Feb 25 2011
Most of the world’s environmental problems can be attributed to one underlying fact: As a culture, we’ve become disconnected from nature. We have lost the sense that our physical and psychological wellbeing is dependent on the wellbeing of the planet. We’ve forgotten that we can’t live in a bubble or a box and thrive, while the world “out there” withers. Healing of the planet cannot take place separate from the healing of our psyche, which means that we need to learn how to relate to the land and non-human species in a way that’s fundamentally different than the way we’re relating now.
One of the ways we’ve disconnected from nature is we’ve disconnected from our natural, animal self. We don’t consider ourselves part of nature, but above it, separate from it, superior to it. We think that controlling nature, not just on the outside but also controlling our own animal bodies and minds, is progress. Fighting aging is progress. Being able to work at a desk 40 to 60 hours a week without having to worry about what our body needs or wants is progress. Converting resources into wealth so we can live unencumbered by illness or unpleasantness is progress. But this so-called progress is leading us headlong into an systematic collapse.
I wrote my book Contemplative Hiking because I was inspired by the transpersonal and healing aspects of having a contemplative connection with nature. Fifteen years ago I was going through a personal crisis and was feeling overwhelmed by my problems. I took a day off from work and headed up to the mountains to do a little hiking by myself to get away from everything. On that hike, as I looked out at the mountains and felt a quieting of my soul, I realized something about myself and about life—that there was a timelessness that was greater than my small ego, greater than my worries and anxieties. I felt a peace and connectedness I hadn’t felt for years. It was this experience that convinced me that by being present, and by tapping into the sacred aspect of nature, one could have transformative moments of clarity.
Many people achieve that oneness and presence through meditation. I believe in the benefits of meditation, but I’m not one who particularly enjoys sitting for long periods in a quiet room, on a cushion. Cultivating presence and mindfulness, I felt, doesn’t always have to take place on a cushion. It can just as easily take place out in a meadow or forest, as long as you have the right state of mind. It really starts with intention. I hiked hundreds of miles on dozens of trails in my life, but it wasn’t until I went hiking with a solid intention to be open and mindful and actually listen with my soul to what the land had to tell me that I had a moment of profound connectedness and communication. Staying present is challenging in our modern world, with all the distractions of technology and man-made objects and sounds. It’s easier in nature, on the trail. It’s not automatic—you have to work at it—you have to slow down and really LISTEN. You have to go back to the breath, or back to the trees, or the sound of the wind or the birds. In nature, the world around you is your breath. It is your constant to which you return to quiet the mind.
There are emotional and psychological benefits to cultivating a regular contemplative practice in nature. You don’t have to be a hiker to do this. You can cultivate this taking walks in your neighborhood every day. You can do it while gardening. You can do it taking care of animals. It doesn’t take special equipment or any skill. It does take patience (with yourself) and time. When you spend long periods of time, over many months, in the same natural places, being present and mindful, you become attune to not just natural rhythms but you become more familiar with your own rhythms. You can recognize recurring emotions and not get swept up by them, but just ride them out like a boat rides out a storm without falling apart. Your sense of intuition sharpens. You become a keener observer of life, of people, and of patterns. Spending time in nature teaches you about your own resilience and abilities, too. You see how animals survive harsh conditions and manage to lead free and joyful lives, and you reflect on your own values and what you need to be joyful.
The best thing about having a regular contemplative practice in nature is that there’s always a place to go, literally or just in your mind, where you are taken out of your ego self and into a realm that holds beauty and timelessness. It is a way to experience transcendence and peace, and it’s there for you any time of the year at any hour of the day.
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