Shinrin yoku

This post is reblogged from Scott Dunlap’s blog, “A Trail Runner’s Blog.”

Ever since I started trail running on a daily basis, I have felt a noticeable improvement in my well-being. I feel less stressed, I get sick less often, and I’ve found a spiritual calm that keeps my optimism brimming through the seasons. Many of you have shared similar experiences, and one has to look no farther than the smiles at the finish of a trail race (and growth of the sport) to know it is pervasive. That magical combo of exercise and the great outdoors creates a meditative synergy that works wonders for the soul, and we just can’t get enough.

We aren’t the only ones tapping into the healing powers of the outdoors, it appears. Japanese doctors, long time proponents of meditation and exercise, have been taking a closer look at the power of forests. The Japanese practice of Shinrin-Yoku, or “forest bathing”, involves contemplative walks through the woods to reconnect with nature, and has proven to lead to decreased stress, natural mood elevation, and even a stronger immune system. Take a luxurious walk, engage all five senses, inhale the “phytoncides” emitted by plants, and your body and soul get stronger.

The Japanese government continues to investigate and promote the healing properties of nature. One study conducted across 24 forests in Japan found that when people strolled in a wooded area, their levels of the stress hormone cortisol plummeted almost 16 percent more than when they walked in an urban environment. Even after just 15 minutes of walking, subjects’ blood pressure showed improvement. But one of the biggest benefits may come from breathing in those chemicals called phytoncides, emitted by trees and plants. Women who logged two to four hours in a forest on two consecutive days saw a dramatic reduction of stress hormones and a nearly 40 percent surge in the activity of cancer-fighting white blood cells.

In one of my favorite parts of the studies, research has shown that the emotions of pleasure and happiness are elevated with an increase in tree density within specific settings, even in urban settings. The bigger and denser the trees, the higher the scenic beauty scores. Yup, that sounds about right! I suspect this also contributes to the sense of awe that we feel when immersed in the grandiosity of Mother Nature.

Perhaps this is just confirming what we all intuitively know. Get outside, engage with nature, and you will feel healthier and more connected. As silly as it sounds to say “forest bathing”, it feels accurate! It’s also a good reminder we don’t always need to always be running, and that a 15-minute stroll is more than enough to improve your day. I’ll be taking a few pauses on my runs this week to make sure all five senses are fully engaged. Smell the pines, taste the pollen in the air, feel the ferns, hear the creeks, watch the butterflies….you know, take a forest bath.


Writing, Depression & Other Things

With hands grasped in gratitude, I greet you on this beautiful day.

It’s a long weekend for me and I am happy to be enjoying an extra free day off this weekend. As I sat, my soul warmed with another cup of coffee and my Kindle, my mind began, as it often does to wander. I began to think about writing. It has been three months since my last post and almost three months since I have worked on my book.

It has also been almost three months since my last consistent run. This “streak” was interrupted just once by an attempt to test my knee. This “test” failed miserably and caused additional pain. I have had x-rays completed but the physician refused to discuss them with me when she believed this injury had been caused at work. This despite the numerous pages of information which I completed explaining the injury took place as a result of running. I find this to be an indictment of the current state of our medical profession and one, which within my own practice I work terribly hard to avoid. Regardless, I will reschedule with another physician and secure an accurate diagnosis.

Each week which goes by offers me increasing hope as the pain and discomfort continues to decrease. For this I am thankful for it offers some hope the injury will not require a surgical intervention.

I was frightened by the notion that I did not miss running, especially those runs which allowed me to start my day with some modicum of balance.

I have been reflecting on the last year and in some cases wish I could call a mulligan and have remained at the job which I had prior to the start of the last year. Since this is not a possibility, I have reflected on what I have learned in this last year.

Not to be cliché but I have learned the grass is not always greener on the other side. I have also learned it is not a bad thing to be happy with the status quo, to not wish for more, of anything but to be happy or to find happiness in what I already have.

I was reminded balance can be found in such things, that to not see the balance which I already have and to seek something for which the definition is unclear causes one to experience greater imbalance in one’s life. I stepped from the frying pan into the fire. I saw my physical health be called into question and I saw my love for running also being called into question. It culminated in me experiencing a panic attack while out for a very early run. The panic attack saw me sitting by the side of the road in tears with passersby wondering what was going on for me at 4:30 AM. Shortly thereafter I saw my physician and began a course of medication to help me manage these symptoms. I began the search for alternate employment. Finally this goal was reached but emotionally I still felt empty; like a ship bobbing on the waves in the open ocean sails flapping loosely in the breeze with not enough force to provide the energy necessary to move forward. My meditation practice faltered and finally halted and also became nonexistent. I had hung my hat on one decision, one belief, that a new place of employment would provide all the stress relief which I would need. This solved a small portion of my problem, the remainder lied in my belief that there was nothing else to question. Depression set in followed by anhedonia and a general feeling of malaise. I continued to run but even these were forced. The love which I had previously had for waking early in the morning now became a chore instead of a salvation. I still enjoyed the solitude I felt but I also felt myself withdrawing into myself; feeling sorry for myself. Everything became a chore. I functioned on autopilot and left unchecked ends up causing an accident. This “accident” was my knee injury. Even my journaling which provided as much solace as did my daily runs and something with which I found respite, waned and became almost nonexistent. Daily writing fell off to one or two days each week, then once each week. There were weeks where I was lucky if I even inked a fountain pen let alone knew the whereabouts of my journal. I retreated more and more into my head and found reading to be my one remaining constant.

Slowly but surely my energy began to return. I am not fully there but I feel my hope, my desire to return to enjoying the run beginning to increase. It was at first difficult for me to accept the fact that I could not run, despite knowing further pain and injury would certainly follow. This summer, one of our warmest on record and a time of year I look forward to running as it affords me the ability to run in only shorts and running shoes caused additional strain on my mood. Alas, it is what it is.

My own diagnosis is one which places a possible return to running around the turn of the year. Hopefully, with the advice of a doctor and the possibility of physical therapy I can at least comfortably return to some form of physical activity which will help ease my depression.

As I said in an earlier post, one of the greatest abilities we have, if we choose to accept it is our ability to be introspective.


Stop Bitching! Part II

I greet this day with hands clasped together in gratitude. Today I am grateful today for many things. They are truly too numerous to mention and this post isn’t about what I’m grateful for, it’s about you recognizing what you’re grateful for in your life.

I have been thinking a lot about what I have been hearing on the news lately. I am not going to get into those issues as they are far too large for me to deal with and I am not interested in starting what would ultimately be a partisan conflict that would not have an end in sight. Everyone today feels they know the answers. I am not alone in the world of opinions and I am not one of the individuals who feels as though they know everything. I do, like everyone else have an opinion and if you know the saying about opinions you will again understand why I won’t go there. If you don’t know the saying about opinions, here it is: “Opinions are like assholes…everyone’s got one.”

What I will get into is a take off from my post one month earlier and that has to do with the bitching and complaining I hear every day, mostly from those who will not take even one step in the direction of looking at their behavior which has resulted in both direct and indirect decision. Those same individuals are the one who refuse to believe they have any ability to make changes in their life and instead blame others. I almost got into the whole black lives matter, blue lives matter, etc., etc., etc. I also run into those individuals who ask for help, direction, etc. and still refuse to take the steps they need. We live in a culture where bitching, complaining, whining, etc. is accepted if not encouraged. If you didn’t before understand the wild success of platforms such as Facebook, you do now!

I have been in a little bit of a funk recently. I hurt my knee and running without pain and the concern about doing further damage has helped me to make a decision which I believe is in my best interest. I don’t like the decision and I want to get back to running…without pain and the fear of doing more damage. Therefore I made the decision, without bitching and complaining that best works for me. One of the questions I ask is “When did it become ok to not make a decision and to just sit back and complain?” This isn’t for me to anser…yet. I will go there in the book on which I am working but this is a question which each of us needs to answer for ourselves.

The decision not to run was a relatively difficult one to make as we are in the middle of my favorite time of year. For me, there is not much which rivals getting up at 4 AM, putting on a pair of shorts and running shoes, setting my watch and heading out the door for a run. There is no knit hat, no gloves, no tights, jacket etc. On the other hand, for the reasons which I mentioned, this was also an easy one to make.

I have used my meditation practice to be mindful of the fact that I have choices in my life. I feel sad for those individuals who refuse to believe they have choices. We all have choices. They may not seem like good choices, but they are choices nonetheless. I feel sad for those individuals who thumb their nose at interventions such as counseling and instead take the easy way out…medication. Medication can be a remarkable tool to help decrease some of the symptoms we experience, but they are in no way an answer in and of themselves. We are afraid to “go into counseling.” We believe if we “go into counseling we will “get the answers” to our problems. The answers to our problems are within us and we should be using counseling as a type of sounding board but not for the answers. I have patients who do see me looking for answers and when they feel they are “not getting help” because “counseling doesn’t work” are the same ones who leave counseling complaining.

Look within yourself. The answers, despite your belief they are not, are inside you. Ask for help. Ask for direction, just don’t ask to be given the answers. This is a powerful part of the counseling transformation and believe it or not can be a fun part of seeking therapy.


It is gratitude I feel…

With palms together,

I wish you all a Good Evening.

My daughter and her fiance left with their son, my first grandson, Chase. These visits, as all visits are such that I contemplate all that I have and all that I am. I saw a saying, I am unsure of the author which says, “I exist as I am. That is enough.”

I retired outside knowing the next five days will be spent, almost in their entirety in a windowless office. The cicadas are singing their mating song; the pitch waxing and waning. The song of the cicadas hits a crescendo before another group of cicadas, far off to my left picks up the song and proceeds to carry the tune. I sit with my head tilted back and a flock of birds, their species unknown to me dart from tree to tree; their shape silhouetted against the fading light of dusk.

I began thinking of Thoreau as I am accompanied outside by his journal. A passage grips me and in a writing style known well to those who have read his words, identifies what I am feeling and expertly places those thoughts and feelings on paper. Thoreau, in a journal entry dated November 17, 1855, accurately sums up my feelings toward my family and my life.

“It is interesting to me to talk with Rice, he lives so thoroughly and satisfactorily to himself. He has learned the rare art of living, the very elements of which most professors do not know. His life has not been a failure but a success. Comparatively speaking, his life is a success; not such a failure as most men’s. He gets more out of any enterprise than his neighbors, for he helps himself more and hires less.Whatever pleasure there is in it he enjoys. By good sense and calculation, he has become rich and has invested his property well, yet practices a fair and neat economy, dwells not in untidy luxury. It costs him less to live, and he gets more out of life than others. To get his living, or keep it, is not a hasty or disagreeable toil. He works slowly but surely, enjoying the sweet of it. And thus his life is a long sport and he knows not what hard times are.”

As in past writing, Henry does a most excellent job of summing up my thoughts. Perhaps it is the life which I have chosen which, consistent with Henry has already done an adequate job of summing up my thoughts.


I lost it!

I lost it this week. I lost my balance, my mojo…Whatever you’d like to call it…I lost it. Somewhere between driving to the office Monday morning and the end of the day Friday, I lost it!

I drove to the office Monday morning, the sky still dark. My head heavy, tired. I caught myself daydreaming at a couple of red lights wishing I had the day or the entire week off. It wasn’t a full moon but there was a sense of dread. I thought, “I have to get myself out of this funk.” The looming shutdown of the Federal government. Patients telling me they’re depressed or anxious. We explore their issues and I can only think, “You’ve got to be kidding me!” The pinched nerve in my shoulder began screaming at me. I fidgeted in my chair trying to get comfortable. The days of the week counting down in my head. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday… the days not dragging but not seeming to move any faster than I had hoped they would move.

I sought solace on my meditation cushion, behind the lens of my camera and while out for my solitary morning runs. All three provided me with the energy to keep going, to keep moving, one foot in front of the other, one step at a time.

I blame no one and nothing. Sometimes things just seem to happen out of nowhere like walking around a blind corner directly into a door. Wham!! We burn the candle at both ends and either deny the actions which contribute to our imbalance or we simply become so consumed with ourselves, with our activities that we completely miss the ever present signs. For me, it was a combination of both. I have the ability to put on a smile and unless you look ever so closely, you’ll never see the seams. You’ll never see the cracks as they begin to appear around the edges.

I returned from the office Friday evening ate dinner and retreated to my meditation cushion, this time taking it outside. The natural sounds of the world my only company. The thoughts which previously raced around my head like a rubber ball, gaining momentum with each impact now began to slow until the only sound present was that of my breathing.

Balance is being restored. I do not say it “is restored” because balance is one of those things which with the slightest breeze can  push us off course. If we fail to pay attention to the signs, we can find ourselves, as I did far off course as I found myself.

Know your signs. Know when to say “Enough.” know when to ask for help or for guidance. Practice these things and balance becomes your friend. It becomes something which can be easily tamed and not something which tames us.



Running, Mindfulness & Rain

I was awakened this morning by a light breeze as it whispered in my ear through the open bedroom window. Groggily I reached for my glasses and the numbers of the clock became increasingly clear. It was 4:55 AM. My alarm would sound in just 5-minutes. 

I lay in bed and listened to the breeze. It reminded me of my desire to run this morning. In my other ear was a much louder declaration, it was the rain; falling hard on the concrete outside. The rain suggested I reset my alarm and sleep for an additional hour.
When I am unable to run, I resort to another form of meditation; Mindfulness meditation. This meditation form is completed as a sitting meditation. Meditation, while running or sitting helps me to develop a deep understanding of the inter-connectedness and inter-dependence of all life and offers me practical tools to better integrate mindfulness into my daily life.
Thich Nhat Hahn also known as Thay, warns us that civilization is at “risk of collapse from the environmental and social damage caused by the voraciousness of our economic system.” My meditation practice helps me see an alternative vision that focuses on true happiness which Thay believes we have sacrificed on the alter of materialism.” Thay’s teachings are “based on transforming our suffering by letting go of the scars of the past as well as the worries about the future.” Thay believes, as do I that this is accomplished through meditation and mindful living. Thay spends a great deal of time discussing our addiction to material consumption as a “clear sign we are trying to paper over our suffering.” Thay suggests we should go in the opposite direction, to the very heart of our pain in order to transcend it. Business growth is based in shareholder earnings and measured in the profit and loss column of a spreadsheet. While it is undoubtedly important to make a profit, it is also important to remember the inner journey. We neglect the emotional needs of our employees. We expect them to work harder, longer and produce more all while attempting to accomplish this with less resources and support. 
I recall my father saying when  we discussed career choices as a child, saying, “Do what you love and the money will follow.” 
Much of my social work practice, firmly grounded in Eastern philosophy is also deeply rooted in Thay’s writings. Having been a practicing social worker since 1986, barley a day goes by when I am not overjoyed by my career choice. There once was a time when unhappiness was my best friend. This was a direct result of my need to compare myself to those around me. The neighbor with the new car and the big screen TV became my mentors. While they are nice and they do bring momentary happiness, I still felt empty. I was reading a recent post from a blog called, I stumbled across this blog after reading one of his books titled, “Bike Snob: Systematically & Mercilessly Realigning the World of Cycling.” In a recent post, Bike Snob opened my eyes and made me look at my remaining attachment to material possessions. He says, “Honestly, people are such wussbags about their cars. The idea that a vehicle that weighs over a ton and lives most if not all of it’s life outside somehow shouldn’t get dented or scratched is completely delusional. If you’ve ever gently rapped on a car to let an oblivious driver know that he or she was about to run you over then you know how hysterical these morons can get when you dare touch their stupid, over-sized appliances. It’s like getting upset at someone for messing up the front door of your house by knocking on it.” He goes on to say, “Sure, I realize a lot of the blame lies with banks which trick people into leasing cars with easy monthly payments and then make them pay out the ass for every scratch and scuff when they finally return it, but it’s still pathetic how invested people are in the appearance of their econoboxes.” I laughed heartily when I read this post for what more is there to say. Many of us have a similar relationship with material things while we neglect the emotional relationships for which we lack an understanding of their importance. For me, as I learned growing up, it was in fact the perceived appearances that others have of us which defines success. I began to realize, throughI struggled with this fact for many years. 
I now define success by what I am able to offer to others. Materially I have little, but emotionally I am wealthy beyond my wildest imagination. My decade old car sporting 120K miles and many scratches still does the job for me. It suits me like an old pair of jeans; broken in and comfortable beyond belief. The remainder of my life falls completely into that realm. I have family and friends who love and care about me, a roof over my head, meals on my table and everyone in my family has been blessed with good health. For those things I am grateful. What more is there?

It’s sad

I do my best…every single day. Some days are more difficult than others but still I reach for my smile and ensure it is firmly affixed. Sometimes, that smile, loosely attached, loses its grip and falls off between my bed and the shower. I realize by my quiet that this has happened. As soon as I recognize its absence, I begin to sing or hum and the smile returns.

I grew up with a father diagnosed with Polio. I recall from a young age the limp which accompanied him throughout his day. At the time I did not know what it was or why it was there. It was part of my dad and I love him. As far as I was concerned it was another part of him to love.
I took my share of lumps in the school yard because of that limp. I look back and like my dad am thankful for that limp. He always told me that limp was a gift. He had learned from his father to never allow anyone to tell him what he could and could not do. He used that limp as a constant reminder that life is difficult and full of challenges. Challenges are made to be overcome; at least that’s what he told me. I have learned this is true.
That advice has served me well these many years. I feel lucky to have grown up with a father with such a point of view. Sure, we didn’t do the things that most boys did with their dad’s, like throwing a ball around. My dad struggled to do those things and as I grew older I recall him apologizing for what he could not do. I always told him “It’s alright.” I know today throwing a ball around was not something that was important. Mt dad gave me a far more important gift; the gift of introspection and love. Like most, this was a gift that I did not realize was a gift until many years later. It is also a gift which has served me well in my marriage (26-years), my two children (Marissa 24 & Stephen 20), and in my career as a social worker since 1985.
I have recently spoken with several individuals who attitude has been “poor” to say the very least. I have found it to be blaming, condescending and most troubling, laughing at those less fortunate. I confronted the tone first with a disbelieving facial expression. This response was not met well nor was the response to my direct verbal confrontation. I have learned to accept, as difficult as it has been to accept not everyone perceives these situations in the same fashion as I do. I am forced to remind myself I grew up with the understanding these behaviors were not acceptable and as a result I do not treat others in such a manner.
As Thich Nhat Hahn says, “I smile, breathe and go slowly.” In the space between each breath I recall this poem by the same Zen Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hahn, “Call Me by My True Names.”
Call Me by My True Names

Do not say that I’ll depart tomorrow –
because even today I still arrive.

Look deeply: I arrive in every second
to be a bud on a spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with wings still fragile,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
in order to fear and to hope.
The rhythm of my heart is the birth and
death of all that are alive.

I am the mayfly metamorphosing 

on the surface of the river,
and I am the bird which, 
when spring comes, arrives in time to eat the mayfly.

I am the frog swimming happily in the clear pond,
and I am also the grass-snake who, approaching in silence,
feeds itself on the frog.

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks,
and I am the arms merchant, 
selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

I am the twelve-year-old girl, 
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean 
after being raped by a sea pirate,
and I am the pirate, 
my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.

I am a member of the politburo, 
with plenty of power in my hands,
and I am the man who has to pay his “debt of blood”
to my people,
dying slowly in a forced labor camp.

My joy is like spring, 
so warm it makes flowers bloom in all walks of life.
My pain if like a river of tears, 
so full it fills the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughs at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart can be left open,
the door of compassion.

Thich Nhat Hanh

As a social worker and sentient being, I practice compassion everyday. My meditation practice has taught me to be strong in the face of adversity and Mindfulness has taught me to remain in this moment. This is the gift given to me by my father and it is only right that I return this great gift by passing it on to others. If you do not wish to listen to what I say, perhaps I can be a better leader by demonstrating and sharing my gift of compassion with you.