The word “meditation” for me has always conjured images of mats rolled out, people seated in the lotus position, eyes closed, lost within some inner sanctum of peace reached only when one has been successful at the process of staying still and completely emptying the mind. Well, I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve never managed that. I have a hard time sitting still and doing nothing for even 5 minutes. And emptying my mind? Before long I’m making shopping lists, trying to remember if I gave the dog his morning eye drops, making a mental note that I need to make a call or schedule some neglected appointment, all the while trying to rid myself of some frustrating song playing over and over in my head. Obviously this model of meditation is very helpful to some, and I am in no way knocking or attacking anyone else’s practice, it simply hasn’t worked for me.
I recently viewed a video post on social media about meditation that talked about a way to stop the mind’s continuous chatter during meditation by giving it a “job”. The job suggested in the video was that of listening to breath. That certainly sounds reasonable, but again, sitting still doing nothing is challenging for me to begin with and listening to my breath, well, quite frankly, sounds boring. So I started thinking (probably during meditation!) maybe there are other “jobs” to give the mind that can be just as effective as listening to the in and out of breath. I have often found myself completely losing track of time, problems, looming responsibilities, when hiking or during creative activities that fully engross my mind, body and spirit. It makes me wonder if perhaps any activity that engages and fulfills a person so completely that time seems to slip by unnoticed, could be considered a successful form of meditation? Here is an example:
In late afternoon I hiked up an empty logging road along the clear cut, gravel crunching softly beneath my feet, my breath a steady rhythm in and out as I ascended the hill. Clouds were beginning to move inland from the ocean on a plucky breeze and the sun was angling lower in the sky. Purple thistle blooms along the edge of the gravel caught my eye. Upon closer inspection I noticed the softness of some of their spent blossoms, the way the downy seed clusters almost looked like spiders sitting on fur as they waited to be shaken free by the wind, or by some passing animal brushing against them.
Swallows flew in and out of branches jutting from jumbled slag piles nearby, I didn’t know if the birds were resting, on sentry duty, or staking territory. They darted from the branches to dip and circle around me, feasting on bugs I suspect, in an endless mission to feed their young. Thin gray clouds moved across the sky, creating a cotton candy background as the birds swooped and made sharp turns through the open air.
Further on, thick patches of wild blackberry brambles reached long crisscrossed runners across the gravel. They snagged my pants cuffs hard enough to make me stumble so I was forced to pay attention to where I was putting my feet. The berries were ripening and for awhile I stopped to eat my fill of the juicy fruit, feeling as if I’d found a secret treasure, wishing I had a bucket with me. As I snacked, I marveled at the fact that black bears sustain themselves mostly on berries, and pondered how that is possible for such a large animal.
Ahead of me, a variety of wild grasses bobbed in the breeze, their seed heads bending, nodding like thousands of spirited horses. Their texture and the way they caught the light stopped me again. I brushed my fingers through them, enjoying the softness, watching tiny seeds release, then noticed a garter snake sunning himself on the gravel ahead. I moved toward him slowly, observed him quietly, hoping I wouldn’t disturb him, admiring the bright stripes, the shape and texture of scales, the thin flicking tongue, his intense eyes. After a lengthy study, I made a wide arc around him, then left the road to hike into the forest.
The forest at the edge of the clear cut was quiet, protected. Though a vigorous breeze rose and fell, often moving the tree tops, the air along the ground was mostly still. I picked my way carefully through lush ferns as high as my chest, over limbs and huge old logs blanketed in moss, around massive stumps left over from logging seventy-five to a hundred years ago. Occasionally the trees above me would groan or screech, rubbing together in a crescendo of wind, and twice the screech was sudden enough to startle me into a gasp and then a chuckle. I stopped to drink water and nibble on a snack from my pack, sat on a mossy ledge above a deep ferny gully, enchanted and as always, grateful to be there.
Eventually I retraced my steps through the dense green, emerged from the trees, made my way back down the logging road to my car. When I checked the time, I was shocked to learn that three and a half hours had passed while I had been observing the natural world around me! Not once in those hours had I thought about the past or the future. I had been completely seated in the present. Not once had I thought about myself or anything that nagged at me. I have discovered a beautiful thing. My ego has no job in nature, and I think that is why it has such power to renew me. My only role there is as witness to endless wonders. So it seems I find my sense of inner peace as I hike, keeping my spirit nourished and my mind delightfully busy in the meditation of observation.
Mossy whispers: Let nature be your meditation guide for a day. Stand still and listen to the breath of the wind as it lifts and falls. Let yourself get swept into the currents of curiosity and fascination where time dissolves and renewal can be as simple as evening sunshine glowing through a feather in the grass…