Outdoor Meditation: Let the Sunshine In
Summer is an exceptional time of year. I once heard the quote, "Life is better in flip-flops" and I thought....yep, that about sums it up.
Bare toes, long evenings, chirping birds, warm rays, the smell of sunscreen, flourishing gardens. Green green GREEN in every direction. I feel my dormant energy of winter/spring beginning to bubble up as I sense this mighty magnetic pull to get out and soak in the abundance of the season.
This is a natural energetic shift – we tend to withdraw in winter so we can restore and rest and when summer arrives, we bust out of our cocoon and want to fly around all over the place. I do, at least. This is glorious, in many ways....AND, I've noticed a pattern over the years: the consistency of my meditation practice and my inner awareness dwindle as the world outside becomes increasingly alluring. As a result, it's harder to keep up my consistent morning practice, especially when the sun is out, the bees are buzzing, and the world is my nectarine (no offense, oysters).
One of the things I've found super helpful in maintaining consistency throughout the summer is the opportunity to bring my practice outside. We have a park just across the street from our house, which is lovely, but even sitting on a porch or near an open window can offer a sense of connection to the outer world.
You might also consider heading into the woods (Mount Tabor, Forest Park or the Gorge are great local options for Portlanders). You may have heard of the newly trending Japanese practice of Shinrin-Yoku – a term that means "taking in the forest atmosphere" or "forest bathing." I remember laughing when I first heard this term – immediately picturing a bubble bath in the midst of a Douglas Fir circle. But there's actually a pretty compelling body of research that suggest that spending time in wild, natural areas has a huge range of preventative health benefits. And there's no bath tub involved. The idea is that if someone goes to a natural area and sits or walks in a relaxed way, there are soothing, rejuvenating and restorative benefits that will transpire. These include significantly lower cortisol (stress) levels, reduced blood pressure, boosted immunity, improved mood, and better sleep, to name a few.
For some, spending time in nature is considered not optional, but critical to the health and wellbeing of each individual and society as a whole. In the words of John Muir:
"Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home. Wilderness is a necessity.”
High Alpine Lakes in the John Muir Wilderness
As a Montana native and someone who spent a great deal of time outdoors as a kid, I resonate deeply with Muir's words. However, I've found that in the 10 years I've lived in Portland, it's felt more difficult to get out into the woods. Like many modern-day people, we get tangled in our daily/weekly routines and don't make it a priority to get out of the city. Even in our leisure time, there are so many awesome happenings, it's easy to commit to concerts, beer festivals, or brunch dates and forget to budget that extra hour to make it up into Forest Park. My friend Susan once said something about choices that really stuck out and is surfacing now as I write this. She said, "It's tempting to pretend that our choices just somehow happen to us." Certainly, many things happen that are out of our control, but there are also an incredible number of choices that we make each day that add up to how we shape our life. I think deciding to spend time in nature is a perfect example of this – especially in summertime. No excuses, folks!
Even with more intentional choices, I want to acknowledge that it might be hard to get out of dodge every week with work, kids, and other life obligations. I found this Psychology Today article helpful as it suggests that while being fully immersed in the mountains may offer the greatest benefit, there's still a clear advantage to sitting on a park bench or spending some unstructured time gently walking or resting in city parks. The article suggests that the threshold for experiencing the health benefits of nature is about 120 minutes per week. This could be two hours at a time, or approx. 17 minutes each day. Aha! The perfect amount of time for your meditation practice.
Whether you decide to meditate on your porch or in the midst of a lush forest, I've included a few tips below to help bring your practice to fruition outside. As is always the case with meditation, remember to bring your beginner's mind (an attitude of curiosity and willingness to not-know) and feel free to experiment, have fun, and find what works best for you. Enjoy!
Don't Make it a Big Deal
Sometimes (often?) we make things harder than they need to be. If you're going to practice outside, see if you can make it as simple as possible. For me, I grab three things: a towel, my meditation cushion, and my phone (I use the free Insight Timer app to time and track my meditations). If your phone will be a distraction, make sure you turn off your ringer and notifications or consider leaving it at home. If I'm planning to sit in the sun, I'll don a bit of sunscreen, then walk across the street to the park. I also have a camping chair just inside the front door, so on days when I can't possibly make it the full 15 yards to the park (or, um, it's raining) I'll post up on the front porch. Our brains tend to make things complicated, so if we set ourselves up for simplicity, it's harder for excuses to get in the way of our practice.
Fold Meditation Into Your Other Outdoor Activities
It's common to feel like meditation is just one more obligation on the never-ending to-do list. First, I'll encourage you to consider meditation as an act of radical self-care or self-kindness, rather than a chore. See if it can become a pocket of YOU time to take care of your brain and body. This attitude shift alone will make your practice more enjoyable and beneficial.
Piggy-backing on this idea, I've found it helpful to fold an outdoor meditation into a run, walk or hiking adventure. If you're going for a jog or stroll in your neighborhood, leave an extra 5-10 minutes for a *pause* in a park. Simply stop, sit on a bench or on the ground if that's comfortable, or you can even stand in mountain pose (feet hip-width apart, arms relaxed at your sides). You could also experiment with slow, mindful walking. If you're hiking, I often like to "pause" at the summit or any beautiful vantage point along the way where I can sit or stand for a few minutes (if you want to hike with a mindful community, check out our next Mindful Hiking Adventure). We've even taken mindful pauses at a picnic....inviting everyone to slow down for a moment and appreciate the surroundings before starting to eat. I'll tell ya, those little moments add up to make a big difference. In any length of pause, try fully engaging the moment with the suggestions in Tip #3 below.
Tune Into All of Your Senses
Let your body settle into a comfortable seated, standing, or lying down posture. You can gently close your eyes or leave them open – up to you. Right away, let your attention sink down into your body and take a few easy deep breaths, inviting yourself to fully arrive. Feel a sense of stability or groundedness as your feet or legs press into the earth beneath you.
Begin to consciously scan through the body for any obvious areas of tension, softening wherever you can. Good areas to check in with are the muscles in the brow, the corners of the eyes, the jaw, the shoulders, the hands, and the belly. Gradually begin to notice what you're experiencing internally in the present moment. Are there thoughts or emotions here? See if you can welcome whatever you find without needing to change or fix anything. Rest here, just breathing deeply, for about a minute.
Then slowly begin to broaden your awareness to welcome everything in your internal and external environment, using each sense as an anchor for your awareness:
TOUCH: Can you feel the air, breeze, or sensations of warmth on your skin? Is the ground or seat beneath you soft or firm? Can you feel your hair? If the hands are resting on the body, can you feel this contact? You could also begin to notice any areas where the body is making contact with itself – are the legs folded together? Are the upper arms resting against the sides of the body? Is the upper lip meeting the lower lip? Can you feel where the toes touch?
SOUND: Are there birds chirping? Crickets? Rustling of trees? Flowing water? What symphony is nature playing out for you to enjoy? If you're in a city park, there may also be honking horns, the whirrr of wheels on pavement, or other "manufactured" sounds. See if you can tune into this nature + city soundtrack without judgement. Let the mind rest on sounds that are far off in the distance and then gradually notice sounds that are very close. See if you can listen without identifying or labeling each sound – just relaxing and opening to all of them swirling together as fleeting phenomena, rising and fading in this space of awareness.
SIGHT: If the eyes are closed, notice if there is anything to discover at the backs of the eyelids. Perhaps colors, patterns, light or darkness. If the eyes are open, you might soften your gaze and take in all of the colors and textures of the environment. You could gaze down at the grass or earth beneath you, or you might lift your gaze to take in the trees, perhaps flowers, or even the view of a distant mountain. Another practice I love that you could play with is lying on your back and looking up at the sky (note: sunglasses are good for this one). There's something incredibly soothing about watching clouds float ever-so-slowly across the giant blue canvas. When was the last time you looked up at the sky to just appreciate it (not determine the weather)? Try it! You might be surprised.
SMELL: Are there any aromas present in your experience? At first you may think no, but see if you can be open to the possibility of smells and notice if anything arises. Sometimes more subtle smells will come alive if you really tune in. Not striving or seeking smells in any way, just resting – open and receptive.
TASTE: Are there any tastes present in the mouth? Subtle or obvious? If you have a water bottle or any sort of beverage, you might try taking a mindful sip and noticing the full breadth of taste that comes alive when you pay full attention. What does water actually taste like? Maybe you have trail mix or an orange....see if you can mindfully snack and be aware as your tastebuds take in the great pleasure that we so often glide past when we munch and multitask. Almost everyone I've ever met agrees that food tastes extra good while hiking or camping. Why? Researchers suggest that a) you're less distracted, b) you're in a better mood (positive moods are linked to enhanced taste receptors), and c) breathing fresh air and taking in nature while eating brings us back to our ancestral roots and to a deeper sense of connection with our environment.
When you practice, you can play with resting your attention on one or two senses or rotating through the whole menu. The five senses are helpful because they offer anchors for our attention in the present moment – a place where you can gently focus. When you notice your mind is lost in the "virtual reality" of thinking (planning, worrying, ruminating), just gently guide yourself back and open up once again to the rich sensory experience that's unfolding around and within you. (If you want to learn these practices more in depth, check out our next Clarity course.)
Notice S P A C E
As we move throughout a typical day, we're prone to focus on objects and stuff – the "content" of our surroundings and experience. This often results in feelings of cluttered-ness or busyness. When you learn to shift your awareness to notice S P A C E instead of stuff, you may be surprised how positively this can impact your day, bringing a sense of ease and spaciousness into an otherwise "full" routine.
It's especially nice to practice space-oriented meditation in nature. You can begin by noticing the space surrounding your body. The space that extends up off of your arms and hands, off of the front of your body, your sides, and your back. Notice the spaciousness that floats up off the top of your head. You can also notice different measurements of space, for example – the space between your two thumbs. The space between your thumbs and your chin. The space between your ears. The spaces between your toes. From here, you can gently extend your awareness, with the eyes open, to notice the space between you and objects in nature. Perhaps between you and a tree, or you and the sky. You can also explore the spaces within nature – is there space between blades of grass? Between leaves on a tree? Between the tree and the far-off mountain? Between or behind the clouds floating in the sky? Between the clouds and the sun? As you see, this practice can be remarkably expansive.
Cultivate a Sense of Gratitude
There's plenty of research out there that demonstrates how gratitude helps people develop more positive emotions, improve their health, savor good experiences, navigate adversity, and even build better relationships. I like to end all of my meditations (even the 2 minute ones) with a moment of gratitude. You can simply ask yourself – what am I grateful for today? Or, what do I feel appreciative for, right here in this moment?
Especially when I'm outside, I like to acknowledge the various elements that I enjoyed during the practice. I'll even say silently in my mind, "thank you sunshine, without you we'd all be dead...(kidding, but also very true)....thank you breeze, thank you flowers, thank you green trees and clean air, thank you space...." giving a bit of room to notice and appreciate all of the things that, just like me, are alive and existing on this beautiful day, in this little corner of the world, on this vast and remarkable planet.
About the Author
Rena is co-founder of Pause, inspiring individuals and business leaders to live more present, compassionate and fulfilling lives. She brings 11 years of personal practice, a degree in business, and professional mindfulness training through the UMASS Medical School to her work as a mindfulness coach.
Rena currently teaches weekly classes and workshops at the Pause studio, works as a Mindset Instructor at Nike, and facilitates trainings for organizations across the US. She is humbled to be a part of the modern mindfulness movement and finds great hope in sharing this journey with others.