Some Rituals Can Be Good for You-Like Taking a New Year’s Walk in the Woods
Some places are sacred. Forests are one of them.
There are certain places we go where the ground feels somehow sacred. The space feels deep and the air is tinged with heaviness. That’s how I feel when I enter the forest, when I walk amongst the moss-covered giants that line the forest floor.
I immediately feel as if I should be quieter, and more careful with my steps. As if the things that the trees have to say are somehow more important than anything I might have to add to the conversation.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, forests are abundant and filled with entire ecosystems of plant and animal life interdependent on a delicate balance of moisture, sunlight and soil temperature.
When I walk, I try not to step off the path. I try not to disturb the forest floor.
I have understood for some time the importance of balance. Our environment requires it. Our bodies thrive on it. Our psyche longs for it. My psyche, in particular, is somewhat lost without it, and so I go one of two places when I feel out of balance — the forest or the ocean.
I go to the ocean because the tides seem to calm my chaotic mind and reset my body’s natural rhythms. The changing winds and powerful waters remind me that I am not really in control of anything.
I go to the forest to hear the deep wisdom of the earth. To connect with its energy.
We often feel a sense of anticipation at the beginning of a new year. Even though each day is a new day, for some reason a new year feels like a clean slate. A second chance. And so I take a sacred walk — every New Year’s Day. I walk alone and I try to see and hear whatever life needs to tell me. Most of the time I go someplace quiet — so I can listen for the sound of my inner voice. The witness. The knower. The part of me that sees what is really there beyond the shadow that life casts over my existence. To see if I can connect with my true self long enough to gain some wisdom for the next part of the journey.
If I’m honest, most of the time I don’t listen to what my heart is telling me. I listen instead to the phone, the calendar, my stomach, what other people think / need / want, and a thousand other things that don’t really matter in a big picture kind of way. When I do spend time alone it’s usually with the intention of accomplishing some task with an unchecked box. Rarely do I get alone with myself with the intention of just listening. “Be-ing”.
Reflection is too often simple hindsight paired with guilt and regret, instead of a serious discussion with our own hearts that ends with life-altering consequences.
This year’s walk did not disappoint. As I ambled quietly through the forest I tried to empty my mind and heart of any thoughts or fears, doubts or expectations. Tuning into my surroundings, I wanted see if there was wisdom to be found amongst the plants and the trees. Wisdom I could apply to my life. To help me navigate my own path.
There is a time and a place for revering the sacred. Not everything is sacred every day, but there is much to be gained by an intentional practice of setting aside time to be with nature. To be with ourselves. To reflect upon the comings and goings of a life too often distracted but the tyranny of the urgent.
Your life is a mirror. Your calendar and your bank account will tell you more about your priorities than any Enneagram or personality test could ever hope to nail down, and yet we bypass all the little signals until there’s a big event or a major catastrophe that forces a reset. Maybe not everyone does this, but I’ve noticed this pattern in my life, and I’m trying to change it.
And so I walk. Intentionally. Trying not to judge my own failures and shortcomings. Trying to find love and wisdom in the looking backward, and hope for the future.
In order for a ship to get to its destination, frequent course corrections are necessary. Someone has to man the wheel. Someone needs to be in charge of watching the weather — taking into account the force of the wind and the waves, and pushing back against the storms. If you’re the captain of your own life, you can’t expect to get where you want to go by speaking it out loud and then going to the bar for a few drinks and a game of black jack. Not if you expect to arrive on time and in one piece.
And yet, this is how many of us pilot our own lives. With only a vague idea of where we want to end up, and if we’re truly honest, not a lot of understanding of how we’re going to get there.
Knowing where you want to go is step one.
I set goals each year, but then I re-evaluate those goals on a regular basis. You have to. Goals aren’t rules. They aren’t set in stone. They’re a heading on a compass, and they can always be adjusted.
Sometimes where we think we want to go ends up being less appealing once we start down the road. The point isn’t to get there no matter what. The point is to continually ask yourself the right questions. The hard questions. Questions that require answers as well as actions. Actions that may not be comfortable. Actions that feel a lot like discipline.
What’s the alternative? To wander through life and never accomplish any of our goals? Life is way too short to live with that kind of regret.
I’m not talking about lofty goals either. It doesn’t have to be solving global warming or taking a manned flight to outer space or making a million dollars. Your very legitimate goal might be to live more simply. To volunteer more. To get control of your blood sugar.
The scope of your goals will determine how often you need to reassess and course correct. Blood sugar issues might be a daily look, while living a more simple lifestyle might be a process that involves taking a look each month at a different aspect of your life and making systematic decisions.
Every goal can be broken down into smaller, attainable pieces, but the questions remain the same: Am I still on the path? Or did that last storm blow me off course a little? What will it take to get back on track? It’s nice when you’re walking on marked trails with signposts every so often. It’s a little more difficult when you’re blazing your own trail. Both are do-able. Both are valid.
Getting off-course isn’t a signpost of failure. It’s life. It’s expected. It’s normal.
We can’t always predict the weather, we just have to steer through the storms. Sometimes that means losing time and getting there a little later than we’d planned, but that’s all just part of the journey.
Sometimes we feel like we aren’t at the helm of our own lives. It feels more like life is steering us and we’re just along for the ride. Setting goals is step one to taking back control. As January draws to a close I can see now where some of my goals were right on target. Others need adjustment.
The forest is a beautiful reminder of the passage of time and the cycle of seasons, that life is interconnected, and each breath is a privilege. This path we walk is a sacred journey filled with storms and sunlight and quiet growth.
Happy trails, friends…