I’d like to prescribe you a forest bath
Because you need one. And I need one. We all need some forest bathing as we enter into 2017.
Don’t worry — forest bathing doesn’t require a bathing suit, although you might want to wear one; it’s great to include some water feature like a waterfall or a dip in a lake as part of your bath. And forest bathing is not an epic trek through Patagonia or even a calorie-burning 10-miler. It’s also not led by a park ranger and there are no maps involved. There will be no compasses or hiking poles.
If you’ve ever taken a walk in the woods Thoreau-style, you may be aware of the benefits of nature.
All of sudden, you can breathe again. The thoughts racing through your head slow down and begin to magically reprioritize themselves — the stuff that doesn’t matter starts to fade away. If you’re with friends, the conversations start to go deeper. You might find yourself talking about dreams, intentions, manifestations. This is your soul talking. It’s always talking but usually we are so stuck in our minds that we don’t take the time to really listen.
Being in the forest deliberately is like getting on the highway to consciousness. It will activate you so quickly. As John Muir said, “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.”
Forest bathing encourages you to hug the trees, touch the ferns, pick up the leaves, smell the flowers, and listen to your soul. It’s about engaging all your senses deeply and luxuriating among the trees.
So now you might be wondering, “what exactly is forest bathing?”
It’s based on the Japanese term shinrin-yoku, which was coined by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in 1982.
But really the practice of forest bathing goes back a lot further than that. There’s a rich practice in Japan of walking meditation, called gyodo, that’s based on Chinese customs and can be traced back even further to India. Yamabushi are mountain mystics and warriors whose history goes back to at least the eighth century — they search for spiritual powers that are gained through asceticism of living in the mountains.
Researchers in Japan found that when people strolled in the woods, their levels of the stress hormone cortisol plummeted almost 16 percent more than when they walked in an urban environment. The effects were quickly apparent, within minutes of beginning a walk in the woods, the subjects’ blood pressure showed improvement.
This is huge! Elevated levels of cortisol wreak havoc on the body — from weight gain to lower immune function and so on. Chronic stress and elevated cortisol increases the risk of depression and mental illness. So by lowering stress levels on a forest bath, we are healing ourselves.
Trees and plants emit phytoncides. According to Tokyo-based researcher Qing Li, MD, PhD, breathing in these chemicals reduce stress hormones, which indirectly increases the immune system’s ability to kill tumor cells. In Japan, shinrin-yoku trails are certified by a blood-sampling study to determine whether the natural killer cell count is raised enough for the trail to qualify. Seriously.
The benefits to your physical body are real. But that’s not all. There are benefits beyond the physical and even the individual.
Forest bathing represents a realignment with the natural world
The traditions of Buddhism, Romanticism, and Transcendentalism all embrace the vital link between the mind and nature.
Indigenous cultures are innately aware of the health of communities being dependent on the environment.
Yet, since the industrial revolution, we have seen ourselves as conquerors and manipulators of the natural world. This feeling of separation from nature is what made it okay to destroy the planet for our benefit. But what we didn’t realize is that we were destroying ourselves, too.
Gregory Bateson, who was married to Margaret Mead, wrote about eco-psychology and the oneness between ourselves and the planet. It took me a few years to understand the depth of his quote about Lake Erie. He wrote, “You decide that you want to get rid of the byproducts of human life and that Lake Erie will be a good place to put them. You forget that the ecomental system called Lake Erie is a part of your wider ecomental system — and that if Lake Erie is driven insane, its insanity is incorporated in the larger system of your thought and experience.”
It’s a lot to digest, but basically, he’s saying that when we pollute the planet, we are polluting our minds.
So much of the stress, anxiety, and depression we feel can be traced back to a disturbed relationship with nature.
Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht coined the term psychoterratica to encompass all the ways that disconnection from nature affect our mental health.
There’s a lot of them. I did a Master’s thesis on this topic so it gets geeky and somewhat existential. But here are the key points:
Solastalgia is a term coined by Albrecht to describe the pain or sickness caused by the inability to derive solace connected to the present state of one’s home environment. It’s a feeling of nostalgia for a place you never left. I see this in my home city of San Francisco all the time.
Nature deficit disorder is the negative impact of withdrawal from nature and natural processes. Richard Louv and many other academics point out that the epidemics of obesity and ADD are closely related to the disconnection between children and eco-socialization. Psychologist Susan Bodnar PhD found that destructive behaviors like drinking and dissociative materialism occurs in young adults when they move to cities and become disconnected from nature.
Generational environmental amnesia is a condition that results as people construct a conception of what is environmentally normal based on the natural world they encountered in childhood, even though it’s been degraded over time. This reminds me of the Big Yellow Taxi by Joni Mitchell. They paved paradise and put up a parking lot….
Eco-paralysis is the sense that all these issues are too big to solve so we might as well do nothing. This can appear as apathy, complacency, or disengagement.
Eco-anxiety is a non-specific worry about our relationship to support the environment in this century. The term was first recorded in an article by Lisa Leff in The Washington Post in 1990.
Global dread is the anticipation of a future state of the world that produces a mixture or terror and sadness in the sufferer for those who will exist in such a state. Does this feel familiar? I thought so.
I don’t want to focus on these issues because we don’t need any more psychoses or ways to feel sick, but by naming them we can identify these feelings and start the healing process.
If disconnection from nature is the root cause of so many issues — physical, mental, and societal — then a realignment with the natural world is at the core of the solution.
Albrecht calls this reconnection soliphilia. It’s a blissful state of being that results in the ability of people to come together to heal — themselves, their communities, and the planet.
Being a word nerd, I can get behind the word soliphilia, but try as I might to build up the hype, I just could not make #soliphilia happen. People told me the word sounded like a disease. The magic of forest bathing is that it encompasses the same ideals, but the phrase itself conjures up such wonder.
And that’s really the goal. Healing ourselves and the planet starts with rediscovering the wonder of the natural world. Forest bathing has physical, mental, community, and planetary benefits. By taking some time to luxuriate in the woods, you’re joining a planetary shift.
This shift marks the end of what Charles Eisenstein calls “our journey of Separation.” He believes that this journey that started thirty thousand years ago with a tribe called humanity had a purpose “to experience the extremes of Separation, to develop the gifts that come in response to it, and to integrate all of that in a new Age of Reunion.”
It’s pretty clear that we’ve reached that extreme and the Age of Reunion is upon us.
Forest therapy is integrated into the medical system and covered by insurance in both Japan and Korea. I can dream of the day when forest bathing is included in our health insurance here in the US and all schools have forest baths built into the curriculum. Until then, we’re going to have to draw our own forest baths.
If you live in the Bay Area, I lead regular forest baths with The Forest Bathing Club — join our MeetUp! I’m also available for private and corporate forest baths.