It's an understandable notion. I mean, what's so hard about walking slowly along a trail, looking at things? Can't anyone do that at any time, without the interference of some "expert?"
Well, as it turns out, apparently many people--probably the great majority of us--actually do have great difficulty walking mindfully in a natural area like a forest.
Case in point: on a recent walk the invitations to try specific mindfulness exercises seemed to have little effect on some of the people. There was a tendency to briefly try an activity, then to charge ahead, often in loud conversation with another person in the group.
Several times I found myself calling people back to one of the spots that I have found is particularly appropriate for a specific activity that fits that spot. After an hour on the trail there was some evidence of slowing down and greater mindfulness, but it was not particularly marked.
Another example: I was guiding a walk with only one client. These are very special walks; they seem to really facilitate greater intimacy with the land. We had just enjoyed two hours of breeze, birdsong, the aromas of the trees, the sounds of the forest. Our minds had calmed. As we were on the final stretch of trail a man came tearing past us, hiking at a brisk pace, with earbuds in. I noticed that he was bent in a strange way, probably painfully, leaning to one side. The unbalanced and apparently uncomfortable posture seemed like a fitting metaphor, an apt way to characterize the experience of power hiking to the sounds of canned music.
I'm not sharing this to criticize those people. These behaviors are in no way unusual; quite the opposite. We are a culture that is steeped in the imperative to be somewhere else, and through various self-improvement projects (such as power hiking) to be someone else. Simply being present is not something that is highly valued. No wonder so many of us feel stressed out.
What I think is happening is that our minds are so amped up from constant exposure to rapidly shifting stimulation that they have become rewired in a way that works against mindfulness. Anyone who takes up meditation practice discovers this early on. Famously, the first or second time we sit in meditation we meet "monkey mind." It can be a shocking revelation to notice for the first time how busy and wild our minds are. This is exactly the mind that accompanies us on the trail.
All of which is to acknowledge that a challenge inherent in guiding shinrin-yoku is to figure out how to help people slow down. And here is the key point of this post: They do need help; they can't do this on their own. Monkey mind is that powerful.
So shinrin-yoku guides act in a way that is analogous to meditation teachers. We don't try to stop monkey mind, but we can help people notice when it arises and become familiar with the phenomenon. Then we can suggest ways to work with monkey mind, and to slowly increase the capacity to be fully present to the trail and the forest and what it offers.
My own background includes a couple of decades of meditation practice and a stint as a meditation teacher at Sky Creek Dharma Center. It is my opinion that we are better equipped to be shinrin-yoku guides if we have a meditation practice and have thus developed a good experiential understanding of what it means to be mindful, and of the challenges inherent in any mindfulness practice. It also helps to have been guided by competent meditation teachers; we can learn a great deal from them that we can adapt to the trail.
As I continue to guide these walks I am experimenting with various methods to encourage mindfulness. There does not seem to be a one-size-fits-all template--at least not that I've discovered yet--because of the wide variety of backgrounds that people have. But here are few things you can do at the beginning of a walk that can help.
1. Remind people that shinrin-yoku is not the same thing as hiking. I tell my people that if they feel they are exercising what they are doing is something other than shinrin-yoku. Explain that it is about moving slowly and opening our senses to the forest.
2. One of the fundamentals of shinrin-yoku is there is an intention to invite healing, wellness, or greater health and vitality into our lives. Invite people to share a specific intention they would like to bring to the walk; for example, something like "I've been feeling stressed at work... I feel it in my neck and shoulders. I would like to be more relaxed."
3. Ask if there is anything that might distract them while they are walking, any particular concern or stressor that they might feel preoccupied with. For each thing they name have them pick up a pebble from the ground. They can put this pebble into a small container to leave at the trail head. Let them know that their concerns will be here for them when they return, although they might have changed in ways that we can't predict. For the duration of the walk, if they find the concerns they name coming up, they can visualize them in the pebble back at the trailhead. Knowing their concerns are safe and waiting for them, they can gently bring their attention back to the present. At the end of the walk they can recover their pebbles. Invite them to notice if anything has shifted about their relationship to their concerns. This can be part of your conversation the group is sharing their shinrin-yoku tea.
4. After putting the pebbles in a safe place, some mindful breathing is a good final step to take before setting out on the walk. Ten deep breaths... in and out, feeling each breath deeply in the body. After five or six breaths, you might help them become present to the world around them by calling their attention to any breeze that might be present, and how the air we breathe is connected to the plants and waters and animals around us.
5. For the first part of the walk, ask people to let you set the pace. Move slowly and pause from time to time, without conversation. At your first break ask what it was like to move in this way. Give people a chance to reflect on their experience.
I'm finding that the activity I'm using most during this first part of the walk is inviting people to focus visual awareness on things that are moving. Usually this means the gentle movement of the trees. Doing this seems to begin the process of helping our minds find a slower wavelength. It's a good way to begin to slow the monkeys of our minds down. But plan on them coming along for the entire walk; be friendly toward monkey mind, but not indulgent. Eventually our minds will return home, to the vast, mysterious, beautiful presence of the world around us, just as it is, in this very moment.
Please share your ideas and experiences also. My booklet, A Little Handbook of Shinrin-Yoku has more ideas for guides. It's available from this website or as a download from Amazon Kindle.