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.
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
Find a comfortable seat by an open window that looks outdoors.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.)
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Many indigenous cultures refer to the more-than-human worlds as people. Clouds, trees, stones, plants—all belong to their own community, speak their own language, and have their own relationship to the spirit that moves through all things. The first time I recognized these more-than-human communities and felt their presence strongly as an adult was when I had spent a lot of time in the woods and became fascinated with trees. I noticed that in some places, many American beech trees grew together, while in other places, eastern hemlock congregated. In the beech groves, the simple-toothed leaves quaked in the breeze; their smooth, grey trunks reminded me of the mallorn trees from The Lord of the Rings. I couldn’t help but feel the presence of elves in those beech groves!
In the hemlock groves, the shadows were deep and the earth moist. The deep green boughs stretched and gently bobbed on the breeze, light, buoyant, and mysterious. The hemlock groves were hushed. Silence and watchfulness permeated the hemlocks’ shadows. Families of white pine created sun-toasted auburn carpets of needles, soft and aromatic in the afternoon light. Their trunks climbed high into the sky, and their bluish-green pine needles shone bright and happy in the sun. A feeling of optimism and joy seems to ring out when white pine needles shimmer in the sunlight. Under these mighty trees were perfect places to lie down or to sit and lean against trunks, perfect places to take in the tranquility of the land.
Looking into the distance, I could see patches of forest green on mountain slopes where communities of evergreens lived, and then the grey patches in the fall from oaks and maples that had lost their leaves. Suddenly it hit me: these are communities, tribes, families. Before this, I had not really seen or felt the profound reality of community that exists among trees of the same species, trees that congregate. Now, when I look out at hills or mountains in the distance, I see the tribes of tree beings whose presence creates a tapestry of color and texture all across our forested lands.
Trees communicate and support one another. Forest ecology expert Peter Wohlleben refers to the nutrient and information exchange that exists among trees in the microbial network underground as the “wood wide web.” There is evidence that trees work together to keep elder trees alive and that they warn one another of danger. We are symbionts with trees, relying on the oxygen they provide while they rely on the carbon dioxide we exhale. There is a give and take, a reciprocity, that binds us to the trees, plants, and other members of our earth community, all of whom share the atmosphere, nutrients, and waters of this living earth. To think of trees as objects denies what they are. To think that way minimizes and flattens the complex and mysterious reality of their “treeness.” This objectification of the living earth, whether it be trees, minerals, or animals, also flattens our consciousness and experience, causing us to miss out on so much of the beauty, love, and wonder to be found in relationship with the earth. When we think of the earth as composed of so many life-less objects, we give ourselves permission to treat them as such. If we take the time to slow down, to be mindful and observe the land, trees, and other crewmates of spaceship Earth, we strengthen our ability to see the reality of life’s living connections.
Keep close to Nature’s heart … and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.
Rewilding is a way of seeing and being in relationship to life, and it can include learning ancestral skills for survival. Tom Brown Jr., a great tracking teacher, emphasizes the profound role gratitude and thanksgiving played in what he learned from his teacher Stalking Wolf, a Lipan Apache tracker and spiritual teacher. To truly feel and connect with the miracle of any living thing, any gift of the Creator, whether a piece of wood being carved into a sacred pipe or a plant or animal being harvested for food, one must honor the other being’s sacrifice and give thanks for what is received from that being. All of life is an exchange of energy. To live, all living things must consume, and in turn, be consumed. There is no escaping this.
Of all the world’s wonders, which is the most wonderful?
That no man, though he sees others dying all around
him, believes that he himself will die.
YUDHISHTARA, The Mahabharata
To be awake to the wonder of life is to be in a state of constant thanksgiving, for this breath, this bite of food, this caress of wind, this sunset, this chance to grow and serve others. A society whose people are involved in harvesting their food from their environment will likely be a culture that appreciates and that values thanksgiving. I believe that our collective loss of reverence for nature is in part due to our disconnect from the origin of our food. Pulling a potato or carrot out of the soil provides a sensual, embodied experience of taking life. When we take life, we have a natural inclination to want to give back, to restore balance.
We all need to embrace the ethic of thanksgiving again so that we don’t take the biodiversity of earth for granted. We can’t pretend that the water and air we pollute aren’t the water and air we rely on for our survival, for our health and well-being. A great start for a thanksgiving practice is with the breath, the thing we rely on most and most immediately. The birds who fly in the sky fly on our very breath. The air sweeps all around us, moving clouds, bringing snow and rain, making waves, and flowing in and out of our bodies with the oxygen that allows us to exist. The air we breathe moves the leaves in the trees, creating beautiful sounds that soothe our souls. We can go weeks without food and days without water but only a couple of minutes without the gift of breath. Throughout the world, there are cultures that hold the air and the wind as holy, as life-giving forces. The entire yoga tradition revolves around the fundamentals of breath, which can unlock expanded states of awareness and foster deep insights.
When I exhale, I know that the carbon dioxide flowing out of me will be absorbed by plant life and that the oxygen they exhale will flow into me. In my lifetime, I will ingest many living things, fruits, vegetables, animals, and water, and one day, my body will return to the earth, and other living things will eat me.
We are only stewards of our bodies for a time. Every seven or so years, every molecule in this body will have been replaced, so that the me I think of as me is stable only in my mind. Who I really am is living in a dynamic state of reciprocity with the cosmos. Our planet, which includes us, is made up of elements generated in ancient star explosions. So, when we walk barefoot in the grass, stand at the entrance to a forest, or look up at the cool moon on an autumn evening, we can acknowledge that we are not simply receiving beauty from a heavenly body, that there is more going on. Through mindfulness we can hold an awareness of our situation, one in which we are suspended between using and being used, between eating and being eaten, between enjoying and being enjoyed.
When did people stop talking to the earth? How does one thank the moon for being all that the moon is? I’ve made a habit of speaking to trees, stones, salamanders, the wind, and any other relative I see outside. I speak to everything in nature. Why? When I speak to the forest, it feels as if my words are resonating not only in the cavities of my human body but also through the air, back into my eardrums, and bouncing on trees, leaves, and stones. When spoken from the heart to the living earth, my words express love for what I experience as my greater self. I know that hemlocks and stones do not understand the English language; I am not anthropomorphizing them. Yet I feel fuller and more connected when I give myself permission to speak to the land. When I converse with the earth, sometimes the wind blows suddenly, as if in response, or a squirrel will throw a pine cone out of a tree, which also feels like some kind of answer. I don’t think we need to feel so isolated on this earth, so cut off and separate. We can honor our reciprocity with all of life by opening up the channels of communication with the more-than-human world.
Practice of Giving Thanks to the Earth
The next time you experience a perfect sunset, a refreshing walk through new fallen snow, or the gift of seeing a wild animal, consider offering a gesture of gratitude to the living earth. Drawing your hands to prayer in front of the heart and bowing to the light in that manifestation of the universe, you can simply say “thank you.” You might offer a small token, such as an acorn, pine cone, crystal, or small pebble, to show your thanks. You could also make an earth mandala, creating a circular symbol with natural objects you gather, and offer it with gratitude. As the days and months go by, the mandala will be received into the earth. You could also take a handful of water from a pond, lake, stream, bay, or ocean and speak your words of love and gratitude into the water, allowing your prayer to slip through your fingers and become one with the water of the earth. Maybe you would like to burn sage, palo santo, dried cedar, or another ceremonial incense of your choice, placing your intentions in the burning ember so that the rising smoke carries your prayer of gratitude and love to the heavens. These are small gestures, but they are powerful. These actions build a habit of focusing on the many ways we are in a deep state of interbeing with all of creation.
Steve Macadam was, for 12 years, the President and CEO of EnPro, a $1.4 billion publicly traded company. He received a BS in mechanical engineering from the University of Kentucky, an MS in finance from Boston College, and an MBA from Harvard University, where he was a Baker Scholar. He currently serves as an independent director on the boards of Louisiana-Pacific Corporation and Valvoline Inc. In this week’s podcast, Tami and Steve discuss what it means for a company to have “dual bottom lines,” and the aspiration to create a business with the formal purpose of enabling the full release of human possibility. (1 hour, 13 minutes)
It’s time to start unraveling the mystery of you by exploring your current state of mind. Think of this as an adventure, a path toward greater self-understanding and self-compassion—and an expanded appreciation of the complexity of you. To get a sense of the modern-world issues that tend to rile or upset you, put on your imaginary miner’s hat and head into the depths of your mind to see what lies below your conscious awareness. (You may want to do this with a trusted friend or partner.)
Consider your true feelings about the following subjects, without letting preconceived ideas about the right or politically correct way to think or feel about these subjects guide you; simply let your real feelings flow out of you in a free-association style.
Have a journal and a piece of paper ready. As you read the following words and phrases, jot down the first three to five words or phrases that come to your mind in response (don’t edit or change what occurs to you instinctively):
• Climate crises
• Me Too scandals
• Human rights abuses (on a grand scale)
• Political corruption
• Racial, religious, gender, or political discrimination
• Environmental threats (toxins in our midst)
• Volatile financial circumstances
• Natural disasters (wildfires, floods, storms)
• International threats
• Social divisiveness in this country
• Hate crimes
• Nuclear weapons threats
• Gun violence
If other current events are triggering emotional inflammation for you, write them down in your journal or on a piece of paper.
Don’t worry if you feel put on the spot, thought-tied, and unable to come up with the right words to describe how you feel in response to the prompts listed above. Take a deep breath, exhale, and peruse this sample response. Rather than letting this person’s examples sway or influence you, try to use them as inspiration to unlock the floodgates on your true feelings.
Now it’s your turn!
After you’ve completed your list, assign a value to each of these concerns in terms of their potency for you on a scale of 0 to 3 (with 0 being neutral and 3 being intense). Do this quickly so you don’t have too much time to think about it or second-guess your instinctive responses. Once you’ve finished this, place these triggers into a hierarchical list from a potency of 3 to 0, based on how they affect or resonate with you. This will give you a sense of what is likely to get you riled up these days.
If you want to dig a bit deeper, think about the way you responded to the descriptions of certain triggers—that you felt disgusted, violated, sad, and threatened when you thought about Me Too scandals, for example—then consider whether any situations from your past have evoked similar feelings for you. As you may see, emotional injuries or reverberations from the past can make you vulnerable to similar insults and assaults in the present. It’s almost as if you have an emotional ember lying beneath your consciousness, and it’s predisposed to flaring up from time to time. If you hear a single piece of distressing news and find yourself reacting surprisingly strongly to it, think about what else may be crashing around you or whether the news has somehow opened Pandora’s box and exposed you to a deep abyss of other fears and worries. Or it may be that a more superficial emotional injury is on the way to healing but then the scab gets ripped off and the wound bleeds again when another upsetting event occurs.
As it happens, we often experience emotions in our bodies, and sometimes our bodies register those feelings before our minds do. So if you have trouble pinpointing how you’re feeling with words, you may want to scan your body for clues. When researchers in Finland performed a series of cross-cultural studies with 701 people from West European and East Asian cultures, they had the participants view various words, stories, movies, or facial expressions, then color specific regions on silhouettes of bodies where they felt activity increasing or decreasing while they viewed each stimulus. This exercise in mapping bodily sensations in response to emotions revealed that basic emotions—including anger, fear, disgust, happiness, sadness, and surprise—were associated with sensations of elevated activity in the upper chest, which likely reflects changes in breathing and heart rate. Increased sensations in the arms and torso were associated with anger. Decreased sensations in the arms and legs corresponded to sadness. And increased sensations in the gut (the digestive system) and throat were found primarily with disgust. The most fascinating revelation was that these effects rang true among people cross-culturally.
So if you have a mental block that makes it difficult to recognize your emotional triggers (which some people do, in a subconscious effort to protect themselves from emotional discomfort), paying attention to your bodily sensations can give you clues about what you’re experiencing. Even if you are highly attuned to your emotional reactions, sometimes they can sneak up on you, and you might experience a particular bodily sensation before you are aware of the actual trigger or your response to it. That’s because we all have blind spots to reflexive emotional states we’re susceptible to experiencing.
Sister Joan Chittister is an American theologian, Benedictine nun, and the author of more than 50 books. For over 40 years, she has passionately advocated on behalf of peace, human rights, women’s issues, and church renewal. This week’s podcast shares with you an excerpt from Sister Joan’s audio program, Catching Fire: Being Transformed, Becoming Transforming, a seven-hour conversation with Tami Simon intended to spark the fire of the divine within each one of us.
Sounds True is a multimedia publishing company founded in 1985 by Tami Simon, with the mission of disseminating spiritual wisdom. The company is based in Louisville, Colorado, near Boulder, Colorado.