By Jane Coburn
Five steps into the woods and I feel the shift. My body begins to move to a different rhythm. My senses sharpen, my heart slows. It is in nature that I feel most empty and most full, like everything and nothing, connected to all life. In our “busy” addicted world, people often rush to the end point just to then start the next thing. Even when hiking, people rush to the view or the waterfall or whatever they have determined is their hiking “reward”. Slowing down, really noticing my surroundings, immersing myself using all my senses while out in nature truly is magical. This mindful approach to being in nature allows me to notice whole worlds others just rush by.
For years, I have been using my senses to slow down and ground myself in nature. Stopping to kneel down and feel the texture of moss, bending to look at mushrooms decomposing the underside of a log and noticing their delicate folds, pressing my nose to a flower and drinking in its fragrance, watching a snail as it microscopically moves across the forest floor, dipping my feet in cold streams, squishing mud between my toes, watching bees dance from flower to flower close enough to see the pollen on their legs, gazing up through the tops of trees to the bright blue sky, sitting under a pine tree and inhaling deeply, tasting a wild blackberry and feeling the warm burst of juice on my tongue, raising my face to the sun and letting its warmth penetrate, feeling the cool breeze on my face, listening to the rustle of wind through leaves, letting the cold ocean waves wash over my legs, following my breath as I watch pelicans glide across the horizon, searching for just the right shade of purple in a shell or the smoothest river rock, and yes, hugging trees – these are all ways I use my senses in nature to ground and center myself. Nature regulates my nervous system. It heals.
I often find myself writing haikus or other poems in my head about what I am experiencing in nature. It is a way for me to stop and imprint the moment. Sometimes I remember the poems and write them down when I get home. Sometimes I forget the words I conjured in my head while immersed in nature, but never the feeling I had while thinking them. Another one of my favorite ways to imprint a moment in nature is to do what my friend calls, “A Happy Jack”. When I come to a place that fills me with wonder like the top of a mountain or the base of a waterfall, I jump with my arms and legs wide often getting my husband to take a picture. It is my way of imprinting the joy and wonder of that moment in nature into my heart and mind.
The beach called to me,
So, I answered.
My breath ebbed and flowed
like the waves
as I searched,
with the promise of purple.
I thought only the moon followed me,
But every time I glanced up
there was the sun shining a path
straight towards me
across the water.
I am the sun,
I am the ocean,
I am nothing,
After years of being mindful in nature, I learned about the art of Forest Bathing – it’s a thing! – based on the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, a method of boosting wellness by regularly immersing yourself intentionally and mindfully in nature. In his wonderful book, Your Guide to Forest Bathing: Experience the Healing Power of Nature, M. Amos Clifford writes, “Simply being present in the natural world – with all of our senses fully alive-can have a remarkably healing effect. It can also awaken in us our latent but profound connection to all living things. This is “forest bathing” a practice inspired by the Japanese tradition of shinrin-yoku. It is a gentle, meditative approach to being with nature and an antidote to our nature-starved lives that can heal our relationship with the more-than-human world.”
The great news is you don’t have to hike or live close to a forest to practice forest bathing. You can be mindfully present right in your own back yard. Try taking your shoes off and walking slowly in the grass, mindfully noticing the feel of your feet on the ground as you take full, satisfying breaths. Notice how you feel. I recently visited a friend in New York City and we walked out onto a pier overlooking the Hudson River. I leaned against the railing, began to breathe more intentionally and to tap into my senses. The sun on my face, the sound of the waves lapping against the rocks, seagulls flapping their wings to take flight, the breeze off the water on my skin, the light reflecting off the skyscrapers and there it was – that shift of mind and body I feel in the actual forest. I hope you will try it.