Yuki Kawauchi of Setagaya, Tokyo, recently turned a very bright light on his country’s running legacy, given a chance by almost no one, he won the Boston Marathon — the oldest and most prestigious of the world’s annual marathons — in frigid temperatures, relentless wind, and horizontal rain. Here's how he prepared.
Study nature. Love nature. Stay close to nature. It will never fail you. – Frank Lloyd Wright
Recent studies are finally corroborating what educators, mountain athletes and backpackers have always known: being in nature has profoundly positive effects on human beings. The sense of wonder and awe elicited by being in nature invites people to redirect concern away from the self and toward everything else. Those adventurous souls who have been touched by this quiet sense of awe and power tend to act more generously and ethically since they feel a deeper connection to others and the world in general.
Studies exploring the deeper neurological mechanisms involved suggest that spending time in nature is vital for maintaining mental health in a rapidly urbanizing world. A hike or run in the mountains will surely soothe the heart and, in the process, change the workings of our brains in ways that improve our mental wellbeing. Simply going for a walk in the park, ambling along a local open space trail, or climbing your favorite mountain will—at least temporarily—clear your brain of anxiety while considerably reducing stress hormones. The more awareness we can bring to our outdoor activities, the greater the likelihood that these positive results will “stick” once we return to the city.
Learning to “just be” in nature
The first tip is simple: enter nature’s silence as often as possible, and remain there for as long as possible. Turn off your phone or music device. Limit your conversations to functional talking for the first 20-30 minutes. Being quiet is one of the most instructive things you can do in the wild, because simple awareness of the silent world of nature will begin to alter your mood almost immediately. Silence cleanses the doors of perception and opens you up to realms beyond habitual words and thoughts. Cultivating the ability to be in silence in nature gradually leads to an almost immediate sense of calmness whenever you visit her.
Be patient and deliberate while you settle into yourself. Sense your muscles and pay attention to your posture so you can position your whole body effectively from the start. Then move over the earth with poise and grace. If you are so fortunate as to meet a wild animal, approach it with stealth and respect, taking care not to disrupt anything in its habitat. Efforts like these will open up the narrow chinks and caverns in your body through which you tend see things as either flat or as a bunch of isolated parts.
To involve the senses and centers of your whole body more fully, start by feeling your feet on the ground. From there pay particular attention to the vastness of the sky. You will probably be inclined to look down when you run or hike, perhaps to be sure of your footing. To counter this downward pull, keep your head still, relax your neck and shoulders, then let your natural gaze rise gradually. Scan your environment; be sensitive to anything that calls to you. With experience you can simultaneously glance at the ground several feet ahead of you while expanding your visual field all the way to the horizon.
Take it slowly. Don’t rush past things. Try to notice as much as possible. Give yourself a moment to absorb your surroundings deeply. Once you find the right rhythm, everything becomes more vivid. You become friends with the world of nature by immersing yourself in the subtle nuances, rich textures and vibrant colors of your environment. Observe how the lighting changes constantly. Notice the energy emanating from the natural features around you. By taking the time to slow down in nature, you will feel much fuller and more relaxed when you go back to your busy life.
Feel free to experiment! How much time in nature is ideal for you to reduce stress and keep your mind right? What types of environments suit you best, and under what conditions? Mountains? Forests? Water? Deserts? What times of day work better for you? What weather do you thrive in? Try walking, running and sitting still under different conditions so you can observe any contrasts in psychological benefits. Spend time in nature both alone and with one or more companions; notice the differences, if any, in these experiences.
Eventually the calm clarity and alertness of mind you’ve cultivated during your time in nature will both relax you and make you comfortable in your own skin when you return to your normal routine. Perhaps you will have thrown off a piece of your “thought-ridden nature” for good. Perhaps your true nature will shine through more and more.