Bonsai in our Digital World

My family and I visited Bainbridge Island this summer.  A small island town where you can take a half hour ferry ride to get there or go around through mainland and an hour to get there.  It’s nice little town with shops and restaurants to eat.  This is where the world famous Boedel Garden is located.  Around lunch time we went into one of the restaurants to get a bite before exploring further.  We had a great meal and felt that our family bonded and connected over a good meal while we chatted, joked, and probably argued.  As we were leaving the restaurant, my eye caught a family of four sitting near the door.  Mom, dad,  a teenage girl, and a teenage boy.  They were all intensely looking down at their cell phones and not talking to each other.  I’m sure they talked and chatted after we left but that whole scene of a family sitting at the dining table without humanly connecting with each other is disturbing from my perspective.

Growing up there are four brothers in our family, I’m the oldest with three younger brothers.  First of all, if you didn’t pay attention to your dinner plate, a fried chicken drumstick may mysteriously and quickly walk into the other hungry brother’s plate and tummy.  Back then we didn’t have electronics and did not have a high resolution TV to distract us during dinner.  We have no choice but to listen to our parents tell us their “when I was a kid” story or one of my brothers saying “I’m still hungry.”  That was probably me saying that since I was the oldest and needing more food for my growing body yet each brothers get the same portion of food.  Back then, I could have probably eaten at least two whole chickens and a plate full of rice.  The point I’m making is that not only we paid attention to our food but to each other.  We lived in the moment, and in retrospect we actually did connected as a family.   Today, even though we have all the electronics available to us, my wife and I does not allow our kids to watch TV or use any electronics while eating a meal with the family.  I feel that that time is sacred as a family to connect with each other.   That is why I was very perturbed seeing that family of four at that Bainbridge restaurant.

This makes me question how our electronics really is affecting our society today.  What can we do about it?  I know in our state (Washington), it was recently passed that using electronic devices, that is mainly cell phones, is illegal while driving.  The distraction of checking our phone is such a serious matter and have caused fatal accidents that a law is passed to deter people from using their phone while driving.  Don’t call the cops on me but I admit I still do it after the law was passed and I bet many other people still do it  too.  I’m giving a very obvious example here but just as serious are the more subtle effects of our electronics and our digital world.

Have you done this?  You say to yourself,  I’m going to work on some very important work today.  Before I do, let me just check my Facebook to see new updates.  Few hours later, you realized you just wasted (what seemed like light years) a bunch of time on some useless updates.

How about?  I’m going to research on the internet for my school essay on “Trees”.  I’m going to Google about trees.   Wow there are 1,210,000,000 results!  That’s more than a billion.  No problem I have a lot of information to look at.  But wait, where do I start?  Look there’s a photo of pistachios, papayas, and other fruits in a box next to this search.  I love pistachios, let me just check this out.  What’s this?  9 benefits of pistachios.  Let me just see what that is.  Hours later, you didn’t do your research on trees.  You are now mad at yourself for not getting your research done.

I can probably go on and on with examples in regards to distraction.  I must say a lot of it is based on my own experience.

Out of distraction is out of focus.  And less focus comes less awareness or less mindfulness.  We are living more and more in a distracted, information loaded, out of focused virtual world.

How about the more serious effects of the digital world?  Kids play video games that start seemingly benign and fun.   Video games can trigger our natural feel good brain chemicals – dopamine.  Eventually like an addictive drug, kids can fall into addiction.

Kids feeling depressed about something that was posted about them on social media and end up hanging themselves.  Okay, this is very serious stuff.  And it is, that is why I want to write about this.  Our society is becoming saturated with our electronic devices and it seems like the new normal.   I love my smart phone and would not be able to function efficiently without it.   My phone alone has made my life easier and my business more efficient because of it.  As individuals and as a society however, we must pay attention and be aware of the potential negative effects of our digital world.

Dr Nicholas Kardaras an addiction expert and author of the “Glow Kids” have seen first hand experience treating patients and have done extensive research on the effect on our current digital technology. He says in his book that “interactive glowing screens have become such a powerful drug that the U.S. military is literally using them as a form of digital morphine.”

To add to this, our modern world have grown to a point where more people now live in urban setting.

In the book “Magic of Trees and Stones” written in 1964. The quote is from the English translator Richard L. Gage who translated the Japanese book by Katsuo Saito wrote on his translator’s note:

“As the major cities of the world grow larger, more crowded, and less pleasant to live in, people everywhere are searching for some place that is green and peaceful, for some place that brings them back into contact with Nature’s healing powers, which we are in danger of losing. Cities that are better models of the dreariness of urban living than Tokyo and Osaka are, and that even Kyoto is becoming, would be difficult to find, but from ancient times, the Japanese people have been blessed with a magical ability to create, in the most cramped and unlikely urban environment, a bit of a garden that brings them back in line with values more spiritually satisfying than concrete and a glass buildings and endless streams of squeeling, honking automobiles.

Though the Japanese people do bring Nature into their cities through their gardening, they do not do so in the obvious way of merely imitating a natural scene in miniature. Japanese gardening is more subtle than that. What it really does is to suggest Nature, to symbolize Nature in all the vastness, by means of a rigorously selected, meticulously placed small number of garden plants and stones that are pregnant with spiritual associations.”

Mr. Gage noted this 53 years ago and already back then he was talking how major cities of he world growing larger, more crowded, and less pleasant to live in. To compare, in 1964 the world population is about 3.25 billion. Today the world population is 7.5 billion.  Today people are more subject to pressures of living in a crowded city.  In addition to the less pleasant city living, we are more and more disconnected with nature because of our attachment to our technology and electronics of today.

Richard Louv Author of the best selling book “Last Child in the Woods” coined the term “nature deficit disorder.” He says what’s keeping parents from going outdoors is being too busy, electronic video games, television, but the main reason parents don’t allow their kids to go outside is fear. Fear of abduction by strangers. Although the percentage of that is small and the risk of being outdoor is small. He also said that there is a huge risk of raising our children under virtual house arrest. Risk of their spirit, risk to their sense of connection to the earth, sense of place, sense of community, there’s a risk to their bodies in terms of child obesity, there future health. That’s a huge risk, we can’t allow that to happen.

In today’s digital world not only children are becoming more and more nature deficit but adults as well. We are increasingly substituting our real experiences with e-experiences. Studies show that too much electronic exposure, video games, social media, even television is not good for your over all health.

Dr. Kardaras later concluded in the last chapter of his book “Glow Kids” that in order to break kids (and adults for that matter) from the addiction to the glowing screen is fast from technology and he said “perhaps most importantly, during this tech fast, nature immersion has been shown to be the most effective way to help people get grounded and reconnect to themselves and to reality. Engaging in actual experiences and not e-experiences can be incredibly healing.”

There have been many studies that support nature does in fact have many health benefits.

Shinrin Yoku is the Japanese practice of forest bathing. An extensive study was done by the Chiba University of Japan to show the beneficial effects of forest bathing. Immersion in the forest surrounded by various trees shows a reduction of blood pressure, stress, and even glucose levels in diabetics.

Forest bathing and nature immersion is obviously a great idea and proven to be beneficial for us.  As Dr Kardaras suggest, nature immersion can help reconnect ourselves and to reality.  A lot of which are increasingly deteriorating in this modern digital society.  We have trapped ourselves into lacking time because we are now more efficient, we do things faster, and we now have more information to process. When will we find time to go out to the forest and immerse ourselves in nature. We have more important things to do like, check Facebook and Instagram updates.  Hope that there will never come a time when kids don’t know what a tree is and not see one in person.

If only we can bottle up nature and bring it to our digital dwellers so they can experience it first hand.  Yes we can, it’s called Bonsai.  That’s what the ancient Chinese did with Penjing and the Japanese did with their yamadori  (trees collected from the mountains or the wild) bonsai.

From Dave Degroot’s book Principles of Bonsai Design: he writes that it is generally believed that bonsai originated in China, where a second century literary reference described a magician who “had the power to shrink mountains and lakes so that they could be fit into a small bowl”.

Bonsai is part of nature and brings the essence of nature in a miniature form. The same trees in the forest that provides the health benefits that was studied in the forest bathing study can be accessible practically in the palm of your hands, just like you would access the internet in the convenience of your smart phone. Well not quite but bonsai captures the essence of nature in a pot.

It seems like a lot of weight to ask a small bonsai tree to carry and save a society of glow screen dwellers from the effects of the digital world.  In my upcoming book “Wisdom Tree for the Digital Eden – Lessons Learned from the Ancient Art of Bonsai to Survive the Digital World,” I will explore this idea even further.

Bonsai may just be the God sent divine natural pill we need to counter the negative effects our modern society.

In the art of bonsai, a bonsai artist incorporates what Dave DeGroot calls the “divine ratio”.  It is derived from the Fibonacci sequence which translates to a sequential numbers that form a spiral and the basis of many natural things.  This divine ratio is part of many natural things is also referred to as fractals.

In the May 2017 issue of Dr Oz’s – The Good Life magazine, “Discover the Power of Fractals”

“Flowers, crystals, seashells, succulents – they’re all common design elements in spas, and with good reason.   They contain fractals, natural patterns that repeat at different sizes and scales.   Even if your conscious mind doesn’t notice them, you brain does – and they can help you relax. “Fractal patterns are prevalent in nature, and your body is hardwired to be drawn to them and process them very easily.” Says Richard Taylor, Ph. D., director of Materials Science Institute at the University of Oregon. “They put you in your visual comfort zone, and your whole physiology changes.” Research in the journal Perception shows that gazing at fractals increases the brain’s alpha wave activity, associated with relaxation. Other research found that when people took a break from a tough task and looked at fractal images, their stress levels were 66% lower than those who looked at a control image.”

So why can’t I just look at sea shells and flowers and will have the same natural effect instead of a bonsai?

Bonsai is not like any other natural elements.  Bonsai represents one of the very essential part of living nature – trees.  We all can relate to trees and we evolved with trees.  We’ve used them, eat from them, we build with them, found shelter in them, we climbed them as kids.  I know I used to climb a lot of trees when I was young.  We have a special connection with them.  Bonsai is like a silent energy force that has the potential power to connect us with nature, calm us, increase focus and awareness, and as a silent life teacher.

To put it in digital terms, bonsai may just be our USB or WIFI connection to the natural world.  Maybe even deeper than that, maybe to the divine.  Speaking of divine, let me leave you this quote from Anne Frank, the teenage girl of World Ward II during the Holocaust.

“The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely, or unhappy, is to go outside somewhere where they can be quiet alone with the heavens, nature, and God. Because only then does one feel all as it should be and God wishes to see people happy and it’s the simple beauty of nature.”


Published by tony bonsaiko

My little trees are my daily reminders of our grand connection to this beautiful and mysterious universe.

One thought on “Bonsai in our Digital World

Leave a Reply