I’ve been practising mindfulness for many years. I just didn’t realise it.
It started out of laziness. When riding a favourite trail on my mountain bike I came to a locked gate and feeling pretty worn out, I decided not to immediately lift my bike over and keep going. Instead I breathed a number of slow, deep breaths and allowed myself a few moments to just take everything in. After all, I was surrounded by beautiful bushland, singing birds and a whole lot of other stuff that it is hard to fully appreciate when racing down a rocky trail. Following a short, refreshing break I lifted my bike over the gate and went happily on my way without too much extra thought.
On my next ride I stopped at the same place and did the same thing. Gradually, this little ritual became an essential part of my ride. Each time I would perform a kind of sensory audit, taking in all the smells, sights and sounds that surrounded me. Over time the breaks became longer and on those occasions when another rider happened to appear at the gate, I’d get secretly annoyed at them for stuffing up my serenity.
Years later I found out the thing I was doing on my biking breaks was a kind of ‘mindfulness’. Sure, it was a basic, self-taught/accidently stumbled upon variety, but it was nice and I liked it.
When all of a sudden mindfulness became a hot trend, I discovered there were devotees practising mindfulness in all sorts of ways and all sorts of places. Apparently, you could practise mindfulness at home, at the office, in a special studio or even floating about in an isolation tank.
But could any of these places really be as good as nature? Could sitting under ceiling tiles and fluorescent lighting be any match for being under a big blue sky with a bright sun and parrots streaking across it? I very much doubted it, but to put it to the test I conducted a little experiment using my own self-concocted technique.
Sensory audit 1. My home office
The first thing I notice are the lights on my wireless router (yay, it’s working again). I then hear the noise of the fridge (was it always that loud?). I look across at the kitchen and there’s a bin I need to empty and dishes I need to put away. I decide to close my eyes, lest I see more jobs that need to be done. Suddenly, the printer comes to life, startling me a little. I hear a clunk and a whirr and as I breathe in I smell toner on warm paper, which I strangely like. The air around me is hot and humid and my skin is sticking to the vinyl chair, which feels slightly uncomfortable but also brings back nostalgic memories of childhood summer road trips. Upstairs I can hear someone pounding away on a jogging machine. I imagine they are frantically running away from an evil pot plant. For the next few minutes I change tack and attempt just to focus on my breath and the feeling of my chest slowly rising and falling. After a few deep breaths my mind is no longer racing as fast as the jogger upstairs and as I keep breathing I notice the tension across my rib cage is slowly ebbing away. I sit quietly for a few more minutes, noticing that eager part of my brain which is urging me to get up and take out the bin.
Results. It definitely took me a few minutes to get settled. A lot of the sights, sounds and smells that surrounded me were of an uninspiring man-made variety. Some were pleasant and some just reminded me of work. It was only once I started drawing my attention to my breath that I started to slow my mind and gain a peaceful, restful feeling. I realised that home office mindfulness was possible, but it did require an adjustment to my self-concocted technique of simply taking in what was around me. With a little more discipline, focus and practise, I could enjoy the benefits of mindfulness even on those cold, crappy days when I don’t feel like going outside. Rating: 7/10 (potential for higher score with more practise)
Sensory audit 2. The gate on the trail
My heart is still pounding hard and I feel my pulse bouncing through my head. Warm air fills my lungs and as I breathe in I smell eucalyptus and dry earth. On the soles of my feet I feel the indent of the pedals and in my legs a slight lactic acid sting. I take off my helmet and a bead of sweat rolls down my forehead, falling precariously close to the path of a determined ant that’s carrying a leaf three times its size. All around me an almost deafening chorus of cicadas rises and falls, drowning out the sound of everything but the raucous cockatoos that fly overhead. Scanning the trees, I also see rainbow lorikeets, three kookaburras and in the distance a pair of brightly coloured king parrots. When a gust of wind blows through the treetops, it cools my skin and sends a butterfly floating sideways. I look back at the leaf-carrying ant and marvel at the little fella as he makes his way up a large rock. I spend a few more peaceful minutes just deeply breathing in the fresh air, totally absorbed in the world around me. Then a fly goes up my nose…
Results. I experienced a real natural euphoria, feeling alive, at one with the world and slightly awestruck by all the wonderful creatures around me. My brain wasn’t skipping off in six different directions and until the fly went up my nose, the whole experience brought on a feeling of calm. Still, if mindfulness is about focusing your attention, having a fly buzzing around in your nostril will certainly have this effect. Rating 9/10 (10 without the fly)
A simple, effective antidote to modern living, with a cool Japanese name
Unfortunately, many of us don’t get a whole lot of nature time. We commute from apartment block to office tower and spend our spare hours in cafes, shopping centres or crouched in front of electronic screens. Our stressful, fast-paced existence takes a high toll on our brains and leaves little opportunity for recovery.
In one of the world’s most urbanised and technologically advanced nations, nature is now being used as therapy. In Japan, the practise of getting outdoors and walking slowly through nature is known as shinrin-yoku or forest bathing. Studies show the practise can boost mood, reduce stress hormone production and increase feelings of wellbeing. A spot of forest bathing can also have positive physical effects, lowering heart rate, blood pressure and boosting immunity.
Another great benefit to forest bathing is that when you tell someone you practise shirin-yoku they will undoubtedly be intrigued and impressed. Shirin-yoku is after all, a really cool sounding word. If you do want to impress people, remember “I’m just stepping out for a spot of shirin-yoku” sounds infinitely cooler than “I am going down the park to stare at some ants”.
5 tips for amazing shirin-yoku
1.You don’t need to be a black belt
One of the best things about practising mindfulness in nature is that you don’t have to be a master meditator with highly developed skills. By simply getting outdoors and taking in all that’s around you, you can start to step back from all the complexities and distractions of the man-made world and enjoy feelings of real tranquillity, vitality and peace.
2. Try not to get annoyed at others for stuffing up your serenity
I admit it. It’s not very mindful of me to wish other people would just go away and I clearly have a few more steps to go before I become completely at one with the universe. Hopefully with a little more shirin-yoku, I’ll be heading in the right direction.
3. You may have to hand in your cool badge
Growing up I knew that being a birdwatcher was one of the uncoolest things you could ever be. So now, I must admit it – I’m totally uncool. Yes. I like watching birds. I love the colours of a rainbow lorikeet. I get a thrill at the call of a whip bird. The other day I saw a powerful owl, got quite excited by it and called my mum.
4. Find your happy place
Find somewhere in nature that fills you with a sense of wonder and awe and make sure to visit it regularly. Many of us spend so long trapped in a concrete jungle that we lose touch with the earth and the positive feelings it can inspire.
5. Move slowly
The idea of shirin-yoku is to slow down from the go, go, go of your modern life. Move at “gallery pace” taking in each piece of wildlife like a work of art. Of course, if you see a snake or a hungry bear it’s okay to run – exercising in nature is also known to have positive mental health benefits.
Further reading: Can Trees Heal People? By Florence Williams for ideas.ted.com
This Is Your Brain On Nature by Florence Williams for National Geographic
The Japanese practice of ‘forest bathing’ is scientifically proven to be good for youby the World Economic Forum