Healing in the Forest: A Reflection on Sadness

First appeared in the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy -blog

Recent years have brought a deluge of articles, books, and studies illustrating the importance of nature to our human well-being. This outpouring has reached Finland as well, my home country, where a great part of our landscape consists of forests. The underlying theme seems to be the recognition of connecting with nature, especially forests, as a powerful contributor to our health.

Most of these studies espouse benefits such as lowered blood pressure and stress, emotional and psychological balance, stronger immunity, as well as relaxation and higher creativity. Since the material available through a simple internet search is so extensive, I want to share a personal story laced with observations instead of repeating what has already been better said. With this approach, I hope to shed more light on the question of how forests heal us.

The Darkness of Depression

A few months ago I found myself succumbing to a devastating depression. I didn’t have much going on in my life. I lacked meaningful work. I had lost any vision for future plans, and thus my life’s direction as well. Shame, guilt, and self-hatred steadily grew in me.

Basically, as the weeks and months moved on, my descent into that pit of darkness eventually reached a point where I began to seriously contemplate a good way to leave this life behind. I was so convinced that I was financially dysfunctional and therefore a failure, that meeting other people or discovering new opportunities felt impossible. I felt I had nothing to offer this world, and that I did not deserve any meaningful human connections.

So instead of opening up and talking and meeting people or a professional (which surely could have been valuable), I began going on walks and spending a lot of more time in the forest.

Journey Inward…

I am convinced that on a fundamental level, we all share a deep need to be seen by others – to be acknowledged, given consideration, and thus accepted. Our existence has inherent value, and demands validation. This seeing and mirroring is given to us by our caregivers when we are young, and as we age, we realize that young children and babies are masters at this. Sometimes this validation can come from animals, even our own pets.

What I experienced when walking and sitting in the forest is that this witnessing, this validation, can also occur through our connection with nature. My feelings of isolation and loneliness were not so prevalent. Instead I felt a presence, as if life itself was witnessing me being there. It did not accept or reject me. It made no judgements at all. It just witnessed me. And in its silent gaze, I began to relax.

When we walk into the forest or any other wild natural setting, we are instantly faced with a multitude of unique details – from microscopic insects on their path to the tall, ancient trees. Similar multitude lies in our man-made surroundings, as in a large city, yet in our minds often amount to only chaos and incoherence. Traffic, noise, and clogs of people in a subway are all examples of this.

But this is not the case in the forest. There exists an underlying, often invisible coherence that provides a sense of harmony and wholeness present within –beyond all the unique forms of life. It is this presence of living wholeness (for lack of a better name) that we can sometimes sense while walking in nature. That is the presence I began to meet. And I was not met as a person with problems, failures, or shortcomings. I was met only at the level of being, of existing, and living.

When I go into the woods, there is no need to worry about what to share with the trees, bees, and the little birds. I am sharing what is most fundamental to me without trying. And nature, in turn, is sharing itself with me.

While sitting on a rock covered by a layer of squishy moss, it felt clear to me that by recognizing this primordial core of being within us, nature mirrors that existence back at us. This core of ours, which is so easily forgotten when we are in a state of stress or depression, is waiting for us in nature, waiting to be rediscovered.

As I continued my walk on the little forest path, feeling the support of the ground under my feet, and opening myself to allow nature to guide me deeper in, it was possible for me to reclaim this connection with my primordial ”beingness.”

I believe my experience can apply to anyone. Just reconnecting to this place within us provides solace and rest. It offers greater perspective, where we can perceive the actual size of our problems in more accurate proportion. Something more fundamental defines our existence than the negative thoughts, problems, and conflicts that pass through our lives.

The more I spend time in nature exploring forests and discovering new trails, the more my surroundings help me to get grounded in my being.

The more this takes place, the easier it is for me to bring this awareness to other situations in my life. From this place of being, I am able to ”go out” and relate to whatever life throws at me.

…To Explore Outward

Stress, fear, depression, and other painful emotional states can do serious harm to us in the long term. Not least of all, these maladies steal our focus away from the living external experience and the experience of the present moment. They isolate us inside our own heads. As a result, we lose touch, not only with the aliveness in ourselves, but the aliveness around us. Our relationship with the majesty of simple existence contracts.

The pain, disappointment, and fear that destroy us seem to arrive in us from outside. Thus it makes sense that we try to desensitize our felt experience as well as restrict our connection with the outside world. It’s a defense mechanism that grants us the illusion of safety.

As my walks in the forest slowly guided me back to an awareness of that ever-present beingness within me, it also helped me tear down those walls of isolation I’d built within myself. My felt experience started to be more sensitive once again, and I became more open to relating to the beauty of nature. That innate, childlike curiosity in all people began to be bloom in me once again, triggered by the multitude of unique details and fascinating forms I saw everywhere in the woods.

Nature and forests have a tendency to reach out to us, not only our core beingness, but our whole sensory system all at once. We can smell when we are in a forest, feel the breeze and sun on our skin, feel the steady but soft ground under our feet, hear the sounds of the birds and insects. We see the trees sway in the patternless gusts of wind. In nature, our senses are bombarded with stimulation, and our being is stirred with reminders that we are more than the sum of our petty problems. It gives us the strength to move forward again and meet life head-on.

Conclusion

In my view, nature – especially the forest – seems to offer the best therapeutic setting for people suffering traumas, depression, and other psychological ailments. Forests can provide us with a safe space where we are allowed to be just as we are, as nature intended us to be. This space may help us to regain connection with our own sense of beingness and value. Whether or not we always recognize it, that value is something inherent to all of us, independent of any external circumstances or achievements.

Yet we can also find a seemingly infinite number of unique details in the forests as well, from a microscopic scale to a size that makes us feel quite small in turn. Our entire set of senses is overwhelmed all at once, safely and gingerly, by the woods. This stimulus invites our attention, our natural openness, and our childlike curiosity to manifest and rekindle our healthy connection with the outside world. It pulls us right out of our shell.

Thus we connect with ourselves, with the natural beauty around us, and somehow it can bring us into a more balanced and harmonious place in our lives. Just like breathing the fresh, piney air of the woods, nature makes it easy for us to rediscover ourselves. It helps us find balance, become present, and fill ourselves with the splendor of being.