My son has a t-shirt that says “Let the outside in,” and I found myself captivated by the outside world in just that way the other evening as I walked home. The golden hour lighting, just before sunset was a soft peach-orange color. Not just the glint of the last rays of sun on the edges of the clouds. The ambient light cast this subtle hue on everything in my neighborhood in a way I don’t ever recall seeing before. I was so struck by the color and quality of lighting, it felt magnificent, and my pace slowed as I couldn’t help but take in the unique experience. I found myself stopping, setting down the basket I was carrying, and just looking around. At that moment nothing else felt as important as just taking it all in. It was almost as if the outside world was the sole driver of my inner mechanisms and putting on my brakes to be fully present with this magnificent moment.
Living in a place like Laramie, it doesn’t take too much effort to do what my son’s t-shirt suggests . . . Allow the natural world to be your anchor in any given moment. However, even something that doesn’t take a lot of effort can still feel difficult to make space for in a daily routine. Even more so, it can be challenging to allow this to be the most important thing to pay attention to when there are so many tasks that have taken a number ahead of a few mindful moments outside.
Our modern lives, even in the allure of the Rocky Mountain West, can quickly become a series of hours and days with hardly a moment given to acknowledging the natural beauty around us, yet there is a great deal of evidence, anecdotal and scientific, for how the natural world aides emotional well-being:
- Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life - no disgrace, no calamity (leaving me my eyes), which nature cannot repair. Standing on bare ground, - my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space, - all mean egotism vanishes. (Nature (1836/1982) pg. 39)
- When we experience awe, as described in a study conducted by Lani Shiota and written about by Dacter Keltner in his book Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, “participants recall transformative experiences in nature . . . ‘I feel the presence of something greater than myself,’ ‘I feel connected to the world around me,’ ‘I was unaware of my day-to-day concerns.’ Awe diminishes the press of self-interest, and reorients the mind to interconnection and design.” (pg. 263)
- "People living closer to nature also had reduced diastolic blood pressure, heart rate and stress. In fact, one of the really interesting things we found is that exposure to greenspace significantly reduces people's levels of salivary cortisol -- a physiological marker of stress.” (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/07/180706102842.htm)
I have lived in Laramie since 1996, and I can tell you that each time I view the Laramie Valley and the Snowy Range from the state land east of town I am stopped. Immobilized. Captivated by the texture of the earth, the color of the bluebird sky we are so fortunate to frequently experience. The observation of the amount of life - human, animal, and plant that exists in our little part of the world almost immediately reorients my perspective of my sense of self (and my associated problems) with all that is around me. What recently felt so significant, overwhelming, and unmanageable suddenly slips away like a whisper amongst the greatness that surrounds us in the immediate environment.
However, it doesn’t have to be this expansive view of our geography that stops me and invites a deep breath and pause. I recall a recent ski in Crow Creek with a friend when she pointed out the tiniest of bird nests resting in a small aspen tree. We were both captivated, and an unspoken silence in awe of this delicate, yet resilient nest fell over us. For me, I was inspired by the strength in the small, the delicate in this snow-covered landscape. These pauses are brief moments of informal Mindfulness practice that have an impact that should not be underestimated.
Our culture has pervasive messages of the need to accomplish, and this is true in our time outside as much as it is in our places of employment and schools. My family and I had the opportunity to experience Forest Bathing this summer in Munich, and it was sublime. In our approximately three hours in the forest, we may have traversed about a half mile of distance. The point was to take in the depth of the natural world not the length. We were encouraged to move slowly to notice that which we would not have observed if we were moving at a typical hiking pace. We were also invited to spend time cultivating gratitude for the living organisms around us. The feeling of relaxation and appreciation was palpable across the small group of participants in this experience.
Mindfulness Practice for a time in the outdoors thanks to Carlos Ponte:
- Select a place to visit that you are comfortable with, and is as removed from the sounds of town as possible. Think Laramie River, state land east of town, or a large conifer at one of our many parks or on campus. The key is to select a spot you will be comfortable and as removed from unnatural sounds as possible.
- Give yourself permission to just be there. Maybe it is for five minutes, perhaps it is for 20. Whatever the amount of time, allow yourself to anchor on the natural sounds around you. Close your eyes if you are comfortable, and just anchor on the sounds of the natural world.
- Now open your eyes and focus on one small thing - a blade of grass, a leaf, a tree branch, a cloud, anything - and allow that to be your visual anchor until it moves. Only when this natural object moves do you change your gaze to something else again remaining focused on that object until it moves. Continue for as long as your interest holds you.
- Take a deep breath, maybe even silently say, “Thank you” to the natural world around you for the time. Slowly stand and walk back into your daily routine.