“If you go off into a far, far forest and get very quiet, you’ll come to understand that you’re connected with everything.” —Alan Watts, 20th-century British Philosopher
Have you ever been forest bathing? You’ve likely spent time in the woods, but perhaps you’ve never called it bathing.
Forest bathing is a popular practice that has had its resurgence. In Japan, it’s called shinrin-yoku. Shinrin in Japanese translates to “forest,” and yoku means, “bath.” So, shinrin-yoku, is another way of saying, bathing in the forest atmosphere or taking in the forest through your senses.
The formal practice of forest bathing was developed by the forestry service of Japan, where nearly 91% of the population lives in urban areas, though now it is practiced all over the world.
At many of the retreats I lead, I make time for our escape deep into a forest (you can do this in sand dunes, prairies or deserts, too!) We are welcomed and become part of the forest’s community. As we take a break from devices, slow down and tune in to the scents, textures, tastes, sounds, spaciousness, light and aliveness, our intimacy with the primordial forces of water, earth, air, space and light, aliveness, harmony and peace is renewed. We soon recognize that the flora and fauna are kindred spirits who share their beauty and wisdom with us. It seems as if every being in nature beckons us to fall in love with it.
There’s a growing body of evidence that the practice can help boost immunity, mood and reduce stress. One study published in 2011 compared the effects of walking in the city to taking a forest walk. Both activities required the same amount of physical activity, but researchers found that the forest environment led to more significant reductions in blood pressure and stress hormones. Trees and plants emit wood-essential oils known as phytoncides, which are antimicrobial compounds that serve as protection from insects, disease and fungus. These compounds appear to trigger natural killer cells in people, which can serve to fight cancer.
What amazes me is how much nature — and it goes without saying — unconditionally loves and accepts each and every one of us. She is unconcerned with politics, age, religion, ethnicity, ability, what you look like or what you do for a living. She sees you as you are and loves you.
As the great 19th century Lebanese writer, Khalil Gibran, wrote, “Forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair.”
Our relationship with nature and the earth is beyond the intellect, it is a relationship of the heart, one that each of us can cultivate and attend to. I often make a vow to recognize the divinity inherent in every sentient being, especially the earth herself. Nature is a wonderful teacher, too. There are lessons, answers and messages everywhere.
In the small, yet great, old growth forest in West Cork, Ireland, there lies a slow-moving stream that feeds into a small still pond. Walking into the magic wood and making a way down a path onto a hidden wooden bridge, one can stand and watch the water’s stillness, punctuated only by a skimming water bug or two.
If a pebble is tossed onto the surface, the ripples travel far and strong, until, at some particular invisible barrier, they disappear. These ripples teach us that action can be powered by stillness. And, each one of us creates a ripple effect by the way we live; the love we share; and the vows we make.
Sarah McLean considers herself an American Transcendentalist. She’s dedicated her life to exploring meditation: living as a resident of both a Zen Buddhist monastery and a traditional ashram in India, as well as living and working in a Transcendental Meditation center. She’s a best-selling Hay House author of the books Soul-Centered: Transform Your Life in 8 Weeks with Meditation and The Power of Attention: Awaken to Love and its Unlimited Potential with Meditation.