A new trip to Snowdonia National Park combines walking and wild camping with mindfulness meditation. Jini Reddy straps on her boots and finds her hiking Zen
I’m sitting on top of a mountain, in a remote corner of Snowdonia National Park. The sun is beating down, and the views – of shimmering lakes, valleys, the Irish Sea, heather-studded peaks and Mount Snowdon – are enchanting. Truly, I’m in the realm of the Celtic Gods.
In this moment, I’m neither observer, nor mile-chomping hiker, but serenely connected to both the landscape and myself. For I’m in the midst of a mindfulness meditation, one of many on a three-day wild camping trip with a difference.
The idea of combining a gentle introduction to mindfulness, with time spent walking and wild camping, was conceived by Sholto Radford, a Welshman, who launched Wilderness Minds late last year.
A practitioner of mindfulness meditation since 2005, Sholto has a passion for the outdoors, is a certified mountain leader, and has excellent local knowledge of Snowdonia National Park, where he’s lived for the past eight years. He’s also a former researcher and course leader at the Centre for Mindfulness Research and Practice (CMRP) at Bangor University, where he specialised in the study of mindful-guided walks that are now at the heart of the Wilderness Minds experience.
“The course gives people the chance to reconnect to the direct experience of our senses, and the beauty of the natural world around us,” Sholto explains, as we drive from Bangor train station to our starting point at Coed Caeddafydd forest.
Here, I meet my fellow wild campers: Welshmen John and Matt, and Portuguese expat Rodrigo. The plan is to head into the Moelwyn Mountains: a secluded area of blissfully untrammeled peaks and lakes. Our time, explains Sholto, will be spent integrating mindfulness practices into walking and wild camping activities. There will also be, he promises, periods of silence, group inquiry and reflection.
Before setting off, we sit in a circle in a forest of spruce trees. “Mindfulness is a process of inquiry,” he explains. “It can help us to become more aware of what is going on in our bodies and minds, and so enable us to notice unhelpful patterns of thoughts and reactions.
“There is an innocence and purity to the walk that I’ve rarely experienced before. It’s also unusually bonding: the silence between us feels gentle and communicative”
“It brings our awareness back to the richness of our direct experience – moment by moment. This can help reduce the stress and struggle of our lives and bring a greater sense of calmness, acceptance and choice.” So far, so good, I think.
We hoist our rucksacks onto our backs. Sholto suggests that as we hike we change the shape of our group, from a spiral to single file, to symbolise the beginning and end of periods of mindful silent walking. We’re told to savour the scenery, and watch our thoughts too. “If you find yourself drifting off – the minute it happens,“ he tells us, “take a deep breath. Anchor your thoughts with your breath.”
To my dismay, despite the sublime views, for the first fifteen minutes up to the trailhead I’m plagued by anxiety. Am I walking too slowly? Am I irritating the others with my slowness? Will I be able to manage with this rucksack? I try to observe my thoughts as if they were mere clouds flitting across a clear sky, but it’s not easy.
On and on my mind whirs until, as if by magic, it shifts into a lower gear and the beauty of my surroundings begins to seep into my pores. This is my walk. I am responsible for me. Not the others. The silence takes over and I feel myself travelling inwards, more deeply rooted in my body and senses.
Beyond a turnstile, we hike silently through open heathland, passing fields rippled with cotton grass and bell-shaped foxglove. We spot skylarks with their sweet signature warbling, and a rare osprey. Someone points out a rust red frog, and then a tiny lizard.
Soon we leave the path and head off-trail through boggy ground. We stop at a waterfall, pausing to savour its sound – using it to focus our attention on the present moment. We dip our heads, or feet, in the cool water – splashing like children, and then snack on Sholto’s homemade flapjacks, which, when eaten mindfully (not difficult), taste like the most ambrosial food ever. Then we resume walking in silence.
There is an innocence and purity to the walk that I’ve rarely experienced before. It’s also unusually bonding: the silence between us feels gentle and communicative. How often have I gone on walks with people and silently willed them to stop chatting, wishing I’d set out alone instead? How often have I barely noticed the scenery while engaged in a dissection of my latest relationship/work/life conundrum? Too often, I think.
The going gets more challenging as we climb higher, and the temperature rises. We pass our first lake – stunning. We find the second, cocooned by undulating peaks and hills, shimmering in sunlight. Happily, this is where we are making camp for the next two nights. There is not a soul in sight. We put up our tents, and then plunge into the icy cool lake: it’s freezing, and shockingly reviving.
Sholto unloads his pots and pans and after a meal of dal curry and chocolate, washed down with mugs of tea, we sit and focus our breath and physical body on the sounds and sensations around us. The stillness is palpable, the sky aglow with orange.
On day two we awake, shivering, to a mist. After a breakfast of muesli, we do a mindfulness movement practise. “This will help us to get more deeply in touch with the felt sense of our bodies,” Sholto explains.
We perform gentle rotations, arm swings, and tap up and down our arms, torso and legs. Then we stand silently, enjoying the feeling of aliveness.
“That night, I crawl into my tent, happy at the unkempt, relaxed urchin I’ve become. I’ve shed my city skin, and feel nourished beyond belief”
Each of the exercises we do – experienced here in this quiet, wild setting – is cumulatively creating a blueprint: a tool for calming ourselves in the face of life’s vicissitudes, or registering its joys more fully.
We set off for the day’s walk, the mist lifts and the sun shines lustrous above. Later we stop next to yet another ethereal lake, feasting on a picnic of oatcakes, brie and onion chutney.
On every trip I have ever been on there is a moment of pure magic – an instant of sublime peace, joy and revelation – and the period that follows, when we choose a solo spot by the river to sit and simply ‘be’, is mine. It feels that everything that I am seeking in life – stillness within, and a communion with nature – is right here in this moment.
Yet, in the midst of this perfection, self-critical thoughts creep in. I’m reminded of Sholto’s earlier words: “Try to get a felt sense of where the thought is in your body, and just be present with it. Pain plus resistance equals suffering.”
So I try: I feel the tightness in my chest. Without naming it, I know it’s the pain of my (perceived) flaws. The more I let myself just feel the sensation – without analyzing it – the more it dissolves.
That afternoon, we continue up to the top of Mount Cnicht: the views are breathtaking. Then a mad scramble down a steep slope of scree and slate ensues. I pick my way from rock to rock as deliberately, and mindfully, as possible.
That night, I crawl into my tent, happy at the unkempt, relaxed urchin I’ve become. I’ve shed my city skin, and feel nourished beyond belief.
But what have the others made of our three days together? On the final morning we sit and share our thoughts.
“This is the first time I’ve tried mindfulness meditation,” says Rodrigo. “The techniques have helped me to not resist the thoughts and confusion in my mind. It makes perfect sense, I feel it works.”
John, a semi-regular meditator and keen walker, says he’s found the techniques we’ve learned beneficial: “Using discomfort as a focus has been useful, rather than a distraction,” he explains.
Meanwhile, nature lover Matt has enjoyed the mindfulness practices and now craves even more.
The last hike, through thigh-high bracken and long grass, down the perilously steep spruce forest, takes us back to where we began.
I am reminded of something Sholto said: “Mindfulness can cause ripples in your life, altering you, and it, in subtle ways.” Everything looks as I remember, but it feels different. Perhaps that’s because I am now subtly different too.
A three-day wild camping weekend costs £170, includes food and most equipment, and the next is scheduled for the 9-11 of August 2013. Wilderness Minds also offer tailor-made trips, one-day guided walks, residential courses, sea-kayaking trips, trekking and eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction courses.
Advance train tickets between London Euston and Bangor start from £14 each way. Visit www.virgintrains.co.uk.