A grief support client recently told me her life and body no longer felt “real” since the death of two siblings and her father within the past year. The sensation of not feeling fully “real” or “there” is common during the initial mourning period. To help grief clients reconnect to body, mind and emotions in a restorative way, I usually suggest that they spend time every day or as often as possible in nature.
Research has shown that time spent outdoors in sunlight and greenery is associated with many beneficial physiological changes, such as helping to reduce blood pressure and cortisol levels (a hormone associated with stress), while at the same time enhancing respiration and the release of positive biochemical hormones that help us to feel a greater sense of positive well-being.
Time spent in nature also has many mental, emotional and spiritual benefits including:
Reminding us of the continuum of life and that we and our loved one are still part of something greater than ourselves.
Providing a place and space to attend to our grief without intrusion from the on-going demands of work, family and everyday responsibilities.
Allowing us to unplug from technology and find quiet, solitude and comfort in life rhythms that are natural, soothing and restorative.
Reminding us of the beauty of creation and that – even in our sadness or sense of loss – beauty still exists.
A Nature Practice for Grounding to the Earth
When navigating the uncomfortable emotions, thoughts and physical sensations that often go along with the grieving process, we sometimes experience episodes of feeling disconnected from ourselves and from our own body. Symptoms of this disconnect can include feeling as if you are floating above or beside your body, mental confusion, difficulty accessing words, difficulty letting go of depleting or negative thoughts stuck in the head, and not understanding the body’s requirement for food and rest. In stress management training, this sense of disconnect is called being “ungrounded”. When you feel ungrounded, imaging yourself as a tree, deeply rooted to the earth can help you feel greater comfort within the body, mind and emotions during the grieving process. Optimally imagining yourself as a tree can be done in a park or other quiet outdoor setting; the exercise can also be done in the comfort of your own home.
Begin in a standing position. You may find that you prefer to be barefoot to allow for the full experience of connecting with the earth. If you are more comfortable sitting then sit, planting your feet firmly on the ground. Close your eyes gently or cast them downward in a soft gaze – whatever feels most comfortable and right to you.
Notice your soles and the sensations you feel in your feet. Notice how your feet feel with the connection they have made to the earth. Rest your arms gently by your sides. Notice the totality of your body, scanning for areas of tension – areas of unrest or held stress – and ask those areas to relax.
Next focus your attention on your breathing. Take three deep breaths in through the nose and out through the nose or mouth, whatever is most comfortable for you. Then breathe normally with awareness.
Bring your attention and your breath to the bottom of your feet. Imagine that with each breath, you’re stretching a root or roots down from the bottom of your feet deep into the earth, as if your body is a tree. Feel your feet and ankles descend into the earth beneath you as if they are the roots of a tree. Feel your feet extend deep, deep into the ground, deep into the core of the earth. With each breath, sense or feel your root go ever deeper, through nutrient rich soil and a variety of soil types, fresh underground springs and deep water table. With each breath, sense or feel the thickness, depth, width and strength of each root.
Notice any thoughts, sensations or images that come to you as you travel deeper on this inner root journey. Note with awareness and without judgment any thoughts that accompany your inward trek. Continue to breathe, allowing your root to penetrate to the very heart of the earth – her inner core. Pause for a moment feeling how grounded, connected, you are. Appreciate your body and your body as roots and tree as you stand upon and connect with the body of the planet. When you’re ready, begin drawing energy from this heart center into your root. With each breath, draw on the power of this stability, this grounding energy, imaging it coming into your body through your feet/root.
When you are ready or feeling restored, allow your awareness to slowly shift back to the soles of your feet. Notice how the ground feels beneath you. Notice how your feet maintain the connection you have made with the earth. Be aware of the energy the earth has given you. Bring your awareness to the strength and relaxation you feel. Be aware of the tree energy you now embody. Before fully opening your eyes, bring your awareness to your roots and to the connection you have made.
Nature Practices for Letting Go of Rumination
In a healthy grieving process, grief can be likened to a coat we wear for the duration of the mourning period. Initially the coat may feel unbearably heavy, always noticeable – a garment we are forced to wear no matter the weather. As time goes on the same coat begins to feel lighter, becoming something we only put-on when storm clouds of memory appear on our inner horizon.
On-going rumination – common during the grieving process- can prolong the time we wear a heavy mourning coat. In terms of grief-processing, rumination can be defined as continually focusing your attention on the symptoms of your distress by pondering the meaning, cause and consequence of your loss and loss feelings. According to psychologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, ruminating about your loss and sadness and other grief emotions is associated with longer, more intense grieving symptoms.
Walking in a park or other nature setting can help quiet the part of the brain found to be active during rumination and depression; I often suggest walking in nature to my grief support clients for this reason. If on-going rumination is still an identified problem, I then suggest doing one of these specific exercises when in nature to help foster attention refocusing.
Mindful Nature Walking for Enjoyment
In this technique you will walk with awareness for the sheer enjoyment of walking and being in nature. The purpose is to be in the present moment and aware of your breathing and your walking, to enjoy each step, and to imprint peace on the earth with the soles of your feet.
To begin, stand and take a moment to feel your whole body. Feel the connection of your body to the ground beneath you through your feet. Start off by walking slower than your normal pace, first paying attention to sensations on the soles of your feet as each part of the sole, from heel to toes, touch the ground. Next, coordinate your breath with your steps. For example, if you take three steps with each in-breath, then take three steps with each out-breath. If you find your mind is easily distracted by rumination or mental noise, then consider saying to yourself “in, in, in. Out, out, out” to help keep you in the present (you can let go of saying the words when you feel able to do so). Allow yourself to feel comfortable and peaceful while walking.
Notice how the body moves and how movement feels as you walk with your arms either swinging back and forth or clasped behind or in front of you. If your mind wanders back to ruminating thoughts, just notice this without judgment and then bring your attention back to the sensation of your feet – heel, toe, heel, toe – and the sensation of breathing (in, in, in, out, out, out).
Walk as if you are kissing the earth with your feet. From time to time, when you see something beautiful, you can stop to look at it deeply – a tree, a flower, a stream etc; feel free to touch what you are looking at. As you look, continue to notice your inhalations and exhalations as you breathe so as not to get caught up in rumination or thought. When you want to resume walking, just start again.
Continue walking with awareness, focusing on taking one step at a time until you come to a designated end point. Without interrupting the flow of mindful walking, bring awareness to the process of turning around and beginning to walk back to where you started.
Mindful Nature Listening
In outdoor listening meditation what we are looking to do is to be with or ride the wave of sound without judgment or anticipation of what might be coming next. This sort of intentional listening puts us in flow (anchoring us to the present moment) – a gateway to relaxation and greater inner ease.
To begin, find a comfortable place to sit or stand. Begin to notice the sounds around you. Pick a sound that repeats over and over again, such as a birdsong, or an occasional breeze that makes tree leaves rustle. Try counting each and every instance of the bird song or rustling leaves, focusing attentively on sound between periods of silence. If your mind wanders and you miss a song or rustle, without judgment go back and start again. Notice the subtle variations in bird song or rustling. Eventually forgo counting and just listen to the sounds of nature as if you were listening to a symphony or other music, simply being with the rising and falling of sounds and rhythms.