The Wonder of Spring: Finding Joy in a Time of Distress
By Mark Coleman, guest contributor
Spring is now upon us. Where would we be without the infinite joys of nature?
The first time I hiked in late spring in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, I couldn’t believe the vast oceans of wildflowers that carpeted the hillsides. Every color imaginable stretched as far as I could see. I suddenly understood the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The earth laughs in flowers.” Walking amidst such bounty, I began to feel the fruits of practice, since being mindful outdoors amplifies one’s capacity to both notice and relish in such riches. Mary Oliver points to this in her breathtaking poem, “Mindful”:
I see or hear
that more or less
that leaves me
like a needle
in the haystack
Nature offers such illumination.
Holding the Paradox
This is quite a contrast to the current horrors of war, the harsh impact of the pandemic, and the omnipresent climate crises we currently face. Yet despite such heartbreaking challenges, the earth offers us perennial salve for the heart. When Covid first struck two years ago, it occurred amidst an abundant springtime in Northern California. Lush emerald grass carpeted hillsides. A profusion of wildflowers in meadows, valleys, and on sidewalks dazzled the eye. I delighted in the scent of jasmine spilling out of neighbors’ gardens and the sweet sound of returning songbirds.
In teaching about how to practice mindfulness during Covid, I reminded students of the need for balance, to take in both the reality of Covid life and paradoxically the beauty springtime offered. To see only the hardship and not take in the gift of cherry blossoms or the enchantment of snowdrops pushing up through the soil is to only see a one-sided reality and miss out on the nourishment earth offers. The poet Jack Gilbert puts it this way in his poem, “A Brief for the Defense”: “We must have/the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless/furnace of the world. To make injustice the only/ measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.” So too, we can let in the joys that spring offers. it’s all a matter of where we place our attention
What this requires is learning to hold paradox. To be present with both beauty and pain requires a spacious heart. Nature teaches us this as does our practice. In meditation, we welcome the sublime as well as the tedium of our chattering mind and our aching body. I have visited one of my favorite trees every year for thirty years. She stands majestic and yet decaying as she has been dead as long as I have known her. Yet still, she stands with beauty even in death. Similarly, walking in the city we can see trash on the sidewalk and how grasses and lichen growing between the cracks of the pavement never give up in despair.
The Gifts of Nature
Some may say that’s all very well to talk about beauty in the country, but I live in an urban sprawl, not in a forest glade. Fortunately, nature’s abundance knows no boundaries. It sometimes doesn’t take much to take in nature’s tenacity and feel inspired. In her poem “Praying,” Mary Oliver points to how even “a patch of weeds in a vacant lot” can provide the spark of joy. I remember growing up and delighting in wildflowers that lined the banks of railway embankments in England. Or living in London and sensing how towering trees that line old Victorian streets lift the heart. Left to its own devices, nature blooms even amidst the inner city.
One of the gifts of spring is her perennial display of resilience. Even after the hardest and coldest of winters, like the ones in Northern Canada, the earth never fails to rejuvenate. Albert Camus speaks of it this way: “In the midst of winter, there is within me an invincible summer.” To see daffodils and primrose emerge from the long-frozen ground, to see trees come into leaf, to see birds migrating home–these are perhaps nature’s most reassuring gifts. It allows us to trust in rhythms and cycles and gives hope in the bleak news of winter. We too can take solace in the winter of our days knowing that when things are hard we too can look to nature, to spring, for her renewing properties.
Another natural quality that is a natural outflow of being mindful outdoors, especially in spring, is the quality of gratitude. How can we not be grateful for the rapture nature can evoke in all its billowing clouds, babbling brooks, spring flowers, and the wildlife that emerges from hibernation in the same way we do from our winter slumber? To be grateful, we have to consciously shift our attention away from our conditioned negativity bias, to appreciate what is rather than complain about what we don’t have or lament what is lost. And when gratitude is present, simple things like sunlight on leaves, dew on morning grass, and the song of a robin as it rebuilds its nest makes the heart sing with heartfelt appreciation. It further supports resilience by not dragging us down into the mire of negativity or longing and instead buoys the heart.
Robin Wall Kimmerer, a biologist and teacher offer an indigenous perspective on this quality. In her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, she shares how her elders say the earth asks little of us, but to pay attention and offer gratitude for all that we are given from the earth. So with such sage advice, what if you were to go outside as spring starts to emerge and open your senses to the beauty and richness that spring can offer?
Bringing mindfulness into the outdoors we can awaken to both joy and wellbeing as we turn our attention to the delight that is right here. As Thich Nhat Hanh wrote: “Happiness is available–please help yourself.” The rest is up to us!
Mark Coleman is the co-founder and co-director of the Mindfulness Training Institute and author of Awake in the Wild, Make Peace with Your Mind, and From Suffering to Peace. Founder of Awake in the Wild organization, he leads nature meditation retreats and teacher trainings worldwide. Mark guides students as a consultant, counselor, mediation teacher, and wilderness guide.