How to connect with the natural world through meditation

Kat Palti
10 min readOct 10, 2019
Blossom. Image copyright: Kathleen Palti

Four simple practices to bring nature home in your daily life

Where is nature?

The story science tells is clear: life on earth is interconnected through the natural cycles of our air, water and soil. We are all part of dynamic ecosystems, from the large scale of our climate to the small scale of our guts. Whether we feel it or not, we humans are a part of nature. We are animals. Our breathing takes place within the greater breathing of the earth.

Yet many of us feel shut off from nature and the living earth. I live in a city apartment without a garden and I work in an office. It’s easy for me to spend a whole day without stepping on grass or soil.

Like many people, I used to see nature as something to find on holidays in mountains or forests. I had a sense that ‘nature’ was lacking from my normal life but could be consumed elsewhere. I longed for these escapes but, as a mother with small children, I struggled to take them.

Developing a meditation practice changed my perspective. I became more aware of the earth’s aliveness and my connection with it in very ordinary, everyday contexts. I realized that I did not want to escape to nature; I wanted to feel that I was already there.

Meditation brought nature home.

Four main practices were key to this: meditations focused on breath, sounds, loving-kindness and compassion. Each of these are traditional practices based on Buddhist wisdom, and can help many of us in the modern world to experience the radical interbeing of life on earth.

Breath awareness

At any moment, no matter where we may be, we can experience our connection with the world through our breath. Breathe in, and we draw the world into us, breathe out, and we give back.

Breath is a rhythm of connection, a tactile encounter between our self and all that flows through and around us.

A simple pause to notice the breath has the potential to create profound connection with nature by aligning body with mind and both with the flow of life.

Focusing attention upon the breath is one of the most well known mindfulness practices. To meditate in this way, sit comfortably and upright, and investigate where you feel the breath in your body most clearly: in the rise and fall of your belly, the spreading and contraction of your ribs, or the movement of air through your nostrils. That sensation provides a focus.

Feel the inflow and outflow of your breath. When your thoughts (inevitably) move away from the breath, notice that you are thinking, and return to the breath gently, without self-criticism.

The breath is an anchor in the present moment. Our minds are often busy remembering, planning, imagining, worrying. And all the time, we are breathing. By feeling the breath we can come into this moment and discover a kernel of presence and awareness that is always there within life.

Experiences of deep connection in the natural world have this quality of being in the present moment. Watching the waves on the beach, or a butterfly unfold his wings, or a crow eye us with a dip of her head, we naturally pay attention to the present moment with a spirit of curiosity and openness. This receptive state of mind and body strengthens our connection with nature and our sense of its unity.

In a similar way, breathing meditation practises the skill of entering the present, and becoming aware. Tara Brach speaks of this as a way of finding ‘true refuge’: ‘we reclaim our life and spirit by planting ourselves again in the universe’.¹

If you are new to mindfulness, I recommend using guided meditations to begin. I started by listening to free podcasts by Diana Winston at UCLA and by Tara Brach. There are also many apps available. Try out a few to find a guide who suits you.

I began breathing meditation in a relaxed way. My young baby wanted to be held while sleeping, so I began meditating while holding him for long stretches of the day and night. It was an intense and beautiful experience. I think the reason why I stuck at mediation and developed a daily practice was because I enjoyed it, even if mine was not at all the model prescribed by monks and experts. For this reason, I suggest finding something you enjoy about the practice to make it easy as you begin. Be comfortable and feel that there is a place in the living world for you.

Sound awareness

An alternative to focussing upon the breath in meditation is to sit and listen to sounds as they come and go. Sounds form the anchor to the present moment. We can listen without any effort, simply noticing the sounds that arise, from within the body, from close by, and from very far away.

I find that these two different anchors — breath and sounds — have a different effect upon my meditation, so when I feel scattered and need focus and grounding, I focus upon the breath, and when I feel constricted and need to be more open, I choose sounds instead.

I believe that listening mediation is a kind of ecological practice. Just as breathing is a physical connection between our body and the wider world, so is listening. Sounds come to us across great distances and from within. As we listen we can become aware of how we are placed in the here and now, and at once our awareness spreads and becomes expansive.

Our wild and animate minds grow in something much larger than ourselves.

Despite the name, mindfulness is not about cutting ourselves off from our bodies in order to focus on thoughts, nor does mindfulness cut us off from the bodies of other beings in nature. Instead, mindful practices focused upon either breath or sounds can guide us towards greater and more integrated awareness.

Loving-kindness

The two practices I have so far described are forms of mindfulness. They train the jumpy human brain in settling in the present moment. Many meditators compliment the mindfulness practice with Metta, a Pali word meaning loving-kindness. Metta meditation aims to support a kind and compassionate attitude. This kind of meditation has potentially great power for those of us who want to connect better with the natural world, and to contribute to the healing of our earth.

You typically begin Metta by thinking of a person you love and wishing them well. By beginning with a person you naturally feel kind towards (such as a child), the emotion flows. Gradually you include more and more people in that well-wishing, including yourself. You can choose to include non-human animals, and the whole living earth.

Just making these wishes does not make us saints or buddhas. It does not cast a spell. What it does is strengthen deliberate emotion: kindness towards ourselves and towards others. It is like training a set of muscles in the mind.

Kindness can help people to recognise the reality of other living beings and their desire for happiness. It guides us towards recognition of our interconnection.

It is possible to know that we exist in intertwined ecosystems without really feeling it to be true. Or perhaps we know it is true, but it has no impact on how we live our lives. Practicing Metta is one way to take this theoretical knowledge of radical interconnection and begin to invest it with lived reality, helping us to feel it in everyday life, and from there to turn it into meaningful action. In other words, supported by this practice we may actually become kinder towards other living beings.

Kindness strengthens the ecological movement. Unlike fear or anger, it feels good. Through kindness, we learn to act from love for the world, indeed from a sense that it is our greater body. Metta can motivate people to act in more caring ways, and those actions strengthen further the feeling of loving-kindness, effortlessly, without a sense of sacrifice or deprivation.

Perhaps Metta is a kind of story. Under neo-liberalism other kinds of stories dominate. We learn from the mainstream media that people are selfish, and that success demands aggressive, competitive individualism. But humans are also co-operative and compassionate, traits we share with many other animals. Most of us humans are here because our mothers practised a deeply empathetic way of being for at least a while, often for many years.

Practicing Metta can be a liberation from capitalist dogma. It’s incredibly simple. It’s free. It is not competitive. It will not be judged by others. And through loving-kindness we enter into a different, happier relation with the world and ourselves.

Compassion

Perhaps an objection could be raised: it’s all very well feeling awake and curious, loving and kind, but isn’t this natural world under attack? What have these practices to do with the suffering everywhere to be encountered, in nature and in civilisation? Don’t we need anger and fear?

I was troubled by these questions as I began to explore mindfulness. I had long resisted meditation due to an idea that it was self-indulgent. There is an answer of sorts in a fourth type of meditation, compassion practice, or Tonglen.

This practice is challenging. I personally struggle with it, but feel that it provides a balance to mindfulness and Metta. Thich Nhat Hanh said that to protect our world ‘what we most need to do is to hear within ourselves the sounds of the Earth crying’.² This is part of what Tonglen does.

A compassion meditation begins with mindfulness, entering the present moment through attention to your body and your breathing. You become aware of the inflow and outflow of breath, and then bring to mind a person you care about, who is suffering. Thinking of this person begins to invoke compassion. As you breathe in, you invite their suffering in, and as you breathe out, you release a wish to send this person relief and wellbeing. The compassion meditation grows in a similar manner to the loving-kindness meditation. We attend next to our own suffering, and then to the suffering of others, in wider and wider circles. You may choose to include non-human animals, and the earth herself.

Compassion can be scary. It could even be dangerous, because personal pain may arise. For people struggling with trauma or depression or another serious mental illness, practices that seek to heighten compassion might be inappropriate, because of the risk of being flooded with emotions and not having a healthy way to deal with them.

Meditation will affect each of us differently, even simple breath practice, so it’s important to proceed with awareness and seek the guidance that works best for you. Guided meditations may provide this, or a group.

I encourage you to approach Tonglen with care. However, whether we acknowledge it or not, the pain that a Tonglen practice sees is a part of our reality. Eco-philosopher Joanna Macy argues that each of us suffers on behalf of the larger whole, our world, in this time of ecological collapse. When we open ourselves with compassion, healing can begin:

“We begin to know the immensity of our heart/mind. What had isolated us in private anguish now opens outward and delivers us into the wider reaches of our collective existence… we know more genuinely our relatedness to all that is. We taste our power to change and feel the texture of our living connections with past and future generations, as well as with our brother/sister species. Then, ever again, we go forth into the actions that call each of us, in keeping with our situation and gifts.”³

Compassion opens us out into greater connection with others, with all of natural life. This connection with the natural world is the beginning of powerful, sustainable action.

When compassion practice takes place within a context of feeling the interconnectedness of all beings in our world, we don’t take all that pain upon our isolated selves. That would be too much to bear. Instead compassion runs through us from a much greater whole, a refuge at once vast and intimate.

Reimagining connection

Many people want more connection with nature, as can be seen in the popularity of nature programs and holidays in places of natural beauty. However, connecting with nature is not necessarily a good thing if it comes from a mindset of conquest, ego, consumption and competition. Perhaps it’s better not to swim with dolphins if it’s done without thought to the impact of our actions on other living beings and ecosystems.

I don’t want to suggest that instead of spending time with non-human living species or enjoying forest walks, river swimming or mountain climbing, we should just sit in our rooms meditating. But I do wish to make a place for awareness, kindness and compassion within our effort to reconnect with nature.

Discoveries from biologists and ecologists give us exciting new ways of seeing and understanding the radically interconnected natural world. For such insights to feel real in our lives we need both strong stories and personal practices that express those ideas.

Meditation practices achieve this. They have been developed over thousands of years, and the positive personal effects have been described often, such as increased ease and wellbeing. The positive effects are not simply because mindfulness trains the brain to be more focused and calmer. Meditation helps people to discover a way of seeing the world and our place within it from a perspective of awareness, balance, loving-kindness and compassion.

Such a perspective also goes a long way towards helping us to connect with nature, and it may contribute to healing humanity’s troubled relationship with the greater natural world.

Footnotes

1. Tara Brach, True Refuge: Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart (Hay House, 2013), p. 100

2. Quoted in Joanna Macy and Molly Brown, Coming Back to Life (New Society Publishers, 2014), p. 106

3. Coming back to Life, 67–68

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Kat Palti

Kat Palti writes about connecting with nature, meditation, deep ecology and yoga.