Walking with Awareness in Nature vs a Walking Meditation
There are several types of walking meditations and all of them offer valuable benefits. The more common ones instruct you to focus on the breath, and/or repeat a mantra and/or be aware of each step as you pick up your foot and put it down, or to pay attention to the present moment, etc. What they all share is some kind of focused attention to help you practice staying fully present in the moment.
I’d like to talk about how to walk with awareness in nature. While doing this is often meditative, it is not the same as a walking meditation. Its purpose, specifically, is to reconnect you with nature and to reawaken and heighten your senses. So rather than turning your senses and awareness inward to a one-pointed experience, you are focusing your attention and awareness on your surroundings with the intention of becoming more observant.
The Simple Act of Going for a Walk
Most of the time, when we’re walking, we’re lost in non-stop thoughts, including thinking about where we need to go and what we’ll do when we get there. Or we’re on our cell phones texting, talking, listening to a podcast or music. We’re basically doing anything but being fully where we are. Think about it. When was the last time you headed out the door to go for a simple walk outside and left your cell phone home? When you did nothing for the whole walk but pay attention to your surroundings?
How to Walk with Awareness
Seems as though we shouldn’t need instructions on how to walk with awareness, but most of us are so out of practice that it can be intimidating. To start, yes, leave your cell phone behind. At least in the beginning. Because the temptation will be too great for most people. It won’t be long before you can’t help yourself and you’ll be fishing your phone out of your pocket.
Expect that for at least the first few walks, your mind may race with thoughts about not having your phone. You’ll think of all the people you should call, or what if someone important is trying to call you. You’ll think about all the emails and texts you should answer, all the notes you should be jotting so you don’t forget, and so on and so on. Use each of these thoughts and urges as a cue to stop walking, take a deep breath, and look around you as though this is the first time you’re seeing what you’re seeing. This simple act of being aware in the moment will transform your walk into the beginnings of a meditation experience. When you notice your attention has become distracted again, simply stop walking and fully take in your surroundings.
In the beginning, it’s helpful to remove as many of the barriers to entry as you can. For instance, if you don’t have woods or fields nearby to walk in and you’d have to drive to get to some, just start by walking out your door and heading down the street. The goal, in the beginning, is simply to get outside and walk for as little as 10 minutes every day. Rain or shine. Five minutes out and five minutes back. Just start getting into the habit. It won’t take long before you’ll be looking forward to doing this.
Once you’ve firmly established that habit, then make the time to transition somewhere where there are trails in the woods or fields in a quiet area and extend the duration to 20 minutes a day. Of course, you don’t have to stop at 20 minutes if you want to keep going. You can walk for as long as you like. But you do want to work up to a minimum of 20 minutes a day to get the maximum benefit of being outside.
Choose a location where you feel safe and where there is a minimum amount of human-made disturbances. Greenery is important. And quiet is important. In the practice of activating all your senses, you don’t want car noise or masses of people and buildings or asphalt to be the main objects sensed. You want to be able to hear the birds, feel the breeze on your skin, smell the leaf litter, feel the tree root that you just stepped on through your shoe, etc.
At the beginning of your walk, take a moment to stand still and start with a few deep cleansing breaths. Set the intention of leaving the rest of your life behind for the duration of the walk. It’s just you and nature for the next 20 minutes. If you’ve brought your phone, make sure to silence it. Walk at a leisurely pace. We’re not rushing, because there is nowhere to rush to. We are already at the place we’re meant to be. Continue to be aware of your breath. How it feels being inhaled and exhaled. How the body moves with each breath. And let yourself start to become enveloped by a sense of well-being.
Retraining Each Sense
In the beginning, it’s helpful to think about walking with awareness as a kind of treasure hunt. You’re going to get to rediscover long-lost gifts that are innate to each of us: clear senses. There is so much to be seen, heard, felt, smelled, and tasted in every moment that is only revealed when we are fully in that moment.
As we walk, we’ll be working with each sense individually. We’ll also spend time taking in as much as we can through all our senses at once. If you notice yourself becoming distracted, simply come back to your breath and how your body feels standing upright on your two feet. That will quickly bring you back to the here and now.
You can cycle through each sense in any order that you like. Some people like to start with seeing or hearing because those are the two senses we already rely on the most, so there’s a familiarity there already. Some prefer to start with a sense they feel least aware of. The order doesn’t matter.
We tend to think of touch as something our hands do. And while our fingertips do carry more nerve endings than anywhere else on our skin, our entire skin surface is a sensory organ equipped to feel touch. Since your fingers are already skilled at touch, rather than start with your hands, start by focusing on what your feet are sensing from the ground you’re standing on. What do your feet tell you? Then place your attention on your face and what it is sensing. Sun on your face? A slight breeze? What does your face tell you? How do the clothes on your body feel? Heavy, soft, scratchy, tight, loose?
Then reach out and touch something with your hands. Perhaps the bark of a tree or a rock on the ground. What do your hands tell you? Lean your back against a tree. What is your back telling you? Savor the feeling of each object you’re touching and let each touch sensation convey its full information. Next, do the same exercises with your eyes closed. Notice if you get different information.
Walk on for a while and stay with this awareness of acute, heightened touch.
Seeing is something most of us take for granted. So much so that we’re not aware of how much we rely on pattern recognition to auto-fill the answer of what we’re looking at within milliseconds of a glance. We see half a lamp in a room and our brain will automatically fill in the other half to see a whole lamp, because that’s what we expect to see. We quickly see a person and make an assumption about who the whole person is.
Because we are constantly dealing with visual overload, and our job from a survival instinct perspective is to determine friend or foe in an instant, that means we’re only going to focus on what we consider to be the key objects in a room (or outside) based on what can help us (we like it) or hurt us (we don’t like it). Everything else gets lost in the sauce. We don’t tend to focus on what’s neutral in our lives, because it doesn’t kick up survival instincts. It’s neither going to hurt us nor wind up being our mate. It’s just superfluous sidelines. We’ve been trained to focus on the action in the room that we feel we need to pay attention to and quickly gloss over everything else.
The trick now is to choose to consciously slow down and really see what you are looking at, without automatically filling in the blanks. To see something in its whole and in detail as though it is the first time you’ve ever seen it. Close up and far away.
To start the practice of seeing, choose one object to start with and really look at it from where you stand. Then get up close to it and notice it in detail. Then get even closer. Do this with a variety of objects individually and then focus on seeing the landscape as a whole. Notice what this kind of observing makes you feel and what it tells you about the object you’re looking at.
Walk on for a while and stay with this awareness of acute, heightened seeing.
Shhh! What do you hear? Focus all your attention on your sense of hearing. It’s helpful to first start with your eyes closed. Take a moment and listen. How many different sounds you can pick up? What have you become of aware of hearing that you didn’t hear a moment ago? Let yourself be drawn to each sound you hear. Isolate it and focus on it. What is it telling you? How many sounds can you identify? If you hear a bird, do you know what bird it is? If you hear the wind through the trees, can you tell the type of trees from the sound the leaves make? Can you tell how near or far a sound is? In the midst of listening have you forgotten that you can hear the sound of your own breath? Can you hear any other body sounds?
Let’s take hearing to the next level. Stand close to a tree with your eyes closed and click your tongue. Listen for how the sound bounces off the tree. Step back a few steps and repeat. Notice how the sound bounce (echo) changes. Humans have the ability to “see” by sound. We’ve actually got more raw ability to echolocate than bats. The auditory cortex of a human brain is many times larger than the entire brain of a bat, giving us a significant advantage when it comes to interpreting echoes.
Walk on for a while and stay with this awareness of acute, heightened hearing.
The instinctual purpose for smell was originally used to help us find food and water, locate other animals (up/down wind) and determine upcoming weather changes. We’d also use our sense of smell with food foraging to help tell if something was edible, rotten, or perhaps poisonous. All objects have a smell that can tell about the makeup of the object: sweet, fruity, woody, floral, sour, musty, rancid, bitter, etc.
Before you begin your walk, make sure you are not wearing anything with smells: no perfume, no deodorant, no fabric softeners, and so on.
Again, start with your eyes closed. Standing still, take in a long, slow, deep breath through your nose. How many different smells can you identify? Then open your eyes and do the same. Smell different trees, different vegetation, get down and smell the ground. Smell the air. If you are near a stream or pond, what are those smells? How does each smell make you feel? Does it evoke any memories? (Smell is a powerful trigger for memories.)
Walk on for a while and stay with this awareness of acute, heightened smell.
Our sense of taste is another sense that has been dulled by modern eating habits. We’re used to eating many different kinds of foods together and so don’t think to focus on the taste of a single “pure” food without chemical additives, sauce, or flavoring. Like smell, our ability to taste was often used to help tell if something was edible, rotten, or perhaps poisonous. It would be well worth your time to learn about food foraging to help bring your taste buds back to full use.
If you know of any safe plant in nature that you can taste (everybody knows what a dandelion leaf looks like), pick a leaf and taste it. Does it taste bitter or sweet? Does it remind you of anything else you’ve tasted? Stick out your tongue and taste the air. Does it taste clean or damp or acrid? Lick the bark of a tree? What does that taste like? Spend a few minutes exercising your taste buds.
Walk on for a while and stay with this awareness of acute, heightened taste.
All Together Now in Full Awareness
From this heightened state of sensing you’ve been progressing through, now select any natural object—a tree, a rock, a plant, a body of water—and take several moments to experience it fully with all your senses engaged. Touch it, feel its texture and its weight. Tap it and listen to how it sounds. Look at it deeply and notice the texture, color, and shape. Put it close to your nose and smell it. If it’s safe to taste, lick it. Become fully absorbed with this object. What are all of your senses telling you? Feel yourself merging with it. What does it now communicate with you? Take a moment and allow yourself to so fully merge with it that you are aware of nothing else.
Take one more slow, deep breath, become aware of your surroundings again and start home, remaining in this state of fuller awareness.