(listening time: 5:50 minutes)
One summer morning Asha and I walked along a new-to-us trail that I’d been eyeing for some time. I wondered if it would bring us to the bridge over gentle waters from a different direction. It did. And it took us past a serene beaver pond.
Yet I returned home feeling unsatisfied, an experience which made me wonder what makes for a satisfying walk.
Was this walk too short? Was I so focused on whether this trail would bring us to the bridge that I failed to be present to the here and now? Was it the trail itself? The weather? My mood? Something else entirely? Or some combination?
I know there is no set formula for the perfect walk. Sometimes a short walk along a very familiar trail is exactly what I need. Some days call for longer walks or new trails. Some days call for a walk down our road instead of in the woods. And there are some days, especially humid summer days, when I put my head down and just do it.
I also know that noticing and paying attention both to what is present in a satisfying walk and to what is absent in an unsatisfying one are important because they help me understand what matters to me.
Sometimes when I’m out running errands, I pass people walking their dogs and wonder if the walk they are on feels satisfying to them. Like the young woman, eyes glued to a cell phone while her terrier sniffed around, who left me with the impression that that she’d rather be somewhere else. Or the couple, clad in sportswear, who looked so serious, like they were on a mission, like this was an obligatory workout rather than a pleasurable walk with their black Lab.
These glimpses and impressions remind me how much I delight in zigzagging down the road with Asha as we follow her desire to sniff dead snakes, leaves and ham sandwich wrappers. And how grateful I am to live where I live – with beautiful trails and roads.
Several days after the unsatisfying walk, Asha and I returned to that trail. Since I now knew where the trail would take me, I hoped walking it again might provide insight into my questions about the qualities of a satisfying walk. But a side trail said, “Turn here,” so off we went – up and down a hill, along the edge of someone’s back yard and out onto a dirt road and finally back to our starting point.
Because we turned up the side trail, I returned home without clear answers to my questions. However, I felt excited about this adventure and that told me something. I realized that on this walk, I let go of my plan when the quiet voice said “turn here” and as a result I became more present and curious about the trail and my experience.
A couple days later my friend Cecilia invited Asha and me for a walk. While Asha and Willa chased each other at top speed and Maisie trotted along beside us, Cecilia told me about a video that she’d watched about Shinrin-Yoku or forest bathing. Yes! I exclaimed silently. That’s what I’m doing. I’m bathing in the forest.
I breathed in these evocative words: forest bathing. They conjured images of stepping into the woods to cleanse and replenish my spirit. They spoke to my own experience of walking with Asha as both a sensory pleasure and a sacred necessity. They also confirmed my growing suspicion that a key element of a satisfying walk is being present.
I have since watched the video Cecilia mentioned and read about Shinrin-Yoku. More than the documented health benefits, such as lowering blood pressure and improving sleep, what I appreciate is the encouragement to deepen my walks by being more intentional about engaging my senses.
I’m learning to walk more slowly and to take more in. To pause before we enter the woods and to say thanks as we leave. To both soak in the woods and let them wash over me.
I’m learning to engage all my senses, not just sight and sound. To stop and watch the fuzzy caterpillar or the leaves fluttering to the ground. To run my fingers along the edges of a fern or press my palm against a tree trunk. To search for the source of the fragrant scent or inhale the summer rain. To close my eyes and listen to the wind or the departing Canada Geese.
There will be days when I forget to be present and my walk feels more like a quick shower than a nourishing bath. And that’s okay.
The more I understand about what makes for a satisfying walk, the more intentional I can be. The more pleasure and satisfaction I experience in our walks, the more grounded I become in this place I live. And in myself.