How to Deepen Your Sense of Place with Holistic Tracking
In today's post, 8 Shields mentor Josh Lane shares how you can expand your sensory connection with nature through the ancient art of tracking.
The Power of Tracking to Connect Us With Place
by Josh Lane
(edited from the audio recording)
As a nature connection mentor, I often get to interact with people around the world, and I observe people's reactions as they connect with nature. One thing I consistently find is that through time in nature, people say that they feel more rejuvenated… they feel a creativity emerging within themselves that maybe they had felt had gone dormant, because of overwhelm, or just from busyness or stress. So clearly, across the board, one of the responses is that nature rejuvenates us.
But, one thing I've also noticed is that many people feel like there's something more that’s possible in their nature connection experience, like there's a deeper layer of connection that they feel tugging at them. Maybe that feeling comes through in a way that's a bit indiscernible or hard to define, almost like a whisper in the wind.
This whisper from the earth is an ancient longing to connect, to know the rhythms and patterns of life in the forest, in the fields, in the mountains… to feel that on a deep level, and know how to participate in that rhythm. In fact, it's part of our inborn neurobiology.
An Instinct to Connect With Nature
If you look at the time span that we've been here on Earth as a species (and of course there's different estimates of how long we've been here as a species, but generally around at least 300,000 years or so is a pretty conservative point of view at this point in time, with the evidence that has been found so far…), for however long it's been, much of that time has been spent in the hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
Our ancestors depended on their awareness of place to navigate the landscape, to find food, to avoid danger - to do all the things they needed to do to thrive and survive. So, for most of the time that we've been here as a species, our senses have been adapted to this deep relationship with place: with the patterns of the land and with the sky, and with the plants, the animals, the weather patterns… with all these different changing textures and substrates and cycles.
This is what our senses really are adapted for. Even after the perhaps 10,000 plus years for many of us having an ancestral background of an agrarian existence, with it’s shift from a hunter-gatherer mindset, yet, we still have that same ancient sensory capability inside us.... even as we moved further into the Industrial Revolution, and now into this Digital Age (which is just a mere pinpoint in that huge spectrum of time)... here we are, with that same inborn sensory capacity longing to connect with those primal natural patterns.
So that's the "whisper" that I often hear about from people - it’s that desire to experience the full potential of what their senses have to offer them. That desire becomes a mystery: How do we do that? How do we engage in that really deep way with our place?
Tracking as a Routine of Mindfulness and Connection with Place
This is where the routines of tracking come in. Jon Young calls this holistic tracking, not just looking at footprints on the ground in that mud puddle, wondering who left the tracks - although that is in itself a powerful practice - but, connecting that track to the entire landscape, to the whole rhythm and texture of that place.
The holistic viewpoint asks us to connect the track to the entire ecology: why did that red fox leave those tracks in that mud puddle? Well, where are the raspberries right now? If you're in that season and raspberries are coming into fruit, well, the red fox is probably looking for those. At other times a year, the fox might be looking mostly for small mammals. So there could be a variety of things drawing that fox across the landscape. The track there in the mud becomes an invitation to look at the whole ecology of place, and what's driving (either pushing or pulling) that animal through the contours of the land.
As we are out there tracking, we can open our ears up, too… maybe we'll hear the juncos that fly up off of the ground with their quiet but sharp little alarm calls, one after the other. Then the robin flies up, and then another bird takes off, and suddenly we realize there's something moving through that raspberry thicket! So if we are fully present in the moment with mindfulness, and we're tuned into the birds, suddenly we realize that, hey, maybe that fox is in there in the thicket right now, moving right here with us in this moment.
So, the track becomes an invitation to be present to what's going on. The questions become a doorway to engage our senses fully with that place, with the mysteries of the land. We start to develop a routine of connecting with the same place over and over, of rhythmically using our senses and activating them, and then coming home and asking really good questions in our journal. This creates a feedback cycle in a positive way that continues to reinforce our sensory experiences, and helps us map them out and make sense of them.
This is the cycle of holistic tracking. It’s an awareness practice that we can integrate in our lives - and in really simple ways - just by asking, “What's happening right now at my place today?” Have a sit spot that you go visit often; it could be right in the backyard or in the local park. Or, have a tracking area around that to regularly investigate. Maybe you’re not feeling called to sit, but you like to wander. So, wander through that place. Maybe you walk your dog there every day already, so it's just a matter of bringing in a few more questions, and looking a little deeper at the landscape as you walk.
Connect with the place all the way from the ground up to the sky. Methodically look, sense, and feel what's going on. Ask, “Who's moving here? What are the other life forms that are here, what other animals live here? What sign might they leave behind? What are the birds saying in this moment? What direction is the wind coming from?” These kinds of questions start to open up our senses in a really magical way.
These practices are routines that I share with my clients in the Shikari mentoring journey, which is the holistic tracking pathway that we have at 8 Shields. This is what I specialize in. I've had the honor to help people around the world learn to embody this skillset in a one-on-one setting, where we focus on this type of connection with place, by engaging mindfulness through the senses.
Typically, we meet once a week on the phone for an hour, and we also offer customized practices to do in the field in between each session. Then, during that time one-on-one, I’ll listen to the stories that the person has brought in from their experiences in the field at their place. Through Coyote Mentoring (through the asking of very strategic mentoring questions) over a period of eight weeks, my role as a mentor is to tease through that story of their experiences and bring the participant to a new level of questions.
The mentoring journey cycles in this way each week, and the client goes out again with those new questions and experiences the landscape in a deeper way. We set a life-long learning groundwork through this mentoring process. We supplement the learning through very specific research techniques into the lives of the animals, into mindfulness meditations, and into different ways of engaging the senses. Bit by bit, we get further into the story of these animals’ lives, and with the greater ecologies they're connected to.
Through this kind of mentoring, we develop the “Shikari mindset” - the skill of looking at the landscape and quickly taking in a lot of information, just because you know that place so deeply. Now, you know the patterns that are moving on the land, and you also feel your own relationship to those animals, to the birds, to the trees and plants… and how you impact that place, too. You recognize how you, too, become part of that story in a really conscious way.
These are all things that go into the Shikari journey. You can learn more about Shikari here. We periodically take new folks into that one-on-one experience. It's also a great way to learn the mentoring methodology, just by experiencing it for yourself. A lot of folks have commented that once they go through the training, they are then able to very naturally help others with that same methodology, because now it's in their very bones, because they've embodied it.
So that's just a little bit about the Shikari pathway, and some simple ideas that you can start to apply right now right in your own place. Whether you're walking the dog in that same spot every day, or if you get out in the garden, just hit pause on the way there and look and sense around. See what's going on and ask some questions. Keep a journal, and build out your observations over time. That's a really simple way to start building a depth of ecology of understanding about your place.
When we engage our senses this way, remember that we're activating some very deep parts of our brain and our senses. As we do this, we come more alive in some really new and amazing ways… these practices help us feel connected to our place on the Earth, and into that place within ourselves of awareness and mindfulness. So, have some fun with that, and happy tracking!
About Josh Lane
Josh Lane is a lead mentor with the 8 Shields Institute, offering personalized mentoring in wildlife tracking, heart-mind-body awareness, and connection with the natural world. For 20 years, Josh has practiced mentoring skills that support transformational journeys for individuals and groups, as passed down through the ancient arts of holistic tracking, bird language, Qi Gong, and other primal awareness skills. A storyteller, author and presenter, Josh’s work has appeared in various online trainings, including Awakening the Senses in Nature and Backyard Bird Language. In addition, he’s contributed to books and articles on bird language and holistic tracking, including What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World.
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