The trendy phrase ‘forest bathing’ is based on the term shinrin-yoku, coined by the Japanese government in the 1980s as a public health initiative to get stressed-out businesspeople outside for a while, where blood pressures drop and stress hormones dissipate.
Studies were funded to prove this and then promote the idea that nature is good for us. Westerners have now jumped on the forest bathing bandwagon. So who cares if the idea is nothing new?
“Here’s the thing that bothers me. It’s become another commodified, self-help-style, precious “practice” of our secular capitalistic culture…I get asked things like, ‘What length of time in a natural setting is necessary to benefit fully? How often?’”
“The living, breathing world outside our doors is not a pill to take in certain dosages at certain times,” the writer argues. Rather, can we all just get outside in a forest, like we used to? The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.
Let’s get one thing straight: I love trees. I love their graceful and varied forms. I love the forest ecosystem in all its wondrous crisscrossing and complexity, its resilience and diversity. I love hiking in the forest, strolling in the forest, being in the forest. I love the mythic forest primeval. I love maple syrup. I love the symbolism of trees and the science of trees. I write on paper made from trees. My house is built and heated with trees. I love trees poetically and practically.
I love to split wood (but you can stack it for me). On one 15-degree day last January, I went out to work on next year’s wood. The large, dense rounds of beech were nearly too heavy for me to lift to the splitting block, so I focused on the red maple. Hoisted it onto the spitting block, swung the maul over my head and down into the heart of the wood. The heart was rotten. As the log split in two, it sprayed a shower of dead ants all around me. It was disgusting. And interesting.
I love this stuff. My husband is a forester. I even have some tree-based jewelry. Oh, and I wrote a book called Forest Bathing Retreat. But yes, I hate “forest bathing.” It comes down to the fact that, contrary to popular belief, it’s not all about you, dear reader.
Let me explain.
Forest bathing, somewhat awkward and pretentious on the tongue, is derived from the Japanese term shinrin-yoku. The Japanese government coined it in the 1980s as a public health initiative: get the stressed-out businesspeople outside for a while where blood pressures drop and stress hormones dissipate. Money was invested in studies to prove this and then promote it, once again sending out a newsflash to the world that—surprise?—nature is good for us. White Westerners having, as we do, a penchant for all things from the East, especially if they have an exotic-sounding name and a whiff of the spiritual, have now jumped on the forest bathing bandwagon.
This is all good, right? People want to get outdoors, commune with the trees, feel healthy. Who cares if the idea is nothing new? Who cares what it is called? Here’s the thing that bothers me. It’s become another commodified, self-help-style, precious “practice” of our secular capitalistic culture. The “new yoga.” A way to be “spiritual but not religious.” So I get asked things like, What length of time in a natural setting is necessary to benefit fully? How often? What exactly does forest bathing do for your life/health/well-being? I get speaking invitations from luxury spas.
But the living, breathing world outside our doors is not a pill to take in certain dosages at certain times. Operating within this framework creates just another kind of extraction industry, void of reciprocity and blind to the need for gratitude.
Most of us would agree that a thing is not only worthwhile for what you personally can get out of it. In fact, a thing can be worthwhile for what you are able to give to it. Authentic connection requires exchange without accounting. Forest bathing is said to be about engaging the senses, and if you think that means only drawing the world into yourself through all your sensory organs, you would be wrong. Truly seeing (with all the senses) is about a pouring out of self, giving oneself over to the other in the form of one’s deepest attention.
It’s a little risky, isn’t it, this stance of openness, this self-giving? It allows neither the armor of cynicism nor the fluff of self-satisfaction. Going out and offering the world your most selfless attention—from the smallest spray of moss to the largest expanse of sky to the stranger you hand your money to at the coffee shop (because we should offer other humans this kind of attention as well)—is a type of work that both rises out of and calls up wonder, reverence, empathy. Perhaps wonder is even a kind of involuntary gratitude. Speaking such gratitude and wonder, making it voluntary, has the potential to deepen it, that’s true. So go ahead and call it mindfulness if you must, but please don’t make it all about your own peace of mind.
To me, this pouring out of self, this willed attentiveness, is always a form of prayer. For to go about being in this world without acknowledging the marvelous and mysterious intricacy of all its form and chaos is among the saddest of sins. It diminishes us, and so of course we feel more whole, more fulfilled if we work against it. If that is the sole point for which we strive, however, the result is anemic, even kitschy.
At its worst, it looks more like smugness. And whenever the next trendy “new yoga” comes along, we’ll find ourselves grasping for it, another drug to gloss over that nagging sense of loss. It won’t work. Not if that loss we are feeling is the very human desire for connection—with each other, with the myriad things of this earth, with the unknowable, ever-creative and disruptive force beneath it all.
Hey, let’s just go outside, okay? Let’s go out there and look without nervously glancing back at our navels. Stop wondering if you’ve been healed yet. Marvel at the dried, frozen bodies of the ants spraying from the partly rotten log, black confetti on the snow.