The Power of Mindfulness

Mindfulness can improve both mental and physical health

Mindfulness is a key component of many meditative and contemplative practices and it can also be an illuminating approach to everyday life. To be mindful is to focus our awareness and attention on the experience of the present moment. We can be mindful of our thoughts, feelings, speech, and actions; the natural world and our immediate environment; the people around us; and other parts of our lives.

On the road to Peralta Canyon, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A huge body of research now shows that mindfulness can have an incredibly positive impact on our lives. It has been shown to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. It improves our focus, resilience, and memory, and it has a whole host of health benefits including increased immune function and powerful anti-aging properties.

Related: How Much Time Should You Spend in Nature?

On the trail at Coachella Valley Preserve, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mindfulness practices encourage us to slow down and notice what we can be directly aware of at any given moment. A recommended way to begin is to sit in a quiet place and notice the movement of our breathing. By bringing mindfulness to this one simple and flowing experience, we may be able to temporarily let go of our habitual thinking, daily narratives, and worries.

On the trail in Lake County, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Along with formal meditation practices, we can be mindful in our everyday lives. Eating a meal, walking, driving, and other seemingly mundane tasks are all opportunities for mindfulness. The more we ground ourselves in the present, the more fully we can experience being alive.

Related: Bird Therapy: On the Healing Effects of Watching Birds

On the Okefenokee, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why is mindfulness so effective? In a world that’s hectic and fast-paced, it’s beneficial to stop and re-center by noticing what’s around you.

Hiking the lava fields, Idaho © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I often find myself stuck in one of two places. I am either ruminating on a past—perhaps revising what I had seen and done and trails hiked on past snowbird travels before COVID. Or I am desperately concerned about and planning the future—what if I’m no longer able to drive my motorhome or what if someone I love gets really sick?

Relaxing at Racoon State Recreation Area, Indiana

It’s easy to spend the majority of a day doing what’s been described as “rehashing the past” or “rehearsing the future.”

Related: Fun and Healthy Ways to Enjoy Nature

The biggest problem with rehashing or rehearsing is that those thoughts are often a source of stress and anxiety. This is where mindfulness can become a powerful antidote. Spending time each day meditating and grounding ourselves in the present has been tied to less stress, fewer unwanted thoughts, heightening creativity, encouraging appreciation, and combating overall mental and emotional fatigue.

Along the byways of Bluegrass Country, Kentucky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mindfulness practices have also been found to reduce stress, boost immune systems, and improve brain functions.

How could simply tuning into your thoughts and feelings lead to so many positive outcomes throughout the body? Researchers believe the benefits of mindfulness are related to its ability to dial down the body’s response to stress.

Along the boardwalk at Avery Island, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Chronic stress can impair the body’s immune system and make many other health problems worse. By lowering the stress response, mindfulness may have downstream effects throughout the body.

On a Hyannis Harbor Cruise, Massachusetts © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Because mindfulness is so helpful at easing negative and stressful feelings, it can contribute towards us living healthier, happier lives. It may even slow down the aging process because while stress has the side-effect of speeding up our biological clock, mindfulness can help to slow it down.

Related: Camping Benefits Mind and Body…Here Is How

Along the Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In a study from Stanford University, a 90-minute walk in a natural area was shown to lower the risk of depression and one survey found that 65 percent of people who put away digital devices while on vacation enjoyed their way more (not surprising, right?). But where can you go to truly unplug? Turns out, that’s the easy part. I’ve got some ideas to get you started. Stay tuned for a follow-up article.

Relaxing at Mount Washington Resort, New Hampshire © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the quotes below, practitioners discuss the essence of mindfulness and its myriad benefits.

The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnified world in itself.
—Henry Miller, writer

Walking the trails at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mindfulness is nonconceptual awareness… It [is] the direct and immediate experiencing of whatever is happening, without the medium of thought.
—Henepola Gunaratana, Buddhist monk

Exploring Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Nevada © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mindfulness, though so highly praised and capable of such great achievements, is not at all a ‘mystical’ state, beyond the ken and reach of the average person. It is, on the contrary, something quite simple and common, and very familiar to us.
—Nyanaponika Thera, Buddhist monk and author

Along Champlain Canal, New York © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Our mind should be soft and open enough to understand things as they are… It is called mindfulness.
—Shunryu Suzuki, Zen monk and teacher

The Reason for Which You Wake up in the Morning

Ikigai essentially means the reason for which you wake up in the morning

In an earlier article, I detailed ways to live healthier and extend both the quantity and quality of your life. There is evidence to support the positive impact of adopting a healthy lifestyle and following certain definitive, scientific, time-tested methods.

Hiking Silly Mountain Park near Apache Junction in Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In Japan, the secret to living a longer, happier, and more fulfilled life can be summed up in one word: Ikigai. In Japanese, iki means “to live” and gai means “reason”—in other words, your reason to live. This ideology dates to the Heian period (A.D. 794 to 1185), but only in the past decade has it gained attention from millions around the world.

Woven together, these simple life values give clues as to what constitutes the very essence of ikigai: A sense of purpose, meaning, and motivation in life.

On a scenic drive near Hemet in California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For years, researchers have tried to find the reasons behind a long and healthy life. While the answer is likely a mix of good genes, diet, and exercise, studies have suggested that finding meaning in life is also a key component.

There’s no single way to find your ikigai but you can start by asking a few simple questions: What makes you happy? What are you good at? What (and who) do you value? What motivates you to get up in the morning?

Related: Getting Back to Nature: How Forest Bathing Can Make Us Feel Better

Hiking near Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Finding joy in the small things—the morning air, a cup of coffee, or the ray of sunshine—should be part of what motivates you to get up each morning.

Recent data reveals that people in the U.S. can expect to live an average of 78.7 years.

Bird watching at Crystal River in Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These days, screen-addicted Americans are more stressed out and distracted than ever. And there’s no app for that. But there is a radically simple remedy: get outside.

Nature can lower your blood pressure, fight off depression—and even prevent cancer.

Hiking Ocmulgee National Monument in Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Japan’s scientists are in the vanguard of knowing how green spaces soothe the body and brain. While a small but impressive shelf of psychological research in recent decades suggests that spending time in nature improves cognition, relieves anxiety, and depression, and even boosts empathy, scientists in Japan are measuring what’s actually happening to our cells and neurons.

According to Nicholas Carr’s 2010 book The Shallows, the average American spends at least eight hours a day looking at some sort of electronic screen. Then we try to relax by watching TV. Bad idea.

How to have a healthier, happier old age and how to apply it to their own lives

Enjoying nature at Bernheim Forest in Kentucky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Exercise in green space

Trees produce phytoncides which help to lower blood pressure, reduce stress, and boost immunity. The microbes in forest soil have been found to reduce depression and may contribute to the health of our microbiome. A 15-minute walk is all it takes to reap the benefits, but researchers have found that a weekend in the woods improves immunity for up to a month while a short afternoon run or walk somewhere green means better sleep at night.

Related: Best Parks and Gardens to Connect with Nature

Wawasee Lake near Syracuse in Indiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Read books

Although reading is sedentary and solitary, frequent reading has been linked to a longer, healthier life. A Yale study of 3,600 over-50s found that reading increased longevity by almost two years; readers of books outlived readers of newspapers and magazines. While those who read for more than 3.5 hours a week lived longest, the researchers said: “30 minutes a day was still beneficial”. Meanwhile, every expert seems to recommend reading as a means of getting to sleep.

Hiking lava fields in Idaho © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Keep learning

Old brains are just as equipped to build new neurons and synapses as young ones. But this process works best when we repeatedly force ourselves to learn new things. The brain loves novelty: crafts, games, even cooking from a new recipe trigger the creation of neurons but the more complex and more difficult the new activity the greater the rewards. Choose something that also involves social interaction and a bit of movement.

The beauty of the Cherohala Skyway in North Caro;ina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cultivate optimism

Studies have found that older people with a negative attitude to aging have worse functional health, slower walking speeds, and lower cognitive abilities than those with a more positive attitude. Negativity, unsurprisingly, puts stress on the body elevating cortisol levels which in the long term can impact heart health, sleep quality, weight, and cognition. You really are as old as you feel, it seems.

Worth Pondering…

Never forget your dreams.


How National Parks Saved Us?

Ready to get back into nature, visitors are overwhelming some U.S. national parks

“There is something in the mountain air that feeds the spirit and inspires,” wrote that ultimate advocate for nature, Henry David Thoreau, in his famous 1862 essay, Walking.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The U.S. is home to 63 national parks and 423 National Park Service (NPS) sites and it took a global pandemic to make many realize just how fortunate we are to have them. With flights grounded and borders closed, many Americans are road tripping to find some of that wilderness inspiration. Americans have taken to the national parks this summer in huge numbers as they discover the healing power of nature for the very first time. As bucket-list trips across the world were canceled, Americans discovered tent and RV camping, hiking, sightseeing, and unwinding in their own backyards—and in doing so found that the trip of a lifetime is just a drive away.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 2020 the world shut down, but something inside us cracked open. For the first time in decades, the natural world took priority over extraneous distractions. There was a collective urgency to return to nature. But instead, they’ve often confronted crowded trails, traffic jams, and parking nightmares. 

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Some of the country’s most famous national parks are grappling with an increasingly unsustainable rise in visitors. Zion National Park, for example, saw nearly 676,000 visitors in June, topping the number during the same period in 2019 by a wide margin. In June 2019, the park saw 595,000 visitors. The number dipped in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic to about 377,000 visitors. Two other Utah parks, Canyonlands National Park and Capitol Reef National Park saw their busiest June ever with nearly 110,000 and 190,000 visitors respectively. Arches National Park temporarily delayed entry almost daily because of high visitation volumes but at the time of writing the official data had not been released. Utah national parks have seen visitation rise steadily over the past decade with some parks seeing their average annual attendance nearly double.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Maine’s Acadia National Park hosted nearly 1.2 million visitors through June of this year, a 33 percent jump over the same period in 2019, just before the pandemic. Watching the sunrise from Cadillac Mountain is a gorgeous view—so breathtaking that on some days, as many as 500 cars could be found vying for the scenic overlook’s 150 parking spots. In response, some of the most popular national parks have been forced to close their gates early in the day.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Watching the sunrise from the top of Cadillac Mountain is a wonderful experience,” said Sen. Angus King of Maine at a Senate subcommittee hearing on overcrowded parks in late July. “Staring at the taillights of the car in front of you as you are trying to get up the mountain and find a parking place? Not so much.”

That competition has become more manageable since Acadia officials began using a reservation system in May.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Marquee destinations like Montana’s Glacier National Park and nearby Yellowstone have seen the number of annual visitors double since 1980. Yellowstone saw 4 million visitors in 2019 and Glacier tallied more than 3 million. Like Acadia, Glacier also has implemented a ticketed-entry system for summer-season visitors seeking to access Going-to-the-Sun Road between 6 a.m. and 5 p.m. daily.

In 2019 alone, there were 327 million visits to U.S. national parks—or the equivalent of every American making a park visit, said Kristen Brengel, senior vice president of government affairs for the National Parks Conservation Association.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Concerns that U.S. national parks are being “loved to death” have been raised for years but 2021 seems to be emphatically underlining them. “The growth in visitor numbers poses “one of the greatest challenges (the National Park Service) has ever faced,” Kristen Brengel, senior vice president for government affairs at the National Parks Conservation Association, told the hearing.

U.S. national parks—“America’s Best Idea,” as Ken Burns referred to them in his 2009 documentary series—are doing what they were intended to do: provide memorable encounters with the often spectacular beauty and wonder of the natural world. Especially now, visitors can hardly be blamed for wanting to take a deep breath and soak it all in.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Out of the country’s 423 NPS sites half of the visits are taking place at 23 parks with the worst crowding at just a couple of dozen iconic places (think Yellowstone, Zion, Yosemite, Grand Teton, Grand Canyon, Glacier, Arches, Rocky Mountain, Lake Mead). Visitors can plan a more pleasant stay at a lesser-known park. Following are 10 of the least visited parks along with the number of recreational visits in 2020. Each park offers a visitor center, hiking trails, and numerous opportunities to commune with nature.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

National park crowding may ease in the future as other travel options open up. But lessons learned now can help parks improve visitor experiences. 

As Yogi Berra, famous for his terse and memorable expressions, would have put it, the last thing that should be said of these treasures is “It’s too crowded. Nobody goes there anymore.”

Worth Pondering…

National Parks are being “loved to death” and solutions are urgently needed to manage, disperse, and educate crowds while increasing access for all.

—Lebawit Lily Girma, travel writer