There exists something so simple, so graceful, so self-sustained, so full of calm and free of suffering and sadness in this world, which most of us take for granted. This something has the power to transform our souls and hearts from dark to light, from overwhelmed to peaceful. Believe it or not, this cure-all is no more than a few feet away from you, right this very minute.
Life tends to shake us up from time to time. There are times when we feel broken, even irreparably. There are times when even I, who pride on being a rather positive person, feel such a loss of hope in this world that I cannot even see a way for us to change it. This is the exact moment when it is necessary to take a walk, a run, a hike, even take a seat outdoors. Soak up everything that the universe has provided for us in its infinite wisdom. Whatever or whomever you believe in has created this world, so give thanks by enjoying all it has to offer.
I run about six mornings a week in a small park by our apartment. It is wedged between our apartment complex and a high-volume industrial zone chock full of plastics factories, tanneries and garbage treatment plants. When we first moved into our apartment last winter I was overwhelmed by the smell of burning plastic and to be honest, quite annoyed by it as well. As anyone who has ever worked out outdoors can tell you, when you are taking big panting breaths every other step, you want the air that reaches your lungs to be clean and stink-free. As time went on, the plastic-smell dissipated and I began to see the park for what it really was. It’s incredible–a tiny slice of paradise between two man-made mini-cities. It is the one place that my dog and I can happily lie in the sun for hours outdoors and it is my solace when I need a break from life. The trees soak up the generous sunlight and the grass flourishes on the small rolling hills. The little lake in the middle is surrounded by rocks and a few happy bridges cross over at points for our viewing pleasure. My favorite part about the park is the fact that everyone enjoys it. There are elderly folks and babies, dogs and cats and one man I see every morning who waves as I run by. This park is for everyone; it’s as if our city said, we know this is kind of a built-up area filled with some smoke and factories, here’s a small way to heal your soul. The Korean people know what they are doing.
In most parts of Korea as far as you can see there are mountains. In the summer they are green and sort of puffy-looking from afar, packed with trees and bushes; and in the winter, the rock faces shine with ice in the silvery sunlight. My husband and I have hiked in every season and fall is my favorite. There is something so basic and natural about scrambling up the side of a mountain with no equipment other than your legs and your sneakers that tap on your heart as if to say “Hey! You! Remember how much you love being this close to nature? Let’s do this more often.” I am at my absolute peak of happiness when I am surrounded by trees and rocks and caves and dirt. When I was very young, I wanted to be the girl version of Sam in the book My Side of the Mountain, by Jean Craighead George. I wanted nothing more than to move into the nature preserve behind my house and quit society. I grew up unbelievably lucky to be surrounded by thousands of acres of state-protected woodlands and trails on Long Island, about 50 miles from New York City. It is virtually unheard of to have that much land outside your back gate in such a populated area. As my mom puts it: “We can walk into the woods and be gone for hours and hours, come back and walk 5 minutes up the street to the deli to get coffee.”
There is something so deeply ingrained in our souls that forces us to be outside and in nature. In his groundbreaking Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv discusses the problems we would face as a society as our children become increasingly detached from nature. Today’s children spend more time on schoolwork (32.5 hours a week, compared to 25 hours a week 20 years ago)–and when they’re not studying, any number of gadgets, tablets, and screens are at their disposal. Many studies have also linked children spending less time outdoors with increased risk of myopia and attention deficit disorders. Louv calls this deprivation a “staggering divide between children and the outdoors.” By contrast, being in nature has been proven to relieve mental fatigue, reduce anxiety, and restore focus. Exercising outside is even more beneficial than doing the same activity inside: It has additional disease-prevention benefits, and studies have shown that being outside has the effect of reducing perceived exertion, thus making you run or cycle faster, seemingly without more effort.
One of my favorite quotes inspires me anytime I feel too tired or stressed to go for a run or a walk: “For one minute, walk outside, stand there in silence. Look up at the sky, and contemplate how amazing life is.”
This universe created us, shouldn’t we get back to basics and learn what we are made of?
Get outside, I promise it will be worth it.
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Photo: Kate Coffey