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Why Birdwatching Is a Good Mindfulness Practice When You’re Ill

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You’ve probably heard about the benefits of mindfulness and maybe you’ve even received advice to try it. Mindfulness is all about experiencing the moment by using awareness. It’s often used in meditation or therapeutic practices to relieve stress, strengthen the mind-body connection, and encourage overall well being.  As a person with chronic illness, practicing mindfulness is an important part of my self-care, but I sometimes struggle with mindfulness practices I used when I was healthier or new practices that I read about. Fortunately, I’ve come across a number of excellent writers and bloggers who offer suggestions from the perspective of someone living with illness, like Toni Bernhard. Over time, I inadvertently stumbled upon using backyard bird feeding and watching as a wonderful way to keep my awareness focused on the present.

I came across an interest in meditation somewhat early in life. I used it for many years to help be get to sleep at night when I struggled with insomnia and poor sleep. I also loved nature and hiking. I loved meandering along a trail watching for wildlife and listening to the sounds of the breeze rustling through the trees. I’d frequently stop and rest while just taking in my surroundings and communing with nature. I felt one with nature – truly interconnected. These moments restored me and taught me to see the beauty of nature everywhere I went in everyday life.

A giphy of birds eating from several bird feeders.

As time went on, my symptoms worsened and I was unable to keep hiking. I tried to meditate more, but found that I easily became too relaxed and would fall asleep or experience syncope. I tried breathing techniques, too, but still struggled with it. Yoga usually resulted in injuries. I continued to see beauty as I went through my days, but staying mindful wasn’t always easy. Sometimes, I didn’t want to be aware of things like the pains in my body and the overwhelming fatigue pulling me down. Mindfulness taught me to experience those things and encouraged me to work on acceptance, but I often thought that I’d rather turn all of that off. Perhaps my mind could just exist separately from my body for a while and give me a break – but that is not how life or mindfulness work.

A giphy of bird feeders outside the writer's window, with a bird eating from one.

Since I was beginning to feel separated from nature, I started to bring nature to me. I kept a few house plants indoors and hung a little bird feeder outside the window. I found I would spend more and more time gazing out the window watching the clouds and waiting for a winged visitor. That is how it began. My love of bird watching truly peaked when I moved to a home with big windows and I placed a series of bird feeders right outside. Even on my worst days, I could see a variety of bird species come and go. I would learn their names and find out about their behaviors. Now at my current home, I have placed feeders at my windows so that I can look up whenever I like. I even plan to get a bird friendly garden so I’m not just relying on feeders to draw in these winged visitors.

Watching birds helps me to live in the moment. I observe the way the sunlight backlights a wing in flight. I listen to the call of one bird species and mentally separate from the other calls in the background. I smile as a parent feeds a fledgling. I am able to keep attention and focus without drifting off or being distracted by the dramas of the day. Birds are almost magical creatures with their ability to enchant and delight observers with their flight, song, and charming antics.

There are some additional benefits to backyard birding as a hobby for the chronically ill that go beyond mindfulness. It is low commitment, for example. If you stop feeding the birds or need to take a break, they will be fine and just find food elsewhere. Refilling bird feeders can be a great encouragement for going outside regularly for those who are able to get out for about five minutes or more. Or, for those who are not able, perhaps a friend or caregiver can join in on the hobby.

Birding is something that can be shared with many other people.  Social media is filled with individuals and groups who are passionate about sharing everything from photos to techniques. I also find it is a great way to connect with others in day to day life.  I have neighbors come by to chat about feeders or our local bird population. I found many of my friends and family also love birds and have feeders up as well. I can be so focused on my health sometimes that it can be a relief to have something so cheerful to share with others.

A bird flying away from a bird bath.

Even if you just have one window, you may find that it is a gateway to a viable mindfulness practice.  Even if you aren’t ready to get a bird feeder, you can just watch the birds fly by and watch the clouds drift slowly by.  The important thing is to find self-care techniques that work for you. Mindfulness was something that served me well that became less accessible as my symptoms worsened. Backyard birding helped me to bridge that gap and create a sense of peacefulness and well being when I needed it more than ever.

Getty Image by nickyp2

 Follow this journey on Chronic Gravity.
Originally published: May 30, 2018
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