Forest Bathing: The Cure For Disconnectedness
My husband asked me what I was doing in my office, and I grumbled, “Trying to think of a blog topic.” Smiling he said, “I’ll do one for ya!” I thought he was joking and went about my work. Sure enough, a few hours later he emailed me a document which is provided below.
I never thought to ask my husband to contribute, and the fact that he wrote a genuine point of view of the forest therapy walks I have given to practise my training in becoming a Certified Forest Therapy Guide have left me feeling so grateful.
He can be a man of few words – after the walks I’ve given him I’ve asked for feedback getting a few comments such as “it was nice” and “I liked the scroll invitation”. I had no idea it affected him as much as it did, and love the concept that his disconnectedness was evolving into a connected relationship with The More Than Human World.
I am very happy to introduce my first guest poster – my husband Chris Morris and his honest review of going on a forest therapy walk.
A Review of Forest Bathing by Chris Morris
When my wife first told me she wanted to become a certified forest bathing guide, my mind initially leapt to the literal definitions of the terms; I asked incredulously, “you want to guide people to take baths in the woods?” I clearly wasn’t thinking of the broader definition of bathing which includes to suffuse or envelop in something. She quickly corrected my misunderstanding and explained how the concept of forest bathing has its roots in early 1980s Japan as a form of medicinal nature therapy. The Japanese refer to it as Shinrin-yoku, which literally translates as forest bathing.
The Japanese researched the psychological and physiological effects of immersing oneself in nature. They sought to show through neuroimaging and psychological tests that nature therapy can improve immune, cardiovascular, and overall health.
Having been born in the early 1970s and coming of age in the 1980s, Japan has always had some influence on my cultural experience. From the technological innovations of Sony and Toyota to American obsessions with Sun Tzu, karate, and sushi, Japan has had an outsized influence, relative to other countries, on my experience growing up. Forest bathing was the latest in a long line of American cultural appropriation of Japan.
While I’ve always enjoyed being in the woods, my time spent in nature was gradually circumscribed by working full-time, raising our son, and my re-discovered obsession with playing tennis. As such, my time in the woods was wholly limited to infrequent trips to the north shore of Minnesota, and occasional vacations to Yellowstone and the Black Hills of South Dakota. As my wife began her certification process, she invited me on a forest bathing trip so that she could practice and apply the concepts and teachings she was learning.
Thus, on a calm, sunny, and picturesque day in Minnesota in early August, the kind of rare weather day not marred by wind, cold, snow, or rain that is so common here, we headed to a nature reserve tucked unobtrusively in the suburbs of the Twin Cities. After exiting the car and heading initially down the path, we stopped at a bench so that my wife (guide) could lay the ground rules for the walk. She talked about how she would provide me a series of invitations to transcend into the “liminal” space. Liminal space roughly translates as “threshold” or crossing-over space from one reality to the next. In the liminal space, one crosses over from the present reality to one in which things are perceived more clearly in the present moment. Time drops away and one is fully aware of their surroundings and the sensory data enveloping them.
The forest bathing ground rules having been established, we proceeded to begin our walk as my guide invited me to experience the sights, sounds, tastes, and feeling of the forest. The first invitation was for me to “see” my surroundings, but not passively as we see things going about our day. This “seeing” was active, alternately focusing on the trees, the leaves, the sun rays angling between the branches, and the ground beneath my feet. I was then invited to close my eyes and focus on the sounds of the forest. I heard the soft rustling of the leaves in the wind, a lone songbird in the distance, and the angry reproach of a squirrel who must have felt I was impeding on his territory. After hearing the sounds of the forest, I was invited to feel the air on my exposed skin, the taste of the forest as I opened my mouth to the air around me, and the touch of the earth under me. The final invitation was to experience the forest in motion. This involved walking slowing through the woods noticing the slight and imperceptible movement of the woods, grasses, and leaves around me.
I alternated between being lost in the experience and the intrusive thoughts that inexorably popped into my head. This is similar to focused meditation where your mind becomes almost blank and the inhalations and exhalations of your breathing becomes one’s entire existence, but then unwelcome questions come unheeded into your mind – what are we having for dinner? When is this experience going to be over? What are we doing next? As I had some experience with meditation, I was used to how your brain and these random thoughts intrude on the meditation experience. When this happens, I’ve always attempted to notice the passing thought and return to my breath. In the forest, I tried to go back to the invitation and focus on what experience my guide had invited me to participate in.
Throughout the experience, there were moments that I felt like I hit the liminal space and lost my individuation in nature. I’d hardly notice that my nagging conscious thoughts grew quiet for a few moments before they’d suddenly return and snap me out of whatever brief respite I had absorbed in nature. This experience of momentary absorption was revelatory and exciting. It was like experiences I’ve had meditating, or even being in the zone that you hear athletes talk about. I’ve read about how rock climbers are forced to be in the present moment as one brief lapse in concentration can be fatal. This complete absorption in the present moment is rare, but I’ve experienced it occasionally playing tennis, meditating, and now, in the woods, from my first experience with guided forest bathing.
In our increasingly connected world that intrudes on our thoughts via social media, smartphones, the internet, TV, and any number of other distractions that take away from a more unadulterated experience of each moment as it passes into the next, forest bathing provided me a brief interlude to experience existence in a much more embodied way. Whether the experience provided any physical benefits I’m not sure. I know research continues to be conducted on whether there are lasting physical or psychological benefits of forest bathing, and I’m not able to say whether they are real or not. That said, I enjoyed my first forest bathing experience, have gone on another, and feel the effects of disconnectedness to the world lessen.
If you’re looking for a quick “cure” for disconnectedness, put down the smartphone, and head out to the woods – maybe even consider contacting a licensed forest therapy guide to help you in your efforts.
Additional Resources on the art of forest bathing: