Mindful Minutes

This week, I’m continuing along the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal towpath toward its terminus in Cumberland, Maryland. At the moment, I’m in a library in Shepherdstown, West Virginia; I crossed a bridge over the Potomac River from the Maryland side to charge my electronics and pick up supplies. I thought some of you who read these posts would be interested in a brief meditative practice that you can do anywhere, anytime you’re outdoors: in your own backyard or garden, in a town or city park, deep in the woods, along a shoreline, or anywhere else you may be.

When we’re outside, our experience of the world around us will deepen if we engage in the practice of mindfulness. In a natural setting, mindfulness translates into a state of receptive attention to the flood of sensory information pouring in from all directions each moment. It’s all too easy to let the chatter in our minds — or with our companions — keep us from fully engaging with the richness of our surroundings, right here and right now.

I sometimes do a brief sensory check-in, what I describe as a “mindful minute.” The instructions for this practice recall the advice we give young children who are learning how to safely cross a street: “Stop. Look. Listen.” To these directions I add: “Smell. Feel.” Here are some simple guidelines:

First, stop walking and press the “pause button” on any mental dialogue that may be in progress. Stop thinking about the morning’s news headlines, or the many items on your to-do list, or what you want to eat for dinner. If you’re walking, stand still or find a comfortable place to sit down. Close your eyes.

Notice the sensations conveyed through your face, hands, and any other exposed skin: the caress of a breeze or assault of stronger wind, the warmth of sun or coolness of evening, the tickle of raindrops.

Take a few deep breaths, concentrating on any scents that may flow in through your nostrils: the earthy smell of wet soil, the tang of seawater, the sweetness of flowers, the resiny incense of balsam or pine.

Identify the various sounds you’re hearing: voices of birds; buzzing of insects; sighing of wind; rustling of leaves; rushing of a fast-flowing river, gurgling of a stream, gentle lapping or rhythmic crashing of waves on a shore.

Finally, open your eyes and do a visual scan of your environment. Take a good look up, down, and around. Try to appreciate subtleties that you’d miss with a quick glance. Contemplate the interplay of light and shadow. Take time to see the many colors that radiate through water or reflect off its surface. Enjoy the many shades of green in the leaves and needles of trees.

In the midst of a busy day, as we travel to or from work, go from one errand to the next, or take a lunch break, this practice serves as a mini-retreat that refreshes our minds and spirits. Over the course of a longer outdoor trek, pausing periodically will help to keep our ever-straying minds anchored in our present reality. I’ve often used this exercise as a means to savor a particular moment in time and space, to impress its delights upon my mind and heart. As I look around me, I rest my eyes on whatever may evoke joy or awe within me: a view of distant mountains, a bee upon a blossom. I let my ears or nose linger on pleasing sounds or scents. I bask in the warmth of sunshine on my face.

I invite you to try this practice next time you go outside. May it be a blessing to you!

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