Cultivating mindfulness during seasonal transitions

By Katie Alvin Explore Big Sky Contributor

Daylight is dwindling, nights are getting frosty, and the snowline is creeping down the mountainsides. Fall is giving way to winter before our eyes, and we too must give in to the changing seasons. But this period of transition is the perfect time to reflect: accepting what is – and what isn’t. Try some of these practices to connect to the changing environment and ease your way through the seasonal transition.

Understanding mindfulness

According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, being mindful means being intentionally present in the moment, aware of what is going on around you without judgment. You can practice mindfulness during any activity, and the potential benefits reported by the American Psychological Association are impressive. The APA reports that mindfulness reduces overthinking, improves focus, boosts working memory, reduces stress, improves cognitive flexibility, and decreases emotional reactivity.

Similarly, research shows that being in nature has numerous benefits. Penn State Professor Emeritus of Recreation, Park, and Tourism Management Geoffrey Godbey summarized more than 100 studies about the health benefits of the outdoors, citing results that range from reduced stress and improved sense of wellbeing, to decreased obesity and reduction in ADHD symptoms.

Ground yourself

Many specialists, like clinical psychologist Dr. Patti Levin, suggest “grounding” as a way to disconnect from stress, panic or anxiety. Connecting with your immediate surroundings involves systematically moving through your senses and identifying what you see, feel, hear and smell in the moment. This process distracts you from stress and connects you directly to the peaceful reality of the current moment.

To try this yourself, find an outdoor location where your senses can be inundated. A river or creek is a great place to ground yourself, and once you’ve found a place, sit or stand and feel the connection between your body and the earth. Sense the texture at that connection – is it rocky, compacted, damp, squishy? Listen to the ambient sounds – water rushing, wind blowing, leaves rustling. Be aware of the layers that compose each sound. Feel the air on your skin – is it cool, warm, damp, still? Breathe in slowly and deliberately, smelling the air and feeling it move through your body. Notice how different you feel once you’ve moved through this sensory inventory.

An important element of grounding – and any mindful practice – is non-judgment. While feeling each of the sensations, it’s critical not to attach a quality of “good” or “bad” to your experience. By removing judgment, you can fully appreciate the moment and distance yourself from discontentment. This doesn’t come easily at first, but regular practice will make this more natural.

Walk like a monk

Another way to connect with your surroundings and become mindful of the present moment is through walking meditation. This practice is used both as a break from seated meditation to loosen up the body, and a technique on its own. Practicing outside adds nature’s healing benefits.

To begin, head outside and briefly ground with your environment using the techniques above. Start walking slowly, feeling every movement of your body. Sense your foot leaving the ground, your knee bending, your leg swinging forward through space. Feel your other foot shift to support your movement and pivot from heel to toe. Notice your other foot connecting back to the earth as it lands. Continue walking slowly, paying attention to your movements until you feel calm and connected.

This intentionally slow walking brings awareness to the body and is also a form of slow, focused moving that requires balance and muscle control similar to yoga, which studies show improves balance, joint flexibility, and circulation.

Bringing it home

You don’t have to go on a weeklong retreat to reap the rewards of mindful practices. In fact, the beauty of mindfulness is its application to every moment. The next time you find yourself discontent, frustrated, or just a little stressed out, try breaking away for a five-minute meditation using the techniques above. I think you’ll find that disconnecting from the daily grind and taking time to appreciate your natural surroundings can help sooth the discontentment of the season. Mindfulness works – just get outside!

Katie Alvin has been practicing meditation and mindfulness techniques for over a decade and is currently working towards certification in these practices. She has lived in Big Sky for more than 20 years and owns East Slope Outdoors with her husband Dave. With degrees in Environmental Studies and Soil Science, she has been involved with environmental and outdoor education for 25 years.