- Lightweight portable folding tripod chair.
- Small waterproof box.
- Incense sticks with lighter.
- Rosary (from any tradition). Rosaries are simple tools that allow reckoning the repetitions of a spiritual practice without the need for the mind to do the counting. (Readily available online are Buddhist rosaries have 108 beads, with a large “counter” bead to mark a complete cycle.)
- Quality pruning shears or saw, and gloves, for outings that include service actions.
- Portable mosquito net (for summer.)
Background: The Japanese affection for flowering trees such as the plum and cherry is one expression of the Japanese love of nature, including its rugged seashores, scenic volcanic mountains, and its ancient forests with massive pines and towering cryptomeria trees (sugi). Shinto shrines in Japan are invariably found in places of profound beauty, allowing devotees to visit and express their feelings of connection and devotion to what is naturally beautiful. “Forest Bathing” is an extension of this tradition, inviting individuals or groups to hike in deep woods and serene woodland settings, immerse themselves in the smells, sounds, and sight of noble trees and deep woodlands. And to let the blessings of doing so “wash over” lives.
To Forest Bathe, the participant should be prepared for full immersion within a natural environment. Wear comfortable, loose clothes, and take some water or green tea. Whilst it will definitely not be an endurance hike, stay hydrated.
Feel confident in your own experience; no matter what thoughts come up, return to the physical presence of the trees nearby, moving on, finally coming the starting point.
Steps to Follow:
- Leave behind your phone, camera or any other distractions, so that you can be fully present in the experience.
- Don’t follow a rigid set plan. Walk without a fixed destination, letting your body and mind respond and guide your path.
- Take note of your surroundings. Feel free to get distracted by a plant or leaf or mushroom. Notice the path. Find enjoyment in the little things nature has to offer.
- Take a break and sit: watch other interactions in nature. Reflect on your role in this bigger world. Pollinators, predators, fellow wanderers….
- If possible, find a suitable location where you can lie on the ground under a tree or grove of trees, taking in their reaching for the sky, seeking sunlight.
- Visualize the tree gathering in the water below the ground and moving it up; visualize the tree’s leaves or needles taking in the CO2 and emitting oxygen
- Looking at the trees with these processes in mind, take mindful breaths, slowly inhaling and exhaling out, doing 10 inhalation and exhalations.
- Move to nearby trees. Touch the bark, leaves, needles of those trees nearby. Pay attention to other creatures on tree limbs.
- A Forest Bathe should last around four hours and it is recommended to not walk more than three miles. Keep the route simple and not strenuous.
Background: “Losing oneself” in a physical activity is one way to forget the ego and self-absorption, as well as to get exercise, and be focused on a valuable pursuit helping others. “Trail blazing” and providing thin ribbons of human access into nature is a service that all can benefit from. Removing fallen limbs, pruning back branches blocking passage, adjusting stones to smooth human movement, etc. can promote a sense of satisfaction related to one’s own spiritual fulfillment. (Many local organizations sponsor and support this kind of service.)
Steps to Follow:
- Leave all electronic distractions behind to allow yourself to be completely present in the activity.
- Find an outdoor area that needs cultivation (e.g. garden, lawn, wooded trail).
- Decide how you would like to tend to this area. Removing fallen sticks? Widening trail by pruning limbs? Take up a tool needed for the work. (Having a plan beforehand can help you remove the distraction later in the activity.)
- Begin working while being sure to focus on your actions. Just like in meditation, as your mind begins to wander take note of it, and regain focus on the task.
- Rest and renew.
- Work on being present in the cultivation of the area. Being mindful of your role within the environment as you work and how others can move through the trail easier now due to your service.
Background: The sage-founded religious traditions of Asia all prescribe practices of “looking within” in a quest to find or connect to the ultimate reality within our experience. Hindu, Buddhist, and Daoist teachers until today teach methods to slow down and open up the mind to experience new truths. Meditation halls without distractions are part of each tradition; but all of these can be done in natural settings: in the open air, whether it is deep in forests, sitting next to a river or stream, or on a ridge or cave in the mountains. This is one of the simplest practices common to all Asian contemplative traditions. Done regularly, it is a powerful, life-changing endeavor.
Steps to Follow:
- Leave all electronic distractions behind to allow yourself to be completely focused and present in the activity.
- Find a peaceful place outdoors where you feel comfortable sitting for an extended period of time. (If possible, bring a cushion for your comfort.)
- Take your seat. Sit either cross-legged on the cushion, on a portable chair. (The key is to find a place to sit still and be comfortable). Settle into your surroundings for a moment. Some like to light an incense stick to mark this as sacred time and to time the meditation session.
- Place your hands palms-down on your thighs and sit in an upright posture with a straight back, chin tucked in, without straining. With your eyes open, let your gaze rest comfortably as you look slightly downward about six feet in front of you.
- Notice and follow your breath. Place your attention lightly on your out-breath, while remaining aware of your environment. Be with each breath as the air goes out through your mouth and nostrils and dissolves into the space around you.
- The instruction is to stay with and return to the breath. This is the center.
- But if you notice the sounds around you, the wind blowing the leaves, or animals stirring, take note of them…
- Imagine all these sensations coming and going like clouds in the sky, in the vast space of awareness, let them fly…… return to following the breath…
- Thoughts and feelings will also arise. Whenever you notice that a thought, feeling, or perception has taken your attention away from the breath: let it go. Return to your breath.
- Repeat this returning to the breath as mind wanders.
- After an allotted amount of time, end your session and bow to the four directions to show gratitude.
Background: Australian aborigine young men go out into the bush to show their mastery of surviving in the environment, a capacity to live off the land through their bravery as well as local knowledge of plants and animals.
For this activity honoring these hunter-gatherers, a field guide of the focal native genre is necessary, as well as a pair of binoculars and/or a field magnifying glass.
In this outing, a cell phone can be an extraordinary tool: the iNaturalist APP for all around; PictureThis – Plant Identifier APP for flowers; PlantSnap APP – for plants, flowers, mushrooms, and trees; Merlin Bird ID APP for feathered friends. (All are free for iOS and Android.) Each uses a phone camera photo or recording to identify plants, animals, insects, birds, reptiles.
Steps to Follow:
- Set a goal of how many plants (trees; mushrooms/fungi; birds; other living beings) you’d like to find during your walk.
- For common plants, you might bring a spiral notebook in which to press them.
- Begin walking about the chosen natural setting (woods, path, field, or in backyard.
- Look at the life form(s) you are encountering as you proceed. What do you recognize? What looks new to you? Observe what is unknown for later study.
- For plants: bring back the samples and find out the names of those that you don’t know and learn all about their importance in your area. What is their role in the ecosystem?
- Through a series of subsequent outings, seek to know about all the life forms that constitutes one (or more) outdoor environments.
- Do walks in new areas around you. Find maps that allow learning about the land and gathering information about local flora and fauna.
Steps to Follow:
- Put away all electronics
- Plan a short route through an outdoor setting, making a short loop back to your starting point.
- Set out with fixed slow paces, noticing each footfall in succession, keeping up the steady pace for one rosary cycle…
- Stop completely. Listen to the outdoors where you are. (Complete one rosary cycle, silent listening)
- Resume Walking, but with an altered the pace 2x the original speed. (Complete one rosary cycle, in silent listening)
- Return to the original slow walking pace and end the practice.
In the slowest footfall (one breath, one step), trying repeating on each footfall:
“Only moment” …
Background: The Yoga tradition from ancient India included the practice of “posturing like a corpse” (sava-asana). It was designed for relaxation at the end of a yoga session, as well as to promote a reminder of one’s own mortality by silencing the restless mind, and experiencing one’s life without the chattering ego.
Steps to Follow:
- Plan to visit a site in the outdoors that is peaceful and not prone to disturbance by others.
- Bring along a yoga mat or large towel, walking silently but with steady purpose to the site. Spread the mat and lie on your back.
- Feel the ground beneath you and survey the natural world that surrounds you in this unique place.
- Bringing your head back to its center, lie still and look up. Now close your eyes.
- From the feet, and moving upward through each muscle group, tighten each and raise the body part, holding it tense for 5 seconds, then completely release all control, dropping it back to the ground. Go from feet to head, raising and dropping: toes, calves, thighs, buttocks, stomach, shoulders, arms in fists, neck, then face (switch from eyes closed/open mouth/tongue out to relax 3-4 x).
- A grand finale to flexing: raise up legs and arms and head, contracting and holding all off the ground for 5-10 seconds, then release dropping everything back to the ground, seeking utter, complete, surrendering relaxation.
- Focus on the breath, with eyes closed. Find a place of complete perceptive passivity.
- Listen to the music of the world and the sounds of the body.
- Visualize your body now merging with this place: your breath merges with the wind, your material body’s warmth, solids and waters intermixing back to earth, while your mind stays calm and discerning.
- Slowly move the parts of your body, from toes to head, eventually sitting up, standing, and honoring the place of practice with a bow.
Background: The great poet, naturalist, and wise elder Gary Snyder has pointed out that given our composition of and our dependence on water, humans should see their lives and know their place according to the watershed in which they live. Flowing water is the place where Daoists for millennia sought to connect with the Dao, the primal energy of the universe.
This outing makes a connection with one vein in the waterways moving across the earth, from mountains to the sea.
Steps to Follow:
- Choose a stream/small river close to one’s home; consult a map to see where it fits into the region’s larger watershed, and the river that finally brings your local water source to the ocean.
- Wear shoes (boots, water-sandals) that will allow one to proceed as safely as possible downstream along the rocks, banks, wetlands that define the watercourse. (Some may find a light walking stick an aid.)
- Taking care and moving deliberately, walk downstream, noticing how the sounds of the waters and the rhythms of water moving and falling change as you progress.
- STOP everywhere that offers a natural place to sit. Listen to one of the universal, fundamental sounds of our life on earth.
- Stop repeatedly. Where there is an overlook or a scenic setting, sit for a longer period, so that once you are still, the birdsong returns, and other life forms make their lives known to you.
- To complete the expression of one’s connection to the stream and watershed, take a handful of water from the stream and drip it over one’s head. (This is a ritual practice for Hindus, Buddhist, and Shinto devotees.)
Background: In a number of indigenous religions, as well as in sects of Buddhism in Japan and Tibet, individuals undertake long runs for the spiritual purpose of mind-purifying exertion and dissolving the sitting and static ego. Increasing the pulse and stretching one’s physical activism can have a powerful, positive effect on all people.
Steps to Follow
- Decide your route before starting. Be sure to choose a route that you feel comfortable jogging. Make sure you don’t choose a route that is too long; know your limits.
- Wear clothing that you feel comfortable with. Make sure whatever your shoes provide proper support and stability.
- Before starting, sit for five minutes and concentrate on breathing. Do a few minutes of seated breath meditation.
- Begin jogging, being sure to adopt a slow pace that doesn’t tire you quickly. This will help you to take in your surroundings and not focus on the movement itself.
- Try to silence the inner chattering mind by focusing on each footfall and your breath. Be alert to notice changes in the settings you are passing through.
- Consciously alter your pace: slow down and do speed walking; speed up for a set period. Then resume your natural pace.
- When thoughts come up of stress or pain, take note of it and again, bring focus.
- When you reach the end of the jog, sit still and observe your breath returning to normal.
[Designed by Nick Menice]
Over a half century ago, the Zen practitioner/artist Paul Reps compiled the book Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, a collection of Zen stories, teachings, koans. He also included a loose rendering in English of tantric texts from medieval Kashmir, the Vigyan Tantra and the Bhairava Sochanda Tantra.
In the Western imagination, tantra implies sexual yoga; but it is more appropriately a tradition with hundreds of practices that aims for the practitioner to see the ultimate reality in their direct, embodied experience. Tales of these tantric saints recount their retreating to mountains and forests to seek enlightenment.
The following collection of spiritual instructions are those that draw the spiritual seeker to this kind of experience in nature.
- During a single section, enter your mind and body into the guided instruction, turning it over like a gem from every angle.
- Some might, under the ideal circumstances and if comfortable, want to adopt partial or total nudity when working through these guided spiritual exercises.
- A rosary round can measure dwelling on each exercise.
Consider your essence as light rays rising from center to center up the vertebrae:
Feel the force of life pulsing through you
Bathe in the center of sound, as in the continuous sound of a waterfall:
hear the sound of sounds.
In summer when you see the entire sky endlessly clear:
enter this clarity.
After roaming until exhausted, drop to the ground:
In this dropping, be whole.
Wherever your attention alights, at this very point:
focus all experience.
Contemplating Texts of the Great Traditions Outdoors
Background: Undisturbed reading of the revelations and teachings of the great world religions as found in religious texts has been a common practice for people from all traditions seeking spiritual growth and religious understanding. The quiet of a monastery, the serenity of a religious sanctuary, and the refuge of a study room have been places where these sacred truths have been carefully read and contemplated.
Quiet and solitary natural places are also very potent locations for reading texts or works regarded as spiritual classics. Birdsong, the symphony of falling stream waters, inspirations from mountain vistas, majestic lakes, and the sound of wind in the trees can all open the mind and heart to new insights. What better place to read about the divine presence in nature than in the outdoors?
Steps to Follow:
- Identify a location where undistracted reading can be done. Great public parks are fine choices. One can also plan to series of reading walks visiting different inspiring places.
- Secure a comfortable portable chair, hammock, or natural seat softened with a cushion. For long reading periods without distraction, comfort is essential.
- Pack a shoulder bag with a snack, water bottle, and book for reading. Leave behind any electronic technology.
- Work through the text slowly and with pauses for reflections.
- Over a series of outings, complete the work. Some may want to also take along a small journal and pen to record reflections.
The texts listed have been recommended for readings the wisdom of different spiritual traditions and selected for their being lightweight and resonant with natural settings. All are still in print.
Optional (where possible):
Yet even more valuable for adopting this as a regular practice is to find a place near to home that can be set up and remain in place for regular visits.
(Howard Smith, The Wisdom of the Taoists. NY: New Directions, 1984.)
Early Buddhism: The Dhammapada
(T. Byrom, trans. The Dhammapada. Boston: Shambhala Pocket, 1993.)
Confucianism: The Four Classics
(Daniel K. Gardner, The Four Books. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2007.)
Zen Buddhism: Stories of Masters and Disciples
(Paul Reps, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. NY: Penguin, 1958)
Islam: Sufi Mysticism
(Idries Shah, Tales of the Dervishes (NY: ISF, 2006)
(Swami Prabhavanada, The Upanishads: Breath from the Eternal. NY: Signet, 2002).
Spiritual Connections with Nature: Poetry
(Robert Bly, ed. News of the Universe. SF: Sierra Club Books, 1995)
[Please email other suggestions to: ]