The Nav Goes Forest Bathing
Over the summer months of 2022, I was contacted by one of my professors – “I think you might find this course interesting” she said, “It’s not like courses as you know it. Sure, it’s a fourth year course, and will require some critical thought – but it’s what we’re thinking about that I think you’ll find interesting.”
That course, Media Studies 495, asked us to look at our relationship with nature, and the way that we understand critical things – such as global warming and climate change. It was in this course that I was tasked with forest bathing for the first time. Now – If you’re not in the know, forest bathing does not mean my professor asked me to go streaking in a public park – although a quick Google search will show you that some people do, in fact, forest bathe in the nude. No, Shinrin-Yoku as the Japanese call it involves immersing yourself and connecting with nature. Trying to become one with nature, and noticing the minute details around you. It isn’t Hiking – Although hiking is great – and if you are interested in it you should check out this months podcast where a bunch of Navigators go hiking on Mt. Benson – Hiking involves a destination – it is overcoming nature to reward yourself with its beauty.
Forest bathing is taking time to move slowly with nature, sit with it, attempt to understand it, become closer to becoming one with it. Rather than overcoming nature to gain natures reward, nature will help you heal and recharge you spiritually. My assignment had asked me to clear my mind and sit in silence until the forest had “opened up” to me. We were asked to take notes (audio recordings were recommended) and then summarize our sessions. At the end of that first session I knew I felt better coming out than I went in, but it wasn’t until I re-read my submission – done in two parts – that I can see how much my thinking slowed down and I became more focused.
Take the following reading from the beginning of my walk – where I was trying way to hard – for example:
“I was careful to record the soundscape of my journey. Specifically, the crunching of the dirt of the trail as I walked, the rustling of leaves, and the calls of various birds, including my nemesis, the seagull. Part way through I spotted a painted rock, common in parks all over the place today. It stood out among the forest… it was “unnatural” but not out of place.
It got me thinking, at what point do we say something is no longer nature? Surely humans, at least to a degree are a part of nature and the natural world. Sure, I can understand how roads, streetlights, and skyscrapers aren’t natural. But paint on a rock placed on a stump? What about the trail I was walking on. It is very clearly man made, is it “natural”? Is it different from a trail carved by deer? Sure, it’s intentionally made, but it also stops us from destroying sensitive areas of nature. Additionally, if it isn’t natural, should I be walking on it while forest bathing?”
I finally realized my mind was wandering, I quickly settled that the cultural definition of natural, within reason, is fluid and determined by the person experiencing it, and refocused on my surroundings.
Eventually I found a spot to my liking – the same spot you see me sitting in right now actually – and I sat and relaxed. I’ve been here 4 times since that adventure – twice with my daughter when she was having a bad day – in every instance as soon as I settled myself, and “turned off my brain” nature came to me. With my daughter, we had an eagle perch above us once and a turkey vulture the second time. They didn’t seem at all concerned with our presence, but left when others came nearby. Turkey Vultures have long since moved south as I sit on this day, but that didn’t stop a deer from coming to check me out. In sitting I spotted some exposed quartz I hadn’t noticed before, and the moss covering the roots and the tree trunk is softer than it was before. The smell of dirt and decay that existed in spring has been covered up by all the fall leaves that haven’t had a chance to decompose in the winter rains, but the forest still tastes very “green” and the sun is cutting through the trees now that the oaks and maples above have shed their leaves — exposing a cerulean sky. The tall Arbutus, and the pines overhead still provide some shade, but it is in stark contrast to the coverage provided here in the late spring and summer.
This is forest bathing momentarily setting aside our hustle and bustle – muting our electronics – and focusing on the minute details around us. Psychologists often use focusing in extreme detail – the way the air feels in our lungs as we breathe, or the feel of the fabric of a chair, trying to sense every fiber the is often used to distract and re-center our thoughts and avoid spiraling to the worst possible outcome. Forest bathing is that – but for all five senses. Focusing on what you hear, what you smell, what you taste, feel, and see – speaking of sight, did you know that seeing green has been shown to calm, motivate, and create optimism. Next time you’re in a large business, pay attention to where they use which colours – they spend a lot of money on that kind of research.
If it wasn’t already called Forest Bathing – it might even be called “Green Mind” – actually there is a whole psychological theory called “Green Mind Theory” which analyzes the effect of green environments on our psyche. And because we are fortunate enough to live on the coast we can partake in its older cousin – Blue Mind.
If you prefer the Ocean, or want to double dose on your relaxation, take the time to get in, on, or near some water. Blue Mind was established by Dr. Wallace J Nichols, and through his extensive research he established that there is significant health benefits to being in, on, or around water. Nichols describes the water as medicine. There are many places in Nanaimo you can go to get near the water you don’t even necessarily have to walk into a park – even going to the waterfront is beneficial.
Water gives us awe, it give us wonder, they shift our thinking from me to we, Nichols points out that water builds trust and boosts our compassion – being in the presence of bodies of water even cause our bodies to reduce cortisol and cytokine levels – which reduce inflamtion. Nature has some amazing and wonderful powers when we allow ourselves to connect with it.
When I first started in that class – in September of 2022 I had spent nearly 20 years struggling with depression – with very little I could do on my own to help myself. But I can honestly say that doing this helps. It isn’t hard to do – especially on the West Coast. So I encourage you. Please – give it a try it is absolutely worth it.
Oh – and if it’s raining outside or it’s the middle of the night and you’re not into going into the deep dark woods – no worries! One of our other Navigators, Ben, has put together a fantastic relaxing video built from his extensive nature video back catalogue. You can’t go wrong – even if you just need something to chill out to!
There’s only a few weeks left in this semester, and then we all get a well earned break! Don’t forget to get out in the trees – even around campus – when you get stressed out.
Mike is a web designer, writer, and videographer who has lived and experienced stories from all over Western Canada. He is on his third journey through VIU pursuing his degree in Digital Media Studies. In his non-VIU life, Mike spends his time hanging out with his wife and kids, exploring Vancouver Island, and learning how to be a better global citizen.