What to do in nature? Maybe nothing!

Here’s why sometimes we should stop and just enjoy our surroundings. Photo by Storyblocks.

Oct. 14, 2021

Recently, two friends and I spent a couple of hours outdoors doing nothing. 

That is, we just enjoyed the breeze, the prairie grasses, the oak woodlands and the butterflies. And we all felt rejuvenated. 

It’s not surprising to those who’ve studied mindfulness. Research has shown that mindfulness in nature leads to benefits that are documented and can be felt in both the body and mind. 

On our recent visit to LBJ National Grasslands in Wise County, my friends and I didn’t do anything that seemed very special. 

We just sat in the shade of some oak trees, not talking, just breathing in the fresh air. We watched butterflies visiting some beautiful purple flowers. Dragonflies hovered overhead. The breeze came in waves, stirring the oak leaves and making the tall Indiangrass and other prairie grasses seem to flow like ocean waves across the landscape. 

Not doing anything very special is exactly the point of mindfulness meditation. 

Not doing anything very special is exactly the point of mindfulness meditation. 

Gulf Fritillary butterflyWe watched a Gulf fritillary butterfly go about its business at LBJ National Grasslands. Photo by Michael Smith.


Mindfulness meditation comes from Buddhism but it is not in itself a religious practice. In fact it has been widely adopted and studied in Western medicine, as an aid in psychotherapy, stress and chronic pain reduction and many other uses. 

“Wait,” you might say. “You said you don’t do anything special, and yet you’re claiming that it does things that are pretty special?” 

It turns out that quieting the mind and body, and really paying attention to what’s going on in the present moment is pretty special. 

It turns out that quieting the mind and body, and really paying attention to what’s going on in the present moment is pretty special.

We hardly ever do it, because we are caught up in thinking about things. We wonder about things people said. We worry about something coming up in the future. We remember people, places, TV shows and turn them over and over in our minds. With our attention focused on all that thinking, we may sleepwalk through the moments we are actually living in. 

In mindfulness practice, we intentionally work on paying attention to the present moment and let all that other stuff go. 

As researcher, author, and clinician Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “While it may be simple to practice mindfulness, it is not necessarily easy.” 

You can try to quiet your mind, but the thoughts will stubbornly keep coming. Instead, we try to pay attention to our immediate experience, starting with focusing on each breath. When the mind starts to stray, we gently bring it back to the present. Over time, a discipline develops, and we can be present more easily.

LBJ National GrasslandsThe author recently spent a day at LBJ National Grasslands with his friends, just sitting and taking in the surroundings. Photo by Michael Smith.


Nature might be the most inviting place to practice mindfulness, or at least it seems that way to me. As we notice what is around us, there are clouds floating by, tall native grasses waving in the breeze, and other things to gently hold our attention on the present moment.

We settle into stillness, more fully engaged with what we see, hear, touch and smell around us, as well as what we sense within us.

To practice mindfulness in nature, do you have to sit still? No, you can walk in the woods or wade in a stream mindfully, if you stay open to what each step brings to you. 

In his book, Awake in the Wild, Mark Coleman describes “meandering with awareness.” This is meandering through nature without hurrying and without being driven by any particular destination or goal.

That doesn’t mean wandering aimlessly. You might follow a trail with an idea about where you need to arrive and when. The point is to pay attention on your immediate experience not on what you will do later or something you are hoping to find on your walk.

You can go birding in a way that encourages mindfulness, and there are books and websites that discuss this. The same would apply to my specialized interest – herpetology – and probably any other nature pursuit. In my younger years, "herping" paralleled my siblings' interest in birding. I was intent on finding certain target species, hopefully before my companions did. 

However, in recent years, I have wandered in the woods with a sense that what was already present was enough. I have more patience for sitting and watching a lizard on a tree or a turtle in the water. In the process, I can learn more about how the animal lives and develop empathy for him or her. As a result, that lizard can then become more than just a species to check off on a checklist.

Michael Smith and tawny emperor butterflyTIPS FOR PRACTICE

The author enjoying a visit from a tawny emperor butterfly. Photo by Casey Garcia.

If you would like to practice mindfulness in nature, find a place that offers few distractions and captures your imagination in some way. If you’re drawn to water, find a place with ponds or streams. Or maybe you're drawn to open fields of prairie grasses, full of textures and different shades of green, gold, rust or straw. Your place does not have to be a big wilderness area – urban parks and gardens can work just fine. 

The thing to do is to give yourself a break from your phone (for some of us that might require turning it off while we’re out). Let your attention be absorbed by the natural sounds, sights and even smells of a place. 

Very often, we start by bringing our attention to our breathing, the feeling of the rush of air, the rhythm and sound of each breath in and out, and the expansion and contraction of the chest and belly. Then we can expand our attention to notice things around us. 

And that’s what my companions and I did recently.

We sat in the shade of post oaks, looking out at little bluestem, Indiangrass, false gaura with its little clusters of white flowers and the purple spikes of dotted gayfeather among the grasses. Butterflies feeding on gayfeather began to visit us, gathering some salt and minerals from our skin.

It was as if we became part of the prairie, members of its community rather than strangers visiting a place where we didn’t belong.

It was a wonderful experience.

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