Interview with Josh Lane

How does Meditating in Nature positively transform the brain and body for greater health and well-being? What’s the value of taking my meditation practice into Nature?
First, mindfully connecting with Nature helps us reset the tremendous cognitive load that we face; consider how many hundreds of details you must attend to throughout a given day - places to get to on time, traffic routes to negotiate during rush hour, bills to pay, people to call - each of these items on the daily task list demands a certain amount of space in your brain’s attention circuits. Nature helps us reset these circuits, so that we can relax and wipe the mental slate clean; then, we can be more present as a human being rather a human doing.

Numerous studies point towards the positive effects of time spent in Nature for our well-being. Time outdoors in green space reduces stress chemicals, including cortisol. Powerful immune boosters such as Immunoglobin-A are enhanced through time outdoors, and the beneficial effects stay in our systems long after we leave the woods.

On the meditation side of the equation, when we relaxedly concentrate for just 12-15 minutes, we can access a state called the Relaxation Response, first discovered by the Harvard researcher, Herbert Benson. This physiological state not only effectively reduces blood pressure and stress chemicals, but even more excitingly, changes our actual epigenetic expression. More recently, Benson found that through just 8 weeks of daily meditation, a person can switch more than 1500 genes towards a healthy, beneficial state of expression. That is to say, daily meditation not only reduces stress, but it literally changes how our genes express, leading towards greater states of health.

In terms of what’s happening in the brain itself, meditation helps us shift out of the over-excitable neural circuits that get triggered when we encounter stress and trauma. The amygdala helps us scan for potential danger in the environment, but it can override logical decision making and shade our perception of the world with overtones fear and anxiety when it runs amok. Meditation allows us to quickly reset the stress button; mindful awareness provides a space in which we can choose to respond, rather than react to events in our lives.

Meditation also changes the electrochemical activity of the brain. When you are studying for a test or working diligently on a project, your brain is creating rapid beta waves. These beta waves are localized pulses of activity that help you get various jobs done, such as solving a math problem or paying your bills. Beta is like 4th gear on a car; it’s a mode of frequent mental chatter and high focus. This state is incredibly helpful in moderation. But, if you get caught in a perpetual beta mindset habit, as many of our jobs and lifestyles impel us to do these days, it can be hard to shift out of high gear and relax.

If you’ve ever lain awake with thoughts racing, that’s a great example of beta mode refusing to tune down. Fortunately, both time spent in Nature and meditation are great ways to relax the mind. This shows up as slower alpha waves spread across the brain, allowing brain cells in vast regions to synchronize and nourish after periods of high mental performance. Alpha has been found to promote accelerated learning, relax the body and mind, and speed up healing, just to name a few benefits. Beta and alpha are just two of the five major brain states researchers have identified (some list 8 altogether) which we can learn to tap into through the art of meditation.

So, time in Nature is good for us, and meditation is also a powerful tool for supporting well-being. When we combine the two, we can reap the benefits of both for bringing more peace and presence into our lives.
What do you mean when you say that humans are adapted to attune to Nature’s patterns - if I live in the city, why does this matter today?
For most of humanity’s long history, people lived close to the land, their senses highly attuned to subtle patterns in Nature. The alarm call of a distant bird could relay early warning of a big cat approaching unseen, or the sudden shift in wind could herald a storm approaching. Our senses are adapted to cue to these kinds of rich natural patterns.

Only in the last six- to ten-thousand years have large portions of the human population shifted their lifestyles to an agrarian existence, and then later, to urbanization and industry. The last 30 years has seen the dawn of the Digital Era, and we now have entire generations who have very little contact with Nature compared to even a hundred years ago. At the same time, we have seen massive increases in mental and physical health concerns on an unprecedented level. A wave of research now points towards the essential necessity of regular contact with Nature for cognitive and physical well-being; even putting a photo of an outdoor scene on your computer’s desktop can improve your mood.

When we make space in our daily lives for intimately connecting with the natural world through full-being meditation, we enrich our lives and our health. This kind of connection can happen in the city park, in the suburban backyard, or in the deepest wilderness. It’s a matter of shifting our perspective and discovering what Nature has to offer us in the moment, wherever we happen to be.
You refer to the “Nature Around Us” and also to the “Nature Within”... why are these two perspectives on nature connection important, and how does it help us to mindfully attend to each of them?
When life gets busy and stressful, sometimes we can forget to tune in to our deepest passions and purpose. As we mindfully, heart-fully connect through our senses with Nature, we are soothed and restored; we find the space that helps us to turn deeper within, to get in touch with our inmost motivations and needs. In that way, the Nature around us helps us remember what it means to be connected to our Inner Nature.

On another level, Nature’s complex patterns are powerful means of sparking creativity and inspiration in our lives. The stars, wind, soil, and myriad life forms each have stories to tell and gifts to offer that enliven our sense of the world. We are one with Nature, part of the dynamic web of life; what we observe around us in the natural patterns points towards corresponding patterns within our psyche and soul. Sages and mystics have long understood this connection, turning to Nature for inspiration and vision. We can, too!
Could you describe some tangible ways that meditating in Nature can help us?
Meditation in Nature gives our nervous system a reboot, quickly shedding stress and increasing mental clarity. The immune system is strengthened, and pathways in the brain are tonified that allow greater mindful response in our life experiences. We learn to find the still center within us that allows us to be present and engaged in the motion of daily life without losing our center or grounding.

As we expand our senses to Nature’s language, we experience a dynamic form of meditation. Through the response of the animals to our presence, we gain insights into our own state of being... whether we are aligned with Nature’s flow, or not. Then we have a chance to adjust our own inner rhythms to the rhythms of the woods, and walk within the flow of Nature. Nature teaches us to find our rooting, and to carry this greater sense of well-being and grounding into the rest of our day, whether we are at work or at home.
What if I’m scared to go into the woods? How can I get started meditating outdoors?
First, realize Nature is everywhere. It’s just that different places highlight different aspects of Nature. You can find Nature on your back porch, in the elemental quality of each breath you take in, or in the trees growing on the sidewalks in the city. Yet, if you’re new to exploring the woods or other outdoor areas, give yourself some adjustment time.

Take small steps. If you have a yard, setup a chair or sit on the back steps, and meditate by expanding your senses for five minutes while you drink your morning tea. If you’re in the city, find a park bench to sit at and simply be as you tune into the sounds of the cityscape, including the birds, the directions of the breeze and clouds, and the colors and textures of the grass and the bark of the trees. If you have a favorite hiking trail, find a special spot that you can return to often where it feels good to be and spend time immersing in Nature. The more you go to that spot, the more you’ll become comfortable being there. In time, that place will begin to feel like home, because you’ve internalized the patterns around you.
What is “knowledge of place” and what impact does it have on our well-being? How can we intentionally support this kind of connection with our environment?
This is a key question - how well do we know our environment? There’s the old saying that what we know, we love, and what we love, we protect. What places do you frequent and know “like the back of your hand”?

Of course we know the ins and outs of our homes, our neighborhoods, how to get to work, and how to get to the grocery store. These are basic examples of knowledge of place that help us to live our lives. Yet, how well do we really know our back yards?

Do we know where the sparrow sleeps in the raspberry thicket at the edge of the yard each night, or the corner fence that the local raccoon climbs each evening with her muddy paws on the way to the compost pile? Do we know about the approaching storm heralded by the southern breeze and the leaves showing their backs on the silver maple trees? Or do we know that a cat is hunting in the neighbor’s yard, given away by the scolding calls of the jays? And what are the birds telling the cat and the raccoon about our movements through their voices and tone? How might knowing these things affect our feelings about our place and the beings that dwell there alongside us?

Our brains are constantly mapping our environments each and every moment. This happens on a largely unconscious level. The things we pay special attention to get tagged with an extra level of detail in these neural maps. For instance, the place cells in your hippocampus map out your home and the other spaces you frequent; inside this part of your brain, there is a spatial representation of your living room, your kitchen, and the other spaces that you must navigate every day. These cells are what allow you to wake up in the middle of the night and stumble groggily to the kitchen sink for a drink of water, even though the lights are off and you’re still half-asleep. You could say that this neural mapping is part of the “biological machinery” that supports a deep knowledge of place.

Each time we have a sensory experience in Nature, those unique sights, sounds smells, tastes and feelings are working their way into our inner maps of the world. The ancient art of tracking and reading Nature’s language involves learning to notice and apply meaning to details in the natural world that we would otherwise pass by - the faded print of a deer track in the mud, the thin whistling alarm of a robin, and the scent of the wind. Our brains are adapted to take notice of these kinds of rich, complex natural details.

When we engage our senses mindfully to Nature’s patterns, we awaken the neural circuitry that allows us to feel intimately connected with the land, the animals, and the rich tapestry of Nature. As we connect with place, we start to feel a living, personal relationship with Nature; empathy awakens, and we find ourselves deeply connected through our knowledge of the land. This kind of intimate awareness becomes a dynamic meditation, as our senses dance and revel in Nature’s cycles.
What is Qi Gong, and why is this ancient practice so complementary to meditating in Nature?
Qi (“chee”) indicates the life force inherent in the breath; Gong (“gung”) expresses a skill cultivated through persistent practice. Literally, Qi Gong means “skill with the life force.” Qi is found not just in the breath, but is observed moving in all aspects of Nature.

The ancient and enduring Wisdom Cultures each have their own understandings and ways of working with Nature’s life force to enhance health and well-being. Qi Gong is a fairly modern term describing the 3,500 or so breath, meditation, and movement systems that stem from Taoist practice and ancient shamanic knowledge in China and nearby areas.

Some of these systems also aligned with and absorbed various Buddhist and Yogic practices that found their way across the land at different times. In general, families developed their own ways of working with the breath and with Nature’s energy to expand consciousness, quicken healing, reduce stress, and explore the mysteries of life. To connect with the Tao is to connect with the source of Nature’s myriad patterns. As we turn within, we find clues to the patterns in Nature around us, and vice versa.
How does happiness relate to meditating in Nature? Are there specific meditation practices that support inner joy and balance?
Meditation and time spent relaxing in Nature helps the busy mind to release its burdens and unwind; this relaxation creates an opening for greater joy to shine through in each moment. The alpha and theta states we tap into in meditation literally reset the brain’s neural circuits, providing a recharge period that clarifies our thinking and refreshes our mental outlook on life. Pleasurable bliss states appear as we go deeper into meditation, particularly when we rest our awareness on the heart space; by simply meditating on the heart beat for several minutes, the “love peptide” oxytocin is released, heart coherence increases, and we start to feel great!
What’s one technique that you’d recommend for beginning a meditation practice in Nature?
The first key to attuning to Nature’s healing power is to be fully present to the gifts that are constantly unfolding in each moment.

If you’re not present to what’s happening, you’re missing the spark of creativity that’s waiting for you to align with it -- say you’re lost in thought about a big meeting coming up, and you’re worried about the outcome -- in that moment, if you can release the worry and come to your senses (literally), you may receive just the right inspiration from Nature’s patterns to inform how you wish to successfully proceed with your meeting. Perhaps you get an idea from a bird on the wing, or simply relax enough to open your creativity back up.

Relaxation is a big one, we need a daily reset to counteract the enormous amount of information and busyness that meets us each day. So, the first set of practices for meditating in Nature have to do with cultivating a state of full-sensory mindful awareness.

You can do this now: feel your body’s sensation as you stand or sit. Feel the floor under you, and sense the earth beneath the building (if you are indoors), supporting both the floor and the structure of your skeleton. As you breathe in, feel the breath enter your nose, and become aware of the scents carried on the breeze, and the taste in your mouth. Tune into your skin and feel the light pressure of the air moving against your face and forearms. Listen close around you and notice the sounds nearby, and then further into the distance. Finally, look up to the horizon with “soft eyes,” taking in the big picture of the world around you with your peripheral vision. Be there for a moment in all of your senses, attuned to what’s happening in the moment.

Do this practice for just a minute or two when you step out of the door in the morning, and again on your doorstep when you come home later in the day. If you work on the computer a day, set a timer each hour and enjoy this routine for a full minute every hour. Your capacity to enjoy the moment, and to attune to Nature’s patterns, is greatly empowered by this simple practice!
Published 2019-05-07.
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Books by This Author

Conscious Nature: The Art and Neuroscience of Meditating In Nature
Price: $5.99 USD. Words: 83,560. Language: English. Published: June 18, 2019. Categories: Nonfiction » Religion & Spirituality » Spiritual awakening, Nonfiction » Science & Nature » Nature
Nature, the original mindfulness teacher... our brains are adapted to thrive in close connection with the Earth, our senses keenly attuned to Nature's subtle signals. Meditating outdoors soothes the psyche, nourishes the body, and elevates creativity to new heights. Expert outdoors mentor Josh Lane shares a pathway to exploring your own relationship with Nature for greater well-being & presence.