Anne Strainchamps: We've been talking about how much more complex, how much older and more intelligent trees are than we usually acknowledge. It's one thing to imagine that, but could you experience it? Well there's a Japanese concept called forest bathing that might help. Charles Monroe-Kane got in touch with an expert, a former Zen teacher named Amos Clifford.
Charles Monroe-Kane: I'll be honest with you, I have never heard of forest bathing in my life and I was picturing something with water or maybe even, I don't know, some people getting naked next to a tree, but it's not like that at all. What is forest bathing?
Amos Clifford: It's really just a slow walk through the forest, usually guided where we're paying attention to our senses, noticing where we are, noticing how the forest is touching us through all of our senses, and also noticing what really simple pleasures are present right there just for our enjoyment. When you think about hiking, for example, which is a beautiful activity, a great way to be in nature, very often you're about trying to get somewhere else, you have a destination in mind. In forest bathing the destination is to just show up right in the moment and the gateway to get there is our senses.
Charles: You say we need a guide and I can understand that. What does the guide do?
Amos: The first thing we do is that we greet you and then we walk a little ways into the forest with you in usually a small group and then we'll go for about 15 minutes. We'll do essentially a series of sensory scans. We'll start with perhaps just feeling the touch of the forest on your skin and then we may move to what are the sounds around you, what is the closest sound you can hear? What's the farthest away sound? What's the quietest sound? How are all the sounds working together?
Then we go into just breathing as the air comes in and out of your mouth, tasting the air, noticing its textures, noticing the sound also of the air coming in and out of your mouth. Shifting now to smell. What sense do you detect? Move your head a little bit side to side, like an animal might be doing, eyes are still closed with all of this. Then noticing with your body, this is a sense we call body radar. Just turning slowly in a circle, letting your body recognize which direction it wants to face.
Then once you're there, very slowly opening your eyes and as you open your eyes, allow yourself to see whatever's in front of you as if you're seeing it for the first time. Maybe it's your first time on the planet and you're seeing it and just enjoy that.
Charles: I was thinking about the word bathing and was thinking about taking a bath versus taking a quick shower or whatever and when you bathe, you have a lot of senses hitting you at the same time. I wonder if just we can unpack one of them because I think there's too many to hit at once. I was thinking about smell. Can you tell me just a little bit about smell and how that you think is different when you forest bath versus forest hike or walk?
Amos: Yes, I think actually you're smelling things all the time, you're just not noticing it. In the forest, when you're moving through really quickly, you are smelling things, you're just not noticing it. What we'll do is we'll do things like-- Here's a low hanging fruit that any of your listeners can go out and try. Next time you're in the forest, just scoop up a handful of duff or dirt from the forest floor, slowly bring that up to your nose, just inhale that through your nose, and notice the textures of scent that are in that.
Then while you're doing that, maybe just rub that together between your hands and see if new sense are released. As you're doing that, let it slowly flow from your hands back to the forest floor. Really engaging your sense of sight. Looking at that, what is that like? As you're doing this, allow the sensory to become sensual. What I mean by that is connect to the emotional experience of that.
Then as you've released all of that dirt back into the forest floor, rub your hands together a little bit, look at the traces of dirt on your hands, smell your hands now, and just see what scent remains on your hands. If you really want to continue this experience, taste that dirt, lick your fingers and taste some of that dirt and really take it in that way also. This is a very powerful experience. It's very simple. It's really easily accessible. The only caution that I would have for it is do this somewhere where humans are not poisoning the land one way or another.
Charles: Yes, fair enough. Do you have to be in the deep forest? Can you forest bathe in a park?
Amos: A natural forest far away from human-made sounds is, of course, ideal. However, you can do this anywhere. I've actually had a great experience interacting with a single tree growing in the middle of a big parking lot at a shopping mall.
Charles: No way. Really? Tell me about that. What happened? That's interesting.
Amos: I was a little bit feeling rushed. I was running an errand. I parked my car and there was this one very slender little tree in one of those islands in the parking lot, there was a slight breeze blowing and I just held the trunk, put my hands around the trunk of this tree, I just felt it's light movement and I let myself just move with that tree. As I did that, I just noticed my body starting to relax.
Charles: That's interesting.
Amos: It really shifted my day. Trees have some connection with humans between humans and trees that are really significant. The more I spend time in the forest, the more I think about what did the Buddha do? He wandered around in the forest. Where was he sitting at the moment of his enlightenment? He was sitting at the base of a tree. Now, I've always thought of that in the past. I thought of that as just an interesting setting for the story. The more I connect with trees and the more I'm in forest environments, the more I begin to suspect that it's actually an essential part of the story. That there's something about the combined sentience of the person and the tree being in relationship that supported the Buddha's awakening.
Just so you know, I don't really identify myself as a Zen practitioner anymore. My practice has been in the forest. I would say the equivalent of my sitting meditation for me is what we call sit spot in the forest. Sit spot means we'll do this on most of our walks. We'll just invite people, find a place that you like. Don't overthink it. Just sit there for 20 minutes. Many people wouldn't say it on the walk, but that was the best part of the walk for them.
Charles: [chuckles] I was reading about this and I came upon the cornerstone philosophy. It's a simple phrase. The forest has your back. The forest has your back. What does that mean?
Amos: Well, this is something we train guides in because guides can get really involved in the training and wanting to know how to help people have good experiences, and what we want them to remember is that they're working in partnership with the forest. We say be in actual partnership with the forest. Your job is to open the doors. You do that by slowing people down and getting them into their senses. The therapy job is the forest's. The forest has a way of offering itself to us. We just have to open our hearts to it, and then the wealth of the healing capacity of the forest is perhaps limitless.
Anne Strainchamps: Amos Clifford is the author of Your Guide to Forest Bathing, and he was talking with Charles Monroe-Kane.