How forest bathing changed my life

Forest bathing is about connecting to nature. For Liz Dawes, it was a pathway to reconnecting to herself.

Thinking back 9 years ago to the moment I walked through the doors of my London law office for the last time, I still remember the feeling of a huge weight being lifted from my shoulders. It was the most liberating experience I’d had in a long time!

Why I left my life as a lawyer

I’d been a lawyer for 11 years and as I took my first steps toward a new life, I had no idea what that new life was going to look like. All I knew was that at the age of 42, I had to change track. Being a lawyer was never a life plan. I fell into it.

At 17, I emigrated with my family to southern California. It was heart wrenching to leave my friends at the all-girls private school I’d attended since I was 11 and completely overwhelming to restart my education in the senior year of an American Hight School.  It was the first time that I was consciously aware of feeling very much alone, a feeling that stayed with me for many of the years ahead.

I spent 4 years in California, attending Pepperdine University in Malibu for 18 months and then subsequently working in a coffee bar and experiencing all Los Angeles had to offer: the beaches, the nightlife, the iconic landmarks!

From California, I returned to the UK for a while but still not knowing what to do next, I went to The Netherlands where for a few years, I experienced a bohemian lifestyle, with no fixed roots or purpose. It was a time when I felt truly lost.

At the age of 25 I returned to college in the UK and enrolled on an introduction to law course. It felt great to be using my ‘brain’ again so I decided to study Law with French at a University in Lancashire.

When things began to change

Although I enjoyed studying law, practising it became different matter.

For the first few years, London life was exciting, thrilling and fulfilling. I dressed the part, I loved my designer clothes and it was great to have a healthy bank balance but I don’t recall ever feeling as though I belonged in this environment.

I always felt as though everyone else was more suited to the role of lawyer than I; I never felt good enough, I was consumed with self-doubt and felt like a fraud.  Of course, I masked these feelings. I was known for my good humour, the ever-smiling team member, the one who was great at networking events.  I never spoke to anyone about how I was truly feeling. On the inside, I felt desperately lonely, sad and incompetent.

My parents were workaholics and this pattern of behaviour became my survival mechanism. I worked at the weekends; often the only person the office. I worked late nights and early mornings, anything to avoid my true feelings.  And although I didn’t know it at the time, I worked to please others only: my colleagues, my superiors, my parents, everyone except myself.

Yet, the incessant workload, the long hours, the stress, the anxiety would often become too much. The after-work drinks on a Friday would frequently turn into an all-night binge drinking session and on sobering up, I’d despise myself, feeling overwhelmed with shame as I remembered my drunken antics.

I felt trapped. I knew I had to get out but I had no idea how or what I had to do to make the move.

Discovering what my new life should look like

An acquaintance recommended The Hoffman Process, a seven-day residential course whose tagline is “…when you’re serious about change..” I signed up without a moment’s hesitation and still to this day credit this course as the beginning of the rest of my life! Although not recommended by The Hoffman Institute, a month after doing the course, I’d quit my job and put my London flat on the market.

During an exercise I did on the Hoffman Process, I’d seen myself living by the sea. Without any dependents or needing permission from anyone, this vision was enough to prompt me to move to Hove, East Sussex.

I vividly remember how odd it felt to have no set routine, no morning commute, no compulsive checking of emails as soon as I woke up, no feelings of anxiety as I thought of my day ahead. And although selling my flat in London was not the best of commercial decisions, it was the price I had to pay to have the money to create this freedom I so desperately needed. The last thing I wanted to do was to jump into another job or career which didn’t suit me. Before I could know what to do next, I had to find an answer to the question: Who Am I?

My wellbeing became a priority. I took up running along the Brighton seafront, I quit smoking (the first time ever!), and I had regular sessions with an Ayurvedic practitioner.  I felt a healthy body would support a clear mind; I didn’t want to miss any clues to my next ‘incarnation’!

Walking though the Brighton streets one day, I saw a course advertised: Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. At the time (2012), I hadn’t heard of mindfulness but it was the ‘stress reduction’ part that had caught my eye: having experienced the damaging effects of stress in the workplace I felt that employers could be doing more to enhance the wellbeing of their employees.

What the Hoffman Process did for me

I signed up and four weeks into the course, I thought, this is what I want to do. I’m going to take mindfulness into the workplace and teach it as a stress reduction tool. I asked my teacher if I could sign up to the teacher training course but was told that first, I had to develop my own mindfulness practice which I did for a year and then trained to teach for another year.

However, just as I was ready to embark on this new path, I attended a one month-long silent retreat in Somerset at the end of which someone asked me if I wanted to join a group who would be travelling to Nepal. I jumped at the chance, Nepal being a place I’d always wanted to visit and to walk the Himalaya would be a dream come true!

And that dream did come true during an 11-day trek to Annapurna Base Camp! Being in the mountains, surrounded by majestic beauty, I was awe-struck! It was as if my inner nature, my essence, my spirit whom I’d met on the Hoffman Process knew all along that I needed to be in a natural environment to feel truly at peace. In hindsight, this was perhaps my first insight that Nature would be part of my ‘new’ life.

 

How travel changed me

After 2 months in Nepal, I extended my stay and when someone suggested I visit Varanasi in India, I thought why not! So off I went to Varanasi, my first visit to India.

A 15-hour bus ride later, I arrived in Varanasi late at night and checked in at a guest-house on the banks of the River Ganges. I woke early to the sound of bells and intrigued to find out more, took a stroll along the misty banks of this Holy River.  I discovered that the bells were associated with morning Aarti (prayers) and listening to the chanting, the mystical music, seeing people taking their morning bath in the sacred waters, the cows meandering along, it was magical, exciting, other-worldly.  I felt something awakening inside of me.

In ancient texts Varanasi is referred to as Kāśī from the Sanskrit verbal root kaś ‘to shine’, making Varanasi known as “The City of Light”. I truly felt that a light had entered my body, as if my spirit was shining.

I had to see more of this enchanting country.

Travelling in India continued my education

I returned to the UK, gave up my flat in Hove and went back to India.  I met up with a friend (also a former London lawyer) in Rishikesh. From there my friend and I travelled to an ashram in Haidakhan, in the Kumaon region of Northern India. I had yet another magical time.  We would wake before sunrise, take a morning bath in the river and attend Aarti before breakfast.  We were each assigned a job for the day and for me, it was the simplest yet most fulfilling way of life I had experienced; living and working in and for the community.  How different this way of life was from the one I’d known in London where everyone was island; where no-one ‘had my back’; where competitiveness between colleagues was the norm.

India was feeding my spirit, something I’d never given myself the opportunity to do.  I felt as though I was beginning to know me.

After a few months travelling around India, I returned to Rishikesh and began to attend satsang with a Brazilian teacher. I was overjoyed to discover that these satsangs continued the work I had begun on the Hoffman Process; looking at the negative patterns of behaviour and thoughts that were so deeply ingrained, which for so many years I had thought were me and which had ultimately driven me into a career that simply wasn’t for me.

Wanting to deepen my self-knowledge, I spent a few months with the Brazilian teacher at his ashram in Brazil. During his satsangs, I re-experienced the suppressed pain I had accumulated over the years; the pain of loneliness, the pain of pleasing, the pain of not feeling good enough, the pain of continually striving. I cried and I cried and I cried.

Releasing the anguish which had weighed me down for years was incredibly liberating.  I felt light hearted, refreshed, accepted, joyful. And at the end of each satsang, the band would play the most beautiful music as we all sang in harmony ancient Indian mantras. The bliss I began to feel during these times was ‘off the scale’. How could I be feeling so high, so carefree, so exhilarated without drink or drugs? But I was!

For the next three years, I continued to spend extended periods of time in India, some of the time with the Brazilian teacher and other times travelling solo, experiencing the vibrancy, the colours, the chaos and the serenity of this amazing country.  It was during this time that whenever possible, daily morning walks in Nature became my routine.  I started to feel as though I ‘needed’ to be in Nature. I needed to be amongst the trees, the rivers, the hills. I needed to feel the sun, the wind, the rain against my skin.  I needed to feel the expansiveness of Mother Nature.

Yet in March 2019, I returned to the UK and for the first time, I didn’t have the burning desire to get back to India as I had on all previous occasions. It became apparent that for all I had received from India, it was time to move on again. But still I didn’t know what I was going to do.

The final piece of the puzzle: forest bathing

I remembered a conversation I’d had 6 months prior with Sylvie Rokab, a Californian film director who I’d met briefly whilst visiting family in Los Angeles. I mentioned to Sylvie that I was a mindfulness teacher and that I loved being in Nature. Sylvie suggested that I check out forest bathing.

Reading about forest bathing on the Association of Nature Forest Therapy website, my whole body was tingling. I absolutely knew that this work was for me.  I immediately applied to do the 6-months training programme and loved every minute of it! I had loved teaching mindfulness too but always felt that something was missing and now I knew what; my love of the outdoors and my spirit connection to Nature.

What is forest bathing?

Forest bathing in its simplest form is taking a slow walk in a natural environment but as a practice, it so much more. On a forest bathing walk, we take time out from everyday lives and with Nature as a mirror, we often meet aspects of ourselves that we haven’t noticed in a long time, if ever.  It’s a practice that supports a heart connection with Nature too, and from there, a relationship develops. And as with any loving relationship, as Jacques Cousteau once said, ‘people protect what they love’ and so forest bathing also acts to deepen our love of Mother Earth and our willingness to protect her.

For the past two years, I feel that I’ve been living a life worth living and it’s an honour to call the amazing Broughton Hall Estate in Yorkshire my ‘place of work’. It’s been a long journey to reach this place of contentment, a journey that has tested my patience, my resilience, and which has sometimes taken me to the depths of despair.  But it’s also been the most rewarding of journeys too; I’ve had some of the most unforgettable experiences and am truly grateful that at last, I’ve found my calling in the form of reconnecting people with Nature.

Taking those last steps out of the London office that day was a huge leap of faith and steps I haven’t regretted at any moment since. I’ve had to place trust in an unknown process and although I used to roll my eyes when I heard the saying “The universe has your back”, the saying has in fact become a personal mantra. There are still aspects of my life that are not ‘perfect’ but life truly is a journey to be lived, not endured and I now live with optimism and love for my life and for what lies ahead. I wonder, in the words of Mary Oliver, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Liz Dawes

More resources

See Liz’s Nature Based Wellbeing Days

The Forest Therapy Guide

Instagram: @The_ForestGuru

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