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Natural Awakenings Dallas -Fort Worth Metroplex Edition


Mindfulness in Nature

Mindfulness is a way to stay present in the moment we are in, letting go of distracting thoughts and being open to our surroundings. It involves being aware of and paying attention to whatever is happening here and now. When practicing mindfulness in nature, we put the phones and ear buds away. In such an outing, nature is not a backdrop for other activities, it is the main attraction.

Of course, thoughts will come up, and they tend to take our minds into the past or future with worries or plans. If we are sitting in the woods and something occurs to us about an appointment tomorrow, we can notice it and then bring ourselves back to where we are sitting among the trees. Even if we cannot “empty our mind” of all thinking,we can try not to get stuck in those thoughts.

A similar practice is called forest bathing (in Japan the term is shinrin yoku). It involves spending time in the forest, immersing oneself in the experience of trees, soil, water and wildlife. Forest bathing emphasizes staying in the present moment, just as mindfulness does.

Many forest bathing practitioners emphasize very direct, multisensory experiences. They may recommend walking barefoot to increase contact with negative ions in the soil as well as for the tactile stimulation to the soles of the feet. There are invitations to dip our hands or feet into water and to find and follow scents in the air. Deep breathing exercises are recommended, partly to maximize our absorption of the essential oils given off by trees. Research studies show that these phytoncides boost the activity of our immune system.

All of these practices are good for us. Considerable research has looked at how time spent in nature helps reduce stress and depressive symptoms, as well as bringing cardiovascular and other benefits. According to biologist Edward O. Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis, we have an inborn attraction to living things, so that being within forests, wetlands and other natural areas nurtures us.

The practice of mindfulness has been shown to enhance our capacity for empathy and relationship skills while being helpful for pain, depressive thinking, stress and attention span. Many studies have looked at the benefits of forest bathing, including reductions in the stress hormone cortisol and increases in the functioning of our immune systems. 

The bottom line is that nature makes us feel better and function better, especially if we spend that time immersed in the experience and staying in the present moment.

Michael Smith is a naturalist, nature educator, a retired psychological associate and the author of Mindfulness in Texas Nature.