Finding Your True Self in Nature

The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness – John Muir

There is no doubt we have all being going through some challenging times recently due to the pandemic. This has taken a toll on our mental wellbeing. But it cannot all be blamed on the pandemic. There are many other facts at play, such as where we live, how much time we spend on our devices and if we venture outside or not. Here are some facts that may surprise you.

  • 50% of the world’s population live in urban areas – the largest percentage in human history. That’s not all, it is due to increase to 70% by 2050. In Japan it is already 80%.
  • It has been estimated the average American, over their lifetime, will spend the equivalent of 44 years looking at their devices.
  • The average American now spends more than 90% of their time indoors.
  • 792 million people are affected by mental health issues worldwide.

Mental health is a complex topic and not one I am qualified to delve into. But I do have a suggestion about how we can increase our mental wellbeing, and that is to spend more time in nature.

Nature gives our brains time to reset from the hectic pace of modern life and gives our mental health a well-deserved boost. Being outdoors can reduce your stress levels, help fight anxiety and depression, boost your mood, improve your immune function, provide relaxation and rehabilitation, and of course, give us the exercise we all need.

Forest therapy is one way of getting our mental health hit. It has been scientifically proven trees have many healing properties. The healingforest.com state:

Certain trees like conifers emit oils and compounds to protect themselves from microbes and pathogens. These are called Phytoncides, and they are good for our immunity. So, spending time with these trees is a special form of Forest Therapy.

Adopt the pace of nature. Her secret is patience – Ralph Waldo Emerson

While we are in the forest, we can do some forest meditation, which is a way of finding calm and balance with the help of nature. In traditional meditation, we withdraw our senses and focus inward to reach a state of inner peace. While in forest meditation we open our senses to experience the peace that exists in nature and deepen our realization.

The mind gets blown around like a leaf in the wind. That makes it hard to control and even harder to predict. Especially during challenging times. Our thought process becomes confused and negative. Therefore, forest meditation is essential for our mental wellbeing.

Here are some suggestions for forest meditation:

Gratitude Stroll

Go into a forest and walk at a medium to slow pace for about 20 minutes. While walking, focus your attention on nature and your breath. You may like to alternate between slow and slightly faster walking.

Slow walking fosters a heightened state of awareness, calm, and connection with the natural world. Medium to fast walking relieves stress and energizes the body. No matter how you walk, make sure you pause along the way to notice the small wonders of nature, such as birds, insects, wildflowers, and of course, the trees.

As you marvel at the wonders of nature create a feeling of gratitude. Feel grateful to be in nature, for all the plants, trees, and animals, and above all, to be alive. By focusing your attention on things that fill you with gratitude, you can shift your mind from any negativity or pessimistic thoughts.

Circle of Awareness

A wonderful practice to do in the forest is to sit down and create a circle in your imagination. Now become aware of everything in the circle; plants, flowers, leaves, twigs, insects, and anything else you can see.

Then slowly make your circle bigger and bigger. If your mind starts to wander, simply bring it back to the circle.

This practice will help you to fully engage with the forest, and maybe even learn a thing or two.

Using Your Senses

Find a quiet place in the forest and sit on the ground. Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and begin to feel grounded.

Become aware of your environment by focusing on one sense at a time. Notice the forest sounds, and also notice the silence in-between the sounds. Touch the ground with both of your hands. What can you feel? Smell the different forest aromas. Tune into your body. Put your hands over your heart and feel your heartbeat. Now just sit there with a sense of gratitude, peace, and calm. When you’re ready to open your eyes, open them slowly and take a good look around you. Sit there for as long as you wish, just soaking up the beauty of the forest.

Forest Breathing

Find a quiet place in the forest, take off your shoes and stand barefoot on the forest floor. Focus on your breath without changing it. Just allowing it to find its own natural rhythm. Keep your spine straight but not too rigid. Become aware of any sensations in your legs, ankles, and feet. Stand for a few minutes until you feel stable.

Then, move your awareness slowly up from the feet to the top of your head. Notice if there’s tension, stress, or stiffness in any part of your upper body. Take a deep breath, pause for a few seconds, and then exhale. Repeat this for around 3 minutes or for as long as you wish. Imagine the forest air relaxing your body with every in-breath and your mind calming down with every outbreath.

When you have finished, sit on the forest floor, and ground yourself. Check-in with how you are feeling and be grateful for being in nature.

The Wind on Your Face

Stand still and lift your face upwards slightly. Notice the feeling of the wind on your skin. Then lift your arms in the air and notice the wind on your hands and fingers. Then pick other parts of your body and become aware of the wind gently blowing over your skin. Try not to judge or change anything, simply observe.

Spend about one minute on each area feeling a deep connection with the motion of the air.

I used to do this practice when I lived by the sea. On windy days you would find me on the cliff edge feeling the wind on my face.

You’ll never really see the sunset until you throw open the curtains, swing open the door, step outside, and experience it – Jessica Marie Collins

We humans are animals and as such our true home is in nature. We were never meant to live in houses, drive cars or fly in planes. So, do yourself a favour and go back to your roots.  

You can read more blogs, listen to podcasts, watch videos and practice guided meditations on the Buddhism Guide app. Available from the Apple Store and Google Play. You can also visit my website.

If you would like to become a supporter of Buddhism Guides work, such as podcasts, blogs, videos and guided meditation practices, please visit here. You can support for as little as $2 a month.

Cultivating Virtuous Qualities

I believe there are three qualities everyone should cultivate. Not just for our own benefit, but also for the benefit of everyone we come into contact with. The three qualities are being humble, contented, and grateful.

Setting Pride Aside: Humility

I personally feel more at ease in the company of humble people. They do not waste time bragging about what they have, who they are, or where they have been. They play down their achievements and are more attentive to others’ needs.

The opposite of this is true for proud and conceited people. It is a challenge for me to spend much time with someone who boasts. They are only interested in selling themselves and seem to have no interest in who you are or what you think or know.

I have always found people with pride to also have the biggest egos — and usually the biggest mouths to go with them. But a humble person is quiet, respectful, and attentive. Which one would you rather be around? Which one would you rather be?

We must stay open-minded at all times. Just because we know a way to do something doesn’t mean another person doesn’t know a better or easier way. We shouldn’t assume we know best. Humble people will continue to learn throughout their lives.

So, what are the causes of pride? There are many, but two main causes are dualistic thinking and an inflated sense of self.

When people think in a dualistic way, it can stir up pride because they start thinking “I am good and others are bad,” “I am handsome and they are ugly,” or “I am intelligent and they are stupid.” It is this type of thinking that causes us to fixate on “I am this, I am that.” We start to emphasize the sense of self, which leads us to become attached to who we think we are. Both of these lead to pride and conceit. In the Sutta Nipata, Gautama Buddha states:

“By being alert and attentive, he begins to let go of cravings as they arise. But whatever he begins to accomplish, he should beware of inner pride. He must avoid thinking of himself as better than another, or worse or equal, for that is all comparison and emphasizes the self.”

It is clear that humility is a trait we have to work at, or we could find ourselves getting wrapped up in pride. The pride I am talking about here is our overinflated sense of self. It is not the pride we have for our children, loved ones, and so on, which stems from love and compassion — this overinflated sense of pride stems from our ego.

Meditation Practice for Humility

In a meditation session, look at pride and humility. Which one do you lean toward? Think back over the past few days and see what situations stir up pride in you, and which ones make you humble. Only when we become focused on these situations are we able to make changes in ourselves.

Need vs. Greed: Contentment

Oh, to be content. If only we could, but it seems human beings have a natural urge to never be content. Or can we? We have to look at what is need and what is greed. I think we can satisfy our need, but we will never satisfy our greed.

What we need is food, clothes, work, money, and human contact. These bring us security and are things we can satisfy to some degree.

What we want is the latest smartphone, expensive clothes, big cars, huge houses, exotic holidays — in short, we want to not only fit in with society, but we also want to stand out.

We have to train ourselves to know when enough is enough. If we just blindly follow our desire to want more, we will never be content. We have to think carefully to see if we really need something or if we are just trying to buy happiness. That is a fool’s game. If we buy something to be happy, it will not last. As soon as a new version comes out or the thing breaks, we will become unhappy and discontented. To try and buy happiness is like drinking saltwater to quench your thirst — it will only lead to dissatisfaction. Just think, if you could buy happiness, all the wealthy people in the world would be totally content, but they are not. They are just like the rest of us, always searching for something to make them happier.

The desire to want more and more brings us anxiety, worry, and stress, whereas contentment can bring us peace of mind and calmness. The fear of losing our happiness leads us to frantically search for more happiness.

When we cannot obtain the thing of our desire, we become sad and angry; disappointment and despair set in. There are two main reasons for this type of suffering. One is our inability to be content with the present moment. The other is when we make our happiness dependent on someone or something outside us. Our discontentment leads us to have more desires in the hope of escaping this type of suffering.

A note of caution: We shouldn’t take contentment to mean we don’t have to put in the effort to better ourselves — of course we do. We have to find our own level of contentment, and once we do, it will be better than any wealth or material belongings.

As Gautama Buddha says in the Dhammapada, verse 203, “…contentment is the greatest wealth.”

Meditation Practice for Contentment

In a meditation session, look at the following questions:

  • Am I content?
  • Do I have enough to satisfy my needs?
  • Do I chase after happiness in material things?
  • Do new things bring me happiness?
  • How long does it last?

Give all of these points a lot of thought.

Everything Is Interconnected: Gratitude

Gratitude means to be thankful for, and to remember, the help others have given us. We should also try our best to pay back any help we have received if and when the person who has helped us needs it.

In the Dullabha Sutta, it states:

“These two people are hard to find in the world. Which two? The one who is first to do a kindness, and the one who is grateful for a kindness done and feels obligated to repay it. These two people are hard to find in the world.”

Lately, it seems that people have very short memories where being grateful is concerned. Gratitude is a virtue we should do our best to cultivate.

This is only one part of gratitude as far as Buddhism is concerned. The Pali word katannuta has been translated as “gratitude,” but this doesn’t quite cover it. It literally means that you know what someone has done for your benefit. So, instead of it being an emotional thing as gratitude is usually seen to be — for example, we say things like “I feel grateful” — the literal meaning makes it more intellectual. This translation seems to involve an element of knowledge; we know what has been done for our benefit.

This is an important point because it takes in the interconnectedness of everything. If we just sit down and eat our dinner without being aware of what we are eating, who planted and harvested it, who packaged and delivered it, we will not be fully grateful. Being grateful is connected with an awareness of the world around us, how it works, and who is doing what to benefit us.

Meditation Practice for Gratitude

In a meditation session, think about your last meal and follow the process back from your plate to the seed in the ground. Think about all the people involved in the process. It could be a fairly long list. We should be grateful to all of these people because they have benefited us by providing food that we can eat.

It isn’t always easy to set pride aside, focus only on what you truly need, or recognize how everything is interconnected, but it’s worth it to try. Allow yourself the room to learn from past ways of thinking that have kept you separate from the benefits of these essential qualities of humility, contentedness, and gratitude. As you cultivate these virtues, you’ll find you’re giving a gift not only to yourself, but to the world around you.

You can read more blogs, listen to podcasts, watch videos and practice guided meditations on the Buddhism Guide app. Available from the Apple Store and Google Play. You can also visit my website.

If you would like to become a supporter of Buddhism Guides work, such as podcasts, blogs, videos and guided meditation practices, please visit here. You can support for as little as $2 a month.

Experiencing Gratitude

Most neuroscientists agree that the left-hand side of our brain is used to interpret the world. It does this through language, categorising and patterns. It is probably through this process that our fictional self is born. The left-brain groups things by some common feature and then treats it as one unit, such as our thoughts, emotions and bodies, which it puts together and labels it ‘self.’

Our right-hand side of the brain doesn’t see things in parts, like the left-brain does, it sees things as a whole and processes the world as a continuum. It doesn’t use language or patterns like the left-hand side, it is more intuitive. It is focused on the present moment and doesn’t split things into past and future, like the left-brain. During deep meditation or deep sleep, we move from our thinking mind into the non-thinking right-hand side. Remember this side sees things as a whole and this is possibly what the ancient masters meant by ‘oneness.’

A neuroscientist had a stroke and for a while lost the use of the whole of her left-hand brain. During this time, she felt enormous gratitude. This shows us that gratitude seems to be inherent and is also a feature of the right-hand brain.   

Why I am mentioning this is because I feel gratitude is more about experiencing the sensations and less about thinking. It is more about being thankful for reality and less about acceptance of it.

A few years back I did a guided meditation called ‘Experiencing Gratitude’ and at the time many people thought it was strange I was asking them to experience it, as they had been so used to expressing it. But I felt that more can be gained by non-verbally feeling gratitude and not merely thinking about it. Neuroscience these days seems to back up that claim.

In modern mindfulness practices we are encouraged to think of three things we are grateful for and that is obviously a good thing, especially if we are stressed or anxious. But once we have brought them to mind, I believe we should feel the sensations in our body and the warmth in our hearts, without judgement, labelling or categorising. In fact, without thinking at all, just feel. Of course, this is not an easy task, but beneficial things never are.

The best way to achieve this is for you to think of something you are grateful for. It may be a person, a place, your health, your life – it really doesn’t matter. Whatever it is, bring it to the forefront of your mind and sit with that thought for a moment. Now, stop thinking about whatever you are grateful for and start fully experiencing the gratitude. Ask yourself these questions, ‘How does this gratitude make you feel?’ and ‘What body sensations are tied up with this gratitude?’ Just sit with your experience of gratitude for a moment. Let yourself be engulfed by your feelings and body sensations. Truly experience what gratitude feels like. I believe this is how we should be working with gratitude.

The more you do this type of practice, the more you will be able to experience gratitude and not just think about it. Give it a try by visiting Buddhism Guide meditations page and listen to the Experiencing Gratitude guided meditation.   

You can read more blogs, listen to podcasts, watch videos and practice guided meditations on the Buddhism Guide app. Available from the Apple Store and Google Play.

If you would like to become a supporter of Buddhism Guides work, such as podcasts, blogs, videos and guided meditation practices, please visit here. You can support for as little as $2 a month.

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