Having been practicing Zen at the Albuquerque Zen Center and at home for six months, I crossed another threshold on this path recently when my friend and Zen mentor David D’Agostino invited me and others to go “Forest Bathing” at Roosevelt Park. Forest Bathing is the Japanese Zen practice of immersing yourself in nature to improve your well-being with the healing powers of nature. I felt that I would benefit from and enjoy it (like Zazen). OK, I’ve been sort of a tree-hugger for a long time, and my friends know about my history with trees (both bad and good). I used to do what I considered daily meditations in the Bosque for nearly ten years until I realized that what I had been actually doing was “contemplative praying.” Anyway, I still do both, both involve trees, and both bring happiness. \
Shinrin-yoku (Japanese for “taking in the forest atmosphere” or “forest bathing”) is a cornerstone of preventive health care and healing in Japanese medicine. Doctors there often prescribe it for their patients who suffer from maladies including depression, anxiety, loneliness, and high blood pressure. It became part of a national public health program in Japan in 1982. As with Zen practice, the methods of forest bathing bring our bodies and minds into a relaxed and quiet state in which we are fully aware of where we are and what we are experiencing in the present moment. Thuis, its connection to Zen.
So, here’s what we did: we four first sat in a circle on cushions at a pleasant spot along a curved stone retaining wall. David, who regularly leads AZC and area artists outings and is himself an established artist, chose the spot and explained the activities we would do. There would be a series of seven activities:
- [Intention] After David introduced the overall purpose of forest bathing, we took turns “crossing the threshold” by sharing our “intentions” — what we hoped we would benefit from forest bathing. According to Buddhist tradition, before there can be a result (karma), there is an action. Before action, there is one’s will, and before one’s will, there is one’s intention.
Mine: “I hope to raise the level of my connection to Nature, to strengthen the bond.”
2. [Invitation #1: Tree stare] We were asked to slowly wander off until we chose (or were”invited by”) a tree to stand close to and silently stare at for twenty minutes. We were to try to foster a mental state that is present in the moment and focused only on what matters at that moment through all five senses, then reassemble.
3. [Sharing Circle #1] Again on our cushions, David invited us to individually share something that we felt or noticed during the Invitation (only if we would like to) by starting our sentences with “I am noticing…”
Mine: “I am noticing the constant parade of ants rising up the bark;” and “I am noticing the red and green colors deep in the ark for the very first time.”
What I didn’t share: “I noticed that the tree that had invited me was an American Elm, a species of tree that was the very first tree that I had connected to as a little boy in Chicago. It invited me into a deep contemplation about my dear father, who had planted that tree in our front yard.”
4. [Invitation #2: Noticing Movement] David then asked us to slowly wander in any direction (or where we were drawn to (or “invited”) and to intentionally notice all movements in the forest as another forest therapy practice. We were not to walk single-file, just to stay within sight of each other, for about twenty minutes before reassembling.
5. [Sharing Circle #2] Again we took turns sharing about what we noticed and felt.
Mine: “I am noticing how the flock of pigeons in the parking lot nearby kept re-assembling (like us).” and “I am noticing how the ends of the top branches of the trees dance in the breeze.”
What I didn’t share: “I noticed that nearby there was a stand of junipers within our walk perimeter to which I was drawn. There I entered the middle of the stand, felt a number of their tender leaves, plucked one berry that I put it in my pocket, and wept, for these were Juniperus Sabina. My dear waning wife’s name is Sabina, so I always think of her when I see one. Never before had I ever been in the midst of, or even seen, a group of Juniperus Sabina.”
6. [Invitation #3: Lying horizontally] David then asked us to find (or ” be drawn or invited to”) a spot on a gradual slope where we were to lie down, first for ten minutes with our heads higher than our feet, then for ten minutes with our feet higher than our heads and to take in the surroundings by being present and to notice the surroundings just as it is.
7. [Sharing Circle #3] Again we took turns sharing about what we noticed and felt, including how those feelings and sensations seemed different during the two halves of the activity.
Mine: “I am noticing how the tree’s limbs look stronger and more beautiful that its main trunk.” and “I am noticing a kind of calligraphy in the upper most branches.”
What I didn’t share: “I am noticing once again the strong concurrence of my Zen practice with Franciscan mystical Catholicism that I also practice under Father Richard Rohr.”
8. [Tea ceremony] We concluded the morning’s activities with hot tea on our cushions and our hopes to meet again, perhaps on Sandia Mountain or in the Bosque. In conclusion, I am truly happy that I took this forest bath and plan to do the ones in the future. Gathering a group of people who have never met each other to explore an unfamiliar practice such as forest therapy was relaxing, rewarding and spiritually beneficial.
David leads monthly forest bathing on the second Tuesday of every month.
Seedpods to carry about
- “Between every two pine trees is a doorway leading to a new way of life.” (John Muir)
- “Somewhere beyond right and wrong, there is a garden. I will meet you there.” (Rumi)
- “Our task must be to free ourselves… by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and it’s beauty.” (Albert Einstein)
- “Perhaps you have noticed that even in the slightest breeze you can hear the voice of the cotton tree; this we understand is its prayer to the Great Spirit, for not only men, but all things and all beings pray to Him continually in different ways.” (Black Elk)