In my bare feet, out in the forest, under a soaring canopy of western red cedars, Sitka spruce and vine maples wrapped in beards of moss, I was trying hard to “fox walk” as we’d been taught – carefully shifting my weight from one foot to the ball of the other and stepping gingerly, in order to move soundlessly and blend in with my surroundings. Not that I’d fool any fox trotting nearby with my bright blue jacket, Halloween orange shirt and crackling joints.
Maybe I was trying a little too hard.
“You should have seen your face!” my friend, Meg said later, bursting out in laughter. “You had this deep frown of concentration. I wanted to shout out not to take it all so seriously!”
Meg and I had gone “forest bathing” with about a dozen other people on 40 acres of wilderness dubbed Linne Doran, or The Pond of the Otter in Gaelic, in the foothills of the Duvall Mountains just north of Seattle. I had come to report and write a story on this new U.S. fad that started in Japan, where tech-weary souls attempt to soothe themselves in the woods through a practice known as Shinrin-yoku.
Meg, one of my oldest and truest friends and always a few steps ahead of me, had come with me just because it sounded fun.
Ironically enough, the forest bathing, or “forest therapy” movement is taking off in a big way in Silicon Valley, where the U.S. Shinrin-yoku organization is based, and here, in the Silicon Rainforest, home to Microsoft, Amazon and a host of other high-tech companies, where the Wilderness Awareness School is starting this new day-long “Unplug and Recharge in Nature” program we were attending for stressed-out, plugged-in, tech-addicted people to find calm.
I knew it was a good story because I was looking for the same thing myself.
Before turning off our phones and venturing out into the woods to find a “sit spot” to just pay attention to what was happening around us in the world beyond the digital, our instructor, Warren Moon, executive director of the school, likened our modern addiction to technology to being caught in a spider’s web. A spider injects its prey with poison, which doesn’t kill, but merely immobilizes. The heart still beats as the spider feeds. “Just like a plugged-in lifestyle lulls you into a kind of waking sleep,” Moon said.
I’ve been struggling with that waking sleep. I can get lost for hours working on a computer, exchanging emails, trying to clean out the inbox and going on wild Internet goose chases. In a kind of tech trance, I’ve come to family dinners late, chosen to go back on line rather than take a walk with my husband, even listened with half an ear to my children, impatient to get back to whatever was calling in the virtual world.
In the past few years, my relationship with technology has changed utterly, and not for the better, as journalism has gone digital. The worth of our stories is judged more and more by the digital traffic we drive, and the pressure to become a “brand” with a big and growing social media following has intensified.
I don’t argue with the goals. In a world disrupted by technology, legacy media, like anything in nature, must adapt or die. And, truly, the point of telling any story is to share it. Sharing stories widely helps us understand our world, makes apparent what binds us together as humans when it’s so easy to forget, and has the power to change things for the better.
But I come from an era when the story, not the storyteller, or the storyteller’s brand, was paramount. When tooting your own horn was unseemly at best, and crassly self-promotional at worst. So I’m an uncomfortable and awkward latecomer to social media.
I’ve grudgingly learned to respect how Twitter and Facebook and other mediums can connect you to people, stories, data, research, wonder, awe and whole new worlds of fascination within seconds. Though I’m not proud to admit it, there have been days when I’ve almost obsessively checked social media, like an unconscious tic in the hopes that the “likes” and “shares,” friend requests and “follows” will keep ticking up and prove I’m a worthwhile brand.
When you add up all the little interruptions, I’ve no doubt lost hours that would be better spent reporting, thinking, writing or with flesh and blood friends and family.
I know better. I’ve read the productivity and happiness research that shows you do better work and you feel better about life when you create concentrated time to work, and limit not only the time you spend on social media, but also the number of times in the day you check it. And on good days, I do that. But the days aren’t always good, nor am I.
In the forest, Warren Moon told us that sometimes, we go into the woods to find ourselves, and our “original instructions” that are so easy to lose as wed seek to live up to the ideal Facebook images streaming through our phones. He asked us to just watch and see if the forest offered any “medicine,” or lessons, as we bathed.
In the morning, as Meg relaxed and let her imagination wander, seeing shapes in the trees, and swept away in a peaceful sense of timelessness, I’d been trying too hard, frowning in concentration to get forest bathing “right.”
In the afternoon, I fox-walked to a different “sit spot” farther off the path in a patch of sunlight. Suddenly exhausted, I lay down on my back on a bed of dead leaves and soft, loamy soil. A slight breeze exhaled through the quiet woods. I watched the pine trees wave soundlessly in the breeze and listened to the light patter as their needles fell onto the vine maple leaves beneath them.
I drifted in and out of sleep, startled awake now and again by the buzzing of a fly near my ear. Looking up into the vine maples, lit electric by the afternoon sun, I noticed one leaf on a slender branch flailing nonstop, awkwardly, almost wildly in the breeze, as if it were saying, “Look at me! Look at me! Look at me!” Keep that attention-seeking up, I thought to myself, and you’ll be the first to fall from the branch.
I smiled, ruefully, in recognition.
Maybe I’ll need more than two 20-minute forest baths to shake off this wild technology panic, to tear myself out of that familiar waking sleep state, I thought. I shifted on the slowly decaying pile of fallen leaves. Like anything in life, I know I have to adapt or die. To find a way to connect, to share, to friend and to like in my own way, to find the joy and lightness in the virtual world. And to know when it’s time to power down and go for a walk in the real one. Perhaps, I thought as my eyelids again grew heavy and my frown eased, if I keep coming back to the woods, I can begin to learn how to live better in both.
Brigid Schulte is a former staff writer at The Washington Post who now works at the New America Foundation, where she will be researching and fostering policies that she hopes will help people live well-balanced lives.
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