Rewilding Our Spiritual Practice

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January 31, 2020

 

Mindfulness Rewilded

 

“As great as the infinite space beyond is the space within the lotus of the heart. Both heaven and earth are contained in that inner space, both fire and air, sun and moon, lightning and stars. Whether we know it in this world or know it not, everything is contained in that inner space.” 

THE CHANDOGYA UPANISHAD 

 

As someone inside “the mindfulness industry,” I have observed that yoga has become as deprived of nature as the rest of society. With our rubber-soled shoes, yoga mats, and indoor practice spaces, modern humans move from one nature-disconnected space to another. Even during those rare moments between the car and the studio, we wear shoes that prevent contact with the ground beneath our feet. Yet the practices of yoga and meditation were born in the mountains, forests, and deserts of Asia. 

 

A few years ago, I attended a yoga conference in Manhattan, a few floors up at the midtown Hilton. After my second yoga class in a stuffy, windowless room, with hundreds of yogis in spandex moving about on rubber mats, I experienced a moment of cognitive dissonance. I love yoga—it is a powerful, beautiful practice—and I believe that the widespread increase in yoga and mindfulness practice is profoundly positive. However, something about this scenario didn’t seem quite right to me—or quite right for me. 

 

Not long after, at another yoga and recovery conference, my friend Tim Walsh, an avid outdoorsman and recovery coach, expressed my own thoughts when he said, “Folks, we’re standing on rubber mats inside a temperature-controlled room on the second floor of a giant brick building. How much more disconnected from the earth can you get!” His words rang inside me, and at that moment, something at my core woke up. I had felt this disconnect for years, and now it was time to do something about it. 

 

I had dreamed for many years of somehow bridging the worlds of meditation, yoga, and mindfulness with rewilding. When I finally started to research the connections between nature and mindfulness practices, I ended up creating programs for students at Kripalu that immersed us in forests and fields while practicing. I wanted to help people become conscious of their inner nature while out in nature and to help them see the importance of conserving our natural environments—the primal parts of ourselves. How did yoga and meditation, wild practices designed to awaken, empower, and enlighten, become so disconnected from the enlivening power and the beauty of the living earth? Because yoga and mindfulness have profound benefits for well-being, they have also been co-opted and commercialized. Products have proliferated—the mats and the clothing, the snacks and the food, the shoes and the hats. Our economy is driven by the consumption of things that must be extracted from the earth and produced and marketed and sold. As yoga and mindfulness became imbedded in modern culture’s mostly indoor lifestyle, these ancient practices also became cut off from the presence of the wind, sun, moon, and life of the living earth. 

 

When we disconnect from the living earth, we lose the life-affirming wisdom that is found outdoors. If we consider the fact that we are an evolutionary expression of the evolving earth, then our own self-awareness can be thought of as the self-awareness of the living earth itself. Which is a pretty powerful idea to ponder! And it means that human rewilding can lead to a rewilding of our spirit, a reinspiriting of our essential nature. 

 

Pacification or Liberation? 

 

Yoga and mindfulness today are often used to help people invite calm and to support greater self-regulation and impulse control in stressful situations. But just as I’m concerned about their commodification, I’m also concerned that these ancient practices are being used as pacifiers to help people put up with the negative effects of modern society, because these ancient practices are also the tools for true liberation from the root causes of our distress. 

 

To be clear, yoga, meditation, and mindfulness are extremely valuable practices. The abilities to take a deep breath and step back from the fight-or-flight response, to self-soothe, and to know when to practice self-care, these are all critical tools for living consciously. 

 

I am reminded of an episode of the old television show Kung Fu, in which a martial arts master, played by David Carradine, is taken prisoner and forced into manual labor under the blazing sun. Labeled a troublemaker, he is put into a hot box, a cast-iron oven with an unbearably fierce temperature. In the box is another man who is panicked by their dangerous situation. Carradine calmly teaches the man how to meditate, to slow his breathing and witness his thoughts. At the end of the day, they are released, and both emerge from the box alert and calm, much to the surprise of their captors. 

 

A more recent and real-life example is the group of boys on a soccer team in Thailand who were stranded for almost two weeks in a complex network of flooded tunnels. They learned to meditate from their coach, who had lived in a Buddhist monastery for 10 years. They sat in the darkness, not knowing if anyone would come to their aid, and they stayed calm and connected to one another. They were all ultimately saved by a team of divers who risked their own lives in the effort.

 

Meditation is a powerful antidote to fear and the modern daily stresses that can harm our health if left unchecked. Meditation can even save your life. But if you are under duress, the first thing to check is whether you can get out of it. See if the door to the hot box can be opened. Look for the escape route in the cave. If a change in the circumstances is possible, the wise action is to eliminate the cause of suffering first, and meditate later. 

 

As a species, we often don’t even know that we are in a hot box or a dangerous cave. The stress of modern life is ubiquitous, so a change of environment may not even seem like an option. And, of course, not everyone can get away from their circumstances or difficulties. Not everyone has easy access to pristine natural places. Many can’t afford to travel to a place with fresh air and water. 

 

I hope that the steps I teach in my book, Rewilding, for connecting with the living earth will open doors for everyone. The sunlight, the movement of air, the presence of the earth that is solid and stable even in asphalt, the dandelion coming up through a crack in the pavement, all can be entries into a wilder, more conscious, more awakened life. 

 

For more practices in rewilding, search for “Micah Mortali” on the Sounds True blog to read his other posts or find his book, Rewilding: Meditations, Practices, and Skills for Awakening in Nature, at your favorite bookseller!

Micah Mortali is director of the Kripalu Schools, one of the largest and most established
centers for yoga-based education in the world. An avid outdoorsman, mindful wilderness guide,
500-hour Kripalu yoga teacher, and popular meditation teacher, Mortali has been leading
groups in wilderness and retreat settings for 20 years. In 2018, he founded the Kripalu School of
Mindful Outdoor Leadership. Mortali has a passion for helping people come home to themselves
and the earth, and he is finishing his master’s at Goddard College on nature awareness and
mindfulness practices. He lives with his wife and children in the Berkshires. For more, visit
micahmortali.com.

 

 

 

 

 

Read Rewilding today!

Sounds True | Amazon | Barnes&Noble | IndieBound

Micah Mortali

Micah Mortali is director of the Kripalu Schools, one of the largest and most established centers for yoga-based education in the world. An avid outdoorsman, mindful wilderness guide, 500-hour Kripalu yoga teacher, and popular meditation teacher, Mortali has been leading groups in wilderness and retreat settings for 20 years. In 2018, he founded the Kripalu School of Mindful Outdoor Leadership. Mortali has a passion for helping people come home to themselves and the earth, and he is finishing his Master’s at Goddard College on nature awareness and mindfulness practices. He lives with his wife and children in the Berkshires. For more, visit kripalu.org.

Also By Author

The Place You Awaken

Establishing a place for regular outdoor meditation and nature observation is often referred to as a “sit spot” or “medicine spot”.  Like the Buddha, who found his own tree of awakening, we too can go to nature and practice being awake to the reality of the present moment.  This practice can also help us become more intimate with all the qualities of the land we live with.  

If one day I see a small bird and recognize it, a thin thread will form between me and that bird. If I just see it but don’t really recognize it, there is no thin thread. If I go out tomorrow and see and really recognize that same individual small bird again, the thread will thicken and strengthen just a little. Every time I see and recognize that bird, the thread strengthens. Eventually it will grow into a string, then a cord, and finally a rope. This is what it means to be a Bushman. We make ropes with all aspects of the creation in this way.” 

San bushman

Guided Sit Spot Practice

  1. Go to a place in nature that is close to where you live and that you can visit regularly.
  1. Take a few moments to center yourself, breathing in and out, and arriving fully in the present moment.
  1. As you are ready begin to walk mindfully with an intention to find a spot that calls out to you, a place you can sit and deepen your relationship with this place.  The spot should feel welcoming, safe and comfortable.  It could be under a tree, beside a boulder or in an open space.  Often, east facing spots can be nice for early morning sits.
  1. When you find a spot that feels good, in your own way, ask permission of that place and wait to see what comes to you.  If you feel invited, sit.  If not, keep looking.
  1. Once in your spot, sit comfortably and become as still as you can.  Imagine that you are melting into the earth, becoming a part of the land.  Sit for at least 15-30 minutes, noticing any movement, sounds, or other sensations and activities.
  1. Return often.

Find more practices for connecting to nature in Rewilding: Meditations, Practices, and Skills for Awakening in Nature by Micah Mortali.

Read Rewilding today!

Sounds True | Amazon | Barnes&Noble | Bookshop

Nature Meditation by a Window

With many people home-bound, we may need to get creative in seeking ways to connect with the natural world.  Sitting by an open window is one excellent practice for connecting with the outdoors, and it can be a powerful form of nature meditation as well.

“What is life?  It is the flash of a firefly in the night.  It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime.  It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.”

Crowfoot, Orator of the Blackfoot Confederacy

  1. Find a comfortable seat by an open window that looks outdoors.  
  2. Morning, during the dawn chorus when birds are most active, can be a perfect time to enjoy your morning coffee or tea as you observe a new day emerge.
  3. Set an intention to stay present, letting go of thoughts or stories in your mind as they arise, and instead focusing your attention on whatever is fascinating in your environment.
  4. Sit for at least 15-30 minutes if you can.  Practice regularly to help alleviate stress, increase your sense of connection with your local environment, and awaken your senses.

Micah Mortali Facebook Live clickable image for guided meditation earthday

 

Find more practices for connecting to nature in Rewilding: Meditations, Practices, and Skills for Awakening in Nature by Micah Mortali.

Read Rewilding today!

Sounds True | Amazon | Barnes&Noble | Bookshop

The Basics of Nature Mindfulness

Ursasana: Bear Posture

Many years ago, a bear sat down next to me while I was meditating in the woods. It was an afternoon in mid-October in the Berkshires, and I had been mountain biking in my favorite preserve. I took a break from riding to enjoy the perfect fall afternoon. I was overflowing with gratitude. My life was going well.

I sat under a strong oak tree and closed my eyes. I asked Spirit to come and sit with me, to share in my heartfelt thanksgiving. I spoke the words aloud and immediately heard footsteps in the woods behind me. They got closer, but I continued with my meditation, until directly behind me, I heard a twig snap and a loud exhalation through a very big nose. I knew in that moment, in every cell of my body, that a bear was behind me.

My heart pounded, and adrenaline surged through my body. I was totally alert and aware. I very slowly turned my head to look behind me and saw shining black fur from shoulder to rump, close enough to reach out and touch. It was a large black bear. Immediately my mind provided options for survival. Get up and run away? Get up and yell to scare the bear away? Climb a tree? Those ideas seemed bad. Sit still, do nothing, and breathe? Yes, that made sense. And so I did. I slowed my breathing and meditated on the intensity of my body’s response to this perceived threat.

In my yoga I had learned that strong sensations and emotions, including fear, can be powerful doorways into meditation. Rather than turning away from an uncomfortable experience, I had learned to breathe into what I was feeling. In this case, the fight-or-flight response was a huge wave washing over my mind, body, and soul. Instead of making a big story about what was happening, I remembered to face the experience in all of its raw power. I had the thought, This is the coolest thing that has ever happened to me! I had another thought, too: This might be the worst thing that has ever happened to me! Many hundreds of hours, I had practiced breathing through the intense sensations of yoga postures, watching my experience without reaction and allowing things to be the way they are. All that training on the mat was now being put to the test in a pose I had never tried before, Bear Pose, or Ursasana.

For a moment, I wondered how it might feel to be bitten by a bear. That was not a helpful thought, so I returned to my breathing. Moments seemed to stretch into hours. The bear walked out from behind the tree and sat next to me. It was smelling me. Still I remained motionless. In time, the bear walked away. I turned to look as it walked away. It turned to look back at me. Our eyes met, and then it disappeared down the hill. I stood up and fell down, my legs weak and wobbly. I stood again and got to my bike. I climbed on board and pedaled out of those woods like a bat out of hell!

For days, I was in a state of profound shock and elation. My life was filled with magic, possibility, and power. Anything could happen. I felt incredibly alive. The presence of the bear stayed with me—even to this day. I have never been a thrill seeker or adrenaline junkie. I’ve never jumped out of an airplane or tried bungee jumping. I’ve always been drawn to more meditative outdoor activities, like canoeing, archery, or watching birds. But sitting in meditation with a bear gave me an unexpected adrenaline jolt.

While sitting with a bear is not likely to happen to many people, you may encounter other life-forms or elements that can help you awaken and experience a greater degree of aliveness. We long for connection with our relatives who roam the forests and wildlands, and we still find nourishment in their company. In mindful rewilding, we open ourselves up to the sensations and life-giving experiences that the land holds for us. Such moments of communion between you and the living earth can open doorways into a more magical, mysterious, and meaningful life. And it makes all the difference to have the right mental tools and preparation to help you ride the waves of powerful energies you will encounter in both the human and the more-than-human worlds.

When sitting with that bear, I used a technique we lovingly call “BRFWA”: Breathe, Relax, Feel, Watch, and Allow. You might use BRFWA on your first walk in a park or a wood that is new to you. You might use it during your first solo camping experience or when you see an animal that frightens you. I once used BRFWA when I got caught in a rip current while swimming off the Big Island of Hawaii. It allowed me to remain calm and to act skillfully, possibly saving my life. In any survival situation, the first advice is almost always to remain calm and think, not to react or panic. But how we are supposed to do that is not often explained. 

By practicing mindful rewilding, you are not looking to put yourself in a survival situation, though many of these skills can help you feel more confident and capable when you’re away from the conveniences of modern society. Inevitably, the more time we spend outdoors, the more likely we are to come up against our comfort zone or find ourselves in a situation where remaining calm and being skillful are necessary. In these moments, BRFWA can be a great ally.

I recommend that you use BRFWA regularly as a moment-to-moment practice. Using it daily will support your developing a general state of mindfulness. You can also use BRFWA to go deeper into a pleasant experience. Maybe you practice it when you take a walk or when you dip your feet in a cool stream or when you feel a fresh breeze moving through your neighborhood. Practice BRFWA regularly so that when something truly challenging happens, it is second nature for you, as it was for me when I had my encounters with the bear and the rip current.

BRFWA: Breathe, Relax, Feel, Watch, Allow

To begin working with BRFWA outdoors, try the following steps:

  1. Go outside. Find a place where you can sit comfortably and have a view of a natural, outdoor space. (This might also be the place where you want to establish your daily nature meditation.)
  2. Get grounded. Feel your sitz bones and imagine they are plugging in to the earth. As you ground down through your seat, also lengthen your spine and let it rise up through the crown of your head. Imagine that your spine is the trunk of a great tree and you are the bridge that connects the heavens and the earth.
  3. Breathe. Soften your belly, and slowly deepen your breathing with each inhalation and exhalation. If possible, breathe in and out through the nose. A good ratio for this breath is to inhale for four counts and hold the breath gently for seven counts; then exhale for eight counts, and repeat the cycle. As you breathe, notice the qualities of the air. What is the temperature? Is it hot, cold, or somewhere in between? How moist or dry is the air? What can you smell? Leaves, pine needles, the smoke from nearby fireplaces? In which direction is the wind moving? What can you hear? Your breath, your heartbeat, your joints settling? Branches creaking against each other, leaves rustling in the breeze, dew dripping to the ground, chipmunks or squirrels scampering, crows cawing, pigeons cooing, an airplane passing overhead?
  4. Relax. As you breathe, begin to consciously scan your body. Notice any places where you are holding tension. Focus on each of these places, as you continue to breathe calmly and deeply, and invite these places to soften and let go. Maybe your forehead is tense, and your brow is furrowed. Maybe your shoulders are tight and raised with tension. Perhaps your jaw is clenched. See if you can allow your jaw to relax, so that your teeth are parted. Invite your tongue to sit heavy and relaxed in your mouth, with the tip of the tongue resting against the ridge of skin behind your two front top teeth. With each exhalation, feel tension melting out of your body, mind, and spirit. Relax into the support of the earth element. Feel the earth beneath you and within your bones and muscles.
  5. Feel. As you continue to breathe and relax, notice what you can feel. Notice your body and what your body can feel—the air on your skin, the earth against your buttocks and legs, the light on your skin or coming through your clothing. Notice your heart and how you are feeling right now, not from a place of judgment, but from a place of compassion for yourself, and from a larger perspective, from your witness. Notice how the breath moving in and out helps you to feel more. This is one of the great secrets of yoga: the more deeply you breathe, the more of your own life you can feel.
  6. Watch. Be the witness. Observe your experience and allow as much space as you can for whatever is happening to be the way it is. Simply observe the land around you. Notice movement wherever it may be. Watch the play of light and the subtle movement created by the atmosphere’s constant state of motion. Watch everything, and be curious about any life you see, whether birds in the bushes or trees, ants crawling on the ground, or a squirrel leaping from limb to limb. When you come into the present moment using these steps, doors of perception will open to you. You will see the world through new eyes.
  7. Allow. Let it be. Let the moment be exactly the way that it is. Let go of grasping to your idea of what this moment should be. Let go of any aversion to things as they are. See if you can simply allow this moment to be as it is, and give yourself the opportunity to experience this moment right now in its pure expression. No matter the weather, no matter the terrain, can you allow this living earth and your relationship with it to be the way that it is? Moment by moment, can you keep letting go of your opinions, preferences, and judgments? It’s not easy for any of us, which is why we practice. This awareness is something to come back to moment after moment after moment, always beginning again.
  8. This is an excerpt from Rewilding: Meditations, Practices, and Skills for Awakening in Nature by Micah Mortali.

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