Mark Coleman on Mindfulness and Nature (re-broadcast)

The last time you went for a little walk around the neighborhood, did you take a few moments to drink in the natural beauty around you, even in the most unlikely of places, like a timid squirrel, a blossoming tree or a unique cloud formation or did you choose to zone out with a podcast, talk on the phone or text someone? This week’s guest on Sea Change Radio wants you to try your best next time to be more attentive of your surroundings – and, who knows, it might just become a habit. We speak to author and nature meditation teacher, Mark Coleman, about his new book From Suffering To Peace, and the steps we can take to appreciate our environment in hopes that we can become happier, kinder and better stewards of our planet.

00:01 Narrator – This is Sea Change Radio, covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

00:17 Mark Coleman (MC) – Even if there’s just a tree on the sidewalk in your street, nature has a powerful potency. Even in its reduced form of a plant in your living room, it can evoke some of that presence and stillness and wildness and beauty that we can find in more pristine places in the wilderness.

00:37 Narrator – The last time you went for a little walk around the neighborhood, did you take a few moments to drink in the natural beauty around you, even in the most unlikely of places, like a timid squirrel, a blossoming tree or a unique cloud formation or did you choose to zone out with a podcast, talk on the phone or text someone? This week’s guest on Sea Change Radio wants you to try your best next time to be more attentive of your surroundings – and, who knows, it might just become a habit. We speak to author and nature meditation teacher, Mark Coleman, about his new book From Suffering To Peace, and the steps we can take to appreciate our environment in hopes that we can become happier, kinder and better stewards of our planet.

01:39 Alex Wise (AW) – I’m joined now by my friend Mark Coleman. Mark is an author and a nature meditation teacher. Mark, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

01:48 Mark Coleman (MC) – Great to be on your show.

01:50 AW – So why don’t you first tell our listeners what a nature meditation teacher like yourself does on a day-to-day basis? What is your mission?

01:58 MC – Yeah, so my work and my love, my passion is integrating my meditation background training, which has been through the Buddhist tradition mindfulness meditation practices. And integrating that into nature, into wilderness. So I take people outside anywhere from a day to 10 days to, you know, a week out in the wilderness. And supporting people to develop a very deep, rich, sensitive, attuned awareness and relationship to the natural world. And the reason why I integrate meditation and nature is because we can go out into nature, but if our mind is elsewhere, if we’re worried about our, you know, whatever it is, our kids or planning our next vacation and not actually being in the present moment, then we’re not really able to appreciate and receive a lot of the beauty and the bounty that comes from being in nature, so I like to integrate those two to facilitate people having a profound experience in connection with the natural world and of course with themselves.

03:00 AW – And maybe you can kind of define mindfulness in its practitioner form. How is it different when we tell a child to be a little more mindful not to burn yourself on the stove versus the kind of mindfulness we’re talking about?

03:15 MC – Yeah, I mean, they’re on a continuum, so they’re not separate. I mean, it’s asking a kid to be mindful is asking to pay attention. And mindfulness is in essence paying attention, being aware, both of our inner and outer experience.  But it’s a particular emphasis on really cultivating self-awareness. So understanding our body, our heart, our mind. How we move in the world, noticing our reactions, noticing ways that we cause stress, unnecessary stress and suffering, for ourselves or others and we can, of course, we all have that basic attention or awareness, and we also have tremendous habits and patterns of not being present, of spacing out, of being lost in our thoughts – consumed by the past or the future. And so mindfulness and meditation training is a way to cultivate awareness, to really be present and to understand ourselves, to understand, experience life and what really creates well-being and what creates suffering.

04:14 AW – And your new book is called “From Suffering to Peace, the True Promise of Mindfulness. What was the genesis of the project?

04:22 MC – So I’ve been teaching for about 20 years, both in traditional meditation settings, but also in every facet of the culture, education, healthcare, business, psychology, the juvenile justice system. And I’ve seen how mindfulness has gone from being this quite obscure meditation practice as suddenly being on the front cover of Time magazine and on TV and on the Oprah Winfrey Show and on British Airways where I was teaching a meditation series. And like anything that gets so popularized and scaled as quickly as mindfulness has done, it inevitably gets oversimplified, commodified – and I was concerned that the depth and the breadth and the real intention for mindfulness practice, which is really a liberation practice. How to really free oneself from suffering? Not just a a way to pay attention, but actually really understand the human condition. How to cultivate compassion? And wisdom in the world, I felt like that was being lost. And so I wanted to create a write a book that spoke to the depth but was also very accessible to anybody and everybody.

05:33 AW – Now, I hate to fast forward to the last few chapters, but those are a little more germane to the environmental world, and I wanted to kind of dive into those a little more deeply. The last two chapters are “Waking up to nature as a teacher and being a steward of the earth.” So let’s start with waking up to nature, maybe you can give us a glimpse into what it means to be part of your awake in the wild retreats. What would that entail if I were to sign up and go with you? And how do you hope that people come away from these retreats in terms of expanding their consciousness?

06:09 MC – Right, yes. So we would go to a wilderness setting for a week, either a center in the wilderness. Or we’d be camping and we would be primarily in social silence so people aren’t talking. It’s very quiet. There’s a quality of being in solitude together in the wilderness. And the meditation component is really just working with the mind so we can really become present. Pay attention. And then what I’m training people is how to cultivate sensory awareness, how to how to attune to nature through the senses, seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching. How to get out of our own way. How to get out of our own heads, since we’re so busy thinking and worrying and planning and actually develop very sensitive attunement to nature and to all the subtleties that are happening. And so why do we do that? One is because it’s beautiful. It’s there’s a lot of joy and delight and rapture that, you know, being outside in nature and being really present, you know, it’s conditioned for well-being and happiness. But also it’s I see nature as our primary teacher, and that’s very true in indigenous culture. And I feel like when we bring that awareness, that attention we can, you know, there’s so much teachings. That I learned from 30 years of studying a wisdom tradition in Buddhism that I can access every day in nature. For example, you go outside and everything you look at is changing, right? We know things change intellectually, but when we’re outside and we’re seeing every moment, the wind, the birdsong, the light, the smells. The quality of the add, constant movement, transient fluctuation. With that noticing change, we also notice everything is both generating and decaying. It’s both coming into life and passing away. And so we can learn about death and the reality of cycles and seasons.

08:13 AW – And we’re seeing that even in a more accelerated version than our ancestors saw.

08:17 MC – Yeah, absolutely. And so the point of that contemplation is really to prepare us for the basic truths of life. When we don’t live in accordance with the reality of things change, that things pass away, then we tend to create more unnecessary suffering because we resist it. I think it’s then basic things like understanding how we’re intimately connected to the web of life, that everything that we do and think and feel is interdependent with life around us. And so it opens people’s hearts to a sense of connection through a sense of wonder. And ultimately, why I’m doing that work is really to have people fall in love. The model for the work that I do is we protect. What we love, and so my work is really to help you, will be present enough to fall very deeply in love with this beautiful earth, and in doing so, become better stewards and take better care and engage in ways that we need to to protect and to stir it.

09:18 (Music Break)

10:17 AW – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio. I’m speaking to author and nature meditation teacher Mark Coleman.

Mark, we’re talking about protecting what we love. I often think of people who become passionate about raising money for an illness or some kind of ailment that may have affected them or their or their loved ones. I look at it sometimes cynically. I was like, well, why didn’t you work to fight MS before you had a loved one who got MS but as I’ve grown older, I’ve realized that’s just human nature, and I think what you’re espousing is let’s embrace that reality and connect that to what we all need to appreciate more, which is our natural surroundings.

11:03 MC – Yeah, you know, I think again, one of the reasons I do the work that I do is that we basically live in boxes. Most of the time we live in our houses and our offices or cars, or malls. And so, you know, we’re growing a generation of kids that are not really having much access to nature.

11:18 MC – They’re in front of their screens more than they are anything else. And so I think it’s essential that we kind of help wake people up, rekindle that connection, rekindle that bond, love fascination or with nature, because it’s sort of like a there’s a many things that are dying that’s also that living contact is also declining and so when we don’t have any lived connection with nature, then of course then there’s when we hear about some development, some urban sprawl, some more growing up, there’s less of a visceral sense of, oh, that’s actually a woodland being destroyed, that’s farmland disappearing, that’s a wetland being paved over. I think it’s essential that we learn to be outside more, but to do it in a contemplative way, because that’s where we can actually be more impacted and more likely to be moved to respond.

12:15 AW – And when we talk about responding, that can manifest itself in activism and vegetarianism and some other ways.

12:24 MC – For sure. Certainly activism. I was leading a retreat recently and we were sitting watching the sunrise, looking at the Sierras, and a herd of these beautiful black cows came. They were in the same meadow and just stood in front of us. We were meditating in a line. And we were just staring at each other and they were like one of these strange humans sitting on the floor being still doing nothing. And we got to have this very intimate contact, which we don’t normally with farm animals in that way. And after the retreat was ended up, we’ve said, you know, there’s absolutely no way I can ever eat meat again. Just because there’s the intimacy of contact. It wasn’t just a nice idea of becoming vegetarian or eating a plant-based diet. I was like, oh, these are living beings that are beautiful and, you know, want to be alive and happy so it can become activism. Can we move into activism, or stewardship? It can be becoming vegan. It can be a whole host of different things. You know, whether it’s, you know, I did a retreat in the desert and the two men on that retreat became very active in in Arizona around preserving and we were on Navajo land and helping preserve and steward that land and so there’s a whole variety of ways, but it’s when the hearts engage that people are much more likely to actually do something we removed from our heart and our emotions more than our ideas and concepts.

13:46 AW – And when it becomes more visceral and tactile and right in front of us, whether it be a loved one who’s sick from an ailment or a beautiful cow staring us in the face, it moves us to connect – is that what you mean by protecting what love is? That kind of idea – protecting what we love?

14:05 MC – Yeah, yeah. It motivates us and also the another dimension that is when we’re outside and feeling that connection and or wonder or love or in the many things that we can feel outside, we also feel the corresponding grief we were actually grieving. What we love, we’re grieving that, you know, that which we’re losing. And that also becomes very real, immediate and also can be its own motivating force to act right. Sometimes it’s through love, sometimes it’s through grief, sometimes it’s also just a sense of rage and injustice. How can we be doing this to the earth? How can we be doing this to communities of color that are mostly receiving the brunt of ecological destruction, etc.

14:50 AW – Speaking of these communities of color, the chapter before waking up to nature, as teacher is entitled. Waking up to unconscious bias. We’ve explored unconscious bias a little bit on Sea Change Radio, but we haven’t necessarily connected the dots to what that means to being better stewards of our planet. Why don’t we first kind of define what unconscious bias is within the paradigm of mindfulness?

15:15 MC – So within that paradigm, it’s really becoming awake and aware of the conditioning and the distorted perceptions and biases that we have just by being human, growing up in whatever particular culture, family, community. Religious point of view, we become educated or indoctrinated to certain views about people, culture, and most of that is implicit. It’s unconscious and we tend to act it out racism being one example of that, homophobia being one example of that. And where mindfulness can support is mindfulness is helping us wake up, becoming aware of our perceptions, conditioning, bias and more likely to come to light if we’re actually developing that kind of scrutiny of self-awareness and so it’s definitely one support, not the only way to to look at and uncover and release unconscious bias, but it’s an effective support.

16:29 AW – Yeah, you asked some good questions at the end of the chapter. I’ll read a few of them. You write: “when you buy Band-aids or bandages, do you ever think about whose skin color they’re most likely to match? Or if a traffic cop pulls you over, do you ever wonder if you’ve been singled out because of your race? How do you feel toward a child who feels their different gender than their own physical body?” It’s all about empathy ultimately, isn’t it?

16:55 MC – Right. It’s seeing our humanity, our common connection, and seeing the ways that culture, society, religion has separated and divided and actually made a social hierarchy of right and wrong, good and bad. And particularly, as for myself, as a cisgendered white male, there are many ways being part of the dominant culture that I don’t see bias because I’m swimming in a sea of dominant culture. So I’m sorry, I am not aware of certain privileges that I have. For example, I get to choose. Living in a county that’s relatively low in the pollution spectrum, right? Marin County, whereas many communities like just across the Bay, like in Richmond and in Alameda and other places, more densely populated communities of color, low income communities don’t necessarily have the choice in the lecture and the privilege to move to a place that’s usually more expensive because it’s greener and healthier, etc. And so this is just one of the biases we can wake up to, particularly around the privilege and the that that that privilege affords us.

18:18 AW – And I couldn’t help but think that the way the environmental movement has struggled to be more inclusive over the last 30-40 years of its existence, the mindfulness and Yoga and Eastern religion worlds have also been largely white and middle class, even though they espouse a lot of inclusiveness and you talk about how in the nature chapter how there has been this idea of mindfulness, self-absorption, and navel gazing. Let’s say when you were writing “From Suffering to Peace” and your publishers were like, “you know what, this is going to be read mostly by 20 to 30 year old people of color in the city.” So how would the book maybe be a little different? For example, you say go to nature every day I think. Some single mom who’s working in Bayview Hunters Point in San Francisco working two jobs with three kids isn’t going to be able to go into a park and have a nice stroll in nature. So how do those people find inner peace and connect to nature?

19:25 MC – Right, right. No, it’s a good point. And I I think I’d share some stories in the book of when I started meditating, I was living in East London, which at the time was quite depressed and rundown and it was, I was living in a really poor neighborhood and not a lot of nature, very urban and yet I was also very attuned, having grown up sort of close to the countryside. How resourcing and nourishing any access to nature was. And so for me that practice became OK so I’m living in the city and living in a pretty squalid I was squatting at the time and in this rundown part of East London and yet I was still able to notice OK, so there’s not much nature around, but there’s still sky and there’s clouds and there’s certainly plenty of rain and cold weather and wind and grass and the sidewalk and a few trees and a few birds in the trees. And that became part of my practices was to notice. Anything natural in the cityscape, you know? And even if you’re living, you know downtown, wherever you are, there’s still nature around. And actually point my students of that to notice, you know, notice the light, notice the clouds up in the sky, noticed the sun. And yes, you might be working 2 jobs and you might be, you know, have a very stressful life. And what I find is that when we attune to anything natural, whether it’s sunlight or rain. Or wind, or any of the elements that anything it takes us out of our human centered world, anything takes us out of our mind and preoccupations. It can bring a sense of space, bring a sense of perspective and even if it’s for a few mums, you’re sitting at the bus stop and you’re looking up at the sky rather than on your phone. Or you’re in your house and you know you’re looking at the sunlight hitting the buildings across the street. I find that very supportive or soothing, actually, and settling to the nervous system. So yes, there are many situations where there’s not a lot of access nature. But I teach meditation in San Quentin prison, you know. Six and half thousand inmates, pretty gruesome institution and yet one of the projects I was connected to was a prison guard and project where they take inmates and there’s a sort of horticultural program there for those that was incarcerated in that program. That’s an amazing program of like, oh, that’s true. It’s a horrible place to be and something very restorative about nature. And I was back there recently and was noticing the beautiful succulent gardens they’d planted and this bird life and…

22:17 AW – It’s an amazing view. I remember seeing that prison for the first time and I was like, “wow, look at where they’re located!” I mean, it’s almost torturous in that sense, right?

22:26 MC – It’s torturous. Right. So it’s partly making the best of what you’ve got and noticing that even wherever you are, you know, everything is ultimately nature. But there’s some elements that you can attune to, and the more there is, the more you can attune, and the more even if there’s just a tree on the sidewalk in your street, nature has a powerful potency. Even in its reduced form of a plant in your in your living room, it can evoke some of that presence and stillness and wildness and beauty that we can find in more pristine places in the wilderness.

23:04 (Music Break)

24:13 AW – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio. I’m speaking to author and nature meditation teacher Mark Coleman. So, Mark. Here’s a situation that I just encountered with my daughter, and I’m curious how a mindfulness teacher might inform what I ended up doing. We were walking down the street and we noticed a guy in his car, like a Range Rover with the engine on, fast asleep. And my daughter and I were like, she was like, you know, he fell asleep. It’s not his fault, but you know, obviously he turned on the AC. This was a conscious decision to leave the car running. And I thought to myself, “maybe I should, maybe I shouldn’t.” And then I thought, “well, you know, you go by a truck stop and there’s 10 trucks idling all night long, and this guy is just probably taking a 20-minute catnap, let it just go and so I kept walking. So I was mindful of it. It made me stop and think for a second, but I didn’t act on it. So is that mindful behavior or not?

25:21 MC – Yeah, well, there’s no strict definition of what mindful behavior is. I think the the criteria is, you know, are you aware of the situation? Are you you or were you aware of, you know, both the observation. OK, here’s someone in the car. We have no idea why, maybe we can hypothesize and then there’s our response. And then there’s our reactivity, right, and usually we often let the reactivity, whether it’s, you know, judgment, anger, fear, we let that drive us, and we often make unwise choices. Just like every city, we have a homeless crisis in our town and often I’ll go outside my house and there’s at least one or two vehicles with people sleeping in them. And it’s sort of becoming a particular issue because we have a little area where there’s no houses. So it’s become a prime spot for people know that they can sleep and not get moved on and we don’t call the police on them. And I’m presented every, you know, most days with the same situation of, of my mindfulness. I can feel maybe some compassion for the fact that these people are having to sleep in cars. Sometimes there’s a sense of fear around my sense of safety that can happen, and then the trash and and the other stuff that can come from that. And so, you know, life is complex, situations are complex. And but if we’re, if there’s awareness, then we’re much more likely to engage more skillfully rather than just – normally what we do is knee jerk react. Maybe someone bangs on the car window because say you’re polluting the air and maybe they’ve just had some really heartbreaking news that someone was dying in their family and they just need to pause in their car for 20 minutes before they go back into the office because they’re too disregulated. We just no idea.

27:19 AW – And that’s a form of mindfulness. To be aware of what you don’t know.

27:23 MC – Right, right. And I’ve learned to mostly give people the benefit of the doubt. Clearly they need to be doing that. Is it great for the environment? Is it what they need to do maybe another, certainly choosing that and you know, so we, you know, we’re confronted every day with those kinds of challenging dilemmas, but at least having mindfulness or some awareness will probably lead to better fruit than just plain knee jerk judgment. Or react.

27:53 AW – Author and nature mindfulness teacher Mark Coleman. The book is “From Suffering to Peace.” Mark, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

28:01 MC – Pleasure to be here. Thanks for your work.

28:17 Narrator – You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis, and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by Isaac Hayes, The Beatles, and Neil Young. Check out our website at to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcasts. Visit our archives there to hear from Bill McKibben, Van Jones, Paul Hawken and many others. and tune into Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability.  For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.