Yesterday I had it in my head that “mindfulness” — just existing in the now, mentally — was a great way to get your head in the game, hike-wise. It worked wonders in 30-second bursts: There’s nothing like emptying the mind and letting the forest pour in.

Dawn sky over Tanglewood Park, Clemmons, NC

This morning I wondered what would happen if I tried getting mindful for longer stretches, like several minutes at a time. Within a quarter-mile it dawned on me that what works in a gym or a yoga studio has to be adapted to the realities of the wilderness. Living in the now for more than a minute or two created a sensory overload that almost made me dizzy. I wouldn’t call it fun.

My equilibrium returned when I focused my attention on the trail ahead and made a concerted effort not to dwell on anything outside my immediate experience. The take-away is that being now-centric is all well and good if you’re standing still, but if you’re moving, your brain’ll freak out if you’re not looking at least a few steps into the future.

So what’s the payoff for all this mental mumbo-jumbo? An easy example practically jumped in front of me. I was doing my tune-out-all-the-external-BS exercise when I heard a rushed rumbling through woods just down the trail. Probably a deer, I figured, but I didn’t see anything.

I turned a curve, walked about 20 feet and there the deer was, frozen in a stance about 20 feet from me. Ridiculously close for wildlife, but this is a suburban park and the deer are very tame. If I hadn’t had my radar tuned, I’d have walked right past him.

Maybe this is no more complicated than teaching yourself to pay attention. For years the simple act of walking down the trail has been enough; if I saw something cool I’d take a picture and post it on the blog.

Tuning out all the nonsense and tuning in my outdoor brain doesn’t come naturally. I bring all my baggage along, and many a hike has been poisoned by ruminations over the injustices big and small that define urban life.

Well, there’s no injustice in nature. There are laws, and some species like ours are luckier than others in the short run, but nature’s rule always prevails. That’s the appeal of being out there in a place where everything makes sense and fits into a logical scheme.

Our brains were built to abide by nature’s laws, and getting “back to nature” is really just getting our brains back where they belong.

Related: Mindful hiking: going with the flow