Meditation in Nature

It’s not uncommon to see depictions of someone meditating in a peaceful outdoor setting. Legend has it that the Buddha attained enlightenment while sitting under a tree, so it might not be unusual that we try to seek ways to calm and clear our minds while being outside. But what is the relationship between meditation and nature?

Meditation

Meditation can be defined as “non-judgmental attention to experiences in the present moment.”8 Although it is traditionally thought of as a practice where you close your eyes and try to quiet your mind, you can meditate anywhere and can incorporate it into different aspects of your day. 

Benefits of Meditation 

There are many emotional, physical, and cognitive benefits that result from practicing meditation. Scientifically, meditation causes clusters of activity in three areas of the brain. These areas are the caudate, the entorhinal cortex, and the medial prefrontal cortex8.

The caudate is the part of the brain that looks like a backwards “C.” Its role in meditation is to filter out irrelevant information. It allows for a meditative state to be initiated and continued8.
The entorhinal cortex is thought to regulate the flow of thoughts in the brain and helps the mind from wandering8.

The medial prefrontal cortex is thought to enhance self-awareness during meditation8.

These activated brain regions suggest that there may be a cortical network for the meditative state8. The hypothesis for many studies is that meditation works by strengthening cognitive control and by doing this it lessens the activity in regions such as the amygdala8, which is sometimes called the “fear center” of the brain. The amygdala is responsible for how you process heightened emotions such as fear and pleasure and is responsible for the “fight or flight” response6. Because there is less activity it means that you have more control over your emotions and how you react to certain situations instead of your emotions having control over you.

The core factors of meditation practice are attention control, emotion regulation, and self-awareness8. Meditation can lead to increased control on what to pay attention to and what to ignore, improved emotional regulation skills, and increased awareness of thoughts, feelings, and actions. Although more studies need to be done, some findings suggest that meditation reduces stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia, feelings of loneliness, and social exclusion2.

Anxiety disorders are one of the most common psychiatric disorders, affecting approximately 40 million American adults in a given year1. Meditative therapies are frequently desired by patients who have an anxiety disorder because it avoids the stigma of medications and is a budget-friendly option compared to other treatments. Eighteen of twenty-five studies in a meta-analysis reported “statistically significant differences in reducing anxiety between the meditation group and the control.”1 It helped individuals who suffered from anxiety to remain “detached” from their emotions but not avoidant, observing their emotions and thoughts but not acting on them or letting them have control1.   

How to incorporate meditation into your daily life 

What are some tasks that you experience every day that you are usually passive? Do you ever zone out when driving your car? Going to the grocery store? Watching tv? Meditation is about being aware and present. When you are transitioning from one activity to another in your day, remind yourself to be present for that transition and take note of how you feel. Think of yourself as an “observer” of your thoughts, actions, and emotions. Practice by watching the way a thought/feeling begins, is experienced, and ends. The purpose of being aware of your thoughts is so that any thought, action, or emotion you do not want to experience does not pass by your awareness3

Nature

Like meditation, interacting in nature has many benefits on physical and mental health, cognitive ability, and social cohesion4. If we understand how nature can benefit us, we can ground ourselves and connect with the world around us, even in an urban setting. 

Benefits of Interacting with Nature 

Psychological benefits4:

  • Increased self-esteem 
  • Improved mood 
  • Reduced anger/frustration 
  • Reduced anxiety 

Cognitive benefits4

  • Attention control 
  • Reduced mental fatigue 
  • Improved ability to perform tasks 
  • Improved productivity 

Physiological4

  • Stress reduction 
  • Reduced blood pressure 
  • Reduced cortisol levels 
  • Reduced occurrence of illness 

Social4

  • Improved social interaction 
  • Reduced crime rates 

Tangible4

  • Food (gardening, fresh food) 
  • Money (paying to get into beaches) 

Living in an urban environment, individuals are faced with many distractions that can negatively affect their cognitive functioning4. Interacting with nature in an urban setting can not only help with drowning out the noise but can even decrease crime rates and violence. In a study of public housing residents in Chicago, it was found that there were significantly lower rates of violence in buildings with a larger amount of plants/vegetation around them4. When looking deeper into the relationship between vegetation and violence, it was found that aggression was directly correlated with attentional function and mental fatigue4. Increased attentional function and decreased mental fatigue are two of the benefits that come from interacting with nature, so adding more vegetation in urban areas may help the community be more cohesive. 

Furthermore, nature can improve social cohesion as well as specific health outcomes. Some health outcomes that are directly linked with nature are depression and anxiety disorder, diabetes mellitus, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), various infectious diseases, cancer, healing from surgery, obesity, birth outcomes, cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal complaints, migraines, respiratory disease, and others5. Environmental conditions directly help these conditions because of something many plants give off called phytoncides. These phytoncides can reduce blood pressure and even boost immune functioning5. Even looking at window views or images of nature can promote healing by reducing sympathetic nervous system activity, increasing parasympathetic activity, and restoring attention5. The sympathetic nervous system is known for being the “fight or flight” response while the parasympathetic nervous system is the “rest and digest” response7. Reducing sympathetic nervous system activity while looking at nature can decrease anxiety, lower your heart rate, and help you relax. 

Meditation in Nature 

Now that we know the benefits of meditation and the benefits of nature, what happens when you connect them? Some overlapping benefits of both meditation and interacting with nature are: reduced anxiety, improved attention control, reduced sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) activity, reduced symptoms of depression, and increased social cohesion. Although there have not been any studies on the benefits of meditation in nature, there may be a significant improvement in the reduction of anxiety and symptoms of depression as well as more of a connection with the world around you when meditating in nature. 

In my experience, meditation in nature has always helped me be more present and connected to the world around me. It has helped me be more appreciative of the little things in life such as how the wind feels on my face, the way the grass feels beneath my feet, and how the sun feels radiating down on me. It has helped me realize how interconnected everything is in our external world. I hope to see more scientific research shortly on meditation in nature and its benefits, but for now observe what you feel when meditating indoors vs when meditating in nature. 

Sources

1Chen KW, Berger CC, Manheimer E, Forde D, Magidson J, Dachman L, Lejuez CW.

Meditative therapies for reducing anxiety: a systematic review and meta-analysis of 

randomized controlled trials. Depress Anxiety. 2012;29:545–62.

2Chételat, Gaël, et al. “Why could meditation practice help promote mental health and 

well-being in aging?.” Alzheimer’s research & therapy 10.1 (2018): 1-4.

3Dispenza, Joe. Breaking the habit of being yourself: how to lose your mind and create a new 

one. Carlsbad: Hay House, 2012. Print. 

4Keniger, Lucy E., et al. “What are the benefits of interacting with nature?.” International 

journal of environmental research and public health 10.3 (2013): 913-935.

5Kuo, Ming. “How might contact with nature promote human health? Promising mechanisms 

and a possible central pathway.” Frontiers in psychology 6 (2015): 1093.

6Moyer, Nancy, MD. “Amygdala Hijack: When Emotion Takes Over.” Healthline, 22. Apr. 

2019, www.healthline.com/health/stress/amygdala-hijack#overview.

7Nall, Rachel Msn. “Your Parasympathetic Nervous System Explained.” Healthline, 23 Apr. 

2020 www.healthline.com/health/parasympathetic-nervous-system.

8Tang, YY., Hölzel, B. & Posner, M. The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation. Nat Rev Neurosci 16, 213–225 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn3916

Images (in order)

1File:BrainCaudatePutamen.svg: User:LeevanjacksonDerivative work: User:SUM1, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

2Case courtesy of Assoc Prof Frank Gaillard, Radiopaedia.org. From the case rID: 47208

3Brain regions involved in the components of mindfulness meditation by Tang, YY., Hölzel, B. & Posner, M. The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation. Nat Rev Neurosci 16, 213–225 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn3916

Featured Image: Meditation High Mountain Ga Nature Mountains (https://www.maxpixel.net/Meditation-High-Mountain-Ga-Nature-Mountains-4919849) via Max Pixel (CC0 Public Domain)

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