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Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Forest Mindfulness

Mindfulness is ...

Mindfulness is about being aware of any moment without judgement and without conditions.


Mindfulness has fast become a popular buzz word around holistic, healing and medical circles around Ireland as well as around the world. I find it amazing how Mindfulness instruction has become a successful profession for many people, mainly women, very quickly. Many people seem to be seeking Mindfulness instructors to retreat with for a weekend, and are paying out quite large sums of money to do so.

Looking into what Mindfulness instructors teach and guide, I have discovered that what they do connects very closely to what I do and encourage through Bards In The Woods and at our Native Tree Labyrinth here at Carrowcrory Cottage.


Mindfulness instructors seem to describe Mindfulness as being the development of becoming fully present, or experiencing 'presence'. I regard this as being when all senses, vision, hearing, smell, touch, taste are being aware of and appreciated without control and command.

Some folks talk of a sixth sense, 'perception', but I regard that as being what happens when we are 'present' and all five senses are focused on without control. Some people also call this the 'warrior spirit' being present.

Is Mindfulness meditation?

There is some belief that meditation is something separate from us, a private space that we go to sometimes. It sort of fits into the "that's personal, that's business" division way of living that we seem to try and train ourselves into living. Sadly, it is that division attitude that causes most of our 'problems'.


Mindfulness, most mindfulness instructors tell us, is about uncovering what is always there. Mindfulness is about re-discovering who we are, that is smothered by stress, anxiety or guilt.

Dissolving the layers of Stress and Guilt

I believe that our layers, our smotherings, of stress, anxiety or guilt, are perhaps from too much focus on our past and what we believe and hope the future will be. By doing so it seems we deny our present experiences. 


I use our tree labyrinth walks at Carrowcrory Cottage here as a a very effective tool for dissolving these inhibiting and torturing layers.

A mindfulness teacher guides her or his clients into becoming aware of breath, and through breath becoming aware of the five senses one by one then dancing all together. With our five senses perception the guided journey sets forth into strengthening a judgement free, bias free, condition free and control free attitude.


Through attuning to what is happening in any moment we discover it has more value and much more calm than when our thoughts are trapped into a focus on the past and future for planning, decision making and action. The essential ingredient of the 'present' is what makes things happen.

Forest Mindfulness?

The Japanese have set up a weekend walking and relaxing in the woods tradition as Shinrin Yoku, that the Koreans call Sanlimyok. The Finnish people are onto it, but do not have a national name yet. For Ireland I'm going with Boladh na Sióga, Bathing In The Fae's Breath.

Having said that, because the word Mindfulness now means something to people in Ireland, as is recognizable I suspect 'Forest Mindfuness' is the name that will stick and its popularity spread very quickly over the next year or two.


I have discovered and continue to believe that the best places to be 'Mindful' are in the Public Forests, especially close to water such as having a lake side, riverside, natural pool side or beside a natural spring well. Public Forests are owned by the state, owned by us, so there is no direct awareness of ownership. That is valuable to prevent intimidation.

I will speak more about Japanese Shinrin Yoku later. A lot of that tradition commenced after reports published in Japan through the 1980s that revealed health benefits from taking time in the forests. These findings were beyond what anyone would expect.

These reports published both scientific research and personal testimonials about reduced blood pressure, reduced heart rate, reduced stress, reduced anxiety, reduced depression, reduced anger ... all from being in the woods awhile.


Through Forest Mindfulness ...

Writers have expressed joy of inspiration after long frustrations of writer's block.

Inventors become excited by visioning solutions to problems they have been working with.

People with very serious ailments reported "hallelujah" type relief and I can understand that one. I was a serious stroke victim with severe paralysis. I discovered that after repeated time in the forests all of my physical and mental functions returned.

Obviously I cannot confirm that the forest was the medicine. To do so would be conflicting to what mindfulness is about. Mindfulness teaches us to do our own healing, but forests do indeed appear to be essential ingredients in the mix.


I am a now firm believer that Mindfulness outside, especially in a wood or forest, is always much more effective than being inside a human created building, even if it is designated as a temple or healing room.

How to 'Just Be'

There is a new age, sort of hippy, saying of 'just be'. Really, it is as simple as 'just being', which is that seemingly elusive way of dissolving stress, anxiety and guilt to bring us into the light of inner peace.

Learning to be 'present' gifts the fullness of living, of love, and replaces motivations to "run away" or be trapped by our penance demanding thoughts and feelings.

In short, Mindfulness is about 'being' rather than 'doing'.

That does not mean staring into space rather than washing dishes to be ready for the next meal. If we are 'being' stuff gets done, but somehow it seems more productive, more wholesome, less exhausting and indeed much more loving.

Each morning we become more alert, excited, focused, and clear about the best course of action to commence the day. Each morning is suddenly a joy to be alive. By being this way, honestly, we naturally direct loving kindness towards ourselves, others around us, and anyone we connect with.


We discover that when we talk to friends, talk to anyone, we have been learning to react with senses and so we listen and speak with kindness more.

There is no real productivity and peace from trying to precisely plan and control everything. The ebbs and flows of all things around us and within us will sort out our needs if we are truly 'present'. Decision making becomes clear, effective and inclusive rather than controlling.

The courage of  'Letting Go'

Perhaps the biggest hurdle in Mindfulness is any fears we have of "letting go" of habits, ways of doing things, and physical property. We fear that "letting go" gives away power and position and makes us vulnerable and dependant rather than actually reveal who we are and can be.

Mindfulness is also about recognising and embracing our integrity, self esteem, pride and self-respect.

Mindfulness instructors serve to help us direct our senses towards an awareness and fulfilment of pure love and kindness. Love that has no conditions of attachment to outcome. Love that is not based on expectations and self judgement.


Through our guided layer lifting towards sensory love, light and presence we also dissolve and lose resentments and hatred that have been causing us pain, guilt and even desires for revenge. We learn that this pain is all our doing and feelings and none of it is upon those that we feel should suffer at our command.

Mindfulness takes away our temptations to join the blame game, especially blaming others for how we feel. Instead of blame we project acceptance, forgiveness and kindness and so the 'results' from what we do are amplified toward more abundance, and at least greater happiness and calm

Mindfulness as Learning

Mindfulness also teaches us about the illusion of 'facts' and reveals our escapist dependence on them, especially our belief in them being of 'truth'.

Devoting some time every day to developing our Mindfulness abilities is very important. It should be as routine as a shower, shit, and a bit of exercise.


Though it should not be a planned or be a diary entered component, kicking off with 3 to 5 minutes a day of total Mindfulness attunement is a great start, and then keep increasing the time you devote to this habit as you are motivated to do so.

Mindfulness is about being you

You do not have to escape somewhere to be Mindful, though do learn where your best places are to help you recharge your mindfulness.  With me these are the Forests, my Native Tree Labyrinth, and my very comfortable bed within Carrowcrory Cottage. You way well find different spaces that suit you.

Of course, I personally hope the woodlands and forests are chosen by everyone, but this is not a condition or requirement, but I hope 'common sense'.


Embracing Our Senses

The emphasis of Forest Mindfulness, Forest Bathing, is on richly embracing our five senses together.

Vision

When we delightfully watch the sights of nature while walking in a beautiful forest, tests have indicated we experience decreases in blood pressure and heart rate. Reduced pre-frontal activity in the brain that is experienced through feelings of calmness and happy elation. These benefits have tested to be much greater while in the forests than from just viewing pictures and videos of woodlands.

Smell

We associate scents with instincts, memories of emotions, and preferences when making choices. Within the forests we breath in fine airborne particles called phytoncides that are emitted from tree leaves, so conifers in winter are very beneficial to sustain this then. Similar to vision, through forest breathing and smelling ,blood pressure decreases and prefrontal activity slows down. Anxiety and depression is is also shed and our minds works more efficiently, especially clarity of imagination. Breathing also regulates better.

Touch

We love to hug trees, don't we? And what about the warm sun on your back and wind in your hair?Curiosity, connection and trust with trees, when we hug them, does reduce blood pressure, releases anxiety and elevates happiness.

Taste

Have you noticed that food tastes better outside? We love our picnics, and barbeques when we have them. Also, knowing what we can forage and eat provides us with a euphoria from eating good instant nutrition from nature.

Sound

It seems obvious that the sound of a stream is soothing, and so can the rustle of a gentle breeze moving through the leaves. Blood pressure calms, heart beat regulates and brain activity decreases.



Discovery from Japan?

Shinrin Yoku, Japanese for Forest Bathing, is much more leisurely than the brisk walk approach. It has also been influenced by past Shinto traditions.

Perhaps the Japanese were inspired by the 'parcour' forest exercise tracks in Switzerland since the 1960s. The Swiss model was inspired by the "Kneipp Therapy" formulated in Germany during the 19th century, which is really about taking brisk walks in the woods. This has been recently revived as the "Green Prescription" by some doctors in England, Wales and Donegal in Ireland.


That 'Green Prescription' approach is perhaps being renamed 'Forest Mindfulness' though some may say the first is the athletic approach through power walking, longish hikes and keeping moving while 'Forest Mindfulness' is a slow, sensory bathing approach. I enjoy calling this Boladh na Sióga, "Bathing In The Fae's Breath" as that is what I truly believe this is.

A bit of Forest Bathing history and future

During 1982, the Forest Agency of Japan proposed that Shinrin Yoku, forest bathing should be part of everyone's quest to be healthy. Forests were chosen and converted into what are called Forest Therapy Bases. Japanese companies are now including this forest therapy within employee health care benefits.

There are between 31 to 48 Forest Therapy Bases across Japan. These numbers change according to the reports I read. I have heard that some of these special forests were lost during the recent earthquake disaster and nuclear power station leakage disaster in Japan. Even so, Japan still aims to have over 100 Forest Therapy Bases established by 2020.

At these Forest Bases the forest rangers record the heart rate and blood pressure rate of people arriving at the forest, and again as they leave. With these changing results they are aware of how much the forest may have helped them.


Meet Dr Li

Dr. Qing Li is considered to be a kind 'father of Shinrin Yoku'. He serves as a founder and president of the Japanese Society of Forest Medicine and is Vice-President and Secretary General of International Society of Nature and Forest Medicine. He actually created the Shinrin Yoku name.

Though a day or just an afternoon in a forest can benefit us for a week, Dr Li recommend spending two or three days in the wood during a week, if we can.

Dr Li is constantly exploring how a forest can be more potent as a healer, and this does involve some re-arrangements.

He looks for water features in a forest such as a bubbling river and a waterfall. To assist sounds he considers how the wind moves through the trees and the volume sounds made. Velocity of sounds has to be soothing and not demanding.

He measures the amount of volatile organic compounds present in the air derived from the trees, such as pinenes, limonenes, and a range of phytoncides, Together this is the overall natural aromatherapy of the forest.

He also evaluates forest environments such as how hot or cold they are, light or dark, quiet or noisy, and plain or colourful.

In an interview Dr Li concludes

"Imagine a new medical science that could let you know how to be more active, more relaxed and healthier with reduced stress and reduced risk of lifestyle-related disease and cancer by visiting forests. This new medical science is Forest Medicine. Nature and Forest Medicine will prevent people from cancers and lifestyle-related diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, cerebrovascular disease, depression and hypertension".

click here for the full Dr Li interview



Does Forest Bathing work in Ireland's Forests?

We may be a long long way from having public forests in Ireland being declared as being 'Forest Therapy Bases', but what a cold clinical name that is anyway?

'Mindfulness Woodlands' is perhaps a better choice, due to the speed that the word 'Mindfulness' is being accepted and explored by people around Ireland.

Our biggest hurdle is perhaps lack of forest, especially Native Woodlands.


In Ireland less than 11% of the nation's land is covered in forest compared
to Japan with over 60% forest cover.

90% of Ireland's forest cover is "grow like cabbages" sitka spruce forest
and only 10%, 1% of the total forest land, is covered in natural forest.

The upside, though, is that spruce is quite rich in pinenes,
but obtaining pinenes from actual pine trees and cedars is better for us.
Also, sadly, sitka spruce forests can be very abundant in pesticides.

Could a Forest Culture return to Ireland?

In ancient times forests ruled. The ancient Brehon laws were full of legislation to protect trees and forests and severe consequences recommended for violating them. Today, when there is a choice between grazing and cropland vs forests, the grazing and cropland wins.

The concepts of biodiversity, food forests, and how enhanced forests can also protect and enhance farmland and its future seem to have faded away, but this is a subject for other blogs.


Forest as medicine, will perhaps be the first cause of the return of Forest Culture.

I do believe Forest Mindfulness could attract a national inclusion and support.because of its simplicity, and being the provide of what just about everyone is seeking, ... calm, acceptance, voice and love.

Yes, all we Need is Love

By finding a way of being in the Public Forests, needing to be in the Forests, that available to us in Ireland we are demonstrating our presence and interest.

I invite people to Forest Mindfulness, Bards In The Woods & Picnics In The Woods on Sunday afternoons, and encourage others to offer the same around the country on Sundays. It would be wonderful is all 26 counties of the Republic of Ireland has someone to inspire these for the forests of their county.


Perhaps Ireland could look to Scotland more than Japan for examples of what could work here in Ireland. Scotland has an advantage because since 1982 the country has increased its forest cover from 9% to 17%.. Scotland has focused on forest strategies to improve tourism, local leisure and local health for over 30 years now.

The National Health Service and the Forestry Commission in Scotland have collaborated to provide a range of forest based activities that include the energetic 'parcours' like in Switzerland and a range of more leisurely opportunities to soothe people with anxiety, depression and mental health concerns.

Some hospital grounds around Scotland have been re-designed to include more trees and tree walks. Even the seriously ill can now look out of hospital windows to see trees rather than concrete.


To me, the practice of Mindfulness, as I have introduced above, is really all about re-connecting with Love. We may believe in formulas, herbs and holistic tools and ways as healers ... but with all of these it is the ingredient of Love that bonds these ingredients, carries them and release them within us, that is The Medicine

Why we need to be in the forests?

Another hurdle that faces Forest Mindfulness is the choices of where Mindfulness should be instructed.

Claire Roche in Dublin has a wonderful peaceful house venue that Mindfulness instructors adore and find in totally perfect for what they teach and guide. Being close to Dublin then venue attracts people from a large local urban population but, surprisingly, attracts many people from rural places far away such as from Donegal, Leitrim, Sligo and Mayo. These people feel more at ease attending Mindfulness retreats, workshops and courses in Dublin than close to home.


The Mindfulness instructors in Dublin are delighted as they do charge quite high fees as the learning of Mindfulness is now extremely popular. This also helps Claire to sustain the running costs of Woodford House. This all benefits many people in different ways.

Having said all that, what do you think is best?

Learning and applying Mindfulness within the controlled dry and warm environment of a human created building or Mindfulness that is about being totally 'present' within the ebbs and flows of the diversity of nature, such as being in a Forest?


Another 'hero' in the Shinrin Yoku journey is Dr. Miyazaki who has followed through Forest Bathing as he believes that because humans evolved within natural settings. He believes and has stated that the Forests are where we feel most comfortable, but today most of us no longer know this any more.

He says its as if we no longer believe we are of nature and that nature is something separate to us. Even holistic practitioners talk of us and nature as being two separate existences that we trying to find a bridge to connect. To me, within the seed of Mindfulness we need to drop that denial and realize we are always truly still a component of nature, no matter what we do or who we think we are.


Dr. Miyazaki says “Throughout our evolution, we’ve spent 99.9% of our time in natural environments. Our physiological functions are still adapted to it. A feeling of comfort can be achieved if our rhythms are synchronized with those of these natural environments”.

Today it seems many of us spend 99.9% of our time away from natural environments so something is bound to go wrong.

Trees On Screen or Trees We Stand Between?

Most people now spends up to 8 hours a day in front of a screen as part of their work.  They then go home to relax,  by watching tv on screens and social media on the internet for a further 3 or 4 hours a day.

Time left for the outdoors, especially within the Forest, has been almost eliminated.

Some of us seek to improve health and achieve relaxation by going to buildings away from our homes to take part in meditations, therapies and workshops.

I personally find it very strange when holistic sessions in human constructed buildings start "calling upon nature" to heal them and guide them and even accept prayers and wishes to heal the entire planet, often while oil fueled heating clangs away in the background within fossil fuel energy provided lighting.


When I come across this I tend to think that I have yet to observe bees in a hive calling upon pollen and nectar to abundantly come to them. The bees have to get out there and get it, or it just does not happen.

I feel this is also true with humans and their relationship with forests.

I urge that we need to do the same, get out there and share all of the benefits offered by being among the trees, flowers, ferns, fungi, wildlife and all of the smells, tastes, sounds, visuals and not be afraid to touch and be touched. Being involved in the forests does become a balanced give and take.

And I do believe we can honestly call this Forest Mindfulness


Children in the forests

I've seen articles and reports online that tell of children being taught in forest environments concentrating better than in a stuffy classroom, and that symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are significantly reduced.

In the U.K., youths diagnosed with behavioural problems, and often criminalized by this, have responded positively to programs that include green woodworking, permaculture gardening and basics of woodland management.

Richard Louv, founder of the Children and Nature Network and writer of eight books on the benefits of integrating nature, family and community has explained “In 2006, a Danish study found that outdoor kindergartens were better than indoor schools at stimulating children’s creativity. The researchers reported that 58 percent of children who were in close touch with nature often invented new games; just 16 percent of indoor kindergarten children did.”

Dr. Stephen R. Kellert, professor emeritus at the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies wrote that children are engaged with electronic media, averaging 52 hours a week but typically spend less than 49 minutes outside. That has reversed how we have naturally lived for 1000s of years before now.

Kellert has also written "Our senses, our emotions, our intellect, even our spirit are developed in close association with and in adaptive response to the natural world. Our physical and mental health, productivity, and well being relies on direct and indirect connections to nature, even as our world becomes increasingly fabricated and constructed.”


Lessons from the Trees?

Of course, there is a layman's reading book out about this,
for those who find that a book is essential before trying out a woodland walk ...

  Joan's book does go into a lot more woodland wisdom,
  and is very interesting.

  Joan mentions, in her book, that researchers studying
  the forest air of Sierra Nevada of California found
  120 chemical compounds, but could only identify 70 of them,
  so if these forests were lost we would never know what
  we are losing

  Her book, “Teaching the Trees” goes into some of the known
  compounds found in the woodland air, that come from the trees
  and some from the forest fungi and bacteria in the soil.
  Most of these airborne compounds are from little pockets
  between the leaf cells.

Joan also asks if the 50 unidentified compounds are
what "make us feel better" in the woods.


If you love books you should find Joan Maloof’s writing style is very easy and enjoyable. Not being much of a book reader myself I love how she explains how each tree is more than just a tree but each one is a mini-universe of organisms interdependent upon each other in amazing ways.

Through reading this book you will find yourself learning about trees, birds, insects and fungi without any intent to do this. Her book is really about the workings of nature, where the trees are the core of this, the place where worlds meet.

Links to forest things you can do ...

click here to join Friends Of Forest Groups in your county
and nearby counties you can travel to

click here to see a listing of upcoming Gatherings In The Woods

If you would like to peruse the long and very dry research report
on Shinrin Yoku from the USA, click here

and for a very wordy research paper from Japan, click here




To put it all into Verse

I believe it is time for me to write a script
for a video on Forest Bathing, on Forest Mindfulness

However ...

It will be awhile before I have a video ready
So here it in a kind of verse for now.
Enjoy and bathe in it everyone :-)

If your life is disturbed by excess stress;
If you feel you are too busy trying to catch up;
If you feel there is no 'me' time;
There is a simple way to escape this
That anyone can do at least once a week.

I call this Boladh na Síoga, (bowa na shee ga)
Bathing in The Fae's Breath.
Japanese people call this Shinrin Yoku,
Forest Bathing.

So how is this done?
Go to a forested area and wander.
Many forests make this easy
By providing curious trails.

Follow them,
And let your senses loose.
Smell the aromas of the trees, shrubs and flowers
And the living earth itself.


Find water and listen.
Let visions come to you from the water.
Touch the bark, leaves, flowers and berries available.
Taste some that are safe, edible and even healing

This is Forest Bathing;
Bathing In The Faes Breath.

A return to a simple tradition,
Once essential everywhere.
A moment of being in harmony with nature,
To join in with its song and dance,
With its ebbs and flows,
And its gift of welcoming you,
Embracing you,
Connecting you,
Accepting your prayers,
And returning clear response to them.

This has been popularized by Japan
Who call this Shinrin Yoku
Which translates to us as Forest Bathing.

Popularised by Korea
Who call this Sanlimyok
which translates to us as Relaxing In The Forest.

Being in Ireland I call this Boladh na Sióga
From words of the land's language.
Bathing In The Fae's Breath;
The Fae surrounding us with their presence
Through the full experience of the forest.

Science may speak much of the benefits of this
Composed within their temples of laboratories
And statistics that unravel on their digital screens.

But all this is revealed very simply
Through engaging our senses,
Allowing the sights, aromas, sounds, sensations and tastes
To bathe us completely


Even 15 minutes in a forest,
Allowing this gift,
Allowing this embrace,
Allowing this connection,
Can bathe us with
Calming, healing and nourishment
Within our entire being
And its all simple,
All very, very simple.

Stress dissolves,
Blood pressure drops,
Mental clarity improves,
Inner visions are remarkable.

Our cells within to defend us
Awake and protect us.
A lot of lab research going on
To investigate this.

This is not just about walking through a forest,
But also taking time to sit awhile
And feel our senses calming down
From a state of activity we bring to the forest
Flooded by the sensory welcoming of the forest.

This time for quiet, that we allow,
Enhances us being here in the forest.
So hide your phones and cameras,
All totally shut down and switched off.

Never bring your goals or schedules into a forest
This as a time to wander and have senses awoken.
We leave behind our linear ways
And we join the circles of cycles of the forest.


When you sit quiet, notice how the sounds
And activity of the forest changes
As you become relaxed
And connected to everything around.

As you sit quiet you are less of a disturbance
Or threat to anything around you.
You are now part of it all.

When you are with others in a forest
Agree with each other for a time
To refrain from all conversation.

Then, later, gather together to share
Feelings, inspirations and stories.
Use a speaking stick
So that as one speaks the rest are audience.

Create poems and prose
From your new visions.
Share those poems in the Woods
Become Bards, Bards In The Woods.

Then share your picnic together
To celebrate life, love and connection.

When you are back home,
And through the days to follow,
Notice how something is very different
In the ways you think, feel and do things.

Does this justify any effort
To get outside for a little time
To Bathe in the Forest?

I believe it is always well worth taking a little time
No matter what the weather may serve.

To be timeless;
To give yourself some love;
To surrender your senses;
To connect and recognize;
You are part of nature again.


So cross that bridge
Cross that threshold
Cross that veil
Into the forest of

Being connected,
Being loved
Being a Bard,
And encouraging others to be the same.

In the Shinrun Yoku tradition;
In the Sanlimyok tradition;
In the Boladh na Sióga tradition;
Bathing yourself in the Forest,
Sometimes.


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