Mindfulness of Nature: An interview with Claire Thompson

Gautama Buddha spent most of his time in nature. He taught in nature, meditated in nature and, most importantly, became enlightened in nature. So how come most mediation today happens indoors? We’re missing something crucial and in my interview with Claire Thompson – author of Mindfulness and the Natural World and The Art of Mindful Birdwatching – we begin to unpack what’s so special about practising mindfulness in nature.

Research from the University of Derby suggests that simply being in nature is enough to produce a more mindful state (Richardson and Hallam, 2013). Claire’s experience helps explain why that might be:

“there’s something about being outdoors in nature that holds us within our own bodies a little bit more, because it’s stimulating our bodies with natural scents and sounds and sights. It’s almost like that’s what our bodies evolved to experience or to be taking in, in terms of a sensory experience. I guess to be put back into that environment can feel quite holding for people, because it holds us within our own physical experience a little bit more, which actually naturally takes us out of the narratives of our mind and our thinking and into the body”.

Our human minds label and judge in a way that nature doesn’t: Nature just is and makes no assessment or allowances. That provides a space where you can be whoever you are without labels. Claire found that facilitating mindfulness workshops in nature had a significant impact on the participant’s experience:

It felt like being in nature opened people up and because of the lack of judgement in that space it felt like people were more able to be themselves and more able to trust that whatever experience they were having, it was okay and opened up a curiosity about their experience in a way that perhaps in some of the indoor spaces where I’d practiced mindfulness, for example, I didn’t feel the same thing. It didn’t feel like the same thing happened, or there was just something – maybe an authenticity about it as well, like people feeling allowed to be themselves more when they’re out in the wild or out in touch with the natural world”.

That can be profoundly liberating and can help to free us from our habitual attachment to the ‘self’. Our intuition – that the self is an identifiable thing, a unique and irreducible nugget of selfhood – is simply wrong; neuroscience and mindfulness agree on that. It’s not that you don’t exist! Of course you do, but the self is a process, not an object. Calling myself ‘Adrian’ helps maintain the illusion, but my ‘self’ is more like a verb than a noun: ‘I’ am the process of ‘selfing’ that extends beyond the envelope of skin around my body. John Danvers writes of how “[m]indful mediation enables us to experience the self as a process that extends out into the world”. (2016; 164).

Pool surrounded by lush green foliage
Tucker’s Pool, Lydford Gorge, Devon

Mindfulness practice facilitates the experience of awe and that powerful emotion has been very significant for Claire.

It’s an experience of going beyond myself, as in beyond my sense of being a separate self and being taken into something that is greater than that, and connects me to something bigger”.

The experience of awe can reveal that we are, in truth, part of “a dynamic web of interdependence” (Macy, 2007; 32). In the industrial North, it’s very easy to forget that, but the longing for connection doesn’t go away. Claire describes how the feeling of awe can feel:

“… like a longing for a connection that I’ve lost, or, arguably, we’ve lost. And in those moments of awe you get a glimpse of reconnecting with that. And there’s a sense of abundance that comes with that feeling. … a feeling of generosity and more openness to others and more creativity, and kind of takes you out of that kind of fixed separate sense of self, which sometimes can keep us a little bit stuck”.

We tend to think of ‘enlightenment’ as an event that happens to a few special individuals, but it’s not that simple. Perhaps it makes more sense to think of enlightenment as an experience anyone can taste for a moment. Claire suggests that enlightenment comes in “those moments of connection to something greater where our sense of self disappears or it feels like our sense of separate self disappears”. That resonates with me. I’ve certainly had moments like that and even though they quickly pass, you are changed forever. Crucially, these experiences of deep connection happen “in our day to day lives – you don’t have to be in the middle of a beautiful rain forest in Cuba, it could just be with somebody you love, or it could just be on the way to work noticing something that kind of takes you out of yourself or a piece of music that you’re really taken by.”

These sacred moments can come to anyone. At the time – and in our faltering attempts to articulate them – they seem otherworldly: “It feels otherworldly, but it’s also very human”.

Solidarity or conflict?

The nineteenth century bequeathed two opposing models of how nature works. The most influential version is a certain interpretation of Darwin’s Origin of Species characterized by Herbert Spencer. It emphasizes individual competition and frames nature as like a gladiatorial battle for survival, “whereby the strongest, the swiftest, and the cunningest live to fight another day” (Spencer, 1888). Spencer was influenced by Thomas Malthus, who mistakenly predicted that population growth would lead to global catastrophe. Common to both ideologies is an assumption of scarcity rather than abundance.

Peter Kropotkin offers a very different way of understanding nature. Kropotkin is probably best known for his anarchist ideas, but he was also an influential scientist. He did extensive fieldwork in Siberia and North-east Asia and identified many examples of cooperation between animals. For Kropotkin “survival of the fittest” didn’t refer to the toughest and meanest individual, but to the community that learnt to work together. He called this mutual aid, and he concluded that it was empathy that underpinned this behaviour. Mutual aid sprang up spontaneously across the globe during the Covid-19 pandemic and at the time of writing, there are 2065 groups listed on the UK mutual aid website.

Cover of the book, 'Mutual Aid'

These two very different ways of seeing the world seem to be playing out on the world stage: On one side we see Putin’s imperialist war which implicitly assumes that might is right. Meanwhile, Berlin is preparing beds for 20,000 Ukrainian refugees. Which wins, solidarity or conflict?

Kropotkin didn’t deny that competitive struggle has a role in natural selection but argued that mutual aid was more important. Although there is conflict amidst various species, “there is perhaps even more … mutual support, mutual aid, and mutual defence … Sociability is as much a law of nature as mutual struggle” (Kropotkin, 1902).

I’m saddened that Kropotkin’s insights aren’t more widely implemented. Instead of emphasizing the value of mutual aid, the prevalent ideology of the Global South prioritises individualism. This doesn’t nurture our well-being or indeed our basic humanity. Moreover, it may ultimately lead to total climate collapse. But we have a choice and mutual aid is both intellectually satisfying and life-enhancing.

Becoming another: connected selves

Anne Game is an academic – a sociologist – and a keen horse rider. One morning her horse, KP, became inexplicably paralysed and had to relearn how to move. A key part of KP’s healing process was being ridden; the horse wanted to experience the special relationship with Anne that came from that. At first, both KP and Anne found it hard. Anne was fearful of hurting the horse – or herself – and progress was slow. But a dramatic shift happened when Anne let her body move as if she and KP were cantering: “To help her to remember canter, my body had to take up this movement. The between horse and human movement canter had to be generated for KP to entrain with it, to get in the flow” (Game, 2001).

We might say KP learnt to canter again through Anne’s movement. But that’s not quite it; the horse/human, the centaur that is KP/Anne learnt to canter again. As Anne puts it, “I propose that we are always already part horse, and horses, part human: there is no such thing as pure horse or purely human. The human body is not simply human”.

For this healing process to happen, Anne had to let go of her self-consciousness and forget the illusion of separateness. She was able to drop into this altered state through “relaxed concentration, a very focused and meditative state”. I’m reminded of the work of John Danvers, who writes eloquently about how Zen meditation can reveal our fundamental interconnectedness.

From this perspective, it became clear to Anne that her own fear had been holding back KP’s initial efforts. “The protectiveness I felt was more likely to have been self-protection, a consequence of identification. And identification is clearly inappropriate in the circumstances, for it involves being too close, too attached to be able to be with the other and feel what they need. When I identify with you, your situation becomes mine: closed off in separateness, I thus lose the capacity for the other to be called up in my self”.

A horse looking at the camera

Becoming horse is not about identification. It requires something more subtle. Anne proposes “a forgetting of human self in a between-human-and-horse way of being” that however retains “a fearless capacity for otherness and difference”. Anne suggests that this models the way that effective therapy needs to offer a “non-attached holding of self and other”. Anne doesn’t say much more about that, but it’s a profound insight that I hope to unpack myself in future posts.

If we take ourselves to be self-contained, autonomous beings in a world of others, then much of what happens in therapy is mysterious. If, however, we understand subjectivity as a phenomenon that emerges from a complex flux where bodies are not discrete, then our therapeutic work – and many other, otherwise inexplicable phenomena – become clearer.

Embodying Nature: A conversation with improvisational movement artist Stephanie Gottlob

Most dancers work in a studio, but Stephanie wanted to see what happens when she went out into the wild. Stephanie spends weeks living in some of the most remote parts of North America: she’s visited rain forest, deserts, tundra, lakes and swamps.

I interviewed Stephanie for the first episode of my new podcast series, Embodied Pathways. We explore art, nature connection, embodiment, dance, relationship, activism and spirituality. There are many crossovers with the themes of this blog, but one is foundational: where we are has a profound impact on who we are. Stephanie describes the mythic power of the ancient rainforest she visited and the powerful impact it had on her “unconscious imagination”. She concludes that “We need the forests to be human”.

This reminds me of Christopher Preston’s work. He concludes that “the physical environment is not just a site in which mind operates; it is a characterful place that influences the products of the mind” (Preston, 2003: 88).

David Abram says much the same:

Each place has its own mind, its own psyche. Oak, madrone, Douglas fir, red-tailed hawk, serpentine in the sandstone, a certain scale to the topography, drenching rains in the winter, fog off-shore in the winter, salmon surging in the streams – all these together make up a particular state of mind, a place-specific intelligence shared by all the humans that dwell therein … ”

Abram, 1996

Relationship is central to Stephanie’s work. Sometimes there’s a merging, a blurring of the self/other divide, but at other times there’s a clear engagement with an animate other. In the guest post Stephanie wrote for this blog, she writes: “Landscape and I… always a duet, at least a duet”.

Towards the end of our conversation, we touch on the environmental crisis, It’s an emotional moment for me, but Stephanie’s experience has taught her well; in the face of fear and immense challenge, she finds a place of trust and engagement.

I very much enjoyed our conversation, and I think you will too! Let me know what you think. Embodying Nature: A conversation with improvisational movement artist Stephanie Gottlob.

Stephanie has created videos of her work:
Rain Forest Video-dance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ey0azYbqUTo
Rain Forest stills video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X0al-qIgTec

The Embodied Pathways of Connection: A Presentation

The Embodiment Conference was a huge online event that took place in late 2020. I was the Manager of the Ecology and Research Channel and I also gave a presentation about the Embodied Pathways of Connection. While there have been a few days of free access to the Conference recordings, most of the time they’re behind a paywall. Fortunately, I’m able to share my presentation here. Although you can read an introduction to the Embodied Pathways of Connection in a couple of my blog posts, this 50-minute presentation allows me time to go into more depth. I refer to some of the other presentations from The Embodiment Conference, but you don’t need to watch those to understand what I’m talking about here. However, the Conference organisers will be delighted to sell you lifetime access to all the recordings if you’re keen!

In this presentation, I’m proposing that there are numerous ways of altering consciousness that can enable us to access our embodied knowing and awaken from what Thich Nhat Hanh called “our illusion of separateness.” These are the Embodied Pathways of Connection (EPoC). I talk about several of them in this presentation: mindfulness, psychedelic experience, nature connection, dance, ritual and Focusing. These are the EPoC that I identified when I was doing my PhD research, but are others I haven’t explored yet – art and sex are probably the most obvious.

Since I gave this presentation I’ve been working on a book about the EPoC and my ideas have developed a lot and changed in some ways. I’ll say more about that in future blog posts, but for now, I hope you’ll enjoy this. There’s a short introduction to the Ecology and Research Channel and I open with a reference to a quote from Thich Nhat Hanh: “We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness”.

Ecotherapy and psychedelic experience

Many indigenous peoples have an ancient tradition of healing with psychedelics. Best known perhaps are the Mazatec, who conduct ceremonies with psilocybin mushrooms, and the indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin, who draw on the healing power of ayahuasca.

In every case, these healers hold the psychedelic experience within two containers or baskets. Ritual is fundamental and forms the inner basket. The healing ritual is itself held within a broader basket of a culture and community that’s seamlessly integrated into the natural world. In the West, we tend to overemphasise the psychoactive substance itself, but these two holding baskets cannot be separated from the healing power of indigenous psychedelic journeys.

The importance of set and setting is fairly familiar in the West: Your state of mind (mindset) and the location you’re in have a huge impact on any psychedelic experience. In most cases, less attention is paid to preparing for and integrating the psychedelic journey. Because indigenous psychedelic work is held within the two baskets, preparation, set, setting and integration are seamless aspects of the whole process.

It’s sadly no surprise that the Western pattern of using psychedelics is usually fractured and piecemeal. We’ve applied our usual pattern of taking those aspects we find most exciting and ignoring the deeper context. I suspect that was part of the reason why the ‘60’s psychedelic revolution went wrong: Leary’s injunction to ‘turn on, tune in and drop out’ lacked a strong holding container.

We may be at the start of a psychedelic renaissance, and it’s vital that we learn from past mistakes and the wisdom of indigenous healers. In the West, we’re pretty good at ritual, and a decent psychedelic guide will provide a simple ceremony to support a journey. But our connection with nature is often neglected. Kile Ortigo’s recent book on psychedelic integration (2021) barely mentions nature. However, a paper on the same subject by Sam Gandy and colleagues (2020) notes that “Spending time in nature may be one of the most effective practices for maintaining the benefits of psychedelic sessions”.

I don’t think it’s appropriate for our dysfunctional but dominant culture to try to copy – which is nice way to say ‘appropriate’ – indigenous practices. We need to find our own way, and ecotherapy provides an ideal framework to rediscover nature connection. Ecotherapy can play a crucial role in how we manage the power of psychedelic experiences and I’m exploring ways in which it can serve as part of the holding basket for psychedelic healing. This isn’t straightforward, as psychedelics are illegal almost everywhere. But it is vital if the much-hyped ‘psychedelic renaissance is going to be more than another failed experiment.

This post draws on my research for the Synthesis Institute, notably their pioneering Psychedelic Practitioner Training.

Mindfulness in nature meets somatic therapy

What happens when we combine mindfulness in nature with somatic therapy? That’s the theme of my conversation with Rochelle Calvert for The Embodiment Podcast. It’s very timely too, as one of the topics we discuss is “living an ethical, embodied life” in a time of ecological crisis. Rochelle is passionate about her work and deeply committed to environmental healing. No wonder we got on!

I’ve often talked about why mindfulness works so well in a natural environment, and we explore that together. Rochelle then provides a very clear introduction to Peter Levine’s somatic experiencing and explains how she combines it with mindfulness in nature.

Rochelle recognises the powerful way that nature “calls us into presence”. By helping us to awaken to our senses, nature can enhance our embodied awareness. This allows us to access the wisdom of the body, awakening our inner sense of safety, well-being, and connection. Western approaches tend to exaggerate the importance of the thinking mind and forget the wisdom of the body, but it’s “the innate intuitive healing of this body” that brings healing from trauma.

Rochelle then shares her version of a classic somatic experiencing practice, pendulation: It’s one of her favourite practices and is both simple and very powerful. There are full details in her book, but you’ll get a good sense of it in the podcast.

Reciprocity is a word Rochelle uses a lot, and the question of how we can give back to nature is key for her. One of the most important topics we discuss is living an embodied ethical life. How can I be an ally to nature? How can we live in integrity with our planet? This is a recurring theme of this blog, and Rochelle’s work beautifully deepens the field of embodied ecology.

The power of place revisited

One of the key ideas in my PhD (2008) was that we think with place; different places enable us to think in particular ways. Based on the research of people like Andy Clark and Christopher Preston, I explored how spending time in nature can profoundly change how we make sense of the world. I spent weeks trawling through books and papers on embodied knowing and situated cognition, but there was always more. I now know just how much research I missed, because science writer Annie Murphy Paul has written a fascinating exploration of the extended mind – how our thinking extends beyond the brain (2021). I’m keen to see what Paul has found that I missed and to find out what emerges when I revisit my work with all this new information.

Many thinkers have suggested that we think with place. Gregory Peterson surveyed the field in 2003 and concluded that trying to understand “the mind/brain in isolation from biological and environmental contexts is to understand nothing” (Peterson, 2003). David Abram rather more poetically suggests that a heavy boulder might lend our “thoughts a certain gravity, and a kind of stony wisdom” (Abram, 2004).

The bottom line is that there are thoughts you’ll have in a forest that would be literally unthinkable in a shopping mall.

trees in mist

My research was focused on environmental campaigners, many of whom were living on protest sites in natural spaces. I found that spending months living close to nature often changed how people made sense of the world. Rob Greenway used the term “the wilderness effect” to describe what happens to people on a multi-day trek in the wild. People would talk about how their minds feel ‘open’ and ‘airy’ in the wilderness, in contrast with ‘turgid,’ ‘tight,’ and ‘crowded’ in urban culture (Greenway, 1995). Those who live on road protest sites often feel something similar. Jon Anderson wrote: “I get a slowed down, rhythmic feeling in the woods and on the meadow, relaxed” (2004).

Once you’ve experienced that feeling, it’s easier to notice how different our thinking is in an urban environment. Barry Patterson is concerned that the city can easily become “a space built from symbols, a virtual reality, rather than physical structures & patterns of relationship” (Patterson, n.d.). Barry told me that such places can feel like a “sensory desert”. Rob, another activist I spoke to, explained how he finds it difficult to cope in cities partly because “in an urban environment everything is constructed, everything is based on ideas”. In a more natural environment, Rob’s thinking is very different, and he can “feel the energy flowing through me and I have that connection”.

Living on a protest site – or wilderness trekking – can free “energies bound up in habitual deformations of posture or movement” (Jackson, 2006).

Annie Murphy Paul explores a different and wider range of topics, but similar themes emerge. She explains that although “our sense of self may feel stable and solid, it is in fact quite fluid, dependent on external structure for its shape”. That makes perfect sense given what I learnt from living on a protest site for several months.

Paul draws on the latest research to illustrates how “physical places influence our thinking and behaviour far more than personality or other factors” (2021). She tells us about the work of the psychologist Roger Barker. Barker and his team carefully observed the behaviour of a group of children from first thing in the morning to last thing at night. A clear pattern emerged, but it had more to do with place than personality. Barker concluded that the “behaviour of a child often changed dramatically when he moved from one region to another, e.g. from classroom, to hall, to playground, from drugstore to street, from basketball game to shower room.”

There’s much richness in Annie Murphy Paul’s book and it’s very useful for the kind of embodied, nature-based work that I do with my clients. This is the book on the extended mind that I’ve wanted to read for the last couple of decades and it’s well worth the wait!

The enchanted wood

Blackator Copse is a patch of ancient oak woodland on Dartmoor. Although it’s small – only 21 acres – this rare habitat is nationally important because of the exceptional variety of lichens and mosses. It’s a magical place and I was very grateful to be there again over the Bank Holiday weekend. I conversed for a while with the spirits of place that afternoon, and the idea came that Western civilization is in thrall to an evil spell. Perhaps it’s what the sociologist Max Weber called “the disenchantment of the world” (1962 [1917]). Weber described how animistic beliefs become replaced by purposive-rational action. We gained scientific understanding and control from this Faustian pact with reason but lost something precious in the process.

Sunlight through the trees on Blackator Copse

I’d planned to camp at Blackator Copse and was sitting quietly enjoying the peace when the throbbing beats of banging techno came drifting across the green. I’m well up for some dance music in the right setting, but Blackator Copse most certainly isn’t one of them. Half a dozen lads wandered into the Copse, clearly delighted to have found this little piece of paradise. ‘It’s Bank Holiday weekend’, I thought with a shrug and headed up the hill to a quieter spot.

I came down again the next morning just as they headed off. I sat by the river enjoying the silence for a while and then wandered along the bank. There were a few scraps of rubbish lying about, which is pretty much what I’d expected, but also the remains of a fire. At this point, some context might be useful. Open fires are banned on Dartmoor. First, they aren’t safe as parts of the Moor get very dry. Second, people who light fires on Dartmoor don’t bring in a supply of supermarket bought wood. They collect whatever they see lying around, which will be covered in the lichens and mosses that are part of a unique ecology. Some of the species found here are threatened with extinction in Europe and people burn them. While this is partly ignorance, but it’s mainly due to a consumerist attitude to nature. For some people Blackator Copse – and every other natural place – is simply a resource to be consumed: Get there as fast as possible, use it and leave without paying.

I’m reminded of an occasion many years ago when a friend and I stood in front of a Renoir. I was lost in rapture, but he broke my reverie when he asked “How much do you reckon that’s worth?’ (Framing perception). It’s as if the guys who enjoyed that bonfire of ancient wood and rare lichens were in a different place from me: I wandered amidst magic and they sat in a disenchanted theme park.

Fathers and Sons

How does a young man test his strength? Like a young stag, he locks horns with his father in a challenge. One of three things can happen next, depending on what kind of man that father is. An aggressive, arrogant father will push back hard and the youngster will be defeated, humiliated and possibly injured. A weak father won’t have the strength to do anything but fall back, leaving his son feeling mild contempt and perhaps confusion. But a strong and grounded father will steadily hold his ground, not pushing against his son but not yielding either. In this ideal case the youngster feels his father’s strength and his love. He can push against his father, testing his own emerging manhood. In this way he comes to learn something crucial about what it is to be a mature male.

My own father wasn’t ideal in many ways but somehow he was good enough at holding his ground against my adolescent challenges without defeating me. When a young man challenges his father, he’s effectively asking a question; “What is it to be a man?” If he gets the wrong answer – arrogant aggression or weakness – he may end up living the rest of his life in response to it.

In my work as a psychotherapist I sometimes see what happens when that adolescent encounter is mishandled. There are weak men, lacking self esteem and often searching for someone to replace their mother. Maybe their father’s answer to their challenge was capitulation, which told them that a man is a weak creature, born to servitude. Or perhaps his father was punishing, telling him that he has no right to challenge authority. The flip side of this weak soul is equally damaged. This is the son whose father taught him that being a man means beating the other guy, even if the contest is unfair. In an attempt to make sense of the way his father crushed him, he builds a strong defense and comes to fear vulnerability more than death itself.

I don’t meet the men whose fathers had the wisdom to stand with firm gentleness, offering strength to push against. They they are the lucky ones who know their place in the world, who feel comfortable in their own skin and know what real strength entails.