Forest Bathing and Other Seasonal Renewals

Please click here to watch Rev. Ann Marie’s video recording of this sermon.

It may be your experience that it takes a person, a real person, to bring healing. All blessings on those who do. But sometimes what many name as “compassionate presence” comes from a source that isn’t a person, not even an imaginary person, but a presence that brings healing, nonetheless. You may have read in this month’s Touchstones Journal about shinrin-yoku, the Japanese term for “forest-bathing.” It is a term first used in 1982 by the head of the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, Akiyama. Forest bathing was further defined in 2010 in a scholarly article found in the journal Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine. They defined shinrin-yoku as “making contact with and taking in the atmosphere of the forest: A process intended to improve an individual’s state of mental and physical relaxation.” For years, centuries perhaps, forest bathing has been what some beings have been doing to bring healing when their bodies are their souls have had a need.

You may have done it yourself, not knowing there is word for it. Shinrin-yoku is a little different from taking a hike in the woods, especially the kind of hike where one is focused on making sure the children are safe; or are keeping up, or on anything that tends to take your attention away from the present moment, like wondering what gifts you have forgotten to buy. Forest-bathing is all about immersing oneself in the present moment, taking it in all that surrounds you: Being bathed, stunned really, by the beauty of the light coming through the trees or the vista that you are seeing from the trail as you walk along the top of a mountain range, or the intricacies of a wildflower as you sit and study. It is about drinking in the moment as you move among the trees, letting the beauty heal you. Letting yourself be transported from your daily worries by the perspective of the immediate. It is a paradox that you may become so mindful of the present that you are taken into the forever, the timeless.

Forest Bathing is healing, calming, centering. It is a form of compassion for the weary soul.

There are studies, revealing evidence-based research that show that forest bathing is associated with lower levels of a stress indicator called cortisol, lower pulse rate, and lower blood pressure. During the practice of shinrin-yoku, there is decreased activity in the part of the nervous system that activates when we are stressed. There is increased activity in the part of the nervous system that activates when we are relaxed. We have all been in a prolonged time when stress has become chronic. Too much stress reduces immune function and makes us more prone to depression, heart disease, and other disorders.

Your medicine: Go bathe in the forest.

We get amped up during the winter holidays. I blame capitalism for that. There is an age-old remedy that is right there in the holiday rituals of old.

Pagans, and other observers of the ways of the natural world, know that winter is for solitude and quiet. It is for waiting. It is for remembering and for healing, for regeneration.

We may have expectations for what will soon be. But winter forces us to slow down, to take the time to center ourselves, to heal. One good way to do that is go out and into the forest.

Studies show that just three days and two nights in a wooded place increase the immune system functions and can boost feelings of wellbeing for up to seven days. The same amount of time in a human built environment has no such effect. Responses to the forest, or water include increased awe, greater relaxation, restored attention, and boosted vitality.

When Akiyama recommended forest bathing all those years ago, he knew about the pioneering studies of pungent essential oils—conducted by the Soviet scientist Boris P Tokin in the 1920s and ’30s. The oils are the volatile compounds exuded by conifers and some other plants. They reduce blood pressure and boost immune function and carry other benefits for healing.

In recent years, a host of other ways forest-bathing helps have been revealed. According to a paper in Frontiers in Psychology from scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, there are 21 ways. Among those are bright, natural light and negative air ions (those are oxygen atoms charged with an extra electron). These are known to ease depression. Even a simple view of nature enhances autonomic control of heart rate and blood pressure. The sounds of nature help us to recover from heightened stress.

Put the electronic devices down. Turn the news off. Go for a walk in the woods. Even a drive along a stream or a river can have the same effects. Even sitting in your favorite chair looking out the window at a tree.

Quoting from a sermon by the Rev. Kathleen Hepler:

Can a walk in the woods heal us? Yes. Without doubt. Science confirms this and we know it in our souls.

Yet, earth does not exist to meet our needs alone. We cannot stop there … with our own healing only. If we do, we will be participating in that worldview that the earth is here to serve our purposes only; that attitude that pushes us into the slavery of consumption, the hubris of national righteousness, and a selfish disconnected living.

The Earth is so very generous, and so very forgiving of our excess and plunder. But Earth is not inexhaustible. All humans are called to stay the course in changing our own lifestyles, lobbying, writing … so that the Earth can heal.

Let any walking in the words we do inspire us to stay focused on the earth we bequeath to those who will live long after us. Let us keep our spirits tuned to the Seventh Generation beyond this one, as some Native American Tribes have said. Let us love the Seventh Generation beyond now with our actions. May those who we will never know be born into a world that has found its balance again; the Promised Land, the good land, and a large land; a land flowing with milk and honey for every creature.”

Rev. Kathleen Hepler

May we heal ourselves, and in so doing, heal each other and bring the planet back to health.

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