FIRST RESPONDERS & THE FOREST: ANCIENT MEETS MODERN

Updated: Apr 8

Forests have existed for millennia. Like first responders, they offer reassurance, and by the power of their existence, help us to breathe and live. Just as first responders hold the power of life or death in their control, so too does the forest. Without trees, we die. Without first responders, others may die. It’s as simple as that.


Yet, many first responders are exhausted after a solid atypical year of taking care of the rest of us. While self-sacrifice is embedded into this work culture, day to day exposure of intense events can cause extreme tension and constant thoughts about the well-being of others. This has been referred to as compassion fatigue’. Doing all this during a pandemic exacerbates stress, anxiety, fear, and other feelings.


One solution to help ease those stresses and anxieties is an ancient one. It is a training tapped by some of the most elite warriors, protectors, and wise sages in history. It is a knowledge found in cultures across the world from the United Kingdom, to the Norse regions, to Japan. It is in Japan, that we pick up the thread of this practice and bring it into the modern world. What is this practice? It is a silent, contemplative, and sensory immersion in the natural world.


In modern Japanese parlance this is called Shinrin Yoku. It translates as ‘immersing your senses in the forest’. But millennia before this practice was named, its elements were present in the training and code of some of the best ‘first responders’ in the world – the Samurai. The word Samurai comes from the Japanese – saburai – which is generally translated as – ‘to serve’. They not only protected the territory of their lords, but also the subjects of that region.


The Samurai lived and served by a code called the Bushido. The word bushi translates as ‘warrior’ and do is ‘the way’, thus the Bushido (the way of the warrior who serves) was a combination of three complimentary philosophies/belief systems: Shinto, Confucianism, and Zen Buddhism.


Shinto is the native religion of Japan focused on the Gods/Goddesses of forests, water, air, and stone. Shinto fostered in the Samurai a connection to their land, tradition, and spirit. Samurai learned how these long-standing connections with nature benefitted both the people and the land – in physical, mental, and spiritual ways.


Thus, the Samurai were spiritually centered warriors, yet they were also highly practical due to their study of Confucianism. The teachings of Confucius helped them form an ethical life, as well as respect for rules and authority. Lastly, studying Zen Buddhism philosophy gave them a moral compass.


These traits and qualities seem similar to those that first responders hold. A Samurai and a Police Officer, or a Fire Fighter, or an EMT must be ethical and know the rule of law, they must have a moral compass; they are deeply skilled at communication, empathy, initiative, competence, selflessness, vigilance, and calm. But the connection to nature and spirit doesn’t seem to be as prevalent today as it was with the Samurai.


This connection, this quality of remaining calm and centered, is as essential for first responders as it was for the Samurai. To help them find this calm, Samurai found enlightenment through meditation in nature; a respect for life - this did not make them weak, but rather better warriors by training themselves in the elimination of distractions. This same talent is also deeply beneficial for first responders.


This has now been proven with modern research – it is called Attention Restoration Theory. The fractal shapes present in nature, such as tree branches, waves, and a dancing flame, tap deep into our DNA. Becoming immersed in these fractals allows our brains to reset themselves - this is called ‘soft fascination’. It is why we can sit and stare at waves or a fire for hours and not get bored. When the three parts of our brain – the reptile brain, the emotional, and the logical brain – experience this, they re-align. The result – we feel restored and refreshed; more focused, efficient, and effective after time spent in nature.


This reminds me of a Zen story that speaks to the power of nature, our interconnectedness with it, and how we can tap its arboreal strength: “Once a monk asked Changsha, Zen Master Jingcen - ‘How do you turn mountains, rivers, and the great earth into the self?’ Changsha said - ‘How do you turn the self into mountains, rivers, and the great earth?’


The Zen Master is implying that we are a part of nature, not apart from it. By being a part of nature, interconnected, we gain exponential levels of insight and strength we would not have access to otherwise.


Journalist and former Buddhist Monk, Matthew Gindin, reinforces how being immersed in nature and open to its teachings can provide us with knowledge that can be extremely beneficial to us as humans:


“The wilderness is not just a space for practice, however. It’s a teacher. On one level this is because life in the wilderness demands, by its very nature, mindfulness, observant evaluation, and discernment (again, all essential traits of first responders). Trails, landmarks, weather, animal tracks and behavior, subtle sounds—all need to be attended to survive. The sentience of animals provokes solidarity; their suffering provokes compassion. Nature, with its omnipresent change and death, also offers lessons on impermanence and uncontrollability. And beyond that, there may be deeper things that wilderness conveys, a transmission beyond words.”


Taking care of ourselves by recognizing how time in nature can optimize our performance – on the job, at home, in the community – is more critical now than ever before. First responders offer that sense of solidity that human beings need when they are in the throes of fear or anxiety. They cannot do this if they themselves are maxed out, wracked with compassion fatigue, and feeling pressure on all sides. Allowing themselves immersive, contemplative time in the forest practicing Shinrin Yoku, like their spiritual doppelgangers the Samurai; offers first responders the calm, the energy, and the fortitude to continue with their calling, and bring us all peace.

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