If the sight of the blue skies fills you with joy, if a blade of grass springing up in the fields has power to move you, if the simple things of nature have a message that you understand, rejoice, for your soul is alive.
Two weeks ago, I went on a “mindfulness walk” with the Wareham Land Trust, and those are the words the walk leader, Kyla Isakson, left us to ponder when the event was over. Throughout the walk, which took place at WLT’s Tweedy and Barnes property, Kyla led us through several mindfulness exercises, including walking without speaking, reflection on the subtle sounds of the woods about us, and breathing in silence with our eyes closed.
As someone who has been practicing shinrin-yoku (forest bathing) for two years, most of the techniques used in this particular walk were not new to me. What I really want to write about, though, is the burgeoning cultural phenomenon of mindfulness in nature. Why did nearly 20 near-strangers, of various different age groups and backgrounds, decide to show up on a Sunday afternoon for a mindfulness walk? What’s the draw of unplugging in nature?
On an intuitive level, we all probably know the answers to these questions. We relax in nature. We “feel good” after a day spent outdoors in a beautiful natural setting. Scientific research has even begun illuminating the mechanisms behind these sensations. Looking at scenes from nature, which tend to feature higher visual contrast, requires less oxygen when they are being processed by the brain. Meanwhile, looking at scenes of built urban and indoors environments, which are characterized by regular, repeating patterns and straight lines, requires increased oxygen use in the brain (which is a common characteristic of headaches). Such research is only one more facet in a growing body of evidence that points to our origins in and evolution with the natural landscape. It is little wonder, then, that exposure to the outdoors and natural settings lowers cortisol and blood pressure levels, and why doctors in Nordic countries commonly prescribe forest therapy for the chronically ill.
So it was a gratifying experience to participate in a guided mindful forest walk here in Plymouth County. I’d like to think that the enthusiastic turnout for the event is a sign that nature therapy and healing by unplugging from the machine is inching closer to going mainstream.
But one of the great things about nature therapy and being mindful in the outdoors is that you can practice on your own, without the guidance of a professional. The website of the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy provides a free starter kit for those who want to dive more fully into the techniques of nature therapy. Or you can simply go to any natural outdoor setting and practice walking slowly and breathing deeply in silence. As you can see by clicking on the map tab of this blog, Plymouth County is packed with parks and preserves that are perfect oases for mindfulness amongst the trees.
I wrote 3 weeks ago that I was able to reach a profound sense of contentment by exploring the woods of Ellisville Harbor State Park. But I’m not gifted or special in any way. The joy of a blue sky or the moving power of a blade of grass of which Eleanora Duse wrote is accessible to all who are willing to cultivate an awareness of their natural surroundings.