What is komorebi?

Mental Health

A dance between shadow and light that we can all relate to – we explore the meaning behind komorebi, and the lessons it can teach us about mental health

Every time I look up from my desk, I see my favourite art print – The Shyness of Trees by Marcel George. Imagining you’re looking straight up towards the sky, the illustration depicts a canopy of trees with channel-like gaps between the crowns, caused by a phenomenon known as ‘crown shyness’. Whenever I look at it, I feel small in a wonderful way.

In real life, the space between the canopy and branches allows sunlight to gently filter through. In Japan, the dappled light this creates is called komorebi (pronounced koh-mo-reh-bee) and is made up of the kanji characters for tree (木), shine through (漏れ), and sun (日).

The contrast between sunlight and shadow, and the way the two dance, is a sight artists of all types try to capture – just look at Claude Monet’s Garden Path and The Olive Tree Wood in the Moreno Garden. The beauty of komorebi isn’t just skin- deep, however. The interplay of light and dark can teach us a thing or two about life and wellness.

For example, there can be times in our lives when we feel shrouded in shadow. Perhaps our mental health is suffering, we’re experiencing grief, rejection, or disappointment.

When we feel like this, existential psychotherapist Ondine Smulders encourages us to remember that everything passes, including the darkness.

“Rather than consider this process pessimistically, we can see it for what it is: a process of continual change whereby experiences of pain and sorrow are as definite to pass as life’s special moments.”

Illustration of person smiling below trees

Illustration | Rosan Magar

As well as recognising this impermanence in life, Ondine suggests that we find acceptance for the fact that the journey to mental wellness is rarely linear. Ondine likens it to a path, slowly winding up a mountain.

“For some of us, the healing will be a relatively gentle walk. For others, it will be a steep hike. We’re all different and so, every journey is different.

“Be prepared for setbacks, perhaps even for moments where you believe you’ve gone backwards. Sometimes we make lots of headway, other times we get stuck and need to make a U-turn. It may be tempting to give up when you feel worse and your progress appears to have ground to a halt. Before you do, take stock, and see how far you’ve come in spite of the problems.”

When we give ourselves the space to do this, we allow ourselves to cherish the positives. Even if we discover something isn’t helpful for us, Ondine notes that it’s still a step forward.

These darker moments in our journey may be difficult, but they’re also a sign that we’re showing up in our own life.

But how can we see the light, or komorebi, when there’s a lot of darkness? Ondine suggests staying active, managing stress, and reaching out to friends, family, and professionals.

“Make time to discover how to care for yourself in your own way, too,” Ondine says. “I try to look up during my daily walk so I can discover something new that I haven’t spotted yet.

The interplay of light and dark can teach us a thing or two about life and mental wellness

“You don’t need to be in the perfect forest to see komorebi. Just one tree and a bit of sun through the clouds will do.”

Our paths may be different, but now and then we can look around, notice the komorebi and appreciate the gentle dance between light and dark.

Komorebi meditation

To help you feel more present and appreciate komorebi, try this short meditation:

  • Find a comfortable seat and surround yourself with a scent you love.
  • Close your eyes and take three deep breaths, in through the nose and out through the mouth.
  • Visualise yourself on a path in a forest. There’s a soft breeze and dappled light appears all around you.
  • Take your breath a little deeper, and focus on the movement of the light and shadow.
  • If any other thoughts come up, let the gentle breeze take them away and refocus your attention on the light.
  • When you’re ready to return to your day, take another deep breath and bring movement to your limbs as you reconnect with your surroundings.
  • Gently open your eyes and remember you can come back to this forest any time you want.

Ondine is an existential psychotherapist with an interest in depression. To learn more about Ondine Smulders and to find professional support, visit counselling-directory.org.uk


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