For my most recent forest bathing class, which happened to be on a cold, grey and rainy day, I did a little equinox-themed walking meditation. It was simple: we walked a one-quarter mile loop through the woods in one direction, thinking about all the good things in our lives (such as what we’re grateful for). Then we turned around and walked in the other direction, reflecting on our current life challenges.1 The idea was to have our walking meditation reflect the equal light and dark of the equinox.2
While I didn’t plan this, I also took my shoes off for the second half of my walk to get some barefoot walking in. Of course I had to go slower and it was more painful (reinforcing the dark cycle of this half of the walk). But it also left me with a very important lesson: when you don’t have shoes on, you can’t just glaze over the difficulties set in your path. You can work to avoid them, to alter your path and choices. But sometimes rough patches are unavoidable (as in life). Then you have to pick your way through to the best of your ability—and often with some pain.
On the path, there are cold puddles, dog poop, and sharp rocks, and you can’t always navigate around all of it (though definitely try to avoid the poop). Backtracking (a little) is sometimes an option but mostly you have to keep moving forward and hope your soles get a bit of a rest in the patches of moss, the beds of pine needles, and even the soft muddy spots (which might not have originally been seen as pleasant but now are!) that might also be up ahead.
In reality, the discomfort kept me from thinking too much about life challenges, and kept me focused on the immediate moment. But that was a meditation itself, and certainly not a bad thing (considering how easy it is to ruminate on life’s difficulties). It was also an excellent reminder that there are life lessons to be gleaned in even the simplest exercises. Best of all, after the cold and at times painful trek, there was a warm conversation and a hot cup of tea waiting for me.
Bonus Exercise: Rooting
I’m reading more of Katy Bowman’s writing—the biomechanist who inspires many of the exercises I do in forest bathing classes (and some of my essays, like this one on walking barefoot). Specifically I just finished her book, Whole Body Barefoot, on walking with less support.3 Bowman makes many good points here, including the important one that if walking barefoot is a new practice, you should take it slow. As she notes, you wouldn’t do 100 pushups as soon as you remove a cast from your arm. Nor should you walk 10 miles shoeless if you’ve never done this before (modern shoes are essentially casts for your feet). Mostly I just do short distances barefoot while taking a hike, or doing a hike barefoot that I know is short. But if that’s too much, simply taking your shoes off while in a park is a good starting place.
One exercise I made up after reading her book is to simply find a large tree with exposed roots. And connect with that tree with your feet. In other words, put a foot on one of the tree’s larger roots and put some of your weight on that foot. Perhaps all of it, perhaps less if that hurts. As Bowman notes, with 33 joints in your foot, that means your foot can be in 8.6 x 1036 positions. But for the most part, with our feet bound for much of our lives, they can’t be. Not until you start putting mobility (slowly) back into those joints. You can do that on the couch, as Bowman notes, putting your fingers between your toes, massaging your feet, or rolling your feet on different sized balls. But the best way is to use your foot fully. Walking barefoot, or if that’s too much, putting some of your weight down on your bare feet, on unlevel terrain. Making a jungle gym for your feet from the roots of a big old tree-friend feels like a fun way to do that. And unlike walking over rocks (which also works) there are far fewer sharp edges or pebbles in a field of roots. Happy walking!
1) If you have no short loop available you can easily walk out for a while on your favorite path, thinking about the light, and then turn around and think about the dark. The main point is to make these two periods equal.
2) Martin Ogle, in a recent talk, again discussed the fascinating idea that the yin-yang symbol is actually a rolled up sine wave of the seasons lightening and darkening. Such a cool ecocentric story behind this captivating symbol.
3) Bowman more advocates for minimalist shoes with no raised heal and wide toe boxes than walking barefoot. But there are many benefits to walking completely barefoot, including exposing your skin to soil microbes.