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Being among trees

What are the practical benefits of sitting in nature? What might mindfulness in nature mean?
Hello again, and welcome back to the Forest. You may remember that in our last session of this module, we talked a bit about how mindfulness today is often represented as being closely associated with the tranquility of the natural world. But we also saw that at least to some extent this association isn’t necessary and it’s not always helpful. Indeed, there’s a strong sense in which the practice of mindfulness might be most potent when we’re in the midst of everyday life. Although it also seems the that was probably more relaxing to practice in nature. In this session though, we going to explore what the actual benefits of practicing out in nature might really be.
And what being out in nature might really mean. One way to do this is to consider the recent research into the so called forest bathing nature therapy or [FOREIGN] As it’s called in Japan. Where much of the foundational work on the establishment of this practice was done in the 1980s. According to the groundbreaking work of scientists like Yoshifumi Miyazaki and Ching Lee. Part of the cause of stress and anxiety. And contemporary Japan has been the massive urbanization of the Japanese population. Some people don’t leave the boundaries of their city for years on end, spending much of that time indoors or sometimes even underground. And yet, traditional Japanese culture is intimately associated with living in and appreciating the natural world.
So, what would be the health impact on urban Japanese who took a little time to reconnect with nature? Either by taking day trips or holidays out in the forest or simply by sitting in their local park at lunchtime? A growing body of research suggests that spending time in nature, especially amongst trees, has significant health advantages for people. Specifically, research indicates that therapeutic effects include support for the immune system, including density of our natural killer cells and cancer prevention. Support for the cardiovascular system, including relieving hypertension. Support for the respiratory system, including easing of allergies and respiratory illnesses. Number four, staving off depression and anxiety including combating mood disorders and stress.
Promoting mental relaxation, including by combating attentional deficit and hyperactivity disorders. And then furthermore, time in the natural world is shown to inspire positive feelings in people such as the feeling of awe. Which is associated with feelings of gratitude, selflessness, and compassion. So, while not yet entirely conclusive the results of so called forest bathing are certainly promising. Especially as a form of preventative medicine or therapy. There are many ongoing EBM evidence based medicine models being tested. And there are several theories that seek to explain the observed beneficial effects. Perhaps, the most famous of these theories is the so called biophilia hypothesis. Which was first posited by the evolutionary biologist EO Wilson in 1984.
Wilson proposed the idea that because human beings evolved in nature, we have an innate and perhaps even an essential need to live in connection with it. That is we’re hardwired with a love for nature. Which is what biophilia means because being in nature is good for us. The argument suggests that biophilia is the flip side of the well documented phenomena of bio phobia or fear of nature. According to which human beings more quickly recognize harmful patterns in nature such that they can be avoided. So, just as we quickly recognize the pattern of a poisonous snake or the distinctive smell of rotten food. Or something else that might harm us so that we can avoid these things.
We also instinctively recognize the patterns of trees, of savannah’s and rivers. And other things that might give us benefit so that we can be in proximity with them. Even though much of humanity has migrated into urban environments, we retain these hardwired biological aversions and needs rooted in our evolution as a species. An important variation on the biophilia hypothesis is the stress reduction hypothesis posited by Rs Ulrich In 1981. Wilson, Ulrich maintains that human beings evolved in rural spaces. And hence that urban life is likely to trigger heightened levels of maladaptive stress. Because their evolutionary adapted to them, humans find natural environments less perceptually confusing and demanding.
While urban environments are riddled with visual complexity, intensity and artificial movements to which we must constantly attend and be alert. Hence, Oryx suggests that spending time in unthreatening areas of nature. Or even simply spending time gazing out the window or perhaps even just looking at a picture of nature. Or perhaps even just looking at the color green is beneficial to our health because it helps us to regulate our levels of stress. Evidence does indeed suggest that these activities lower our heart rate and blood pressure. It also suggests that we find it easier to allow our attention to rest on a natural scene without having to scheme or worry or discriminate about it.
That is, nature absorbs our attention much more effectively and serenely than an urban scene. Which means we’re less likely to ruminate on negative thoughts and emotions while we’re there. Other theories focus on a differing chemical composition of the air in forests and cities. Suggesting that chemicals produced by trees and other plants may enhance immune functions in humans. Even while the chemicals produced by cars, factories and power stations may hinder or even damage these functions. The data appears to be especially clear with regard to chemicals that fight or cause diseases like cancer. One of the most intriguing environmental factors in these studies are the chemical compounds known as fight on sides. Which exhibit antimicrobial qualities.
Studies by Ching Lee in Tokyo and others elsewhere show that fight on sides are released into the air by trees. And other plants as part of their natural defenses against infection and disease. In fact, when a tree detects a threat such as fungi or bacteria or damaging insects, it’s immune response is usually to generate high quantities of fight on sides to help defend itself against that threat. And research suggests that fight on sides might promote autonomic change in humans, boost our immune response and perhaps help to lower blood pressure as well. Wilson and Uray Ching Lee suggests that it should come as no surprise to us that the immune systems of trees and humans might work in complementary ways.
Given that humans and our immune systems co-evolved in these natural environments. So in recent years, [FOREIGN] Or forest bathing has become a therapeutic modality in its own right. With professional associations in Japan and elsewhere, including in Europe, and here in North America. In general, the ethos of such organizations is that the forest itself can provide a form of therapy. Often a human guide might escort a group into a forest or into a park or garden in order to suggest various invitations or activities or practices. But that guide is not the therapist. The forest or the plants provide whatever benefit might be received by the people in the group during their time there.
One such practice that resonates closely with mindfulness is the so called sit spot. Which is simply the invitation for people to wander freely amongst the trees until they find a spot that seems to welcome them to sit down. And then, we sit down. And see what it might be to open our awareness to whatever presents itself to us in that time and in that place. For some people, this is simply a kind of open awareness meditation. A beautiful variation on this practice can be to choose a spot somewhere in nature. Even if that just means a park in the garden or under the one tree that you pass on the street each day.
And then return to it several times each week to sit and practice and mindfulness. Perhaps you’ll discover that you might build a form of relationship with that environment or with those plants. As though you are a companion of the natural world. Perhaps that relationship will grow and change through the weeks, months and through the seasons. So while we saw in the last session that we need not assume and necessary connection between nature and mindfulness. In this session, we have seen that there might be some good EBM. Evidence based medicine reasons to think that practicing mindfulness in a natural environment should be beneficial to our health and our well being.
In our next session, we’ll turn our attention to the ways in which buddhist texts and practices might treat the natural world. And in particular, whether the foundational text of mindfulness and Buddhist traditions. The sattahip Atanas Suta has anything to say about mindfulness and nature. Just a little heads up in case the anticipation is stressful for you. Yes, the Saudi baton actually contains a mindfulness practice dedicated to our relationship with nature. So don’t worry, see you again soon.

I discuss what are the actual practical benefits of sitting in nature. What might mindfulness in nature mean? How is nature good for us?

How do you feel in nature? Did you ever attempt Forest Bathing?

Leiden University

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Demystifying Mindfulness

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