Attuning to Nature Sounds as a Slow Living Practice

If you have access to a sense of hearing, what sounds come to mind when you think of busyness? What do words like hectic, stressful and crowded bring to mind? I hear cars engines running, a cacophony of harried voices, the smell (wrong sense, I know) of pollution and footsteps stomping down the sidewalk or hallway in a clipped pace.

What do phrases like slowing down, living the simple life, relaxing and spacious stir up? My mind conjures notes of grass blowing in the wind, birds chirping, a stream softly flowing and insects at play on a summer night. I continue to watch live streams of nature scenes from around the world, and, more than the peaceful visuals, I’ve become accustomed to the instant feeling of calm that permeates my body as soon as I hear the accompanying sounds. In particular, the night-time noises from various animal parks in African countries and the rush of waves coming in on Hawaii’s beaches are the most soothing I’ve found.

It is a privilege to be able to enjoy slow living. What we often conceptualize as a simple lifestyle depends on pre-existing wealth or access to funds. I detest tourism to poor areas of the world that revels in the condition of life there as the “cure” to busyness, when, in fact, abject poverty brings its own forms of (often physical) suffering. To be able to be still and to be able to relax into the sounds of that stillness are gifts for which I hope I can be grateful and moments I desire not to squander.

There is nothing that needs to be done or accomplished with the quietness of the natural world. It is ephemeral, broken most often where I live by the machines humans have made. It cannot be stored in quantities and does not hold over from one day to the next. All we can do with it is attend it, open to it, and be in it as fully as the presence it offers us. The pandemic is stripping from me any vestiges of a belief in raw capitalism as a way of life; today I find myself pondering how many billions of dollars humans have spent on products designed to mimic, at maximum expense and minimum function, the enormous wealth that can be found in acts as simple as pacing my breath to the contour of the ocean’s rhythm?

Natural Emotions (Today’s Daily Presence)

I am in a bad mood today. Thoughts of “I hate my life” and “I can’t stand (fill in person’s name)” are going through my head. I decided to move towards rather than away from my feelings by considering how they might be represented by each element.

Air

It is windy outside today and that feels fitting for my interior life right now. I want a cold wind to blow through my life and disrupt all the complacency and stagnation to which I bear witness. Wind scatters but it also gathers dried leaves in hollows; I want only want that which is worth having to remain in its place.

Water

I am having difficulty connecting how I feel with a water-based representation. It is easier for me to relate to it in terms of what might soothe my nerves. I imagine myself floating in a pool of warm water in the summer sunshine, and I feel a loosening of my inner turmoil.

Fire

I feel ablaze and unable to contain my fire. I want to remake the contours of the emotional landscape in which I find myself, but I know to set it alight means to burn more than I intend. I wish I knew how to quell my inner rage and where to direct the sense of indignant injustice that never goes out but only turns at times to simmer in me.

Earth

My mind immediately leapt to visualizing an earthquake when I wrote the word “earth.” I am not sure why all my imaginings are so intense and violent today. I see the green grass of a field shaking, slowly at first and then building until a fissure appears, extending into the bedrock.

I found this exercise to be immensely helpful in giving voice to what I am feeling in a way that takes me out of my language-centric abstract thinking realm into an arena of imagining and visualization. What I learned is that I am desperate to experience real change, to see dynamics shift and people get their comeuppance or their restitution.

There is an energy fueling me now that was previously inaccessible. It feels very difficult to contain or control. I believe I need to meet the beast and befriend it, rather than to assume something is wrong in me when others’ actions upset me. What are you feeling today? How would you describe it in terms of the four elements I’ve listed? What message does it have for you?

A Softening Warmth (Today’s Daily Presence)

The weather the last few hours where I live has undergone a dramatic shift, with a cold breeze relaxing into warmer skies. I am always surprised and delighted at the breaks of pleasant weather that happen when winter begins to yield to spring; it’s as though warm weather was a myth I’d heard about as a child, stored deep in my unconscious, but inaccessible until the next season arrives. Walking outside without the immediate contraction of my limbs together to fight off the chill not only loosens my muscles but also perks up my spirits.

I decided to spend a few moments meditating in the sunshine on my porch. My dog is on a chipmunk-hunting kick so I had to leave him inside as his response to sitting next to me on the porch is hysterical barking and pulling. I have no doubt he WILL end the chipmunk if he gets it! Anyways, after shutting my eyes, my first sense that responded was that of hearing, in that I immediately realized how many birds were in song. I felt the softness of the breeze against my skin, coupled with the warmth of the sunlight. There was an indistinguishable earthy smell, as though my surroundings had been pulled out from a damp closet and were being aired out. As I opened my eyes, all I could absorb was heightened activity: my neighbor carrying groceries and robins hopping about my yard. The aliveness of it all sat well with me.

What do you like most about the promise and the arrival of warm weather? How does the shift of seasons sit with you? Are things coming alive or going to sleep where you live?

Energy Balancing Body Scan (Today’s Daily Presence)

Today I am feeling highly energized with nowhere to direct my anxieties. It is raining out so my daily run isn’t going to happen, but I needed a way to better balance what I’m feeling as well as to reconnect with my sense of my body. I brought myself into present moment awareness with a visual and breathing-centered meditation.

The meditation practice in which I engaged has a relationship with a Tibetan Buddhist practice I learned several years ago, but I have unfortunately lost my knowledge of its name and origins in the time since. If you know what I’m referencing, please let me know in the comments!

I started by imagining my body’s stale, negative energy gathering in the form of grey smoke in my fingers, toes and edges of my head. As I took deep breaths, I saw it moving towards the center of my body, and, in breathing out a deep breath through my mouth, saw it release and float away. I repeated this process, noticing and concentrating on areas of my body which felt compressed, tight or stuck. I imagined a negative pressure developing, drawing out the trapped energy to itself where it could be exhaled. I saw my body lengthening and loosening as this occurred.

I then moved into a state of reception, where I breathed in clear, healing energy and transmitted it from the core of my body down my torso, into my fingers and toes. It also coursed from my neck into the reaches of my head and ears. As I inhaled, the energy woke up areas that felt tired, warming those that needed to be warmed, and cooling those that felt inflamed.

I then engaged in stretching exercises to further open and release as well as soothe and calm my body. There was more of a sense of a need to balance than I have had in the past. With being on T, I finally feel that I have enough energy, which is a totally new experience to me. Determining how to keep it flowing without spilling over is still a series of trial and error.

If you try the meditation, what was your experience with it? Is it easier to send out spent energy or to draw in renewed energy? How does your body balance?

Exercising Mindfully (Today’s Simple Pleasure)

My day is jam-packed with activity, so I decided to get creative and double-up a chore with a mindfulness practice. Specifically, I combined snow shoveling with body and breath awareness. I was surprised to find myself enjoying the benefits of both!

My attention was first drawn to my breath, more naturally than it is when I’m meditating while sitting, because I was breathing more heavily from the physical exertion. In terms of what my eyes were drawn to, I noticed that my field of vision was constricted to the snow I was moving, and I felt more centered when I purposely widened my gaze to include the trees and skyline. My felt sense of my body was quite noticeable and this brought me the most joy, as I felt the muscles in my arms and legs kicking into high gear with each shovelful I tossed. I could not smell or taste anything in particular. It was not until several minutes into the practice that I realized I’d been able to tune out most background noise, no easy task for someone with PTSD.

I thoroughly enjoyed engaging in mindfulness in a new way, and will be considering other places in life into which I can bring present-moment awareness. I did find my thoughts eventually drifting into what else I have to accomplish today, so the “return to breath” needs to be an anchor-point to which I hold. Have you attempted present-moment awareness in any settings aside from sitting meditation? If so, what was your experience like? How did it compare and contrast to more traditional forms of meditation?

Beginnings (Today’s Daily Work of Art)

My attempts at creativity have been zilch in the last few weeks. I needed to start somewhere, so I decided to draw a card from my Daily Works of Art deck; I chose the beginning card. Words come more easily to me than images or sounds, so I determined the best course of action is to ponder the word and to brainstorm the visual and auditory representations of it that arise, in the hopes that a few will spark further creativity.

A beginning might be A/an…

  • Acorn buried by a squirrel
  • Eggs tucked into a nest
  • Pink and purple sky as the sun rises
  • Cloud appearing
  • First drops of rain
  • Flame flickering
  • Splash of a pebble in water
  • Footstep into the forest
  • First snowflake drifting downward
  • Perch of a water strider on the surface of a lake
  • Locked gaze of a hawk in a tree
  • Stretch of a cat’s limbs before standing
  • Soft rustle of leaves as a breeze passes by
  • Murkiness of night sky under a new moon
  • Shadow of a tree in dawnlight
  • Lap of waves on a seashore
  • Curve of woods into valley
  • Scamper of salamander onto land
  • Rise of birdsong in first light
  • Budding of flower before blossoming

I enjoyed this exercise quite a bit and didn’t feel that I’d even come close to exhausting possible images and sounds by the end of it. I found myself wanting to bring in other senses such as touch and smell, so I’ll need to work on that in the future. I kept questioning whether what I was imagining was actually the start of something, or whether I’d been influenced to view it as the start through media such as books and films I’ve seen. In the natural world, most experiences are both interrelated and cyclical, so is sunrise really the start or does sunset portend a new beginning?

I noticed a few themes in my list. I think I associate the morning and the beginning of the afternoon most strongly with beginnings. I also think of the first action in a series of movements at the beginning, although, at least in humans, a good amount of mental activity and sensory input may transpire before any physical shifts are observed. I also conceptualize the initiation of precipitation as a starting, although rain and snow are but one part of a larger weather cycle, and come after a number of other alterations in wind, temperature and moisture levels have happened. I find myself inspired as I sit with this, because it leads me to conclude everything is beginning just as much as it is middle and ending, even if the liner framing we humans tend to put on our experiences wouldn’t hold space for this.

What images and/or sounds signal beginning to you? What aspects of nature speak most directly in your mind to “something new?” How do you integrate the idea of cycles and new-from-old into your thoughts on beginning?

Sending Calming Signals (Today’s Daily Presence)

Today was filled with stress, albeit good stress because I was challenging myself in positive ways. Even though nothing went wrong and I didn’t feel triggered per se, my body is responding as though I am in danger. My heart is racing, I feel physically numb and my time perception is warped. This is a signal to me that my PTSD reactivity is on high alert, and that I need to spend some time reconnecting to my body. The easiest and simplest way I know to send it a sign that I am safe is to regulate my breathing.

Breathwork is not limited to breathing in and out slowly. For me, it starts by noticing my breath. The act of paying attention to my breath in and of itself soothes me. When I allow my breath to happen only on an unconscious level, I tend to breath in a very shallow and quick manner that leads my body to think it is danger (and which results from the perception of threat). Next, I invite my diaphragm to contract and relax at a slower pace. Finally, I allow for pauses between my in and out-breath.

A multitude of health benefits have been linked to slow breathing. Unhurried respiration eventually lowers my pulse rate. It may also help my heart to beat more efficiently and my oxygen exchange to be fuller. Six to ten breathes per minute is apparently what has been shown to lead to the best outcomes; I haven’t timed myself but ten per minute would likely be closer to where I’m at. Have you checked in with your breathing today? How does your body respond to you noticing your breath? How does slow breathing, if you are able to practice it, affect you?

The In-Gathering

As I worked through what I need after feeling invisible, experiencing invalidation or simply having a stressful day, I realized my inner world is best honored by ritual. My spirituality is at its deepest when I follow my own natural rhythms. Whenever and wherever, I can honor each part of myself. I invite you to customize the following for your own practice.

Setting the Scene

Create a space for ritual. This can be as simple as lighting a candle, laying out a special cloth, or brewing a cup of tea. It can be creating an elaborate altar or traveling to a place in nature to which you feel called. All that matters is that it is made sacred by your intentional presence.

Begin by centering yourself on your breath. Invite your senses in, one-by-one. If you having trouble focusing, play calming music or listen to nature sounds.

A Safe Place for All

In turn, welcome* each part of self. Some I chose to honor are the vulnerable, the eager, the nurturing, the brave and the wise. You may have other parts that need representation. Allow each to share with you whatever they want to share, without judgement. Ask the other parts to sit back and grant space while each one shares. Parts may make a request of others, which should be held with care.

Body, Heart, Mind and Spirit

After each part has shared, concentrate again on your breath. Inhabit every corner of your body. Listen to your body as a whole and through its systems, observing what it needs. Focus on what it may want to reveal or release.

Allow your emotions to channel and course through your body. Meet each one with a loving embrace. Notice them shift and dance.

Attend to your mental state. Notice the pattern and pace of your thoughts. Observe them come and go.

Finally, turn to your Spirit. Allow it to reveal itself to you through your senses. Touch the moon and sun cycles, the sky, earth, rain and fire and the season. Let nature guide you deeper into your soul.

Symbols of Love

Breath again, and ask of yourself, all of yourself present, what love looks like here and now. To the best of your ability, provide this love to yourself. Note any hesitancy, and then move through it with care. Embrace yourself.

A Closing Prayer

Finalize your ritual by spending time in quiet meditation, honoring yourself for making time to gather yourself whole and to recognize your worth. Incorporate whatever words and movements feel holy in this moment. Be the prayer your soul needs to feel.

*If you are new to inner/self-work and you hold a trauma history, this practice could be destabilizing. I encourage you to first work with a trusted therapist before engaging in this ritual and to take as slow of a pace as needed. Self-care practices such as spending time in nature, running a gentle bath or settling into your breath may be safe places to start to connect with parts of self.

Deepening the Stretch (Today’s Daily Presence)

Today’s Daily Presence card centers on the lower back, a site easily filled with tension, pain and discomfort. When I bring my attention to this area of my body, it feels blocked, so locked in muscular tautness that I cannot sense any communication from it to the rest of my being. I believe that this is more the result of my posture than a holding in of emotions, but, if I’m being honest, it’s never relaxed enough for me to be able to tell the difference.

I chose to honor this area of my body by engaging in yogic stretches to try to loosen it. In doing so, I quickly realized that the lack of maneuverability my hamstrings afford probably contributes to the limited range of motion of which my lower back is capable. This article confirmed my suspicions. So, I added some hamstring stretches and felt at least the lowest part of my back release a bit.

Overall, since I’ve been on T, I have had a significant drop in my chronic pain and have become less consistent in stretching. Connecting the muscle groups as I did today has shown me how easy it is to adjust my comfort level with minimal effort and attention, so I hope I can be more cognizant of what my body needs going forward. How is your lower back today? Does any discomfort you feel there relate to your hamstring or other muscles?

Healing Presence (Today’s Daily Remembrance)

Living in the present moment has enabled me to gain perspective in regards to my trauma history. If I’m grounded, I’m less likely to get lost in a sea of negative thoughts or to make irrational decisions based on negative emotions. My dog, my meditation practice and my time in nature are my most reliable conduits into present moment awareness.

Dogs live for the moment. My dog can occasionally show signs of holding a memory or anticipating the future (for example, if I mention a bath or going to the store), but he spends most of his time anchored in the here and now. When I find myself lost in panic, he will sit with me or demand a snuggle, and I can detach slightly from the pull of before and after.

I am not the most regular in my practice of mindfulness, but I do return to breath-work whenever it enters my mind. Finding my center, especially in noticing the gaps between each out and in-breath, reorients me into my body which allows me to come present. Giving my full awareness to simple actions like sitting or walking with intention serves as an additional current-moment touch-point.

Finally, immersing myself in nature helps me focus on the present. I especially appreciate the beauty of trees and love the texture their bark provides underneath my fingertips. The sounds of leaves crinkling in the wind and the warmth of the sunlight on my skin make every moment special. If my present is captured outside with my dog while I open my field of awareness to all of my senses, I am not only here for it, I’m joyful. What helps you ground and center? What best connects you to the present?