In ancient India, so the story goes, a king facing acute depression stopped his carriage for a breather in a forest full of tall tropical trees. While walking among their giant roots the king noticed the trees’ silence, their quiet steadfastness, and their offer of refuge from the harsh world of human affairs. He felt freshly inspired with trust and confidence—and was reminded of the Buddha. In the words of author Karen Armstrong, he “jumped into his carriage and drove for many miles until he reached the house where the Buddha was staying.”
How nice it must have been (at least for a king) to live at a time when one could polish off a forest immersion by dropping in on the abode of the Buddha! But the story is notable for another reason: Some 2,500 years ago, this person was experiencing what today’s Japanese would call shinrin yoku, forest bathing. The term, invented in 1982 and now beginning to gain purchase in English, does not mean literally setting a bathtub among trees, any more than sunbathing implies a soapy scrubbing under a clear blue sky. The meaning is closer to the experience of the Indian king: complete sensory immersion among trees until one is in a healing interaction with them. If we are open to the possibility of plant sentience, we might call this a social or even spiritual communion with nature.
Many of us who have hiked and camped in forests most of our lives may feel we know what it means to bathe in the balm of forests. Indeed, almost any time spent outdoors in wild greenery is likely to calm nerves and lower blood pressure—as ample scientific research reveals. (See, for example, this study on the impact of forest walking on sleep patterns.) But as developed by its Japanese proponents and refined by some Westerners, the concept of forest bathing reaches well beyond a thoughtful walk in the woods.
In forest bathing, as author M. Amos Clifford puts it in his book, Your Guide to Forest Bathing: Experience the Healing Power of Nature, “the destination is here, not there.” There doesn’t seem to be a single definition of the concept, at least in English, but at its core is slow movement punctuated by stillness in a forested environment. Many experienced hikers might argue that one can “bathe” similarly in non-forested nature, such as prairies, wetlands or deserts. Scuba divers no doubt would support this idea, and there is likely truth in it. But the history and literature stress the value of trees, especially those that have weathered hundreds of seasons. It’s helpful to recall that our quadrupedal primate ancestors spent millions of years living in trees and forests, and our hands with their opposable thumbs still demonstrate their long evolution in grasping branches. Subcategories of nature bathing in non-forested environments, it appears, await their own development, activities and trained guides.
Forest bathers aim not for physical exertion, a naturalist’s eye for species identification, or stimulating conversation with companions. The aim is sheer presence, ideally over a couple hours or more, with a meditative impulse to center attention on unconstrained, non-judgmental sense awareness of whatever the forest may be offering. Gurgling streams or similar water elements and the sounds of birds are welcome additions to the rustling of leaves and branches. The experience may not require belief that nature is brimming with non-human sentience and interest in human visitors. But it probably helps to be open to such ideas, at least as a mysteriously possible reality, a playful question not needing resolution by the rational scientific mind. (Playful himself, Clifford claims there are fully nine senses—some perhaps not verifiable by science—beyond the conventional five. One he calls “mirroring,” the way our minds naturally feel and often mimic the feelings of other beings we encounter. Another, the imaginative sense, is self-explanatory and can be wildly liberated among willing forest bathers.)
It’s not hard to see the Japanese origins of forest bathing in the national Shinto religion, which holds that kami (or spirits) inhabit all aspects of nature—not just trees, but shrubs, streams, and even stones. The hills are alive, quite literally, if not with the sound of music at least with some potential for expressing thoughts, out loud or in the quiet mental space of a mortal human listening attentively. Curiously, however, the Japanese seem to downplay the spiritual for the scientific in their own practice. As described in another book on the topic, Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness, the Japanese have adapted many of their most intact, beautiful and peace-inducing wooded parks for professionally guided forest bathing, with dedicated paths, rest buildings and “sit spots.” But the book, by Japanese medical professor Qing Li, says little or nothing about Shinto or nature spirits. Instead, the focus is on science and biomarkers of health. Blood pressure and salivary amylase are measured before and after forest baths, apparently to provide participants with quantifiable indicators of the benefits they’ve gained from their experience.
Clifford, too, details some of the health benefits of forest bathing, which he also calls forest therapy or forest healing. Certainly healing and health are key focuses of the practice. Yet Clifford, founder of the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy Guides & Programs, unashamedly stresses the more spiritual and social interaction between human and non-human sentient beings in nature. His book is chock full of “invitations”—specific actions one can try in the forest to enable one’s many senses to be stimulated by what he hints may well be intentional signals or messages from forest beings. Two examples: Place a written wish in the soil, and walk away. Or whisper a question to a palmful of stream water and release it, then cup more water later downstream and see if an answer arises. The good news is that if you try such invitations alone, only you—and (who knows?) maybe the forest—will know about the experiment.
Each of these two books has its unique themes and strengths. Clifford stresses the importance of forest bathing for environmental activists and others stressed out or even thrown into despair by the state of the world. He offers a rich assortment of invitations to commune with nature, along with permission to adopt a childlike approach to the idea of social connection with trees, animals, creeks and stones. While he recommends spending two to four hours in a forest, he does confess that he once interacted happily with a tree separating spaces for cars in a shopping-mall parking lot.
Li gives more specific advice about forest bathing in city parks during office lunch breaks and offers testimonials from individuals he has guided. He also adorns his book with double-page color photographs of spectacular Japanese forests, featuring massive trees and well maintained paths. He provides enough information about forest bathing in Japan to justify throwing the book into overhead luggage before flying off to tour the country. But especially while a global pandemic makes such a flight an impossible dream and even complicates regional forest bathing, Li also offers advice for bringing the forest into the home. His book includes specific recommendation on houseplants and the woodsy scents of incense and essential oils.
Some questions remain to be answered. How does forest bathing differ from better known forms of meditation, especially mindfulness practice? Can you bathe in forests crowded with unmistakably sentient—and often loud and garrulous—human beings? If so, how? If you visit a seriously degraded forest, easy to find these days, can you hear the trees cry out in pain? And is there any health or spiritual benefit in that?
Such questions may be grist for personal experimentation and conversation with forest-bathing companions. In the meantime, these two books complement each other well. They offer a strong foundation, encouragement and guidance for anyone forming an intention to linger in a warm forest bath—even if the Buddha is not staying in a house within driving distance.
Robert Engelman is the former president of the Worldwatch Institute, a writer and fiddler. He led the March Gaian Book Discussion on Forest Bathing and Your Guide to Forest Bathing.