Hiking with friends while enjoying great conversation and laughter is one of my favorite activities. But unless we make a conscious effort to stop every now and again and really pay attention to where we are and what we are doing, we can miss a tremendous amount. Stopping and consciously engaging our senses when out hiking not only calms and grounds us—relaxing both mind and body—but it also deepens our connection to the natural world. Excuse the cliché, but mindful hiking is really about remembering to stop and smell the roses (or the eucalyptus, as the case may be).
I’ve always loved being in nature. It’s when I feel an almost instantaneous sense of calm and peace, coupled with an intense awareness of being alive. It’s also where I feel happiest and most at ease. One of my most memorable childhood experiences was hiking The Overland Track, a six-day hike from Cradle Mountain to Lake St. Clair in Tasmania with my parents when I was 12. I loved being far away from civilization, carrying a large pack on my back. I was captivated by the breathtaking beauty of the ever-changing landscape—scrambling to the top of Cradle Mountain or sitting by the campfire at night under tall, majestic gum trees. It was a great adventure, one that cemented a life-long love of hiking and the outdoors.
Later, during my twenties, I spent far less time in nature than I would have liked. I didn’t know many people who were interested in hiking and I was too shy to join a hiking group. Around then, I started meditating as a way of relieving stress and anxiety. I’ve since realized that, for me, meditation and being in nature are the two things that, without fail, calm my mind and relax my body.
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.
While a regular seated meditation practice is a very important part of my life, I find opportunities to practice mindfulness in many other ways. Short, simple mindfulness exercises incorporated into an activity such as hiking are an easy, enjoyable, and surprisingly effective way of being more mindful.
Next time you head out for a hike, why not make it a mindful hike?
Stop Before You Start
We rarely pause between activities. As a result, we can carry the stress and tension of a previous activity, conversation, or train of thought over into what we are about to do. Before setting off on your hike, take a few moments to allow yourself to come into the present moment (try the “Note the Pause between Breaths” practice), letting go of any thoughts or concerns that might be on your mind.
Consciously Engage Your Senses
Making the 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, it will also bring your mind and body back into a state of balance. Your body will start to relax and your mind will begin to settle.
It is estimated that approximately 90% of our attention is taken up with our thoughts. That leaves just about 10% of our attention for our bodies. 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:
It is estimated that approximately 90% of our attention is taken up with our thoughts. That leaves just about 10% of our attention for our bodies. By consciously holding our awareness in our bodies, without forcing anything, we can encourage the body to begin to soften and relax.
Sense Practices — Look
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.
Begin to tune into the sounds around you. There’s no need to search for sounds. See if you can simply allow sounds to come to you. You might notice the sound of the wind in the trees; the sound of birds; the voices of other hikers in the distance.
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.
Now slowly move one arm up and one arm down, continuing to wiggle your fingers. 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.
As you continue walking, every now and then, see if you can consciously tune into and enjoy your peripheral vision.
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.
You certainly can’t expect to keep thoughts of your life completely at bay as you walk in silence, so don’t try. Even intermittent moments of focus have been shown to have a calming effect on both mind and body.
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.
Practice — Note the Pause between Breaths
Close your eyes and in your own time, without forcing anything, take three long, deep breaths. Allow yourself to make an exaggerated sighing sound on the exhalation, seeing if you can let go a little more with each out breath. Gently hold your attention on your breath and, after each exhalation, allow your next breath to come when it’s ready. This short pause between breaths can be very calming. Once you have taken three deep breaths, allow your breath to resume its natural rhythm.
Take a few moments to tune into the sounds around you, and pause. Notice the sensation of air on your face,
and pause. Bring your awareness down into your feet, and pause. Really feel the connection your feet are making with the earth beneath you. Allow yourself to feel grounded, connected, and supported. Allow yourself to become really aware of where you are.
You might say silently to yourself, “For the duration of this hike there is nowhere else I need to be; no one else I need to be pleasing. This is my time. Time I’m giving myself to recharge and reconnect with nature.”
When you are ready, gently blink your eyes open and reorient yourself before starting your hike.
This article also appeared in the August 2016 issue of Mindful magazine.
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