“And into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul”
— John Muir
A Walk in the Woods
I am grieving.
I recently lost a Being so essential to my experience of joy that it’s left me reeling in a deep, spiritual darkness. My Golden Retriever, Bodhi, was diagnosed several weeks ago with an untreatable cancer that had begun bleeding into his abdomen. He was only 6 years old, the picture of health and vitality one day, and suddenly gone the next.
Upon hearing of Bodhi’s passing, some dear friends offered me the use of their cabin on 200 acres of forest land so I could start processing the trauma of my loss in much-needed solitude. Here, after my morning meditation and yoga, after my breakfast and doing the dishes, I lace boots onto my feet and walk out into the woods to try to ground myself.
The crude forest road is broad and rutted. Fallen leaves flatten themselves onto its uneven surface, creating a brilliant mosaic of fall color beneath my boots. They’re slippery from last night’s storms, so I pick my way cautiously down the hill and around the wide bend to the creek crossing.
I’ve always looked to nature for healing. When circumstances allow, I seek out remote spaces where I can peacefully and privately soak up the energy of my surroundings and invite in whatever wisdom or comfort the Earth has to offer. I open myself, often by small degrees as I’m able, to connecting with the world around me: I breathe the air deeply to take in its scent; I close my eyes and listen to the sounds of insects and animals and the wind; I handle plants and trees and rocks to connect with their texture; I focus my attention on colors and shapes and shadows and light; I sense the vibrations of of the space. Most importantly, I silence the stories in my head, as told by the inner critic who nags and frets and complains and finds fault with me.
More often than not, I seek out forests.
Forests continuously, visibly reflect the rhythm of the Universe, the cycle of life that moves from birth to growth to reproduction to death and back again to birth. While they lack the raw, stimulating power of the ocean, forests offer a deep, restorative wisdom, a literal and figurative rootedness I find lacking in the ocean tides. Trees have always held me. Even as a little girl, I climbed their branches to read and dream and cry away hurts, up and away from the world and its noise. Although I rarely climb them anymore, I still find solace leaning against their strong trunks or sitting among their roots. Native Americans call them The Standing People, and they pulse with the quiet patience that comes from slowly growing and stretching and finding the light. I walk among them with the intention of engaging in what the Japanese call shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing.” I walk in the woods to immerse myself in living energy.
Barriers and Flow after the Storm
As I walk, I see that last night’s fierce storms have wakened the washes that now trickle and twinkle with tiny rivulets of run-off from the enfolding hills. I arrive at the creek bed — just yesterday dry and littered with naked stones — to see water splashing merrily over rocks and turning fallen branches into delicate fairy-falls. Here and there small pools quietly gather, slightly murky with autumnal tannins from the oaks that grow here. A sudden splash captures my attention as one of the pools pushes its way out between the roots of a tree to form a new streamlet. I crouch for a moment and close my eyes, listening to the gurgling of the water. When I open them again, I realize that today’s lesson would be about barriers and flow.
I stand up, watching the deceptively placid surfaces of the miniature ponds reflect moss-encased tree trunks and the soft, mousy grey of the clouds, and I think about my habitual ways of dealing with difficult emotions: fear, self-doubt, anger, and, yes, grief. I usually distract myself from them or let them collect in some dark corner of my heart until I’ve convinced myself they’ve healed with the passage time — or, on occasion, that they never existed at all. But, like waters in rain-swelled pools, those difficult emotions eddy and swirl, becoming murky and dark until they can no longer be contained and leak into unexpected areas of my life, manifesting as illness, stress, insomnia, depression, anxiety.
There is wisdom in pools, and I value it. There are times in our lives when we need to let emotions collect for a while until we are ready or able to release them in healthy, intentional ways that support us. But we do need to release them. We eventually need to let them flow — sometimes in little trickles, sometimes in raging rivers — so they don’t fester behind the dams we construct thinking we’re keeping ourselves safe.
In receiving this gift of sanctuary from my friends, I’d committed to diving deep into the grief, rather than running away from it. It’s a painful practice. Uncomfortable. At times almost unbearable. I patiently locate the grief in its hiding places in my body and focus my yoga there. I resolutely sit with it daily in meditation, holding it, calmly accepting it without judgment, until — like everything else, including joy, tenderness, and peace — it slowly recedes and floats away. I pour it onto the pages of my journals, examining it, discerning for myself what truths it contains — and what lies I tell myself about it and about my relationship with Bodhi — until I find the glimmer of gratitude buried beneath my tears.
I take my grief for daily walks in the woods. And I listen.
Looking at the water skipping over and around the rocks and rotting branches criss-crossing its flow, I reaffirm that I would not carry this loss like a stone in my heart. I will not allow it to become so deep that I drown in it. I’ve done that before. It nearly ended me. I will honor the loss, care for the grief, and learn from it. Not all at once. Healing happens in its own time. But I am opening my heart and letting it flow out of me, in whatever dancing trickle or rushing flood it demands, until its course is run.
And then I will get on with living joyfully, as my Bodhi taught me.