Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, the Avery Brundage Collection, B65D4, used with permission.
Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, the Avery Brundage Collection, B65D4, used with permission.

In the wilderness of the Rainbow Trail at twilight, silence reigns. On this silent backpacking and meditation retreat I am leading deep in the red rocks of Arizona, a small group of men and women have been walking and camping under the steady presence of Navaho Mountain for seven days and seven nights. Immersed in winding sandstone canyons 650 million years old, we have been alone except for occasional visits by curious ravens. Now the retreat participants are returning from spending twenty-four hours alone. As we sit around the campfire, the moon rises slowly above the sheer canyon walls, casting shadows and animating wizened faces in the rock.

Since I began leading meditation retreats in nature, I’ve observed again and again what a profound sense of peace people feel when they spend some meditative time outside in the forest or in open meadows. The power of the natural world encourages us to let go of our habitual mode of being, which is usually self-centered, acquisitive, and endlessly seeking something outside of ourselves. The everyday thinking mind, with its restless concerns and perennial planning, begins to calm down. The body feels more at ease, and the heart slowly opens and resonates with the peace of the natural world. On wilderness meditation retreats, people taste the depth of intimacy it is possible to experience with nature, themselves, and their community.

Nature teaches us simplicity and contentment, because in its presence we realize we need very little to be happy. Since we are part of the animal kingdom, our senses are naturally more alive in the outdoors. The rustle of leaves or the rapid flight of birds could indicate the presence of a mountain lion or bear. Hiking in places where we are not the only predator helps us understand that all of life is intimately interwoven and that we are a part of that web. Meditation training, on the other hand, provides the tools to steady the mind so we can be open to receive the jewels of nature. Through meditation we learn how to work skillfully with thoughts and emotional patterns that interfere with simply being able to rest wherever we are, with full presence.

The following are some exercises to help you connect with the natural world in a meditative way.

Beginner’s Mind
Take a walk and let yourself be called to a particular tree. Stay with the tree awhile to study, look, feel, smell, and sense it. Listen to it as wind rustles its branches. Bask in its shade in the midday sun. Get to know it at different times of the day and in different seasons. How is it connected with life around it? How do you get to know it, and which senses do you use?

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