Mindfulness While Hiking: A How-To Guide

December 15th, 2017

More times than we would like to admit, we get home from work and realize the commute idled by as we thought about the things we did, things we needed to do, and things we needed to think about. Our brains are capable of going on auto-pilot, even unintentionally, while we do day-to-day things that don’t require conscious effort. Though this is not necessarily an issue for some, there are ways to combat these kinds of shallow thought processes using mindful techniques, methods, and tools. Mindfulness is particularly useful on walks, as many people use exercise as a form of catharsis. 

Remember that while it seems beneficial in the moment to think through your list of pertinent chores and responsibilities while taking time to decompress, it’s more important for your mental health to stay in the moment. But don't worry if you can't control all those pesky thoughts - mindfulness practices are not about stopping thoughts completely. A lesson many people teach in mindfulness practices is the car analogy. Imagine you’re sitting by a busy road. Any thought or feeling that arises is a car passing by. Say you start thinking about what to do for dinner. So instead of spending 10-15 minutes self-discussing your options: where to go, what to get, what to make, etc.; acknowledge the thought, let the car pass, and bring yourself back to your walk. Don’t try to go out of your way to stop the car, and definitely don’t get in it. 

Remember, you’re an observer on the side of the road. If you have trouble doing this on your own, there are great online resources like the HeadSpace App which slowly trains your mind how to sit on the side of the road and watch cars on its own.

To be mindful on your walk, it is important to ground yourself. This is a technique people with anxiety use to help stay focused on the world around them rather than their thoughts. Try to think of something in the field of each of your senses. Check in with these periodically. 

Start with sound. Close your eyes and count how many birds you can hear. What do your footsteps sound like on the pavement or trail, on the crunching leaves? Then move on to sight. Count how many colors you see. How many people can you see? 
What can you smell? Flowers, dirt, freshly cut grass? 

Move onto touch. This is what I have found to be the most helpful as you can use what is closest to you! There are two ways to experience this sense. What you feel and what you touch. Notice how your feet feel in your shoes, how the air feels on your skin. Is it cold or warm out? Are you tensing your shoulders, eyebrows, hands? These are things you feel. What do different tree barks feel like on your fingertips? What’s the difference in texture between a fuzzy leaf versus a glossy leaf? These are things you touch. 

Running through your senses, even if you don’t spend a lot of time in each one, is a great way to bring yourself back to your walk, without taking a detour in other thoughts. 

Many of us find it hard to stay focused and present. A good way to combat this, especially if the lack of concentration stems from outside noise, is with ambient sound or music. To a new listener, it sounds boring and non-directional; that’s the point. It isn’t designed like much of the music we hear today, which often encourages us to dance or feel certain emotions. The purpose of ambient music is to create a space to think between notes, without letting personal thoughts come to the forefront. Ambient music can take some getting used to, but allows the listener to experience his or her surroundings from an unbiased standpoint, which is  when trying to stay mindful. The way the music tends to move encourages deep breath, which is something we don’t often associate with our thoughts but the two can be entirely dependent on each other. You can try out a ton of ambient playlists on Spotify and YouTube, or with sound apps.

If you’re completely new to the realm of mindfulness, be patient and find what methods work for you; it may be beneficial to slowly incorporate different exercises one by one on your walks. When using these techniques, methods, and tools, remember mindfulness is a practice not a perfect, meaning it will take time and mental strength to get used to this way of thinking. However, if you're able to achieve a sense of clarity and tranquility with mindfulness, you’ll find value in it that not many people have the discipline to find.

Posted by Rosie Lee
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