"A beautiful and inspiring guide inviting us to seek out the trees and let the healing happen, both for us and for our beleaguered ecosystems. Grab this book and head outside" -Florence Williams, author of The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative
Simply being present in the natural world - with all our senses fully alive - can have a remarkably healing effect. It can also awaken in us our latent but profound connection with all living things. This is "forest bathing", a practice inspired by the Japanese tradition of shinrin-yoku. It is a gentle, meditative approach to being with nature and an antidote to our nature-starved lives that can heal our relationship with the more-than-human world.
In Your Guide to Forest Bathing you'll discover a path--along with specific activities presented by Amos Clifford, one of the world's most experienced forest bathing experts--that you can use to begin a practice of your own. Whether you're in a forest or woodland, public park, or just your own backyard, this book will be your personal guide as you explore the natural world in a way you may have never thought possible.
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WHAT IS FOREST BATHING?
The word bathing, when used with the word forest, conjures images of swimming in rivers or lakes that are surrounded by trees. That's rarely a part of forest bathing, but it's not entirely off the mark. The air through which we walk is in many ways similar to water. It moves in currents, it flows in waves; you can see this in the myriad patterns of clouds floating in the ocean of sky. It is inhabited by living ecosystems, from the glittering strands of breeze-borne silk to insects and birds; it carries pollen and wind-borne seed, along with soil and fungal spores. Sound travels and spreads in layered patterns of information. In these ways and more, the atmosphere is much like the ocean. The air around us is an ocean in which we have always bathed.
In the practice of forest bathing we immerse our senses in the special qualities of the fluid, oceanic ambience of the woodlands. We walk slowly so we can focus our senses on the myriad ways the living forest surrounds and touches us. Feel the breeze on your skin; hear the gurgling voices of the brook and the calls of birds; see the movement of trees in the wind. By giving attention to your senses, you turn down the volume on the cacophony of inner thoughts. Your senses bring you into the present moment, where you can take in all the forest has to offer, welcoming it, letting it settle inside you. When the forest is allowed its place within you, it supports your body's natural capacity for wellness and healing.
Forest bathing is not the same thing as hiking. The destination in forest bathing is "here," not "there." The pace is slow. The focus is on connection and relationship. Sometimes when I tell others about forest bathing, they will say, "I have done that my whole life." Maybe — but probably not. Most of us have never learned the art of stillness in nature. There are exceptions: a fly-fisher, for example, learns over many long seasons of practice how to fully tune in to the sounds of the water, the way the sun glints from its surface, the daily and monthly shifting of insect populations and the fish who feed on them. Standing still in the riffles, gauging the currents of air, feeling into the fish and their ways, and casting the line — that slow, sensory feast, in which fishing itself is sometimes forgotten, is akin to forest bathing.
As a child, I had the good fortune to live in a place where there were many woodlands nearby and long trails into the mountains. It was an era of greater freedom for children. In the long unsupervised hours of summer, my friends and I walked countless miles. We did not think of ourselves as hikers, but sometimes that's what we were. As a young man I became a wilderness guide. I traversed great distances in the woods and deep wilderness, sleeping under the stars for a hundred days or more each year. But except in accidental moments of grace when I let go of any thoughts of my destination, I didn't awaken to the power of the places in which I stood. Most of the time, not having learned yet the art of being silent and still, I was not awake to the generosity of the forest. It was only after decades of meditation practice and of experiencing new ways of being in nature, such as vision questing, that I learned to slow down and to pay attention sufficiently to begin a process that has for me been one of remembering. I began to remember that I am not separate from nature; that as a human I belong not just to human society, but equally to the society of the more-than-human world. I don't just view its power and beauty from outside, I am of it.
Thus, I began forest bathing. In 2011 I began to study forest therapy specifically, and in 2012 I founded the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs (ANFT). My aim is to share this practice with many others and to help establish it around the globe. I hope that you will share some of the blessings I have received from forest bathing. To bathe in the forest is to be immersed in a grace that permeates the world, to feel an immanent power and beauty that is everywhere, whispering. It is our human heritage as members of the earth community to not just hear these whispers, but to join our own voices to them. If we learn this, perhaps we can begin to undo some of the damage our species has done and find new ways of tending to the wellness of the vast and wild world.
Shinrin-Yoku: A New Name for an Ancient Practice
Forest bathing has sometimes been called the "ancient Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku." The truth is more nuanced than that. Firstly, the term is not ancient: it was coined in 1982 by Tomohide Akiyama when he was director of the Japanese Forestry Agency. His idea was to develop a unique brand identity, linking forest visits to health and wellness-oriented ecotourism. But this is not to say that forest bathing does not have ancient roots.
Going to nature for healing has a long tradition in many, if not most, cultures. Indeed, until recent industrial times all medicine came from nature in the form of herbs, roots, ritual, and relationships with other beings. The fifteenth-century physician Paracelsus taught, "The art of healing comes from nature, not from the physician." Ancient cities were sometimes designed to incorporate nature for this reason. More than twenty-five hundred years ago, Cyrus the Great had gardens lush with trees built in the Persian capital. Virtually every preindustrial indigenous people had traditions, ceremonies, and rituals, as well as medical techniques, bound to nature and reliant upon it for healing. Many of these were, and still are, forest-based. Where you find traditional peoples and forests in the same place, there will be forest healing practices.
There is a growing surge of interest in these practices, perhaps in response to some of the problematic failures of industrial medicine. Witness the many people who have found value in Ayahuasca ceremonies, a form of forest medicine from South America that addresses physical well-being but also goes beyond it into psychological and spiritual realms. Think of the forest monks who for millennia have depended upon solitude under the trees as a pillar of their pathways to enlightenment. A contemporary resurgence in natural healing practices is flourishing in many countries, under many different names: from friluftsliv (or "fresh-air living") of Norway to techniques practiced in German forest spas to sanlimyok in Korea, where entire national parks are dedicated to the healing powers of forests. In North America there is a growing network of trained guides who are certified to lead groups on forest bathing outings offered under a variety of names, such as "Nature Wellness," "Forest Mindfulness," and so on.
In Akazawa Healing Forest, near the town of Agematsu in Japan, I encountered a way in which the ancient and the new exist together. Our guide was Takashi Miura, one of Japan's most experienced shinrin-yoku experts. After a short train ride to the trailhead, followed by a brief orientation, we walked into a lovely forest featuring hinoki cypress, a tree that has strong symbolic meaning in Japanese culture, as well as proven healing properties. At a crossroads where five trails met, there was a closed gate blocking access to one of them. Takashi explained that it led to the sacred site where the first shinrin-yoku walk was held in 1982. But before that event, the place had been held as sacred for hundreds of years. It, like many groves and trees and woodlands around the world, has long been a place where people have found renewal, solace, and healing.
The belief in the healing powers of forests is deeply rooted in Japan, where it is influenced by the traditional religion of Shinto. In the Shinto worldview, all things have indwelling spirits. Mountains, rivers, and also old trees have kami, gods or spirits that live within them. Every tree has its kodama, a spirit similar to the dryads of Greek myth. Unseen but felt within the living networks of the land and waters are also the complex ecosystems of spirit. In popular culture they surface in the anime films by Hayao Miyazaki: Spirited Away,My Neighbor Totoro, and Princess Mononoke. These movies, which I recommend to the inner child in every forest bather, are a window into worlds that have long inhabited the collective unconscious of many peoples. Everywhere you go in Japan, from across the street at Shinjuku Station, Tokyo's main rail hub, to the remotest mountain villages, you encounter shrines where kami are remembered and honored. Very often these shrines are for the kami of individual trees, which are carefully tended and to which offerings of small gifts are made. There is an unspoken assumption that sentience exists not just in humans but throughout the natural world.
The Japanese shinrin-yoku guides I have met didn't talk about this while I was with them, and I suppose most of the visitors they take forest bathing don't either. Instead, the Japanese emphasize the scientific rationale for forest walks. Most of the guided walks I've been on in Japan begin and end with measurements of blood pressure and salivary amylase, which are indicators of stress and relaxation. Each forest bather is given a card to write their pre- and post-walk results on. At the end of a walk you can see how your blood pressure and salivary amylase numbers have changed. While the relevance of such measurements as an assessment tool may be debated, the message behind collecting them is clear: "This practice is backed by science."
The approach to forest bathing described here is similar to shinrin-yoku in Japan, but there are also important differences. The Japanese say that they use "all five senses" for forest bathing; but the approach described in this book includes additional senses such as proprioception, body radar, and imaginal communication, discussed in a later chapter. My practice has allowed me to familiarize myself with at least fourteen senses. In forest bathing, they accelerate my connection to nature, self, and others. These additional senses can be tapped into — or more likely remembered — quite naturally through the invitations forest therapy guides use on our walks.
Forest Bathing in North America
When the first Europeans arrived on the eastern shores of North America, they encountered peoples who had lived in harmony with the forest for thousands of years. It was said that a squirrel could travel through the trees from Maine to Mississippi without ever touching the ground. (Presumably, these squirrels were adept at swimming the many rivers crossed along the way!) What remains of these primal forests is still magnificent and inspiring, although greatly reduced. The forests of North America have provided food, medicine, shelter, and, perhaps most importantly, a stable sense of place to their inhabitants. Writers like Thoreau, who came on the scene much later, expressed what many others felt in his essay "Walking": "I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least — and it is commonly more than that — sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements." This is clearly forest bathing long before the term existed.
Thoreau lived in times that were much more agrarian, and therefore more connected to natural cycles and the rhythms of the forest. Much of that association has been lost as our cultural consciousness has been increasingly shaped by technology, industry, and an orientation to productivity. We live in a time that calls for a renewal of our ancient relationships to forests.
* * *
The story of forest bathing in North America is shaped in large part by the organization I founded, the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs (ANFT). Its mission is to develop and disseminate the practice of forest therapy, leading to its widespread acceptance and integration into health and wellness practices and programs and ecoactivism. The taproot of our approach to forest bathing begins perhaps with childhood memories. That first remembering is a type of personal origin story; it is the seed from which we grow into who we become.
I remember the singing of the trees; thus, I have become a forest therapy guide. To me, to be a "guide" means something very specific. It is the task of a guide to support partnerships between people and the more-than-human world. I started exploring this in the 1970s as a young wilderness guide in programs for at-risk youths.
Guiding is seasonal work, and in the off-seasons I developed a career as counselor and a nonprofit leader, earning degrees in organizational behavior and counseling. Thus, from the root of the singing trees of my childhood grew the trunk. Training as a psychotherapist is one of several large limbs coming from that trunk. For decades I practiced Zen meditation — another limb. Yet another is my studies and practice in the field of restorative justice, a way of helping communities and individuals move toward healing after instances of trauma and criminal victimization. I saw how forest bathing can embody restorative justice in our relationship with the land, helping us to hear the voices of the more-than-human world and to understand from its point of view the impacts of the traumas we have inflicted. It helps us to move into new partnerships and mutual healing.
Each of these limbs has its visible expression and its corresponding set of roots.
The tree grows, finding its place in the forest. Its leaves grow and shed with the seasons. Fires sweep through; it is scorched but survives. I imagine you'll find this imagery familiar, that your life has moved through similar cycles of change and growth. If at times we have felt stunted, it may be that we neglected our roots, that part of our ourselves by which we draw sustenance from the land itself; for it is from the land that our deepest lives are fed. The great disease of our industrial civilization is that most of us are no longer connected to the land. No wonder we see so much uprootedness among peoples everywhere.
If we can envision ourselves as patterned on a similar spiritual template as trees, perhaps we can feel our way more readily into the forest. In later invitations I will sometimes dare to speak for the forests, transmitting what I have learned from them in my decades of guiding. What I offer as the teaching of the trees cannot be called science; instead, their lessons feel like stories, arising from the same dreamscape from which comes myth. I hold these stories loosely, allowing them to guide me when my heart tells me that it serves to do so. I invite you to hold the stories you receive from trees in the same way.
Perhaps your forest bathing experience will give you, as it did me, this story as a point of beginning: Forests do not see humans as separate from them. They seem to long for us to return to our ancestral knowing of them. The trees welcome us, and are glad of our returning.
THE HEALING POWER OF FOREST BATHING
I have yet to meet anyone who needs to be convinced that forest bathing is beneficial. For most people, it just makes sense. Still, there is such a wealth of discovery about the benefits that I would be remiss to not touch on it here. What follows is a brief glance at some of the highlights.
For some people, forest bathing is simply an enjoyable and relaxing way to spend a day out in nature. There's really no need to make more of it than this. But it can be surprisingly difficult to relax.
Think of the advertisements for vacation getaways with images suggesting long hours in beachfront hammocks. They may be alluring, but not many of us could stand it for long; the compulsion to get up and do something would soon lift us out of the hammock in a restless search for stimulation. Forest bathing can help us learn to relax. Of course, the paradox is that relaxation implies an absence of goals, so as soon as we set relaxation as a goal we're on tricky ground. We can be trapped by our internalized "adultisms" that value the structuring of our time we have learned as grown-ups over the free play of children. We fear "wasting time."
Forest bathing gives us the opportunity to leave such preconceptions behind. Applying them to neither our children nor ourselves, we can just let the moment be what it is. There is no need to rush. There is no need to "make good use of time." There is nothing to accomplish. Simply let the moment be what it is. And take care not to turn "letting it be" into an accomplishment in itself, just another "something" to chase after.
Physical Health and Well-Being of Humans
In a comprehensive review of the pertinent literature, University of Chicago researcher Ming Kuo writes, "The range of specific health outcomes tied to nature is startling, including depression and anxiety disorder, diabetes mellitus, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), various infectious diseases, cancer, healing from surgery, obesity, birth outcomes, cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal complaints, migraines, respiratory disease, and others." Nature is a powerful physician.
Excerpted from "Your Guide To Forest Bathing"
Copyright © 2018 M. Amos Clifford.
Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 What Is Forest Bathing? 1
2 The Healing Power of Forest Bathing 15
3 Elements of Practice 41
4 Forest Bathing Step-by-Step: An Optimal Flow 61
5 The Forest Invites You 85
6 Leaning into the Learning Edges 129
7 Practical Matters 139
8 Forest Bathing in Japan 153
Conclusion: Awakening the Wild 159
About the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs 169