Discovering Mindfulness in Nature

By Abby Chatfield

Sun contributor

On a crisp morning close to the fall equinox, I joined a small group of family and friends for a private, guided walk at Houdek Dunes Natural Area north of Leland. What started out as a social gathering and light-hearted exploration of a local program called Mindfulness in Nature LLC (MIN) became a transformative experience peppered with ah-ha moments of our connection to the natural world and ourselves. MIN founder and director Gloria Garrett guided our group on the journey, introducing us to the practice of meditative walking.

As we moved quietly and slowly through the woods, our senses opening to nature, we noticed things we may not have before. Judy Frederick, a participant in the Houdek Dunes session, was fascinated by the same sparkling effect created by the sun in both the cobwebs and a stand of Aspens. Fellow participant Cece Chatfield took note of her heightened sense of smell and “acute awareness of the changes that come with autumn: drying ferns, the breaking down of flora, the earthy decay.”

We were reminded to breathe, and the tension in our bodies washed away. I was taken back to a magical experience I had during a solo backpacking trip years ago when the natural surroundings became larger than myself, and as my ego faded into the background, the chatter in my head eased and created space to hear my inner self. Even the abrupt awakening from my meditative state, as another hiker excitedly popped out of the bushes in a stream of words, fell right into the lessons that Gloria shared with us during the MIN session.

“MIN teaches us that we don’t need to change our external environment to find peace,” she said. “It teaches us how to adapt and respond in new ways. We can take a breath, let it go and find peace for a moment.” Gratitude follows, as joy and peace are revealed through the natural wonders surrounding us and the fresh air pumping through our lungs.

Cece shared that “Prior to the walk, I was in my head. Following the walk, I felt full of oxygen and peace and extremely relaxed.” She suggested with a laugh that “anyone who has an experience like this try to set time aside afterwards to let yourself soak it up and maybe even fall asleep sitting up in a chair like I did.” Prenny Chatfield shared her sentiment, “After the hike I felt extremely relaxed, like I needed a nap. It was a great feeling of deep relaxation.”

The MIN program blends forest bathing, nature interpretation and energy balancing designed to guide participants into a deeper understanding and connection with nature and the authentic self. Judy said she gained “a better appreciation of how much nature can impact my sense of joy and belonging. I was reminded that one mindful walk in the woods can improve your mood. However, doing this on a regular basis can greatly improve your overall mental health.”

Gloria’s customized, private sessions are for groups and individuals of all ages and may take place at a location of the participants’ choice. All walks are under three miles on easy to moderate terrain. Gloria will provide the information to help decide the best location for the group’s focus topics with options ranging from Leo Creek Preserve in Suttons Bay and select Leelanau Conservancy properties to areas within the National Lakeshore Wilderness, where she is one of just two tour services authorized to lead “tours” into the wilderness. There is even a privately owned location option, ideal for people who want to go deep into a process in privacy with no distractions from outside sources.

Sessions build on prior ones to lead participants deeper into the wonders of the natural world and closer to their authentic selves.  All information provided is grounded in the science behind the cycles and interconnectedness of life. “After finding peace the first time, we can find it again and connect to that feeling any time,” Gloria said, and “eventually we begin to be able to connect with a calm, centered state even in the midst of chaos. This is the gift of MIN.” Practicing with a guide teaches people how to tap into a feeling of centeredness and work through chaos in a way that serves themselves in any situation. MIN encourages them to go deeper into their personal triggers and then work toward alignment and balance.

Prenny remarked, “I would recommend this walking meditation to anyone and everyone. To be in mindfulness is to focus on what’s going on around us. People these days are very focused on their cell phones and less focused on the world around them.”

MIN is both part of the oldest nature movement and the New Nature Movement, an international effort to reconnect with nature by continuing to support our connection to the natural world and right to a healthy environment, along with the responsibilities that come with it. As Gloria put it, MIN “fits the old, because all we’re doing is remembering and connecting.” Yet it is also a critical part of the new movement, which emphasizes the healing powers of the natural world for mental and physical health.

The New Nature Movement’s intention is to combat Nature-Deficit Disorder, a phrase devised by author and journalist Richard Louv to describe the human costs of alienation from nature and to open discussion about this rapidly growing issue. Constant stimulation distracts and provides cover for things we don’t want to deal with or that trigger anxiety. Gloria spoke firsthand to the effects of Nature-Deficit Disorder. “Being mindful is not about being comfortable. It is about finding a sense of ease in an uncomfortable situation. When we pad our lives with distractions, we rob ourselves of the ability to find ease in the midst of discomfort.”

As a young child, her parents carried a sadness resulting from a traumatic experience that occurred prior to her birth and struggled to create a supportive household for the family. Gloria found herself spending a lot of time outside. She felt a sense of joy and peace whenever she sat under a tree with the breeze in her hair and the sun on her cheeks, the earth supporting her from beneath. “I realized whenever things would get difficult, nature was always there for me no matter what.”

As she moved into adulthood and joined the business world, she lost her sense of balance as time spent in nature decreased. The stress prompted a strong need to get back outdoors. “When we eat fast food, don’t drink enough water, and forget how to play, even if we are making lots of money, then we feel miserable,” she said. She was taking everything too seriously, and her brain felt cloudy. Her mother and grandmother passing away within a year of each other helped her realize she needed to find joy again.

Inspired by her desire to bring mind, body and spirit into balance with the support of nature, Gloria earned a PhD in Energy Medicine. She became a Certified Interpretive Guide with the National Association for Interpretation and a Certified Naturalist with the University of California San Diego Natural Reserve System.

At this same time, the Japanese government was funding scientific research to study how old growth trees turned stress into joy. Years of solid, science-based studies showed that spending time in the woods reduced blood pressure and stress-related hormones while at the same time increasing youth, productivity, and adaptability. Over a series of years, the rates of divorce, spousal and child abuse in their research subjects declined.

As a docent at Torrey Pines Natural Reserve in La Jolla, California, she blended the knowledge of a naturalist and energy medicine with this research on forest bathing. This trifecta, combined with her personal experiences, led her to create the Mindfulness in Nature program.

The Torrey Pines program still operates today. Although under a different name, the substance remains the same and is passed on to participants by the very group of facilitators who Gloria trained before moving to Leelanau County to re-envision her journey within the landscape she fell in love with as a child.

Besides operating the MIN program here in the county, Gloria is a Leelanau Conservancy Docent. She met Sharon Oriel on a family mindfulness walk she was asked to lead before moving to Michigan. Gloria was just getting to know the flora and fauna of Leelanau, so she contacted the conservancy to find a docent who could assist during the hike. Sharon was the docent the conservancy assigned to help. As a biologist and poet, Sharon follows the science behind forest bathing and the often-invisible connections between living things. Her experience with Gloria acted as a reinforcement that everything is connected. She suggested that other docents might benefit from learning about MIN, which led to Gloria partnering with the Leelanau Conservancy to offer MIN training walks for their docents.

Ann McInnis, also a conservancy docent who has offered her own MIN hikes, joined some of Gloria’s guided public hikes on conservancy land and found her to be “right up there on top as an expert in providing outstanding mindfulness in nature experiences.” Ann observed that Gloria combined a clear understanding of nature’s strategies for coexisting with the skill of involving attendees in hands-on, sensory, and reflective questioning, visibly inspiring the hikes’ participants.

Some MIN participants experience profound changes. Gloria said, “What I know about the program is it helps people discover who they are and what they have to offer their community. It’s the realization of who we are under the clutter. Our colors, our authentic selves, are revealed.” At the end of a two-hour MIN session, a gentleman shared with Gloria that he felt something he’d never felt before. With tears in his eyes, he said “I know something about myself I didn’t know two hours ago.”

MIN participants also express how they begin to look at landscapes they regularly see in an entirely new light. After a walk with Gloria another man shared with her that, although he had hiked that trail many times before, he felt like he had not truly seen it before that day.

A woman came to Gloria a year after participating in a MIN session to confess that the walk changed her life. She was once afraid of being in the woods by herself but could now walk alone without fear, as the MIN experience changed her view of the forest in a way that made her feel connected to it.

As we walk through the forest this season, remember to take in the fresh aromatic air and slow down for a moment. MIN teaches that fall is an inhale, a time to start pulling our own energy inward and declutter the spaces surrounding us, gifting us time to consider how we want to proceed and increasing our potential for creativity.

As the days grow shorter, trees pull their Chlorophyll back from their leaves into the branches and trunks, revealing other colors that already exist underneath the green. Gloria said it is with both with trees and humans that, “The colors were always there. It’s the revealing that’s amazing.”

To learn more about Gloria’s programs, visit or connect with her at