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.
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?
Feel the difference between your idea of the tree and the rich textural experience of it. Notice the impulse to move on because of impatience, resistance, or boredom. When you feel you “know it,” what does that do to the sense of curiosity and mystery? Can you maintain interest even when you think you have reached the end of your exploration? Is it possible to fully know what a tree really is? Start to bring this curious attention to all that you meet.
Spend a period of time in a quiet place in nature to experience silence. Can you connect with the silence that is there even when there are sounds? What interrupts the experience of silence? Does being in silence create any sense of discomfort? Do you want to distract yourself from it? Does the silence allow your mind and body to rest more in stillness and quiet?
Working with Thoughts
Take some time to sit or walk in nature. Simply be as present as you can, Notice when your attention is lost in thought, and how thinking makes you less present to your environment. For a period of time, practice letting go of your thoughts as soon as they arise and returning your attention to what is happening in the physical environment. How does that affect your experience?
Letting Go of Our Stories
When you are lost or caught up in an emotional storm or contracted in self-centeredness or plagued by obsessive thoughts, notice what happens when you step outside or go for a walk and pay attention to the sky, the air, the light, the movement of wind, the feel of grass under your feet. Be aware of how the spaciousness that can arise allows a natural dis-identification with inner turmoil and a regaining of perspective.
Knowing Your Backyard
Take some time to investigate the source of your water, food, lumber, firewood. Where do your waste products go? Is the food that you eat grown locally? What are the indigenous animals, birds, plants and trees in your local area? What are their habitats, where do they nest, eat? What species, what land is currently under threat in your region? Since you are part of this chain of interrelated life, what are you doing that supports or threatens the health of that which may be in danger?
Take time to be with something you love in nature that brings out your natural curiosity and delight, It may be a wild iris, the shimmering luminescence of water in a stream, the patrerns and colors ofa butterfly’s wing. Let yourself be drawn to it. Engage your senses. Are you touched by the sense of wonder? Practice daily or weekly, spending time in nature with what most allows your heart to open. How does such love feel in the mind, body, and heart? What effect does it have on your sense of connection with the web of life?
A Day in Nature
Take a day to be alone in nature. Select a location where you are not likely to be interrupted by many people, You can divide the time between periods of contemplative sitting and gentle walks. In sitting meditation, cultivate an open attentiveness toward the present moment. You can focus on the inner experience of breathing and the sensations of the body. Or you can pay attention to the experience that arises from sitting outside—the touch of the breeze on your skin, the physical connection with the earth, the sounds of birds, animals, and the wind, and the fragrances in the air. Try meditating with the eyes open, allowing the eyes to be soft and receptive with a wide field of vision while maintaining awareness of the other senses, especially hearing.
While walking, let go of any goal-orientation. Simply let yourself walk slowly, carefully, with full awareness of the space you are walking in. Let go of any intention to get anywhere. Listen to whatever draws you in the landscape—a particular tree, rock, stream, or a vast open vista. Or perhaps a lizard or beetle draws you into a conversation. Let your senses be wide open and receptive. Give little attention to your thoughts and instead keep turning to your inner and outer environment. If you begin to feel spacey or unfocused, resume sitting meditation, centering attention upon the breath. The less you do outwardly, the more will open to you.
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