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Silent hiking

Celu Hamer

In the early morning hours, I hear the birds begin to sing.  Their songs welcome the day before the yellow glow of the sun peaks over the eastern hill.  I lay in my bed unable to sleep and finally, rolling over, I find the floor and kneel before my alter.  Sometimes I sit there watching the flame of a small candle burning, allowing my thoughts to rise and fall like waves on the ocean.  Sometimes I think of nothing at all, but just listen to my breath.  Many mornings I pray for guidance from the great Mother, taking her light in to the dark spaces of my being. I seek the meaning of my existence from the void of the universe that lies within my belly, quieting the chaos in my head.  I want to blend with all life and be the transparent Qi Gong Master, but I feel a fledgling, just a small bird in a nest dreaming that someday I might fly.  Waking to a new dawn where meaning is found in the unfolding of the day, the world seems broken.  Neighbors rush to desk jobs, children and teachers to desks. Connection with nature is lost.  Connection is in the dark, quiet forests of pine and redwood, in the rolling hills of oak and sage, in the laughing streams that flow out to meet the ocean, and along the edge of long beaches where sand is kissed by rolling surf.  In these places a voice speaks; this is the mantra of nature. 

Nature is alive.  Living sky and living hills expand and contract. Witnessing nature brings connection, connection brings peace, and peace brings healing.  Nature is the only truth that remains in a world increasingly covered by pavement and plastic.  Conformity and false importance of the human construct falls away when I am in these places.  Cities and towns with hard oiled surfaces, and hard oiled ground meant for the movement of cars, cover the beauty and healing of the earth.  My bones ache from walking on hard sidewalks.  My knees are swollen from crossing the hard streets.  My head hurts from the ceaseless noise of the crawling traffic, the screaming sirens of emergency vehicles, the piercing of car alarms that call to self importance, and the growling leaf blowers that are blowing away the topsoil.  Fellow understanding and compassion is shadowed by angry hurried drivers who hardly wait for me to cross the street as I take my walk to the store. 

No one wants to walk anymore as a mode of transportation.  The car has become a convenience that people think they cannot move without, even though cars are destroying our health and the health of all species.  This car dependency is not just an American trend.  British children walk 50 miles less per year then they walked ten years ago; 20% of these kids are considered overweight (Reilly et. al., 1999).  Statistics for this phenomenon in America must be far worse.  Why do we choose to do this?  How can we be healthy if our environment is covered in oil?  We are being lied to by the media to believe that our cars and petroleum based gadgets provide us with freedom and escape, yet traffic is piling up.  We are being told by the ten oíclock news, that our children are not safe from predators out on the streets, although the truth is that car accidents pose a much greater threat to the lives of children.  The car culture does not seem to take into consideration that our children are getting sick because we are making our environment sick.  Billions of dollars are being spent to find cures for cancer, obesity, asthma, stress, etc., but we are forgetting about the pollution factor for which most of us participate.  I am in disbelief when I see a March of Dimes flyer, seeking to raise funds to fight cancer by promoting a contest for a new Toyota Truck, in the store window on the same day I hear on the news that a huge oil tanker is crashed at the mouth of the Columbia River.  Why are people in such denial about their personal participation in this environmental disaster?  I am at a loss to explain the insanity of the car-based culture.  I am stressed out by driving.  I just want to walk on the grass and not on the sidewalk.  I desire to feel the earth beneath my feet.

To keep from going mad, I seek the safety of the hills where the earth is soft and the noise of man made machines fade into the sounds of the flowing brook, the singing wind, the rustling of leaves.  My walking takes me high up into the hills where the hum of traffic becomes a white noise that no longer shatters my nerves.  Following the deer trail off the beaten path of bicyclists and joggers, songs of birds are singing the praises of life.  Beneath the hum of distant traffic I can hear the hum of the earth, barely audible but ever present.  She speaks with animal voices and the movement of small creatures rustling under leaves.  Her sweetness is heard in the singing of flowers, her sadness can be felt in the crying and moaning of the trees.  When human construct falls away, I can hear the earth sing out.  The earth is where I find my healing from the stress of the daily grind of life; of waiting in coffee lines, of shopping lines, of toll both lines, of the narrow restricted lines of human existence.

            While walking in silence along a beach, I notice that the white noise of human machines gives way to the pink noise of ocean waves rolling on the shore.  Wind and waves blend gently with the cries of gulls, warming my heart.  I sink into the sand and connect with the earth, the tension in my body melts.  I feel the earth holding me in her lap.  I close my eyes and still take in this beauty through my ears.  A Google search on ìNature Sounds for Relaxationî finds 298,000 possible matches so I know that I am not the only one seeking the healing that nature offers.  At the end of the day, I watch the sunset.  Looking out over the roofs, covered with people enjoying this same amazing art, I sense that I am not alone.  A deep sigh escapes us when we witness the colors of a sunset or walk slowly along a beach.  What makes these moments so healing? 

There is something we cannot explain about how we are affected by nature, but we need nature in our lives.  Even the images of nature can break the hard grind of existing behind the wheels of our cars and the square confinement of our cubicles.  Twenty years of research, by Robert Ulrich of University A&M Texas, has shown that viewing nature reduces stress, is a powerful antidepressant, and significantly improves recovery rates for hospital patients (Larkin, M., 2000).  More and more of this scenery is being replaced by strip malls, housing developments, and car sales mega-lots.  The constant hum of machines, the loud bursts of horns and unwanted music all work against our experiencing the peace and quiet of nature.  Unnatural sounds are adversely affecting our health.  Exposure to high intensity noise can cause heart rates in guinea pigs to soar from 224.5 bpm to 278.6 bpm, causing the release of norepinephrine into the blood stream (Muchnick, et. al., 1998). 

We are not unlike lab animals, trapped in our car-cages, being exposed to high intensity sounds that we cannot control; even the non-driver must endure the relentless noise of petroleum technology.  Our reaction is to seek nature on our days off, but we need not participate as destructive weekend warriors by driving our pollution machines into nature for a glimpse of what is not yet covered with petroleum.  We are ignoring the nature available to us everyday by believing that nature is somewhere else, and by participating in overdevelopment.  Nature does not have to be a distant destination accessible only by the vacationing rich.  Nature can be accessed through enjoying our gardens, bringing plants inside our homes, or even visualizing the images of the nature we hold in our thoughts

Meditation techniques

Nature can improve our health.  Listening to sounds of nature and visualizing ourselves in nature can reduce stress by creating a similar state of relaxation that is achieved through various forms of sitting meditation.  One form of sitting meditation that has shown reductions in hospital stays by 50%, outpatient clinic visits by 60%, and job absenteeism by 90% is mindfulness practice.  Mindfulness practice is a form of sitting meditation that creates a deep sense of presence through focusing one's attention on a single object.  Focusing on an object, such as a burning candle or the sound of the breath, accommodates the letting go of the chatter in the mind and creates a deep state of awareness.  The benefits of practicing mindfulness in inner-city settings have shown to be effective in decreasing general physical and psychological symptoms associated with stress.  Mindfulness practice has been successful in the treatment of stress related illnesses for middle- and upper-class populations, but may not be as accessible to poorer people who cannot afford these programs or take time to commit to the practice.  For those who can incorporate mindfulness practice, the benefits are far reaching (Roth, 1997). 

Another type of sitting meditation that is helpful in reducing stress and improving health, is Transcendental Meditation (TM).  TM incorporates healing energy form a universal perspective through the chanting of mantras that are intonations of Sanskrit words called Vedic vibrations.  The Vedic vibrations are believed to resonate throughout the universe, and are a part of the natural world.  The mantras were developed from the Sanskrit language which was brought to the Indus Valley people by the Aryans around 1500 B.C.E.  Interpretation of Sanskrit words is not as important as the quality and vibration of the mantras.  Chanting mantras transports the practitioner's mind beyond the thinking mind into other realms of consciousness that increase brain function and increase healing. Yogis able to radically alter heart rate at will, as well as produce or diminish tumors instantaneously, are capable of achieving these altered states of consciousness (Zucker, M. 2000). 

In TM the mantra is the key to the existence of the universe and a reflection of the laws of nature.  There are 330 million possible vibrations in the universe comprising the Vedic vibrations which are encapsulated in the mantra OM.  OM starts in the chest, moves into the throat, then the mouth and eventually escapes the lips.  Repeating this sound is an expression of our connection to the universe.  According to the Manduka Upanishad, OM (AUM) is based on the various planes of consciousness and the 7 chakras.  These planes are all achieved by chanting of A-U-M.  The sound of A-U-M breaks down to three separate components.  The initial sound of AUM is made in the center of the mouth as an ìAHî as in ìfather.î  This sound represents normal waking consciousness, the tangible measurable world, and the first three chakras.  The next sound ìUî as in ìwho,î vibrates at the back of the mouth and represents dream consciousness, fluid reality, and the inner world.  The third component of AUM is the ìMî sound which is produced in the front of the mouth with gently closed lips creating a vibration in the head.  The ìMî sound represents pure consciousness of nothingness where all is one.  Here is believed to be the place of the cosmic night of divine Motherís womb, where creation is cycled (Zucker, M. 2000).

TM practitioners claim that each organ is believed to resonate with a particular Vedic vibration that is spoken as a mantra.  When there are organ imbalances resulting in discomfort and disease, the chanting or listening of specific mantras for only 30 minutes, have been shown to bring instant relief.  Research of Vedic vibrations by the TM organization has shown that the chanting and listening of mantras to be significantly powerful in the improvement of mental disorders, respiratory illness, cardiovascular disease, immune deficiency, pain, and fatigue.  The repeating of mantras transports the mind to a higher consciousness, characterized by more efficient physiological functioning improving brainwave patterns, heart rate, breath rate, and skin resistance.  Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who introduced TM to the western world, regards the Vedic literature as the blueprint of life that directs the evolutionary process of living systems including human physiology.  American researchers of the Vedic vibrations compare them to quantum waveforms.  The word Veda means knowledge in Sanskrit and the knowledge of the universe is believed to be transferred through chanting or listening to these vibrations (Zucker, M. 2000). 

Emulating the sounds of the universe during sitting meditation can provide a deep connection to the universal energy that permeates living systems, but this energy can also be accessed by entering pristine nature in a state of deep listening.  Because pristine nature is not a human construct, the vibration of universal creative and evolutionary processes is still present.  No mantra from the Sanskrit texts need be known to access nature's healing energy since all nature emanates from the vibration of the universe.  Practicing total presence and deep listening is necessary in order to hear the mantra of nature.  Our heavy thoughts melt away as we walk slowly in silence observing the beauty and energy of nature.  When the mind is no longer busy processing old information, space is created for the universal vibration of nature to enter into our being.

Universal vibrations cannot be experienced unless we can silence the thoughts that clutter our minds.  Creating mental silence takes time.  Initially our thoughts may rise as arguments and worries, but after some time walking in nature, thoughts begin to subside much the way they do during sitting meditation.  By walking deliberately through nature in quiet observation, the changing scenery draws us outside our internal chatter where we can tune in to the subtle vibration of the earth.  This practice of walking in silence allows for rapid processing of thoughts and stills the mind quickly.  Taking in the beauty of nature through our eyes, ears, sense of smell, taste and skin, replaces repetitive thoughts that create a stress response when we are sitting in traffic or standing in a line.  Patterns in nature change, thereby subtly affecting our entire being, creating a flow of consciousness that leads to pure awareness. 

Focusing on the imagery of nature can pull us out of our mental prisons where limited thinking binds us to the narrow existence of the human construct.  Connecting with the body and voice of nature reintroduces us to the evolutionary process of life where anything is possible.  All nature is moving and breathing with the vibrations of the universe, and we are a part of this movement.  Through direct observation we realize that movement is present in the bending trees, the swirling sky, the circling waves, the subtle changes of natural light and sound, and within ourselves.  Even when there is a rhythmic pattern to nature, like seasons that come and go, we become transfixed by the beauty of its movement and are altered into new states of being.  Connecting with natureís rhythms and processes may transport the mind to higher levels of consciousness similar to those found through sitting meditation and chanting. 

When repetitive thoughts fade, deep listening can occur.  The mind awakens and there is a sense of presence that we do not experience in our daily grind. The awareness comes from quieting the monkey mind and being present with all aspects of ones life.  Yogis call this deep state of presence bliss, from where nirvana can be realized - a connection to all creation and the flow of all life.  Native American shamans use this state to communicate with plants to use them in healing.  The spirit of nature is living in each plant species which communicates to the shaman, or the willing listener, through music.  Shamans are expected to know the song of a particular plant before being considered worthy of its use in healing.  Shamans need not know a plantís constituents since the spirit of the plant teaches the shaman how it is to be used through visions.  There is no oddity in believing that nature sings or that nature has a vibration among indigenous peoples.  Modern science is only now acknowledging the power of shamanic practices (Cowen, E., 1995)

Back to nature-meditating

Many meditative practices offer a path to creating an awareness that transports the individual into a higher state of consciousness, but few incorporate the benefits of walking quietly and slowly in nature.  Walking provides moderate exercise that promotes cardiovascular health for people who are ambulatory.  Since the pace of silent walking is slow and gentle, mild arthritis and respiratory problems are improved without strain.  Walking decreases back pain and chronic fatigue.  Walking outdoors as a regular workout has been found to be easier to maintain than walking on a treadmill indoors.  Any workout of large muscle groups has been found to be beneficial, and working outdoors provides psychological benefits beyond regular indoor workouts (Larkin, M. 2000).  Walking as an aerobic exercise improves immune function, improves general fitness, is shown to decrease symptoms related to depression, and reduces response to stress when practiced regularly in conjunction with anaerobic exercise (Morse and Walker, 1994): after six months of walking 15 to 45 minutes, three times a week, adults between the ages of 60 and 75, showed an increase in memory up to 25 percent compared to groups focused on toning and stretching.  The improvement of mental function is believed to be linked to increase in oxygenation to the brain (Kramer, A. 1999).

Silent hiking can be done by almost anyone, but the practice is most beneficial for people who can walk long distances in places where there is a lot of pristine nature.  The best places are parks that offer unpaved paths so that there is less distance between the feet and the earth.  Walking for 30 minutes to one hour daily is ideal, but even 10 minute walks can be beneficial. Walking gently along quiet, unpaved trails for long durations provides the deepest connection with nature.  Once the mind learns to be quiet, less time walking and observing may provide similar benefits.  People who are unable to walk long distances or walk on unpaved trails can still benefit from being in nature and quieting the mind.  The practice of being mindful in nature can be done in wheelchairs along well paved paths, or can be done in one's home using audio tapes of nature sounds while practicing visualization of being in nature.  Because the physiology of the mind responds similarly to real or imagined situations, feelings of being in nature can be simulated in the mind, resulting in a deep state of relaxation.  Actually being in nature provides the most benefits since all the senses are incorporated in the experience and the brain receives more oxygen.  Taking time to view nature can assist in later recreating images for visualization during sitting meditation.  Alternating between silent hiking and sitting meditation should be done to provide a daily practice for connecting to nature.

Healing deeply

Before returning to school, I spent my days working in impoverished neighborhoods where few green things grew.  I often found the hardship of the people reflective of a deep disconnection with the living system.  Asking people, who have little access to nature, to bring nature into their lives is a major challenge, but there are ways to bring nature back into all communities where nature has been lost.  Through reclaiming empty parking lots of failed businesses and removing concrete and asphalt, we can begin to renew space for community gardening projects and small parks that encourage birds and butterflies to visit and community activities to grow.  Removing our driveways can provide space around our homes for gardens and sanctuaries.  One of the most powerful images I can remember seeing, in the way of community development, is when Bill Mollison converted a small childrenís barren school ground, in the film ìFood for a Small Planet,î into a sustainable garden by using school books as mulch.  Like Mollison, I believe that our struggle to compete in the world economy has taken us away from our community and our connection to true health which lies in nature.  If our government and corporations cared for our health and wellbeing, our environments would include access to community food and water and not hold these gifts from nature at ransom.

A false belief that the power of natural remedies from distant regions, still unspoiled by the human construct, can bring health is growing among the "new age" community.  I donít advocate eating bark from a tree in the Amazon to improve health, nor do I advocate traveling great distances to access health without deep consideration of the energy needed to do so.  Consideration must be given to the energy needed and pollution created in the transportation and packaging of alternative treatments before we can weigh the benefits.  Packaging is unnatural and wasteful.  There is currently 6 times more plastic floating in the center of the Pacific Ocean than zooplankton.  These massive feeding grounds where sea animals live and migrate to survive are being spoiled by our thoughtless consumption and impertinence.  Plastic is not a convenience but a curse for generations to come.  When we cannot access pristine nature and abundant food without our cars and petroleum, we lose the power to influence our health.  The plants growing in our own environment are far more potent to regional health because they are part of our immediate living system where the evolutionary energy of creation is cycled through our bodies (Cowan, E. 1998).


Silent hiking promotes a deep listening that allows us to reconnect to earthís healing energy opening our hearts beyond self-importance.  With open hearts, we begin to see what really matters within the chaos of our existence on earth, and we realize that we no longer need to be held prisoners to a false construct that promotes separation and isolation, instead of community and nature.  When the mind is quieted from useless, self-indulgent thoughts that cause us to feel stressed out, the body feels more alive and we choose to connect with a deeper meaning of wholeness and community.  The truth opens before us like a flower, providing a path toward a more practical way of being in the world.  We begin to realize the importance of nature by experiencing the health benefits that nature offers, resulting in the desire to preserve, protect, and expand nature. 

Silent hiking is an excellent modality for improving general health and bringing relaxation to one's life, but the benefits are far greater then those related to individual human psychology and physiology.  Silent hiking provides a way to reconnect to the earth and to the living system from which we have fallen.  Health cannot exist for all people when we do not respect the healing power of pristine nature.  Separating ourselves from nature is like separating ourselves from the flow of life.  Nature is the true healer, as well as the source of the power for our existence.  Nature is the foundation for our communities and wellbeing ñ not pavement, not plastic, not concrete.  Silent hiking does not solve all our problems, but this practice releases the stress of living in a false construct and opens us to the healing present in the power of nature.

March 2005, Berkeley


Related article: Fasting for healing and inner peace, Culture Change Letter #92


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