Forest Bathing: Stepping back into the present

A simple walk can be exactly what you need when life starts to get hectic.  (ChrisA1995/Flickr Creative Commons)

A simple walk can be exactly what you need when life starts to get hectic.  (ChrisA1995/Flickr Creative Commons)

Almost poetically, it was oppressively hot on the road.  Between the 90-degree temperature and the sun beating down on us without any intervention of shade, the trek to the woods was a rough one.  As we walked, many of us just did our own things.  We chatted freely, checked our phones or went off somewhere in our own minds.  I don’t think any of us really knew what “Forest Bathing” would be like, but it was clear we were all eager to find out.

As I entered the woods, the first thing I noticed was the plummet in temperature.  The leafy canopy overhead gave us all a respite from the sun that had been shining into our eyes and, for the first time in our hike, we could all look around without squinting.  Despite now being more comfortable than we had been previously, our voices became lowered and a little unsure.  There was something about being in the forest that made me feel as if I were intruding and talking felt like taking my intrusion one step too far.  It was just too quiet and serene in its absence of people, and I didn’t want to be the one to ruin that.  Instead, I placed most of my focus on skirting poison ivy and other menacing-looking underbrush.  We went on like this for a while until, eventually, we arrived at an outcrop of boulders.  Here, we were told to stop and pick a place to rest for our meditation.  I chose a perch on top one of the aforementioned boulders and sat down, slightly dubious to how this was going to go.

One of the guides told us to close our eyes and concentrate on our breathing.  In a very calm voice, she encouraged us to focus on what was around us.  Sense by sense, she brought our attention to the sounds of the birds, the smell of the leaves and the cool breeze.  She told us to be careful not to let our minds drift and to keep them in the present.  There, in the forest, the future wasn’t a problem and what happened in the past couldn’t reach us.  Instead, all of our attention should only have been on the steadiness of our breathing and how it felt to be sitting among the boulders.  We couldn’t have meditated for more than five minutes before she welcomed us back to reality, but afterwards I felt incredibly relaxed and well-rested.

After that, there was a shift.  Where we had once talked, we were either silent or we whispered.  Phones felt forbidden, even though no one ever said anything of the kind.  The 30 or so of us hiked onward in a hush, more aware than ever of the woods we were journeying through.  Occasionally, our forest guide, the associate extension professor, Tom Worthley, would stop us to bring our attention to certain aspects of the trees and nature around us.  He had us smell spice bush and a chlorophyll bark that smelled just like spearmint.  He brought us up to different trees to feel the bark and told us their ages.  He opened our eyes up to parts of the forest we had never known existed or ever thought to look into.

Sometimes life can get a little hectic.  Maybe it’s the mistakes of the past, or maybe it’s all the work that is hovering ominously ahead in the future but, after a while, it can all seem almost suffocating.  Taking the time yesterday to just simply walk through the woods and focus only on what was around me helped me to release a breath I hadn’t known I’d been holding.  When we left the woods, it was still terribly hot and I still had a lot I needed to get done, but somehow it didn’t seem so awful.  Sometimes it’s a good idea to spend a little time in the present.


Rebecca Maher is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at rebecca.l.maher@uconn.edu.