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

IMG_20191003_191447

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.

IMG_20191116_161329 (1)

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.

IMG_20191028_162131

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.

IMG_20190528_160339

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!

IMG_20191003_194251

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.

 

Tap Into the Therapeutic Power of the Forest

By Mark Ellison, Ed.D.

What do you do that gives you energy, that fuels your ability to work and play? Do you have anything? Do you escape from the stress of life to allow your mind, body and spirit to heal?

There are so many benefits to our health from spending time in nature, particularly forests. Research has found that spending time in forests can increase attention capacity and creativity, lower blood pressure, strengthen the immune system and improve mood.

44693726_10216885191942854_1445662352333602816_n

Sunset from the Waterrock Knob Trail off the Blue Ridge Parkway (NC)

Are you tapping into the power of the forest as part of your plan to improve your health? It is a key ingredient that could take your health to the next level. It is the multiplier. If you are walking, biking, relaxing in an urban environment, then  you are getting health benefits. If you do the same in a natural setting like a forest, the benefits are multiplied because of the restorative aspects of nature that impact the body and brain, that are not present in urban settings.

The power of the forest can help you at work, school or home. The more time the better, but try to squeeze in 30 minutes to an hour each week and then gradually increase.The power lies in the ability to experience solitude free (mostly) from noise created by humans. You can enjoy the sound of a waterfall, a bird chirping, or the exhilaration of watching a sunset. These benefits, called soft fascination, allow your attention capacity to rest. Much like muscles after working out, attention becomes fatigued and inhibits the the ability to focus.

My challenge to you is next week find a “sit spot” and spend 30 minutes there. Write about what you are experiencing. Draw. Allow yourself to connect with nature. Enjoy the experience and let me know how it goes!

 

 

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.

li book

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.

Seattle_Olympic2008 072

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.

30708595_10215418916686889_6261648278303645493_n

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.

 

 

 

A Conversation with Dr. Qing Li about His New Book on Shinrin-Yoku

By Dr. Mark A Ellison

The Japanese practice of Forest Medicine,or Shinrin-Yoku, has gained quite a bit of notoriety of the past few years. Dr. Qing Li is the person who helped develop this practice and promote it first in Japan, and subsequently around the world. I first worked with Dr. Li in 2011, and had the opportunity to meet with him in 2013 where we presented at a conference about the International Society of Nature and Forest Medicine.

qingli2

Qing Li and Mark Ellison hosting the first North American INFOM meeting.

Dr. Li is a physician at Tokyo’s Nippon Medical School, a visiting fellow at the Stanford University School of Medicine, is a founding member and chairman of the Japanese Society for Forest Medicine, a member of the Task Force of Forests and Human Health, and the vice president and secretary general of the International Society of Nature and Forest Medicine.

He has a new book that will be released in April 2018: Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness which will provide insights to how nature impacts our health and how to experience Shinrin-Yoku. I recently had the opportunity to get feedback from Dr. Li about his new book recently.

li book

What is the focus of this book?

“Although there is not much new data in this book, it is written for general readers in an easy to understand manner. The target audience for this book is the general public, not for researchers. There are many forest bathing practices in this book.”

Is Forest Medicine becoming more widely accepted?

“We have to understand that Forest Medicine is a preventive medicine, but not a clinical medicine in the moment. I hope Forest Medicine will be developed into a clinical medicine at least partially.”

What countries are in the forefront of developing forest therapy bases and or integrating access to nature as a primary public health initiative?

Japan, Korea, Finland, China

How do you practice Shinrin-Yoku?

“I always go to forest bathing once a month and visit city park every weekend. I always take hot spring after forest bathing.”

qing li

Dr. Qing Li

Spending time in nature has many benefits for the mind, body, and spirit. Take time to learn more about Shinrin-Yoku in your efforts to maximize your health and well-being.

Five Ways to Connect to Nature in 2018

merry chrismtas panaromic

Plott Balsam Mountain Range (North Carolina)

The new year is a fantastic time to rediscover how being in nature can help reduce stress and increase effectiveness. You do not have to make a large commitment of time, just block out some space in your schedule. Here are a few tips that I use to help stay connected to nature.

Develop a Plan Focused on Doing Things You Love

I like to spend time in nature by hiking, cycling, mountain biking, and kayaking, so I set goals in each of these areas to make sure I stay on track. It helps my physical fitness, and also my mental fitness. It is not about the numbers, but that helps me stay motivated. I had 1,300 miles in 2017, so I am aiming for 1,500 in 2018. My body, mind and spirit will thank me for every extra mile.

waterrock knob trail 2017

Sunset over Great Smoky Mountains National Park as seen from Waterrock Knob Trail (NC)

 

Make Room for Silence

We live in a noisy world. One way to escape the stress that this causes is to allow the silence available in nature to capture your attention. This is not only calming but serves to help restore your attention capacities. Find quiet places to go on a lunch break or for an after work stroll. When you have time for more extended trips, find places that are not near areas with lots of human created noises (eg, roads, airports, neighborhoods).

Reflect While You Are in Nature

Getting away from the things that cause stress and spending time in nature is the perfect setting to reflect. Bring a journal and write about whatever is on your mind. Try writing with your non-dominate hand to help your mind slow down. Draw the things you see in nature. These simple approaches to reflection can help you relax.

Volunteer

There are numerous volunteer opportunities that can get you out in nature more. Perhaps there is a community garden in your area, or a trail maintenance and hiking club such as the Carolina Mountain Club in Asheville, NC. These are great ways to help the environment and make new friends.

Take a Social Media Fast

Social media diverts attention. When you are in nature stop thinking about what pictures you want to take to share on social media. Let yourself become immersed in the experience. You will remember much more about the things you saw during a hike if you are not constantly thinking about what you want to photograph.

Enjoy the new year and get outside as much as you can. There is bountiful research showing that time in nature truly does wonders for your mind, body and spirit.

I hope to see you out on the trail or paddling sometime soon!

Finding Quiet Can Be Elusive, Even in Nature

By Mark A. Ellison, Ed.D.

Perhaps you noticed that we live in a noisy world. Maybe it is the constant hum of traffic, or the construction near your office, or the neighbors that are constantly using lawn equipment. It is difficult to escape. Over half the world’s population now lives in urban settings, making it extremely difficult to find quiet if you live in these settings. Even in rural areas, finding places free of human created noise is not easy.

nature pic

The National Park Service recently created a map that indicates that many people live in areas where night skies and soundscapes are very degraded. The blue areas of the map below indicate places where noise is less prevalent. Unfortunately, most of the eastern United States is brightly colored indicating significant noise and light pollution. The park service also found that even in more natural backcountry settings noise is prevalent due to hikers, maintenance equipment and other sources. Excessive noise is harmful not only to human health, but to wildlife as well. Certain species of animals avoid noisy places. America_Quiet

Fortunately there are places such as the “One Square Inch” project in Olympic National Park that are treated as sanctuaries for silence, to experience the quiet of nature, and used to help build awareness of the need for more areas like it.

A number of research studies have linked excessive noise with increased levels of violence and crime. Humans need to experience some levels of quiet and solitude to remain healthy. Nature provides a primary escape for this. However, if the dwindling areas of nature are not protected, there will no more places offering this type of escape.

Many of us struggle to hear our “inner voice”, to live a balanced life, and to take time to reflect. The Cherokee have a term for living life in balance, duyuktv. Take time to find a quiet natural area nearby and soak in some of the restorative power of nature, to find a sense of balance, of duyuktv. Once you have captured that restoration, share it with others. Then, work together to help protect the natural areas where you live and explore.

Introducing Silence to our Landscape, One Square Inch at a Time

It is raining this morning at my home in North Carolina. It is soothing listening to the gentle showers while watching the songbirds frolic in the water. What I l love about rain, and snow, is that the world gets a little quieter because not as may people are out, and things seem to slow down a bit.

Olympic National Park Photo by Mark Ellison

Olympic National Park
Photo by Mark Ellison

I enjoy days like this because the world is a noisy place. The majority of us live and work in cities, or developed areas, which usually means non-stop human generated noise: traffic, lawnmowers, airplanes, sirens, trains, machinery and crowded side walks. There is no way to escape. The verve of the city is stimulating, and fun. But for our health, we need an escape from it.

Noise can negatively impact health in many ways. Noise causes stress, and literally any sound can be perceived as noise under the right conditions. Over 11 million Americans are exposed to traffic noise at or above levels that risk hearing loss (Bell et al, 2001). Exposure to noise has been associated with many health problems including hypertension, ulcers, compromised immune system, digestive problems, psychological changes that lead to disease, sleep loss, and delayed development of reading and verbal skills in children (Bell et al, 2001). Noise also increases aggressiveness when people are angry (Bell et al, 2001). Studies have linked increased crime to the presence of noise in communities (Bell et al, 2001).

Spending time in natural settings provides  opportunities to experience silence. Freedom not only from ambient noise, but also the opportunity to experience “cognitive quiet” a term first used by Stephen & Rachel Kaplan, professors at the University of Michigan, to describe clearing the mind to be able to think more clearly. Silence in nature does not necessarily mean complete quiet, just freedom from human generated noise. The presence of what the Kaplans identified as “soft fascination” in nature is relaxing, not stress inducing. Soft fascination includes things such as bird songs, the water of a stream flowing over rocks, a  rain shower, or the sound of the wind rustling the leaves, which help clear the mind. Soft fascination captures our attention to a small degree, but leaves room for thought, and self reflection.

Moss and fern covered tree in Hoh Rain Forest Photo by Mark Ellison

Moss and fern covered tree in Hoh Rain Forest
Photo by Mark Ellison

One of the most beautiful and quiet places I have hiked is the Hoh Rain Forest in Olympic National Park. I experienced such a profound sense of peace as I hiked deep in this forest. Hoh Rain Forest is home to the “One Square Inch” research project, designed to create a sanctuary for silence in Olympic National Park. One Square Inch of Silence was designated on Earth Day 2005 to protect and manage the natural soundscape in Olympic Park’s backcountry wilderness. The reasoning behind this is that if a loud noise, such as  an aircraft, can impact many square miles, then a natural place, if maintained in a 100% noise-free condition, will also impact many square miles around it. Protecting a single square inch of land from noise pollution  may be able to benefit large areas of the park. One Square Inch may be the quietest place in the United States.

Olympic National Park was chosen for One Square Inch because it has a diverse natural soundscape combined with substantial periods of natural quiet. Unlike other national parks, such as Yellowstone, Grand Canyon or Hawaii Volcanoes, air tourism is undeveloped and roads do not divide park lands.You can experience the natural sounds of Hoh Rain Forest and Olympic National Park in this “Breathing Space” compilation of natural sounds. I use this in the office to block noise, and at other times to just relax.

Olympic National Park Photo by Mark Ellison

Olympic National Park
Photo by Mark Ellison

When I take a group on a hike for one of my classes I introduce experiencing silence as part of the trip. Hiking in groups offers tremendous opportunities to connect with others. More importantly though, it provides freedom from human noise (relatively speaking) and an opportunity to observe the sights and sounds that only nature provides. It also allows time to quiet the mind.

We need to be aware of the amount of noise we make and the impact it can have on others whether in our everyday settings, or in a forest. We can have a similar impact as the One Square Inch project by doing our part to reduce noise. I encourage you to take a holiday from noise, and breath in the true essence of the natural world, silence. Your health depends on it.

Reference

Bell, T., Greene, T., Fisher, J. & Baum, A. (2001) Environmental Psychology. New York: Taylor & Francis.