Shinrin-Yoku for the Soul

I just took a tree bath.

Yep, I totally meant to say that.

My morning started off with some harsh words and less than kind exchanges. Nothing too serious, just life getting the best of me. My soul was left aching, and I knew exactly what I needed to do.

I needed a walk in the woods.

I didn’t need it for the exercise (well, my lazy self could always use some exercise I guess), I just needed to be there. Surrounded by the beauty and life and oxygen-giving trees.

While sitting in the lobby of the dentist’s office, anxious about being poked and prodded all up in my mouth, I flipped through one of my favorite magazines and saw a quick insert about a place north of Atlanta where you can rent small, simple cabins in the woods. They referrenced the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, which when translated, literally means “forest bathing”. A Japanese forestry expert coined the phrase many years ago, and it has since been a practice widely used and loved by their culture. You simply spend intentional quiet time surrounded by trees.

I didn’t need to read this article to know that I love being in the forest (ok, honestly, I love being on a well-maintained trail in a forest; I get a little freaked out about being lost or surprised by bugs and critters off-trail). I’ve always said I feel the most at peace, most inspired and most spiritually connected when I’m surrounded by nature. So of course when I hear terms like “forest bathing”, I geek out a little.

Some of my best memories and most peaceful moments are when I’ve been immersed in nothing but trees. We grew up going to a quiet cabin in the North Carolina mountains, and were even fortunate enough to purchase our own cabin last summer, nestled among miles and miles of trees. We love sitting on the deck, looking out at the long-range views of nothing but green, listening to leaves being rustled by the breeze or the dancing rain. My husband says he does his best thinking up there. It’s definitely good for the soul.

View from our cabin…ahhhhhhh

So this morning I headed out to one of my favorite trails. I let the rhythmic sound of my feet, pounding the damp ground, lull me into a state of peace. I smiled at the way the sun peeked through the leaves, leaving a golden glow among the darkened forest floor. I watched a black and blue velvet-winged butterfly float by, I passed a field of tall, bushy grass, alive and buzzing with a chorus of grasshoppers, I exchanged a curious glance with a pair of deer. Luckily I didn’t see a snake or get eaten by mosquitoes…I mean, not everything in nature is pleasant.

What I noticed the most on the walks, however, were the trees. I mean, their symbolism for life just amazes me. The way they endure so much. They live through heat waves and frost, too little rain or too much. They lose limbs in storms and become covered in vines or eaten by insects, and yet their root systems are usually so strong, their trunks so sturdy, they survive again and again. They grow and grow and grow some more, some for many more years than I will ever see. Even as I passed trees that had finally fallen or succumbed to death, I notice their ability to continue to give life. Plants were sprouting from within and moss covered the bark. Creatures found new homes in their safe shelter. The tree continued to give, even in death.

One of the trails at Cheatham Hill

I walk on and on, my soul filling up with every step. The trees guide me on. Acorns and branches and leaves are falling all around me, but I head on. I have to keep going. I realise that after a heavy storm, it’s not the best time to hike in the woods, but there’s so much beauty to notice, so much more good, that the benefit is worth the risk.

Life is like that…things are falling apart all around us. We are attacked from every angle, every day. But our roots are strong. We may be covered in fungus and loose some leaves and limbs here and there, but we endure. We are life-livers and life-givers.

Everyone struggles everyday with something. Even the people who seem like they aren’t (I’m looking at you Facebook and Instagram). We are all human and life is hard. Sometimes we search so desperately for something to take away the hurt, that we forget that right in front of us, all around us, God has put everything we need already here on this earth. I think we just forget to stop and notice. We strive, we search, we struggle…but we forget to just be still.

Truth.

So go hug a tree. Ok…just kidding. Kind-of. At least if you do, send me a picture because that will just make my day.

Do take the time to be still and notice. Slow down, breathe deep, go take a tree bath or two. And don’t be surprised if you find yourself one day, when no one is looking, giving those trees a quick thank-you hug.

You Are What You Eat

I did something a bit, well, sneaky the other night.

As we were about to turn in for the night, my husband asked if I knew where his phone was.

“Your phone? Hmmmm…” I replied.

I knew exactly where the phone was. Selfishly, however, I omitted that information. Notice I didn’t lie, right? I told you I was sneaky…

My husband loves comedy podcasts. Like a lot. Every night, falling asleep in his huge headphones, comedians help lure his thoughts away from everyday stress. In the morning, it’s news on his phone. Scanning pages and pages of headlines, the latest shocking drama or political circus act. It seems like a harmless distraction, or is it?

He also gets caught up with work calls, texts, never gets a chance to fully escape from work. Constant responsibility weighs heavy. It’s a sacrifice, sure, but he truly loves the push and pull of his work life.

I too, am guilty of the addiction of finger swiping late into the night when I need to wind down. Before I know it, I’ve gone deep into the rabbit hole; this story leads to that story leads to another story. Sometimes interesting, sometimes informative, even uplifting at times, but for the most part, distracting chatter. I’ll read an article and then get caught up in the reader comments that usually read like childish banter of I’m right/you’re wrong nanny-nanny boo-boo. Its like an all-you-can-eat buffet, you just want to keep going back for more.

A while back we talked about this in bible study, about things we tend to watch or read regularly. My friend mentioned her husband started listening to these political podcasts constantly, and she noticed a subtle change in him. He became overly worried and invested in the toxic political atmosphere according to the news, when in reality his career was nothing related to that world. He became quick to anger and criticize. Finally she suggested that he listen to something a bit less intense.

For the past few years it seems, the phone seems to become my husbands constant companion. Ok honestly, it’s that way for a lot of us. It’s a way to escape at the end of the long day, or relish those last few minutes of laying in bed in the morning. And don’t even get me started on Netflix…I mean, how fun can that be on a rainy day???

The other day, before the phone hijacking incident, I told my husband he was turning into his mamaw. Don’t get me wrong, she was an amazing, spit fire of a women. Jason tells stories of how she used to buy things from garage sales and turn around and sell them for profit. The woman could pull off one hell of a hustle. When I first met her, she was sitting with Grandpa Brian on their plaid couch, cozied up in their small living room, eyes glued to one of the 24 hour news networks.

“Jason, don’t you go bringing kids into this world, it is a scary place,” she would say, staring at that small box in her living room. She would go on with concern about how the world and humanity was doomed. How we should be worried and afraid. She didn’t venture out much from her small house in Franklin, Tennessee much in those later years; the people in the tv warned her not to. The constant, negative news feed had shaped her entire world view from that half-acre lot in suburban America.

We already struggle daily with our own interpersonal news reel, feeding us the shoulds and what ifs and whys of our daily actions. We struggle with self-compassion and positive self-talk already, so to feed ourselves more negativity from the world around us can overload until we are drowning in hopelessness. We feel a tremendous weight and burden that we don’t even need to be carrying.

I’m not saying that we need to be unaware of what’s happening in the world, because I absolutely believe that knowledge of injustices and needs around us can call us to action and unite communities, but this is more of a help me, help you situation. Like putting on our own oxygen masks before we start helping others. If we run off trying to put out fires before we’ve filled up our water tank, we won’t get very far.

I decided a few years ago, I needed to change my diet.

It wasn’t a food diet; (ok, so there is lots of science to back up that this is essential also, but this girl needs some French fries in her life!!) I needed to change the information I ingested.

I struggled with self-worth, with feeling like I was enough, with shame and guilt over my anxiety issues. But unlike those extra pounds that you can feel and see, my extra weight was internal. It made my heart and soul feel heavy with doubt and fear. Being overweight in your soul can be just as harmful to your health as in the physical sense, but most of us don’t entertain this notion as much.

So how do you start a healthy diet for the soul?

Everyone is different here. We all have things we feel are lacking, and those are the nutrients we need to feed ourselves regularly. Of course it can be as simple as doing one thing we love everyday, or using our creative gifts more often. For me, writing, music, and being out in nature pack a healthy serving of soul food, so I try to make intentional time for those as often as possible. I have friends that go for long runs or take a trip alone once a year. The other day I told the lady doing my pedicure how much I appreciated it and how I wish it was covered by health insurance. Whatever self-care you can fit into your schedule, don’t feel guilty about it.

I also read my devotional every morning, either while brushing my teeth or even more effectively, when I drink my coffee. Tying a daily habit to another only reinforces the act. I make it a priority to read the “good news” of God before reading the news of the world around me. I’ve been doing this daily for about three years, and it’s become as essential to me as breathing oxygen. My oxygen mask.

Mindfulness and being still are other daily snacks that I try to feed myself. We are constantly attacked by countless distractions, and ingesting small moments of quiet and calm can better equip us to battle that sense of feeling overwhelmed with to-do’s. Even if it’s five minutes of your day, the benefits from this habit are life-changing.

Of course, physical exercise and a healthy diet directly affect our state of mind, so it is important to pay attention here as well. But just as we try to drink enough water, take our vitamins, get our cup of coffee in daily, we can’t overlook the importance of the information we are feeding our brains and hearts, figuratively speaking. The mind-body-spirit connection is about as critical as all those crunchy yogis and preachy pastors and chill therapists say it is, and I’m so glad the “mainstream” population (whatever that generalization really means?) is starting to believe it. We can’t do life on our own, people.

So before you scroll the endless barrage of news feeds and Facebook posts and check-lists, pay attention.

Have you fed your soul first today?

I know, it sounds corny. Cheesy. Whatever you want to call it to distract you from the fact that it is essential to your health.

The night I “hid” the phone, my husband and I cuddled up and watched a show together. It reminded me of our earlier days, when smartphones weren’t even on our radar. I relished in our quality time, and my soul started to fill up. In return, I felt loved, worthy, at ease. The extra pounds of loneliness and rejection slowly started melting off. I was satisfied.

So while this isn’t a lesson in how to deceive your husband (of course I fessed up the next morning, after gushing about how much I enjoyed our quality time), it is a reminder to take notice of the “junk food” you catch yourself craving; the deficits and distractions in your life that are depriving you and draining your happiness and health. If you have to set limits and boundaries to do so, go for it.

If you find yourself hungry for happiness, craving comfort and control, thirsty for security and self-compassion, start a new diet. Find what lifts you up, take it in, feed it to yourself a little each day. It’s the most important, most delicious, most satisfying meal you will ever eat.

Lift the Shade

Happy New Year!

After realizing that it was January 3rd and my outdoor Christmas lights were still on, I reluctantly pulled the plug and slowly started the process of un-decorating.  It’s been frigid cold here in the Southeast (they are predicting snow in Savannah!!!) and it’s been pajamas for days here in the house. The kids have been sleeping in until 9 am and we’ve all got a serious case of the lazies, which is going to make going back to school tomorrow seem impossible.  But, the world keeps turning, and a new year has begun.  So it goes.

I haven’t blogged in forever, and it’s been looming over my head like more of a chore than a necessity.  Since having both kids in school, I’m not sure what I’ve filled my time with, but I’ve kept myself busy.  I’ve missed writing, but haven’t been able to find the inspiration or drive to start typing. My anxiety has been pretty much under control; a quiet, distant memory at least for now, which has meant even less motivation to write. I had all these grand plans for starting an anxiety support group and producing more in-depth blogging to help those struggling with mental illness, but somehow I’ve side-stepped and found myself focused on more mundane efforts (volunteering, organizing the house, workout classes, Christmas perfection coordinator!?!). Life has been moving at a steady, undramatic pace (ok, minus the usual holiday drama).

Last night, however, I felt a shift. I woke up at some odd hour with a pang of longing, an urge to get up and get the words out. I briefly entertained the idea of popping up immediately and opening my computer with wild fervor (like in the movies!) but I decided going back to sleep was more my speed.  So here I am, after another pajama day, finally getting down to it.

I got news the other day that a friend of a friend had taken her own life.  I didn’t get much of the story, but as I browsed over her obituary on Facebook, took in her beautiful smile and pondered over the sweet words describing her kind spirit, I was struck.  She was about my age, married, strikingly beautiful with a successful career.  She looked like someone who had it all together. I sent a text expressing my condolonces to my friend; the girls had been good friends in college.  She said they had just been in Mexico a couple months ago with a group of friends, but she showed no signs of distress. To gaze upon that picture of her sparkling smile and to know that there was so much silent suffering behind it, that beauty and perfection weren’t enough, was a tragedy.

Her story lit a fire in me, and I knew in that instant that I needed to get back to work.  There are too many people out there, quietly struggling with mental illness, to ignore the cause. Too many beautiful souls smiling through their pain. Too many lives that need saving. I can’t sit back and let it go any longer.

Not long after hearing her story, I heard of another young life taken by choice, a close family friend of a friend who’s son had played baseball with hers. He was only 19.

Although there’s no statistical proof that the holidays have an impact of increased suicide rates (this is generally a myth), it can be a hard, lonely time for many.  If loneliness isn’t the problem, there is added holiday stress, financial burdens, family issues, and little down time.  The self-inflicted perfectionists (guilty as charged!) may not sleep until the last present is wrapped and decoration hung.  Top all that off with colder weather and less sunlight and the holidays can be a bit heavy for some.

There is a disconnect in understanding between those who have struggled with anxiety and depression and those who have only heard stories about it.  To realize that you are in need of serious help is either too embarassing and hard to accept or simply just too complicated to self-diagnose. I’m fortunate to have had only a small taste of depression (I’ve had more acute struggles with anxiety and panic), but once you’ve had a taste, you will never forget it.  It’s a disease that causes your own mind to deceive you, to tell you such enormous lies that you begin to question everything, even your own existance.  It is both tragic and infuritating, and it has the potential to affect us all in one way or another. We owe it to ourselves, and to our loved ones, to make an effort to understand and tame this monster.  There’s no easy answer here, but compassion and understanding are huge bridges towards healing.

That being said, it’s a two-way street.  If someone is unwilling to share, to speak up out of their silence, it will remain that way…silent.  You must be vulnerable in your truth. I opened up about my struggles with mental illness and it has granted me such tremendous freedom.  It is not a crutch or an excuse or a plea for sympathy, but simply a way out of silent suffering.  Ownership and acceptance and transparency can change your life, as scary as it may seem.

Another one of the most freeing things I’ve learned in my journey with anxiety is to give yourself permission to fail.  If you always want everything to be perfect, you will most definitely always fall short.  The pressure of perfection is suffocating. Forgive yourself. Laugh at yourself.  Love yourself no matter what. If you can’t, find the courage to learn how. If it means asking for help to find your courage, that’s okay. Asking for help takes a tremendous amount of courage in itself, even though some may fear perceived weakness.

But listen up, here’s some news for you; if someone calls you weak, guess what? Who gives a shit?!!! (I praise this phrase in one of my previous blog posts, and it still proves to be one of my favorites, although it’s usually just said in my head)!!! Keep on doing whatever you need to become secure in your worthiness. No apologies.

Yes, I still have lots of work to do.  We all do in one way or another.  But I can’t sit back and watch another tragedy without at least trying to do the best I can to help others.  It is my purpose and my duty.  I can’t be responsible for each persons journey, but I can help make a positive impact as much as possible.  I can lend an ear over a cup of coffee or a walk or a simple phone call.  I can take the profound darkness I’ve felt in my past and use it for good.  I have ears that hear and a mouth that speaks and a heart that loves.

So this year, if you see me around, or if you think you need to talk, or if you’re not sure if you need to talk but just need to cry or laugh or hug me, my door is open.  There is no story too silly or embarassing that will phase me.  I’ve been afraid to sit at a stoplight before, I’m still afraid of the dark, and I’ve gone into panic attacks on the most G-rated Disney rides.  I still shutter at the thought of being on a subway, in a crowded room or even just driving a car full of people around. I am working hard at being comfortable being uncomfortable, but it is slow going. There is no shame here, people. If it bothers you, it’s legit.  You can talk about it.  I’m here for you.

Let’s make this year the best ever.  Fear and shame and darkness will fall victim to your light. Just let go and let the shade lift, friend. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again…

You are so worth it.