Natural high: Swamp meditation in Corkscrew Sanctuary

Lance Shearer

There is something serene, quietly natural, even purifying about the natural surroundings around the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary boardwalk. It is a great place to go to recharge your batteries, slow your pulse, and take time to focus on the air you breathe, the gentle sounds of the forest, and the beauty all around you.

Shane and Christy Duff of Naples enjoy the tranquility. Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is holding monthly "Swamp Meditation" sessions the first Saturday of the month, in the heart of the preserve.

Even those who don’t participate in a formal meditation session can reap the benefits of being in the midst of what you might call “nature’s tranquilizer,” but to maximize the effect, Corkscrew offers Swamp Meditation classes, on the first Saturday of each month.

“Discover peace and serenity in our ancient forest at Swamp Meditation,” urges the flyer from Corkscrew. “Surrounded by old-growth bald cypress trees, this offers a spiritual experience and a full immersion into nature, where the only sounds are resident wildlife and rustling leaves.”

That pretty much lays out the experience, and those to whom it sounds good tend to self-select themselves. On the first Saturday in April, beautiful clear morning, about ten people gathered in the visitor center and met spiritual coach Bethanny Gonzalez, who leads the group. They included first-time meditators and experienced practitioners, some of whom come out month after month for the class.

Gonzalez led them down the boardwalk into the beginning of the tall cypress trees, then turned off onto a spur trail that leads to a shelter identified as the “plume hunters’ camp.” This is not the amphitheater where the class had been held before Hurricane Irma, but the planking leading to the amphitheater was cannibalized after the storm to repair the main areas of the boardwalk, as the sustainable, extremely tough hardwood used for decking and railings is in short supply.

A sign along the boardwalk reminded everyone who passes to “listen – sound travels extremely will in the cypress forest,” and urges them to “proceed quietly.” At the turnoff to the plume hunters’ camp, Gonzalez roped off the railing after the group has entered, with another sign, “meditation in progress,” asking others to stay away.

With the housekeeping done, the budding yogis were ready to commune with nature. Gonzalez handed out cards from a deck to each participant, and gave them a dab of various essential oils, with ingredients including cinnamon bark, chamomile, clary sage, clove, and, appropriately, cypress, which everyone rubs on their hands and smells. In accordance with her request, a photographer refrained from clicking the shutter during the actual meditation practice, so as not to break into the serenity of the questing minds.

“The goal is to get into a quiet space,” said Gonzalez, as the group sat comfortably, eyes closed, on mats or cushions in the open shelter. “The best place to do this is nature. Listen to the wind around us. Take a deep cleansing breath, and release some tension from the week, the month, even the year.”

She urged them to contemplate and emulate the trees, with their roots grounded in the earth and branches that soar up into the sky.

“Allow the third eye to open,” she murmured, urging them to mentally take flight as a bird. “Fly with the bird into the water, and let it wash away any old emotions that no longer serve you.

“Feel the energy of rebirth. Feel this gentle breeze, and a connection with everything in the swamp.”

To be silent among a group of people might seem “unnatural” at first, but it allows the mind to slow down and soak in the surroundings. Much of the session is spent in silence, with those not occasionally scribbling notes sitting cross-legged with “eyes wide shut.”

Too soon, the class is brought back, mats are rolled up, and normal life resumed.

“I believe we can heal through meditation,” said Gonzalez, who went through training with a Buddhist monk in Miami. “Out here is one of the most powerful spots for meditation, because we’re already surrounded by nature.”

“I feel a lot more calm, more at peace. My mind is clear,” said longtime practitioner Tami Fleming, who is also Gonzalez’ sister.

“Centering, coming home to the quiet within, getting in touch with the bigger world, and realizing you are part of it,” were the benefit experienced by Sharon Morris, who said she meditates all the time. “It was wonderful – I just wish it had been longer.”

If you go

The Swamp Meditation class meets the first Saturday of the month at 9:30 a.m., and wraps up between 11 and 11:30. There is a $10 fee for Corkscrew members and $20 for others, which includes admission to the sanctuary.

The Audubon Society’s boardwalk takes you on a 2.25-mile roundtrip pathway into the sanctuary, offering views of a variety of wildlife in habitats including towering, 500-year-old trees in an old-growth bald cypress swamp. You can stroll the swamp alone in a cathedral-like hush, or if you time it right, take a guided tour.

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary & Blair Audubon Center

375 Sanctuary Road West, Naples FL 34120