Instructions for living a life:
Tell about it.
-Mary Oliver, poet
The beloved Mary Oliver wrote volumes of poems and prose that reflect her intentional and mindful engagement with the living earth. In her poem, Sometimes, she leaves us these instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it. In this post, I will share practical ways to strengthen the mindful attention we are called to for a flourishing life.
The number one reason people should have an awareness of nature is because they are nature. Part of the mindlessness we try to overcome is the idea that we are separate from the earth. Regardless of whether you run a Fortune 500 company, a school, classroom, or a home, you are still part of the earth, supported by the earth and contributing to a global narrative of what nature looks like, feels like, and does.
I have used all of these practices for my own well being and health, as well as share these practices with school-age and adult learners. My suggestion is to read through the list and choose one to practice for a week. Be curious and patient. See what comes from a solid practice of mindfully engaging with nature.
A helpful tip: Choose a place in nature that is easily accessible. We often get sold the idea that we have to travel far to really experience nature. Wherever you live is part of the earth! What is in your yard? What park is walkable from work or home? In mindfulness we cultivate the attitude of “start where you are.” If you are homebound, looking out your window is a start. When you are able, I also suggest bringing nature indoors through plants, driftwood, flowers, stones, acorns, or whatever may be accessible to you and not harmful if removed from its environment.
- Take a Walk with the Senses.
Choose a short path, even just circling your closest greenspace. Focus on one sense (hearing, sight, taste, smell, touch). Walk and list as many things as you can that draw your attention. You may begin to notice, as I did, that I could smell different trees in the forest. Pine is much different than hemlock! Do be aware of poisonous plants in your area and never touch wild animals, for their sake and yours.
- Find a Sit Spot.
Find a spot to stop moving. Sit or stand comfortably for a minimum of five minutes. You can focus on a sense like watching or listening. Think of a hawk waiting patiently for dinner to wiggle under the leaves. If you are fidgety or distracted, sit longer until your nervous system has time to downshift. You will be amazed at what you witness.
- Go Out in The Weather.
What do you notice about standing in a gentle rain? What do you notice about lying down in a deep snow? Bring a breathing practice with you and include it in your encounter. Be aware and use common sense. If the weather is extreme or you do not have the proper gear to keep you safe, this would not be a mindful practice.
- Grow Something or Watch Something Grow.
Are you one of those lucky few who have had a nest right outside your window? Maybe you have watched the parent birds gathering the nesting materials. Sitting day after day on the eggs, then suddenly seeing the pointed tips of little beaks silently mouthing for food? To be astonished is to be a witness to transformation and growth. To witness this, all we need to do is pay attention.
- Go Silent.
So many hikers have their earphones on, are chatting excitedly with their companions, or working through to-do lists in their minds. Begin your silent practice by centering, breathing, and intentionally moving into your time with nature silently. Leave the phone silent, off, or even away from your body. Make agreements with any companions with you about silence. Check out a similar blog here.
- Earthing: Barefoot Walking.
Our feet are very sensitive and take in lots of information. Take off your shoes and socks and stand on the earth. Bring attention to the information your feet bring into you. From textures to sensation, this practice will connect you to the land upon which you stand.
- Look for Life.
The earth is alive and living an unimaginable amount of stories all at once. Bring your attention to something alive outside. Be curious about it’s life, how it functions, it’s systems, it’s movement. Suddenly paying attention to a tiny ant can become an epic adventure story.
- Track seasonal changes.
For those folks who enjoy looking for patterns over time, keep a season journal. In this journal note or draw: 1. Location (keep it the same for each observation.) 2. Season 3. The month and time of day, 4. A few of the colors, life forms, and weather patterns you notice. This can be as detailed as you would like. Over the months and years, review these notes of attention to reveal a narrative of your observations.
9. Choose a Location & Befriend It.
This mindfulness practice asks you to be conscious of the relationship you have to place and pay attention to it. Choose a location you can easily visit multiple times. Go there with the attitude of a guest. Choose a mindfulness practice like #2 Finding a Sit Spot. Do this repetitively and see how you begin to “know” the land: it’s characteristics, changes, dwellers, etc. Also give awareness to how this practice feels to you emotionally, physically, and any other way this connection changes you.
- “Same, But Different” Awareness.
Choose two of the same thing: two trees, two stones, two blades of grass. Note to yourself things that are the same. Think color, texture, weight, even things like language or usage. Then begin to list things that are different about this lifeform. This may be difficult at first depending on your subject, but with time and attention, this list will grow.
- Photography/Video/Sound Recording
While our technology can take us out of our present moment, it can also be a frame for focused observation. When we couple mindfulness with photography and film, we can become deeply conscious of things that might go unnoticed. We also are given the benefit of reviewing and reexperiencing these natural moments. This is definitely where we can share our mindfulness with others, or as Mary Oliver states, “Tell about it.”
- Breathe with a Tree
This can be done with any lifeform in nature, but trees “breathe” our carbon dioxide and create our oxygen. Without moving your head too much, take your gaze to the top of your tree. (You may need to step away from the tree to see it without harming your neck.) As you inhale, draw your gaze down the trunk of the tree. You will reach the roots at the end of your inhalation. As you exhale take your gaze up to the top of the trees. Repeat as long as you’d like.
- Advocate and Care.
Warning: These practices may make you fall in love with the earth. If you are not already attuned to the challenges facing our earth, paying attention to will make you more mindful of them. Part of a mindful practice can be advocacy and care. Organize a clean up, attend important decision making meetings for your local environment, teach others about what you learn, care in the ways that make sense to you and do them mindfully by paying attention to how it feels, what obstacles are inside of you, and how you express your mindfulness through care for nature.
- Practice Gratitude.
How do you show your gratitude? It may be a phrase, giving a tree a hug, picking up litter, consuming less, offering a gift or a song. The practice of gratitude with nature is being conscious of your relationship to the earth.
In all of these practices, there is an innate belief that there is active life that exists without the interference of humans in the world. This consciousness in of itself is an act of mindfulness.
Outdoor mindfulness is not about the location, but how you are mindfully attuned to place. I have lived in very urban areas with few trees and still noticed the red tailed hawks’ mating dance in the sky. I have also lived on a 120 acres farm and been blind to a full double rainbow above my head. (I was so grateful for my neighbor hollering over for me to look up!)
Paying attention to the larger life experiences of the earth deepens your understanding and knowledge of your own life. By taking our mindfulness practice outdoors, we begin to see and notice things that may have escaped us before. This can include things that bring us immense joy and pleasure, as well as heartache and disgust. This type of awareness changes us. By paying attention to the world outside of us, we entangle ourselves meaningfully into the tapestry of now. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.
For more guided mindfulness practices, check out our audio recordings of our weekly community mindfulness practice called, “Connect In.” You may also want to Shop our Experiences here, where you can download additional special meditations. Follow the link for further reading on mindfulness and nature.
Caryl Church Jesseph (she/her) is a Curriculum and Education Developer and Mindful Educator with Mind Body Align. Along with 15 years of experience in public schools as a K-12 art educator, Caryl is also a certified yoga teacher, published writer, exhibited artist, and winner of the Northeast Ohio Outstanding Art Educator Award and The Carrie Nordlund Award.
Caryl earned her Master’s Degree in Art Education from Kent State University. She compliments her work with modalities rooted in storytelling, visual art, movement, play, and ecological connection. She is passionate about creating welcoming, safe, inclusive, equity-focused spaces that support people’s mindful awareness and connection to self, others and the natural world. Outside of the classroom, Caryl can often be found photographing wildflowers, writing stories, or enjoying live music.