The role of the guide is to allow participants to experience relationship with the forest and the entities that live within it. A guide must not presume to understand the relationships between participant and the world. We can only be experts in our own perception of relationship. Such ‘relational’ knowledge can never be given or taken. It emerges from the experience of listening to the self, without external voices compelling thoughts to be this way or that way.
No matter how many times you guide a Shinrin Yoku walk, you will still have to practice a beginner’s mind, for each person in each moment is going through something you will never have complete access to. You are there to witness.
In this way, a good Shinrin Yoku guide never assumes they possess expertise in the way of guiding. This way is not like a science, where because something worked in one moment it can be presumed to work again in the future. In the forest, as in life, nothing is ever the same, moment to moment. Things change constantly. You must be aware that every being in the forest is unique in every moment, including human beings.
What is most challenging about carrying a sense of not-knowing into one’s work is that it is not a skill that is learned. It is not like, say, playing the piano, which takes many hours of practice and in neurological terms, is about strengthening neural networks connected to finger and foot coordination, rhythm, pitch, memory, and the ability to visually interpret the data represented by a score, among many others. In each of these components, the brain is learning by working off of what it has already synaptically hardwired. This is how knowledge is acquired throughout a lifetime.
However, from the moment your brain gains a sense of self, a significant part of your development is centered not around what you know, but how you perceive, how to know what you know. And in our culture, this way of perceiving is extremely logical and scientific. The way you and I perceive reality, in epistemological terms, is not biological; it is cultural. We know this because there are cultures like the Sng’oi, who exist in such deep relationship with the Malaysian forests that they live in that Westerners are baffled by how they seem to know what each other and what the forest itself is thinking. Robert Wolff, an anthropologist who studied the Sng’oi described it as a “reality where things are known outside of thinking.” That is what a good guide must do, but you cannot learn it like you would the piano.
So how do you become a good guide? For me, the central focus is a decolonizing of the mind and the development of an openness to accepting an alternative epistemological perspective. It stands to reason that if we are all descended from peoples like the Sng’oi, all our ancestors lived with some extra sense of knowing that was not based in knowledge, but in relationship. So in order to be a good Shinrin Yoku guide, go be in relationship with the land. Let it know you. Do not allow the bias of your empirical mind to make you feel foolish for speaking with a tree or playing with a butterfly. Be like the trees, be like the water, and be like the animals. Let it all go and just try it on.
You will slowly come to realize that you are reconnecting with the land, and it is reconnecting with you. And it is not because you are studying it, which implies a subject-object relationship; it is because you are friends with it. You will know the forest and the forest will know you.
Understanding what that feeling of mutual relationship is like is the gateway to your understanding that when people look to you for answers, you will have none. You will be guiding them by creating space for them to form their own relationships. You can’t build them for anyone else. You can only empower them to do the work themselves through the artful language of invitation and the compassionate reflection of their time on the walk. The forest will do the rest.
So go and sit in the forest without bias, and your brain will begin to change. You probably won’t even notice it, but you will begin to evolve a new sense of perception. It takes time, but you will get there. Just go sit in the forest and let it happen.
Written by Ben 'Crow' Page, Certified Forest Therapy Guide, council carrier and alternative educator based in Southern California. He is the founder of Shinrin Yoku LA, an organization dedicated to transformative nature therapy and contemplative practice in the wild. For more information or to schedule a walk, visit ShinrinyokuLA.com or email Crow at firstname.lastname@example.org.