BY LINDSAY CUTLER
‘Close your eyes’ Rafi, our guide, said. ‘For one minute, I want you to listen only to the sounds around you.’ All fourteen of us ranging in age from 5 to 71, stood in a loose grouping, silent, with our eyes shut for a whole sixty seconds. “There were whistles, hoots, fluting trumpets, squawks, and all sorts of indescribable noises.” I wrote in my journal later that day. I followed it with detailed descriptions of the landscape, flora, and fauna we observed along our stroll. It was a little awkward at first. I felt like I should be doing something, going somewhere. I couldn’t remember the last time I went outside without destination or goals, with my only agenda being to soak in the surroundings. How indulgent! Yet here we were, with our guide instructing us to observe and move intentionally through our landscape. For a change, no one whined, needed to be carried, was hungry, or thirsty. Their senses were engaged and their movements propelled by interest not obligation.
Yes, we were traveling and the scenery was otherworldly and profoundly more alive than it seems here in Colorado. As my five year old said upon returning ‘There’s not as many creatures here.’ However, some of that difference is perception and can be remedied by prioritizing the present moment while outdoors in a natural setting. This practice, known as Forest Bathing, originated in Japan, is quite popular in South Korea, and is gaining acceptance here in the States. Forest bathing seeks to immerse participants in nature by tuning their senses into the sights, sounds, textures, and smells of their environment.
Forest Bathing differs from hiking or conventional exercise on city streets in its focus, pace, and intent. As an avid hiker, I can get frustrated that my young children prefer to dawdle, climb boulders, search out walking sticks, even examine bare dirt rather than get a move on and charge along a trail. For me, the movement is part of the therapy and the victory lies in summiting a certain peak or clocking so many thousand feet elevation gain. But Forest Bathing proposes that the alternative is equally, if not more restorative. When bathing in a forest, you move slowly through the landscape, feeling the texture of bark, appreciating the patterns of lichen growth on granite boulders, the sound of your footfalls on the duff, and the incense of pine and fir. This simple act of focus, nearly indecipherable from childlike dawdling, has documented benefits for stress reduction.
Studies reveal an average of 6 point reduction in blood pressure, lower levels of stress hormones and increased immune response. When compared to a walk in the city, forest bathing wins on all fronts again. This might not be surprising if we consider the 100,000 years of human evolution on planet earth. For much of our time here, we dwelt in abodes no more than a few square feet in size, spending our time outdoors hunting, gathering, storytelling, and simply being. Today our shelters are massive, holding relics of our past, lest we forget, and post-it notes for our future because we know we will forget. Deep, focused work is perpetually distracted by incoming texts, tweets, and notifications. To shut this out and tune in to our practice whether it be writing, accounting, or engineering, takes conscious discipline and decision making. Going outdoors into a natural setting, leaving behind the to-do lists, the devices, and the distractions is to journey back in our evolution to a time that was less preoccupied with the yin and yang of future planning and rumination. Perhaps what Forest Bathing gives us is permission to release ourselves from these obligations for a moment and just be because, health.
It is self-evident that time spent in the wild restores the soul. With documented health benefits that can be teased apart from those of exercise, we can dedicate guilt-free time to childlike pleasures like lying on our backs beneath tall trees, blowing a dandelion, or inspecting the intricate patterns of frost on fallen leaves. The hyper-focus on the here-and-now brings with it the known benefits of meditation. For me, by eliminating a destination and agenda, I remove the pressure to monitor time, pace, rest breaks, snacks, and water allocations, thereby heightening our shared experience in nature. We can dawdle, skip rocks, and . . . just . . . breathe. It’s ok, it’s good for us. I’ve now done this here, even in my backyard, which is closer to laundry and emails than it is to wilderness. Yet, If I sit quite still sparrows, flickers, chickadees, and finches flit from tree to bush. Wind rustles the leaves of the cottonwood stretching tall above me, in silvery counterpoint to the vivid blue sky. I can smell the juniper berries, or like today, the piney smoke from the chimney.