Get Out...of your head

July 9, 2023

“Get out!” 

That’s a refrain of mine, and it’s normally not directed at a stranger, or my kids or my husband. It’s my inner voice (the wise one, not the critic) commanding me to get outside and get my senses engaged, even in the most frigid and inclement weather. This time of year in the northeast, you often hear the phrases “cabin fever” and “stir-crazy” that refer to a kind of imprisonment, with real symptoms including depression, overeating and restlessness. COVID-19 has been a hardship for many of us being docked, or locked, in one place. Even so, our brain can get stuck in lockdown mode anytime and anywhere. Our minds are good at ruminating in place—dwelling on past events, adding drama to situations, and constructing unsavory futures. Being in uplifting relationships with others is an antidote to relieve self-absorption, and is essential for our well-being. Similarly, this comforting sense of human belonging can be expanded to include belonging to Mother Earth. That’s easily done alone, especially when you get out. Not just getting outside, but getting outside to connect with your innate skills— to observe, touch, listen, smell, and even taste.

Around here, getting out can mean bundling up like an Eskimo. You can bring your phone, but consider it a tool for this journey; it’s best to put it on airplane mode. I bring a whistle, too, in case of feral animals or people. So let’s go.

Whether you live in a rural, suburban or urban area, heading outdoors in daylight is healthy for our natural cycles of wakefulness and sleep. Likewise, movement helps dissipate anxiety. Anywhere you go, there are always some signs of nature to seek. As you stride along, observe and pay particular attention to trees that are present. Notice their form, branching and diversity. Consider their size and their survival without much human intervention. In warm seasons, you can discern a variety of foliage. Right now, deciduous trees are bare but their silent limbs have things to share: when you see branches directly opposite one another, forming obvious V-shapes, these belong only to maple, ash or dogwood trees. The acronym MADOG helps me remember this. All other trees have alternate branching. As you become more curious, get a tree book or phone app like Picture This to help ID them. Tree bark provides feedback. And tree fruit or nuts (the seeds of trees) offer a lot of clues.

Recently, I was in a place with a Mediterranean climate where backyard trees dropped their fruits, so taste was an obvious next step to gather data. These specimens revealed themselves as orange and lemon and kumquat trees. Without us even asking, trees present us with nourishment and fresh air while absorbing our nasty carbon dioxide. Shouldn't we reciprocate by calling them by their given names?

Taking photos of trees with your phone can be inspiring. Get real close and touch the tree - at arm’s length hold the camera up towards its canopy for awesome framing and click! Or just breathe in and smell tree air and thank the tree for being there. As you walk, make an effort to listen for birds, and see if you can locate them. If there are no other audio distractions, I use a phone app called Merlin Bird ID, which records bird calls to identify them. Or simply be grateful for the varied songs offered by our feathered friends, which freely accompany us on the journey.

Once in the mindset of the natural world, I notice the sky demands my attention with its ever changing cloud movement and forms. No less, hardscapes like natural and even man-made rock creations remind me of our geological birth. And if water is around, my senses are piqued by its sounds and reflections.

We are gifted with the capacity to observe, touch, smell, listen, and taste attentively. And when we do, we gain our sixth sense: synchronicity with the wonder of existence. Normally this makes me feel pretty small, yet all the more fortunate to be embraced here by Mother Earth. Of course, my mind is easily distracted by habitual self-centered thoughts, but I want to give those neural pathways a break on these outdoor trips. That’s the practice of mindfulness. After the trip, I’m refreshed. Sometimes I will even allow myself to post a brilliant picture I just took on Instagram.