Never have humans been so dislocated from nature as we are today. For most of our existence, whether as hunter-gatherers or farmers, our lives have depended on the natural world. Understanding the subtle signals of other animals, the cycle of the seasons and the growth of crops were an assumed part of human survival.
Compare this to what passes for a completely normal day today: 8 hours in an office, shop or industrial park, an hour or two commuting by car or train, more hours spent on TV/social media/gaming. In a matter of just a few hundred years – the blinking of an eye in evolutionary terms – most of us have moved from creatures engrained in the very fabric of nature, to beings so profoundly disengaged that we mostly have no idea about the origins of the food we eat, clothes we wear or homes we live in.
Of course the industrial and information revolutions have delivered massive benefits. But our rapid, collective alienation from nature and shift to our current way of life has come at a price. A yearning to recapture elements of our more natural past are implicit in many green initiatives with their emphasis on organic, raw and whole foods, local produce, natural fibres and so on. A wish to find balance for our hyper-agitated lifestyles is helping propel the growing interest in mindfulness and meditation.
I believe that combining mindfulness with immersion in nature offers a powerful counterbalance to the challenges of contemporary, urban living. When we practise mindfulness in nature:
1. We come back to our senses – what neuroscientists call ‘direct’ mode, as opposed to the ‘narrative’ mode when we are focused on our own inner narrative. In familiar environments like our home, office, car or public transport, we are much likelier to be focused on our thoughts, slipping onto autopilot to perform routine tasks. But moving into a natural setting we are much more likely to be tuned into what we can see, hear, smell and feel. Sure we may get caught up in our thoughts again, but something will happen – a gust of wind, a spray of sea – and we are returned to the here and now.
2. We are powerfully reminded of our connection to nature. Abiding in nature, the restrictive, separate self we often assume ourselves to be in everyday life, falls away from our focus. The truth is that we are part of nature, as it is of us – only most of the time we are so distracted we don’t recognise the basic reality of our inter-connectedness.
3. Focusing on what is happening around us, we are put back in touch with the rhythm of the natural world. Instead of the schedule, deadlines and imperatives of our 8 – 5 life, we observe the birds, animals, insects and plants operating according to the timeless principles of our own primordial past.
4. When this happens, we find it easier simply to let go and be in the present. All else in the natural world is operating in this moment, here and now. The observable, natural world isn’t based on ideas like ‘I’ll be happy when …’ or ‘I wish it was Friday!’ There is only this moment, now, whatever it may be. When we are in nature, it’s easier to feel a part of the ever-changing present
5. It’s also easier to feel more alive. If we’re not dulled by the conflicting demands and imperatives of our work and families, or caught up in thought about the future and the past, when we can focus vividly on what is here and now, we quite naturally come to recognise the extraordinary world in which we live. Things may not have changed, but we see them through new eyes. There is a vitality and freshness to our subjective experience.
6. Our awareness of the fragility of so many life forms, how their very survival hangs, moment by moment, in the balance, quite naturally awakens our compassion. Instead of focusing on the problems we personally may be facing, we cannot but become aware of the far greater existential challenges faced by other beings with whom we share the world.
7. In so doing, we come to recognise our own extremely good fortune. With a very much broadened perspective, we return to our own lives with a fresh appreciation and feeling of gratitude for the great many things we take for granted.
David Michie is the internationally best-selling author of a number of books about mindfulness, meditation and Buddhism. These include the non-fiction titles Why Mindfulness is Better than Chocolate, Hurry Up and Meditate and Buddhism for Busy People, as well as his popular novel series The Dalai Lama’s Cat. His books are available in 25 languages in over 30 different countries. He is a meditation coach to both secular and Buddhist audiences, and a cofounder of Organisational Mindfulness, which caters to the corporate sector. David holds a doctorate in Communications Strategy.