The Aim of Being Aimless

Assistant Editor Dan Hoffman discovers a walk does wonders, but only if one wanders.

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Posted in , Aug 8, 2016

How walking in nature can lower stress and promote health

Back in March, I blogged about one of my “Secret Spaces” in New York City, Highland Park, a hidden gem on the boarder of Queens and Brooklyn. My wandering walks there always brought me peace and solace, and I would leave feeling a greater sense of connection to the world. These walks were powerful spiritual experiences.

Since I moved away from the park, I’ve kept up my long walks—I get out of the train a subway stop earlier and walk an extra 20 minutes home, or walk a half hour to a friend’s house instead of taking a cab—but they haven’t felt as fulfilling. It wasn’t until a recent article in the health section of the Washington Post covering a new form of therapy that I realized why.

Read More: Traveling the World with Guideposts

According to science writer Meeri Kim, Shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” is poised to be “the new yoga” in the West. The practice entails going on guided tours of beautiful forests, not to identify wildlife or hike to a set destination, but to slow down and take everything in.

Studies both here and in Japan cited by Kim show that taking the time to wander in nature has enormous benefits: lower stress, lower blood pressure, improved cognition, reduced negative rumination, and so on. One study conducted in Japan even showed that participants who took a three-day forest walk showed a 50% increase in white bloods cells responsible for fighting cancer.

In forest bathing, you purposefully set aside time to be purposeless. That’s what I had been doing. My walks now? No longer aimless. I was headed somewhere—home, my friend’s house—instead of being somewhere.

So I returned to Highland Park, which is now lush and green.

Walking in Highland Park in Queens, New York.

I stopped midway through my walk and sat on a bench. There, I looked at a tree in front of me, for five or ten minutes, and noted every detail–how the branches swayed with the wind, the color of the bark, the sky which made its backdrop. This process transformed the tree into an object of awe and helped rid me of my anxieties about the things I needed to do.

When I set out back home, a state of calm came had over me that I had forgotten I could attain. It even lingered into the rest of the week. I realized, reflecting on my walk, that while spiritual experiences are often intuitive and spontaneous, I still needed this deliberate time.

And you know what? The more disciplined I am about my weekly walks, the more often I notice myself feeling calm and peaceful just walking outside my apartment, or even outside the Guideposts office in the busy New York City financial district. By reminding myself to be aimless once a week, a little bit of peace seeps into the rest of my life.

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