Encounters with Wholeness: Bodyfulness, Nature Relation and the Imaginal Realm

The Liminal Journey and the Remembering of Wholeness

In liminality, participants are experiencing an outer and an inner journey at the same time, and both likely feel different  from the journeys they take in their daily lives. The outer journey into liminality can be thought of as a sensory journey. In liminality, participants are experiencing their relationship to the outer world as one rooted in embodiment and related to the senses.

In their daily outer lives, people may be sensing very little because they are thinking so much. Our brains only have so much attention to give and are always inclined towards optimization. For this reason, if the brain perceives little value in sensory information, it will not pay attention to it.

Historically, people have needed their senses much more than we do now. When people worked outside, they needed their senses to be far more powerful than in many of today’s work environments. If you think about human work such as hunting, gathering, and farming, these kinds of activities require incredible focus on sensory information. A farmer relies on touch, smell and sight to know when to water, plant, fertilize and decide whether to harvest crops or leave them in the fields.

Today, technology does a lot of this sensory work for us. There is an even a word for this kind of technology: a sensor. A sensor is a device that reads physical information in the environment (just like our bodies do) and records or responds to it. Due in part to these kinds of devices, the brain can  devote less power to sensing the environment and can free up our attention for other tasks.

Within liminality, people relax into a more immediate state of experiencing and welcoming the world around them through their bodies. Even though their senses were with them all along, participants may be shocked at how powerful and vivid sensory experiences can be. Many people don’t realize that they rarely train their attention on the sensory experience of the body, and so, when they do, it can be quite eye-opening. This type of experience is not unlike the practice of mindful eating. Try this: next time you are eating something, put all your attention on the act of eating it. Before you eat, gaze at it, noticing the colors and patterns of the food. Smell it, noticing the composition of the aroma. As you eat, notice all the textures and flavors. Most importantly, notice how it makes you feel. Then, eat the same thing while paying full attention to a television show or a conversation you’re having. Notice the difference?

In essence, the outer journey is about building relationships in the world through our senses. This outer journey is an experience that connects us to an ancient way of life; it has no dogmas or values. It is not about judging, it is about experiencing and knowing the world through our bodies. And it is about letting the world know us in return.

The inner journey might be thought of as a way of remembering ourselves. The meaning of the word “remember” is explained in two ways.  The modern explanation refers to putting things back together in the mind (the memory).The original meaning refers to putting the body back together (“remember” as in, the opposite of “dismember”). Perhaps the liminal inner journey is where the mind and the body remember in unison? Perhaps that is part of the “in-between-ness” of liminality.

This act of remembering, of putting ourselves back together, speaks to the idea that the liminal journey is about encountering our wholeness. For humans to feel whole, we must be connected to ourselves, to others, and to a sense of place,  home or territory. Wholeness does not exist apart from relationships; we cannot cultivate wholeness without allowing the world to be a part of us as well.  In this way, wholeness is reciprocal and participatory. As we cultivate our own sense of wholeness, we are also allowing the world around us to encounter its own wholeness. Our wholeness is comprised of elements from the Tamed World and the Wild World; there is no rejection when it comes to wholeness. This is why we often find reminders of our wholeness in the liminal journey.
Wholeness is not a destination, it is a journey. We do not move progressively forward toward wholeness; it ebbs and flows with our connections and relationships. We don’t suddenly become whole. This is not the point. How we encounter wholeness is deeply personal, even intimate and unique for each one of us. It can come from unexpected places and in unexpected ways.

Wholeness can and will look different for different people. Wholeness may even look different for the same person from day to day. Everyone has parts of themselves that, in the moment, they have forgotten, repressed or rejected, the parts that have been tamed. Encounters with wholeness often  arrive in the form of things a perrson has chosen not to think about. A dying tree has the potential to reintroduce death into one’s wholeness, just as a playful squirrel might remind us of an inner child who has not played in years.

Encounters with wholeness may also come in the forms of things people obsess about, that require some sort of shift in order to be integrated into wholeness. One guide’s story illuminates this well:

“On one of my walks, a woman came with a heavy heart. She was grieving the loss of her mother and mentioned this early in the walk. With each sharing circle, she returned to this grief, again and again. After sit spot, we gathered for tea, and she brought a bright blue feather to the circle. She said that it was her mother’s favorite color and that it felt as if her mother was with her during that sit spot. She mentioned to me as we were leaving that she felt an enormous weight lifting from her shoulders, as if something had changed in her heart.”

What participant’s bodies gravitate toward is often what will cater to their remembering of wholeness. This is often where participants experience the greatest levels of aliveness, connection, and clarity. This is one of the ways in which the Forest is the Therapist.

The beings of the Forest can  reflect back images , such as the tree, squirrel or feather described above. When this happens, we might identify that tree as a metaphor, symbol or image of wholeness for that participant in that moment.

The Tamed World and the Wild World both hold images of our wholeness. In the Tamed World, we often encounter images of our wholeness such as the tools that we work with, the houses that we live in, the people that we love. But there are also images of wholeness to be found outside the Tamed World. To truly be whole, we must journey into liminality to find the images of wholeness that are excluded in the Tamed World and bring them back with us.

You might imagine that the sensory experience of a being—the sight, smell, taste, feel or sound—in the outer journey projects an image that manifests in the inner journey. This is where these worlds intersect, and it can create a fleeting experience of the world as a psychological mirror of the participant. When this happens, the participant may encounter a new experience of wholeness as they witness the images of the Forest as diverse, and perhaps mythical, reminders of themselves.

These images need not be spectacular, like seeing an eagle or a rainbow while on a walk. Images do not even have to be visual. They can come in any form imaginable. While in liminality, things that may otherwise seem ordinary or unremarkable may gain heightened symbolic meaning. For example, a participant may see a common bird that stares back at them as if trying to communicate a hidden message from the land, or a tree may drop a leaf while they are sitting, or the clouds part and the sun shines upon the participant’s face as the wind blows past. These types of encounters are often powerful catalysts as images of wholeness, as wholeness welcomes and depends upon the diversity of our experiences, inner and outer.

Encounters with wholeness tend to relate to three types of relationships:

  • The participant’s relationship with themselves and with others.
  • The participant’s relationship with the More-Than-Human World.
  • The participant’s relationship with things beyond themselves and the More-Than-Human World. We’ll refer to this simply as “Beyond”.

For each of these types of relationships, the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy teaches that there is a framework that supports such encounters. Relationship to self is primarily expressed through bodyfulness, relationship to the More-Than-Human World is primarily expressed through nature relation, and relationship to More-Than-HumanBeyond is primarily expressed through the imaginal. These three frameworks support the journey toward wholeness by re-centering marginalized aspects of ourselves: our bodies, the More-Than-Human World, and beyond. It also serves to recognize that sometimes, these frameworks overlap, and one can inform the others, as these marginalized pieces of ourselves are often bound up in each other.

It is important to begin by acknowledging, again, that participants may or may not experience these phenomena. Some will experience none and some will experience all three simultaneously. It is not within the guide’s scope of practice to attempt to force any of these phenomena to arise. Rather, guides welcome the full range of experiences participants may have and trust that the Forest is the therapist.

Before exploring these further, a final note on images of wholeness. Images are received quite simply when the world captures the participant’s attention. There are no gimmicks or magic tricks a guide can use to make a participant experience an image of their wholeness. It all comes down to freedom of attention. Mary Oliver and Robin Wall Kimmerer express it this way:

Attention is the beginning of devotion. –Mary Oliver
Paying attention is a form of reciprocity with the living world.
–Robin Wall Kimmerer


Bodyfulness challenges the Tamed World Story that our sense of self is rooted in the mind, and it opens the possibility of experiencing ourselves in a way we rarely do in our normal lives.

What is bodyfulness and how is its different from mindfulness? As is discussed elsewhere in this manual, the words we use have distinct power in shaping our thoughts and our worldview. The term “mindfulness” is a modern translation of a Pali word that incorporates states of awareness, attention, and remembering. In many ways, this ancient definition might be the closest to the definition of bodyfulness we will use in this manual. However, in the West, conceptually leading with the word “mind” can create some problematic tendencies. First, because of Tamed World bias, people tend to associate the word “mind” with thoughts, and sometimes also logic and rationality. Christine Caldwell notes,

“Though we often profess that an awakened and self-reflective life involves much more than thoughtfulness, here in the West, we tend to centralize and valorize the mind when we use the term mindfulness. Because of this tendency, mindfulness is in danger of marginalizing our bodily experiences and perpetuating a false dualism between our physical and cognitive selves. ” [10]

Bodyfulness practice emphasizes that centering our bodies is an act of triumphant connection to ourselves. Caldwell puts it beautifully:

“The issue is about coming home. The body isn’t a thing we have, but an experience we are. Bodyfulness is about working toward our potential as a whole human animal who breathes as well as thinks, moves as well as sits still, takes action as well as considers, and exists not just because it thinks but because it dances, stretches, bounces, gazes, focuses and attunes to others. ” [11]

The Tamed World Story alienates people from their bodies through adversity of tactics. Caldwell notes four of these:

  1. Ignoring the Body: Through a culture that promotes anesthesia over wellbeing, people are taught to ignore the intelligence and autonomy of their own bodies.
  2. Hating the Body: Through cultural messaging, people are taught to denigrate the integrity of their bodies, seeing their bodies as a mark of shame, or an expression of their “lower” animal nature.
  3. Seeing the Body as a Project or Object: By objectifying the body, people learn to think of it as an external thing to be manipulated or controlled, disconnecting it from its own integrity.
  4. Making Specific Bodies Wrong: By targeting physical signs of difference as markers of privilege and power, the body becomes necessarily intertwined with structures of oppression and separation (also a critical Tamed World Story).  [12]

Bodyfulness is an experience that validates and celebrates the centrality of the body and its autonomy, intelligence, and integrity. As an aspect of our wholeness, this is something that so many people have lost touch with, sometimes without even realizing it. On a Forest Therapy walk that Amos led many years ago, a woman shared in circle, “I forgot I had a body.” It was a profound moment for this woman, who noted how she spends so much time in her mind, she had actually forgotten about her own body.

Bodyfulness acts as a pathway toward encountering wholeness in so many ways. At the most basic, many participants have simply lacked any awareness of their sensory experience in the world for a while. Something as simple as feeling wind on skin or hearing the songs of birds can be a powerful encounter with wholeness.  

At a deeper level, bodyfulness can lead people toward a more intimate understanding of how their bodies are central in the act of relating to others and to the More than HumanMore-Than-Human World. Caldwell notes, “Bodyfulness literally touches into the blood and guts of what it means to be a relational creature. This may be why it may not suffice to sit on a mediation cushion, mindfully, to get better at relationships. The core of our being isn’t just ours alone, but binds itself together with others, ancestrally and currently. In a very real way, we become who we are through interaction, through what we do together with others and how we feel in the doing. ” [13]

Bodyfulness, when experienced in groups, is also a framework for repairing our relationships with other people. In an age when people spend a lot of time interacting digitally, the experience of being around people, in an environment where everyone is free to explore the experience of being in their  bodies, can be powerful. Placing bodies in a circle and practicing the art of listening creates its own healing social dynamic as well. This motif can be even further explored when working with groups of people who know each other. By partnering or working in small groups, people begin to relate to each other in a different way; whereas in the Tamed World, social situations are often oriented to trying to “figure people out,” experiences in bodyfulness are more about sharing experiences without needing to explain ourselves.

Through the Standard Sequence, a guide supports participants to arrive in a state of bodyfulness. It is through this state that people often discover or remember elements of their wholeness.  Often, these experiences relate to self-love or self-acceptance. Participants may notice that the beings of the Forest have bodies too, bodies that are imperfect and impermanent and still beautiful. Participants often notice that their own bodies are asking for love and care in the form of rest and relaxation. They often notice that their bodies have their own desires when the mind quiets down, following those desires can lead them to places they never would have thought of going. The body is powerful, and it can and often does act as a catalyst for encountering wholeness.

Nature Relation

Nature relation challenges the Tamed World Story that people are not nature.  Anthropocentrism is a Story that separates humans from nature and places them at the top of the pyramid of this world. In this Story, only human ideas and concerns are considered valuable because humans are thought of as being exceptional in comparison to the More-Than-Human World. In this Story, everything that is not human is seen as an object, or a machine, without feelings or thought or spirit.

Nature relation works against the Story of anthropocentrism by presenting a different Story, that this world is not like a pyramid, but like a great circle, and that humans along with all other beings make up that circle. If you imagine that circle, you might imagine that at the center there is a golden cup, and that inside that golden cup lives the spirit of the world. All beings in the circle stand equally in relation to that center; nothing is any closer than anything else. In this circle, every being has equal value.  
As guides, we do not explicitly tell this Story. This Story lives within all things. You might even say it is embedded into our DNA and into our relationships with the world. That is why we say “nature relation” instead of the more common phrase “nature connection.” Nature relation reflects an understanding that we are related, biologically, to the beings of the More-Than-Human World. They are our family and this is why we seek to build relationships with them. This is very similar to the theory of biophilia popularized by E.O. Wilson that suggests humans possess a biological urge to affiliate with other forms of life.

Acknowledging our continuity and relatedness to the world is countercultural in some respects, but not outside of the realm of science. Since Darwin’s The Origin of Species, it is a generally accepted scientific theory that all biological life is related through common ancestry at some stage in their species evolution. Still, the scientific community has often supported the Tamed World narrative that, despite our relatedness, humans are a special and superior species.

During Forest Therapy, participants may experience nature in a way they never have before, or maybe not since childhood. Even people who spend their time with the land for work may have surprising reactions. A lot of people go into nature, but most of the time, the intention is to do something while they are there. It might be hiking or birding or reading a book on the beach. And there’s nothing wrong with any of those things, but they are not consistent pathways to nature relation.

When people have an experience of nature relation, they feel a sense of kinship, reciprocity, and perhaps even inter-being with the More-Than-Human World, or some being within it. Sometimes, it is a deep connection to a particular tree, flower, animal, stone, or place. In those moments of relatedness, participants may witness something in that being that is a reminder of their wholeness. Often, such an experience is beyond words for the participant, but it is also often characterized by a sense of wholeness in relationship with the world around them.

When we realize our relatedness with nature, we begin to understand that we are not simply an “I.” We are also tree and hawk and river and mountain. We are grass and stone and butterfly and wind. And we are also ourselves, a special piece of this whole puzzle, a unique aspect of this reality that the Earth has dreamed into being. The resounding message we receive when we reach this realization is, we belong to this place and this place is us. The land is not a thing we have, it is an experience we are. It’s a feeling of wholeness that comes with a sense of belongingness; our nature relation is an act of coming home.

The Imaginal

It is only with the heart that one can see rightly.
What is essential is invisible to the eye. –Antoine de St. Exuperry

The Imaginal challenges the Tamed World Story that suggests there is nothing beyond what we can measure with science. In this way, the Imaginal pushes back against a core Tamed World bias: scientism.

Scientism is the idea that only science has the right to define the world around us. Before going any further, lLet’s be completely clear that science is important and valuable. This is not about whether science is valuable. This is about whether there may be phenomena that exist beyond the scope of scientific explanation.

Many scholars have suggested that the decay of our imaginal reality at the hands of scientism has produced a world without meaning. Forgetting our imaginal capacity to be and to know creates a lack of wholeness, for it alone connects us to a mythopoetic world of magic, mystery and meaning making. It is the imaginal that connects us to the voices of ancestors, to interior spiritual landscapes, to dreams, and to experiences of consciousness. It may be that the imaginal is actually what allows the inner and outer journeys to blend into one Story. To bear witness to all the images of wholeness, we need something beyond our senses and beyond our thinking mind. We need a way to see what is unseen.

Forest Therapy eases people into the imaginal through the standard sequence and the shift from thought to embodiment. As the participants’ mind lets go of thoughts focused on the past or the future, they find themselves in a state of soft-hearted attentiveness characterized by an imaginative curiosity. This might also be described as a sort of daydream. Robert Romanyshyn describes the imaginal as a sense of reverie: “Dreaming the world while awake, an appropriate if brief description of reverie, seeing the world through a veil of dreams—its dreams—allowing things to blossom with their secrets and mysteries, the daydreamers in reverie regards the world with soft eyes.”  [14]

At this point, it is important that we make a distinction between the imaginary and imaginal. Both are functions of the imagination, but they are not the same. Let us understand imaginary as being something that is a fantasy produced from our own creativity. When we are creating something imaginary, we are in control of the process. This kind of creativity is often premeditated, for example, “I have an idea. I’m going to paint my office blue.” After having this thought, people can make an imaginary world in their mind where the office walls have been painted blue. Similarly, we can have creative experiences where we project ourselves onto other beings, for example, “I’m going to have a conversation with that tree.” After having this thought, we can essentially talk to ourselves through the tree with the power of an imaginary interaction.

The imaginal, on the other hand, is something produced by the force of relationship between people and the world around them. An imaginal experience, unlike an imaginary one, is not premeditated, and it can often be surprising when it happens. The imaginal can often feel like a waking dream or a state of reverie. An example within the context of Forest Therapy could be when a participant feels that a tree has spontaneously said something upon touching it. The communication wasn’t planned, it just happened. The very concept of a tree speaking to a person can be jarring at first, it can be said to fall into the realm of the absurd. But when we relegate these kinds of experiences to the realm of the absurd, we are operating under the Tamed World logic of scientism, and perhaps unfairly rejecting the imaginal as a valid source of knowledge. Sometimes things can be powerful without fitting neatly into the Tamed World, and those experiences can be transformative and healing.
The imaginal, like a daydream, can lead participants into encounters with their wholeness that they perhaps did not know existed. Sometimes, these kinds of encounters can lead participants to question their own worldview. This questioning of their worldview is often a questioning of the Tamed World Story.

The imaginal allows for participants to have deeply meaningful experiences that contribute to wholeness in diverse ways. It should not be relevant whether these experiences are “real” or not, so long as the individual experiencing it finds value in it. The imaginal accommodates anything and everything. It creates space for healing and transformation to come in the form of dreams, visions, self-realizations, poetry offered by the trees, wonder, awe, reconciliations with people long gone, empowerment, the joy of play, wisdom of the Earth, angelic visitations and the simplicity of being present in the universe.

There is so much that is possible through the imaginal, it is beyond the scope of this document to name them all. What is important to understand is that the imaginal gives us access to images of wholeness that are often repressed by the Tamed World Story. We’ve been taught to be skeptical and to believe that nothing is real until science says it is. This is neatly expressed by the popular idiom “Seeing is believing.” In the Tamed World, the imaginal is dismissed because it cannot be seen. But perhaps our wholeness depends on more than what can be seen. Perhaps there is something more?