We’ve been enjoying some unseasonably warm weather these past few days, and last week I took the opportunity to go for a hike in the nearby Groton State Forest. It’s actually a constellation of multiple state parks and different lakes and ponds, and spans more than 26,000 acres, making it the second largest contiguous land holding of the State of Vermont. It’s really beautiful. For this off-season hike, I chose Kettle Pond State Park.
Geared up and ready to go, as I set off on the trail, I couldn’t help but notice how much noise was still with me. My footsteps were noisy; my bag was noisy; my mind was noisy. I wondered to myself, “how can I be out in this pristine landscape and still feel like there is a TV on in the background?” My car was the only one in the parking lot, so I couldn’t point the finger at anyone but me.
I plowed on in this manner for another quarter mile or so until I finally stopped and paused for a moment. Only then, in my stillness, could I hear the quiet.
And what does quiet sound like, you might ask?
It’s like taking all of your thoughts and sending them skyward in a celestial lantern. Or like hitting the pause button on your feet and muting the sounds of your body in motion. It’s realizing that if something happened to you, it could be quite a while before help arrives, and it’s the space between the sounds of footsteps and the melodies of songbirds.
For me, I can sustain that level of presence for about 30 seconds before I see something that I want to photograph. I still have a lot of practice to do when it comes to being present. But on my walk that day, in my stillness and presence, I was rewarded with a scene featuring a brilliantly colored woodpecker inspecting a nearby tree.
I realized that I would not have heard him if I had kept marching on, given that I sounded like Big Foot traipsing through the forest, nor would I have enjoyed his woodland debut if I had spent that time fumbling in my bag to get my camera and hustling for a photograph. Instead, I embraced the serenity of the moment.
The Lessen Learned from a Walk in the Woods
The lessen learned is that being present is really quite challenging, and until you are completely enveloped in quiet, you’ll never appreciate how much noise you carry around in your head, either. When you slow down, you have time and opportunity to notice more, and you can dedicate your energy to being present.
Take this rock for instance. Cruising by, you might catch it in your peripheral vision and write it off as another mossy stone. But when you slow down, you’ll see that it’s not just a single layer of green on that stone, but a whole community of mosses and lichens, each with their own unique shades and textures that make up a velvety fabric across the rock’s surface.
There’s a fascinating study by Harvard-affiliated researchers that found that participants who took an average of 27 minutes a day to practice meditation and mindfulness exercises showed discernible changes in their brain structure after an 8-week period. Magnetic resonance imaging (“MRI”) studies showed an increased grey matter in the hippocampus (which manages self-awareness, compassion, and introspection) and decreased grey matter density in the amygdala (which manages anxiety and stress).
The key here is practice. It takes time and effort to develop the brain matter that we need to be still and present. It takes effort to mitigate the lingering effects of stress and anxiety. Fortunately, it’s never too late to get started!