Nature bathing and star gazing is more than just medicine for our soul. It is Mother Earth reminding us that she has the ointment for our wounds, the healing for our illnesses and the antidote to our modern day stresses.
My Story With Nature Bathing
I rolled down the window as we drove through the West Texas country. I had never seen anything as vast and desolate before. I wondered if the air out here smelled different than in Austin. It was a strange landscape of flat, dry land punctuated by green shrubs. Then off in the distance, a sudden rise in terrain led to rows of hills. As we got closer to Big Bend National Park, the landscape changed and suddenly we were witnessing reddish colored rock formations. I began to feel an awe creep in and realized I had underestimated the power of what we were about to experience. I suddenly felt so small. I felt as if my life was less significant than I imagined it to be.
We drove into the park and the magnificent rock formations surrounded us on both sides. My kids stared out their windows in disbelief. They began to ask questions. How did the mountains get so big? Has any human climbed all the mountains? How do some mountains touch the clouds? I began to realize how important it was for them to be immersed in the natural beauty of the earth. Most of our vacations had been to a beach or a city. Though we have camped many times before, they had never camped in the rough wilderness of the weather-beaten desert. The mountains and the canyons provided a glimpse into what lay ahead for us as we set up our campsite.
Upon our first encounter with a large, hairy, black tarantula I was acutely aware of the very real possibility that we would be sharing our home with other creatures. The kids spotted a coyote and rabbits. The excitement in their voices grew as they kept their eyes open for a black bear or a mountain lion. They seemed at ease, and busied themselves exploring their surrounding environment. The complex ecosystem allowed for many different kinds of cacti, some with beautiful, brilliant flowers in yellows, pinks and reds. They gingerly touched to thorns and tried to smell the flowers. They climbed to the tops of the boulders unafraid of the sheer dropoff on the other side.
As dusk began to fall, the sounds around us changed. We began to hear the call of owls, crickets and nocturnal animals. The sun melted into the horizon and the first stars appeared. Jupiter, in all of it’s brilliance, was easily seen in the southern sky. The sun disappeared and suddenly, the sky was the darkest I had ever witnessed. It took my eyes a good hour to adapt and as they did, I witnessed hundreds of twinkling stars above me. The kids identified the constellations they recognized. They looked for black holes and wondered about life on other planets. Then, it seemed, everyone got quiet. The campsites around us also ceased their noisy after dinner clean-up. We were overtaken by a sense of awe as we witnessed the night sky unfold above us.
The perceptual and conceptual vastness of the universe was humbling and inspiring. My breathing deepened. I had the same sense of calm I feel while deep in meditation. I felt boundary less and the limitations of my physical body vanished. I felt a connectedness with the energy of the universe in a way that was effortless and didn’t require a yoga mat and singing bowls. The sounds of the earth around me were humming a tune that was harmonious and I was a note in that song. It felt as though everything made sense and there was no beginning and no ending to this story. It was just one long landscape punctuated at times with mountains, canyons and small brush. This was the medicine of the earth. This was the healing I was seeking. The night sky a witness to my story. The surrounding majestic mountains stood guard over our small ecosystem of humans in silence in the dark. I marveled at the shift in perception of my single life on this earth. The day to day drama that felt so impossible was now easily dismissed. I felt refreshed, cleansed, and connected in a way I had not felt in many years.
What Is Nature Bathing
Nature bathing can be a powerful antidote to the daily stress that many of us feel in our urban lives. We have become creatures of the indoors and rarely have opportunity to immerse ourselves in the natural soundscape that can have an immense effect on our emotions, memory and health. By leaving behind our devices that connect us to each other such as cell phones, computers and radios, we can experience a sense of solitude and connection to the earth. Studies have looked at the effects of such practices on our physiology. There is a natural increase in the number of natural killer cells that circulate in our blood when we immerse ourselves in nature. Natural killer cells are a type of white blood cell that fights infection or unwanted tumor cells. Other studies have shown a decrease in blood pressure, heart rate and cortisol found in saliva consistent with a decreased stress response in the body in participants that engaged in 3-5 days of nature bathing.
In Japan, the practice of immersing oneself in the forest is called Shinrin-yoku. This method of stress reduction has been practiced for centuries, though it was only given a name in 1982. The practice has been known to improve health by reducing stress and improving the body’s physiologic response. There appear to be a few possible reasons for these benefits on human health. One may be due to substances called phytoncides. These organic compounds are given off by plants and are antimicrobial. Theoretically, breathing in the volatile substances found in the forest helps stimulate the relaxation response in the body.
Benefits of Nature Bathing
Another reason for the beneficial effects of nature bathing on human health may be due to an evoked sense of awe. Interestingly, awe is a focus of study more recently in that it can elicit some of the mind-altering states similar to gratitude, wonder or love. These various emotions have the ability to allow us to transcend our fixed paradigm and perception of the world, especially when we are witnessing something that doesn’t fit into our existing knowledge structures. Having a sense of awe can cause us to step out of the confines of our limited ego and shift our prior understanding. It helps us expand our mind and grow.
Our current understanding of the brain, is that it is neuroplastic. This means that through our experiences, practices and thoughts, we can facilitate the brain’s ability to reorganize and re-wire itself to some extent. So, could immersing ourselves in nature allow us to overcome behavior and emotional patterns such as anxiety, depression, sleeplessness, and irritability. Could the inhabitants of the natural environment be releasing chemicals to help us relax, feel joy, connectedness and wonder? I certainly experienced that and so did my family. The effects of our nature bathing and star gazing lasted for a few days even after we watched the last of the magnificent mountains fade away in our rear view mirror.
Food for thought: in America, it is estimated that we spend 87% of our time indoors and 6% of our time in a car.
“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.” - Albert Einstein