Welcome back to the Mindfulness In Nature course. So far, we’ve discovered how the human brain and sensory system are already adapted to mindfully connect with Nature. In this lesson, we’ll explore exactly how both meditation and quality time in Nature synergize to help us to thrive and be at our best. In fact, the benefits of mindful nature connection reach across many levels of our being, from the epigenetic level to nervous system response, and beyond.
How Meditation Changes Us on the Inside
First, let’s start on the benefits of meditation, and some key points learned over decades of research.
Harvard researcher Herbert Benson has made a career of studying how meditation affects the body. As far back as the late 1960s, Benson found that the nervous system responds predictably to meditation. After 12-15 minutes of practice, the body’s Relaxation Response emerges, bringing a host of benefits, including lowered blood pressure, reduced cortisol levels, and a shift from the fight-or-flight mode into a state of deep relaxation.
Benson and his colleagues have gone on to find a number of other positive effects of meditation. Because environmental and behavioral factors can actually change the way your genes express themselves, the researchers became curious as to how meditation might create change on this level.
Amazingly, the team found that a regular meditation practice actually produces significant beneficial changes on the epigenetic level. After just two months of meditating for 20 minutes a day, a group of new meditators was found to enjoy over 1500 gene changes, including hundreds of expression factors related to improved immune response, reducing inflammation and premature aging, and diminished oxidative stress. The bottom line is, meditation literally creates change from the inside out.
How Nature Changes Your Brain
Now, what we’ve looked at so far only touches on the meditation side of the equation. There’s also been an upsurge in research into how connecting with Nature impacts well-being. Simply walking in a forest can mirror many of the benefits we’ve discussed for meditation, such as lowering blood pressure and cortisol levels. This helps to regulate the nervous system and counteract the effects of chronic stress. While meditation creates change from the inside out, connecting with the natural environment is a way to support the transformation from the outside in.
Extended time in Nature, such as a 3-day camping trip in the woods, can boost your anti-cancer proteins and white blood cell responsible for a stronger immune system, and these effects last far beyond the camping trip. On the day-to-day side of things, even taking a 20-minute walk in a green space can improve your attention and boost cognitive performance.
This is just a glimpse into what’s being discovered about the benefits offered by meditation and nature connection practices. Because mindfulness and nature awareness go hand-in-hand, it’s easy to find ways to bring these two powerful healing practices together, which is our guiding North Star here in this course.
We’ll have more to discover about the interaction of mindfulness and Nature on the brain and body, but for now, I invite you to think about how these benefits might support you in your own life.
We’ll conclude today’s lesson with a simple meditation you can apply to begin accessing the benefits of the Relaxation Response
Meditation: Breathing in Nature’s Energy
For this meditation, find a spot outside that feels relaxing. If you can’t get out right now, you can also use your imagination to connect with Nature’s energy wherever you are, because everything is part of Nature.
If you are outside, take a moment to notice the Nature around you. Or, you can imagine a beautiful place in Nature, surrounded by lush trees and plants.
Note the beauty and balance of the natural world. For a moment, imagine that you can sense the way the trees and plants are absorbing energy from the sunlight. Also, sense how each leaf is pouring fresh oxygen into the air around you. Sense yourself immersed in the vibrant energy of Nature that is building up and surrounding you.
Now, place one hand on your belly, and the other on your chest. Where you place your hands, your attention will follow. Breathing through your nose, take a slow, deep breath in. Allow your belly to expand as you breathe in, as your diaphragm drops downwards to fill your lungs. Feel the air filling you up, expanding your solar plexus and then your entire chest. Hold the breath for just a moment, allowing the energy of the air to soak into your being. As you exhale, feel your chest relaxing. As the out-breath continues, feel your solar plexus pulling inwards to help expel the air, and then finally feel your belly button pulling in towards your spine as you fully exhale.
I invite you to enjoy a few deep breaths this way, feeling the wave of expansion as you breathe in from your belly to your chest, and then a gentle contraction as you exhale from your chest down to your belly. As you do this, all of Nature’s vibrant soothing energy fill you up like a golden light, infusing all of your beings with the peace and balance of the natural world.
After a few of these deep energizing breaths, allow your breathing to return to normal. Take a moment now to sense your entire body, as the fresh energy you’ve gathered circulates and recharges your entire system. Know that at any point during your day, you can easily return to this meditation to connect and recharge.