Learn to take a step away from stress and towards the presence of nature, using mindfulness and meditation to feel peace while surrounded by the wild earth.
Your Guide to Forest Bathing (Conari, 2018) by M. Amos Clifford serves as an in-depth introduction to the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing. Clifford is the founder of the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy, which seeks to incorporate nature and forest therapy into modern medical practices. As a 20-year student of Buddhist philosophy and with forty years of wilderness experience, Clifford shares his field notes on how to use forest bathing to deepen a relationship with nature and with one’s self. He walks through the proven techniques to let nature heal the body, mind, and soul.
The sequence described here has proven over hundreds of walks to reliably create a strong sensory connection with the forest. It brings us home, opening our internal gates and inviting the forest to come meet our minds and hearts and spirits.
It is a framework that provides a predictable pattern with room for flexibility, creativity, and adaptation to circumstances. Structure is part of what makes forest bathing a “practice.” Its built-in flexibility supports our creative capacity to relax into playfully engaging in a nondirected flow of emerging events.
As with any other practice, repetition helps. The repeated use of these invitations will, over time, deepen your understanding and your capacity to fully “drop in.” Dropping in is a term I’ve often heard forest bathers use. Its origin is in surfing, a practice that’s related in many ways to forest bathing. Surfers wait watchfully for a wave; when one comes, they must paddle to catch it. At a certain point, the paddling gives way to the wave’s own energy carrying the board forward. The surfer stands and “drops in” to the wave and the flow of the moment. When your forest bathing practice begins to ripen, like a skillful surfer you will learn how to drop in, allowing the forest and your own embodied awareness to flow together. The optimal flow described in this book will help you understand how to do this.
Beginning with a clear intention helps prevent the walk from morphing into a hike or a time for conversation. The basic intention can be something like, “For the next two hours I will simply be forest bathing. I will not hike, and I will be silent and attentive to my senses and the forest.”
The healing properties of the forest invite us to come with additional intentions. You may have a health care concern; perhaps you wish to boost your immune system because you know that flu season is coming. You may want to realign and balance your nervous system so you can think more clearly and creatively. If you have cardiac disease, you may simply want to relax in a way that supports the wellness of your heart.
You may have a question or relationship quandary for which an answer has proven elusive. Perhaps you have a decision to make, and the options are a perplexing. What if you ask the forest for help? Many times, I’ve shared a question with a tree at the beginning of my forest bathing walk. Then I just let it go, and stop thinking about it.
Often, at some point on my walk, an answer just pops into my head. I can then pause and give extra attention to my surroundings, offering a moment of gratitude.
even if you are clear about your purpose at the beginning, it’s often still easy to lose the thread. For me, the way this sometimes happens is like this: At first, I move along slowly and attentively, but before long—after say twenty or thirty minutes—I notice that I am simply hiking along thinking about other things. I’m no longer here, now; my thoughts have transported me to the past or future, to some memory or anticipated event. It’s important to create a container that will help to maintain present-moment awareness throughout the walk. I’ve found “thresholds” to formally mark the beginning and end of a walk very useful.
A threshold is a place that marks a transition from one place to another. We encounter them every time we pass through a doorway into a room or place that is clearly different from the other side. Often entryways into houses or gardens are given considerable attention to emphasize the transition: the design, the materials, the colors, and the framing may all be chosen with extra care to help define the psychological experience of entering.
Using thresholds on forest bathing walks invites the more-than-human world into a partnership that supports the journey. It often seems that using thresholds also stirs the awareness of the forest, alerting it that we are entering with a particular intention. The felt connection with the forest created with a threshold ceremony segues easily into sensing the sentience of the forest.
In the forest there are many natural thresholds. The trail sign at the beginning is itself a threshold; a bridge over a stream marks the transition from “here” to “there.” A branch that arches over the trail or even a bend in the path where there is a felt sense of entering the forest would be another example.
Creating your own threshold can be powerful as well. A very simple way to do this is to find a stick long enough to put across the trail. Facing into the forest, put the stick on the ground in front you. Sink into awareness of your body, the place where you are standing, and the special quality of the moment. Bring your intention firmly to mind. Speak it out loud, so the forest can hear. Ask the forest for support. Tell the forest how much time you are committing to your forest bath. Ask it to help you stay safe and present. Humbly offer it your open and soft heart. express your appreciation and love of the forest, and promise that you will act tenderly toward it.
Pause to listen for the forest’s answer. The wind soughs through the branches, a bird calls, a fox shows its face and then disappears into the brush—the forest has many ways of saying: “I hear you. You are welcome here.” Finally, step over the stick. Now you have begun your forest bath.
This threshold where you begin your forest bath is called the “Threshold of Connection.” Crossing it is a ceremony that supports us as we enter a special liminal state, a time “in between” two periods of ordinary life. In Jungian psychology, the liminal state is when our active imaginations are particularly alive. We become receptive to perceptions and experiences that are outside of our normal daily life. These experiences play a significant and necessary role in our personal growth. In liminality, we may escape the rote existence of our “received lives” and begin to contact our unique individual selves.
The conscious use of thresholds amplifies liminality. You don’t have to make efforts to produce liminality during your walk. It is automatic, and if you to try to make it happen, you’ll only interfere. Relax, don’t try to do it right, just bathe in the forest and trust that it will support you.
After crossing your threshold, if you’ve used a stick move it off the trail where it won’t be an obstacle to others. Keep it nearby so you can use it again at the end of your walk for the Threshold of Incorporation. This creates the opportunity for you to feel the special sense of completion when you return at the end, to make your walk a threshold-to-threshold experience.
Once we’ve crossed the threshold of connection and started our forest bathing walk, we give our attention to three things: noticing our surroundings, noticing our body sensations, and noticing how our senses bring us into contact with the forest. The first fifteen or twenty minutes of a forest bathing experience don’t involve walking anywhere; we stand or sit in one place. Staying in one place like this establishes a mental framework for the pace of the entire walk. Sometimes so much rich variety is discovered that forest baths never move beyond this starting point.
During “embodied Awareness” we will scan our bodies and senses, which will prepare us for a fully immersive walk.
Familiarize yourself with these instructions in advance, and don’t rush through them. If you are in a group, it may help to have someone read them aloud at a slow pace. You may find that the first fifteen minutes of the walk are indeed a great pleasure.
The invitation goes like This:
Take a few long, slow deep breaths. Notice your body, how it feels to be supported by the earth below your feet. Notice the sky and the other living things nearby.
For the next part, it helps to work with a stone, although you can also do it empty-handed. A well-suited stone is about the size of an apple and has enough mass that some effort is required to hold its weight when you extend your arm. It shouldn’t be so heavy that it causes you to strain while holding it in one hand and moving your arms. Its weight will help you to notice the sensations of your bones, tendons, and muscles more clearly.
With a stone in your hand and your feet about shoulder-width apart, slowly move your arms. It can be helpful to reduce visual distractions by doing this with your eyes closed. Reach out to your sides and then in front of you. Take your time and move slowly, always keeping your focus on body sensations. When you hold the stone in front of you, can you trace the ripples of its presence through your muscles all the way to your toes? What happens if you curl your toes; does it send a ripple back? Improvise, playfully trying new ways of moving that help you explore your muscles and bones. This will help you begin your walk with an awareness of embodiment. Do this for two to five minutes, then set the stone down.
Sense of Touch: eyes still closed, turn your attention to your skin. Notice the ways that the forest touches you. Hold your hands with your palms turned forward, letting them be sensors. Notice the sensations on your skin. Can you feel a breeze? How about temperatures? What does your face feel? Your neck? Are there different sensations in different places? Do the sensations change? Perhaps you notice some way the forest is touching you that feels good, a gift of simple pleasure. Linger with that pleasure; give it your hospitality. explore the sense of touch for two to five minutes.
Sense of Hearing: What sounds are around you? Notice the variety of sounds. What sounds are nearby, and which ones are farther away? What is the farthest away sound you can hear? What is the quietest sound? Can you detect any patterns or rhythms in what you are hearing? Do the sounds interact with each other? Do they combine, like chords or a symphony? You can exaggerate the sound of your own breathing, just enough so you can hear it blend in with the sounds around you; what is it like to be a part of the symphony of this place? Notice within the experience of sound any pleasure you find. Let that pleasure find a home within you. Listen in this way for at least three minutes before moving on.
Sense of Taste: What tastes is the forest offering in the air that you are breathing? Breathe in deeply through your open mouth, exploring the air as it passes over your tongue. How does the air taste? What is its texture? What does the forest offer you in this moment, in this place, on this day, as you inhale its complex offerings? Perhaps you notice something pleasurable in how the air enters your body. Breathing out, you might wonder how the forest receives your exhalations. Is there something you would like to offer to the forest, carried to it on your out-breath? Can you give pleasure back to the forest? Breathe in this way for at least three minutes before moving on.
Sense of Smell: Breathing through your nose, notice what scents are being offered by the forest. Over the next minute or so, do the scents of the forest change as you explore them? Perhaps move your head from side to side, the way a hound would sniff to track a scent, and up and down, just inviting and noticing. If you crouch down so your nose is nearer the ground, do the scents change? Does what you smell stir up any feelings? explore scent in this way for at least two minutes before moving on.
Body Radar and Sense of Sight: eyes closed, hold your hands out to your sides, near your hips, and turn your palms forward. Feel into the direction you are facing with your entire body. As you turn, notice how you feel inside.
Think of your body as having a kind of radar as your feelings register unseen contact in the forest around you. Slowly turn in a circle until you are facing in a direction that somehow feels right to you—the direction your body radar recognizes as a good way to face.
When you are sure about the direction you are facing, slowly open your eyes. Let the forest reveal itself to you as if you have never seen it before. There’s no hurry; you can simply gaze for about the time an image taken with a Polaroid camera might take to develop. Imagine that the film is within you, and what is developing is an impression on the film of your imagination. To help develop and embody this internal image, make a physical gesture or movement. Allow this gesture to come as a spontaneous expression from your body, without overthinking it, just moving your body guided by what you feel.
Notice what you are Noticing
After the invitation “embodied Awareness,” take a few moments to notice what you are noticing, as described earlier in chapter 3 using the phrase “I am noticing . . .”.
The invitation is simple: Walk slowly, while silently noticing what is in motion in the forest. There is always movement, even when things seem perfectly still. Strands of a web drift in the air, trees move in the breezes, birds fly by, and squirrels scramble in the branches, grasses bend, insects crawl. Creeks are perpetually changing their shape and tune. Inside you there is also motion. Your inner motion cannot avoid mirroring the motion of the world around you, and vice versa. The soothing sound of a breeze will be mirrored within you as calm; in turn, your calm will encourage the squirrels and birds not to flee at your approach.
Until you become accustomed to it, walking slowly for more than a few minutes is, paradoxically, stressful. experienced meditators will recognize this. What happens when you sit still? First thing: your mind starts racing. More accurately, you notice how your mind is racing. That’s called “monkey mind.” When you’re meditating, you’re sitting still, and a still body helps still the mind. It eventually slows down and becomes more focused.
It’s very common in forest bathing to find that at some point we’ve sped up and are walking at our ordinary hiking pace. That’s because we lost focus, our minds started racing, and our body automatically kept up. We might call this “monkey body,” as an outward expression of monkey mind. Because the mind and body are a single entity, slowing our body will also calm our mind.
The eternal movement of the forest gives our minds something to engage with. Just as with sitting meditation the breath is always there and available for watching, in the forest there are always things in motion. Your mind will drift, and many other thoughts will arise. When they do, gently bring your attention back to noticing what’s in motion.
When you find you have automatically sped up, come to a complete halt for a moment. It’s an opportunity to fully give your attention to one thing, noticing how that thing is in motion. After a brief pause you’ll be ready to continue your slow walk.
I recommend that you walk like this for at least fifteen minutes. That’s enough time for your mind to go through several cycles of distraction and calming. Many people notice that their inner calmness comes more easily and is stabler each time they come back to moving slowly and noticing what’s in motion.
Notice what you are Noticing
After the invitation “Walking in Forest Time,” take a few moments again to notice what you are noticing.
“Infinite Possibilities” is where, within the container of the optimal flow, forest bathers can choose from among infinite possibilities.
Invitations are everywhere in the forest. The grass invites us to lie in it. The clouds invite us to gaze. The hawk invites us to spread our arms like wings and walk as if we were flying. The steep part of the trail invites us to slow down and notice how we carry our center of gravity. The worm invites us to explore the dirt. These are simple invitations, easy to discover. With a group, you can turn this into a game, taking turns to offer your discovery to others: “I am the fallen tree. I invite you to walk on me.”
“I am the singing stream. I invite you to find a way to add your music to mine.” The possibilities are endless. Notice the format: the noun invites you to verb. This formula is called “the infinite invitation.”
eventually you will become adept at discovering what invitations the forest is offering to you. You’ll learn to flow within the unique configuration of who you are, where you are in the forest, and when you are in the forest, with all the critters and elements and events unfolding within and around you.
The next chapter on invitations contains a sampling from among the hundreds that I and my fellow guides have tested. They are some of the “keepers,” having proven to reliably support satisfying experiences. Try out those that appeal to you—and perhaps a couple that don’t.
Sit spot is a very simple and very powerful practice. It is one of the best methods of nature connection, supporting healing, cultivating awareness of self and others, and deepening relationships with the more-than-human world. When done in the context of forest bathing, sit spot is a practice-within-the-practice.
Although the preferred time for sit spot is toward the end of the walk, it is not an afterthought. When we do it at end of our forest bathing walks just before the tea ceremony, we are in a relaxed and attentive state of mind that is ideal for sit spot. This is not a formal meditation practice, and there are no expectations, other than to find a place that feels right and simply sit there. You may choose to journal, but writing may distract you from noticing many things that might otherwise make themselves known.
A very common sit spot experience is “the slow reveal.” The longer you sit, the more you notice. You may sit for fifteen minutes before you realize tiny flowers are growing right in front of you. It may be twenty minutes before the shy fox pokes its nose out of a bush to get a better sniff of the human with the unusually still behavior. In the relative stillness, an inner stillness also emerges; when it does, the other beings in the area may respond by making themselves more readily known. A slow, patient sit is rewarded with new perceptions. It’s not like you are looking for observations to capture, stalking them like a hunter. It’s more like letting things reveal themselves when they choose.
Twenty minutes is a good minimum time for sit spot.
Besides sit spot during forest bathing, you can also find a place near your home that is convenient for you to visit easily and cultivate a regular sit spot practice there. It might be in your garden. Aim for at least three sit spot sessions of twenty minutes or more per week. Many forest bathers find that sit spot time is an ideal bridge between forest bathing experiences.
An ideal way to begin the transition out of the forest bath is to brew a pot of tea to share with those who have been your companions on the walk. We call this the tea ceremony, but there is no formalized structure for it. It’s not the same as the “Way of Tea” in Japan, nor does it try to replicate the social conventions of a traditional British high tea. It’s just another enjoyable moment of forest bathing. Yet, all over the world, forest bathing guides delight in assembling tea sets and developing ceremonies that express their unique ways of forest bathing practice. I prefer to use a lightweight backpacking stove or thermos of hot water to make “trail tea” from herbs I have gathered along the path. Of course, if you don’t know your local plants and aren’t sure which ones are safe to use, you can bring along some tea in a thermos.
You may find it very rewarding to take a class from a local expert on herbal medicine. eventually you may develop the self-confidence and knowledge to make trail tea safely.
Harvest plants in a respectful way. Overall, be guided by the ethic of tenderness. Let your heart lead you. Avoid unnecessary damage to plants when harvesting, and don’t harvest plants that are not abundant.
Be mindful of regulations regarding harvesting plants; if it is not allowed because you are guiding in a state park or similar setting with prohibitions, either get specific permission from the land use managers or harvest elsewhere and bring the plants with you. If they are the same species as those found on the trail where you guide, they will be a good match.
In the off-season you can use plants that you gathered at other times and dried for winter use. Another option is to purchase plants at local herb stores. Again, find those species that grow along your trail.
Much of what makes an ordinary activity like drinking tea feel like a ceremony is the quality attention we give to it. Allow the tea ceremony to be a segue from the special circumstances of forest bathing back to normal, everyday life.
If you marked the Threshold of Connection to begin your walk, return to that place or choose a new place to cross a second threshold to formally end the walk. This second threshold is called the “Threshold of Incorporation.” It begins during the tea ceremony, when you start transitioning from the liminal time of the forest bath back to ordinary activities like snacking and being in conversation. Just as you did at the beginning, a simple ceremony at the end is a clear demarcation when you can celebrate the end of your experience.
Pause at the threshold and consider the gifts you have received on your walk. Invite them into your deepest awareness, knowing that these gifts will be alive somewhere within you. This is what incorporation means: to take into the body, in-corpus. Step across the threshold, leaving liminality, and return to ordinary life, now carrying the gifts the forest has given.
Returning home, take care while you travel to be attentive and safe. Sometimes forest bathers are in a slightly altered, dreamlike state for an hour or so afterward. You may feel deeply relaxed and have a strong urge to nap. Just be aware of these tendencies and find ways to accommodate them safely.
Reprinted with permission from Your Guide to Forest Bathing by M. Amos Clifford and published by Conari Press, 2018.