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A Guide to Awe Walks: Mindful Walking to Enchant Your Life

Fraser deans
By Fraser Deans on Aug 20 2021

Mindful walking in nature for better mental health and physical wellbeing

A walk, a stroll, a hike. Placing one foot in front of the other is distinctly soul nourishing. I suppose we've always done it. We're bipeds after all. Made for walking and running.

Often a walk brings peace to a busy mind. We're able to collect our thoughts. With each step our minds become more focussed stringing together theories to the challenges of life. If we're lucky, the walk may even provide a solution or two.

But those walks are a sort of mindlessness. When consumed by thought, awareness of our surroundings takes a back seat. We may even end up at a destination without recollection of the path we took.

Awe Walks are different. We walk mindfully. Our focus is outward to the natural world. We walk slowly, tuning in to our senses. We're inquisitive and curious adopting a gentle awareness to the physical world. If something strikes us as interesting we inquire, not to get an answer, but to get a deeper sense of its reality. A fuller experience. Its "moreness".

Awe, an altered state

Awe is the profound sense of one's place in the world. It is often the feeling we describe when our minds are blown. There are two requirements for a true awe experience: firstly, a sense of vastness and, secondly, a need for accommodation. We try to realise these two things during our Awe Walks.

A sense of vastness comes from witnessing physically large things (e.g. a tree) or conceptually large (e.g. a person's infinite kindness). A need for accommodation comes from adapting your world view to incorporate new information. This suggests an aspect of novelty is important: seeing the world physically or conceptually from a new perspective.

Awe states have a heap of psychological benefits. Mood boosts are common. People become more open-minded and humble. Their perception of time changes. They experienced enhanced connectedness to people and planet. Finally people report greater life satisfaction.

The science of an Awe Walk

A study in 2020 asked people to take at least one 15-minute awe walk each week for eight weeks. After each walk participants answered an open-ended survey about their walk.

The participants were split into two groups. The "Awe Group" were educated about awe based experiences and were suggested to try experience awe during their walks. Whilst the "Control Group" were only to go for a walk.

There were three notable effects.

Firstly, participants in the "Awe Group" reported increasing experiences of awe during their walks. Whilst the "Control Group" were more inwardly focused.

Secondly, the participants were also asked to take selfies at the beginning, middle and end of each walk. The "Awe Group" tended to make themselves smaller in the photos incorporating more of the nature around them. This was suggestive of a known feature of awe-based experiences: "the small self". The small self is where a person feels proportionately smaller compared to the world around them.

Thirdly, participants completed daily surveys during the period to assess their emotional state. The "Awe Group" were found to have significant increases in positive prosocial emotions such as compassion and gratitude.

How to do an Awe Walk

Follow these simple steps to reach a state of awe and wonder in an Awe Walk.

  1. Find a great place in nature. In theory you'll be able to access a state of awe anywhere but particularly beautiful nature is the best elicitor. Perhaps there is a nearby city park filled with flowers, a lake with wildlife, or an enchanting forest.

  2. Set a container. As forest therapist Ben Page writes: "A container is the setting, time, and place where we practice. A container is like a bubble that you enter when you want to leave the obligations, distractions and commitments of the world behind, knowing that they will be there when you return. Inside your container, this is nothing to stop you from fully immersing yourself in whatever you might be doing."

  3. Consider listening to a nature guide in the Awe app. A guide reminds you to bring your focus back to the moment by prompting you to notice. These prompts help avoid inward rumination.

  4. Otherwise we recommend turning off your mobile phone or placing it in "Do Not Disturb" mode. Turning off your mobile limits distractions. Take the time for yourself. Remember, a mobile phone is for your convenience not someone else's.

  5. Begin with a short meditation. Or, at the very least, a few deep breaths. Relaxing box breathing is another option (4 seconds inhale, 4 seconds hold, 4 seconds exhale, 4 seconds hold, repeat 3 more times).

  6. Open your senses. Feel the contact between yourself and the ground. Feel your weight supported by the ground beneath. Listen to the sounds around you. Is there birdsong? Crickets? Running water? Wind rustling the leaves? What more? Notice any fragrances in the air. Pine? Wild herbs? Flowers? What more?

  7. Remind ourselves to keep an open mind. If wonder or curiosity or surprise invites us to examine something, say yes! Follow your intuition. Check out that flower. Pause to examine a trail of ants. Crouch down to gain a better view of a strange rock.

  8. Begin your walk. Awe Walks will naturally be slower your usual pace. Don't hurry. Take your time. Try to notice your surroundings as fully as possible. If our attention begins to stray from the outer world to our inner thoughts, simply return attention to an object of nature once you catch yourself. Or notice the physical sensations of your feet on the ground.

Take your walk to the next level

Here are a few tips for deepening your Awe Walk practices.

Poetry / Writings

Consider priming an Awe walk with a beautiful poem or passage of writing. Pick something nature based and/or philosophical. Try to incorporate the authors way of seeing the world.

Take William Blake's famous passage…

"To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour."

Read your poem a few times aloud. Allow the words to wash over and through you. What feelings do they invoke? What ideas do they bring up for you? How does the world look different after reading it?

Imaginative Transframing

After you've tried a few Awe Walks, I'd invite you to try Imaginative Transframing. This is a practice of intentionally enlarging or reducing the context of an object of inquiry.

For example, if you met a path of ants, could you enlarge the context to incorporate the entire path including the nest. Imagine how the path might change shape throughout the day. Consider what happens at nightfall or when a predator discovers them.

Alternatively, could you reduce your awareness to just one ant, following its journey from food source to nest. Observe it greeting other ants. See the world from its perspective.

Take Imaginative Transframing further by imagining how you and an object may be connected. For example, on contemplating an old tree, did your grandparents sit under its shade? On contemplating a beautiful flower, is it possible that a single colony of bees pollinated both this flower and the vegetables you ate for lunch? The goal here isn't to know the answer but to instead allow your imagination to fill the answer with something plausible. Seek possible meaning and connect more deeply to people and planet.

Avoid ruminating within this imaginative space. Once your wonder has been satiated bring yourself back to the moment with gentle outward awareness. Ready to let curiosity draw you in as you continue walking.

Novel Locations

Nature is the best elicitor of awe. That's why we recommend doing Awe Walks with nature. But there are other triggers for awe too. As noted earlier, novelty of experience is important to achieving states of awe. Consider doing an Awe Walk in other types of location.

Try your first Awe Walk

Our app Awe has guided meditations for Awe Walks. Use our app to find an awe-inspiring location near you, pop in your headphones and deepen your relationship with nature.

Download the app on iOS and Android.

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Sources

Sturm, V. E., Datta, S., Roy, A. R. K., Sible, I. J., Kosik, E. L., Veziris, C. R., Chow, T. E., Morris, N. A., Neuhaus, J., Kramer, J. H., Miller, B. L., Holley, S. R., & Keltner, D. (2020). Big smile, small self: Awe walks promote prosocial positive emotions in older adults. Emotion. Advance online publication. Web link

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