Spending time in nature just might have saved my life.
My father, Richard North, died in a Navy jet test flight crash when I was six years old. Fifteen months after his death, my mother, Helen North who had eight children, re-married a man named Frank Beardsley who had ten, making us one of the largest families in the country. We became famous, and our story was featured in the movie, Yours, Mine and Ours. But it wasn't one big happy family. We had to hide the fact that we were living a lie.
My stepfather was abusive on every level — physically, emotionally and sexually. His constant rage, disapproval and controlling personality left deep emotional scars. And to make matters worse, our family hid this from the outside world, so we each suffered in silence. Lacking any sense of self-worth, the toll I paid was enormous.
My experience was like that of most child abuse victims and I was driven to depression and drugs in my teen and early adult years. Many people may identify with these feelings, even if their home life was not as extreme as mine. But trauma is trauma — whether suffered in a living room or the theater of war.
I often wonder what would have happened if I hadn't been able to escape into nature.
Where can a child go to escape violence and abuse?
As I was growing up, I was very fortunate to live near the ocean, a river and the forest. Being in nature was the only source of sanity for me and I escaped that violent household as often as I could. At the time, little did I realize that I was tapping into the nature's incredible healing power. It was the counterpoint to my pain, and as I grew older it provided a pathway for me to emerge from the depression and shed my dependency on drugs. Even today, as an adult survivor of child abuse and domestic violence, I still benefit from it. I'm forever grateful for nature's healing therapy.
Scientific research establishes the many benefits we receive when spending time in the forest: lowered blood pressure, increase in the flow of energy, increased sense of happiness and a boosted immune system, to name a few. Not to mention, you'll probably feel a lot happier too.
In her book, The Drama of the Gifted Child, Alice Miller writes that children who have experienced violence and abuse resonate with nature because it feels safe, nurturing and loving — and because there's no threat there.
I believe that our essential nature has the same divine origin as all of nature — the universe around us — and when we make contact with our essential nature, we are making contact with the divine source of all manifestation. This is where healing can begin.
One of the reasons I practice meditation is that I learned it is vital to contact and connect with the divinity within myself, and being in nature helped me make that connection, even as a child.
Shinrin-yoku is a Japanese term that means "taking in the forest atmosphere," or "forest bathing." Shinrin-yoku is more than simply walking in the woods. It is breathing deeply and opening all the senses to receive the rejuvenating and restorative benefits of the forest.
Here are eight ways you can practice Shinrin-yoku:
1. Set aside an hour at least three times a week and walk in a forest.
2. Breathe deeply. Enjoy the different fragrances of the woods.
3. Listen attentively. Isolate the sounds of birds, breezes in the trees and even the rain.
4. Look closely at the details of leaves, needles, bark, rocks, etc.
5. Touch and commune with nature. Experience the sacred dialogue.
6. Meditate and connect with your inner spirit — your power.
7. Feel the deep connection nourishing the fire of your spirit.
8. Express gratitude.
My hope is that people who work with children will start forest walks in their communities. Of course we all can benefit, but children who are growing up in a household of violence and abuse need a safe, healing haven. Just like I did.