Sometimes when I start hiking up a mountain I wonder why I am doing it. I struggle to put into words why I need to do it. I crave hiking and yet the beginning of most of my hikes comes with pain and discomfort and in that moment I forget why I am there. But then the endorphins kick in from the physical cardio workout and after a while of walking in the woods my perspective shifts. The mushrooms, the ferns, the moss, the tree bark and the stuff growing on it and the animals and the dirt and even the bugs…all this stuff does something to me. There is so much going on and as I settle into a rhythm, the effect on my mind, body and spirit is undeniable. Its like I am suddenly able to truly relax despite varying degrees of physical discomfort and fatigue. Amidst my huffing and puffing and sweating and creaking, I will at some point reach this deeper level of connectivity and peace that I hadn’t found another entry point to. The words that comes to mind is “bliss” and “refuge” and up until yesterday, I thought that this only truly happens when I spend at least an entire day or more heading up a mountain.
A few weeks ago I signed up for this day-long outdoor meditation retreat called “Our Original Playground” which would take place at Willowdale State Forest. I imagined it would be similar to other daylong meditation retreats I’ve gone to that combine walking and sitting meditation with the main difference being that we would be in the woods. I got a confirmation email suggesting that we bring a backpack so our hands would be free and to bring some food to share at a “celebratory potluck” in the woods. I drove up with two friends with whom I share various meditation practices. We met the group at the edge of the forest and there was about 20 of us. We pulled on our rain coats and rain pants, hats and gloves and backpacks and walked into the woods with a large group of strangers. It was raining and hovering at about 50º.
Our meditation teacher began introducing us to the term “Shinrin-yoku” which is a Japanese and Mandarin term that means “forest bathing” or “taking in the forest atmosphere”. In Japan and South Korea there have been extensive scientific research about the restorative and rejuvenating health benefits of spending time in the woods and in nature with the simple idea that if a person can walk into the woods with the intention of being relaxed and present, they can experience vast amounts of health and healing benefits. There are currently accredited green spaces in Japan and South Korea where folks go to practice Shinrin-yoku.
If I’ve learned anything from both being in nature and practicing mindfulness, it’s that removing billboards and glowing screens is crucial for healthy bodies and minds. While the concept felt a little obvious, I found myself getting excited about having some scientific language to explain the profoundly healing experiences I had been having by spending time in the woods. Not that I needed an explanation because its quite obvious but I am always fascinated by how science can explain what we already know.
We started by doing something kind of similar to basic walking meditation and then we moved into some “full-body” walking or “tiger walking”. Then we turned around very very very slowly after testing out our peripheral vision by holding our arms out by our sides and wiggling our fingers to see how far we could see out the sides of our eyeballs. The idea was to take in as much as we possibly could by just turning very slowly. We were then led to a small foot bridge over a small creek where we spread out along the banks and to examine the water for a bit and just see what we notice. I think the idea was to overload our brains with the macro and then zoom in on the micro world.
During all these various practices and wanderings we were passed by many fast-moving mountain bikers. While we were forest bathing along the creek, a group of these mountain bikers flew over the footbridge yelling out to us,”hey what are ya’ll doing? trout fishin? Lookin for tadpoles?” The fifteen of us just stood there like zombies in the dark misty rainy forest crouching over the water without breaking our gazes. Someone from our group yelled back without moving or looking up from the creek, “We’re forest bathing!” We chuckled.
We did a few more things that all effectively heightened our senses and revealed deeper worlds in some of the tiniest square inches of the natural world. Then it was time to break for our “celebratory potluck” which we did on the bank of another creek. We all just sorta plopped down in the wet mucky leaves and started passing around random bits of food. It was surprisingly festive and connecting. It began to rain harder and we laughed and ate and there was plenty of food and it was really fun. We also began to get really cold sitting in the wet leaves so after lunch we did a bit of a jog walk to warm back up. We were suppose to be outside from 10-4 but ended up back at the cars by 1:30 as some folks were getting pretty cold. The meditation teacher invited us all back to his house to dry off and have tea and do some indoor sitting meditation but it was also a natural ending so we said goodbye to our new friends and headed home.
I was moved by this simple yet intuitive practice. Learning that I can find my way to that familiar restorative place by simply slowing down in the forest was transformative for some reason. While it seems so obvious, its not. I spend a lot of time in nature and I really thought I was taking my time out there but I had no idea how much more time I could take. I’m now fantasizing about going backpacking for a month with no intention of knocking off miles but instead just forest bathing and basically going nowhere really slowly.
That said, I have to acknowledge that I do love pushing myself physically in nature. I love getting my heart rate up and seeing what my body can do despite some of the negative messages I’ve received from advertisements and school gym class charts and all the various messages that tell me my body is wrong, my gender is wrong, and I’m suppose to be something different..something better.
Learning about Forest Bathing feels like the next level in thinking even more broadly about how we choose to think of ourselves and each other in the natural world. I mean, its not like we look at trees and think, “that tree is too big or too small or too crooked”. I can feel the potential for so much expansiveness with this. I have a lot of questions and will definitely be exploring this practice of Shinrin-yoku and seeing how I might integrate this into my life more.