Forest Bathing

Photo by Sebastian Pickler on Unsplash.

The Japanese call it shinrin-yoku and use it as a nature therapy for spiritual restoration. Developed in 1980 for preventative care and healing, Japan now has 44 designated shinrin-yoku forests across the island nation.

Research shows time spent in forest bathing can have positive neuro-psychological impacts on the nervous system, thus lowering our stress hormone and boosting our immune system. Other reported benefits include increased mental clarity and reduced blood pressure.

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Curatives for the Soul: Part 3 – Nature Immersion

A four-part series exploring supportive habits to help ease our paths through life: journaling, meditation, nature immersion, and positive philosophy.

Journaling and meditation aren’t selective about where or when you embrace them. But nature immersion can take a bit more planning, preparation, and cooperation from Mother Earth. The results, however, are well worth it:

I believe in God, only I spell it nature. – Frank Lloyd Wright

If you translate God to spirituality in Wright’s revelation, his wisdom aligns with my feelings when I immerse in nature. To be clear, this isn’t about getting away from home by taking creature comforts with you to a modern campground with conveniences, but it certainly can involve camping to an extent. Nature immersion, if you want its curative benefits, requires adherence to one definition of “immersion:”

a (particular) state of mind or body to involve something deeply, to steep, to absorb through some action or activity

This curative practice means going into nature in a way and for a time where you have little or no awareness of anything human or man-made. It’s not necessarily a solitary adventure, although usually more effective alone where you can reap the best insights and curative benefits from the deeper states you’ll experience. Simply stated, the purpose of nature immersion is to isolate yourself in nature so you can connect your nervous and mental systems to the purer, natural rhythms of Earth’s natural essence.

By the time we’re 60, we will have been alive for almost 22,000 days on this planet, rarely, if ever, stopping to watch just one. It is this total immersion into nature and commitment to simply being there, that we can entrain our nervous system to the natural, healthy rhythm of the planet. Stephanie Nash

Nature immersion really is an ultimate unplug and tune-in moment. You’re unplugged from the internet, social engagement online or in person, no news media, no music, no podcasts, nothing but “plugging in” to nature’s essence. And by doing so, you’re instead tuning in to your internal experience, which can lead to rewiring many things from stress to improved awareness of bad habits to a deeper awareness of what’s real and important in this world.

So how does one pull this off? As with most things, there are degrees and levels of nature immersion limited only by your time and willingness to go deeper:

  • If you can only start with local isolations for 15-, 30-minutes or more, those will still help you begin to connect better to nature. Take a lunch into a nearby woods to sit quietly, eat, reflect on things, and let your mind wander and absorb what you see and hear.
  • Or invest a few hours on a sunny afternoon to hike a local forest preserve or park’s trails, leaving the phone off and concentrating instead on what your senses share with you from the forest’s fauna and flora, and the rhythm of your internal systems.

The ultimate experience, though, is taking multiple days and finding an isolated place in nature to go, camp out, and sit and walk in an absence of modern connections or even your own voice. It’s a silent retreat, and one best done without even journaling or noting anything while you’re involved in the immersion.

Immersing in nature, to some, may feel at first you’re abandoning everyone and everything you like to do. It’s only a few hours or a few days, maybe a week, and I’m sure the world will survive while you briefly unplug and immerse.

But the real question is… will you survive if you don’t reconnect with your true self and the natural world you live in?

If you’d like to read a little further on this, I suggest Stephanie Nash’s excellent article about her experiences found here (her quote above is from that article).

Spring’s Promise

It’s that time of year when we’re all antsy to get outside, change into t-shirts and shorts, and embrace our inner go-barefoot desires. Each seasonal shift has its abruptness, but winter-into-spring is special. Even for a winter lover like me, right now it’s an overstayed house guest whose every little nuance has become irritating and I’m ready for it to leave.

Like any power who knows its hold on us, winter teases wickedly during March. One day it’s sunny and 70F, and the next cold and dreary. If winter’s really bored, we’ll often get a short-lived late snowstorm. I can imagine winter’s glee about this time of year as it conjures abrupt weather shifts to keep us puny humans guessing.

But we who have cycled through many of these seasonalities know the irrevocable signs that spring is near: frisky squirrels and chipmunks seeking love, hyperactive birds, and the slow, deliberate emergence of flowers, plants, tree buds, and green grass. We also know it’s a tag-you’re-it game played best with patience earned from being here before.

I’m defiantly siting in my back open patio as I write this, bundled to negate the mid-40F temps. A mere 16 hours ago I sat in the same place but in sunny and rejuvenating 70F pleasure. No lily white skin exposed yet by wearing pairs of “do they still fit” shorts from last summer, but then, I’m always slow to foist my winter tan-loss onto the world.

I’m ready to bid adieu to winter but will again welcome its promise of renewal and restoration at the end of this year. In this annual waiting game, patience is key as Mr. Winter hands the seasonal baton to Miss Spring. She’ll once more bring her promised, ideal weather for outside sitting, pondering, hiking, and being warm again. Can’t get here soon enough.

SPRING’S PROMISE (poem in draft)

The sun shines
its healing rays
through thinned clouds
or crystal skies.

Early, some say
since winter’s grace
is too recent
in memory and bones.

Tell that to the
squirrels out rustling
in the leaves
chasing for love.

Or the chipmunks,
bolder than later,
on high perches
calling for love.

And the flowers,
breaking the seal
of hardened ground
to reach the light.

Eager to leave
those faded days,
I’m ready again
for spring’s promise.

Silent Mentors

The traditional approach to excelling at anything involves learning from someone who’s where you want to be. If it’s a creative goal, it’s from those who’ve achieved success and share expertise through explanatory mediums or via their work.

In past times, one gained a skill or craft by apprenticing with a master. Often this was a slow process, lasting years or decades before the apprentice becomes independent and on their way to becoming a master. While such arrangements still exist for some skills or trades, a creative’s path today beyond formal schooling involves finding a formal or informal mentor to work under.

While some are fortunate to find a formal mentor to work with, there is still great value from the informal path. I have several silent mentors I follow to learn from informally since of course they have no clue I even exist. Even though it’s a one-way association, it’s still beneficial for me to improve in areas I’m pursuing.

On things philosophical, I read Ryan Holiday’s writings. His book The Daily Stoic (Amazon link, but please buy from your local indie bookshop) is one of my morning rituals that helps keep me grounded. In these pandemic times, I credit this silent mentor for my renewed ability to focus on things I can control while staying detached and insulated from those I cannot.

On things literary, my learning path is broader with a coven of writers I glean wisdom and practices from. My primary informal writing mentors (by no means all I learn from) are currently Mary Oliver, Mary Ruefle, David Whyte, plus self-paced courses from Diane Lockwood. It’s no coincidence that these are primarily poets.

Early in my adult life I believed that once one mastered something, learning stopped and only doing continued. How wrong I was. Through later experiences in meeting and knowing many who were masters at various endeavors did I learn they all had at least one thing in common: they never stopped learning, whether from their mentors or from mentoring others. Every master likely also has a mentor, and every professional at anything is constantly learning from someone else.

If you want to improve or excel in a life pursuit—doesn’t matter what it is—find a formal mentor if you can, but otherwise choose some informal ones. In time, you’ll be skilled enough to pass on the favor by mentoring someone else.

Stretching Just Beyond

Just beyond yourself.
It’s where you need to be.

– David Whyte, opening lines to Just Beyond Yourself poem from The Bell and The Blackbird book

One of my previous doctors had a few clever phrases on the secret of life:

Motion is lotion.
Flexibility is the fountain of youth.

Clearly, movement and stretching indeed makes our bodies feel and work better. But it wasn’t until I read Whyte’s poem that I realized these two powerful yet simple phrases on motion and flexibility were applicable to our mental health and creative efforts.

I’ve read, as I’m sure most have, about the innocence of children and their capacity for openness, for being unfettered when learning, playing, or creating. Yet too soon the adult-controlled world replaces those early freedoms with conformity and rigidity. Only later in life do we realize the impact from imposed constraints and censorships. For some, it’s a breakthrough moment when they finally realize the need to move these mental set points and stretch to break free from creative constraints. More from Whyte:

Half a step into self-forgetting
and the rest restored by what you’ll need.
There is a road always beckoning.

Throughout our adult lives there are hints: “think outside the box,” “take the road less traveled,” “get outside your comfort zone,” etc. Many ignore these subtle sign posts along the way until an epiphany reveals the new obvious: to go forward I have to let go; to improve I have to stretch and reach just beyond myself.

Our comfort with whom and what we are is not an easy habit to break. But break we must to stretch ourselves in new ways and in fresh places until we’re where we know in our hearts we should be.