Sometimes when I start hiking up a mountain I wonder why I am doing it. I often try to ask myself what I like about it and struggle to put it into words even inside my head. Especially when its hard and sometimes really uncomfortable and even painful. But even before I reach an epic view and before I feel the endorphins kick in from the physical cardio workout, at some point along the way my perspective shifts. The mushrooms, the ferns, the moss, the tree bark and the stuff growing on it and the animals and the dirt…all this stuff does something to me after a while. There is so much there and the effect it has on me is undeniable. Its like my mind, body and spirit is able to relax in the deepest way possible despite varying degrees of physical pain and exhaustion. Amidst my huffing and puffing and sweating and creaking, I will at some point reach a place of deep peacefulness and rest that I don’t get anywhere else. The word that comes to mind is “bliss” and up until yesterday, I thought that this only truly happens once in the natural woods for at least an entire day.
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 that I have shared a meditation practice with for that past few years. We met the group at the edge of the forest and there was about 15 of us, including some folks that had never meditated before and had simply googled meditation. We gathered and pulled on rain coats and rain pants and warm hats and gloves and backpacks and walked into the woods. It was raining and about 50º.
Our teacher taught us about 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, then 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 this defined yet intuitive healing practice. Part of the science could be summed up to simply say that trees fight cancer. If I’ve learned anything from both being in nature and practicing mindfulness, it’s that removing billboards and glowing screens from our everyday moments does a body good. While the concept felt a little obvious, I found myself getting excited about having some language and science to validate my experiences in the woods!
We started with some basic walking meditation and then moving into some “full-body” walking or “tiger walking”. Then we spun around in place 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. He then led us to a bridge over a small creek where we were to each walk down along the banks and find a spot to examine part of the water and meditate on it for a while. The idea was to overload our brains and then zoom in on the micro world. During all these various exercises and wanderings we were passed by many fast-moving mountain bikers who were cruising the trails. While along the creek, a group of these bikers flew over the bridge and yelled out to us,”hey what are ya’ll doing?” We must have looked pretty weird, the fifteen of us standing there like zombies in the dark rainy forest gleaming at the water, some of us crouched. One of the bikers yelled, “Trout fishin?” and “Lookin for tadpoles?!”. Someone from our group yelled back without moving or looking up from the creek, “We’re meditating” It was pretty funny.
We did a few more exercises 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 stop and have our “celebratory potluck” which we did on the bank of a creek. We all just plopped down in the wet leaves and started passing random bits of food around. It was great actually. It rained harder and we laughed and ate and there was plenty of food and it was really fun. We also got 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 since some folks were getting pretty cold. The teacher invited us all back to his house to dry off and do some more meditation but it was also a natural ending so we said goodbye to our new friends and headed home.
I was humbled by this simple and intuitive practice and just so so grateful for the natural world and this newfound wisdom that I can find my way to that familiar restorative mental shift in the woods by bringing the intention of being calm and present. I look forward to practicing some of those slow spins on top of some big mountains this summer. I can also imagine going backpacking for a month with no intention of knocking off miles but instead just forest bathing.
At the same time, I have to acknowledge that I also really love pushing myself physically. I love reaching that natural high from 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 that tell me my body is wrong, my gender is wrong, and I’m suppose to be something different.
One of the single most important things that I have gotten from going hiking a lot is learning to create new messages towards myself. Rather then let pain lead to worry, I have learned to shift my focus on the parts of me that are strong and not to stress about my knees or my feet failing me. Rather then say negative things to myself about weakness and slowness, I have learned to catch myself in those acts and redirect my attention to some moss or a tree. I use to get really self-conscious about breathing heavy while headed up the mountain. I have learned to slow my breath and take in more oxygen instead of panic. I have often been a slower hiker then others and this is still pretty hard for me but I am committed to owning my pace and learning how to “Hike My Own Hike” as they say. Before I started hiking, I had no idea how negative I was towards myself.
Learning about Forest Bathing feels like the next level for me in thinking even more broadly about how I think of myself in the woods…not so much as a hiker but more as just “basically good”.