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7 Ways to Appreciate the Natural World

When we get intentional about noticing the details around us, we open ourselves up to the wonder, nourishment, and surprise that nature has to offer.

One of the ways we can most deeply experience and tune in to nature is by gardening—spending intentional time to nourish the natural world. When we garden, we feel the tactile qualities of the greenery and the dirt, and get a close-up view of the insects, petal patterns, and other tiny details we’d usually skim over. And if you don’t have a garden, all it takes to zoom in to nature is to bring that same kind of intentionality to observing. Nature is abundant with nourishment, and even some surprises, if only we take our time and open our awareness to what it has to offer. Here are some tips from Karin Evans on how to best appreciate the nature around you.

How to Mindfully Appreciate Nature

  1. Slow your steps. Take your pace down a notch. Think saunter or strolling for pleasure, not getting to a destination in a hurry. Slow down and enjoy.
  2. Savor through your senses. Tune in using your whole body: the warm air on your face, the sound of birds, the fragrances of flowers and earthy smell of soil, the texture of leaves. Feel each sensation.
  3. Think small. A photographer for National Geographic once spent time lying on his stomach in the desert, photographing flowers he called “pinhead flowers,” blooms that were the size of a pencil dot. When he enlarged the photographs, they were stunning.
  4. Notice tiny details. Author Jane Anne Staw wrote Small after she had an epiphany about concentrating too much on the big picture and missing the small one. One day she noticed a single dried leaf on the sidewalk, and focused all her attention on that leaf. “Suddenly I felt awareness course through me…my whole body hummed with pleasure….”
  5. Change your point of view. Poet Mary Oliver said that she could walk the same path every day and always see something new. Vary your gaze: Look up, look down, sweep your eyes from left to right. And use more than just your vision. Listen to the crunch of your feet as you walk.
  6. Go lightly. When you are out in nature, nothing is required but your presence. Put away your need to do anything and completely mute your cell phone. Unlike electronics, plants don’t demand us to click on anything; they signal subtly, so look for their clues.
  7. Stay awhile. Biologist David Haskell spent a year observing one square meter of earth in order to write The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature. Pick your spot, get comfortable, and resist the urge to move on. The garden will reward you and so will the rest of life.

This article originally appeared in the June 2019 issue of Mindful Magazine.

Connect with nature no matter where you find yourself using simple practices from the SoBe Mindful method, created by mindfulness teacher and author Scott Rogers.
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  • Mindful Staff
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Research shows that walking in nature offers stress-busting and mood-boosting advantages, plus a welcome chance to stretch our legs. Chris Willard, PhD shares six ways to customize your next mindful stroll.
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  • Christopher Willard
  • December 15, 2020

Do Hard Things Because They Are Hard

Last week I went to Utah to run an unusual marathon. My time was well over two hours slower than any marathon I’ve done, but that was by design—I was running with someone who was doing a series of extreme events back-to-back, every day for 100 days in a row.

The pace, therefore, was slow.

His name is James Lawrence, more popularly known as the Iron Cowboy. I’d heard of James a year or two ago after watching a documentary of his previous quest where he attempted (and completed, with a few small variations along the way) 50 Ironman-distance triathlons in 50 states in 50 days.

For his new quest, he’s attempting 100 “full-distance triathlons” in 100 days, all from his home base in Utah. (He can’t call them Ironman-distance because the Ironman brand is, shall we say, a little touchy about such things.)

If it sounds like this is easier than dealing with the logistics of travel, that part is probably true, but consider what’s involved:

  • A 2.4 mile swim that starts at 5:30am
  • A 112 mile bike ride (approximately 7:30am-2pm)
  • A 26.2 mile run (starts around 3pm, usually ends between 9pm-10pm)
  • Repeat every day for 100 days

Did you catch that last part? There’s no margin for error. If he gets behind in any event, the times stack up—and this has happened more than once already, where he finishes the run close to midnight, then gets in the pool again at 5:30am. All day long, no days off.

You can probably tell I’m impressed, and I don’t even bike or swim (at least not well). All I do is run!

Is He Doing This to Raise Money for Something? Yes, But…

But wait, why is he doing it? Here’s where it gets interesting.

Not surprisingly, James is raising money for a charity. In this case, it’s an organization that works to end human trafficking. So far he’s raised well over $100,000 and will presumably end up with a significantly higher number before it’s over.

But is raising money the reason he’s putting himself under such extreme pressure every day? As someone who studied these things and wrote a book about it, I’m pretty sure that’s not it.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m not saying that James is being deceptive in any way. It’s great that he’s able to align his efforts with a cause. I just mean that this motivation, however noble, is secondary. And not only is it a secondary motivation, but the benefits of a project like this (for both James and many other people) go far beyond fundraising.

On his previous quest, James also raised money for charity. He ended up with a good amount of money donated—but someone as determined as James could probably find a way to fundraise even more without 14 hours of endurance exercise every day. So, like any good quest, it’s not efficient or optimal.

This is a key component of quests: they don’t necessarily make logical sense. Plenty of outsiders “don’t get it.”

That’s why I believe the true motivation for a quest like 100 Ironman-distance triathlons in 100 days is much simpler. When I wrote The Happiness of Pursuit (a book all about finding purpose and meaning through a quest) I discovered that almost everyone who undertakes a bold adventure has difficulty explaining why they’re doing it.

To the hero on his/her/their journey, it’s intuitive: they simply have to do it. Once they get it in their heads, there’s no turning back. If they don’t make the attempt, they’ll regret it.

For some, however, that answer feels insufficient. Society at large tends to be uncomfortable with ambitious individuals—so the hero on the journey feels like they have to tack on some sort of justification.

Hero: “I’m going to ride a unicycle to the moon, all without sleeping.”

Person who lives a boring life: “That sounds crazy, why?”

Hero: “Because I’m raising money for kids with cancer.”

Person who lives a boring life: “Oh, that makes perfect sense. Let’s get you on the Today show.”

Speaking of The Happiness of Pursuit, one of the stories I liked best in the book was about Nate Damm, a young guy from Maine who walked across America. Unlike many of my other case studies, Nate had no pretense about any secondary motivations. “I’m doing this for myself,” he said.

The interesting thing is that even though Nate walked across America “for himself,” with no other justification, he ended up creating all sort of positive change as a result. (Clearly I was inspired! And countless other people were, too.)

Why, then, does a person like the “Iron Cowboy” feel the need to package a heroic achievement through charitable fundraising? Again, it’s not his fault—it’s because that’s what everyone expects. It’s unusual to say, “I’m doing this thing because it’s really hard and I want to challenge myself.”

But he should! Or at least, he could, and his quest would have no less value. And if you are thinking about doing some Really Hard Thing, know that you don’t need to justify or rationalize it somehow. It doesn’t need to be dressed up for anything other than the remarkable achievement it is on its own.

What’s Really Inspiring

If you’ve read this far, you might think I’m criticizing James or belittling his goal in some way. Nope! I’m a fan.

After all, I got up at 4:30am and traveled to Utah just for the sake of being part of the event that day. I didn’t talk with James much during the run—I figured that every day he has people bothering him, and for me the value was in being a small part of a history-making achievement.

Even though I left James alone, I talked with many of the other people who showed up that day. It was Day 47, AKA the 47th day in a row that he’d been out there, and four days later he’d break his own world record for the most consecutive full-distance triathlons.

A few people in the group were ultrarunners, most were at my level (not an ultrarunner, but otherwise comfortable with running a lot), and at least four of them had never done a marathon before.

Those people—the ones who were inspired to attempt something they’d never done before—were the ones I was interested in.

The crowd for the day James broke his previous record. I was there four days earlier for Day #47.

  • One of them was a guy who’d been doing a strenuous workout program for the past 75 days. Before beginning the program, he was out of shape and not used to exercise. Many days were tough, but by sticking to the plan, he had already lost 40 pounds. He said that when he thought about quitting, he thought about what James was doing every day.
  • Another guy had ran a half-marathon once, but that was a decade ago and he hadn’t done much running since. (Note to non-runners: to go from a half-marathon to a full is not a small jump!)
  • Two other runners had been doing a plant-based diet for several months after listening to Rich Roll, podcaster extraordinaire and longtime friend of mine. Joining up with James was another step in their journey of self-improvement.
  • Finally, another runner told me they’d recently left an abusive relationship, and decided to get serious about cycling (and running an occasional marathon…) when they heard about the “Conquer 100” quest.

These are just a few anecdotes from the group I ran with in person on a single day of this herculean endeavor. Every day for 100 days, people from near and far are joining in to be part of the events. They’ll all go away with the story of a shared experience: I was part of that. For some of them, it might just be a nice memory. For others, it could be life-changing.

And of course, every day, tens of thousands are following online. Assuming that James is able to make it to day 100 (or, honestly, even if a serious injury forces him to stop sometime before then), countless numbers of people will be inspired and challenged. What do you think the impact of that is?

It’s impossible to quantify, but whatever is it, it has to be much, much greater than whatever amount of money he raises. The charity work is fine. But doing hard things just for the sake of doing them might be even better.

Here’s what’s really inspiring about a quest like the Iron Cowboy’s. It’s not the outcome—the money raised, the miles ran (and swam and biked, in his case)—it’s the pursuit. This is beautiful, meaningful, and entirely worthwhile by itself.

Chris Guillebeau is the New York Times bestselling author of The Happiness of Pursuit, The $100 Startup, and other books. During a lifetime of self-employment, he visited every country in the world (193 in total) before his 35th birthday. Every summer in Portland, Oregon he hosts the World Domination Summit, a gathering of creative, remarkable people. His new book, Born for This, will help you find the work you were meant to do. Connect with Chris on Twitter, on his blog, or at your choice of worldwide airline lounge.

Image courtesy of Pixabay.

The Salmon Teacher

When I was seven years old, my mom and her partner Stephan took me on a fishing day trip. We strolled for a while through the dense, shady forest until we finally found the ideal location to begin fishing: a secluded and peaceful spot beside the water’s edge.

We sat by the rapidly flowing river and took out our fishing rods. I was beyond excited, and my childish delight definitely showed. What I didn’t know about fishing is that patience is a virtue you must possess if you want to enjoy the process. Patient I was not, and my excitement gave way to extreme boredom in no time.

That day in nature was supposed to be about fun, togetherness, and enjoyment. In stark contrast, I was growing grumpier by the minute. Stephan, wanting to cheer me up, suggested that we go to a nearby salmon farm, where the odds of catching a fish were about 100%.

As we settled by the artificial lake, I threw my line into the water with gleeful anticipation. Instantly, the soft fishing line became tense, indicating an unlucky salmon had been cheaply tricked into thinking my hook was some kind of luxurious breakfast.

As I eagerly pulled the fish out of the water, the reality of what was occurring finally dawned on me. Attached to the other end of the line was a struggling creature, squirming on the dry ground where it did not belong, furiously fighting for its life. Worst of all, I had caused this to happen. This sight terrorized me on such a deep level that I turned around and ran for my life.

All I can remember of that moment was how frightened I felt—the salmon was determined to chase me down. The faster I ran, the closer he got to me. I screamed in fear while zigzagging in panic across the grass, like an ostrich on bad acid.

In the background, between my shrieking and my mom’s unrestrained giggles, I heard Stephan’s simple yet wise advice: “Emilie, drop the line! Let it go!” They both almost choked to death from laughter.

Even though “let it go” seemed like a simple and reasonable solution, I still chose to run wild and yelled for a little longer before putting the advice into action. When I had reached the point of exhaustion, I finally decided to drop the line.

I felt an odd mixture of surprise and relief, when I realized that the fish was no longer pursuing me, and my fiery ordeal was over. I quit fishing altogether on that day.

In our adult lives, most of the things that hold us back—those that cause us pain and stop us from living the life we truly desire—are like the salmon and me. We are connected by a fine, invisible cord, yet we sometimes forget that we hold the power to let go.

During the past few decades of my pursuit for spiritual alignment and my T-rex appetite for everything related to self-growth, I came to realize that the most powerful wisdom always comes in simple forms. I’ve also come to understand that simple rarely equals easy.

Whether it’s a relationship, a habit, a way of thinking, something in your past, or your own ego, it can be an overwhelming challenge to let go of your attachment.

There are no special tricks or mysterious ways to go about it. If we want to move on to the joyful, fulfilling life we envisioned for ourselves, we just have to drop that damn fishing line!

“I tried to eat healthier, but I don’t think it’s for me. Everything tastes so boring, and I mean, I don’t even drink, so I think a bit of food indulgence is totally fine. I’m letting go of this,” a friend of mine once said. This same friend had claimed just a few days before that she needed to make better food choices after complaining for months that she felt sluggish and unhealthy.

This is called abandonment. Even though the line is fine between both, letting go is not the equivalent of abandoning.

Abandonment is weakness. It’s an excuse we create to get out of a challenging situation that causes us temporary discomfort. If we simply persisted, it would allow us to achieve the goals we had set for ourselves, and leave our life enhanced.

Letting go is the opposite. It’s a lofty act of self-love, courage, mindfulness, and strength. It’s making the right call to move forward instead of backward. It’s a conscious choice to forgive and release all of our worries, insecurities, and fear about our past and future.

To let go can be a simple physical action. It can take many forms: walking out of your toxic job to never return; purging your closet and giving your excess clothes to charity after realizing you’re a shopaholic; throwing your wedding ring out of a moving car after signing your celebratory divorce papers; or shaving all of the precious hair from your head to leave society’s beauty standards in the dust.

However, in most cases, letting go is usually a tricky and complex mental process.

I say tricky because if it were so easy, we would all stop indulging in our negative thoughts and move on instantly from our trauma and exes in a heartbeat. We would all be bitter-free, forever-happy miniature Buddhas.

Instead, most of us just seem to want to punish and torture ourselves with the repetitive, awful stories playing in our minds. We indulge in the scariest (most unlikely) scenarios and replay awful memories on loop, over and over again. Why do we do this? It’s because of the way it feels. We literally become addicted to the familiar emotions that these stories create in our bodies. The repetition creates familiar neuropathways in the brainwaves; just like any other addiction, the more we activate them, the more we crave them.

For about three years, I held a vivid grudge about a coworker. When I was 20 years old, I began waitressing in a restaurant that sold anything chicken based. On one morning before my shift, me and three other coworkers were called one by one for an impromptu interview in the manager’s office.

A client from the previous evening had phoned in earlier to declare that someone had added a tip on his credit card receipt. He was certain he had left nothing, as he claimed the service had been awful.

Therefore, one of us waiting to be interrogated was responsible for the fraud. When my turn arrived, I found out that one of the girls had thrown me under the bus, even though I had nothing to do with the incident.

When they questioned me, they said that Anika already told them I was responsible. I instantly started crying from a feeling of deep injustice and betrayal (in retrospect, it probably made me look very guilty).

I was the newest employee, and to be completely honest, I was also pretty bad at my job. On top of that, I despised chicken. I was fired on the spot. I fiercely resented Anika, and recounted the infamous story countless times, each time funneling anger and drama into my inner world.

Three years later, I went back to eat at that same restaurant for a friend’s birthday party. Guess who was our waitress? Anika, the devil herself! I felt rage pulsating throughout my entire body, but kept it together so as to not ruin my friend’s special day. Anika recognized me immediately, and it was all very awkward.

Sometime before our food was served, I went to use the bathroom and ended up face to face with Anika.

“Look, I’m sorry for what happened a few years back. I could not afford to lose my job—I’m a single mom, you know? I panicked, so I said your name. I’m really, really sorry, and I hope you made it okay,” Anika told me, with tears in her eyes.

“I’m okay, Anika; we’re good,” I answered truthfully. In that moment, all of my resentment towards her vanished.

The truth is that I had been good since the first week after being let go. I quickly found a job that I did not suck at, it paid better, and I didn’t smell like of chicken after work. Win, win, win.

We obviously can’t bypass acknowledging and feeling all of our emotions.

It’s crucial to express them, whether that be through spoken words, writing, or other forms of art. We need to allow ourselves the appropriate amount of time to properly grieve before moving on—it is an important part of the process. In my situation with Anika, seven days should have been the correct amount of time to get over it, not three years.

This is where cultivating mindfulness plays an enormous role in the practice of letting go, unless you have some super-duper power to control your every thought (if so, hit me up—I’d love to befriend you and learn your magic).

My favorite mindfulness exercises are pretty traditional, and acutely effective: journaling, nature walk, meditation, and yoga. There is a plethora of practices at your fingertips, and you can choose whatever suits your world and brings you back to the present moment. Play a musical instrument, have a dance party, surf it out, focus on your breathing, or even hang out with a crew of baby goats.

To move on in positivity, we certainly need to make conscious choices about the thoughts that we indulge in (which is only about 5% for the average human). For all of the other 12,000 to 60,000 unwanted negative or repetitive thoughts that will flow in our mind without consent each day, the best approach is to release control, and allow them to pass by without judgment or engagement.

We must become the observer, and learn to not identify with our thoughts. It’s the engagement with these negative thoughts that creates inner conflicts, making them so real that we feel them as physical reactions in our body.

There’s absolutely nothing that we can change about the past, and it’s pointless to be worrying about a future which we have absolutely no control over (this pandemic is a pretty good reminder of that truth).

To let go is a sane, courageous decision. When trapped in the suffocating grip of what no longer serves us, we are robbing ourselves of the precious present moment. It is there that resides the opportunity to grow into the best version of ourselves. It is where we will find all the open doors leading us to infinite possibilities, allowing us to create the life that we truly desire. To choose to softly release, is sometimes the boldest action we can take.

Emilie Button is a passionate Transformational Coach, writer, and story collector. As a coach, she specializes in: Holistic wellness and spiritual and personal growth

Image courtesy of Roussety Gregory.