As participants move beyond the Tamed World and into the liminal journey, often they will encounter something “edgy”. When we talk about edges, we are talking about experiences where people begin to feel some slight discomfort. These experiences may be physical, psychological, emotional, or spiritual. It is somewhat of a paradox that Forest Therapy, which aims to provide a relaxing experience, can also provoke some degree of discomfort, but it is often an unavoidable part of the liminal journey. It is critical that guides understand that edges are not bad. Edges are often where the most powerful learning and transformation happens. Edges are often where people find within themselves something greater than they had previously known.
Guides might think of ‘edges’ by way of an analogy. Imagine camping in the woods on a dark night. Beside the camp there is a lantern, and the lantern casts a circle of light. At the edge of that circle, there is mystery because you cannot see what is beyond it. Moving toward that edge, your eyes begin to adjust to the darkness and then you can see what you could not see when you were standing next to the lantern. As you approach the edge, the edge recedes in front of you, widening the circle. But to do this requires some bravery and resilience, for what is unknown can often also be scary. Often what lies beyond the edge can be profoundly beautiful, and it is made even more wonderful because its discovery was unanticipated.
In almost all great adventure stories, heroes find themselves out beyond their edges. It is often the same for participants on a Forest Therapy walk. Guides should not aim to eliminate edges. Guides are not aiming to push participants into an experience that is only blissful, as we are not aiming to push any outcome at all. Likewise, guides are not purposefully attempting to provoke edges. Edges arise naturally in the liminal experience, or sometimes even from just being outdoors. Guides should not be discouraged if a participant shares that they found something edgy; this may outwardly appear like a sign of their dissatisfaction with the experience itself, but inwardly, this is often where the most powerful work is occurring.
It often takes time for participants to find the beauty and power of what is encountered at their edge. Some participants may find it by the end of the walk, others may not find it for months afterwards. But we should acknowledge that edges are a part of the experience of relationship that the Forest provides, just like edges are part of our relationships with people. No relationship is without its edges, its discomfort, and discomfort is part of the authentic experience of relationship. Imagine that the Forest, as the therapist, delivers edges to participants as a methodology of love, to help them to move more deeply into themselves. So, instead of working to eliminate edges, a guide should be skillful in identifying where the edge lies and working in partnership with it. We call this, “finding the right edge.”
Participants are the best ones to judge how far they wish to encounter an edge. This is why in Forest Therapy, everything is an invitation. This allows the work to be trauma informed, meaning that participants are in full control and are empowered to make decisions based on their own experience, not because they are compelled to act in any way by the guide.
Guides should also be aware to never push participants too far beyond their edge. Recalling the analogy of the lantern, this would be like wandering far from the lantern and completely losing sight of the lantern’s light. When this happens, the natural reaction is fear, terror, and panic. When people enter this state, they cannot learn or form relationship because they have moved fully into fight-or-flight mode. As guides, we do not want participants to arrive at this place. Knowing how to identify and act in situations where participants encounter edges is a delicate art, but the most important thing a guide can do when participants meet edges is to support them in whatever way the participant decides is necessary. Diagnosing a participant’s edge as a problem to be solved without request is beyond the guide’s scope of practice.
Managing participants edges is a key function of guiding. There are five important ways a guide can support participants:
Some edges can and should be reduced through preparation and planning. For instance, guides should know a trail well enough to know that they are not going to lead the group through a patch of poison oak or hold tea ceremony near a hornet’s nest. Likewise, a guide should communicate with participants before the walk to ensure they come prepared with appropriate clothing for the weather.
As a guide, managing one’s own personal edges is critical. A guide who is comfortable, at ease, and confident inspires the same feelings among participants. In the upcoming chapter on Headroom, we will look at some frequently encountered guide edges.
The most important way that guides manage participants’ edges is by paying attention to participants during the walk. This is known as “reading the field.” When we are reading the field, we are paying attention to what is said, what is not said, and body language. We track the emotional states of participants to keep them safe, if needed and requested by those participants.
Most of the time, when guides notice a participant is encountering an edge, the most powerful and supportive thing they can do is bear witness to the journey. Bearing witness is a way of unconditionally validating the experience of another person without fixing it or intervening in any way. This is one of the reasons why the Association includes sharing Circles in this work. The Circle allows guides to both read the field and bear witness to support participants in their encounters with edges.
If a guide determines that a participant has gone far past their edge for any reason, it may be time for a gentle intervention. If a participant seems they are on the verge of panic, it is recommended to send the rest of the group out for an invitation and ask the panic-stricken participant if they would like to stay. If they agree, ask what is going on and if there is anything that can be done to help. It is best to not make assumptions about what a person needs; it is imperative to ask. If the participant is not sure, simply sit with them until they feel confident in asking for what they need.
If, after 20 minutes, the participant has not returned to a state where they are capable of self-soothing, consider asking an assistant to help them go back to the parking lot and stay with them until they are feeling calm. If there is no assistant, consider ending the walk to ensure the safety of that participant.
From years of experience, trainers and mentors with the Association have noticed that there are some common edges that consistently come up for participants. Guides should become familiar with these edges and be equipped to notice them when they arise.
Slowing Down: We begin our walks with a slow, mindful scanning of sensory experience. Many participants immediately feel anxious to get to the “next thing,” not realizing that what we are doing in each moment is “the thing.” This is the result of a kind of addiction most of us have to the stressful pace of our culture. It presents a paradox: the pathway to reduced stress begins in a way that causes participants to experience the stress we feel constantly but are unaware of. When we slow down, there is an altered sense of time that challenges us to find meaning in each moment in a new way.
It is not unusual for people to share that they are impatient, bored, or that the activity took “too long.” This is related to what physician Larry Dossey has named “time sickness” in our culture. He describes it thus:
“Victims of time sickness are obsessed with the notion that time is getting away, that there isn’t enough of it, and that you must pedal faster and faster to keep up. The trouble is, the body has limits that it imposes on us. And the body will not be fooled if we try to beat it into submission and ask more of it than it can deliver in a 24-hour day. It will let us know. The typical signals the body sends are migraine headaches, irritable bowels, sleep disorders and low-grade depression. Of course, not everyone who suffers from these conditions has time sickness. What sets time-sick people apart is when stressful conditions are removed, they continue to race the clock. They find it agonizing to wait because waiting means that precious seconds are slipping away. Stuck in line or waiting for a bus, they can’t stop glancing at their watches, exhaling loudly, or drumming their fingers.” (Italics added)  Some participants may want to rush ahead. It is stressful for them to slow down. The good news is that Forest Therapy walks help most people move past this edge quickly. By pointing awareness toward the senses while we are moving through the landscape, we distract the brain from its cognitive emphasis (though thinking is always present). On most walks, for most people, a time comes when we lose track of time, and we have moments of timeless, direct, and immersive experience.
Encountering Grief: People in our culture carry tremendous grief. One source of this is the sense of loss of connection with nature. Most people are also deeply aware of how the world is being wounded, and we feel this as wounds within our own being. The resulting deep grief is present even when people are completely unaware of it. Normally our busy and distracted lives keep us in states of numbness where awareness of grief is suppressed. But when we start contacting nature in a very personal, intimate way, this grief often arises.
It is very important to acknowledge and support grief when it appears. Again, all that is required is deep listening, bearing witness. Under no circumstances should we try to comfort others out of their grief. Instead, we can recognize that their willingness to contact that deep well within themselves is a service to all; the tears of grief are also parts of wholeness. Among the support of the trees and great sky and the listening ear of trail companions, the moment of acute grieving is usually short-lived but it is no less profound for its brevity. We are honored when it appears.
One of the reasons many people do not connect more deeply with nature is that the encounter with grief can feel overwhelming. It is most likely not recognized as grief, but more as a sense of something ominous or a sadness or depression that becomes associated with being in nature. It can help to name this out loud. In the community of nature connection guides and mentors the term “river of grief” is often used. It is seen as a place where some people can drown but where, with appropriate support, everyone can cross over. On the far side, we discover we are more deeply at home.
Interacting with Others: As guides, we invite participants to engage their senses in ways that give direct experience of the world around and within them. Some invitations are done in pairs or small groups. For some people, invitations that involve touch or sharing with one other person can be stressful. Just be aware of this and watch the group. Interacting with others also happens when we gather along the trail for sharing Circles. We always use the simple prompt, “What are you noticing?” The ways in which people respond to this are a good indicator of where they are with the “interaction edge.” Usually, we hold these Circles between each invitation during a walk and by the end of the walk, even those who have been reticent about sharing become more open and comfortable. Sometimes, guides may find that participants will not share during the walk but when the final prompt is given, “Please share whatever you would like to complete the walk for you” they will say everything they have been holding in. This is precisely why offering the final prompt in this way is so important.
Contacting Life (Sensory Connection): When we sense, we feel. When we feel, we contact the richness of life, including its joys and sorrows, which seem to be inextricably linked. The resulting intensity of experience can be intimidating. Many people have memories of a time when a profound sensory experience was regarded as something shameful by other people. e. Many people have internalized this response so sensory experience, especially pleasure, triggers a shame reaction. Simply inviting people to notice what in their sensory experience is giving them pleasure and to take in that pleasure, can have a slightly scandalous quality. One symptom of this edge is sensory anesthesia, which can be slight or profound. We avoid sensory connection by simply not sensing: not hearing, not seeing, not touching, etc.
Feeling Incompetent in Nature: Particularly as people get older, they may lose confidence in their balance and stability. Paradoxically, the best way to handle this is to avoid “helicopter guiding” by being overly cautious and protective. Let people explore. Remember, they are already slowed down, so they won’t be rushing across loose stones along the river bank. We’ve seen older people climb carefully into the lower branches of trees and sit there, reconnecting to physical abilities they thought were many years behind them, and have sensory-emotional experiences that are powerfully moving. An alternative to helicopter guiding is “hummingbird guiding,” a type of watchfulness-from-a-distance that darts in, if and when needed.
Fear of Nature: Often people have exaggerated fears of natural hazards. They may be afraid of mountain lions, rattlesnakes, or biting insects. Some people are afraid to touch plants. Guides can address these fears in opening remarks by talking about what hazards actually exist. In many areas, the scariest and most likely source of danger is ticks, followed by poison oak or poison ivy. Point out these beings, and teach participants to recognize hazardous plants. And always be 110% certain of the safety of any foraged plant offered to participants to touch, taste, or drink in tea.
It can also help to point out that the very nature of Forest Therapy walks—slow, mindful, aware—provides a margin of safety far beyond that experienced by people who are rushing across the landscape with little awareness of their bodies or their surroundings.
Fear of Inactivity: Some people fear the boredom or silence that can come with inactivity. Some fear not being involved in some important role or having control over what is happening. Some fear that doing nothing is a waste of time. All this amounts to a fear people have of inactivity.
“Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage
to lose sight of the shore.”– Andre Gide