More often than not, when I head out for a walk I always seem to gravitate to a woodland or a park – somewhere where there is no tarmac, no cars & to be honest, no people. It’s not that I am anti-social, it’s just that I selfishly enjoy having the beauty of nature to myself.
In my own life, I can recall emotionally draining times when I used woodland walking as a form of therapy, needing time alone to try & make sense of the turmoil that I was struggling to deal with. At university, in the stressful winter months leading up to exams, I would often get to mental block stage where I had to just down my pen, grab my long waxed coat & plod around a fantastic place called Collingbourne Woods, near Andover in Hampshire. I remember simply bimbling along for hours, exploring the different tracks & trails, always gravitating towards the same certain tree stump where I could sit & just ‘be’.
Even some twenty years later, in the midst of this global pandemic, I find myself heading regularly into the woods for a little woodland therapy. But is this need to be up close & personal with nature, more ingrained than we might think. If you consider that from the dawn of human existence, over 300’000 years ago, right up until the 1950’s, we as a species have spent much of our time spent living & working harmoniously with the natural world. But since the 1950’s, especially in westernised countries, people have started to distance themselves greatly from nature through extensive urbanisation. There is no longer a need to furnish our tables with produce grown in our own gardens. There is no longer a need to craft clothing or furniture, from materials sourced from the local environment. And soon, who knows, will there no longer a need for people to spend their leisure time in the countryside. I doubt it very much, but after having a 300’000 year symbiotic relationship with the great outdoors, is regularly ‘being’ in a natural environment essential to our health & wellbeing? The Japanese (& me) definitely think so.
First coined in 1982 by the Ministry for Agriculture, Forestry & Fisheries of Japan, Shinrinyoku (translated as Forest Bathing) was developed as a therapy to bring a healthy lifestyle to those persons who were suffering with subhealth (a state between health & disease). Since then academic studies have shown that being mindful in a woodland environment can improve physical & psychological wellbeing.
Step 1: Go find your forest
For many (myself included) meditation is not a spectator sport. So if meditating in a forest occupied by runners, dog walkers & mountain bike riders is your thing, that’s fine, but for the rest of us, it’s probably best to get off the beaten track to find somewhere where you be alone, relaxed & comfortable.
Step 2: Sit, stand or walk
Many folk visit a woodland with for a specific ‘doing’ purpose, for exercise say, but the whole object of Shinrinyoku is to simply appreciate ‘being’ with nature in the present moment. If you do chose walking, do it as mindfully if you can, without your mind telling you that you need to yomp over every square inch. Something I enjoy particularly is walking though a wood & then stopping every now & then to just enjoy the peace & tranquillity (its remarkable how noisy we are when we trudge around).
Step 3: Awaken your senses
Shinrinyoku is often described as a 5-sense experience.
To start with, switch off the visual input (close your eyes) & just allow you ears to simply tune-in to whatever noise is around you. Don’t try to identify a noise – simply accept & allow the sound in a non-judgemental way (especially true with distant vehicle sounds).
Then with your eyes still closed, turn your awareness to what aromas you can sense. Trees & shrubs all have their own distinct smell so don’t be afraid to get up close to have a good sniff. Try visiting a wood after a summer downpour – the aromas kicked up from the woodland carpet are amazing. Most fragrances are pleasant & earthy, but if something is too overbearing, move to a new location.
Now is the time to open you eyes again, but as you take in your surroundings, try not to become too diagnostic with what you are observing – admire the simple beauty of what is presenting, for example water droplets on leaves, or komorebi, the way sunlight filters through the tree canopy.
When it comes to touch forests are extremely tactile places. I must admit that I am not a ‘tree-hugger’ (there is nothing wrong with this if you are), but I do like to touch the textures of the flora around me. Be mindful of plants & fungi that may be toxic though,
And similarly, unless you are skilled in foraging, its probably best not to slurp or munch on anything unknown in a wood (especially mushrooms & toadstools). So why not bring your own food & have a mindful picnic.
Enjoy it while it lasts
Although as species we seem intent on destroying & paving-over every square inch of natural land, whether we like it or not, the natural world is deeply embedded in our DNA. While we have woodlands to enjoy, go out & open your senses – it can help you see the wood from the trees.