Discovering silence, solitude and night darkness in a world full of everything else

 

“Listen more often. To things than to beings. The fire’s voice is heard, hear the voice of water. Hear in the wind the bush sob: It is the ancestors’ breath.” Birago Diop, Senegalese poet and storyteller

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Sunset over the Appalachians and the prelude to an incredible dark night sky                                   (photo by Mark Ellison)

Silence. Solitude. Night darkness. They each offer a sense of peace as well as health benefits, but seemingly are shunned by a world too busy to appreciate them. To many, they may seem foreign after being bathed in noise, navigating through crowded cities and living in neighborhoods with lights on 24/7. When was the last time you truly experienced silence, solitude or darkness? Have you ever embraced them as part of who you are? If you haven’t, you are missing out on some of the best gifts that nature provides.

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The soothing sound of a creek in the late afternoon (photo by Mark Ellison)

It is difficult to be attentive to what nature has to share with our earbuds in and our smart phones captivating all of our attention. We often have a closer relationship with our phone than nature. Are we trying to distract ourselves from  a reality that includes constant waves of traffic noise, leaf blowers and ambient light that blurs the view of stars in the night sky. Just as sound permeates nearly every corner of the world, human created light protrudes deep into the wilderness as well.

In his book Silence: In the Age of Noise, Norwegian explorer Erling Kagge talks about the silence within us, around us and the silence we must create. Silence is a luxury for all creatures. Bird songs have even changed because of noise. The lower tones used by birds have disappeared,  replaced with higher tones to compete with human noise. This has made it more difficult for birds to attract a mate.  Kagge describes the opportunity to experience silence as a disparity that gives some people the opportunity to enjoy longer, healthier, richer lives than many others. Indeed, noise pollution is one of the biggest stressors in modern life.

How do we find the silence within us? In Japan, Shinrin-yoku, or forest therapy was introduced in the 1980’s and is now becoming popular in the United States, as a way for stressed out urbanites to improve their health. The path to this for me has always been through nature. It takes hours for me to filter out the thoughts, stress and garbage in my brain and spirit to arrive at this place. It requires being in a natural environment that is free of human created noise, light and buildings. Wilderness areas are a wonderful escape, as are trails that are off the beaten path, as well as just getting away from population centers. If you live in an urban area, it may not be possible to access this kind of nature regularly. However, you can find places that offer some escape from it all.

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The Japanese poet Bashō eloquently describes the power of listening in a haiku: An old pond. A frog jumps in. The sound of water! (photo by Mark Ellison)

Being alone in nature can have a transformative impact. Experiencing the silence of nature solo “can provide awareness, understanding and clarification of one’s place,  purpose and direction in life,” according to Clifford  Knapp and Thomas Smith in their book Exploring the power of solo, silence and solitude. They add that going outside into nature can help us go into our minds.

Just as silence and being alone seem foreign, so can being out in nature in darkness. Darkness  cradles mystery and the unknown. It magnifies sounds and intensifies imagination  because it limits what we can see. Darkness, like quiet and solitude, is a gift if we are open to embracing it. Freedom from the stimulation of human created light is beneficial for humans as well as animals. Wilderness offers us a cocoon from the unrelenting glare of modern life that disrupts sleep, causes stress and hypertension, and cardiovascular disease. Human created light also has a negative impact on many animals.

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Tracking down the One Square Inch of Silence in Hoh Rain Forest, Olympic National Park (photo by Mark Ellison)

Being able to experience wonder and awe are two huge benefits of silence, solitude and darkness in nature. In the book Surprise: Embrace the unpredictable and engineer the unexpected, Tania Luna and Leeann Renninger, Ph.D talk about the necessity of surprising yourself by turning on the sense of wonder.  The suggest doing this by slowing down and looking closer. This could be looking at a wildflower, listening to stream, gazing into the depth of a sky filled with hundreds of stars. Robin Wall Kimmerer in her book Braiding Sweetgrass encourages us to recognize “the dazzling gifts of the world, and to respond to the world as a gift.” Don’t try to put a name on the wonder, just experience it.

Seeking out experiences of awe is also important. Awe is described by Luna and Renninger as a surprise that is stirred up by something unfathomably vast or complex. Nature is the most common trigger. Awe helps us reframe ourselves as small and the world as vast. Awe also makes us feel like we have more time… an “extended now.” Experiences of awe are rare. You have to actively seek them out.

For those who are not yet comfortable with the silence, solitude and darkness nurtured in nature, that can change. Perhaps taking a hint from the authors of Surprise, it might take putting yourself in a position to grow. “It’s the moments we surprise ourselves and grow our comfort zone that we find the most meaningful. We feel most comfortable when things are certain, but we feel most alive when they’re not. By stepping outside your comfort zone you grow your comfort zone.” That is the challenge. It might make you somewhat uncomfortable, but you will feel so much more ALIVE!

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Soaking in silence, solitude and soon to be darkness (photo by Mark Ellison)

Making time and taking the first step towards experiencing something outside your comfort zone can feel scary. On the other side of that is exhilaration and deep peace.

So go for it. Make time in your schedule this year to enjoy the silence, solitude and night darkness wrapped up for you as a gift in nature. And while you are there, be sure to thank the plants, animals, trees and stars for making it all possible.

 

Why I Fell in Love With Wilderness

I can’t say exactly when I finally realized how important wilderness is to me.

I started venturing out when I was 19, and had just moved to the mountains of western North Carolina to attend college. I was (and still am) in awe of the beauty of the mountains. Living in a small college town next to Great Smoky Mountains National Park provided a gateway to explore an United Nations International Biosphere Reserve every day. I ventured out on trails, went out on mountain ridges to look at the stars, took books out into the forest to read, set up my easel and canvas at mountain overlooks to create paintings, camped, and in the process learned a lot about myself.

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Appalachian Wilderness (Photo by Mark Ellison)

I love all types of nature, but wilderness is what captivates me. Primarily because it provides freedom from human created noise, space to wander and explore, and biodiversity that is mesmerizing. I, like many others, find comfort just knowing that these places exist as an escape.

The Wilderness Act of 1964   created the legal definition of wilderness in the United States, and protected 9.1 million acres of federal land. This act defines wilderness as: “a wilderness, in contract with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

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Spring Salamander (Photo by Mark Ellison)

When I was in graduate school at NC State I read the book Wilderness and the American Mind by Roderick Nash in preparation for my dissertation and research on the restorative benefits of hiking in wilderness. That book, more than any other helped me understand the importance of wilderness, not just to provide places for humans to experience nature, but also as land set aside for other species. Humans setting aside space for such a purpose epitomizes our responsibility for the well-being of the planet and all the species that inhabit it. The concept that we are visitors in wilderness, that it is a place that is set aside for other species, draws me in. So much of our planet is now developed with very little concern about the impact on the natural environment.

Wilderness is about so much more than what it can offer me. There are many reasons I love it, in addition to it’s place as a refuge for so many non-human species.

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Rain on an Eastern Hemlock (Photo by Mark Ellison)

One of the most wonderful aspects of wilderness is that it does not place any demands on my attention. I am free to focus on what captures my interest. A bird chirping from high in a tree, clouds, the breeze, water flowing in a stream, the rustling of leaves, or looking deep into a dark night sky. It most cases, I do not hear any cars, or motorcycles, or people talking. There is an occasional plane, even at the One Square Inch of Silence in Olympic National Park that we visited last spring. My mind is free to wonder.

These soft fascinations, as Stephen & Rachel Kaplan describe them, are interesting but do not demand all our attention. This allows our indirect attention capacities to kick in, letting our directed attention capacities that we use regularly to rest and recover from fatigue. Returning home and to work after spending time in wilderness undoubtedly improves my ability to focus and makes me a much more fun person to hang out with.

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Wildflowers in the Smokies (Photo by Mark Ellison)

One of the most wonderful things about wilderness is that I can go there to do absolutely nothing.  I was recently looking over a note a friend from long ago gave me that included a passage from the Tao of Pooh that describes the experience well. “Say Pooh, why aren’t you busy? I said. Because it’s a nice day says Pooh. Yes, but–, why ruin it he said. But you could be doing something important, I said. I am, said Pooh. Oh, doing what? Listening, he said. Listening to what? To the birds. And the squirrel over there. What are they saying? I asked. That it’s a nice day, said Pooh. But you know that already I said. Yes, but it’s always good to hear that somebody else thinks so, too, he replied.”

It really shouldn’t be a surprise, but when I spend time in wilderness my spirit is renewed. I have more energy. Perhaps it is because I am venturing into a place that is so different than what I experience during a typical day, that it feels like I am going to another world.

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Up high in the Smokies (Photo by Mark Ellison)

Perhaps the most important component of the wilderness experience for me is reconnecting with the natural environment and understanding that I am part of a much larger universe. It is here that I can see the thread of life that is woven through all things. I use this time to express gratitude to the trees, the wildflowers, the water, and all the other species for what they do to make our world inhabitable and beautiful. We must take care of the trees and plants that have done so much to care for us. Understanding that we are in a reciprocal relationship with the natural environment is essential to the continued well-being of all species, including us. Wilderness cradles what is left of the dynamic diversity of earth. It is a refuge.

I love the feeling of being outside.  Fully alive. Free. Soaking in the view of the stars, the sunset, wildflowers, trees, streams, and the solitude and silence that embrace them. Wilderness has nurtured my health and well-being.

Wilderness is the only place I can experience these things. That is why I love wilderness.

 

Forest Bathing: Dr. Qing Li’ s Definitive Guide to the Healing Power of Nature

by Mark Ellison, Ed.D.

Reading Dr. Qing Li’s new book Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness that is being released publicly April 17, I found myself reflecting on how time in nature has shaped my life. This excellent read will prompt many to search out ways to introduce time in nature to their lifestyle.

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Dr. Li is the leading world expert on forest medicine. He is an immunologist at Tokyo’s Nippon Medical School and is a founding member of the Japanese Society for Forest Medicine, and vice president and secretary general of the International Society of Nature and Forest Medicine.

This book offers many things: a glimpse into the Japanese culture’s close relationship to nature; an explanation of how nature impacts our health; examples of some of the practices in Japan for using nature to improve health; and suggestions on how to practice Shinrin Yoku. If you take the time to put Dr. Li’s suggestions into practice it will have a positive impact on your life and health.

Nature: Intertwined with the Culture of Japan

Understanding the importance of nature in Japanese culture provides an important lens through which to view this topic.

Dr. Li reflects on time in his childhood growing up in the countryside, contrasting that with today, living in bustling Tokyo. He is blessed though, to work next to a beautiful park. Whether in the city or country, being near nature is important to the Japanese. It is no surprise that Shinrin Yoku is so popular there.

Shinrin Yoku is simply breathing in the forest atmosphere, or taking in the forest through your senses. Shinrin in Japanese means forest, yoku means bath. Shinrin Yoku is not hiking, jogging or exercising, it is an experience. “Shinrin Yoku is like a bridge. By opening our senses it bridges the gap between us and the natural world,” states Li. When this happens the body and mind can begin to heal.

Shinrin Yoku started in Japan, according to Li,  primarily because it is a forest civilization. The culture, philosophy and religion of Japan are all carved out of the forest. Japan is densely populated, but it also has over 3,000 miles of forest. Both of Japan’s official religions (Shinto and Buddhism) believe the forest is the divine. Buddhists believe the natural world is the word of God. Shinto believe the spirit and nature are one, found in rocks, trees, streams and the breeze. This spirit is called kami.

Nature is part of every aspect of life in Japan. Shizen, which means nature, is one of the seven principles of Zen aesthetics, meaning that we are all connected to nature emotionally, spiritually and physically. An example of this, is when in the fall, the Japanese have moon viewings or tsukimi. Family and friends gather together at a place they can clearly see the moon and decorate with autumn flowers and pampas grass.

In 1982 a national health program of forest bathing was introduced in Japan. The forest that was first used (Akasawa) had groves of Japanese Cypress or Hinoki trees. The wood has a scent of lemon and smoke.

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Olympic National Park Photo by Mark Ellison

How Shinrin Yoku Improves Health

The book transitions from focusing on the origins of Shinrin Yoku to discussing the many health benefits of utilizing this practice.

The science of the connection between nature and health is revealing encouraging results. Research studies have found positive correlations between time in nature and strengthened immune system, increased energy, decreased anxiety, depression and anger, reduced stress and improved sleep.

One of the key benefits of forest bathing is “breathing in the the forest’s natural aromatherapy. Plant chemicals known as phytoncides have been found to boost the immune system. Evergreens like pine trees, cedar, spruce and conifers are the largest produces of phytoncides. Li uses essential oils to introduce the smells of the forest into his indoor environments. His favorite is not surprising, Hinoki oil. Studies have found that exposure to phytoncides increases the numbers and activity of Natural Killer (NK) cells which help fight off disease, decrease levels of stress hormones, increase hours of sleep, increase mood, lower blood pressure and bring the nervous system into balance. Plug your Hinoki infused diffuser up today! I have.

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White Trillium, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina  Photo by Mark Ellison

Developing Your Shinrin Yoku Practice

One of the most important take aways from this book is how to incorporate the practice of Shinrin Yoku into your overall healthy living strategy.

Li describes the forest as being like our mother, a sacred place, a paradise of healing, which is the foundation of forest medicine. To experience nature he suggests finding a spot you enjoy going. Leave behind your phone and camera. Let your body be your guide. Be lead by your senses. Savor the sounds, smells and sights of nature. The key to unlocking the wonderful power of nature is found in the five senses. Let nature enter through your eyes, ears, nose, mouth, hands and feet.

There are many activities you can do in nature to promote health. Walking (perhaps barefoot), yoga, eating, hot springs therapy,  T’ai chi, meditation, nordic walking and plant observation. A very important point is emphasized: it is critical that you take the time to get to know yourself and about what you like to do. Learn how to relax in the forest.

We can not always get outside, but we can bring the power of the forest inside through the use of essential oils. Dr. Li recommends Hinoki oil and also suggests several others.

Final Thoughts

I really enjoyed reading this book. I have practiced Shinrin Yoku for several years and teach classes on it as well, and learned quite a bit. It provides a solid, informative plunge into the world of Shinrin Yoku. Li offers many suggestions that you will want to refer back to as your practice of Shinrin Yoku evolves, only a few of which are described here. You will not be disappointed with your investment in this book.

Let me know if you are interested in becoming part of a larger community focused on learning about and promoting the connections between nature and health.