Usually Facebook’s wild guessing at what I might be interested in is way off track, but about a month ago this event popped up in my stream and caught my attention. It was about a series of seven walks in various nature locations right here in Marin and Sonoma counties over the course of seven Saturdays. The purpose of these outings was to promote healing and wellbeing through a relaxed contact with nature in the wild.
Called Shinrin-Yoku, this practice was originally developed in Japan, and means “taking in the forest energy” or “forest bathing”.
I had been yearning to be in the forest for some time, and it was one of the reasons I wrenched myself away from Hawai’i. Not that there aren’t forests in Hawai’i, there are, they are glorious and I love them. But they are tropical, and after eleven years I was yearning for my native kind of forest, for pine trees, oaks and maples, and for that particular forest smell that permeates the woods where the seasons change.
I had never heard of Shinrin-Yoku before, but it sounded really lovely, and further research through the website of the local organizers confirmed it just what I had been looking for without knowing that I was. Besides, in spite of my initial hesitations along the lines of “ok, I’ll look at this later”, it kept popping up in my stream. It was a pretty obvious nudge from the Universe, the kind that I have learned to pay attention to. I signed up.
The first walk was on Saturday, February 7th. Yes, I am a little late in writing about this, but I do intend to share about each of these walks, so I will catch up with things and carry you into spring right alongside me.
I am now thinking of Steve Martin’s Wacky Weatherman and his forecast: hey, this is California, what else is there to be but sun?! Except, of course, that first weekend, when my Weather Channel App was showing big clouds, zigzag signs and lots of big drops, lots, with a remorseless 100% underneath. We almost had to reschedule, but the night before the weather Angels took pity on us and gave us what in Hawai’i is called a puka in the sky, a hole, or opening among the clouds.
The outing was a go, and at 10 am, I met the group in the parking lot of Sugar Loaf Ridge Park in Sonoma County. This means that to get there I had the pleasure of a morning drive through the glorious scenery of the Sonoma Valley wine country. Add to that the wilder glory of the drive up Adobe Canyon Road to get to the park. I was a happy almost-camper.
I was not quite sure what to expect, or even how many people, but was open to the experience. Other than our guide, Amos Clifford, the rest of the group were, unsurprisingly, all women. We gathered by the nearby creek where Amos invited us to find a rock that would call to us. Holding the rocks, we formed a circle and were invited to speak our name and say a little bit about ourselves.
Having attended quite a few workshops of various length, it was not my first time in such a situation – that is, with a group of previously unknown people about to share glimpses into our personal story. Yet I was still a little surprised at how much each person can reveal about herself with just a few words. I stood there allowing them to show me who they were, to tell me their story. I spoke my heart and listened to theirs with no thought other than to be present, to be there, in that place, in that moment, with these souls…. eleven of them, with the Spirit of Place as number twelve. A perfect number.
After our introductory round, Amos invited us to ask our stone to hold our burdens for the time we were there, so we could step out into the forest lighter, even if just for a couple of hours. Each one of us spoke in turn, some clearly, some so softly it was barely a whisper. When it was my turn, I acknowledged the recent place of grounding within myself I had finally reached in recent months, and asked my stone to help me strengthen it by sending the energy down into the Earth. Then we all placed our stones on the ground creating a large circle that we used as our “send off threshold” before heading out on our first meander, free to gently and slowly explore in the direction that called to us the most. My stone is the one specked with green on the left in the image below.
We had been standing in the shade and, in spite of all my layers, it was colder than I expected. To to be honest, the direction that really called to me was the sunny patch to my left, and I immediately headed there. I had only taken a few steps when the gentle sound of a flute floated into the air. I turned to see where it was coming from and I saw one of the women in our group sitting on a bench quietly playing.
I love Native American flute, and I own several albums by various artists – including Carlos Nakai – that I enjoy listening to in my quiet moments. Something about this sound speaks to my soul. I even tried playing one a few years ago, but I may need a better flute… and more practice.
The beautiful flute music was unexpected and caught me by surprise, stirring something inside my heart and bringing tears to my eyes. This surprised me even more as I was unprepared for such a strong emotion. I was not sure where it was coming from, or what it was about, except that it felt like a call of some kind, and possibly a confirmation that a decision I have recently made is the right one. If I had noticed the flute and expected the music, I doubt it would have had the same effect.
The notes followed me as I slowly meandered along the path, observing the details, feeling the place, enjoying the numerous grey squirrels at their games, and absorbing the scents, wild thyme among them, very strongly. Even when the playing stopped, I could still hear the music lingering in the breeze and following me.
When we gathered once more in a nearby clearing a while later, and were invited to share about our experience, I talked about this, and thanked Veena for playing.
Soon we were off on another meander. This time I took out my camera and went exploring a little, acknowledging my finds with a click of the shutter. I have always enjoyed doing this, and it occurred to me that I had not done it in a long time. Photography is not just a passion, is also my work, and although I love what I do, there is always a degree of performance pressure even in the least stressful photo shoot. Walking about, especially in nature, and taking pics of whatever calls to me is a form of walking meditation that puts me in the zone, a place I was reluctant to leave in response to Amos’ bell calling us back.
As we all sat around in our resting place and shared about our experiences and insights during the second meander, I noticed that I had not thought about anything else all morning. I had not worried about the dogs at home, nor thought about anything else I needed to do, or any other place I needed to be.
The feeling of constant overwhelm that this “something else/somewhere else” pattern has kept me trapped in, preventing me from enjoying the moment and even enjoying the few days off I have allowed myself over the years, has been an issue with me for a long time, practically most of my adult life, and one I had been working on letting go for several years, since I became aware of it. During those few hours away from my regular daily structure and in the midst of my yearned-for forest, I realized that issue was gone. Scanning back over the weeks I noticed that it had been gone, really gone, for at least a couple of months, but because of the busy-ness of the move, this was the first moment I had the chance to notice this. I was so happy in my a-ha moment, I almost did a Snoopy dance with my backpack on.
And then Amos made tea, right there with a campsite burner and using herbs gathered during his own exploration. The herbs were more about infusing the water with the vibration of the place and of the plants than for flavor, and the brew was a mild one. The patches of sun had long since vanished, it was getting cold and we were all glad of something hot. Despite the green grasses and early blossoming fruit trees, it was still midwinter.
As a final “invitation” for the week following our first Shinrin-Yoku, Amos suggested we each tend something, a plant, a pot of flowers, a vegetable patch, something like that, and not necessarily big. Then he had us pick a scroll that would hold a message for us. Or as he put it, had the scroll pick us. Mine said: “What needs tending in your life? Tell this place about it. Listen for its guidance.”
I knew instantly what it was.
He also handed each of us a sprig of mugwort, telling us to place it in our pillowcase that night as it would intensify our dreams. This brought our outing to a close. As we ate our lunches and shifted our conversation along a more mundane line, we felt the first gentle drizzle of the day. Perfect timing. The rain, which had held back the whole time we were there, was ready to pick up where it had left off. It was time to go back to our cars and drive home, the winding downhill drive towards the valley a metaphoric descent back into our regular lives. Until the next Shinrin-Yoku.
In total I don’t think we walked more than half a mile away from our cars. Shinrin-Yoku is not about hiking, or exercise, or anything that you have to do, accomplish or reach. It is about being, about presence, and about relaxing into the present moment and connecting with nature, gathering healing and giving back love.
This gentle meandering is something I had done before, but to do it with such intent and sharing the experience with a like-minded group brings about a whole new level of consciousness.
I slept really well that night. I am not sure if mugwort in a pillow will intensify dreams, but I know that making a statement about it will. My dreams are always pretty wild, and they were just as powerful that night. I felt wonderful all week, and looked forward to the second walk. You can read about that one here.
Now I am looking forward to tomorrow morning and our third Shinrin-Yoku outing. I have no idea yet where that will be. I will let you know.
One more thing: at some point during the day, one of the women mentioned a book by a local author that had just been published and that was about reawakening the wild side of ourselves through reconnecting with nature. I made a mental note, but then completely forgot all about it, including the title and the author. The next day I braved the storm to meet a friend for lunch in Point Reyes, which was at The Station House Cafe and was delicious, by the way. After lunch the sun came out, so I decided to meander a little about town before heading home. I stepped into a lovely local book store, aptly called Point Reyes Books, and there it was, the book she had been talking about, front and center on the first table inside the store. Of course I had to pick it up. I am thoroughly enjoying it, but also savoring it slowly, so I will write more about it at the end of this Shinrin-Yoku series. But in case you are inspired to pick up a copy, here it is: Reclaiming the Wild Soul – How Earth’s Landscapes Restore Us to Wholeness, by Mary Reynolds Thompson.
If you are in the San Francisco Bay area and are interested in participating in our Seven Walks in Seven Weeks Shinrin-Yoku program, or other similar outings that are planned along the way, you can check out the Shinrin-Yoku website, and contact Amos Clifford at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you are not in the area and are interested in this type of program, I am sure Amos will have suggestions as to guides in your area, or on how to become one and organize your own forest bathing where you are.
And in case you are interested in another perspective on the same walk, one of the women in my group, Carole Peccorini, also wrote a beautiful blog post about it – in a much timelier manner than me, I might add. You can read it by clicking here.
OTHER WALKS IN THIS SERIES YOU MIGHT ENJOY