We tend to look for help in the places it’s most clearly advertised. Maybe there’s a therapist, a physician, or someone in your church you go to for support. But there is another less obvious place we can go that’s available any time, and it’s free.
Several years ago my relationship with nature began to change. I suppose it had something to do with the fact that I started taking meditation outside. I had already spent many hours in city parks and wildernesses, but my focus had always been on exercise and fun. When I started walking mindfully in nature I was surprised by how healing a simple walk could be, how it helped my mind and body relax and fostered insight. I was grateful and as my gratitude grew, I naturally found myself saying, thank you. I didn’t really know who or what I was thanking, but I did know that there was a kind of relationship there, one that began to come alive when I simply acknowledged it. As it turns out I had stumbled upon a scientifically proven health promoting practice called forest bathing.
In 2012, Outside Magazine published an article on what Japanese scientists call Shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing. Forest bathing is defined as making contact with and taking in the atmosphere of the forest. What sets forest bathing apart from simply taking a walk in the forest is that we consciously take in the sights, sounds, smells, and the whole experience, rather than allowing our minds to do the things they habitually do, like putting together a mental grocery list. Results of a study of 280 subjects conducted in 2010 found that forest bathing was associated with lower levels of a stress indicator called cortisol, lower pulse rate, and lower blood pressure. The participants of the study had decreased activity in the part of the nervous system that activates when we are stressed and increased activity in the part of the nervous system that activates when we are relaxed. Relaxing like this is crucial for good health if you consider the fact that chronic stress reduces immune function and makes us more prone to depression, heart disease, and other disorders.
The research on forest bathing begins to describe how being in nature, whether a city park or a forest, can improve our health. But like all research, it probably doesn’t tell the whole story. Many cultures, especially shamanic cultures, point to the potential for our relationship with nature to foster something beyond relaxation. They view a connection with nature as an essential ingredient of spiritual growth as well.
In his book, Walden, Thoreau wrote, “Only that day dawns to which we are awake.” I don’t know what he meant, but here is what it his words mean to me. You cannot really know or appreciate something until you can acknowledge it. We may already spend time in nature, but if we look at what we are doing with our minds we may see that our awareness is usually captured by daydreams or conversations. In the forest, on a tree lined neighborhood street, or by the ocean or the lake, there is a kind of medicine we may be missing out on. It’s one thing to put our bodies in nature, but it’s quite another to put our minds there, to “bathe” in it.
Try This: If you don’t have access to forest, then go to a city park, a garden, or a body of water. If you can, turn off all of your devices and enjoy some silence. This will makes space for your mind to become calmer and for you to take in your surroundings. If you are not able to walk, find a place to sit. Give yourself 20 minutes.
Step 1: Notice how you feel right now. Start walking and notice the sensation on the bottoms of your feet. Your feet are an anchor that will help keep your attention in place. Every time you start thinking about how you really need a haircut or that bill you forgot to pay, just come back to your feet. Do this for 10 minutes.
Step 2: Continue to focus on your feet, but start to take in the trees, plants, or whatever surrounds you as well. Try not to get caught up in thinking about your surroundings. What kind of flower is that anyway? Just take them in. Be receptive. “Listen” with your eyes. Take in the smells and sounds. Even if your mind wanders a thousand times, no problem, just come back to your focus. Do this for 10 minutes.
Step 3: You can continue practicing or stop here. Notice how you feel as you finish your walk. However you feel is just fine. It may help to think of relaxing like falling asleep. You don’t make it happen, you allow it.
© 2014 Christa Smith