Tuning into nature to relax
Often, when I do shinrin-yoku, I am accompanied by the constant sound of running water. There is the buzzing of the cicadas all summer long and the kenkenkenkenken of the pheasant in the spring. The wind blows and rustles the leaves. There may be the crash of a waterfall in the distance, or the song of a bush warbler just above my head. The silence of the natural world is in fact a constant, wondrous, never- ending symphony.
The sounds of nature are a link to the environment and to ourselves. In the forest, we can learn once again to listen to the landscape we were built to hear. When we are quiet we can tune in to the natural world. Immersed in nature, we are in a whole new dimension, a restorative sonic landscape. Being still and quiet, we can hear the sound of silence and begin to relax.
Studies have repeatedly shown that we prefer the sounds of nature to the sounds of urban noise, that the sounds of nature relieve stress and that we feel relaxed when we can hear birdsong or running water. Researchers at Brighton and Sussex Medical School (UK) investigating the connection between the brain, the body and background noise, looked at what happened in people’s brains while they listened to a series of sounds from either natural or man-made environments.
While they listened, the participants had to perform a cognitive task. Their heart rates were monitored as well as their nervous systems, blood pressure, metabolism and digestion as they listened. The results showed that when the participants listened to artificial sounds, their attention was focused inwards. Inward-focused attention is associated with worry and brooding. When they listened to the sounds of nature, they turned their attention outwards. In addition, participants did less well on their tests when they were listening to man-made noise. The nature sounds decreased the functioning of the body’s sympathetic nervous system (‘fight or flight’) and increased the parasympathetic system (‘rest and recover’), indicating that we are more relaxed when we listen to nature.
Another study, this time using a virtual-reality forest, found that including the sound of the forest with the projection was more restorative and stress-relieving than when the forest was shown without sound.
The sounds of nature we like most are:
- Bird chatter
People are most sensitive to sounds between the frequencies of 2,500 and 3,500 hertz. This is also the range that birds sing in, which might explain why birdsong sounds like music to us.
The sounds of the forest soothe our frazzled heads, lift us out of mental fatigue and give us the silence in which to think. When we do shinrin-yoku, we can find the peace and serenity that Japan was once famous for. In the forest, we can let our ears be captured by the sounds of the natural world and have our senses refreshed and rejuvenated.
How to be still and listen to the sounds of nature
Tuning in to the sounds of nature can be hard. We are so used to noise. Even when we are quiet, there is the noise of our thoughts inside our heads. In fact, it is when we are still and quiet that the internal noise starts up. Our thoughts go round and round and it is not easy to quieten them.
- Start by slowing down. You need to give yourself some time: it takes time to let go of your thoughts and hear natural silence. Find a spot and sit down.
- Focus on your breath. If unwanted thoughts creep in, concentrate on breathing deeply. When you breathe out, let any distractions float away.
- Listen in all directions. After a while, the noise inside your head will quieten down and you will begin to hear the sounds of nature. Notice what you can hear.The tap tap tap of a beak on wood? The two-tone notes of a birdcall? See if you can listen further.
- Close your eyes to help you hear more intensely. Remaining still and quiet and paying attention to the sounds of nature will open your ears. All you have to do is be quiet and listen. If you listen hard enough, maybe you can hear the voices of the trees talking to each other in their phytoncide language. Start by slowing down . . .
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Excerpted with permission from FOREST BATHING: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness by Dr. Qing Li, published on April 17, 2018 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Qing Li, 2018.