Mindfulness in Nature: How to Really Soak It In

BY  EJ Taylor TIMEAugust 26, 2022 PRINT

Our brains are like sponges. Throughout our lifetimes, we process an infinite number of images, sounds, smells, tactile signals, and a huge array of emotions. From before birth to the moment we die, the brain’s gray matter is growing, changing, adapting, and processing. Each of the billions of neurons in the brain sends multiple impulses each second—a truly phenomenal feat. There are times when this constant input and processing of information can feel completely overwhelming and we feel close to burn-out. There are times when we can no longer cope.

Years ago, I was invited to listen to a choir that a friend belonged to. After an explanation about the effect of sound on the human psyche, the audience was asked to sit in silence for two minutes and listen to their surroundings. It was then that I realized the “silent room” was full of noise. I could hear the buzz of the overhead strip lights, the sound of my breath, and my heartbeat in my ears. There was so much sound to fixate on that some of it was quite annoying.

A World of Textures

Nature provides us with sounds that relax us. Nature has actually been proven to reduce blood pressure and make people feel at ease. The colors green and blue make us feel calm and unflustered—no surprise, as these are the colors that dominate in nature. Green doesn’t jar your senses like bright yellow or red; it evokes images of forests and grassy meadows.

Going on a walk or a bicycle ride all too often involves focusing on the exercise (in my case, how much my joints ache and how much longer I can continue before needing to be carried by some poor, unsuspecting passerby). Often, the “right here, right now” of being in a natural environment loses its impact.

Recently, after years of not cycling, I found myself on my bike, smiling as I pedaled. I was traveling at a leisurely pace and thoroughly enjoying the sensory input of the experience. The warm breeze made the wheat in the fields on either side of me sway and rustle, the evening sky was turning orange, and I could hear birds singing. I felt elated by the time I returned home, albeit a little achy and sweaty. I had made a point of focusing on the environment around me, not on the act of getting from point A to point B.

Dear friends in Japan showed me how to really take in the environment around me. While living there, I was honored to make the acquaintance of a wonderful couple who “adopted” me as their extra child. I had always considered myself observant, but they showed me how to really look, to interact with my surroundings, and to soak everything in. I was encouraged to use all my senses: to bend down and feel the soft, spongy moss, to touch the rough, cracked tree bark, and to focus on the sounds and smells around me. I really did feel like their child. I was being taught how to observe, all over again.

It’s amazing to think that so quickly, we lose that sense of wonder about the living things around us. As a nature lover, I was struck by the irony of it all. It felt as if my eyesight had grown dull and then suddenly sharpened.

Years later, I learned that this was the very Japanese phenomenon of shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing.” Studies conducted in both Asia and Europe indicate that “immersing oneself in nature using one’s senses” can reduce mental health symptoms such as stress and anxiety. It’s also reported to have beneficial effects on the immune, respiratory, and cardiovascular systems. We are a part of nature, after all; we have evolved to be in it, to sense it, to interact with it. No wonder we feel good when we’re embraced by it.

Exercise Your Senses

Next time you are out and about, take a moment to stand still and really listen. What can you hear? The wind in the trees, perhaps, leaves rustling, branches creaking, the sounds of insects chirping or small animals snuffling around in the undergrowth.

Years ago, a friend and I were on a quiet forest walk in Armenia when a single dry branch snapped somewhere in the near distance. At that point, I broke out in a cold sweat and felt slightly nauseous—was it a wild bear, or was I going to be forced to reenact a scene from the 1972 survivor thriller film “Deliverance”? I’d take being mauled by a bear any day. Everything turned out fine in the end, but in all seriousness, it’s good to have a friend close by when you’re lost in the moment of soaking in nature!

Playing with perspective is another interesting way of appreciating nature at a new level. Lying on the ground may seem like a strange idea, but looking up at the clouds and seeing the underbelly of birds flying overhead is a whole new experience. Lying down also allows us to take in the musky smells of the earth and feel so many different textures, from springy mosses to dry, spiky grass.

It’s all there for the taking. Go out and wrap yourself in it.

EJ Taylor is a UK-based environmental biologist, entomologist, and teacher with over 20 years of experience in working internationally. Taylor holds a fascination for the natural world and the relationships between species. Of particular interest are the effects of the natural environment on human well-being, mental health, and cognition. When not surrounded by nature, Taylor can be found creating artwork, cooking, pottering in the vegetable garden, or traveling (sometimes on a classic British motorcycle).
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