Practicing Shinrin-Yoku today. The colours, the textures, the sounds, the smells. Could this be my new happy place?
Over two months ago I wrote my last blog post, The long journey home. Today I write having completed that journey.
A journey that took us over a month and 26,500 km (16,460 miles), six flights (not counting the four flights that were booked and cancelled), four countries, 14 days hotel quarantine, seven Covid tests, and 150 kg of luggage (again not counting the 16 cubic metres of belongings that are on a slow boat from China which will hopefully arrive by Christmas).
Moving countries is never easy. Moving countries during a global pandemic is one of the most stressful things I’ve ever done. Usually I focus on the end goal as I work through the steps to achieving it, whether that has been training for and completing the Great Wall Half Marathon or returning to study. But this time the steps we needed to complete were not entirely within my control. Would we be able to get a flight out of China? Would our US visa application be approved? Would we be given permission to leave Australia? Would we test negative for the virus?
To be honest I still can’t believe we made it.
What lessons did I learn during this experience?
1. Firstly, don’t try to move countries during a pandemic. Especially when there are increasing political tensions between those countries. (Seriously, DO NOT do it!)
2. Focus on achieving one step at a time.
3. Recognise and accept that there are things beyond your control.
4. Family is the most important thing. No matter where we are, where we will end up, as long as we are together.
It may seem at times like you’re thousands of miles from where you want to be, but step back for a moment and maybe you’ll see you’re actually just on a long journey home.
This crisis has disrupted the plans of so many people across the planet. In my world, friends and colleagues are in China are wondering when they’ll be able to travel and see family outside the country again. For those who weren’t able to return, they are wondering when they’ll see their friends and homes in China. Some, for a multitude of reasons, may never return.
For my family we chose to come back for many reasons. One compelling reason was so that we could say goodbye. The decision to leave China in July had been made many months before we heard of Covid 19. Sheltering in Australia during the worst of the pandemic in China we knew we had to return. This was our home, the only home our son had ever known. We had to say goodbye to close friends, people who had supported us for the better part of a decade. We had to have closure. My heart cries for those people who never had the chance to say goodbye.
Currently, we don’t know when we’ll be able to leave. Flights are booked but in this new pandemic stricken world there’s no guarantee the flight will depart as scheduled.
Like so many people I’ve been struggling with the lack of control I have over my life. There have been times in the last few months where I honestly had no idea where I’d be in July, how I’d get there and when I’d go.
During this time I have found a calmness by practicing mindfulness and meditating. Last week, just when I needed it most, I heard the story of the American Golden Plover’s migration from Argentina to the Arctic Circle and back. A journey of up to 20,000 miles every year. The final message resonated so strongly I had to share it.
So as you go about your day, consider the shorebird’s incredible migration. It may seem at times like you’re thousands of miles from where you want to be, but step back for a moment and maybe you’ll see you’re actually just on a long journey home.
(For those interested I use the Headspace app and highly recommend you check it out if you haven’t already. #notgettingpaidforthis)
In these challenging times I’d be surprised if every one of us hasn’t had at least one meltdown in the past few months.
My first came the day we were supposed to be returning home from our holiday. We were in a grocery store buying food supplies for our “holiday” that had been extended indefinitely. Given we were in a supermarket in a small village in Malaysia it will come as no surprise that the usual Coles / Tesco / Trader Joes product range was not available. Having lived in China for nine years I am quite adaptable when it comes to food choice BUT it wasn’t really about that. I just wanted to be home. I wanted certainty. I was fighting back the tears, resisting the urge to have a tantrum in aisle 7 like an overtired toddler, when my son complained that there was nothing there he liked. I snapped. “There’s nothing here I like either!!”
Taking a few deep breathes (OK it was more than a few) I calmly returned to the scene of the crime. I explained to my son why I was upset and my husband gave us a hug and said he felt the same.
This may have been the first but it definitely wasn’t the last.
I’m not advocating that a meltdown should be a regular occurrence but there is some value to having one occasionally. (Nor am I suggesting actual violence.)
I am a strong believer that bottling up your emotions is not good in the long run. It can lead to a rage of nuclear proportions with much collateral damage.
Showing your feelings, talking about how you feel with your children is important. Parents are not perfect, we can’t expect our children to be either. Teach them that we all get upset and angry. It’s your behaviour afterwards that important. Apologise, explain why your feeling the way you are.
Reflect on why you behaved the way you did, what you will do differently next time. Voice your frustrations before they take control of your behaviour. Often the reasons run deeper than what triggered the meltdown. Communicate. Communicate. Communicate.
When we finally returned home we were in quarantine for two weeks. We could not leave our apartment. We were limited to the number of food deliveries. Rubbish was also removed at this time. To save bin space I’d asked my family to make sure they crushed down the drink cartons. I reminded them regularly. Often I would just crush the carton myself. One day, near the end of the quarantine, I was putting some rubbish in the bin. And there was the carton UNCRUSHED!!! I sighed and walked to my room to take a few breathes. However, I suspect my sigh was a bit louder than the usual sigh. As was the, not so gentle, closing of the bedroom door. A few minutes later my family came in and gave me a hug “We figured it out, Mum. We’ve crushed the carton. Only two more days to go. We can make it.”
What’s your biggest meltdown during these challenging times? What did you learn from it?
Today my son goes back to school. It has been three months since our world went crazy. Today life starts getting back to normal.
We left for Malaysia for a relaxing 10 day holiday. We stayed for three weeks. Another holiday that did not go as expected.
Two days into what was supposed to be a time for us to be together as a family, the Chinese government announced a comprehensive plan to fight the corona virus that was spreading throughout the country. Our school would be closed for an extra two weeks. My husband, a school principal, went into crisis management mode, communicating with staff and parents the school’s plans while the situation changed on a daily basis.
My son started remote learning, his lessons sent online by his amazing teachers. I had committed to full-time university study. Luckily (or unluckily) my subjects were already online as I was studying externally.
For the next three weeks we worked out of a series of hotel rooms while we waited for school to re-open. There was no relaxing family time together. (Although we did get to see some amazing sunsets.)
Then the announcement that school would be closed indefinitely. We couldn’t continue working out of hotel rooms. We couldn’t afford it. So we went to Australia to stay with my family. At the time Australia seemed the safest place to be.
My son continued remote learning and had his first experience of attending school in Australia. My husband continued in crisis management mode trying to keep a school community together that was spread across the world. And I kept studying!
For the next four weeks we worked at my parents dining table while we waited for school to re-open. We got to spend time with my parents, siblings, nieces and nephews. (It was the longest time I have spent with my family since I left home when I was 18!)
Four weeks later we could see that China was starting to get things under control. In the meantime, the rest of the world was starting to feel the effects. My husband was called back to work to prepare for a re-opening sometime in the future. We decided to go with him because we thought that if we stayed in Australia we probably wouldn’t see each other for what could be months. (In hindsight this would have been our reality as China soon closed its borders to foreign nationals.)
Then followed one of the scariest times of my life. Flying into a foreign country not knowing what we would find there. What would happen?
Luckily we were quarantined for two weeks in our apartment. Only allowed to open our door once or twice a day to pass out rubbish and collect food deliveries. (And yes, we are the lucky ones as we got to stay in our own home and sleep in our own beds that we hadn’t been in for seven weeks.)
Two weeks of more study, remote learning, crisis communication. Never leaving our apartment. Then freedom to move (but wearing a mask all the time and washing our hands regularly). School reopening dates announced.
Today my son goes back to school. It has been three months since our world went crazy. Today life starts getting back to normal.
For family and friends around the world still in lock down or similar; stay safe, keep calm, remain patient, this too will pass. We all have a responsibility to do what we can to help save lives.
In a little over two months the world has changed. Irrevocably. It will never be the same. Where do I start? How do I start? What do I say?
We left for Malaysia for a relaxing 10 day holiday. We stayed for three weeks. Then another three weeks in Australia. And now two weeks in China in our apartment to complete our quarantine.
In late January it was just the flu, nothing to worry about. China will sort it out. Lucky we left just before it got crazy. Our thoughts were with our friends still in China.
Now the world has gone mad. Panic buying toilet paper. People hiding in their homes. Schools closed. International flights grounded. Football seasons finished before they began.
Who knows when it will end. We’re all scared. We’re all afraid. We’re confused. What should we do? What can we do?
Stay calm. Stay close to home.
This is a world war but we’re not fighting each other.
Don’t spread germs. Wash your hands. Don’t spread misinformation. Think twice before you share that post. Misinformation is just as dangerous as the virus.
Keep Calm and Carry On.
We have had a fun-filled three weeks in Australia catching up with family and friends in three states; Western Australia, South Australia and New South Wales. However, underlying is a deep sadness as every state we visited is experiencing drought and/or bushfires.
We talked to family and friends, people who are volunteers with the Rural Fire Service in the Blue Mountains, farmers in central west NSW, and they say they have never seen their home, their land, their country like it is now.
On New Years Day, where we were staying had one of the highest AQI’s in the world because of the smoke from the fires in NSW and Victoria and the dust from the drought. Even living in China for eight years I have never experienced such pollution.
To see my home, my family and friends, the animals, the environment suffering like this is heartbreaking. I am not afraid to say I was bought to tears more than once.
For now I wish for everyone to stay safe. For gentle soaking rains to come as soon as possible. And finally for the Australian government (and governments around the world) to stop playing the politics game, realize their people are hurting and take action.
However, I also feel strongly that we can’t wait for someone else to fix these problems. We have to take action ourselves.
My resolution (and one I would commit to regardless of whether it was a new year or not) is to learn more about the environment, what is happening to our world and what I can do. To educate myself and to do something, no matter how small. Because we can all make a difference and it is everyone’s responsibility to do something.
To read more about the bushfires and drought in Australia:
- Australia fires: A visual guide to the bushfires and extreme heat https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-australia-50951043
- No End In Sight For Crippling Drought https://www.nationalgeographic.com.au/australia/no-end-in-sight-for-crippling-drought.aspx
- How bad is this drought and is it caused by climate change? https://www.smh.com.au/environment/climate-change/how-bad-is-this-drought-and-is-it-caused-by-climate-change-20191024-p533xc.html
And finally a more personal experience. Below is a video made by the children of family friends on their farm in central western NSW:
I’ve just been diagnosed with FOMOOF!
OK, so I diagnosed myself. And I also totally made up the condition. But that doesn’t mean it’s not accurate. And I’m willing to bet that there are other people out there with FOMOOF. I know that I am not alone.
So what is FOMOOF and how did I get it?
FOMOOF is Fear Of Missing Out On Food. It is part of the FOMO range of conditions. FOMO is usually associated with social occasions and forces people to go out when they are really tired or even when an actual doctor has diagnosed them with an illness. You can often spot these people when they tell you they can’t drink because they are “on antibiotics”.
So when did I get FOMOOF? As far as I can tell I’ve had it since childhood. I can clearly remember eating so much at a friend’s birthday party that I vomited afterwards. I could not stop myself eating the fairy bread, chocolate crackles and ice cream birthday cake plus the copious cups of cola I consumed. None of which we would ever have on a normal day at home.
Which also leads me to suspect that FOMOOF may be genetic. My family haven’t had the testing yet but I won’t be surprised if at least one or two of them also suffer from FOMOOF. It’s something I plan to discuss with them over Christmas dinner next month.
I came to suspect I may have FOMOOF while I have been living in China. Access to many of my favourite foods in China can be limited, either I just can’t get them or they are very expensive. As a result I go totally crazy when I return to Australia (or visit England). I consume huge amounts of cheese, chocolate, chocolate milk, chocolate desserts, fish and chips, steak, sausages, pastries all with the excuse that I can’t get this in China. I’ve also noticed lately that just before I leave China and just after I arrive I am compelled to eat dumplings, Chinese BBQ sticks and hot pot because, well, I can’t get this in Australia (or England).
Now I know I have this condition I am much more aware of my compulsions and will try to control my obsession. However, I also realise that this is something I will live with for the rest of my life.
My name is Kim and I am living with FOMOOF.
So, hands up, who else thinks they have FOMOOF?
I couldn’t have picked a better day to practice shinrin-yoku (forest bathing). Today was a classic autumn day. Cool. Crisp. Blue skies. Beautiful.
This past month has been busy. There hasn’t been much opportunity to go for a long walk. And I could feel it. The walls closing in. A tightness in my chest. The feeling of being constricted.
Other than choosing a place and a time I don’t plan or think too much about the practice. I let instinct take me wherever. After a month of planned days, today felt like a release. Freedom.
Some how my walk evolves into a close up observation of nature surrounding me. As I walk I stop to notice the small things. The colours, textures, shadows, sounds and smells.
The red berries nestled among the green leaves.
The sharp spiky needles.
The tiny fish swimming among the reeds.
The fluorescent green algae.
The bark peeling off the tree.
The cold smooth stones.
The thick spongy grass.
The rustle as I walk through the autumn leaves.
The roots straining down to reach the waters edge.
The sunlight shining through the leaves.
The scarred fruit fallen on the ground.
The contrast between the blue sky and the yellow berries.
And finally the gracefulness of tai chi. Surely the most peaceful form of exercise?
Whenever we visit my husband’s family in England I really look forward to walking in the nature reserve near their home.
Formerly a farm, the nature reserve is now 33 hectares of wildflower meadows, woodland, ancient hedgerows and ponds. While we are visiting I walk there most days. I refer to it as my “happy place”.
During our stay this summer I was reflecting on why I enjoy being there so much. At about the same time there was an article on the ABC about shinrin-yoku, the Japanese tradition of forest bathing. Shinrin in Japanese means forest and yoku means bath. So shinrin-yoku means bathing in the forest atmosphere. It is simply being in nature and connecting with it using all of our senses. (And, no you don’t have to get naked for it.)
Intrigued by this, I thought I would explore the concept more by reading Forest Bathing by Dr Qing Li. Dr Li is one of the world’s leading experts on forest bathing. He has been investigating the science behind why forests and nature make us happier and healthier.
Some people study forests. Some people study medicine. I study forest medicine to find out all the ways in which walking in the forest can improve our well-being.
In Forest Bathing, Dr Li shares some of his research, as well as others, into the health benefits of shinrin-yoku. He also outlines how to practice forest bathing.
Make sure you have left your phone and camera behind. You are going to be walking aimlessly and slowly. You don’t need any devices. Let your body be your guide. Listen to where it wants to take you. Follow your nose. And take your time. It doesn’t matter if you don’t get anywhere. You are not going anywhere. You are savouring the sounds, smells and sights of nature and letting the forest in.
Last week I went forest bathing at a park near my home. I listened to the sounds around me. I stopped to smell the trees, the flowers, the air. I felt the bark on the trees, the wind blowing in my hair, the feeling of the thick grass under my feet. I looked closely at the leaves, the flowers, the sky. The only sense I didn’t use was taste (for obvious reasons).
Cities are full of excitement, innovation and energy. But living in a city is stressful. And the more we live in them, the more stress we have. The more stress we have, the sicker we get. We have more heart attacks, strokes and cancer. And we have more mental illness, more addictions, loneliness, depression and panic attacks. And, of course, the more expensive our healthcare becomes.
Anxiety and depression cost the EU about 170 billion euros a year. They cost America about 210 billion dollars.
Forest bathing will help you to unplug from technology and slow down. It will bring you into the present moment and de-stress and relax you.
(Yes, I brought a device, but only for the purpose of sharing my experience with you, dear reader.)
Afterwards I definitely felt more relaxed, peaceful even. I think I slept better too. Overall it was a really calming experience.
So, am I convinced? Yes. And no.
After all, it seems obvious to me that taking a few hours out of your day to relax will make you feel better. And walking in nature is definitely better than watching TV or scrolling through social media. I guess this is where the science comes into it. Dr Li talks about how his research, and that of others, can prove that forest bathing boosts the immune system, decreases anxiety, depression and anger and reduces stress.
Over the past few years I have been focusing on exercise, meditation and mindfulness to help improve my health and well-being. Forest bathing is definitely a lot easier to practice than the others. Maybe it is finding a balance between all of these.
And if shinrin-yoku is so good for us, it just strengthens the argument to protect the environment. Perhaps if a few more people went forest bathing we would have a calmer world…
My final summation? Give it a go, it can’t hurt.
Forests are an amazing resource. They give us everything we rely on in order to exist. They produce oxygen, cleanse the air we breathe and purify our water. They stop flooding rivers and streams and the erosion of mountains and hills. They provide us with food, clothing and shelter and with the materials we need for furniture and tools. In addition to this, forests have always helped us to heal our wounds and to cure our diseases. And, from time immemorial, they have relived us of our worries, eased our troubled minds, restored and refreshed us.
Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness, Dr Qing Li, Penguin Books, 2019, ISBN: 978-0-241-37760-4