Discover more from The Poet's Dreamingbody
Red Dust Syndrome (Part Two): Antidotes
"Contemporary" Practices for Restoring Our Ancient Connection
Greetings Good Travelers, Wayfarers, and Fellow Red-Dusters,
It’s been nice to hear from some of you about the second-to-last episode of The Poet’s Dreamingbody podcast - Red Dust Syndrome, Wholesale Belonging - wherein I unpacked some reflections about the ancient Wayfaring concept of the “red dust” (the noisy, bustling strife and strain of worldly life) and its capacity to create a condition of fragmented consciousness, physical exhaustion, and even stress-related illness.
A few of you wrote in and expressed the sentiment that you fully comprehend this notion and experience of what I’ve called “red dust syndrome” but were at a loss of what to really do about it.
One person responded: “In your podcast about the Red Dust Syndrome, you mentioned the Wayfarers going into Nature. Most of us can’t go live as hermits in the mountains. What are we ‘Red Dusters’ supposed to do?” Another listener asked with skepticism: “Can going into Nature really address any of this?”
As a matter of fact, yes, and I’ve got some hard science for you; specifically, medical research in two particular areas: shinrin-yoku (森林浴, “forest bathing”, or “taking in the forest atmosphere”) and a phenomenon that has come to be called Earthing (Grounding).
Interestingly enough, just yesterday I facilitated a half-day workshop called “Nature As Guide & Healer” where I explored these topics with a small group of brave souls. We started off at an inner-city counseling center at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in downtown Atlanta called TACC. After going over some of the findings of the exhaustive medical research you will find below, and discussing some of the spiritual dimensions of Nature-connection (by including more than our physical senses alone), we made our way to the Daniel Johnson Nature Preserve in Decatur — a tranquil green space that is part of the Old Growth Forest Network — for an hour of shinrin-yoku practice.
Shinrin-Yoku: The Findings of Forest Medicine Research
I won’t go into the full history of Forest Medicine or the backstory of the development of shinrin-yoku here. (If you’re interested in a bit of a deeper dive into the topic, read my article on the Substack Page of Wayfarer Magazine: Shinrin-Yoku and the Forest-Spirit Way, or visit Homebound Publications in October to order the print version).
What I will say is that what began as an intuitive hunch with a man named Tomohide Akiyama — namely, the hypothesis that spending time in the forest might have some health benefits — has now been thoroughly proven through hundreds of peer-reviewed medical studies. This body of research has come to be known as Forest Medicine. What began in Japan in the 1980s, has now expanded to include countries such as South Korea, Germany, Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands, and the U.S., along with millions of dollars being allocated to create forest therapy centers and establish protected forests with special trails designed for shinrin-yoku practice.
The findings of forest medicine research, thus far, include:
a Two-Hour Session of Shinrin-Yoku per month:
increases the cancer-fighting proteins called NK cells
significantly decreases cortisol (the stress hormone responsible for weight gain and hypertension)
increases hours and quality of sleep
decreases hypertension (blood pressure) and fatigue
significantly steps down activity in the Amygdala / the sympathetic nervous system (the fight-or-flight impulse that accompanies anxiety)
enhances the parasympathetic nervous system (the rest-and-recovery response)
decreases inflammation by boosting anti-inflammatory cytokines
fosters clear thinking
marked boosts of problem-solving and creativity
increases gratitude, wonderment, awe
improves concentration in children with ADHD, emotional balance with people on the autism spectrum, and assists with dementia in older adults
The reasons for the effectiveness of shinrin-yoku and, forest medicine in general, are synergistic. In other words, there is no single cause. From what we can tell it is a combination of factors that relate to a slower pace (allowing the body to re-set to natural biorhythms), slower-deeper breathing (which immediately produces shifts in the sympathetic/parasympathetic nervous systems already documented in medical studies of mindfulness), exposure to natural sights and sounds (the capacity for the color green and natural sounds to shift consciousness), and a blood chemistry component.
The blood chemistry aspect of shinrin-yoku is fascinating. Trees and plants — both living and decomposing on the forest floor — produce what are called phytoncides (part of their immune system) and terpenes (the aromatic compounds responsible for fragrance). When we inhale these naturally produced aerosol molecules from the forest air, they have an immediate impact on our immune system and feelings of well-being. For example, one study by the Department of Psychiatry at Mie University in Japan has shown that the citrus fragrance of the phytoncide D-limonene is more effective than antidepressants for lifting mood and ensuring well-being in patients with mental disorders.
To hear more about the phenomenon of Forest Medicine, watch this video with Dr. Qing Li, author of Forest Bathing: The Japanese Art and Science of Shinrin-Yoku, in conversation with Lindsay Scott of the Gentle Finds podcast:
The Phenomenon of Earthing (Grounding)
Findings in a related but separate domain of medical research have demonstrated a physiological reality of the capacity of Great Nature to be a healer. The phenomenon is called Earthing (Grounding): standing barefoot or sitting on the Earth and conducting (absorbing) electrons directly from the electromagnetic Earth upon which we live. Translation: the Earth has a measurable electromagnetic energy that is a natural source of healing, cellular restoration, and both support and revitalization of our organ systems. Unfortunately, even though our bodies are conductive and have the capacity to instantly experience these benefits, the rubber-soled shoes that most of us wear don’t allow us to be grounded. Unless we make an effort to do so, we don’t absorb these body-balancing electrons.
Over 20 peer-reviewed medical studies into the phenomenon of Earthing/Grounding have shown that this practice:
lessens chronic pain
improves blood flow
accelerates wound and injury healing
accelerates exercise recovery
boosts our quality of sleep
stabilizes our physiology at the deepest level
To explore more about Earthing/Grounding, make some time to watch the documentary The Earthing Movie: The Remarkable Science of Grounding.
I’ll close with a couple of poems of mine that are rooted in these themes.
There is a way of entering the forest
when the breeze of the trees
becomes your guide
when the cool gray-green days
and humid blue-green nights
become your own skin
where the unfurling paths
through the emerald light
become flowing streams.
Paths as luminous rivers
for your two uncovered feet,
salmon-like and aching,
to work out their
strange haunted yearning
for a home
they haven’t yet seen
yet somehow know
just the same.
There is a way of approaching the self
without a heavy hand
when the heart-mind
slowly becomes unburdened by the past,
where the body
listening with the whole of itself
finally becomes attuned
to all the subtle happenings
in the realm not yet stained
by the faithless world of man.
from the book of poems The School of Soft-Attention
mere mental projection.
You are, in fact,
Body connecting to Earth
is not mere leisure.
are extending outward
to embrace you.
from the book of poems: The Temple of Warm Harmony
Though shinrin-yoku is a recently coined term, and the medical research taking place in both forest medicine and earthing/grounding is relatively new, connecting with Nature is, in fact, very ancient.
Medical researcher Yoshifumi Miyazaki, author of Shinrin-Yoku: The Japanese Art of Forest Bathing, reminds us that for 5 million years (99.999% of human evolution) we lived in direct contact with Nature, while only 0.0001% of the history of our species has involved living in industrialized cities and inventing technology, lifestyles, forms of education, styles of worship, diets, and fashion that literally promotes disconnection from the living Earth.
Thanks again for writing in folks. I hope this answers some of your questions about whether Nature-connection practices — both contemporary and those that lie at the heart of the Wayfaring traditions — can have a direct role in our physical, psychological, and spiritual well-being.
In the end, we are Earth, we are Nature, and when we allow ourselves to truly connect with Great Nature we are brought back into harmonious accord with our own true nature…in more ways than one.