After decades of practicing meditation, four years of teaching happiness meditation classes and workshops, and now leading weekend retreats, I finally wrote my own guided meditation, “A Walk in the Woods.” Being in nature makes us happy, but it isn’t always possible to physically be outside drinking up the sights, sounds, and smells of hiking on a wooded trail. We can, however, savor the forest sensations in a very mindful way by taking the time to mentally create or recreate that experience in as much detail as possible.
I was inspired by the local Calais Trails Committee and by the transformative Helen Keller essay, “Three Days to See.” With gratitude to them, I offer the following meditation to you. Please make it your own. I’ve based the meditation on a summer walk in the Vermont woods, but your walk may be in the fall, spring or winter, on a real or imaginary trail. Create or recreate the experience that best suits you. The following is more a series of suggestions than a road map.
A Walk in the Woods
I invite you to start by easing into your meditation practice. With your eyes closed, let your breath out with an audible sigh. Do this several times if you like. Take a moment to notice all the places your body is in contact with the floor, chair, or cushions. Appreciate the support of the furniture and the building you are in, as well as the strength of the earth, making it safe for you to relax into your meditation time. Next, in an easy gentle fashion, focus on your breath, for a few minutes, until you feel ready to proceed. Take as much time with this transition as you want.
When you are ready, imagine you are at the trail head, ready to step in among the trees. Before you begin your walk, take time for gratitude. You may be grateful to have an able body. You might thank those who built the trail, or the landowners who share their property with the public. Perhaps your gratitude is for the weather, or for a strong pair of sneakers and good socks. What are you grateful for? Again, take your time. There is no need to hurry.
Remember to breathe.
Now, stepping into the woods, where do your feet land? What does the trail look like? Are there trail blazes or other markers on the trees? Who made them? Are there roots or rocks you might stumble over? Fallen branches? Are ferns or maybe even poison ivy growing near the trail? Is it a sunny day? What kinds of patterns does the play of light through the tree canopy make? Look around, what can you really see?
When we practice mindfulness, we can try to use all our senses. Right now, for example, what do you hear in your own little forest? Maybe leaves crunching underfoot? Or birds — is there a variety of bird calls if you really listen? Is it a still day, or is a breeze blowing? What does that sound like? Other animals? Insects whirring by your ear or chirping from afar? Maybe even traffic or construction noises off in the distance? Mindfulness is about more than appreciating beauty — it is, deeply observing what truly is.
What does the air smell like? Did it rain recently? Are there rotting logs nearby? Do you smell your own shampoo, or toothpaste? Maybe there are flowers, or berries — do you want to lean in and breathe in their aroma?
And touch — is the air on your arms and face cool from the shade, or is it a hot sultry day even in the woods?
Even taste — did you bring a water bottle along? What does the water taste like? Any leftover meal flavors still lingering in your mouth? Did you pick a berry to eat? Was it sweet, sour, overripe?
Breathing deeper now, and looking more carefully around you. You’re surrounded by trees, but what species? Have any blown over, from the wind or maybe lightning? What bark do you see around you? Patterns? Growths on trees? Any holes in the trees? Perhaps holes made by animals, or perfect for animals to crawl into. And of course the leaves, or pine needles — different shapes, various shades of green? Are there also browns, and reds — trees in distress, or maybe autumn is coming on. It’s time to see the trees themselves, not just the forest. Are there any very old trees? Or very young ones? Any competing for the sunlight? What else?
Where would we be without trees? Can you feel gratitude for them?
Still remembering to breathe, turn now to the rocks and stones. Do you see ledge, or quartz? What sizes — boulders? Pebbles? Do you have to climb over any rocks? Are they moss-covered? Sharp, rounded? Maybe you can even spot one that is heart shaped.
Now we’re walking next to a mountain brook. Is your brook full and flowing forcefully? Maybe it just rained? Or is it late summer, with only a trickle? Pause and put your hand in. How cold is it? What does the brook sound like? What patterns do you see, in the way the water falls, and on the rocks below the surface? Linger by the brook as long as you’d like.
When you’re ready, notice that the trail is going up hill. What are the sensations in your muscles? Are you winded? Sweaty? Thirsty? How is your body doing on this hike? Or is it more of an easy going walk for you? Even on this mental journey, can you listen to your body’s experience?
In this moment, we’ve stepped out of the woods into a meadow. It may be sunny, or overcast. Is it hotter? Or is there a wind blowing, making your skin cooler? Looking up, what do you see in the skies? Have the sounds in the meadow changed from those in the woods? And sights — perhaps here you might see butterflies. What else is different on this part of the walk?
Finally we’ve arrived at an overlook, where conveniently there’s a bench to sit on and savor the view. What do you see? A lake in the distance? Mountains? A city? Is the view awe-inspiring? Does the larger vista give you a sense of place in the world, maybe putting your own cares in perspective? Can you pay attention to your feelings as well as the view? Just accepting your feelings, not trying to change them or judge them in any way.
Spend as long as you want sitting on the bench, taking in whatever is present for you in this moment.
Finally, let’s end this meditation the way we began: with gratitude. Grateful perhaps for beauty, for public policies that have preserved park land, for your own self to take this time to flex your mindfulness muscles and nurture your connection with the natural world. Who and what are you grateful for?
When you are ready, open your eyes and gently return to your regularly scheduled programming.
Have a wonderful day.