Birds and Mindfulness

Birds and Mindfulness

Meditation. Courtesy of Max Pixel.

Birdwatching is an excellent activity to help you slow down and let your attention focus on one thing only, those feathered wonders in front of you. Today we look at how birds can help you achieve mindfulness wherever you live and whoever you are.

Hands-up-time from me – I am an impatient birder. I’ve loved birdwatching for years: I own a scope and binoculars, all the guides, I pay subscriptions to bird and wildlife conservation charities, I know the songs and calls of over 90 species and can usually ID at least the family of a bird from a silhouette.

But I do not know how to mentally and physically sit still. I so often miss sightings or experiences if they’re not right there in front of me when I want them to be, and usually within five minutes of non-appearance my mind has dashed off to other issues.

Courtesy of Meinawarahoon, Pixabay.

It strikes me that my current knowledge of birds may have come a lot sooner to me in life had I just been more patient in the past.

But as the years march on, I am finally learning this: mindfulness costs nothing and rewards everything.

All in the mind

The concept of mindfulness has existed for centuries as a foundation of the Buddhist belief system, and in 1979, professor of medicine and student of Buddhism Jon Kabat-Zinn introduced the concept to a wider audience through the creation of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Centre for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society in Manhattan.

Breaking the word down, it is essentially the state of your mind being fully aware of what you’re doing, the space around you, and how your body is reacting to stimuli.

Courtesy of Max Pixel.

Much like the birds, our minds are so often “in flight” – off on tangents or making plans, having internal arguments, thinking ahead to dinner or in the past to a good memory, whilst all the time our bodies move us unconsciously through the space we occupy.

We can often become engrossed in obsessive thought processes and anxiety levels rise. Mindfulness helps us pay attention to the present moments, non-judgmentally, and take stock of who we are, what we are feeling, and the here and now.

Mindfulness costs nothing and rewards everything.

Often perceived as a form of exotic meditation, this approach can be off-putting to some who perhaps consider meditation as either unattainable or unnecessary; some techniques do indeed take a lot of practice, which makes it instantly dismissible for many, citing time issues.

There is also the misconception that your mind will go blank and you’ll have a stab at reaching nirvana, which can seem silly or even frightening to some.

Read more about other health benefits of birdwatching.

Bird brain

But the thing about mindfulness is that we already possess the ability to do it, it is an innate quality, and nothing needs to change about who we are: we just have to know how to access it.

Pundits will advise quiet areas away from distractions, advocate breathing styles, certain postures, and other techniques, all of which are equally viable. But sometimes you just need birds.

 PRO Birds relaxing in the harbor
Birds relaxing in the harbor. Courtesy of Marcelo Costa Barros, Canva.

In June 2021, the world’s largest online mental health resource Psychology Today published an article about how birdwatching can be a mindful activity, citing the results of new research carried out specifically about birdwatching during the pandemic lockdowns amid the accompanying anxiety and uncertainty.

Birdwatching was one of the few things still possible among all the restrictions.

Already considered by some to be a socially distanced activity anyway, birdwatching was one of the few things still possible among all the restrictions. The study found that whilst the distances travelled to see the birds obviously reduced, uptake increased significantly among urban birders, and yard birding took off.

A high number of seasoned birder respondents, unable to visit distant and specific birding destinations, also marvelled at the bounty of birdlife to be found in their home patches, and this realisation led to a lot of new and re-interest among family and friends, peers, and even whole communities.

Courtesy of Sen Yang, Canva.

The opportunity to experience an activity that took people’s minds off the horrors and surrealness of the pandemic led to people becoming more aware of their immediate surroundings, bringing up discourse about their place in the world, and also that of the wildlife that lived right there, even within the concrete jungle.

It doesn’t matter how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ a birder you are; indeed, the beginner’s mindset is an asset.

Birdwatching requires a certain amount of focus, and that often means that as you are tuning into the birds, you can also tune out of everything else that bothers you. Whether on your own, with a partner or a small group of people, you alone will be relying on your senses and awareness of what you see, hear, smell, and feel.

It isn’t about wilfully blocking everything else out, it’s about learning to listen to the inner and outer in equal measure whilst observing what is directly in front of you – breathing steadily and quietly, relaxing your muscles, getting comfortable, and watching the way the leaves move in the breeze, or the sun throws shadows, or the sound of birdsong heard above distant traffic.

Woman Relaxing in Hammock
Courtesy of capturenow, Canva.

It doesn’t matter how “good” or “bad” a birder you are; indeed, the beginner’s mindset is an asset, helping to remove any expectations from your birdwatching, treating each venture as a fresh experience, which then helps to enhance your curiosity of what could be out there.

Peaceful and patient birdwatching helps train your brain to appreciate and respect the positive aspects of life, in this case the joy of observing a wild creature going about its day.

Bird of the moment

A frequent question to birders is “what is your favourite bird?”; a perfect mindfulness response would be “this one here in front of me, right now, in this moment”.

It is highly likely you have already been experiencing mindfulness while birdwatching without realising it. Birding can help draw your attention to the present moment and is the perfect antidote to what can all too often feel like a frantic, sometimes out of control life.

Bird in forest
Courtesy of tom_kolossa, Canva.

Whether you are a home birder, one who seeks out a particular spot, or just wanders about your locale, you can easily and quickly experience how it encourages ease of mind and a connection with nature.

Birds already have that ethereal quality about them that makes them such perfect candidates for practicing mindfulness – whilst many will flee if they notice you, some will become oblivious to your presence if you remain still enough, and will resume their lives in earnest: all you have to do is watch, and breathe.

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