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How to Walk in the Woods
Mindfulness, but with trees
When you’re in the forest, are you really in the forest?
I’m lucky to live in Portland, Oregon, within walking distance of both Forest Park and the adjacent Washington Park. Combined, the two parks are about six and a half times larger than Central Park. It’s one of the largest urban forests in the country.
I walk in the woods almost every day. Who wouldn’t? It’s beautiful, and it’s right here.
Walking in the woods is, of course, supposed to be good for you—better than walking down the street, better than going to the gym. I’ll buy that. Surely a daily dose of awe is good for everyone.
But sometimes I get to the end of the forested part of my walk and realize I hardly saw it at all. I fell into ruminating about all the same problems that keep me awake at two a.m., and I kind of missed the whole thing. I walked out of the forest feeling about the same as when I went in. Basically, I did it wrong.
Sound familiar? Great, then this is for you.
I’ve cobbled this guide together from my own experience, some meditation app or another (probably Headspace), and what I’ve overheard teachers telling their students on field trips through the woods. (Sullen teenagers definitely have to be told how to walk in the woods.)
So here’s what to do as soon as you step into the woods.
This one sounds really obvious, but I have to remind myself all the time.
Look at the forest! Look up at the treetops. Look around at the ferns and the trillium and what have you. Keep your eyes open wide. Keep them moving back and forth, up and down.
Here’s why: When your eyes are open wide and looking around at your verdant and ever-changing surroundings, your brain stops making you feel terrible and starts making you feel good. It’s true! This is part of what’s so pleasurable about going on vacation. Your brain is so busy taking in its charming-but-unfamiliar environment that it forgets its usual petty bullshit.
And here’s a hint: When you walk in the woods, do you habitually keep your eyes on the trail because you’re worried about tripping? Stop it! Regularly scan the trail ahead of you for tree branches or rocks or mud puddles, then keep looking around. I guarantee that if your eyes are locked on your feet, you’re thinking about the debt ceiling limit or how much it’ll cost to put new tires on the car or that thing you said to a stranger at a bus stop seventeen years ago that you now regret. That’ll wait.
Smell the place.
Does it smell like Christmas trees, or rain, or disintegrating leaves? Fantastic. If it doesn’t smell like anything, get closer. Kneel down to forest floor and inhale. Actually be here.
Maybe you hear birds or the wind rustling in the branches or a brook babbling nearby. Or maybe you hear people talking, planes flying overhead, dogs barking, and power tools buzzing. Doesn’t matter what it is. Listen to that, not the inane chatter inside your overworked head. (But if you hear someone playing a podcast ON SPEAKERPHONE as they walk—I mean, who does this???—gently take their phone from them and drop it in the river. It’s for their own good.)
Is it cold? Warm? Windy? Damp? Take a minute. Notice how it feels. Also, go touch something! Hug a tree, stroke a fern, pick up a leaf. Get your hands dirty.
Try a walking meditation.
Can’t stay in the moment? I know, it’s hard. That blabbermouth inside your skull, left to its own devices, wants to start ruminating pointlessly on its made-up troubles. So do this instead: notice your steps. Left, right, left, right. Even that simple mantra will keep your dumb brain occupied while you’re continuing to look at the treetops and listen for birds and all that. Or you can do it with your breath—but don’t forcefully change your breath. Just notice it doing whatever it normally does. In, out, in, out.
Don’t beat yourself up.
Will you get distracted, and start staring at your feet while you silently argue with your boss or wonder when you’ll ever be able to refinance your mortgage?
Yes. Yes, you will. But guess what? The point is not to never be distracted. The point is to notice that you got distracted, and go, “Oh yeah. I’m in a forest right now,” and to look up at the treetops, and start all over again.
In fact, the more you get distracted, the better! If your mind wandered off and got into trouble twenty times, you had twenty chances to practice noticing that. That’s twenty opportunities to take charge of your own thoughts and bring them back to the present—back to the forest. It’s like you just did twenty reps of mindfulness!
Put another way: that’s twenty times that you told your crazed brain that there’s a new sheriff in town. You set the agenda, not the inane chatterbox between your ears.
Congratulations! You just walked in the woods. Do it again tomorrow!
Art Lesson #6: Drawing the forest
Paid subscriptions are five bucks a month, and even if you’re not into drawing, your subscription helps keep this whole enterprise afloat. This week, we’re going to get out some colored ink and a groovy pen and draw a scene from the walk I take through Forest Park most mornings.
Plus, I’ve got some cool new perks for subscribers in the works, coming very soon.
Also, subscribers have access to a growing archive of art lessons that you can dip into anytime.
The Bit at the End
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