Out of the woods

Karen Thorburn

Twenty-first century life is incredibly hectic. Most people’s diaries are jam-packed with work, family and social commitments. Productivity is viewed in black and white terms: being busy is good; idleness is bad. We must always be somewhere; doing something.

Last summer, my dad passed away at the peak of my busiest time of the year. I was overwhelmed with work to the extent that I couldn’t begin to process this enormous loss, nor could I devote any time to simple pleasures which would nourish my soul and help me to de-stress, such as a peaceful walk through the countryside.

Lone tree on Wood Hill near Avoch on the Black Isle

Newly self-employed and with mounting deadlines and no opportunity for compassionate leave, my only option was to bottle up my emotions, attach a smile to my face and keep going. Time and again, I received well-meant messages along the lines of, “I’m glad you’re keeping busy during such a difficult time.” The months rolled by, obligations were fulfilled, and I finally found some time and space in which to think. Why is work-related stress considered a positive distraction at a time of immense grief? Must reflection and self-care always be an afterthought? How could I start to untangle myself from this complex web of emotions?

Tentsmuir Forest, Fife

Two months ago, I joined a support group to connect with other women whose lives have been touched by cancer; either their own or that of a loved one, as in my case. During one session, the class was instructed to take a short walk outdoors, in silence, and focus all our senses on the surroundings; from the feel of frost crunching underfoot, to the dappled winter sunlight on our faces, and the road noise rising from the other side of the fence. We discussed the exercise afterwards and I was disturbed to hear that, for many of the participants, this was a new experience on two levels: 1) switching off from conversation and our own thoughts long enough to engage with the world around us in a meaningful way; and 2) walking without a purpose; walking for the sake of walking.

Over the past couple of years, my own circumstances led me into this trap. I found myself nearly always too busy to venture outdoors for regular walks and I was constantly on auto-pilot; so pre-occupied with my own anxieties that, some days, if I did manage to get out and about, I could clock up thousands of steps and barely notice the landscape around me. I ruminated over my redundancy and my dad’s diagnosis. I worried about the future. I put one foot in front of the other until I ended up back at my car.

Dochgarroch, Inverness

I had something of a wake-up call in the support group when I learned that, on average, we spend only three minutes out of every hour fully focused on the present moment. Who wants to go through life feeling trapped in a busy mind 95% of the time? Whilst it’s impossible to flick the brain’s off switch, perhaps we can at least press pause now and again.

‘Mindfulness’ is the latest trendy buzzword that might have you reaching to close your internet browser but bear with me! Essentially, mindfulness is about using some straightforward techniques to help let go of stress and live in the present moment, free of judgement, and ultimately find more peace and fulfilment. I’ve recently been taught many techniques for relaxation and meditation, from paying closer attention to the texture, appearance and taste of the food that I eat, to simply closing my eyes and tuning into the sounds around me to find a moment of calm; always bringing my attention back to the deep inhale and slow exhale of my breath when my mind inevitably starts to wander.

The Hermitage, Perthshire

When it comes to being mindful, like most aspects of life, it’s not a case of ‘one size fits all’. It’s about working out what feels right for you. It came as no surprise to me that the methods which I find most effective are the ones most closely related to the outdoors. While we’re out walking, we might pay attention to the sensations in our own bodies, perhaps our shifting weight as we lift and plant our feet, or the feel of our arms swinging by our sides. Personally, I much prefer to concentrate on the world around me and try to let it hold my attention, while I gently push away any unwelcome thoughts.

As part of my ongoing mission to restore my work/life balance, I recently combined a meeting with a client in North Kessock with a walk in the woods. After a coffee and a chat about wedding photography, I parked in the village, pulled on my walking boots, switched my phone to silent, picked up my packed lunch and compact camera, and set off under the busy Kessock Bridge, bound for the woodland surrounding Ord Hill.

Bluebell Woods, Blairgowrie

The circular forestry track circumnavigating the hill was fairly busy with families and dog walkers on a Saturday afternoon. Despite frustrations over loud chatter, some scraps of litter on the verges and dog’s dirt near the Drumsmittal car park, I managed to find some ‘headspace’. I enjoyed an undisturbed picnic overlooking the secluded hamlet of Kilmuir, with the distinctive outline of Chanonry Point and Fort George beyond, further out into the Moray Firth. The peaceful path between North Kessock and Ord Hill revealed limited signs of human activity, save for some muddy footprints and the distant hum of traffic on the A9. I felt a sense of calm, surrounded by mature deciduous trees, alive with birdsong, with views outwards towards the bustling city of Inverness. My mobile phone, buried the depths of my rucksack, was temporarily forgotten. My jaw had unclenched, and a natural smile had spread across my face. I felt like a human being again; not a human doing.

Overlooking the Moray Firth from Ord Hill on the Black Isle

Life remains hectic and I still experience heart-sinking moments when I see an upcoming busy schedule in my diary, but it feels good to have taken a stand against the default mode of busyness and mindlessness. Time spent in the great outdoors, simply walking, is near the top of my agenda once more. Putting one foot in front of the other in the beautiful surroundings of the Highlands has never felt so good, whether it’s trekking through the hills, skirting along the coastline, or simply being alone in the woods. And, on days when I can’t venture far from my desk, I can at least find a few minutes to put my feet up, close my eyes and conjure up these landscapes and the sense of well-being that they provide.

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You should always carry a backup means of navigation and not rely on a single phone, app or map. Walking can be dangerous and is done entirely at your own risk. Information is provided free of charge; it is every walker's responsibility to check it and to navigate safely.