Opinion

'Mindfulness is difficult. Exercise is exhausting. But anyone can go for a stroll through some trees'

Sam Delaney has developed a form of self-care that involves walking in the beauty of nature and a hefty dose of mindless chat

A forest

Image: Crispin Jones on Unsplash

A few times a year, I go away with my cousin Bruce on a walking weekend. We pick an area where there’s plenty of shaded woods, coastal paths and undulating hills and just get at it for a couple of days. 

Both of us live and work in cities and we find it helps to get out of the buzz, noise and pollution once in a while. We are dads with bills to worry about, kids to feed and deadlines to hit. Like everyone else, life gets on top of us. Sometimes we must run away from it for 48 hours. But boutique hotels or luxury spas just seem like throwing good money after bad. A cheap air BnB in the middle of nowhere offers better value. Nature is good for you, it’s free and it is everywhere.

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The practise of shinrin-yoku or ‘forest bathing’ has been prescribed by doctors in Japan since the ’80s. Back then, people were becoming more aware of the depression, distraction, aches, pains and general malaise caused by urban living. Going for a slow walk in the woods combined the benefits of meditation, mindfulness and exercise in a less intimidating form. Mindfulness is difficult. Exercise is exhausting. Meditation is boring. But anyone can go for a stroll through some trees. Just by absorbing the gentle sounds, fragrant smells and beautiful sights of some woodland, strung-out city dwellers can experience immediate mental and physical benefits.

To do it properly, you’re supposed to leave all electronic devices at home, proceed at a calm pace and embrace the silence. But Bruce and I have got our own twist on shinrin-yoku which involves talking bollocks along the way.

From the high minded (politics, literature, art and the sciences) to the trivial (football, biscuits, cats, fights in pub car-parks) we exchange ill-informed, confused and pointless opinions on pretty much anything.

We do it partly to amuse ourselves and each other. We’ve been doing it since we were kids. We used to do it in the garden at our grandma’s house; then we graduated to doing it over beers in the pub. Now we find we are able to talk just as much brilliantly mindless shit as ever, even though we are now a couple of sober middle-aged farts. It’s about more than just making each other laugh. It is genuinely cathartic to check out of the mundane practicalities of everyday adult life and let your mind run free for a bit, just like it did when you were a kid and still had a real imagination.

Grown-up life, with all of its dreary obligations and responsibilities; its humdrum to-do lists; its soul-crushing receptiveness; its saddening predictability – it can be really tedious. It is cleansing and therapeutic to activate your brain’s scattergun mode, allowing your thoughts to roam into strange and unusual places and conjure ideas that aren’t practical or necessary but just daft and joyous. Being with a mate who likes doing the same sort of thing is brilliant: you almost compete to see who can talk the most shit and remind each other that we were once both children who didn’t feel obliged to have lucid opinions on the situation in Ukraine or strategies to reduce our mortgage repayments.

Doing all of this while puffing your way up and down hills, past trickling streams and walking through enchanting beams of sunlight that dance through the leaves and bracken, is a profoundly powerful form of self-care. The stillness, beauty and permanence of the environment is comforting. It massages the mind and the senses tenderly, helping to bring out some of the stupid crap that has been lying around at the back of your brain for ages, like a forgotten-about jar of pickles on the top shelf of the fridge.

Plus, there is no-one else around to hear the bollocks you’re chatting when you’re deep in the woods. We walked 15 miles through the Hastings Country Park last Saturday and only encountered about three other people along the way. We nodded kindly at them, in the way hikers do, pressing pause on our moronic conversation until they were safely out of earshot. The squirrels and butterflies we saw didn’t judge us for the rubbish coming out of our mouths. At least I don’t think they did. Nobody knew what we were talking about or why we were talking about it, not even us really. We were just two men in our late forties, imbibing the breath-taking majesty of mother nature while arguing about the merits of the new McVitie’s white chocolate digestives.  

It was life affirming, soul-cleansing and beautiful. If you want to get your head straight, hit the woods with a mate who likes to talk a right load of bollocks. Namaste.

Read more from Sam Delaney here

Sort Your Head Out book cover

Sort Your Head Out: Mental Health Without All the Bollocks by Sam Delaney is out now (Constable £18.99)You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

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