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There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature - the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter
Spring is here! And this season of new beginnings is certainly welcome right now. Birds are singing, trees are blooming and flowers are adding great bursts of color in every direction. With so many other aspects of our daily lives feeling upside down, Nature provides comfort by behaving just as we expect. As co-founder of Mindful in the Wild, which has been teaching for 3 years here at the Bellevue Botanical Garden, I invite you to step out from your isolation and find connection in the healing power of Nature. There are many ways to wander which still follow the mandates regarding social distancing. Our region is filled with so many parks and gardens and wild places, there is plenty of room for all of us. I want to share some of our mindfulness and forest bathing practices for you to do on your own here at the BBG, in some other wild place nearby or even your own backyard.
Over a decade of research has demonstrated that nature benefits us in remarkable ways. Spending time in the wild helps decrease anxiety and ruminating thoughts, improves cardiovascular and metabolic health, and most important right now, boosts our immune system in significant ways. So find some space from your fellow humans and get outside and breathe deep!
I invite you to begin by taking some slow, deep breaths, closing your eyes and noting the burdens that you've been carrying- the fears, the worries, the anxieties. See if you can allow yourself to let them go for now and bring yourself right into this moment, feeling your feet beneath you on the Earth. Even if you've been to the Garden (or whatever Nature place you are) dozens of times, I invite you to imagine that when you open your eyes you will be seeing everything as if for the first time, filled with curiosity and child-like Wonder at the Beauty around you.
Open Up Your Senses
As you begin to walk, open your awareness to each of your senses. Start by noticing what is in motion around you. Look down at insects or squirrels, then up in the trees at leaves blowing in the wind, or clouds moving across the sky. Notice textures, colors, patterns. Next focus on what you hear. There might be birds singing their Spring songs, the branches of trees creaking or the sound of water from a nearby stream, waterfall or recent rain. Open up your sense of smell by breathing deep the moist spring air, full of new life and aromas. Bend close to take a deep breath of whatever calls to you - bright flower, tree bark or branch. Reach out to feel the texture of anything that invites you to explore further.
As you wander, see if there is a tree that calls your attention. Move towards it, taking it all in with all of your senses. You might like to sit at the base, letting it support your back while you place your hands on the earth, imagining the roots stretching out beneath you, supporting you. Or perhaps stand with your palms on the bark, looking high up into the green branches, inhaling the oxygen that this tree releases as you exhale the carbon dioxide that it needs. Maybe give a note of gratitude for this beautiful reciprocal relationship that we have with these great green beings.
As you continue to walk slowly, surrounded by nature, keep allowing thoughts that enter your mind to drift to the background, filling yourself up with all that your senses are experiencing. Bring yourself mindfully into each Moment, arriving with each step exactly where you are, held by the Living Beings and Beauty around you. These are challenging times, I hope that you will allow Nature to be the place of sanctuary and peace to replenish and restore you.
In Beauty May You Walk
I know that the cancellation of public events and the call for social distancing can be challenging and even make us feel alone and isolated. I want to encourage you to remember that in these challenging times, nature can be a supportive ally. Despite our class not gathering, I want to offer some guidance on ways you can tap into the deeper sense of connection and support that the natural world offers. And, I encourage you in coming weeks to take regular visits to Kruckeberg Botanic Garden or other local parks near you for continued support.
Nature is an excellent prescription to deal with some of the stressors around the current news and events! Research studies have demonstrated that time in nature balances our nervous system and decreases ruminating thoughts, depression and anxiety while increasing our overall sense of calm In addition, research shows that spending time in nature actually increases our immune function. For example, spending time in an area with forest canopy increases white blood cell count allowing us to better fight infections!
Tips for a mindful walk in Kruckeberg Botanic Garden
First and foremost, turn off your technology. Silence your phone to avoid any distractions. Let your sense of wonder and curiosity lead you as you embark on your mindful walk. As you slowly stroll through the garden, you might imagine seeing and experiencing everything as if for the very first time. Invite a childlike sense of joy as well. It is normal to have distracting thoughts arise. As they do, see if you can notice them and bring your attention back to something in the natural world around you. Simply let nature be your guide.
Connect with your senses
Focus on your sense of sight: Notice what draws attention to your field of vision. Perhaps you are drawn to motion: branches moving in the wind, a bird flitting from branch to branch, light flowing in through the canopy, or clouds moving in the sky. Simply notice what you are drawn to and pause for several minutes to really experience it.
Then bring your awareness to your sense of sound: See what sounds your attention is drawn to. You can practice focusing on sounds that are close by and then extending your awareness to sounds that are more distant. Listen for bird songs or the sound that branches make blowing in the wind. Perhaps you might pause by the pond and simply listen to the trickle of the stream. Pay attention to what shifts within you as you focus on listening to the sounds of the garden.
Bring your awareness to your sense of touch: As you walk through the garden, notice what calls to you to be explored through touch. Perhaps you might notice and explore the array of bark textures. Take time to just make contact with the bark of the tree and notice the effect it has on you. Research demonstrates that touching bark for 90 seconds can lower heart rate and promote a sense of calm. The native demonstration garden at Kruckeberg also has a variety of textures to explore from soft smooth leaves and moss to prickly leaves and rougher textures. Have fun exploring!
Breathe with the trees
The larch and conifer grove at Kruckeberg has a wonderful variety of evergreen trees to spend some time with. Through our breathing we have a reciprocal relationship with trees. As we inhale, we breathe in oxygen created by the trees and plant life around us. When we exhale, we secrete carbon dioxide, which the trees and plants need for their energetic processes. In addition to oxygen, trees secrete into the atmosphere a healing elixir composed of phytochemicals that interact with our immune system in very significant ways.
Perhaps you can pause in the conifer grove. Take a moment to simply breathe with the trees. As you inhale slowly, imagine your lungs and skin opening up to the gifts of the trees. As you exhale slowly, release your breath, providing carbon dioxide to the trees. Inhaling, offer gratitude for the gifts you are receiving from the plant life around you. As you exhale, offer your gifts back to the plants. Really connect with this deep relationship we have with all of life around us.
Connect with a Sit Spot
As you walk through the garden, consider taking 10-20 minutes to sit in one place that you are drawn to. Take time to notice all that is around you, incorporating all of your senses. This is a nice practice to close your mindful walk. You can reflect on the meaningful moments you had on your walk and what intentions or memories you would like to take with you as you leave the garden. Perhaps you can re-visit your sit spot regularly, seeing how it shifts and changes over time.
In times of uncertainty it can be helpful to pause and make space for all that you might be grateful for and in all the ways that you are supported. Spring brings so much to be thankful for: the return of the songbirds in the morning, blossoms and buds bursting from trees, the return of longer days. As you see signs of spring in the garden and the world around you, perhaps offer up a pause of gratitude for just noticing these special moments.
I’ll leave you with one of my favorite Spring poems by Mary Oliver that celebrates the return of the light and sun.
Why I Wake Early, by Mary Oliver
Hello, sun in my face.
Hello, you who make the morning
and spread it over the fields
and into the faces of the tulips
and the nodding morning glories,
and into the windows of, even, the
miserable and crotchety–
best preacher that ever was,
dear star, that just happens
to be where you are in the universe
to keep us from ever-darkness,
to ease us with warm touching,
to hold us in the great hands of light–
good morning, good morning, good morning.
Watch, now, how I start the day
in happiness, in kindness.
May these exercises offer some guidance as to ways you can continue to find support in these challenging times. Despite the difficulties we may be experiencing, time in the natural world can be a salve for our souls. With the return of longer days and light, I hope you find more time to get outside and experience the wonder and healing potential of the natural world.
Jessica Hancock teaches our Mindful in the Wild classes regularly at Kruckeberg Botanic Garden.. When the March class was cancelled due to the COV-19 virus, they asked Jessica to write an article for their blog, so that people could be guided in enjoying the garden on their own.
In these early days of August, I find myself reflecting on a very busy and fast-paced summer. Basking in the glory of warmer and longer light-filled days, there is an inner sense of urgency to pack in all the activities of this sunny season. I recently returned from a wondrous week-long backpacking trip in the South Cascades and noted that nature, in her own way, matches this urgent rhythm of summer. At higher elevations, the alpine meadows were bursting with a multitude of vibrant wildflowers, while butterflies, hummingbirds, and bees gathered in close proximity, eagerly gathering nectar. At lower elevations, branches of thimbleberries, huckleberries, and elderberries were loaded with fruit, close to ripeness. In this limited peak season, nature too is bursting at the seams.
Despite this sense of urgency and busy-ness, many of us also feel a desire to find time to slow down in order to really experience the beauty this season provides. Nature can be an ally on this quest for more stillness. Going to the wild for peace and healing has a long tradition in most cultures. However in recent decades, humans have become increasingly detached from the natural world. The average American spends 90% of their time indoors, and this is having a negative impact on our well-being.
In the last twenty years, there has been a plethora of research highlighting the positive impact of nature on our health. Most notably, in the early 1980s, Japan designated specific shinrin-yoku sites as a means to invite its overworked citizens to the healing power of nature. As a result, the Japanese undertook a tremendous amount of research to better understand the health benefits of nature. This research has uncovered that time in nature helps regulate our nervous system and has a positive impact on anxiety and depression. In addition, there are many cardiovascular benefits including decreased blood pressure and heart rate.
You may be asking at this point, “what is shinrin-yoku?” Shinrin-yoku is simply translated as “ taking in the forest atmosphere.” And it is this forest atmosphere that has a significant impact on our health. In fact, phytochemicals called terpenes secreted by trees and plants into the forest atmosphere actually impact our immune system. Spending just two hours a week in a forest can increase your immunity for up to one week.
The founding principle of forest bathing/shinrin-yoku is to utilize the five senses to connect more deeply to the wild, thus providing a gateway to presence. I find it helpful to invite a childlike sense of wonder and curiosity to guide you, like you are seeing, smelling, touching and hearing everything for the very first time. Simply slowing down and being present and curious in the outdoors connects us more deeply to the mystery and healing benefits of the natural world. And you don’t have to travel far into the wild to get these benefits. Our urban parks and gardens, like Kruckeberg Botanic Garden (KBG), provide generous opportunities to practice and play with forest bathing techniques. For example, you could spend some time with one of the Dawn Redwoods or Western Red Cedars at KBG, first taking time to just observe all of it from the ground all the way to the crown, noticing the spread of its branches and the play of light or breezes crossing its path. You could then take time to feel the texture of the tree’s bark, even smelling it. As you do this notice what you notice within yourself. You could take a nice slow walk through the garden with the invitation to see what calls your attention. Perhaps you are drawn to the various flowers in bloom, noticing their colors and aromatics. Or maybe the movement of birds in the canopy catches your attention. Perhaps you crave stillness and you can find a spot in the garden to comfortably sit for 15-20 minutes. Again, the simple instructions are to be with what calls your attention. The longer you sit, the more surprises you may encounter.
In our fast-paced culture and particularly in this busy time of year, it is valuable to take time for stillness. The natural world, through her spaciousness and tranquility, provides a gateway to the present moment. If you are interested in learning more about shinrin-yoku or mindfulness techniques, please join our class at Kruckeberg Botanic Garden on Wednesday, September 11th from 9-11 AM. We will take a two hour leisurely stroll through the garden, incorporating practices of mindfulness meditation and shinrin-yoku. You will be guided to connect with each of your senses, allowing you to relate more deeply to the beauty, wonder, awe, and healing potential awaiting you in the late summer garden.
In anticipation of the first Mindful in the Wild class at the Kruckeberg Botanic Garden in Shoreline, Jessica H was asked to write a blog post.
When the vibrant, multi-colored petals of summer have faded and the rains have softened the
autumn leaves so that they no longer crunch underfoot, the Winter Garden becomes a place of peace and sanctuary. The lack of crowds provides a quiet beauty and solitude sometimes hard to find in other seasons. As you wander through the Lost Meadow or cross the bridge into the Ravine Experience, it feels as if you are miles away on some wilderness trail. Did you realize you could even take a bath in the forest? Shinrin-Yoku (JapaneseForest Bathing), along with some simple techniques from Mindfulness Meditation, provide some ideas for how to experience the Winter Garden in a whole new way.
I have been coming to the Garden in various seasons with my family since my parents, Lyle and June Ann Hassebroek, became involved over two decades ago. Nature was always an essential part of my childhood, wandering in the woods with my brother for hours on end. As an adult, I found myself often seeking refuge and healing in nature, so after a decade as a psychotherapist, I began inviting clients outside for sessions. Of course, healers within various medical disciplines all over the world have turned to nature as medicine for thousands of years. Japanese Shinrin-Yoku, based on ancient Shinto practices, encourages you to let nature into your body through all five senses. I also began teaching Mindfulness, which simply means being fully present to each moment, with acceptance. My colleague Jessica Volpentesta and I found we shared a passion for combining the healing powers of nature with the therapeutic effects of Mindfulness and recently formed Mindful in the Wild, teaching a class at the Bellevue Botanical Garden in September called Mindfulness in the Garden: Creating Calm Within. Let me share a few practices from that class that all of you can try yourselves as you wander through the Garden this Winter.
Mindful Walking Shinrin Yoku Exercises
Open Your Awareness
As you enter the Garden, focus your attention first on your breathing, something you always have with you to anchor yourself in the present moment. Take three slow, deep breaths, inhaling the fresh air and releasing any tension you are carrying with you. As you begin your walk, open your
awareness to the Natural world, recognizing the reciprocal relationship we have with all living things.
Usually we walk briskly, sometimes lost in thought, hardly aware of the earth beneath our feet or the beauty around us. Instead, let yourself slow down and focus on how each step feels as it touches the ground. Imagine yourself gliding, smoothly and quietly, softening your presence
in the natural world, honoring life around you, trying not to disturb it as you walk. As you move from the gravel of the main trails to the earth of the side trails or the Ravine Experience, notice how different it feels to walk on the softer bare ground—silent and connected.
Focus on Your Senses
As you walk, thoughts will naturally enter your mind. Just note them and let them float into the background as you refocus on your breath or on your various senses. Sounds are everywhere. Listen to the wind in the trees, the chirp of winter wrens, or the crunch of your feet on the
gravel of the main trails. Notice the silence between sounds and soak in the serenity and peace of this place of quiet. Also let your eyes expand your vision outward to the sky, watch the clouds move, or the branches bend and swirl. Notice the various shades of brown, green and gray that make up this season. Let yourself be pulled toward anything that grabs your attention, looking at it as if for the first time. Examine the veins in a leaf, or the gentle fronds of a fern. Touch with sensitive fingers, feeling the texture, smooth or rough. Rub a leaf, plant or branch between your fingers to release its aroma. Breathe it in, curious—perhaps, even entranced.
Lose yourself in the magical world that is alive around you, soaking in the serenity and peace of this place of quiet winter beauty.
In Beauty May You Walk!
After we taught our first class at the BBG, they asked us to write an article for their upcoming newsletter talking about how we got into this sort of work and giving some examples of the types of Mindful in the Wild practices we teach