Article Summary. This article reports on the design and results of two pilot mindfulness-based outdoor workshops intended to broaden awareness, sharpen observational skills, and strengthen our sense of love and caring for other beings and their habitats. Participants were offered exercises to cultivate different modes of attention. They learned about ecosystem qualities and conservation values of a local nature sanctuary, practiced detection of human traces on the land, and enjoyed the power of stillness that accompanies aimless wandering. The workshop concluded with a sharing of experiences. Participant feedback was used to design a monthly series of immersive nature workshops that may be offered in the future.
I volunteer as a land steward for the Kawartha Land Trust (KLT), a non-governmental charitable organization that acquires and protects ecologically-important properties in southeast Ontario, Canada. Recently I conducted two pilot workshops at a KLT nature sanctuary to introduce people to practices for deepening our connection with nature. Sixteen participants engaged in mindfulness-based methods intended to broaden our awareness, sharpen our observational skills, and strengthen our sense of love and caring for other beings and their habitats.
Our goal was to experience the ordinary magic of sense perceptions, and ultimately to provide support for sustained environmental action. We applied different modes of attention, learned the habitat types, species, and conservation values of the sanctuary, practiced detection of human traces on the land, and enjoyed aimless wandering and the power of stillness. We concluded with a sharing of our experiences.
Notes from the Day
As a long-time meditation instructor and Buddhist teacher, I know the challenge of offering the heart of Buddhist teachings to the public within a workshop setting aimed at helping them connect with the phenomenological world in an entirely secular way.
To my delight, I saw that the natural world holds great power to settle and open the mind. Practices presented, which I call “attention training”, were quickly understood and applied by all participants, only one of whom had any prior experience with meditation. The key element or ‘hook’ is the engagement of all senses with resident nonhuman beings – bird, plant, insect or mammal – and to feel the earth, stone, water, wind and sky. We trained them to practice bare attention, in an alternating inward and outward breath-like movement. The focus was panoramic, oriented not to ‘objects of meditation’ but to a full-sensory immersion in life as movement and process.
Most participants reported that these practices quickly led to relaxed and joyful states of mind.
As any meditation instructor or practitioner knows, meditation is not about learning a new skill but rather becoming familiar with and cultivating inherent qualities of mind. The workshops once again brought home the lesson that nature in all its complexity and vitality can provide an environment with great power and immediacy to support these practices.
I speculate from experience that the magnitude of this power is directly correlated with the richness and overall health of the natural environment. Healthy natural spaces cultivate an awareness that is deeper and more in tune with who we fundamentally are as beings of this Earth. In this respect, the main teacher in these workshops is the land and life of the Kawarthas.
The Kawarthas, or “sparkling waters,” an Anishnaabe word literally translated as “land of reflections,” are a glacially-formed landscape of numerous lakes and rivers, wetlands, marsh, cedar swamps, hills, with both hardwood and conifer forests and patches of agriculturally-rich limestone plains. KLT owns or manages over 33 properties in this bioregion totaling about 5,300 acres. They are bordered on the south by the Oak Ridges Moraine, and on the north by the Canadian Shield – exposed bedrock of red and black Precambrian granite formed over one billion years ago. Here is the home to the world’s second largest glacial drumlin field – a corrugated, forested land of interconnected rivers and lakes enjoyed as a canoeist’s paradise.
A number of First Nations communities in the region hold reserve land in the middle and southern areas of the region. They engage in habitat restoration and other conservation activities to reclaim and enhance their traditional hunting and harvesting rights. Evidence of human habitation and land-use by indigenous and settler peoples can be found on KLT properties. Stories of earlier human use captivated the workshop participants, providing another way to engage with the land.
Several recommended an enhanced workshop, with more details on geology, ecosystem types, resident species, successional processes of plant communities, as well as indigenous and settler histories. Such knowledge adds to the subtle joy of watching the sky traced by a swallow’s flight, smelling the wind wafting through meadow grass, tasting a sprig of yarrow, listening to a Robin, or lying on the ground to sympathetically feel the movements of a jumping spider (experiences reported by participants).
Calling on the natural world to help people settle down and connect is challenging. The extreme heat and humidity of the first workshop in July shortened our planned seven-hour stay. While not life-threatening, the heat reminded us of our comfort in enclosed, climate-controlled spaces, not to mention well-padded chairs. Particularly for those unaccustomed to meditation, it’s rather pointless and somewhat aggressive to suggest becoming comfortable with discomfort when soaked in sweat and swarmed by mosquitoes.
In contrast, the ideal weather conditions of the second, late September workshop allowed us to remain outdoors comfortably for the entire seven hours. This led to deeper relaxation and a feeling expressed in our closing circle that no one wanted to leave. To me, this was a further reminder of our earth-sprung nature. Having worked to abandon the macho attitudes of my earlier wilderness backpacking years, and experiencing aches and pains in battles with the meditation cushion over two decades, I am sensitive to the importance of basic physical well-being in developing beneficial states of mind. Clement weather is a good example of the need to start where people are.
More fundamental to feeling unconnected to the natural world is our old friend, duality. Working with this deeply ingrained habit of thinking and perception that situates an observer here and an observed over there is the core work of most meditative paths. Just as an intimate relationship is a powerful way to work with duality in the human social world, engaging with the world’s nonhuman inhabitants in a more intimate way can reduce the feeling of separation from the natural world.
There are some deceptively simple ways to do this. When most humans enter nature, the usual pattern is to slam the car door in the parking lot, strap on boots or skis, and go charging down the trails. Experienced trackers tell us that this creates a shockwave of birds flying off and mammals diving for cover. This bolting for safety occurs before most of us are even aware.
One of the core practices in the workshops is the simple act of moving quietly and slowly into an off-trail area, then sitting down while holding still for at least 30 minutes. This allows
time for birds to return to their territories, and for mammals to relax with a new but quiet and unthreatening presence.
One notices that the life being observed is observing us back! Then, we may feel, depending on our projections, a sudden sense of delight, curiosity, consternation, or even shock. These brief glimpses, like catching the attention of another human at a party, can be initiatory moments that, with practice, can deepen into relationship over time.
Returning to the same spot day after day develops a deepening familiarity between us and other beings. As they relax, they reveal more and more of their lives. These flashes of mutual awareness, this echo chamber of attention can cut through our feeling of separateness. And, just as a friend’s attention to us deepens that relationship, an increased acceptance and recognition by other beings can deepen our connection with them. Our love and desire to protect the natural world becomes palpable.
Here is a ‘Word Salad’ response offered by participants: peaceful warm quiet connection living musical soundscape breezy bright encompassing spiritual ecosystem playful gratitude curious spider diverse tranquil slow tactile mellow ancestral inquisitive organic entropy.
May we all be granted more time to wander, more time to connect, and more time to love and protect our world.
Note: Numbers above have been corrected for Kawartha Land Trust’s properties and acreage.
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