Spending time in nature has healing and restorative power. Being outdoors increases well-being, helps alleviate stress and anxiety, promotes creativity, assists with recovery from mental fatigue, helps restore attention, boosts the brain’s ability to think, and engages the senses.
Next time you head out for a hike, why not make it a mindful hike?
Consciously Engage Your Senses
Make an effort to stop along the way and bring conscious awareness to your senses will not only bring you into the present moment and deepen your connection to your surroundings, but it will also bring your mind and body back into a state of balance. By consciously holding our awareness in our bodies, without forcing anything, we can encourage the body to begin to soften and relax. Throughout your hike, stop every now and again and try one or more of the following exercises:
Enjoy a few moments in silence as you look around and consciously engage your sense of sight. Start by turning around slowly and deliberately taking in the 360-degree view as you do. Look up—explore the sky, the patterns in the clouds, the canopy of trees above. Look down—notice shadows, patterns, colors, and textures on the ground. Sit or lie down for a moment to absorb your surroundings.
Now look closely at an object that catches your attention, such as a leaf or the bark on a tree. Allow your gaze to soften as you explore the object. Gently observe its colors, shape, and texture. Look for subtle details you might have missed at first glance. Allow yourself to become really curious about what you’re looking at.
In this exercise simply stop and enjoy a few moments in silence as you consciously engage your sense of listening. Even after you’ve finished the exercise and started walking again, try to remember from time to time to slow down and consciously tune into that sense of listening. If it feels comfortable for you to do so, close your eyes. Or, if you prefer, simply lower your eyes, keeping your gaze soft. Allow yourself a few moments to settle into your body.
Do your best to experience sounds as pure sensations. Notice if your mind wants to label or judge sounds. This is very normal and simply what the mind does. See if you can notice any such commentary and gently guide your attention back to the experience of listening. And, as you continue hiking, pause from time to time to more consciously engage your other senses.
Stop and tune into the sensation of the sun or cool breeze against your skin. If you notice an object with an interesting texture—a rock covered in soft, velvety moss, for example—explore it with your hands focusing quite deliberately on your sense of touch.
When you stop and enjoy something to eat, try eating in silence for a few minutes. Bring conscious awareness to the taste and texture of your food. Food already tastes so much better when you’re out in nature—and all the more so when you eat mindfully.
Stop, close your eyes, and bring conscious awareness to your sense of smell. Be patient as you allow smells to come to you. Smells can be quite subtle and harder to detect, but if you are patient you will be surprised by what you begin to notice.
Vision Exercises — Expand Your Peripheral Vision
This exercise explores and encourages the full use of your peripheral vision—the ability we all have to see out of the corners of our eyes. We naturally use our peripheral vision when scanning the night sky for a shooting star, for example. We use our peripheral vision less and less in our everyday lives due to the increasing amount of time most of us spend looking at one type of screen or another. This exercise helps reawaken our capacity to take in and enjoy a much wider field of vision:
Pick out an object approximately 30-60 feet in front of you to focus on—a particular mark on a tree for example. As you begin to focus on it imagine that your eyeballs can’t turn in their sockets—like an owl, which needs to turn its whole head to look to either side. Continue to hold your focus on this point and allow yourself to blink whenever you need to. Soften your gaze and notice what you can see at the edges of your vision.
Now stretch both arms out in front of you and begin to wiggle your fingers. Keeping your arms straight, and continuing to wiggle your fingers, slowly move your arms away from each other while still holding your gaze on your chosen point of focus. When you lose sight of your moving fingers, slowly bring your arms back together again.
Allow your arms to hang down by your sides once more and take a few moments to simply notice and enjoy your re-awakened peripheral vision. You might like to name one or two things at the edges of your vision in your mind.
Throughout your hike try taking “snapshots” with your mind. When you notice an object, sound, smell, flavor, or tactile sensation that you are particularly drawn to, study it for a few moments and imprint it on your mind. As you walk on, play it over in your memory for another 30 seconds or so. It is surprising how much detail you can take in even in a brief moment. Taking snapshots in this way enables you to replay the loveliest moments of your hike—the sound of birdsong, the feeling of the sun on your face, the smell of wet dirt—at a later time in vivid detail.
Having enjoyed some (if not all) of the above mindfulness exercises, walking in silence is a wonderful way to enjoy the latter part of your hike. How long you decide to walk in silence is entirely up to you, but I’ve found that 30-40 minutes works well. Most of us have so few opportunities to experience silence when in the company of others. While it can feel a little uncomfortable at first, there is something quite wonderful about shared silence.
You can’t keep thoughts of your life completely at bay as you walk in silence, so don’t try. Even intermittent moments of focus have great power to calm both mind and body.
A period of silent walking offers you an opportunity to consciously engage your senses in any number of ways, relaxing both mind and body as you do. You might spend the period of silent walking consciously holding awareness in your body. Or focus on the sights, sounds, and smells around you.
Stop and Tune In
Next time you find yourself outdoors, whether you’re heading off for a hike or even a short stroll, see if you can remember to take a few moments to stop and tune into your surroundings, as well as your physical body, by consciously engaging your senses. Pay attention to the rise and fall of your chest as you breathe. Feel the sun on your face or the breeze against your skin. Tune into the sights, sounds, smells, and textures around you. Immersing yourself in your surroundings by consciously engaging your senses will leave you feeling calmer, happier and more relaxed, whether you’re hiking the Inca trail or walking through your local park.