Darnell Lamont Walker leading Rituals Writing Workshop
Gratitude Practice: Exploring Art and the Senses

by Branan Freeman, Artist and Residential Education Manager at Esalen Institute

The change in seasons can bring about a sense of wonder, of noticing the details of nature’s colorful palette. There are many ways to enjoy our natural surroundings, including this gratitude practice incorporating creativity and our senses of sight, sound, smell and touch.

You may use any outdoor location, and all you need is a comfortable place to sit and a few materials to document aspects of your experience. I’ll delve into some suggestions, but feel free to tailor this to suit your own needs.


  • drawing paper
  • graphite pencil, pens, colored pencils, crayons, oil or chalk pastels, etc.
  • sturdy surface to create on (mat board or Masonite boards work great)


  • watercolor paper
  • watercolor pencils, watercolor set, or acrylic paints
  • a variety of sizes of paintbrushes
  • container for water
  • (mat board or Masonite boards work great)


  • timer


  1. Gather all of your art materials and head outside.
    Find a comfortable seated position in a location that calls to you, and take a few nice, deep breaths to settle in to your space.
  2. Take five minutes to explore a few of your senses.
    You may wish to set a timer for five minutes for each of these senses (or more or less time as desired)

    Sound: Close your eyes and take notice of your sense of sound. What are the noises around you? Can you have steady breath and let these noises become the backdrop of this meditation? Are the leaves rustling, is a dog barking, a bird singing or a car driving nearby? Peace does not necessarily mean it’s quiet...

    Smell: Close your eyes and take notice of your sense of smell. Can you detect the saltwater of the ocean, the crispness of fall leaves, herbs in the garden, or someone cooking something nearby?

    Sight: Open your eyes and take in the world around you. What are the colors like? Are there flowers, clouds, houses, or other things attracting your attention in this space? Notice the play of light and shadow on the plants around you.

    Touch: Finally, notice your sense of touch and the richness of texture in the plants and surfaces nearby. Run your fingers along the ground, along some tree bark and feel the air and sunlight against your skin.
  3. Get out your art materials.
    With a new sense of awareness, get out your art materials to start the creative project. You may wish to stay where you are or walk to a place with a mix of sun and shadow, if possible, or else find a spot where there’s foliage that inspires you.

    You may work with dry media, like colored pencils or crayons. Or you may wish to work with wet media, like watercolor pencils, watercolors or acrylic paints.
  4. Honor an intention to create art in a mindful way while staying aware of your senses.
    This is an opportunity to enjoy yourself! Please ask your inner critic to give you some space while you play with color and line. Explore, experiment and think of this project as a way to document a moment rather than time to make a gorgeous, finished piece of art. We can put a lot of pressure on ourselves, and this is an invitation to take the pressure off and just enjoy!!
  5. Begin creating!
    I love shadows! Tracing shadows, seeing the organic shapes emerge and their abstract quality give me freedom to dance with color and often achieve interesting results. I find the process so rewarding and meditative, and I am filled with a sense of gratitude for Mother Earth’s abundance of inspiration!!

Creative Steps

Step 1

Find a spot where the shadows of plants are cast over your paper. You can move your paper around a bit to find the composition that pleases you.

Step 2

Trace the shadow. You can simplify the shapes a bit or get as detailed as you like.

Step 3

Color in the shadow shapes. I used watercolor pencils, but any of the materials I suggested in the materials list will work nicely. After coloring in the shadow, I added a bit of water to my paintbrush to blend the watercolor pencil.

Step 4

As you create, you may become aware of shifting light and new shadows. Wonderful! Take time to capture this awareness and draw new shapes as you see them emerge.

Step 5

Notice how different shadows cast unique shapes. In this image, I have very different styles, and that’s just fine with me. I’m enjoying the process!

Step 6

After defining shadow shapes, you can leave your artwork alone or keep going. I’ve decided to add some blue to the central part of the composition, again using my favorite watercolors pencils.

Step 7

Finish up your piece by adding finishing touches. Sometimes it’s hard to know when to stop...trust your instincts. You may want to take a moment away from your piece and look at it again with fresh eyes.

Remember, we are giving ourselves permission to play, be aware of our senses and enjoy a gratitude practice for the wonders of nature!

Step 8

Think of a title of your piece, or maybe add a journal entry on the back of the artwork, documenting the date, where you are and what you noticed. Consider diving into this project a few times this season or revisit at the seasons shift again and see how your images evolve.

This could also be a fun project to do with some friends!

“Remembering to be as self compassionate as I can and praying to the divine that we're all a part of.” 

“Prayer, reading, meditation, walking.”
“Erratically — which is an ongoing stream of practice to find peace.”
“Try on a daily basis to be kind to myself and to realize that making mistakes is a part of the human condition. Learning from our mistakes is a journey. But it starts with compassion and caring. First for oneself.”

“Physically: aerobic exercise, volleyball, ice hockey, cycling, sailing. Emotionally: unfortunately I have to work to ‘not care’ about people or situations which may end painfully. Along the lines of ‘attachment is the source of suffering’, so best to avoid it or limit its scope. Sad though because it could also be the source of great joy. Is it worth the risk?“

“It's time for my heart to be nurtured on one level yet contained on another. To go easy on me and to allow my feelings to be validated, not judged harshly. On the other hand, to let the heart rule with equanimity and not lead the mind and body around like a master.”

“I spend time thinking of everything I am grateful for, and I try to develop my ability to express compassion for myself and others without reservation. I take time to do the things I need to do to keep myself healthy and happy. This includes taking experiential workshops, fostering relationships, and participating within groups which have a similar interest to become a more compassionate and fulfilled being.“

“Self-forgiveness for my own judgments. And oh yeah, coming to Esalen.”
–David B.

“Hmm, this is a tough one! I guess I take care of my heart through fostering relationships with people I feel connected to. Spending quality time with them (whether we're on the phone, through messages/letters, on Zoom, or in-person). Being there for them, listening to them, sharing what's going on with me, my struggles and my successes... like we do in the Esalen weekly Friends of Esalen Zoom sessions!”

“I remind myself in many ways of the fact that " Love is all there is!" LOVE is the prize and this one precious life is the stage we get to learn our lessons. I get out into nature, hike, camp, river kayak, fly fish, garden, I create, I dance (not enough!), and I remain grateful for each day, each breath, each moment. Being in the moment, awake, and remembering the gift of life and my feeling of gratitude for all of creation.”
“My physical heart by limiting stress and eating a heart-healthy diet. My emotional heart by staying in love with the world and by knowing that all disappointment and loss will pass.“
–David Z.

Today, September 29, is World Heart Day. Strike up a conversation with your own heart and as you feel comfortable, encourage others to do the same. As part of our own transformations and self-care, we sometimes ask for others to illuminate and enliven our hearts or speak our love language.

What if we could do this for ourselves too, even if just for today… or to start a heart practice, forever?


Esalen Team