A few years ago I stumbled upon the Japanese practice of Shinrin-Yoku, an ecotherapy otherwise known as “forest bathing.” While reading about this technique, I became flooded with images of monks bathing in a pool of fresh spring water, showering in the rain, and splashing their faces with dew cupped in hands pulling away from glistening grass. I imagined myself stripping down naked and rolling around patches of moss. I’ve since come to understand that forest bathing is less of a physical cleansing practice and more an act of intentional mindfulness. Bathing is about using one’s senses to soak in nature, creating an attentively intimate experience.
Suzanne Bartlett Hackenmiller wrote a handbook titled The Outdoor Adventurer’s Guide to Forest Bathing. While reading through it, I came across an experiential intervention that struck me. Suddenly I couldn’t help but translate all of her directives as, well… sexual. Hackenmiller leads mindfulness exercises by inviting readers to use their five senses (smell, taste, touch, sight, and sound) while engaging in a practice of attunement. Her forest bathing prompts reminded me of the 1960’s sex therapy intervention Masters and Johnson created called Sensate Focus therapy.
Last weekend a few hiking friends and I left for Hocking Hills to celebrate the anniversary of our group (which we refer to as The Trash Pack). We had met a few years ago through a Cleveland networking group that supports and promotes women being more active outdoors. Without knowing anyone in the group, my sister and I attended a backpacking weekend in Allegheny National Forest. We hiked to a primitive site to camp unplugged from internet and phone access. These types of wilderness gatherings have a natural way of ushering people into a space of emotional processing. When stripped away from busyness and distractions, conversations open up as people begin to expose themselves. I instantly connected with these women as we shared about our lives, exchanging science and research findings. The topic of sex inevitably comes up in ways that de-shame and normalize. Within these magical moments exist an exchange of curiosity and care which nurtures more meaningful connections.
The morning of our Hocking Hills hike, I took it upon myself to read an excerpt from Hackenmiller’s book (a section where she makes an invitation to “pleasure of presence” using a pinecone). I’ve been telling my friends about this pinecone scene for the past year, but I finally have us all together in a small cabin, confined to one space as we pack up for our day trip. I eagerly force them to listen to my oral interpretation on lovemaking to a pinecone as I read aloud:
“Begin by closing your eyes once you are in a comfortable position… hold your pinecone in one hand and gently pass it from one hand to the next. What do you notice about the weight of the pinecone? What about the size of it? If you squeeze the pinecone, what does that feel like?… What does the texture of the pinecone feel like? What is the temperature? Does it feel dry, or as though it contains moisture?… how does it feel up against your face? Hold the pinecone to your nose and smell it. What does it smell like? … Do you feel like tasting it with the tip of your tongue? If so, try it!… bring the pinecone to your ear. Move it between your palm and fingers or between your two hands while you listen to the sound that the movement creates. Return the pinecone in front of your chest and hold it in one or both hands, still with eyes closed. Notice… Give yourself a moment or two… go ahead and open your eyes. Visually absorb what you are seeing with brand-new eyes… Notice the color or colors for the very first time. Notice the fractals or repeating patterns in your pinecone and turn it over and around to see how these patterns change…. appreciating the pleasure of presence.” (Hackenmiller, 2019)
I’m trying to keep my tone steadily sensual. My friends are laughing throughout the cabin begging me to stop. But I can’t stop. I cannot help myself. I can’t ever look at a pinecone the same. Although I do appreciate the practice of mindfulness through wilderness bathing – paying mind to the micro details of nature, I just cannot help but correlate a sexual underpinning with this forest bathing invitation.
Once we are ready to hike, we pack the car, head to the trailhead, and start our autumn walk. The entire time, my friends are searching for the perfect pinecone boyfriend for me to “make love to.” We laugh throughout the hike. We move in and out of more heavy and personal conversations to light observations of our surroundings. One friend finds a defective pinecone offering me to take it as my lover. They find a few more. One seems a little immature, another seems a bit worn down. Then, someone spots a perfectly confident pinecone. One of the ladies hands it to me. We laughingly agree this is the one. I shove it into my left pocket attempting to carry the humor home with us.
In all seriousness, I eagerly recommend taking up the art of forest bathing. Get outside. Leave your phone behind. Look up. Listen. Touch. Smell (maybe don’t taste unless you’re making tea at the end of a hike). Be present. Notice. Slow down. Notice. Breathe in. Notice. Take in. Notice. Let go. Notice. Just be. Go home. Laugh with friends. Read books. Listen to podcasts. Return to the woods and do it all over again.
Hackenmiller, S. B. (2019). The outdoor adventurer’s guide to forest bathing: using shinrin-yoku to hike, bike, paddle, and climb your way to health and happiness. Guilford, Connecticut: Falcon Guides.