Forest Bathing

I try to use my lunch break each day to take a walk outside. The neighborhood where I work is one of Pittsburgh’s nicest, full of charming houses, brick and cobblestone streets, and towering sycamore trees. Usually when I start out, my mind is racing from whatever problem I was just struggling with. As my heart rate increases and I start to breathe deeper, my head clears as well and I gradually relax into the rhythm of walking.

I walk the perimeter of the neighborhood, which abuts Frick Park, a massive woodland in the middle of the city. Along those perimeter streets there are lots of places where trails dip into the woods. I know the park well, but in the past I’ve avoided venturing in on my lunchtime walk; I figured there wasn’t enough time, and I’d get drawn in and miss an important meeting.

Well, the other day, before I knew what I was doing, I was on the trail, winding my way through the woods. There is a palpable difference between walking tree-lined streets, however lovely they may be, and walking in a real forest. The winding path, the dappled light from the canopy overhead, the soundscape of trickling water and rustling leaves. I felt an immediate sense of relief, well-being, and vitality. After a few minutes I was overwhelmed with emotion and had tears in my eyes.

I’m not sure what provoked that sort of response, but I guess it had been quite a while since I took a walk in the woods by myself. I craved it. As I settled into the rhythm of the walk and let myself be pulled along by the trail, I got to thinking: If a walk in the woods is that therapeutic for me, why not do it more often? What are the stressors in my life that make basic self-care so difficult? What long-term harm is that doing to my health? To my relationships? What am I missing out on? What can I do about it?

The older I get, the more I realize this problem isn’t just about adjusting my priorities. There simply are not enough hours in the day to work full time, cook healthy meals, exercise regularly, read broadly, make art, and be an attentive parent, a considerate husband, and an engaged community member. I can prioritize all I want, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that roughly half my waking hours are spent getting ready for work, commuting to and from work, and working.

That’s hardly an original thought, but maybe it’s worth considering why so many people are so vexed by this same problem. The rat race. I’m lucky enough to have a job I enjoy… I just want to spend less time doing it, and more time in the woods, or with my family, or sitting on my porch swing doing nothing at all.