When a back injury made her desk job impossible, psychotherapist Susan Scott discovered the best medicine of all: a walk in the woods.
As a lifelong athlete, I have always cherished my body’s capacity for running, backpacking, practicing yoga, playing team sports and skiing cross-country and downhill. I love moving, and being out in nature. But I also have a career as a psychotherapist and writer, which requires just the opposite: sitting inside for prolonged periods.
I’ve never much liked sitting, but when I suffered a herniated spinal disc several years ago, the painful injury was slow to heal, and sitting became a serious occupational hazard. Because both sitting and standing compressed the injured spinal disc and caused additional damage to the nerves in my foot and leg, conducting in-office therapy sessions with my clients became virtually impossible. The only activity that relieved some of the pain was walking. Very slow walking.
I began with shuffles down the sidewalk near my office in Seattle and progressed to strolls along the paths in the city parks. When my endurance increased, these evolved into wilderness hikes.
I knew that contemplative walking in nature was a tradition among many philosophers, poets and other creative people, including Socrates, Wordsworth and Thoreau. But I began to appreciate this experience firsthand when I started taking my psychotherapy patients out on “walking sessions” and they experienced it too.
What began as a concession to my injury became an invaluable discovery: that interaction with natural environments is deeply healing. When we open our eyes to the natural world, we are constantly prompted and coaxed to alter our ingrained patterns of thinking. We subtly change the ways in which our brains process both inner and outer perceptions. The result of this, as both my patients and I found, is that healing often takes place more rapidly – and at a much deeper level – than might be conceivable while seated indoors.
Knowing and Seeing
During my recovery, I was fortunate to work with a talented team of spine specialists, physical therapists and naturopathic doctors. But nothing they offered me helped more, over time, than walking in nature, where I found not only physical healing, but mental and creative healing as well.
Because I was not in a hurry on my walks, it was easier for me to be fully present in the moment. I started to notice individual trees and observed how they grew around obstacles in their paths and how they developed unique shapes to reach for light, water and physical support. In this way, I began to see stories of life and healing in trees and other aspects of nature almost every time I walked, whether in the city or the country.
James Hillman, a Jungian analyst, describes such seeing as notitia – paying attention to the qualities of things as a primary activity of the soul. “Notitia” is a Latin word conjugated from the root noscere, meaning “to come to know.” Children naturally practice notitia – all their senses are open and tuned to learning the quality of each thing in their world. By opening my own eyes to the natural world in this way, I was able to change the pattern of my thinking in many unexpected and rewarding ways.
I have always been interested in the interaction between the brain and four of the senses – the visual, auditory, olfactory and kinesthetic. As I began walking outside with my patients, I found that when more of our senses were awakened, we were able to access more than the visual and auditory senses that typically dominated when we sat together in the office.
I also found that my patients made the changes they hoped for more swiftly and spontaneously when we were in the natural world together. I believe this has to do not only with having our bodies in motion, but also with the movements of our eyes.
When we are outside and moving through a natural environment, we take in a broader field of vision and look more actively at our surroundings, which causes the brain to integrate information differently. Learning to use our eyes in new ways can change the patterns in our brains. Ancient yogis understood this and practiced a series of eye exercises before meditating.
Today, many psychologists, psychiatrists and therapists employ a sensory technique known as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), a therapy founded on an observation made during a walk in nature. In 1987, psychologist Francine Shapiro, PhD, was walking around a lake, absorbed in a loop of negative thought about some nagging problem, when she made a discovery: The movements her eyes made as she passed through her surroundings seemed to have a powerful and positive impact on her state of mind. Based on this simple discovery, Shapiro developed a practice that is now widely used in psychotherapy offices to aid in healing a wide range of psychological illnesses and problems, including posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, phobias, anxieties, grief and nightmares.
For those who are not engaged in psychotherapy, the natural world offers a form of healing and rejuvenation that is available the moment we take a walk through a city park – or even down the sidewalk. Glancing at the way a tree grows, or noticing where the sound of birdsong is coming from, causes our eyes to move in fresh and spontaneous ways as we become present and our senses open up to the rhythms of the natural world.
Scientists, too, have long known about entrainment, the tendency of people’s bodies to align with rhythms in their environments. Babies held close when they are upset can calm themselves by entraining to their mother’s slower, steadier heartbeats; patients who are placed side by side in preparation for surgery have been found to share a natural entrainment with one another’s heartbeats, revealed by similar electrocardiograms. Drummers who are playing together often find a common beat that carries them all along.
The literal meaning of the word “entrain” is to become like a train, to share the track. It is a natural tendency for people to harmonize with their environments. Walking in the natural world – even within a park in the city – helps us entrain to a very different rhythm from the hustle of downtown traffic or the stressful atmosphere that dominates most offices. When we walk in nature, we naturally slow our rhythms of thinking, walking, even breathing, to match those of the environment around us.
Nowhere was this more apparent to me than in England. This island nation fiercely protects its ancient walking paths, honoring the walking tradition and making it available to wayfarers from around the world.
Several months into the healing of my back injury, I spent a week walking six to 10 miles per day along these paths in England with a walking-tour company. Passing through farmland and occasional villages with thatched roofs covering small stone houses, I saw no superhighways, no shopping malls, no bank machines or fast-food stores. In fact, the heart of England seemed to beat very slowly, and I felt my own body’s rhythm relax to match this beat.
With no hurry, no push to get anywhere else or do anything other than be right where I was, “fast” suddenly lost all significance. I found myself entraining to nature, slowing down to match its music.
Nature’s beauty provides almost unlimited opportunities for us to change our pace and perspective for the better. But it’s up to us to avail ourselves of this resource – and to appreciate and protect it in our midst.
Imagine how much better and more life-sustaining most metropolitan areas could be if they offered easy access to peaceful parks and walking paths. Imagine how much healthier and happier we might all be with even an hour a day spent enjoying the rhythms of moving in the natural world, and opening our eyes to the gifts available there.
Having healed finally, I can now sit in comfort, but I still conduct walking sessions with many of my patients. Now that my injury is behind me, I’ve come to understand walking as far more than a means for psychological or physiological healing. Increasingly, I see this experience as a walking prayer, as a sacred practice, an opportunity to reflect on the abundance and healing available to us at all times.