Inner and outer, mental and physical connection:
Laboratory days on developing new teaching offers at the MonViso Institute
By experience, being in nature helps us to connect with our bodily sensations through our senses, our inner feelings and thoughts, and most often allows to let go of regrets of the past, worries of the future, of our constant planning and doing mode. Our bodies and mind can become more aware and more fully alive and may also find ease, relax and joy, if within our comfort zone.
Scientific evidence suggests that spending at least 72 hours in nature has measurable stimulating effects on our brain part that is responsible for creativity and complex problem solving, the prefrontal cortex (Atchley et al. 2012).
Atchley RA, Strayer DL, Atchley P (2012) Creativity in the Wild: Improving Creative Reasoning through Immersion in Natural Settings. PLoS ONE 7(12): e51474. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0051474
Being in the outdoors, we can very naturally feel our connection with the outer nature, but also more intensively with our inner nature and with our surrounding environment like people and society. How come? Being in nature invites us to utilize all of our senses and the sensory environment as a support for being really present, which we often lack to be in daily life.
From becoming more intimate and connected with ourselves and with nature, we can experience certain spontaneous feelings, which some may call „flow“ or „bliss“ or „peak moments“, and through these intentionally can strengthen longer lasting qualities like insight, clarity of mind, joy, gratitude and a visceral understanding of knowing one’s place in the web of life.
We have asked ourselves: What activities, tools and attitudes while being in nature may be supportive to develop new insight (into complexity), clarity of mind, feel an often-forgotten sense of joy and wonder, and sometimes even love, compassion and peace stretching beyond into our relationships with people in daily life?
On the one hand, many of us have the experience of physical activation in the outdoors, be it climbing, skiing, hiking, surfing, fly fishing and also working the ground, planting, harvesting, building, creating, crafting,… i.e. experiences within and out of our physical and mental comfort zone, which may become a catalyzer for different states of mind.
On the other hand, an intentional container of guidance into stillness („meditation“ or „contemplative practice“) and mindfulness practices can support us, too, to wake up to the preciousness of the moment and the beauty of the earth we all share.
We may relate to emotions like a felt spirit of reverence and contemplation when being in connection and communication with yourself and with nature, embedded in nature, and when our conceptual lines of „inside“ and „outside“ start to vanish?!
Human beings are „made for having peak experiences“; we all know these moments of union and bliss, just most often we do not pay enough attention to them, or not allowing them sufficient space to develop – but they are completely worth to be explored and shared!
And ideally, out of this connection then, a deep care for our planet and a desire to live in greater harmony and sustainability can arise and inform our daily lives… Isn’t that what we all wish for?
Inspired by the networking joys of Mirjam, the five of us met for a couple of joint exploration and laboratory days end of August 2019 on „exploring flows in nature“ at the MonViso Institute (MVI) and the surrounding mountains of the Valle Po, at the border between the Italian Piedmont and the French Queyras.
Mindfulness and nature meditation trainer Mark Coleman from California, USA, Mirjam Luthe (Freiburg, Germany and Laguna Beach, CA, USA), outdoor and experiential pedagogy guide Philip Svobodnik (Vienna, Austria), Stefanie Hammer from mindfulness magazine „Moment by Moment“ (Freiburg, GER), scientist and mountain guide Tobias Luthe (Zurich, CH, Oslo, NO; co-founder of the MonViso Institute, IT) wanted to jointly explore common grounds in didactic ways to spur „connection with the personal inner and outer socio-ecological world“.
Such experiences include quality time in nature, silence in stillness and in physical motion beyond the comfort zone, mental and physical flow moments, simple tasks, dialogs and discussions on complex topics, and guided meditation.
A main aim was to explore the place for its suitability for Mark’s Nature Retreat format for the future.
Another aim was to get to know each other well enough to decide whether we all would feel inspired to elaborate together new outdoor and teaching formats, e.g. including the MVI environment (local Occitane culture and local crafts(wo)men, local stone village structure, permaculture and related food chains, handcrafts out of native material, working meditation on the campus etc.) and also a more active extension of Mark’s silent retreat in the sense of a guided overnight mountain tours around the Monte Viso, including elements of mindfulness practice.
Because language is so relevant, we acknowledge our working understanding of some key terms:
Meditation: Latin meditatio with the verb meditari, meaning „to think, contemplate, devise, ponder“; here it refers to the state of the mind when one is in „yoga“, meaning in union of body and mind.
Contemplation: Latin contemplatio with its root of templum, a piece of ground consecrated for worship in action; here a kind of inner vision or seeing and listening, transcendent of the intellect.
The evolving campus of the MVI with its inspiring scales of design, organically growing spaces and layered vistas, with its fresh water dwell, steep terrain under shaded Laburnum trees and surrounded by old stone stables, which prior to the goats and sheep once were houses of families, was our cozy home base for this endeavor – what a precious gift! Its wildness and spaciousness could still be felt in our cells days after our adventure…
We began the lab days with settling at this beautiful place, slowing down after our travels from different places of the world, just arriving, enjoying, exploring, opening up, organically sharing the daily tasks like fetching water from the dwell, meal preparation on the fire, washing dishes from the dwell in basins,… everyone in his and her own pace and way, but well aware of our presence as a group at the same time.
After the first night of rest, we brainstormed our main motivations and aspirations for this meeting. Key words we wrote down were „language, dialectic and culture of practice“, „contemplative & ecological activism“, „moment by moment experiences“, „flows in nature“, „experiences beyond the (sports) comfort zone“, „meditation by doing“, „doing in meditation“, and others alike. They would set the frame and expectation for our explorations in the next days.
Hiking in the Alpine. Wild and powerful nature. Physical activation. Beauty and wonder. Nature’s design genius.
Mark shared glimpses of how he guides the introductory part of nature meditation in a group, offering a few „seed“ meditation instructions to stimulate connecting with our bodily sensations, e.g. taking consciously one step after the other and feeling the sensations, and then switching back to the outer social and natural environment while being aware of how the outer landscape influences the inner landscape of the heart.
We experienced the invitation to maintain „social silence“ in our group, meaning to give each other space to be silent and just experience, obviously refraining from intellectual discussions or „oral problem digestion“ from our daily lives and instead returning our attention to this present moment, just now, and how we relate to it and all that comes up in our busy minds, even if we are invited to be silent in words.
Giving each other space for „just being with what is now“ and without the usual social expectation to be polite, to listen, to reply, to agree or to argue. How busy our Default Mode Network in the brain usually gets, when there is silence all of a sudden – planning, creating, argueing, wishing, regretting… plenty of action in our brain! … This practice obviously felt very different to hiking with a guide explaining the place and vistas, or gathering for a group photo, where all attention is placed on the outside.
One question that came up was: How can a diverse group experience a natural state of silence to begin connecting with one’s bodily sensations, inner emotions and thoughts, without setting rules that might feel like „artificially imposed“ for some people who are not used to this kind of “mandated” meditation settings, but know and prefer outdoor sports and physical challenge to “flow into states of meditation“ – which on the other hand some people might not have experienced yet?
„Social silence“ seems to work well. Another „natural“ mode could be to agree on a checkpoint, a meeting point in visual reach, and invite all to walk in their individual pace to get there. This would allow for concentrating on oneself without interference of others.
As another focus, it is also notable that when we get into a physical flow, e.g. here through hiking, especially with increasing intensity nearing our individual comfort zone boundaries, stillness may appear naturally because we cannot speak, when we have to breathe intensively. Without words. But one can experience it, if not yet used to. Mark’s invitation to guard „social silence“ (often called “noble silence“ in meditation centers) seemed to capture this effect quite well.
Still waters can be deep. Literally. We enjoyed the silence up here.
The open views over the 11-14°C cold water, up to the mountain tops, partly fogged up, partly looking out from the clouds. The tadpoles and the young grass frogs. The cotton grass (Eriophorum vaginatum).
Details around us, in focus, and vistas far away. From focus to wide angle, and back. A nice analogy for switching between inner and outer “perspectives”: bodily sensations, emotions, thoughts, and the environment.
The changing weather helps to practice this switch of perspectives. With open clouds, we seek the high peaks and stretched vistas. With a fogged-up valley, we see the colors and grain of the stones at our feet. And some emotion may arise with it, if we are in the present moment and capture its arising – be in gratitude for the smallest life we see at our feet, be it to wonder about the formations of clouds or colored structures of rock layers, which are all part of biodiversity, the richness of species.
This is the moment when we are truly present. And this is when we may experience a sensation of bliss, happiness, flow, meaning or even peace.
Lago Lausetto is one of eight lakes high up in the Alpine around Monte Viso and the biosphere park, which protects the natural treasures up here, in light of the frequent tourism use during summer.
We take time to explore the nature up here, to relax, to drink and have a snack, to photograph.
Photography is a powerful tool, too, to practice inner and outer focus, to zoom in and out. To concentrate, to be aware and present for what we see, to take the time to explore.
Also to feel joy about what surrounds us and about all the connections we may see all of a sudden, when we take the time to stop and look at something tiny or something we maybe never really had looked at carefully, because it seemed to be „so known“, like a single blueberry, or when we even taste its sweetness in this arid environment and become aware of its preciousness for birds or mammals up here or feel the soft texture of the cotton grass.
Mark offers a simple meditation practice up here. To open our senses (and not the mind) and feel attracted by an element in nature, right where we stand, and „fully be with it“. Just for a minute, offering our undistracted presence. With the gates of all our senses.
Most of us had chosen the visual sense, e.g. the wind-driven micro structural surface of the lake or the enormous clouds at the horizon, few only the tactile, kneeling down and touching the hairy surface of that one leave with our fingers.
Nature in the mountains is powerful and wild. Weather changes quickly, the terrain is often challenging, sometimes technical, and quite quickly, if not trained, people may reach their comfort zone boundary, once some parameters change – like the weather.
Curating a safe „container“ in such a situation to stay open-minded and interested in the now-experience, to let go of fear or feeling uncomfortable, to trust, maybe even to be at peace or flow.
To still experience joy and wonder, can become a challenging task, especially up here in a mountain environment, far away from the false promise of total control in our daily lives with all commodities to escape from or change a situation.
The role of a responsible and mindful outdoor or mountain guide is to provide for this safe space and maintain it safe, maybe even mindfully invite to play with the fuzzy thresholds between comfort zone and the learning or growth zone, but clearly without reaching the frustration or panic zone. This requires much experience and knowledge of oneself and other people’s psyche.
Our focus switches from distance to detail, from rocky ridges to pink flowers.
Being in nature „naturally“ trains us to switch between inner and outer observations, to connect both or simply realize that there is not much of a separation.
The solidity of the rock is in our bones, too – not to forget that human bodies in average consist to 18% of calcium, to 65% of oxygen and 11% of hydrogen by mass. The water of the creek runs in more than 60% of our own body (we consist to 62% of hydrogen by atomic percent) and the warmth of the sunlight can be felt in the digestive energy of our stomach, too.
A skilled mindfulness trainer can invite us into focused concentration and deeper experience of ourselves in this very moment and our relationship to what is there right now.
Surprises behind the next rock, the next ridge, the next turn.
In this case the protected Alpine Ibex (Capra ibex). It was almost extinct in the Alps but survived due to a last protected habitat in the Aosta Valley, the Gran Paradiso National Park. The Ibex was successfully reintroduced into its natural habitat.
Lunch break at Rifugio Giacoletti, just below the „Colle Porco“, a steep couloir leading up to a ridge and over to the French side.
We were grateful – and hungry – to being served hot polenta (a typical mountain dish from sweet corn) with local cheese, a minestrone (vegetable soup), and hot tea. Slow food on 2700m asl.
Holding a nap on the sitting benches of the little hut, in-midst of other hikers who waited for the sudden heavy rain to cease, before we follow the path down the lower part of the Porco couloir (which is a fantastic ski descent in winter) back towards Pian del Re, the origin and source of the river Po.
Now the fog is surrounding us, the vistas are only there in glimpses, and we fully concentrate – again without talking – on the rocky serpentine path, which often requires our hands to hold on to rocks to feel safe. Just rocks? All of a sudden, in this encounter, this appears to be more than just stone.
Stone is living matter. Despite of its geological age, the color and grain structure of stones reveal many secrets about their origin, their composition and density. For example, slate is very soft and layered, which is why it creates these amazingly symmetrical structures when exposed to erosion.
The greenish „Jadeite“ is a very dense and hard stone mineral, found close to the highest peaks in the Monte Viso range. Jadeite was exported to countries around Europe as a highly demanded material e.g for arrow-heads and axes, during stone age and medieval time.
The traditional Occitan stone tile roofs, „lose“ in Italian, are split by hand from large stone blocks. The stone worker splits where color differences and structural grain reveal slight differences in density. The stone color relates with its geological development process, and with its position in the ground. The deeper down stone originates from, the more blueish its color may be. These stones come from so deep in the ground that old stone houses would not have used them. Today with modern machinery they are available, but they don’t count as traditional.
There are so many details and secrets to discover, even in stone which to some of us may appear as „dead“ material. We just need to slow down, focus our attention and allow to be with it in a “beginner’s mind”, opening up for such discovery and wonder.
Towards the end of these laboratory days, we also took some time to explore the community of Ostana, the Agriturismo and the Rifugio Galaberna, the pathways leading to neighboring villages and to the lower parts of Ostana.
We visited the polyfunctional building, which may serve for indoor group activities like yoga or sitting; we had an astonished look into the borgo’s stone community bread oven from the year 900.
We wrapped up our experiences and reflections, every day enjoying the local food (also picking and preparing some tasty mushrooms from the fields, parasoles) and setting the base for future cooperation.
We began to build a dry stone wall, a relevant task in the current construction phase of the „Il Doppio“ building. This type of „fill wall“ is a simple, repetitive practice that does not require special technical skills, still it is creative in what stone to select and how to position it where in relation to each other.
It could be seen as a practice in systems thinking and doing.
Just by doing this for some minutes in close companionship to our peers and concentrating on the task, on the material, on our body and movement, on our breath, on our environment, can be supportive to „just feel“.
We may admire the beauty of these old stones, be grateful for our eyes’ capacity to choose the right form fitting neatly into that one hole, for our body’s sense of balance while reaching high up and place the last stones on the top, for the beauty of the whole construction once build and decorating a place in a nice and meaningful way.
We can speak with each other or just work in silence – and we experience that „just being with“ invites silence naturally. Not only silence, but also a feeling of contentment and peace.
Mark offered some guidance words into our „working meditation“, while also drawing from our felt experience in this very moment, which we shared with each other. Sharing our experience, emotions and thoughts without being questioned or replied to, can feel socially very connecting in a group.
This working component felt especially meaningful and satisfying to us – definitely worth to be integrated into a future retreat experience at MVI, next to silent sitting or walking meditation, mindful movement like yoga, or any more technical or higher cardio physical activity, but also next to any arts and crafting activity, planting and harvesting and cooking and even washing dishes and cleaning the campus.
With creating this stone wall, we felt the satisfaction of leaving a constructive legacy to this place, the MVI, having contributed together in our group a little piece to its growth in this amazing mosaic.
We closed this experience with a slow food dinner at the local “Galaberna”, sharing in a circle of attentive listeners what we were grateful for and appreciative of during the last days, and also what our learnings and take-aways are.
It has been an amazing time together, up here in the mountains, exploring, sharing, experimenting, questioning, enjoying, laughing – just being while doing.
One of the concrete outcomes is that Mark will teach a first mindfulness nature retreat course at the MonViso Institute, in July 2020 (exact dates tbc). We are honored and happy to welcome him back up here next year.
Stay tuned for more information in our program 2020, released by the end of 2019.