Forest therapy, tree meditation and similar outdoor wellbeing-enhancing activities are increasing in popularity across the world. There is a wealth of evidence demonstrating that being in nature makes us feel good.
I have always loved being outside. Growing up in the Aberdeenshire countryside there was a wealth of wild green spaces in which my siblings and I would roam. We created imaginary worlds in the twisted canopies of trees, played hide and seek among the bales of a neighbours' farm, spent hours guddling in the stream at the bottom of the garden and watched tadpoles growing in our pond. At weekends we were often taken to one of the many castles or country parks near our home, picnicking, riding our bikes, feeding ducks and imagining ourselves back in time. We'd spend long summer days outside before returning home; exhausted and smelling of fresh air.
I left the outdoors behind with my childhood, as so many people seem to. As a teen I had little interest in trees and skies and open spaces. I no-longer played in the bales with my brother and sister, in fact I spent very little time outdoors at all. That changed when I was seventeen and my family got a dog (Daphne the jackadoodle RIP), walking her gave me reason to be outside, however I often looked upon it as a responsibility, something I had to do for Daphne: it benefited her but was a bit of a chore to me.
A number of years ago I rediscovered my curiosity in the outdoors and nature. During my mindfulness journey my eyes have been opened to the various ways we can be more present. Being outside offers you a vast range of things to mindfully focus on. For anyone who is completely new to the concept of mindfulness, let me (very briefly) break it down for you. One of the main things we do is practice focusing on one thing at a time; our breath, sounds we can hear, physical sensations etc. By focusing in this way, we're encouraging ourselves to be in the present moment. This is hugely beneficial because it stops us dwelling in the past or worrying about the future. So that's a whistle-stop-tour of mindfulness! As I'm sure you can imagine, being outside offers so many beautiful things to anchor our attention to the present. The sounds of birds chirping, the sensation of the sun on our skin, the smell of leaves and grass.
I must make it clear that I am not the first person to discover this, in fact, I believe that I am very late to this particular party. But learning more about mindfulness in the outdoors has changed the way I spend my time outside. I still walk the dogs and I still roam in the exact same bit of the countryside that I used to, but now I do it while trying to absorb all the aspects of nature I possibly can. The still and silent serenity of a forest forces you to pay attention, to be present, to notice its beauty. The sweet sound of a wood-pigeon cooing, the enchanting sound and smell of rain in summer. It demands your attention. And if you're willing to offer it your undivided focus the benefits are abundant.
Humans were designed to interact with the natural world. People have considered the great outdoors to have healing properties long before any evidence-based research emerged . Qing Li, a Japanese doctor and researcher, discovered trees and plants release an essential oil called 'phytoncide'. This oil is emitted to protect the trees and plants from germs and insects. Have you ever thought that forest air smells overwhelmingly fresh and pure? This oil is the reason. It also happens to have a wonderful effect on health. It is proven to lower heart rate and blood pressure, reduce stress-hormone production, boost the immune system, and improve overall feelings of peace, calm and happiness. So, in essence, we are hard-wired to find nature and being outside calming. If you add mindfulness into the mix, you develop an enriching practice that is so profound it seems to have the ability to heal. In Japan they refer to this as 'forest bathing'; which is simply being in the presence of trees.
"Wherever there are trees, we are healthier and happier" - Qing Li
If that wasn't enough to convince you then let me tell you about the human eye. We are able to differentiate more shades of green than any other colour, by a very long way. It is believed that our eyesight evolved in this way to help us identify food sources. Research has also shown us that green is the most calming colour. This is evidence that nature has shaped us and if we let it, it can continue to do so.
I practice mindfulness about eighty per-cent of the time I spend outdoors. The gratitude and appreciation you can cultivate for natural beauty is extraordinary, but first, you must learn to pay attention. To truly feel, hear, smell and see your magnificent, wild and fertile surroundings. This is the time that I feel most alive; when I'm present for the beautiful and chaotic sound of skylarks ascending or absolutely focused on the soft touch of moss.
Begin a relationship the natural world and learn about the importance of being mindful at the same time.
I am very lucky to be able to share what I have learnt about outdoor wellbeing to members of the public. My dear friend Gillian and I have teamed up with the wonderful staff at the Haddo Country Park to organise outdoor wellbeing events. Gillian provides many wellbeing services including EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique)/Tapping, Reiki as well as outdoor and woodland activities. To find out more about Gillian and her company AndBreathe123 follow the link here. Gillian and I have a combined passion for outdoor wellbeing and we're looking forward to working together. Hopefully these sessions will be the first of many. From the second week of May (Mental Health Awareness Week) we'll be providing mindfulness walks, outdoor crafts/activities and much more. Click here to book. Look for any event on the calendar with the word mindfulness and get ready to improve your wellbeing in one of the most stunning settings Aberdeenshire has to offer.
To find more about the research mentioned in this post click here. Hopefully see you at Haddo.