The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How tech workers are turning to the Japanese practice of ‘forest bathing’ to unplug

DUVALL, WA – AUGUST 22: Students form a circle at the start of a game in the woods during “Unplug and Recharge in Nature: Rejuvenation and Balance for the Modern Plugged-in Lifestyle”, a class at the Wilderness Awareness School in Duvall, Washington on August 22, 2015. (Photo by Karen Ducey/ for The Washington Post)

SEATTLE – Before they were to find a “sit spot” in the forest, resisting the urge to check their phones and just pay attention to the nature around them, before they played games under soaring western red cedars like “blindfolded ninja” to sharpen their senses, a group of stressed-out, high-tech workers who spend most of their days inside, tethered to their devices, faced the toughest challenge of the day.

Turning those devices off.

The group of about a dozen had signed up for the first-ever “Unplug and Recharge in Nature” day organized by the Wilderness Awareness School on 40 acres of forested land just outside the high-tech corridor that is home to Microsoft, and a host of other high-tech companies. They’d come to the woods, many said, because after spending so much of their time in the addictive and information-loaded virtual world, they felt a need to reconnect with the real one.

One worker said he is barraged by 10,000 e-mails a day. Another said he routinely spends as much as 18 hours straight online. They’ve seen technology both make their lives easier and more difficult, they said, enabling them to connect and driving a wedge between them and those they love.

The group is part of a small but growing movement seeking to counter the noise, distraction and pull of the virtual world by learning to sit still and pay attention in the natural one. It’s called “forest bathing.”

The practice originated in Japan the early 1980s, where it’s called Shinrin-yoku. And it has been gaining ground in the United States, where recent studies have found that people spend as much as five to seven hours a day in front of screens and check their smartphones several times an hour – some almost incessantly.

A U.S. Shinrin-yoku organization is now based in Santa Rosa, Calif. More nature retreats, like Earthwalk Ways in Fredericksburg, Va., offer “forest therapy.” And as research is beginning to show that “bathing” in the natural world is associated with lower stress levels, a boost to natural killer cells in the immune system, better mood, self-esteem, physical fitness, memory, attention, and creativity, among other benefits, some psychologists are beginning to offer “eco therapy.” Doctors, like Robert Zarr, a pediatrician at Unity Health Care in Washington, D.C., and “physician champion” of DC Parks Rx, are even prescribing time outside rather than pills.

“It’s kind of funny that we have to have a ‘fad’ to get us to do what humans have always done – go outside,” said Warren Moon, executive director of the Wilderness Awareness school and leader of the day’s forest bathing activities. But, he readily admitted to the group, he’d organized the day because he needed it, too.

The 20-year-old wilderness school caters primarily to children to stave off what some call “nature deficit disorder” as fewer and fewer children have unstructured playtime outdoors. But, Moon said, the school began hearing from parents and adults that they needed time outside. too.

“We’re targeting the modern high-tech worker, or someone who’s always plugged in and wants to counter balance that fast-paced, stressed-out lifestyle,” said Moon, a former mechanical engineer. “I struggle with it as well. I run a wilderness school and I’m on the computer most of the day.”

After joking half-heartedly about how cool it would be to post on social-media about their experiences, “We could use ‘hashtag forest bathing!'” said one, the group headed outside to loosen their limbs, and to learn how to use a wider range of vision, called “owl eyes” to observe the natural world. Some removed their shoes and, on the soft forest floor strewn with pine needles, learned to slowly transfer their weight from one foot to the ball of the other in order to walk quietly, “like a fox.”

Though Moon suggested wearing browns and greens to blend in, Heather Fitzpatrick headed toward her forest “sit spot” in a bright magenta jacket. The assignment was to wander through the forest and find a place to sit and “bathe,” or just pay attention to the surroundings, until Moon called the group back in 20 minutes with a crow call.

Fitzpatrick, a management consultant, who has been “110 percent connected,” working 60 to 70 hour weeks, including weekends, sat under a canopy of vine maples, with moss-covered branches and pointed leaves lit electric green by the morning sun.

[Why I risk my life jumping into these hidden swimming holes]

“At first, she worried she wasn’t doing it right, as if forest bathing were another technique to learn. Then, she resisted the urge to itch – she’d broken out in stress-related hives along her forearms again. Then she began thinking of all the things she had to do – for work, for her clients, for her two kids, for the nonprofit groups she advises, for the Girl Scout troop she leads. She instinctively kept reaching for her phone, because e-mailing notes to herself is how she tries to remember everything.

Then a leaf floated lazily down in front of her. “It scared the hell out of me,” Fitzpatrick later told the group. “I’d been so lost in my thoughts I didn’t even notice it.”

Walking along the forest path, Michele Martaus, 36, who relies on e-mail and online scheduling for her vocal coaching business, said she came to the day in the woods to get more distance from technology. “With the web, it’s all about what you know, so you always feel ‘less than,'” she said. “Out here, you recognize how small you are, but also how you’re an integral part of it all. With technology, you always have to have the answer. Here, it’s OK not to know. To wonder.”

Martaus, who moved to the Seattle area in 2014 precisely to be closer to nature, sees it as “absolutely beautiful” when the web connects people during disasters or through tumultuous events like the Arab Spring. But she’s seen that same web connectivity lead to disconnection in life. “Good God, Tinder,” she said of the popular hook-up app that she said her long-term former boyfriend was addicted to. “That’s why we broke up.”

As they foraged for lunch, not in the forest, but in the school kitchen, many reflected that they didn’t want to rid technology from their lives. They just didn’t want technology to so dominate them anymore. “This is the career I’ve chosen,” said Nick Tomczek, 36, a “super plugged-in” IT consultant. “I just need to balance the inability to step away from it.”

Don DeVange, 34, a web developer who runs a marketing firm, doesn’t want he and his wife to keep catching each other on their phones when they’re with their 11-month-old daughter. “We don’t want her to think what’s on the screen is more important to us than she is.” Still, in the forest, he found himself imaging the layers of the forest canopy as the layers of a web program.

Jen Ruch, 33, who finds herself indoors and online more than she’d like in her work for the Audubon Society, dragged her husband, Clint, along to forest bathe to get away from the technology that has become “incessant, invasive and impossible to turn off. Clint works in cyber security, doesn’t use social media and wouldn’t give his full name because he carefully guards his online personal information. At work, he juggles 10,000 incoming e-mails a day, and for fun, he plays video games. He studies human-computer interaction. “I understand the grip technology has on people. We tend to sit down on the computer and just go mindless,” he said. Even he realizes that when he’s spent too much time online his thinking gets “cloudy.”

So after a day of forest bathing, walking softly, learning about medicine wheels, patterns in nature and life cycles, watching spiders weave webs, listening to the songs of nuthatches, the squawk of jays and the annoyingly unrelenting chirruping of one really high-strung chicory squirrel, were they all itching to get back online?

“I’m itching to get back to my sit spot,” said videographer Debra Bouchegnies one, who found herself fascinated by a spider spinning a web that she’d failed to notice until her “bath time” was nearly over. Another commented on how peaceful it was not to have to know what time it was all day. Clint said he found the experience “humbling.” “It makes you realize how little control you have.” Heather Fitzpatrick said she felt relaxed for the first time in months. And Michele Martaus marveled, “I feel like I’m seeing things for the first time.”

[The smartphone in the bed: How to keep technology from ruining your relationships]

Moon suggested they find “sit spots” in nature near their homes, even in their own backyards, and sit and pay attention at different times of day, and in different seasons of the year.

As the group brushed the leaves and pine needles from their clothes, put shoes back on and readied to leave, Moon’s assistant, Kyle Koch, a former software engineer-turned-outreach coordinator for the wilderness school gave them a farewell warning: “Know that you’re going back to the plastic world,” he said. “I encourage you to hold onto this feeling as long as you can, before you hit the power button.”

Want more inspiring news and ideas to improve your life? Sign up for the Saturday Inspired Life newsletter.

If you liked this story on Inspired Life, you may also enjoy:

A six-step program for breaking your smartphone addiction