(Note: Pope Francis has declared September 1 as World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation. He asks us to join with our Orthodox sisters and brothers on this day to thank God for the goodness of our world, to ask God’s forgiveness for our sins against the environment, and to reaffirm our vocation to be good stewards of the planet we call home. In honor of this day, I am devoting my reflection to the practice of “forest bathing.” At the end, I’m offering two short videos. One is on forest bathing. But the second one is a hymn I invite you to pray—especially for the current situation in Afghanistan.)
I’m lucky. Our SND property where I now live has a couple of small woodlands. One of my favorite “treats” is going into the woods, walking very slowly, and then just sitting down somewhere. A tree stump, a large rock, or a downed tree provide a place for me to park myself and then quietly take in the forest atmosphere. Just being in the company of the trees and other forest growth, plus the birds, chipmunks, and squirrels refreshes my soul.
The Japanese have a name for this practice. They call it shinrin-yoku or forest bathing. I’m sure many of you are familiar with the term. It arose in the 1980s and describes the physiological and psychological exercise of spending time in a forest. For this blog I will be drawing from one of the popular books on this topic, Forest Bathing by Dr. Qing Li. He says that the purpose of forest bathing is two-fold. First, it offers “an eco-antidote to tech-boom burnout.” (Don’t you just love his choice of words?) Second, it can reconnect people to the forests in hopes of protecting these precious places.
Forest bathing is not the same as hiking or walking briskly through the woods. On the contrary, says, Dr. Li, “Aimlessness is advisable. The tree tonic works best with minimal effort.” (Again, I love his words!) The key to “unlocking the power of the forest” lies in the five senses. We explore the forest not only with our feet, but also with our ears, eyes, nose, mouth, and touch. We notice, for example, the beautiful patterns in the forest: the layering of the leaves.. the texture of the barks of the trees… the petals of the flowers… the seeds tucked inside the pine cones. We listen to the trees swishing in the wind, a squirrel scurrying along the forest floor, an unseen bird somewhere high up in a tree singing his distinctive song. It is when we use all our senses to connect with the forest that “the magic happens.” Says Dr. Li, “Immersed in the natural world, we can experience the miracle of life and connect to something larger than ourselves.”
We don’t need a huge forest to practice forest bathing. A small clump of trees in a neighborhood park will do. But even if we don’t have a forest handy, we can still partake of nature’s magic. For example, there’s a courtyard outside my office window. When I’m writing at my desk, I sometimes pause and gaze out the window at the evergreens and other trees growing there. I am always amazed at the zillion shades of green I see even in this small place. I ask God, “Just how many shades of green do you have on your palette anyway?” Or maybe you have a tree or two in your yard or on your street. You can “tree bathe” simply by exploring a single tree. (If the tree belongs to your neighbors, you might want to ask their permission first before “tree bathing” with their tree!) Or if you have no trees nearby, you can interact with your houseplants to partake of nature’s healing powers. Tending them, admiring them, or even talking to them can bring calm into our lives. (As a child, I often heard my mother talking to her African violets as she watered them! She’d say things like this: “And how are you all today?… My, my, you’re getting bigger and prettier every day!… Here’s a nice big drink of water for you!”)
Dr. Li summarizes the importance of forest bathing with these words: “The forest in like our mother, a sacred place, a gift to us humans from the divine. It is a paradise of healing.”
Have you ever been forest bathing? If so, what was the experience like for you?
Do you have a favorite forest or a favorite tree somewhere? Tell us about it.
Have you ever experienced the healing power of nature in any other way? Where and how?
Do you like any of the pictures? If so, why?
PS: August 31 would have been my sister’s 82nd birthday. In honor of Mary Ann, I’m including a picture of her walking ahead of me in a small park in Willoughby Hills, OH. I snapped this picture without her knowing it. Now I have this little treasure which reminds me of all the times we went “forest bathing” together….
Our first video is a brief ( 2 1/2 min.) virtual experience of forest bathing. It also lists some of the benefits of this lovely exercise.
Our second video is the hymn “This Is My Song, O God of All the Nations.” The words of the song were written by Lloyd Stone in 1934. The music is Jean Sibelius’ beautiful “Finlandia,” written in 1899. It is credited with helping Finland develop a national identity in their struggle for independence from the Russian Empire. It has been called Finland’s national anthem. As our hearts ache for all people who are suffering—whether close to home or far away—we hold in special prayer our sisters and brothers in Afghanistan.
I welcome your comments below!