More and more people around the world are learning that walking* in nature can be a spiritual practice. It was surely known to our biblical ancestors, and today intentional time strolling in nature has become an international movement known as Shinrin Yoku or Forest Bathing.
In the book of Genesis, Rebecca meets her future husband, Isaac, while he is out “walking” in the field. The Hebrew word can also mean that he was meditating, or “conversing.” Commentators explain that Isaac was praying to God amidst the vitality of the field around him. Of course, we know that many of our biblical ancestors were nomads and shepherds who spent much time outdoors and there found communion with the divine. The Psalmist sought inspiration in the majesty and beauty of God’s creation (see Psalms 104 for a powerful praise of God in Nature.) But over the centuries life has become more urbanized, and religion, too, has largely moved indoors.
Still, many centuries later, the Hassidic Rebbe, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810), drew on these biblical teachings to advise his followers to engage in daily periods of solitude with God in nature, as he described in a famous prayer:
“Grant me the ability to be alone; may it be my custom to go outdoors each day among the trees and grass – among all growing things and there may I be alone, and enter into prayer, to talk with the One to whom I belong. May I express there everything in my heart, and may all the foliage of the field – all grasses, trees, and plants – awake at my coming, to send the powers of their life into the words of my prayer so that my prayer and speech are made whole through the life and spirit of all growing things, which are made as one by their transcendent Source. . .”
Nature walking is also part of the American heritage, with proponents of the transformative power of Nature including the great conservationist John Muir and the social activist and philosopher Henry David Thoreau. Both championed the term “sauntering,” rather than hiking. They traced the word to “sainte-terrer,” a walking pilgrim en route to the Holy Land. Although linguists would quibble, I think that is a beautiful “Midrash” (interpretive story) to remind us that every conscious walk in nature can be our chance to connect with the holiness of the earth itself:
“I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks — who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering, which word is beautifully derived “from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretense of going a la Sainte Terre, to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a Sainte-Terrer,” a Saunterer, a Holy-Lander. They who never go to the Holy Land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds; but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean. Some, however, would derive the word from sans terre, without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere. For this is the secret of successful sauntering. He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all; but the saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea. “Walking, Henry David Thoreau, 1862
Today, people of many faiths and backgrounds around the globe are finding that time spent in nature can enhance their health as well as their spirituality. A few decades ago, scientists in Japan originated the concept of Shinrin Yoku, immersive strolls in nature as a positive way to bolster to mental and physical health. Today the practice, often translated “Forest Bathing,” or “Forest Therapy,” has spread around the world. There are Forest Bathing handbooks, clubs, and training for guides. Forest Bathing involves a slow and contemplative interaction with a forest or other beautiful natural area. “Invitations” are simple practices to interact with the natural world either solo in the company of a small group. An outing of 2-4 hours often concludes with a tea ceremony.
[*Note: Please understand “walking” as shorthand for enjoying outdoors by any means that gets you around. There are some wonderful new groups supporting people with disabilities or other challenges to experience time in nature. For starters, check out Unlikely Hikers and Disabled Hikers ]
More and more, I find my own deepest spiritual practices in Nature, walking–sauntering–and engaging in nature photography. I also love to share the outdoors with others. Indeed, I think it is essential to the health of our society and our planetary environment for people to spend more time outside, loving and appreciating Nature. Although I haven’t done a formal Forest Guide training yet, I’m reading up on the subject and attending hikes led by naturalists and park rangers. As a rabbi, I’ve started to incorporate hikes and strolls into my congregational life. I encourage participants to engage their senses, and teach them traditional Jewish blessings for their experiences. I’ve led Nature “soul strolls” to help prepare for the Jewish New Year, for bar and bat mitzvah students, and to welcome Shabbat, and I’m working to share these practices with other rabbis and religious leaders.
Learn more about Forest Bathing at these sites:
Or check out any of these books
Your Guide to Forest Bathing: Experience the Healing Power of Nature, is by M. Amos Clifford, founder of the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs. It’s small and light enough to put in your backpack and take along on your forest excursion.
Forest Bathing Retreat: Find Wholeness in the Company of Trees, Hannah Fries, forward by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Illustrated with beautiful photographs, an inspirational guide to nature as healer of the heart.
Forest Therapy, Sarah Ivens, offers “seasonal ways to embrace nature for a happier you,” with creative ideas for individuals, couples, families and groups.
Forest Bathing: How Trees can help you find Health and Happiness,” Qing Li. Dr. Li, chairman of the Japanese Society for Forest Medicine, explains the science behind the practice of immersive walks in the woods. His book explores their place in Japanese culture and how to incorporate into your life. Illustrated with photographs from forests in Japan and around the world.
The Healing Magic of Forest Bathing, Julia Plevin. Finding calm, creativity, and connection in the Natural World, from the founder of San Francisco’s Forest Bathing Club. Plevin provides in-depth guidance for your nature communion.
The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative, Florence Williams. A lighthearted but thorough look into the science and practice of nature therapy, whether nearby or far in the back-country.
Featured Image: Autumn walkers at Rockefeller State Park Preserve, Julie Hilton Danan
Return to the Gateway of Holy Land.