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Forest Bathing

I’m planning on learning something a little different in 2020, something known as the mythic imagination. It’s the foundation of a course run by writer, storyteller and psychologist, Sharon Blackie, as part of her academic and professional training in the fields of psychology, mythology and native traditions of the British Isles and Ireland. The first month has begun by inviting us to explore the idea of the Wild Woman and Wild Man archetypes in British and European folklore and mythology. 

Archetypes, such as the Wild Man and Woman, are an expression of the nature of our own unconscious. They serve as a portal into the depths and richness of our inner landscape. And as part of this imaginal deep-dive, I’ve become fascinated by the idea of how we access the wild one within and why it’s important to uncivilise ourselves in these all-too-civilised times. It’s led me to explore how and when we actually became a civilised society (which I’ve concluded is a matter of opinion), uncovering the journey of how we lost touch with our wildness here in the Britain and most of the West. By this I mean our connection to nature, because this subtle, gradual, yet utterly profound shift is what may ultimately lead to the downfall of our civilisation.

This is how the Oxford Dictionary describes civilised:

Isn’t It Ironic?

Gradually over the centuries, we civilised ourselves and began to turn our backs on nature. We stopped working with it as a source of wisdom in our lives and began to feel that we knew best, that we were better and more intelligent. We forgot that the earth was a living entity and now even laugh at the idea. Around seven thousand years ago, when we moved from hunter gatherers to become landowners and farmers, we began carving up the land and buying little bits for ourselves. We began to dominate the land. We fought each other for it and in the process, little by little we began to destroy and close ourselves off from it– not even realising that the path we were taking could ultimately destroy ourselves. And here we are, now beginning to realise that things aren’t quite going according to plan.

So why didn’t we realise? Why has it taken us so long to wake up? It’s like anecdote that describes a frog slowly being boiled alive. If you don’t know it, the premise is that if a frog is placed in boiling water, it will jump out, but if it’s placed in cold water that is slowly heated, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death. We’re of course the frog, in this scenario.

Back To The Wild

Perhaps, in order to understand what we’ve lost and to truly understand how we can reconnect with nature, and thus with ourselves, we need to explore the history, legends and literature of the Wild Men and Women archetypes. The folkloric motif of the ‘wild man in the woods’ is ancient and universal and in Britain begin way back with Lancelot, tales of giants and of course our legendary figure Merlin. So why did we turn our backs on wildness and when did it become so unsavoury?

Did you know that human beings have evolved 10 million years in forest environments and 10,000 years outside them? Hearing that blew my mind and it came to me at a time (don’t laugh) when I’d been feeling some sort of call of the wild. When I say wild, I mean a yearning to embrace a part of me I felt I’d lost living in London and the surrounds for the past 25 years. For most of us living in Britain, the idea of embracing the wildness within ourselves has been utterly lost in the past 200 years or more and is something of amusement to most people. Even raising the topic of ‘embracing ones wildness’ would be puzzling to most, or likely to draw a guffaw and talk of an especially big (wild) night out.

But it wasn’t always so. And this move away from feeling ourselves a part of nature, which began when we became a more civilised society, has changed us irrevocably and possibly forever. And this is not ok. We’re realising that now. But it’s also not too late to do something about it. And I believe it’s possible to explore this crazy idea of wildness both from within an organisation, as well as in our personal lives.

Disconnected. Is There A Way Back?

So, what does it mean to be wild? I recently read an article by a white female journalist in the Guardian saying how annoying she found the term ‘wild swimming’. Even more annoying to her was that the phrase was being used mostly by middle class white women. That troubled me. Not so much because I use the term wild all that much, but I quite like it, nevertheless. And I am white. And a woman. She pointed out that by calling outdoor activities such as swimming in nature, wild, meant that our focus was now fundamentally on the urban. And so anything outside of that environment makes it automatically ‘wild’ these days. Working through this in my own mind I’ve come to the conclusion`who cares?’ If using it gets people jumping into lakes who would otherwise have been watching their ninth episode of The Crown, then let’s keep using it. And anyway, wasn’t it the Dalai Lama who said that the world would be saved by Western women? So whether it annoys you or the journalist or not, the use of the word wild is here to stay, for the moment at least.

David Attenborough and many like him, believe the reason we’ve headed into this perilous time in human history, where wild is something we aspire to be, rather than it being innate, is because we’ve lost connection to ourselves, to each other and to the earth (nature). We used to fully engage in the world with all of our senses. We instinctively opened ourselves up to the beauty and richness of the physical world around us and understood what both it and we needed to survive and thrive. We watch our children do it instinctively, yet all too quickly, we encourage them to grow up and be rational.

The mind was designed to be a servant to our body and to our spirit, yet nowadays we live so much in our heads that it totally dominates our every waking moment. You only need to walk down the high street to see this at play. It’s called ‘snake eyes’ — that glassed over look we all have, so busy caught up in our thinking and locked far away in our heads.

In exploring the Wild Man/Woman archetypes from our history and folklore, they were a far more instinctual and intuitional being than the rational humans we are today. Have you ever been in the company of someone who senses the rain approaching, or who finds their way off a mountain just by sensing their direction? Someone who has an internal knowing of nature and of people? Was it science that changed that in us? Taught us not to believe in that which we could not see? Or was it religion? Priests who demanded we worshipped one god only and not the gods of the land? Has rational had its day? Or could combining the instinctual and intuitional human being of the past and the rational one of the present day be a way for us to transform, so that we survive as a species?

The Forest Comes Calling

Take a moment to consider how, or if, spending time in nature empowers you? Perhaps you’ve never thought of it that way? How long has it been since you felt awe and wonder at the ocean, the moon or the tall oaks of the forest? An instant connection happens for me when I’m by the sea and even more so when I’m in it. Whether it’s the raw energy of a stormy high tide, or the gentle swell of a summer’s day, the vastness of the sea rarely fails to fill me up. My relationship with trees came later in life. They were less of a feature for me growing up in Cornwall, but with a little practice on the lost art of nature connection, spending time in the forest has now become an integral a part of my life.

Nowadays, many of us spend so much time seeking the meaning of life that we miss the sheer pleasure of just being alive. That sense of vitality and aliveness we get from looking up at the blue sky or sitting by a crystal clear chalk stream river. One way of helping us connect back to that feeling of awe and wonder is Forest Bathing. The name has nothing to do with swimming, but is a direct translation of the Japanese word Shinrin-yoku meaning to bathe in the atmosphere of the forest. It’s a slow, gentle experience, lasting anything from 2 hours to a number of days, to open your senses through a series of guided ‘invitations’ which are, in effect, exercises to help you connect. I recently qualified as a guide because I truly believe in its value.

It’s Boring..

Even though most of us make some time to spend in nature, in my experience we usually rush through it. Nowadays it’s just another thing to tick off the list. Our heads, so full of pointless self-chatter (or checking our phones) that most of us miss the opportunities presented to us to connect with our surroundings, barely noticing the song of a bird or the scent of a tree. And we wonder why we don’t feel any better for the experience!

Forest bathing shifts you from the more cognitive process we’re used to using, to a somatic, or bodily/feeling process. Of course, you can do this all by yourself, but having someone (either 1–1 or in a small group) to organise the experience, introduce gentle exercises and hold the space for you, in the same way people go to a yoga class rather than do it at home on their own, allows something else to emerge. It positions you to feel rather than think. Importantly, the forest acts as a kind of therapist and your guide acts to create the space for the relationship to form between you and the forest. The whole experience allows you to slow down and connect to that feeling of awe, wonder and importantly, belonging.

What’s also important to us rational human beings, is that being in the forest is actually proven to have health benefits, too. One of many studies (see below) undertaken in Japan found that forests “promote lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nerve activity and lower sympathetic nerve activity than do city environments”. Others found that it significantly decreased levels of hostility and depression among subjects who spent a regular amount of time in forests. Trees produce something called phytoncides, which are essential oils scientifically proved to significantly increase the NK (Natural Killer) cells which work on our immune systems to help fight cancer cells in humans. Just 2 hours spent in the woods can increase our NK activity for up to 7 days.

Like the Japanese, Germans have also been doing it for years and health insurers see enough value in what they call Waldeinsamkeit (nature therapy) that they’ve been known to pay out for it. And whilst It’s relatively new to Britain, social prescribing by GPs may mean they offer it as one alternative to pills in the near future.

Of course, not everyone has two hours to spend in the woods, let alone the time it takes to get there if you live in a city. But the good news is that you don’t have to be in the depths of a forest in order to experience some of these powerful effects. If you want some bite-sized inhalation of potent tree chemicals, simply take some time during your lunch hour to sit by a tree and absorb. It’s a simple but effective lunch-time re-boot.

The Future

None of us knows what the future will bring. It’s part of the great mystery of life on earth. Will we expire in the midst of our rage, sorrow, longing, disappointment, fear and ignorance? Or will we embody the positive aspects of the Wild Man/Woman archetype we find in mythology — embracing the strong, quiet wisdom of the natural world? Do we have the ability to become true alchemists? To work with the intelligence of nature and our own inner wisdom — both men and women working together to turn dust into gold, chaos into order, dishonesty into integrity. We desperately need ways to help us understand that there is a different way of knowing the world and of being in it. Not the rational one we have used now for hundreds of years. An altogether different way of knowing, using instinct and intuition.

What will it take for us to embrace our wild selves? I don’t mean for you to run off into the woods and live for all eternity. Most of us are too far civilised to even contemplate that idea. But what we can do is begin by embracing our instincts and intuition and challenge the rules that society has placed upon us as individuals and organisations. To untangle the (often) untrue beliefs we base our daily lives and structures upon.

So why not start your journey back to connection with a little forest bathing, or dare I suggest it, wild swimming. And if they appeal, here are a few exercises I’m working through, which you may also like to try:

1. Consider a time when you followed your instincts and trusted your intuition. How did it feel?

2. How does wild express itself in you? Do you have some elements of wildness in you and if so, what are these wild traits/qualities/behaviours? Write them down and sit with them.

3. Do you remember times when you were wild (if you’re not now, in childhood perhaps)? Was this ever conditioned out of you?

4. Consider times when you felt authentically yourself. What were you doing, how did it make you feel?

Being in nature can…

  • Teach us to embrace and uncover our intuitive, instinctual and imaginal selves

  • Teach us to make decisions and choices based not just on convention or societal requirements, but on what we truly need

  • Teach us how to step beyond the restrictions of language

  • Highlight to us the negative aspects of civilisation

  • Help us learn to listen to the natural world

  • Teach us to respect the cycles and seasons of the natural world, the planet, our own bodies and the various stages of life

  • Teach us each that we are enough, just as we are

  • Teach us how to be more playful

  • Help us express and so release anger, grief and trauma

  • Teach us to express our authentic thoughts and feelings which so often go ignored or suppressed

  • Help us to stop pretending to be what we or not, or trying to be what we are notTeach us that perfection is not an option

  • Help us break through the structures we, and our society, imposes on us

  • Help us break out of old stories that no longer serve us, to make way for new ones

  • Help us express and fully embody our physical nature, and to fully inhabit the physical world; to help us never to disconnect from our body

  • Help us appreciate our boundaries. Not just in the sense of territory, but in the sense of what we will and will not tolerate in the world around us

  • Help us never to become wholly domesticated; to help us understand that being ‘nice’ isn’t always the ultimate virtue

  • Remind us to get out of our heads, out of our houses and into the world

How can you connect the above lessons from nature to your own life?

Further Reading

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