Your regular practice will be best enhanced if you are understanding of your own needs and curious about what might happen. Practise meditation in such a way that it becomes relaxing and pleasurable and not a source of guilt.
The aim of the exercises described above is to develop mindfulness through concentration, awareness of breathing, and bodily presence. Enhancing our mindfulness makes it easier for us to be present here and now, and so to experience every moment in a fuller and deeper way. For our body and mind, it is a source of great relief that we all desire in our modern times. Any other benefits? It improves concentration, brings calm, reduces stress and improves the quality of our sleep.
Relaxation is only a starting point, necessary to experience greater calm, clarity of mind and a deep connection with one’s own heart. Everyday situations are a potential source of stress and tension, but mindful experience of these situations can turn this into a benefit by becoming a step towards achieving inner peace. Coming into mindful contact with ourselves is often a groundbreaking experience in our lives. Thanks to it, we can live through and savour every day anew.
Translated from the Polish by Agata Masłowska
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