Week 17: Forest Bathing
Shinrin-yoku is nature-centered Japanese concept that has taken root (#pun) in the West.
Kari and I first meet each other, and then meet our guide, Jackie, on a tree-lined suburban street. Jackie's from China, and has a gentleness to her that makes me trust her. It's Earth Day. I didn't purposely plan for my first forest bathing experience to fall on this day, but I think it's a nice coincidence...until I see the number of people that have manifested, also intending to hike to the waterfall in Monrovia Canyon.
Jackie tells us that this is an abnormal number of people. I don't like abnormal numbers of people, or normal numbers of people. I like subnormal numbers of people, especially when that subnormal number is close to zero.
We are going to be walking the same path as these hikers, but we are not hiking. No, we are forest bathing. It's hot, and there are bugs. I'm not yet sure what shinrin-yoku is, and how it's different from hiking, or just sitting in nature.
The three of us connect, though, first about wolves, which we all somehow have a connection to (see Week 1). As we hike from the carpark to the trailhead, Jackie explains the origins of the practice and tells us what we're going to be doing for the next two hours.
Two new concepts we quickly learn: invitation and council. Jackie will divide our time to the waterfall into different 'invitations' to connect with a facet of our surroundings in a meaningful way. Such invitations include playing with water, contemplating movement, and sitting with a tree for some time. At the end of each invitation we will gather in a 'council' to share what comes to heart.
Time starts to slow down, but I don't notice that until afterwards. As I become more reflective, nature reveals herself. I sit by the stream during the water invitation, wondering where this water comes from and where this water goes, and a salamander comes into focus. I realize that the salamander didn't suddenly move into my field of vision, but that my eyes received the water in depth, and with it, my little red friend.
We move to an invitation of gifting something of the earth to the earth. For five minutes, we wander, each collecting items that speak to us. I gather two river rocks, the 'hat' of an acorn, a fresh leaf, and a piece of bark. At the end of five minutes, Kari finds a heart freshly drawn into the dirt of the central clearing. It's the perfect container to lay our offerings to the earth. We sit around the dirt heart and take turns placing our items, on this Earth Day, into that most appropriate finger art.
Another invitation that resonate with me: a reflection on movement. There's the obvious: the bugs flying, the water rambling, the birds fluttering. There's the subtle, beyond the perception of the eye. How fast are these trees growing? How slow are the river rocks disintegrating into sand? How deep is the water carving the canyon that we now walk? There's the shift in perspective: my own viewpoint is moving because I'm moving. These thoughts that I would never think pour into my mind.
I sit with a tree for twenty minutes. When were you young? How do you communicate with the other trees? Has anyone ever, taking a respite from the sun, stopped to speak to you? Who have you provided shade to? How intertwined are your roots, far beneath my feet? You are also alive, how is your consciousness different from ours? Is it in another dimension?
Our forest bathing culminates in a tea ceremony by the waterfall. We have four teacups, and Jackie starts boiling the tea as Kari and and I play with the waterfall. When it's ready, the tea looks suspiciously clear, and as Jackie pours it, I wonder if I will taste anything at all. We pass the first teacup around, individually offering gratitude for the Earth, and then pour the warm liquid into the dirt nearby.
The tea, I find with my first sip, is incredibly flavorful, and simple -- brewed of only a bay leaf, a mugwort leaf, and water. Jackie opens dumpling filling that she packed and shows us how to fold and boil the traditional Chinese staple. I end up eating nine. Later, I find out from Jackie that this part of the experience signifies the end of the meditative forest bathing, and the return to normal consciousness.
The difference between hiking and forest bathing is that one is goal-oriented, while the other is a silent conversation between nature and humans. The shinrin-yoku experience is much slower; it is a receptive practice, like yin yoga, that translates as the 'medicine of being in the forest.'
Jackie is a guide that opens the door to the forest, as connected as she is (I later go on another shinrin-yoku walk with her mentor and learn that she fell out of a tree, got a concussion, had to be rushed to the hospital, and received it as a sign that she was meant to be a shinrin-yoku guide). Without her presence, I would not have allowed myself to slow down enough to open to the forest like this.
Besides promoting a sense of well-being, forest bathing can spark creativity and problem-solving, and I can sense that as we walk down the same path to our cars, chatting this time. Thoughts I've never thought before arrive in my mind, my senses take in more, and I feel my patterns of thinking diverge from their well-worn routes.
This practice is like having the forest as a companion in meditation, and she is a companion I will return to.