In Japan there is a practice known as ‘forest bathing.’ On the surface, this sounds similar to the ‘air bathing’ that the quirky Benjamin Franklin practiced, who would start each day sitting stark naked on his bed with all the windows open. Forest bathing is not quite so alternative, it is simply being around trees. You don’t have to do anything. You don’t have to ‘effort’ it by running or hiking. Forest bathing is just being with trees, surrounded by them. The Japanese spent 8 years studying the psychological and physiological benefits of forest bathing, and found that breathing in phytoncide, which is produced in forests, is a significant boost to immune system health. Research by the Center for Environment, Health and Field Sciences in Japan’s Chiba University found that “Forest environments promote lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nerve activity, and lower sympathetic nerve activity than do city environments.”
It would be most interesting to see what human physiology does in a yard full of bonsai, not likely being large enough to create phytoncide, or to replicate the state of mind of one deliciously swallowed by a forest. To some degree, the energy of the bonsai would likely be a factor in our biochemical, riotous reaction, whether they be dynamic, restless ones or soft quiet ones.
And that’s a good question. What kind of response are we looking for when we walk into our bonsai yard? Do we wish for it to be a respite from the strains of the workaday world, to excite and engage, or maybe something else? If dear Ben Franklin did bonsai would he use his garden to air his privates…? There is no right answer, but I think it is right to ask ourselves the question—what response do we seek—and to have an answer.
Bonsai for me is a proxy for the mountain. It really doesn’t matter what kind of bonsai it is, strangely, but that is where it brings me. A pot grown tree, a collected tree that actually was from a mountain—it doesn’t matter. That’s where I’m brought. Very few of us live on mountains, but none of us forget when we visit there. The mountain cleanses, simplifies, and renews.
It may be simplistic, but from my visits to bonsai gardens I’ve found that many introverts tend to have bonsai that are a renewing experience, and extroverts have bonsai that stimulate. It is simplistic. But what makes us respond positively is a really big clue that no Hercule Poirot would miss. Such bonsai are the kind we should make to be sure it remains an aspirational activity, one that means something to us. Aspirational activities are decisions, they come very close to defining our core needs. And what then do we aspire bonsai to be, what needs do they uncover?
I’ll share a story.
Like so many of us the momentum of being career-busy created more of it, until I was very very busy. Which was pretty exciting for a while, traveling around sharing bonsai, but eventually it was unsustainable. I was so focussed on what I thought I should be doing that I wasn’t sleeping at night…I was missing appointments…spaced my sister’s 50th birthday…and I had a good look at what I had lost. But I was lucky, too. I had bonsai, and creating and caring for them had more than once served as a corrective rudder. Too many things, too busy, too much…all those things were making me unhappy. And I wasn’t serving others anymore either. The bonsai in my yard made do with so much less, and offered the answer.
In 2017 I built a micro home to live in, and relinquished my larger home to my apprentices (I wrote a blog post about that year-long adventure here). Like everyone (most everyone) I fell into working and living as if I were a bird, flocking with our group expectations of more being better. And yet grandiose environs do not make us grander in our interiors, as any few lines of Thoreau suggest and current happiness research proves. As Shaun Achor states in his hilarious and thought-provoking TED talk, we are very good at putting happiness over the cognitive horizon, so that we never attain it: “If we get good grades we need better grades, if we hit the sales target, we need to change the sales target. Every time we have a success, we just change the goalpost of what success looks like.”
This has been bonsai for me, it’s gift. Well, I know it doesn’t seem like a connection, but there is one. To create and maintain bonsai is to engage in a win-less act, where to compete isn’t the point, where bigger things aren’t better things. Success is ongoing. It grows. It changes. It isn’t what you thought it was. It’s better.
For me doing bonsai is a path to the mountain. For you it might be something wildly different, maybe more like a kabuki play or a racetrack, and I would like to visit your bonsai yard if that is so. For my yard, you would need to get out of your car and slow down to less than a walk, to strip down to the pace of a snail, to see what there is to see. But that’s just my yard. There are many bonsai yards to have.
I used to think bonsai must have one overriding philosophy, like the teachings of Marcus Aurelius or Epictetus, that mysteriously apply to all of us. It was a silly thought, really, and I never found one. Our responses to bonsai, and the bonsai we create, are just too personal. They say much about us, less in fact about trees. And actually the purpose of a bonsai teacher is to help find out what your relationship with trees is. Your relationship. Not the teacher’s.
Naturally it helps to work with one that is already in line with one’s inclinations and instincts. And there I was lucky to find Mr. Shinji Suzuki. For him, there was no ‘trying something out’ even though it might kill the tree, just to see if it worked. That was a bridge too far, and it was one that I had already decided was my path as well, being already an older person and not appreciating the idea that a tree was just an experimental canvas like any other inanimate object—like the paint, paper, and ceramic that I had spent years exploring. The medium of bonsai differs from most other arts because it’s alive. Mr. Suzuki above all honored and protected the lives of the trees that came into his yard (and could get pretty damn upset if we failed there…)
But that there is only one way…that also is clearly not right. There should be as many ways as there are curious, expressive people. When I travel to other countries to see their bonsai I’ve been fascinated at the diversity of expression, the parts they took from the tradition and the parts they left behind. That is happening everywhere, and should. And as a microcosm of that, a person will have similar diversions from the tradition.
One thing that is clear is that bonsai is creating international bonds, connecting us across boundaries. Mr. Suzuki used to say bonsai was about peace, and not to be shy about talking about that. For years I didn’t, mostly because I didn’t understand what he meant. Peace called to mind the United Nations and doves and things, and I didn’t see the connection. But when I read research on how green space keeps us healthier in dense urban areas, and how those recovering from injury or disease are benefited by views of a garden though the hospital window, I see that his comment has wider application. Bonsai can heal us in many ways.
In 2017 I went to Taiwan to teach at a multi-convention event. On the first day there was a huge welcoming ceremony with tons of food and a fair number of local politicians who took turns thanking us for being there (and enhancing the local economy). I made a new friend from Poland, a man seated to my right. Above us there was a display of the national flags of the participants: 57 countries were represented there. For any who think bonsai is simply about bending branches and puffing out the artist’s chest, this was an arresting sight. And I began to think Mr. Suzuki was right. If there is one overarching meaning in bonsai that applies to what we do—and not the personal philosophy that we must find for ourselves—it is that bonsai is about peace. Bonsai both creates it and offers it.