by Chris Doorley, Assoc. Marriage & Family Therapist
Every mystical tradition
tells us in some way
to go back to the natural world
Believe it or not, you can return to everything in 15 minutes or less. Meanwhile, I have an invitation for you: It’s right outside.
You may have missed spring’s arrival in the Northern Hemisphere (our vernal equinox was March 19th). Despite how serious current events are, and how real our fears feel, this season of rejuvenation has returned to us. Naturally, we have proof that, as always, we continue to revolve about our solar system as we collectively embark on one more cycle of life.
Lately, as both a therapist, and someone who chooses to support myself with therapy, I’ve been struggling to find respite, and resources, and ways to regulate my emotions. I keep thinking, I need to walk away for a few minutes. When I do that, I’m finding reprieve, despite my initial resistance to taking time away, or to leaving what seems most serious. My invitation is to try something different by noting what a walk outside does for you during this difficult spring.
In such a spirit of sharing, I’d like to offer what going for a spring walk does for me. Doing so may feel quite distinct for each of us, so I’m also inviting you to gauge for yourself how something like a nature walk feels to you right now.
For me, getting outside for 15-to-20 minutes places me in present contact with a widening perspective, with easeful sense- and body-awareness, and with an experience of grounding myself in calm, wise insight. At so challenging a time, experiencing the natural resources of spring is what I feel I need to return to and stay in a healthful balance of mind and body right now.
For instance, I can share my gratitude in California’s and Greater Bay Area resources, all plentiful here in San Francisco: parks, open space, coastlines, wilder places, and fresh outdoor air all within my same zip code. I quickly can get into that very natural state of mind simply by walking just beyond my threshold.
Before you decide whether you want to join in what I’m offering, I’ll name that I’m not one to give advice. Advice ain’t my style. Instead, I’m inviting you explore what’s outside your doorway, if you have a few moments a day, up to 20 minutes, less or more. I’m curious what each of you may find. As my own experience has shown me, there are benefits to going for a walk outside, and I feel those benefits quickly, then continue to reap them sustainably. Additionally, recent science backs up my sensory and felt experiences. Given our needs around physical distance right now, access to outdoor spaces can offer us our simple, resourceful and free natural state.
Recent scientific research has demonstrated numerous evidence-based after-effects of walking in forests and the like. For example, a Japanese term, Shinrin-yoku, which translates to “forest bathing,” brings with it considerable findings about how this practice of taking few hours to walking in forests (24 forests in Japan from one study, below) benefits wellness in remarkable and measurable ways. Taking in so-called “forest bathing” (actually, no bath is needed at all— it’s just a walk in the woods) has shown study participants to relax their heart rates, lower blood pressure, and decrease cortisol levels (a stressor-responsive hormone) for even short woodland day trips [see: “The physiological effect of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere…)”]. Furthermore, research on humans who can spend even more time in open- and wild-spaces shows further increases in health benefits over time. For those able to extend time outside up to three days (when possible), this can lead to increased scores on problem solving and creativity tests, which neuroscientist David Strayer coined “the three-day effect” [see: “The New Science of the Creative Brain on Nature”].
Aside from science, there’s also each person’s experience of being outside. I’ve tried going for a walk once a day these past two weeks, and those excursions have helped me feel a markedly better in minutes every time I do. Bad news and anxiety didn’t all retreat when I’m out on a walk, but consistently I find an innate resilience when I put myself among hills, grasses, and trees, under that big-old sky. I’m able to remember my connection to earth, and to air, and to soil underfoot, and to plants all around me. I slow down. Then, I can return home.
One potent reminder that I received this week of how simple connecting with nature can be came to me on March 20th while I was watching MSNBC and Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles, CA, suggested:
“Go out for a walk… life actually continues.”
Mayor Garcetti’s reminder came right on time for my mood. I took his suggestion and went outside twice that day, once right after hearing his interview, and again that evening at sunset. Later that same night, this article seemed to write itself.
Putting data and third-person accounts aside for a few moments, I wonder: What could you experience if you take your Self out there?
I’m not offering magical solutions, or a bypass from what’s important. Instead, I’m offering a balancing act of self-care: to resource oneself by connecting with our most natural resources, instead of spending all our time in-home or on-task. Realistically, I’m inviting my viewpoint through one available portal to what I’d call inherent resilience— this is a reminder that our natural world may help us take in seasonal wisdom and wellness. In a 15-to-20-minute exercise, I’m offering a shift in point of view that emerges when we place ourselves in contact with natural surroundings like forests, open land, woods, gentle hills, park space, and beach sand.
Like me, you may find yourself recalling what you already know: we are of this planet, of wide-open places, and of patient, timeless spaces that resonate within us as wellness. All a person needs to do is to breathe, listen, look, smell, taste, and feel what it feels like to get outside.
It’s all right here.
For you curious types, I have an experiential experiment. As I’ve coaxed myself to get outside, I’ve noticed that outdoor spaces have been a balm for my spirit, offering a pathway back to a restfulness inside my Self. I experience greater vision when outside: new horizons become visible, organic patterns reveal themselves, and patient examples recur— sprouts growing nearby gnarled bark; darkness marks a passing of tides; a swaying tree balances itself on a steady wind; spring’s tender pink and purple vibrancy blooms. Will it be similar for you?
Here’s my experiential cue for you— just one way this might go— which I’ve tried both in solitude and in therapy sessions on many occasions now:
Go outside to a place you like, one that feels right to you. Take a relaxed breath. Take a second. Now, imagine opening outward all of your senses— envision your ears widening to collect sounds; see your eyes opening to allow what’s above, below, and in your periphery; notice how your skin and your body feel; note what you smell, and try to name three scents; ask yourself: what does my breath taste like, or what temperature is my breath coming in, then going out? What’s it like to be here now?
And, of course, you may just want to go for a walk your own way.
For me, its most comfortable right now to preserve a good six-foot cushion or more between myself and fellow nature explorers— I don’t mind slowing and pausing to preserve that six feet of space on either side of me. I’ve seen neighbors walking like this, too, slightly out of my reach, and yet not so far from me that they don’t notice me waving, or lifting a peace sign, or sending a nod and a grin their way. When I keep my healthy distance, I’m comfortable deepening my own breath, sometimes waiting for foot traffic to amble past, then continuing on my way. If ever I want for more space, I step off-path thoughtfully for a moment, knowing I will leave a trace, yet minding my footprint so that I may make my trace as gently as possible.
Perhaps there’s something out there for you— a return to spring, a path toward self-rejuvenating realms. Whether or not, I’ll pass on a recitation to you that’s meant to focus our minds on wellness & kindness, something to coax you on your way down our next undiscovered path:
May you feel healthy, may you feel safe, & may you feel at peace.
(for maximum loving-kindness, repeat as necessary)
[see: “What is Loving-Kindness Meditation” below ]
§ selected sources for inner exploration:
Tara Brach, “Embodied Presence (Part 1) – Planting Our Roots in the Universe”— https://www.tarabrach.com/embodied-presence-part-1/
“The physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing): evidence from field experiments in 24 forests across Japan,” Environment Health And Preventive Medicine— https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12199-009-0086-9
“The New Science of the Creative Brain on Nature,” Outside Magazine— https://www.outsideonline.com/2062221/new-science-creative-brain-nature
“What is Loving-Kindness Meditation?,” by Madhuleena Roy Chowdhury, BA—
Plus, local SF-Bay-Area suggestions on how to: “Recreate in Place?,” San Jose Mercury News— https://www.mercurynews.com/2020/03/19/recreate-in-place-how-people-are-safely-getting-outside-to-exercise-in-the-coronavirus-age/ §
[ Note to readers— This article originally appeared on the Center for Mindful Psychotherapy website at: https://mindfulcenter.org/spring-treatment-walking-outside-as-natural-resourcing/]