Recently I read an article about the healthful effects of certain wood essential oils, called phytoncides. It seems a simple walk in the woods can elicit an immune reaction that releases anti-cancer proteins. The Japanese call this exercise “forest bathing.” Recent studies have noted other benefits as well: “forest bathing” is believed to boost the immune system, lower blood pressure, reduce stress, improve mood, increase ability to focus—even in children with ADHD, accelerate recovery from surgery or illness, increase energy level, and improve sleep. For anyone who has camped or hiked in a forest, these studies are not surprising. Nevertheless, (bear with me) serious science has been devoted to phytoncides’ effect on cytolytic activity of NK-9wMI cells and the expression pf peroorin, tranzyme A, and granulysin. Now I am not one to discredit serious science, but I do wonder about this obsession to verify empirically what simple introspection already makes apparent. I doubt any research scientist would lessen your fear of cancer with the suggestion of a walk in the forest. But what this research does highlight—and affirm—is the body/mind connection, even though its focus is exclusively on the physical elements.
Over the last decade health professionals have similarly demonstrated and borne witness to the fact that meditation can improve focus, energy, peace of mind, and a general sense of well-being. Our common experience also tells us that nature often elicits this beneficial meditative state. Why else do we Americans frequent our many natural parks? They help ground us with our connection to all that we can sense and thereby with our own bodies. That connection to the tangible world is also one of the triggers for our sense of wonder and awe.
Now wonder is at the root of all philosophy, as many philosophers have told us. And awe is the inspiration for most of what we humans struggle to express in our art, music, literature, and many of our cultural forms and figures. It is, I believe, at the core of all spirituality. Nature can inspire wonder and awe. It can awaken in us a deep resonance with all that is. And, in this manner, that resonance can change the meaning of one’s life.
Some years ago I published a work of historical fiction centered on the Vietnam War and the turmoil of the 1960’s. As you might expect, the experiences I depicted are drawn from real life. There is one scene in that book where my main character finally begins to overcome his fears—of death, commitment, and love. This scene is pivotal for it establishes the basis for his future decisions and the courage he will need to act on them. The context is one of heightened tension as his headquarters detachment awaits an eminent attack. It is the eve of the Tet Offensive in which many thousands would perish.
During his lunch break, Regis climbed the water tower. He had taken off his fatigues and stripped down to his boots and shorts. When he got to the top, he did not recline as planned, for the asphalt top would have been too hot on his bare back. Instead, he sat on the edge and hugged his knees to his chest, absorbing the heat of the sun bearing down on his uncovered head and shoulders. The horizon stretched out in all directions from his perch, the highest point on the highest hill in the local landscape. The more distant hills came to life with a fresh vividness. Their sun baked treetops aligned in a rolling pattern that mirrored the rise and fall of the earth beneath them as they reached towards the sun. They did not shrink from the heat, as Regis must, after too much exposure. They embraced it. For a time, Regis tried to embrace that heat as well. He could feel the pores of his skin releasing life-giving water into the air. In the valleys at the base of the surrounding hills, Regis perceived a slight mist that added translucence to the unending green that marched up the foothills in ever deepening hues. They too were giving up their moisture in an ongoing weather cycle that connected with endless other life cycles, of which Regis was a very small part.
His head began to throb with the rhythmic pounding of blood through his temples. His body was succumbing to a countdown in its own cycle of life and death. His death, he knew, was inevitable. If not Charlie (the Viet Cong), then nature would claim its purpose with him. There was nothing for him to do except to accept it. With his brain blasted by the heat, eyes bloated with the kaleidoscope of endless shades of green against a piercing blue sky, and the sound of nature’s silent voice humming like a seashell in his ear, Regis was overcome with the sheer beauty that rampaged at the gates of his senses. An alternate reality, ever-present but previously ignored, had broken down the barriers of his consciousness. He slid to the side of the tower, clasped the ladder rungs and slowly—with a savoring deliberation—descended. He felt unfamiliarly at peace, both with himself and with everything (“A Culpable Innocence,” page 165-166).
The key words in this excerpt are “he felt.” The affinity my protagonist felt with nature opens a window of awareness into the human heart and into the mystery of our kind. In our post-industrial and contemporary technological age, we tend to favor the view that intelligence is the dominant factor in human civilization: science is dominant, logic prevails, and well written laws can define morality and social interactions. But we evolved organically out of the very stuff our senses touch every day of our lives; and our minds can do more than objectify what we perceive. Not only can we analyze, but we can also experience our presence in the world, that is, feel reality in the absence of any intervening thoughts. We are more than a pretentious self-evolving species that can define chemical changes in our cells and even begin to manipulate our genetic inheritance. In moments of deep introspection, we can identify with nature. The danger before us, I suspect, is the foolhardy assumption that we can divorce ourselves from nature, from the mother that bore us into existence, and from our own mind/body identity. Not only has nature formed the physical basis for our existence and the introspective awareness of our presence in the world, but it can ground us in its most fundamental lesson: we cannot survive a divorce from nature, neither as individuals nor as a species.
Perhaps the supreme challenge of our time is maintaining our affinity with the natural life forces that course through our bodies. A simple walk in the woods may not only bring peace of mind, but reorient our consciousness to nature’s ubiquity and the unbiased reality of pure existence. Like the main character in my book, feeling existence in the face of death might just be the premise for leading a meaningful life. At least that was what I learned on that water tower.
(Note: If this blog resonates with you, you might also be interested in “Bound in a Nutshell . . . King of Infinite Space,” “It’s a Small World After All,” and “The Doors of Perception.”)