I love hiking in Umstead State Park early in the morning. Trees shade the path, and the recent rains turn the leaves and undergrowth a deep green. Woodpeckers drum in the distance, birds sing, and squirrels scurry among the branches. The trail I follow winds along a gurgling creek and a slight breeze blows overhead. Dragonflies and butterflies float above the water. I am alone and tension evaporates. I stop, look around, take a deep breath, and relax in the peace and solitude.
I want to take a snapshot of this moment and lock it in my memory so I can return to this feeling of gratitude, peace, and joy whenever life gets crazy.
In Japan there is a practice called Shinrin-yoku or forest bathing that started in the 1980s to revitalize and calm the body and mind by immersing in the forest. Forest bathing is said to improve health and wellbeing, improve empathy, and reduce depression and anxiety. Researchers in Japan found those who practice have a significant drop in blood pressure and stress hormones.
In these unprecedented times, Americans are experiencing high levels of stress, anxiety, and depression – not surprising given the chaos of the last eighteen months. The current state of normal is abnormal.
Joe and Terry Graedon recently reported in The People’s Pharmacy that more than 37 million Americans take antidepressants, many of which are addictive and have multiple side effects.
There must be a better way to sustain balance and stability in light of challenges and increasing stress. How do we maintain a space of gratitude, peace, and joy in our day-to-day existence to preserve our sanity knowing that our brain is responsible for the majority of the fear and irrational thoughts?
Recently I found some answers in the book Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom by Rick Hanson, PH.D., a neuropsychologist, and Richard Mendius, M.D., a neurologist. The authors use neuroscience to explain how “to reach inside your brain to create more happiness, love and wisdom.” Their research shows that we can teach our brains to absorb peaceful, and loving experiences that create positive psychological equilibrium. Controlling our attention, letting go of anxious and negative thoughts, and savoring affirmative experiences allow us to rewire our brain’s neural structure to strengthen positive emotions that benefit our mental and physical wellbeing.
They describe the work of psychologist Donald Hebb who found that when the neurons in our brain “fire together, they wire together” and that mental activity can actually change the structure of the neurons to activate the brain’s state from anxiety and worry to calmness and happiness.
Hanson and Mendius, both scientists and practitioners of meditation, compare the impact of contemplative practices like prayer and meditation with research from psychology and neurology using MRIs to examine the changes in the physical neurological systems.
The book provides simple, practical exercises that activate the mind-body connection to lower stress and improve long-term health through focused relaxation, deep breathing, focusing on your heartbeat, and visualization to tap into the enormous unused potential to calm our minds. These practices can move our consciousness away from anger, fear, and stress to states of happiness, love, and wisdom.
So I will keep walking in the woods and try to re-train my brain, remembering my snapshot in time that will take me back to the woods, experiencing the sounds, smells, peace, gratitude, happiness, and joy. Although I cannot change the chaos, I can change my response to it and bring my awareness back to what really matters.