The Spiritual and Mental Benefits of Forests
There are powerful benefits to spending time in forests.. Various studies have shown that simply walking within a beautiful forest setting in a mindful state, or doing exercise in the woods, reduces stress and enhances the sense of well-being. However, forests fulfil a much bigger role than simply that of a buffer for modern-day stress; they also enhance our spirituality, by providing the backdrop against which we project the ‘basic patterns’ of our psyches.
We should begin by defining the word ‘spiritual’. In an enlightening article on the topic, researcher and social scientist, Herbert W. Schroeder, notes that “spiritual refers to the experience of being related to, or in touch with, an ‘other’ that transcends one’s individual sense of self and gives meaning to one’s life at a deeper than intellectual level.” This ‘other’ does not have to be tied into religion or to a God; it may be external or internal and can be impossible to define, yet it gives meaning to life and to all our experiences.
The psyche conscious awareness and the unconscious mind, which comprises the feelings, thoughts, and memories which are we are not consciously aware of. Psychologists assert that we have an inner need to project our inner, instinctive patterns (or spirituality) onto forests and wilderness. In our aim to attain wholeness, we find the embodiment of this quality in the beauty, symmetry and wildness of nature. Time spent in rainforests and green areas then becomes a crucial way of experiencing spirituality. When we project our inner consciousness onto a rainforest, the experience takes on a deep significance and we can feel a sense of reverence and sanctity which is difficult to find in urban settings.
Forests are crucial in allowing us to to feel a sense of connection. In everyday life, we do not allow our deepest consciousness to emerge, as we struggle through stressful and competing demands of work and family life. Forests allow us to experience the deeply satisfying state of mindfulness – a state in which simply existing in the present place and time we are at, is the aim; where for a few precious moments every day, we can set aside our regrets about the past and worries about the future (money, relationships, fears), as we focus on the connection between ourselves and nature and its beauty.
Forests enhance our well-being in many other ways; author, Richard Louv, argues in his book, , that many current mental and physiological problems, including obesity, ADHD, anxiety, and depression, are caused by modern man’s separation from nature. Modern research supports his claims, with studies showing, for example, that children with ADHD who take part in “horticultural therapy” (growing plants) display reduced symptoms of ADHD, and that those with depression and anxiety also display markedly reduced levels of stress hormone, cortisol, after exercising or simply spending time outdoors. Louv adds that simply enjoying activities in the midst of nature, or taking part in its growth (by planting local trees and plants to restore original ecosystems) is a crucial step to solving the problem of global warming. Enjoying and feeling like part of nature is crucial if we are to truly value it, and thus begin to embrace sustainable practices in our daily lives and begin to pressure our governments for change.
There is a beautiful myth centered on Erisichthon, a woodcutter who earned Demeter’s wrath by cutting down trees in a sacred grove. Erisichthon was punished severely when he cut down a sacred oak, killing a wood nymph who called the oak her home. Demeter condemned Erisichthon to a life of misery, cursing him with an insatiable sense of hunger. Not only did the villain sells his own daughter to buy food, he took his own life by attempting to devour himself entirely. Schroeder notes that the myth symbolizes the human tendency to deny our own spirituality; I would add that it also displays the dire consequences of ignoring our vital relationship to nature. There is a reason why studies have shown that simply contemplating imagery of nature, or exercising on a treadmill while viewing natural scenes, has powerful psychological and physiological benefits; we are complex human beings and we need to fulfil all our needs – physical, mental, and spiritual. The good news is that these needs can be fulfilled simply by heading into a forest and discovering the wild, beautiful and eternal child within us.