I don’t know whose idea it was to venture out onto the cliffs of Howth the day after Sean died. It certainly wasn’t mine; heights terrify me. But there we were, me and the boys, Sean’s brothers, his nieces and nephews, his cousins, all on a pilgrimage to nowhere, around the cliff path, a loop, a circle. It seemed like an incredibly strange activity for all of us to engage in this trek, with our hearts so heavy and our minds so, so lost and confused, and yet, there we were, and somehow it made absolutely perfect sense.
What was there to say? I think everyone was at a loss for words. It took some effort to walk along the winding dirt path, alongside the cliffs and brush and heather. Some of the terrains were steep. Though the terrain was not particularly difficult, as Irish cliff walks go, it was work enough that we need to focus, or maybe that’s just what we chose to do because it gave us something to think about. We were with one another, but also alone and in the embrace of nature. I am not a religious person, but if I was, I would say that, in those moments, we were close or felt close to the earth, and that felt like what I would imagine being in the presence of God might feel like. Gentle, natural, vast, and calm. It wasn’t the first or the last time I would venture out into nature and feel its calming power.
And who among us couldn’t use more calm? Depression and anxiety have steadily been on the rise for the past 50 years in the US, not surprisingly right alongside an increase in the size of American homes, greater consumption and ownership of material possessions, more consumer credit card debt, and increased urbanization. Over the past 50 years, more of us have started spending far more time indoors with our stuff and engaging with social media, which means we are spending far less time outside experiencing and engaging with nature.
I don’t know when I discovered the Japanese concept of shinrin-yoku, which translates into “forest bathing” and simply refers to spending time taking in the atmosphere of the forest. Research, though still inconclusive, does seem to indicate that there are some very real physical and psychological benefits to spending time with the trees and out in nature. Some studies show a reduction in heart rate, blood pressure, and the release of cortisol, as well as an increase in cancer-fighting cells and an immune system boost. All of these are good things and shinrin-yoku is a simple addition to most people’s self-care routines. It is free and simple to do, just like personal writing/journaling is.
In addition to practicing shinrin-yoku, I love writing outside, but they are two very different practices. “Forest bathing” is most effective when one is fully immersed in it by sitting and being still or walking and being fully connecting with the forest around you, allowing all of the senses to take in the atmosphere and all that nature has to offer. It requires one’s full attention. So, to enjoy these two practices together, I’ve tried two approaches that work really well.
Shinrin-yoku + Personal Writing
- Walk in the woods or a park for at least 15 minutes, allowing yourself to be fully immersed in the atmosphere of the forest or nature. Be aware of all of your senses. Allow yourself to notice all of the things that you feel, smell, see, hear, and taste. When you are finished forest bathing, find a comfortable place to sit and write. At this point, you should feel calm and relaxed. Write about topics that are calm and relaxing, as well. You might even choose to write about your forest walk.
- If you have a problem or issue to write about, something that is perhaps stressful or painful, find a comfortable place in nature to sit down and write. Allow yourself 15 to 20 minutes to express your thoughts in writing. When you are finished, take a walk in the woods. Allow all of the stressful thoughts to rest, and focus on the atmosphere of the forest around you, allowing yourself to become fully immersed. Pay close attention to all of your senses. Focus on being present and experiencing the forest or park.
The goal of both of these techniques is to combine the positive benefits of both “forest bathing” and personal writing.