• Mindfulness has been shown to reduce stress and help manage difficult feelings

  • Despite the popularity of mindfulness meditation practices, many of us struggle to be mindful and attentive in everyday life

  • Jackee Holder explores the value of mindful walking and paying attention to nature

On a recent walk along my street I noticed for the first time a succulent, green, leafy tree poking out from behind the steel bars of an abandoned car lot. Deep velvety green leaves were fluttering in the breeze, almost as if to say ‘Hello!’. How many times have I walked past those iron gates to focus on the rubbish people dump in front of it? I have never really noticed that tree. What surprised me was how this was the first time, after three years of walking up and down this street, that I had really stopped to notice.

I embarked on further investigation of the tree’s leaf and size based on information gathered during a tree walk in one of the local parks a few days earlier led by Sam, a tree guide from the Wildlife Trust. I could tell from the molten greyish colour and smooth form of the tree bark, decorated with small white polka dots, that the tree I was looking at was an Aspen tree. It was quite stunning. 

I felt so proud of myself, being able to name that tree. I was also moved by the fact that the trees in our environments can so easily go unnoticed, especially as our default is to spend the majority of our day in ‘headless chicken’ mode! Eyes down in phone screens rarely looking up and around to notice what surrounds us. I say this as someone who enjoys slow walking and engaging with trees and nature …and even I am surprised by just how much I miss on a regular basis.

This ‘not really seeing’ is an ongoing challenge in modern life. When Google replaces real life encounters we become hard wired to not notice each other, and to not pay attention to the world around us. We become embedded in our own short-sightedness, that closes off a multitude of sights, sounds, fragrances and smells. We seriously limit the multi-dimensional circuit of our sensory nervous system.

It was comforting to know that I was not alone in this experience. On the tree walk with Sam, the guide from the Wildlife Trust, we were guided towards what looked like an old gnarled tree in the distance standing majestically on a grassy bank, her age glowing in the rare sunshine. Sam however, despite walking this path many times before, had only just noticed the tree a few days before.

I believe that we can gather some of the benefits of attention restoration theory, originating from the work of Professor Stephan Kaplan, through more mindful engagement with nature in our urban spaces. Attention restoration theory in nature can stimulate our attention that is involuntary. The kind of focus when you are able to notice and see more in the environments you are in.

How to be more mindful

So how can you break the pattern of not really noticing all that is going on around you? How can you slow down and begin a habit of noticing and seeing more? What can you do to re-programmed the amazing observational powers we have as human beings? Here’s some suggestion for you:

  • Walk for 15 minutes each day without out looking at your phone, looking around you as you walk or go about your day.
  • Build more play into your observations. How about choosing an object or colour or theme to spot on your daily walks to and from work? You could focus on spotting a particular colour on different days of the week, or focus on a type of tree, or make of car. Take your pick. It’s a good way of sharpening those observational skills and dulled senses.
  • Take 15 minutes at the end of the day to describe one captured moment from your day in as much detail as possible. This will bring more moments from your day into focus instead of your week speeding past in a blur.
  • Make time to notice trees and nature. Get to know the species of trees in your local area. Trees are as diverse and as intriguing as people and can tell you a lot about the history of the area and the communities you live or work in.
  • Take photos of scenes, places that interest you as you walk. But remember that the best camera is the naked eye.

I promise you that if you do any of the above on a regular basis you will start to view your street, locality or place of work through a very different eye and lens.

Further reading

Why we shouldn't take trees for granted

Why being outside is so good for mental health

Can you live a mindful life in the city?

How green spaces reduce stress

10 ways mindfulness improves your health