About a year ago, amid the throes of an existential crisis, I signed myself up for a three-day silent meditation retreat. It sucked. It also changed the way I interact with the natural world—but not in the way I expected.
If you’re already raising your eyebrows, I don’t blame you. When I say the words “meditation retreat” to most people, they either take on a blank look or start grinding their teeth. A rare few lean in and ask how the retreat went. Those people are all raging hippies.
I personally identify as hippie-adjacent. I’m not into crystals or hard drugs, but do enjoy going a few days without a shower and, when the occasion calls for it, wearing paisley. Still, I suspect my decision to sit on a lumpy cushion in silence for three days had more to do with a temporary delirium brought on by too many emails and not enough life direction. Before this, I’d never been on a meditation retreat of any kind. My record for silence on solo hikes was about five hours. At that point, I usually started talking to myself.
Still, I’d heard some good things about mindfulness. Allegedly, sitting around in the woods listening to birdsong (i.e. “forest bathing”) can lower blood pressure and even boost your immune system. And meditation in general has been known to alleviate anxiety and depression and reduce chronic pain. All that sounded good to me.
Plus, the venue for the retreat looked pretty. The temple was perched amid the Colorado Rockies and the website said the cafeteria food was actually pretty good. Also, the temple administrator said I could save on lodging costs by sleeping in my car in the parking lot.
Thus, I spent three days wearing socks and sandals and listening to a bunch of sad people mouth-breathing in a tiny room with hard wooden floors. I was supposed to be focused on “letting go of intrusive thoughts,” but I spent most of the time focused on the fact that my left foot was asleep and scheming about how to move it without being noticed by our instructor. The hours crawled by. The three days were agonizing.
I fully believe that regular meditation is an effective tool for millions of people. I also know that there’s great power in being still. But for me, seated meditation seemed to amplify my anxiety rather than reduce it. I found the physical stillness excruciating. As hard as I tried, I just couldn’t get the habit to stick. I haven’t sat down to meditate since the retreat ended more than a year ago. But I did take away one thing that has more or less changed my life.
During the retreat, our instructor told us that very few people can sit on a hard floor for hours without suffering at least a few physiological consequences. So, she broke up our time on the cushion with periodic walking meditations.
We’d stand up and pace around the room, eyes lowered but open, watching our feet flash in and out of the bars of sunlight that came streaming in through the high windows. She told us to feel our feet gripping the floor, listen to the swish of moving clothing, and focus on the subtle shifts of pressure from heel to forefoot to toes. It was the only time all weekend when I really felt present.
While I’ve totally dropped the ball on actual meditating, I’ve started to incorporate some of these little tricks into my hikes ever since. And, I kid you not, I’ve felt time slow down.
As life gets busier, the time I spend outdoors grows more precious. I can’t tell you how many hikes I’ve ended with a wistful look back at the trailhead, wishing I had time for just a few more minutes. The benefit of mindful hiking is that you don’t get so lost in thought that you miss whole miles. By being present for each step, you can squeeze more out of every hike.
Research suggests there could be other benefits. In a recent Brazilian study, participants were either assigned to a mindful meditation hike or a “mindlessness meditation” hike.
Those who did the mindful hike were told to pay attention to their surroundings and the sensation of movement. Those who did the mindless hike were instructed to think about upcoming tasks and life events.
Hikers who completed the mindfulness task experienced an “upward spiral” in mood. Basically, hiking made them happier, and because they were being mindful, they noticed that they were becoming happier. This created a positive feedback loop. Those who were mindlessly walking, however, ended their hikes in a worse mood than when they started.
The other perk of mindful hiking is that it can be way easier to do, especially for new meditators and people who identify as restless. Because it’s easier to get into, it’s an easier habit to maintain. That means people who engage in mindful walking may be more likely to reap the long-term benefits of mindfulness than those who engage in seated meditation alone.
So, what exactly constitutes a mindful hike? On your next backpack, dog walk, or stroll around the block, try these five tricks.
Mindful Hiking 101
Get more out of every mile with these tips for mindful hiking.
- Walk at a natural pace with your hands free and shoulders relaxed. Take a moment to make sure your clothing and pack feel cozy and comfortable.
- Now tune in to how your body feels. Do a quick check-in by doing a mental scan from head to toe. As you walk, try to focus on the feeling of strength in your muscles as they engage and lengthen. Focus on the quickness of your feet and ankles as they shift your weight over uneven terrain.
- When you find your mind wandering, gently bring it back to the feeling of strength in your body, and the sensation of your feet touching the ground.
- Periodically tune in to your environment: Try counting the sights, sounds, and smells around you. See if you can identify five different sights, four distinct sounds, and three smells.
- Be kind to yourself. If you notice yourself getting tired or cranky, take a moment to reel it back in, take a deep breath, and name three specific things about this moment that you’re grateful for.
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