Growing up, my family moved a lot. My dad was in outside sales which brought the opportunity for travel and the chance to see different parts of the state and country. Wherever we lived, my parents made sure we got out and explored our surroundings. My childhood memories have faint recollections of people and events, but as I think about this month’s theme, grounded in nature, my memories comes alive.
I grew up making tree forts and playing in cool creeks and running through a long meadow in the hot sun and earthy woods. I rode my two-wheeler (Tigger Trigger) with a banana seat with the summer wind blowing through my long brown hair as the gravel crunched under the tires, stopping to smell the neighbor’s beautifully bloomed red and yellow tulips and then picking one for my mom (and then having to go back to apologize when the neighbor called and yelled for me picking her flower!). I can vividly recall lying in my grandparents’ yard in a patch of clover telling one of my aunts that I thought I was a cow in a past life “because I love the smell, feel and sweet taste of clover”. One of my favorite childhood places is not a vacation spot or house we lived in, but our Kentucky neighbor’s weeping willow tree. For at least 8 months out of the year, that tree was my sanctuary. Daily I would sneak over (okay, I wasn’t really sneaking, but it felt adventurous) and quickly climb into the green arms of my favorite tree. It was like a mother welcoming me home. I would explore new branches, ones I hadn’t perched on. I would find places to sit and listen to the birds and the sounds of kids playing. I would find crooks where I would lounge and take afternoon naps in the cool spaces under the sun. When my parents broke the news that we were relocating, my breakup with the tree was one of the biggest heartbreaks.
Nature is one of the greatest connectors. It has a way of connecting us to the earth, to the moment, to yourself. Close to four decades have passed since I was with my beloved tree or since I rode a banana seat, and yet I can recall the sensations as intensely as if it were yesterday and I were still wearing a cut off shirt and pigtails. No matter where I have lived, nature taught me that true connection was within.
As I grew into adolescence and young adulthood, I turned my back on this connection. I was an academic and social young person, so my connection was with books and friends. I didn’t realize I missed my connection to nature as I floated into the world of college, job responsibilities, marriage and motherhood. I would sneak little “fixes” when I’d take my little ones for walks and fell back in love with camping when they were 2 and 3. This should have been my first “aha! I’ve missed you!” but it was much more subtle than that, more like an “ahh, welcome home”. One day, when my kids were 5 and 6 and the pressure of the world as a full-time working mom seemed to be weighing on my shoulders, I left work early, picked my children up from school and went to the Memorial Park hill. I was armed - loaded with the biggest bottle of bubbles I could find. We blew bubbles and chased them down the hill. We rolled down and climbed. And we did it again and again. Though it was not a conscious move, when the world got too much, intrinsically I knew where to turn, back to my roots in nature.
Graduate school for me was in my 30’s after my first career. I spent two years blissfully studying everything I could about human thoughts, feelings and behaviors. I was also working at this time as an adjunct instructor and raising our two awesome and busy kids with my husband. In my practicum, my supervisors (two seasoned psychotherapists) introduced me to a tool that took me right back to where I needed to be: Mindfulness. I can recall the first mindful walk I experienced as a graduate student with a group of patients and I can recall mindful walks I have taken since then. Every time, it is like returning home.
A mindful walk is used as a tool to ground you to the moment. When you set the intention to go on a mindful walk, you choose to focus all senses on the environment around you. Your eyes look at each detail of landscape: the crack in the sidewalk and the anthill being built, the clothes hanging on the line in the breeze. You notice the smells around you: the sweet smell of fresh cut grass, the blossoms on trees and flowers, the smell of food being prepared on the outside grill. You hear the noises that are typically masked by thought and inattention: the birds chirping, children playing, lawnmowers running. You feel the sensation on your skin: the cool breeze, the hot sun. And you do this for the entire walk. Yes, it is expected that your mind will wander as you start to create a story such as “those kids are having fun in the pool, I remember when I used to swim with the neighbors”. You are invited to notice those thoughts and let them go just like the clouds passing in the sky. Mindful walks are about being in the moment and using every sense you have to connect with nature.
Another variation of a mindful walk focuses on the art of mindful walking. Noticing the heel, the arch, the ball of the foot as you lift, move and place very slowly one foot and then the other. And over and over again you simply notice the sensations that occur as you walk. When teaching this, I often have people ask me the purpose or the intention. The practice of mindful walking is an invitation to use the process of walking as a meditation, to bring your focus and attention to the sensation of your feet connecting to the earth.
As summer begins, I encourage you to find your way to connect back to Mother Earth and to ground yourself in nature. Whether a morning hike, an afternoon on a kayak, a dip in the lake or pool, a mindful walk, or the simple moments you take as you mindfully walk to your car, sit at a park, take in the surroundings as you attend a barbecue, use the resources nature offers to be fully present in the now.