Birdwatching as mindfulness practice


Posted on

Over the last few years, I have developed an interest in birds and have taught myself to identify some of them and their songs. Moving here has been such a treat because of the many bird species that frequently visit the feeders. We also have a neighbour, Paul, who is very knowledgeable about birds and I have enjoyed many conversations with him about our feathery friends. Paul has put up many bird boxes in the area, a few on our land, and he takes records of what species make their nests where. Last week, I went with him to take a look at the boxes and their contents. I learnt a lot about nest construction and can begin to identify a species of bird by looking at the materials used for the nest. I got spat at by sitting birds a few times during the process too!

Earlier this month, Peter and I went on a dawn chorus walk in nearby Dolforwyn Woods, a wood owned by the Montgomeryshire Wildlife Trust. There, the focus was on listening to the birds we could hear under the guidance of a walk leader whose ear seemed to be able to pick up songs I could not! At times, to me, it all sounded like a cacophony of different songs and calls and I began to doubt whether I could really make the difference between the robin's song and that of the black bird!

We have a pair of redstarts who have made a nest in one of our bird boxes and it has been wonderful watching their comings and goings and even lifting the lid of the boxes to peep through: what a joy to discover 5 small eggs in the most beautiful blue laid in a cosy nest of grass and feathers at the corner of the box.

All this has deepened my interest in birds and I have been out many times listening, watching, observing, recording… My knowledge is increasing and my ear becoming a lot more attuned to the differing birds and their songs. That's great! I love learning! But I get much more than this. When I am out birdwatching, I focus my attention on purpose and open myself up to noticing sounds, movements, colours in minute details. As I lose myself to the birdwatching, I feel very connected with both me and the world around me, like I have let go of all mental restrictions and I feel at peace. It takes me out of my head and into my body for, when I am focused on patiently observing the birds, I cannot be anywhere else but in the present moment. For me, birdwatching is a mindfulness practice, a kind of meditation that I find restorative, energising and insightful at the same time. As I walk the lanes around our house and focus my listening on the sounds coming from the hedgerows, as I stand still at the top of one of our fields and watch the movements of the birds, as I sit on the bench by the front door and watch a particular bird with my binoculars, I experience a calming of my chattering mind, a letting go of any anxieties or worries, a sense of relaxation that envelops me like a comforting blanket.

In his book Full Catastrophe Living, Jon Kabat-Zinn, writes: “All of us have the capacity to be mindful.  All it involves is cultivating our ability to pay attention in the present moment…  and leads to realms of relaxation, calmness and insight within yourself.  It is as if you were to come upon a new territory, previously unknown to you or only vaguely suspected, which contains a veritable wellspring of positive energy…  this territory is always accessible.  It is always here, independent of your problems… and is not dependent on any belief system or ideology, so that its benefits are… accessible to anyone.”

I believe that birdwatching shares many qualities with the practice of mindfulness. It helps me pay close attention and trains me to become more attuned to not only the natural world around me but also myself and my inner landscape. The focused awareness I learn to develop is helping me distinguish subtleties in my sensations and emotions that can lead to great insights and a deeper, more meaningful relationship with my inner world. Just as I become curious about a particular bird, whether their sound is a tweet or a song, a chirp or a whistle, a call, an alarm… whether what I hear is melodious or choppy, whether there are repetitions and patterns… I learn to make these distinctions between what I feel inside of myself and apply the same curiosity that enquires, observes, describes and distinguishes without judging or censoring. It is an active contemplation that quietens the mind and brings about peace to my being. It is a wonderful experience. These moments can be fleeting, just like the tiny flutter of a wren in the thicket or the quick flight of the redstart out of the bird box - but well worth catching and potentially full of useful information and insight. With openness, patience and practice, I know I am becoming more emotionally aware of myself and I know that well developed emotional awareness is a very useful tool to help us live a fulfilled, joyful life as it builds resilience and self-esteem.

Birdwatching for me is mindfulness, an invitation to be still for a while, to follow sounds, to watch patiently, to be alert to subtle movements and changes, to notice… a real invitation to slow down and be in the moment... an opportunity to transcend problems and difficulties and to connect with the positive flow and beauty of life. What delight!