As I write this, I’m coming to the final stage of a year-long course in forest school teaching, something which, with hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have signed up to on a whim, thinking that nature would be a great mix with mindfulness.
It is, of course.
But it’s also been an epic amount of work, including (as you’d expect) lots of time spent outdoors with nature, trying desperately not to let the rain dampen my bow-sawing, knot-tying or motivation.
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I’ve been ready to pack it in, more than once, but I’m so glad I didn’t.
Because, 10 months in, something has clicked: my appreciation of the world outside my front door has just skyrocketed, pulling my sense of wellbeing along behind it.
In fact, the day I found out about how trees talk to each other through the Wood Wide Web, I felt like Neo in The Matrix. I swallowed the red pill, now there’s no going back.
But seriously...spending time in nature is a proven mood-booster, especially if that time is spent mindfully. Since the Eighties, the Japanese have been engaged in the practice of forest bathing (shinrin-yoku), which basically entails walking slowly in the forest while "bathing" your senses in nature.
Studies show that participants enjoyed a range of health benefits, including a lowering of blood pressure, blood sugar and the stress hormone, cortisol.
So as tempting as it is to lounge on the couch after a stressful day/week/term, especially as winter draws nearer, getting outdoors could prove a whole lot more relaxing.
Here are some tips to get you started:
I nearly crashed a few weeks back on my route home, because I was so fascinated by the trees along the road. Trees that I’ve passed thousands of times but never really noticed.
To be clear, I’m not advocating for unsafe driving, only that you strive to get out of your head now and then, and actually look at the nature around you, as if you’re seeing it for the first time. Take in the textures, colours and details. Relish the beauty of the ever-changing landscape.
Reginald Vincent Holmes [WHO] said: “The earth has music for those who will listen,” and I honestly can’t think of a better place to hear it than outdoors, in nature.
When you’re next outdoors, take a moment to pause and hear the sounds around you. What are they? Where are they? How would you describe the pitch, the tempo, the rhythm and duration of this sound? Is it just the one sound or are others hidden within?
I find that the best thing about this kind of listening is that it transfers to everyday life. Noises like running taps, traffic and boiling kettles, become new notes and melodies, rather than white noise or causes for annoyance.
Has that always been there? What kind of plant is that? Why are that tree’s branches drooping? What does that feel like?
As you explore nature more mindfully, you’ll naturally feel an increase in your child-like curiosity towards the natural world.
Why not indulge it? Download an app like the Tree ID app and try identifying trees, perhaps bringing your own kids/friends/partner along for the ride. This is one of the few times when it actually helps to know less… because the less you know, the more you can learn.
Once you begin to feed that curiosity, you’ll find yourself becoming increasingly more present to the outdoors world.
Jo Steer is a teacher and experienced leader of SEND interventions