I believe dark psychic forces are a real thing and forest spirits populate the Pacific Northwest. Labyrinth and Pan’s Labyrinth top my favorite-movies list. So when I signed up for a forest bathing (also called forest therapy) session in western Portugal’s Sintra-Cascais Natural Park, I wasn’t totally surprised to find myself having a sort of mystical experience among the mossy rocks and ivy-covered oaks, poplars, and acacias.
Forest therapy taps into the now-scientifically verified theory that spending time outside can make you happier and healthier. The official forest bathing protocol, called Shinrin-yoku, was developed in Japan during the ’80s to help a burnt-out workforce reclaim its mojo. Forest bathing is a set of mindfulness practices done in nature to help you dissolve stress by connecting to your senses and to something greater than yourself—the energy and innate wisdom of the Earth. For example, in an exercise called Texture Gathering, you wander slowly, often off the beaten path, exploring the way things feel—rough tree branches, decomposing leaves, slick stones. You become fully present and alive, and your anxieties and fears about the past and future start to slip away.
Our guide, Geeta Stilwell, was a grounding presence. She looked the part of the pioneer women I’ve always idolized from Willa Cather novels and shows such as Westworld. I could picture her totally at ease hunting elk while wearing petticoats. Stilwell met me and the other participant in the session—a woman from Holland—in the parking lot of the reserve on a Saturday afternoon. (My Uber driver seemed concerned about dropping me off in the middle of nowhere with no cell service, while I was relieved to be free of technology for the next three hours.)
We made quick intros and then slipped off the road, down a steep embankment into what felt like a forested womb. All of a sudden, we were protected from the wind; copious ivy provided insulation, making everything quieter, warmer, softer. We moved slowly, in silence, single-file, along a loamy trail for a few minutes before Stilwell encouraged us to walk to a clearing. Here, under the open sky, we did our first exercise, called Pleasures of Presence. We used our senses to explore our surroundings, first looking around with heightened awareness at our new environment, then closing our eyes to better hear the sounds of the forest and notice the wind, light and dark, and the feel of the Earth beneath us. My feet fused to the forest floor through my hiking shoes, and I felt a subtle surge of energy run up my whole body. I stood taller, more securely, as sunlight filtered through the tree canopy and touched my face. After about 20 minutes, we opened our eyes and shared what we had experienced. I couldn’t get over how safe I felt. I love hiking, gardening, and sitting outside, but whenever I close my eyes in the great outdoors, I worry about losing my dog or being stalked by a mountain lion or a dark shadow. With Stilwell there as a guide and sentinel through this stillness, I could have stayed plugged into the ground as if it were a charging station for hours, maybe even days.
But we had more to experience. Meandering down, our group focused on smells as we stopped to bend down and rummage through the damp ground cover, crunch leaves in our hands, or stick our noses into bark. Stilwell then asked us to befriend a tree. I made my way over to a large acacia with shiny vines creeping around most of its trunk. I sat with my back to this tree and, for a minute, felt sad that it couldn’t travel the world like I could; it couldn’t uproot and explore. In return, the acacia made me aware of my flighty energy. It and I conversed. It suggested that maybe there was some benefit to sitting still and growing roots. It was, after all, part of an entire ecosystem in which the flora and fauna all spoke to one another and shared a bond that helped to create and support life.
And so it went for hours, with us stopping to talk to trees, me sitting on mossy rocks until I felt like I was a mossy rock, and Stilwell reminding us to succumb to our senses, to be fully present in the moment, with the woods. The deeper we got, the more my imagination kicked in. Was that a bird or a fairy that just flitted by? Was that dark flash a shadow or a spirit? It didn’t matter. My heart and body were perfectly calm. I was grounded, ready to face anything with curiosity.
Before becoming the good witch of ultimate serenity, Stilwell had been a highly stressed-out pharmacist, then an event production manager. At the age of 43, she completed a training with the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy Guides & Programs and started her own forest therapy company, called Renature, to help people destress by connecting to the planet.
I didn’t need the science behind rewilding, or restoring to a natural state, to believe that this forest could heal. Hours spent mindfully picking through and sitting still in Sintra-Cascais Natural Park were enough to remind me that there are other ways to live. That there are currents of energy running through the world that can help inform our intentions and actions if we are simply open to receiving the pulse of their messages. There is magic and wonder everywhere if you slow down and are open to experiencing it.