Take a Mindful Hike
Seven steps to quieting the mind during a walk through the woods.
BY: Stephen Altschuler
Recently after a bookstore reading for my book, "The Mindful Hiker," a man commented that he was unable to quiet his mind when he walked in nature and asked for help. It's one thing to find time to be in a nurturing wild place and it's quite another to settle down and be present when you're there. When hiking, I often encounter groups of two or more who seem to never stop talking. Consequently they rarely appreciate what nature has to offer. How could they? When the mind is occupied with talk or thought all the time, it is impossible to be present with the experience at hand-or foot.
Follow these seven steps and begin to have a fuller, more alive experience of your inner landscape as you spend time in the outer.
Before you can quiet the mind, you first need to be aware of its activity. So on your next hike, listen to the ramblings of your mind. You can do this alone or with a friend, who agrees to take 15 minutes of silence as you walk together. What does your mind dwell upon? What are the contents of your thoughts? Are some feelings more prevalent than others? This is often a revelation since we often don't really take the time to listen to ourselves, let alone others or other natural things.
Stop your hike for a moment and stand still, feeling the ground, your arms hanging loosely, your neck and head and face relaxed, your knees slightly bent, your breathing steady and normal, your eyes closed or softly focused ahead. This is the essence of feeling grounded, literally. It is standing, and only standing, and knowing that we are standing.
Open your eyes and focus your attention on a leaf. If your focus wavers and your mind wanders, come back to the leaf, using it as an anchor or object of meditation. About 20 years ago, in a New England wood during a dazzling autumn, I vowed to watch a particular leaf until I would see it fall. It took several hours of sitting still and concentrating but I finally did see it fall. It was one of the most powerful things I'd ever experienced and still have that leaf framed on my wall.
Now continue your walk and focus your attention on each step as you move along. So often we forget to observe the act of walking, as we get lost in the activity of thinking and talking. See how your weight shifts and moves to different parts of your feet. Observe the changes of pressure on your knees, and even the delicate bones of your ankles making their adjustments to help keep your balance. Be aware of your swinging arms and the movement of your head and neck. This is walking, and only walking, and knowing that we are walking.
Now stop for a moment, and pay attention to your breath, that which we do every moment of life and connects to all other living things on Earth. Ideally, we should breath diaphragmatically. That is, when we breathe in, the belly expands, and when we exhale, the belly contracts. This assures that more air fills the lungs, pushing the diaphragm out and in. Try this as you stand still. You can bring a great sense of calm to yourself by breathing in this way. This is breathing, and only breathing, and knowing that we are breathing.
After breathing this way for a few minutes, open your eyes and be aware of your sense doors-those places where sights, sounds, smells, touch, taste enter the body. See if you can pick up as many sensations as possible.
Now your mind should be calmer than when you started. You should be more in the present-your mind and body occupying the same space, which should result in a feeling of well-being. Know that you can return to this place and replenish your spirit in this way. And know that its effects will remain with you even after you leave this place in nature and return to your busy life.
Being in a wonderful place in nature can set the stage for a quiet mind, but it doesn't guarantee it. Like lassoing a wild stallion, quieting our thoughts takes awareness, application of the right technique, and practice. The results can be more peace of mind-something all of us want and need.