One of the core functions of guiding a Forest Therapy walk is to offer invitations. To do this well requires us to put a great deal of attention on the words we use. During the walk, the words that guides use can support participants in embodiment and liminality, but they also have the power to distract them from it.
Invitations are how Forest Therapy Guides create opportunities for sensory connections between participants and the Forest, and language is one of the key ways guides embody the archetype of the guide. Imagine you are standing in the middle of the Forest, surrounded by a circle of beings. There are plants and animals present, and sunlight and wind and rivers as well. They are all there. Then imagine your body is the sharing piece for that Circle. The guide is not there to speak for the Forest. The guide is there to create space for the Forest to speak.
We very consciously call these offerings “invitations” and not “exercises” or “activities”, to help participants understand there is nothing compulsory about any aspect of the Forest Therapy experience. Guides should clearly explain this in their walk introductions. Additionally, to label something as an “exercise” or “activity” often carries an associated idea that there is a proper or a “right” way of doing it. In Forest Therapy, there is no right or wrong way to engage an invitation.
Guides should not judge a participant’s process in engaging invitations. Where a novice guide may see a participant appear to be completely ignoring an invitation, a more seasoned guide will trust the participant is experiencing it in a personal way or else has found a new way. Part of the magic, power, and beauty of Forest Therapy is that it allows participants to find their own pathway to connection. Sometimes this comes through engaging with the essence of the invitation, and sometimes this comes by completely ignoring the invitation and following their own inner sense of how to establish meaningful connection. Once a guide has offered an invitation, they let go of wanting people to engage it in any particular way. This can be a hard lesson for guides to embody but it will only obstruct the participants process if guides do not do this. One guide’s Story illustrates this well:
“On my very first Forest Therapy walk, I invited the group to engage the invitation of What’s in Motion. In my wording, I mentioned that we would do the invitation in silence. Five minutes into the invitation, I noticed two women speaking to each other as they walked down the trail, seeming to notice nothing around them. I gently came beside them and mentioned they might try doing it in silence. Not only did this demonstrate that I was judging their process, which made them feel negatively toward me and the experience generally, it also did not serve their process. One woman turned to me and said, ‘This is my friend who I have not seen in many years. I am noticing the movement of my heart as I reconnect with her.’”
Ultimately, invitations are frameworks for connection. They are not performances. If a participant is not “doing” the invitation in the way the guide offered it, it is likely that doing so would be inauthentic for that individual. “Not doing” the invitation does not prevent participants from having deep and meaningful experiences. The highest aim for guiding people into liminality is to set them free so they feel absolutely empowered to follow their own hearts. To illustrate, read one guide’s Story:
“Once I was being led on a walk and I was given an invitation to connect with a tree. I went to sit with a tree and almost immediately I saw a hill that was calling to me in such a powerful way that I instantly got up and climbed to the top. On the top of the hill, I felt as if I saw the entire world and myself within it. It was a transcendent moment, a moment of incredible beauty. When I returned to the Circle and people began talking about their tree stories, I realized I had completely forgotten what the original invitation had been. That I had the freedom to follow my own heart and abandon the invitation illuminated to me how the invitations are almost there to simply fall back on or to scaffold participants experience, they are not directing it.”
The following section offers tools for guides to deepen their understanding of language of invitation. Think of them not as laws but as best practices that enable guides to grow their understanding and make skillful, conscious choices with their language.
Invitations have three important qualities, which we refer to as SOS. They should be:
These three qualities underscore how our language is one of the primary ways we embody the archetype of the guide. Simplicity requires a deep trust in the Forest. Often, when a guide offers invitations that are not simple, it may be a sign they do not trust their partner, the Forest, to give a profound experience without the guide manipulating participants into having one. Likewise, openness requires a deep trust in participants and their ability to self-direct their own journey toward connection. When a guide offers invitations that are not open, it is a sign they believe they should or need to direct participants toward specific outcomes or that the guide is attached to creating specific outcomes for participants. Giving sensory invitations requires we trust the intelligence of the body and the process of Forest Therapy itself. When guides offer invitations that are not sensory, they may have mistaken the way of Forest Therapy to be about an intellectually driven, and often prescriptive, encounter with nature.
Take time to look at some examples and learn how to make invitations simple, open, and sensory. Here is an invitation that satisfies these three qualities:
“Wander out and listen to the sounds of this Forest.
I wonder if there is a sound here that is calling to you? “
Now let’s look at some ways that subtle language choices might make this invitation less simple, less open, and less sensory, to show what invitations should NOT look like:
A less simple invitation might look like this:
“Sounds are vibrations that pulse through time and space. They move through all things, rippling outward and eventually dissipating. They blend together to make complex rhythms and harmonies. Go out and listen to sounds of this Forest and find complex rhythms and harmonies.”
This complicated invitation brings people away from embodiment and toward thinking and analysis because they may ask themselves questions such as: What is a complex rhythm? What is a complex harmony? How do I find them? How will I know? How should I perceive sound, is it a pulsating vibration? These kinds of questions get in the way of embodiment. Keeping it simple does not mean participants will not notice complex rhythms and harmonies, but it does not demand it.
Here is a version of this invitation that is less open:
“Wander out and listen to the sounds of the birds.
I wonder if there is a bird that is calling to you? Go toward it.”
This more closed invitation limits the ways that the Forest might be attempting to connect to the participants’ experience through the sense of sound. Opening the invitation to include all sounds incorporates the full range of sounds. This invitation also directs the participant to move towards the sound, which is too limiting. Participants will naturally wander towards sounds if they wish, however, they may also want to be still or go in another direction.
Here is a version of this invitation that is less sensory:
“In this Forest, there are many sounds. What do these sounds mean?”
While this invitation is simple and has a sensory component (listening), it prompts the participant to jump from sensing the sound to the task of interpreting it. Read the invitation again. Can you feel your mind jump into motion as you think about what these sounds mean? This is more in line with the way a naturalist might open a conversation about bird language, but it is outside the scope of how Forest Therapy guides offer invitations.
The original invitation we analyzed above is a good example of a very open invitation. But sometimes, there are good reasons to make the invitation a little less open. Doing so can support some participants or groups who might struggle with such a degree of openness. The important thing to be aware of is to not make it too closed or else guides begin to stray from the archetype of the guide. Guides learn to have awareness of where they are on the spectrum and ask themselves “Does making this invitation less open serve the process or am I trying to direct the outcome?” Take a look at the chart below:
When an invitation gets too closed it becomes more prescriptive (healer or teacher archetype). A prescriptive invitation might sound like this:
“Wander out and find the healing that this land is offering you.”
This is also prescriptive:
“The Forest heals all people who ask for it. Go ask the Forest for healing.”
A lot of guides struggle with their egos when they notice they want to be the therapist. We can admit to ourselves that it feels good to be perceived as the healer. We tend to like it when we feel we have helped someone, but this sort of help is outside the scope of practice for a Forest Therapy Guide. Guides should always remember that in Forest Therapy, the Forest is the therapist, the guide opens the doors. Guides are constantly asking themselves, “How can I best support my partner, the Forest?”
Understanding the subtleties of making an invitation slightly less open without making it prescriptive is a delicate dance and one that is learned through experience. Simply be aware of language and make a best effort to support the Forest as the therapist. Try to resist the urge to add context to invitations. Trust that people will find their own way to create meaningful context all by themselves. All that guides have to do is help participants become embodied in their senses and then hold space for them in an open and nonjudgmental manner.
In his book, Finite and Infinite Games, James Carse proposes that all human actions can be thought of as finite or infinite games. Finite games have a winner and a loser at the point where they end, whereas infinite games have no end. The point of an infinite game is to find a way to continue playing. Relationships are one example of infinite games.
As one of the objectives of Forest Therapy is to cultivate relationships, guides might also view invitations as infinite games. If an invitation has a clear end point, then it becomes more like a task or an assignment. For example, in the following invitations the first is an infinite experience, while the second is finite:
Adding the last sentence in the second example shifts the experience. The first invitation could go on forever, the second has an end point that forces a sort of self-competition and evaluation inside the participant. If the invitation is to find the favorite, then the participant has to choose, and that limits the potential number of connections and sensory experiences and the spectrum of meaning that might naturally arise for that individual. Once a participant chooses their favorite, the game is over, and that experience ends. As well, the first invitation allows each scent to be experienced without judgement, whereas the second invitation engages the thinking brain and leads the participant to focus more on evaluating experiences than enjoying them.
Most of us were taught to write essays and stories in schools. When writing a story, a good writing teacher will tell students that it is important to be very descriptive so the reader “can get inside the mind of the author to see the world through the author’s eyes.“ The more descriptive the writing, the more the reader can enter the world being created by the author.
In Forest Therapy, guides use the opposite approach because guides don’t want participants to experience the Forest as the guide experiences it. Instead, guides want to create a space where participants can write their own stories, experiencing in a personal and authentic way. To allow for this, guides purposefully use rather vague and open language. By using open language, guides create a framework that each participant fills in with their own content.
There are some descriptive words that often limit the power of invitations. These words often make invitations more prescriptive, limiting the ways participants might engage them. These words should be avoided and fall generally into grammatical categories:
Below is an example of an invitation. See how adding these words might limit it in different ways. Here is a simple invitation:
“Wander out and touch the Forest. Explore its textures. Bring back some texture.”
If we substitute an abstract noun, the invitation might look like this:
“Wander out and find the serenity of the Forest. Bring back some serenity.”
Because serenity is an abstract concept, the body cannot engage it directly through the senses. An invitation like this pulls the participant away from embodiment and toward a cognitive process of asking, “What is serenity, and how do I find it here?” Furthermore, this invitation is asking participants to have a prescribed emotional experience, which is beyond the scope of the guide. Try reading this last example aloud and notice where it lands internally. Does it land in the body, or the mind? Try that out and see how it feels.
If we add an adjective, the invitation might look like this:
“Wander out and touch the Forest. Notice all the beautiful things.
Bring back something beautiful.”
Beauty is a subjective concept. For the participant to engage this, they first must decide what beauty means. This requires a sort of analysis that gets in the way of being engaged primarily with the senses. More importantly, this limits the range of experiences a participant can have. The Forest might have something very meaningful to show the participant that they would think is ugly, but the way this invitation is set up limits the participant to what they consider as beauty. Furthermore, if a participant sees beauty in what others might find ugly, they may encounter anxiety or shame at the idea of bringing it back to the Circle and being judged for it.
If we add an adverb, the invitation might look like this:
“Wander out and reverently touch the Forest. Explore its textures.
Bring back some texture.”
This pushes participants to behave in a certain way that might not feel natural to them, and denies them bodily autonomy. A participant might want to be reverent or they might want to be playful in an invitation. Offering the invitation in this way may mean that the participant who wants to do it playfully will feel like she is doing it wrong.
If we add a number, the invitation might look like this:
“Wander out and touch the Forest. Explore its textures.
Bring back 10 textures.”
This could easily end up feeling like a homework assignment. Instead of freely exploring, the mind is now counting to fulfill the assignment. This again takes participants away from embodiment. This is also problematic because numbers tend to put a limit on the experience. What if the participant can’t find ten? What if the participant finds twenty? What is the participant to do? This can become a stressful situation and evoke the anxiety many people carry from their school experience of, “Am I doing this right?”
There are some exceptions to these grammatical guidelines:
The most common pitfall that novice guides make is to prescribe outcomes. These prescribed outcomes are often well intentioned, but they do not allow for the Forest to be the therapist, and can also lead to reactive and negative experiences for participants. Let’s use an example of a couple prescriptive “invitations” for this discussion:
Making an invitation like this is more in line with the healer or teacher archetype because it is seeking an outcome (“letting go” or finding clarity). In the first invitation, saying that falling leaves means “letting go” it limits the ways participants can experience the phenomenon of falling leaves. Whereas one person could see letting go, another might see liberation, or joy, or transitions, or so many other things.
When the guide tells participants how to interpret the world around them, the guide becomes the expert and deprives the participants of their own unique and self-directed interpretations. In this example, if the guide had simply said, “Go watch the leaves fall,” many participants might have felt the “letting go” metaphor arise within them and within the safety of their own connection.
The second problem with invitations like the ones above is that prescribing outcomes (even when well intentioned) can be triggering to those who have experienced trauma. As guides are not aware of their participants’ personal histories, it is extremely important that we not make any assumptions. Guides do not need to ask about participants’ personal histories so long as they work within the framework of language of invitation because the openness of the language, if truly open, can allow the experience of Forest Therapy to be trauma-informed.
Trauma-informed care prioritizes agency and safety for participants and for guides by giving participants full bodily autonomy and by not pushing them into prescriptive experiences. Participants have full and complete permission to do and to not do whatever they choose. The framework of language of invitation is grounded in the senses and allows each participant to be fully in control of their own body. No one is required to do anything that might trigger trauma because no one is required to do anything at all!
Let’s use our “letting go” example one more time to unpack this a little more. The phrase “just let go” has become a popular expression in healing communities, and many people do find deep healing in the experience of releasing. This healing quality of letting go, however, is not brought about because someone was told to let go, but because it happened when the time was right. In certain contexts, “letting go” can take on a very different character. Many marginalized communities and women have historically been told to “just let it go” as a method of silencing or minimizing their voices. Someone carrying grief from loss may not feel comfortable with letting go because it would feel like erasing the memory of their loved one. For many, “holding on” is an important coping mechanism and to lose it would leave them unsupported and possibly traumatized. Understanding instances like these, it is easy to see why offering an invitation that prescribes participants to let go may not serve their best interests.
Another prescription that is a common pitfall is the naming of grief. Sometimes guides feel called to create space for grief but this often signals that the guide is shifting toward the healer-therapist archetype instead of letting the Forest be the therapist. It is common for grief to arise on Forest Therapy walks, but it must arise on its own to be authentic and appropriate. Jill Emmelhainz, an ANFT certified guide, said this about the importance of offering open invitations and not prescribing grief:
The quote above is a beautiful expression of how the Forest is the therapist. The Forest works in partnership with the participant to create space for what is needed in that particular moment. So, it is important that guides work to trust the participants, the Forest, and the process and not plan specific experiences that they believe will be healing to participants.
Participants tend to have high quality experiences on Forest Therapy walks when they feel grounded in the body, held in a strong container, and capable of their own emotional and physical self-regulation. This is only possible when guides avoid prescription and allow participants to self-direct their process.
The language of invitation applies to all invitations, including those in the standard sequence, but the art of crafting language for invitations is especially important when guides make partnership invitations.
The first thing to know about crafting invitations is that it is almost impossible to do when sitting at a desk. Because the invitations are based in a partnership with the Forest, guides really need to go out and be there physically. It is recommended that guides learn by playing. In play, there are no limits, no constraints, and no objectives. In play, guides will activate the right side of the brain, which is the part of the brain that is responsible for being, whereas the left brain is responsible for doing. Try to just be, without needing to do anything. That’s when the best invitations tend to come.
Go out into the Forest alone, or with a friend, and play in whatever way the Forest invites. Guides should see how many ways their bodies can relate to the beings there. Then, after a while, they should take some notes about what interactions felt like they helped them reach a state of embodiment, and then they should begin thinking of how to craft the language simply and openly. Once at home, start crafting the language for the invitation and once it is down, go back to the Forest to try it out to see how it feels. Guides might consider asking another guide to listen to their invitation and ask them where it lands in their body immediately after hearing it. If it lands in their mind, and they find themselves thinking about how to do it, it might not be SOS. If they hear and feel it in their body, they’re on the right track! This process of adjusting and refining the wording of invitations evolves naturally as we keep engaging with the invitation. Guides that embrace this process often become very skillful.
One way to craft a very basic invitation is to use these three elements: an action, a sense, and a being to work in partnership with. This is what we call the ‘Core’ of an invitation. The Core can be the entire invitation, but guides may also skillfully elaborate on top of the Core. Guides can arrange the elements of the Core as a sort of “fill in the blank" worksheet that might look like:
Here are a few examples, (notice the last one rearranges the form):
The Core of an invitation is always going to be at the far end of the “simple, open and sensory” spectrum. This is helpful as a place to start, and there are more techniques in the framework of language of invitation that can build upon or decorate an invitation by blending sensory experiences with the imaginal.
Good invitations are always rooted in sensory experiences, but there is an art to crafting invitations that use the imaginal as a frame for sensory experience. When done well, this technique may support participants in more complex relational encounters without being prescriptive.
Expressions of the imaginal, that may emerge for participants during a walk, include daydreams, memories and visions. , Most of the time, these arise naturally within the participants’ subjective experience, inspired by a sensory experience they had. A guide does not need to name the imaginal. It will arise in its own time and its own way. That said, sometimes bringing the imaginal into the language of an invitation can enhance the experience for participants in ways that a purely sensory experience may not. While the imaginal is discussed at greater length in the chapter on Encounters with Wholeness, its relevance to this chapter is that guides must be keenly aware of its power and the potential for its misuse, and how to incorporate it responsibly into invitations. First, let’s talk about the pitfalls and what not to do.
The first potential for misuse of the imaginal is when guides use it with the intention that participants will have “big” experiences. One example, is when guides invite participants to use their imaginal sense to, “Wander out to a tree that is calling you and have a conversation with that tree.” The problematic thing about this invitation is that it demands participants use their imagination in a very directive way that can feel forced, in the hope of leading them into an experience that the guide might consider to be a “big” experience.
If the language is reframed as a question, it can still incorporate the imaginal but without any expectations of what should happen. A guide might say, “I wonder if the trees might speak in a language we can perceive with our bodies? Go out and find a tree, spend some time there and listen with your whole body.” With this second version, the imaginal is essential, but it is not directed at any particular outcome (a conversation). While having a conversation with a tree is possible, the process of relating the body to the tree might yield other experiences that could be just as “big” or wonderfully and joyfully small.
The second potential for misuse of the imaginal is when guides project their own imagination onto the experience of participants. An example of this includes when guides “invite” people to imagine that the Forest is filled with faeries or spirits, or any other mythopoetic entity. The problem with such use of the imaginal is NOT that it’s impossible for those things to exist in the Forest (they very well can). The problem is that the Forest holds its own imaginal mysteries that yearn to unfold, and those mysteries can go into hiding if the guide invokes their own. In Forest Therapy, it is best to let things announce themselves before we silence them with how we know them already.
Sometimes, guides stumble with this second pitfall because they have a tendency to romanticize nature. Romanticizing nature, like romanticizing people, gets in the way of having authentic relationships. In the context of human relationships, seeing only the good in someone does not acknowledge their wholeness. The same can be true of the Forest. Allowing participants to see the wholeness of the Forest allows them to encounter their own wholeness as well. Therefore, it is better to let nature be as it is. Often, doing so allows the Forest to reveal its own enchanted nature in ways our romanticizing of it could not.
The third potential for misuse of the imaginal is when guides employ it as an escape from the moment or from embodiment. An example of this includes if a guide were to give an invitation such as, “Imagine yourself on a strange and mysterious planet, as an alien being. Explore this space.” This kind of imagination detaches us from our authentic embodied experience and introduces a confusing and disorienting frame work into what should be an easy and gentle sense of connection to place, self, and others.
Now, let’s explore how the imaginal might be used responsibly within language of invitation. Once a Core has been created, the imaginal can be woven around it several ways:
These are just some examples. There are many ways to responsibly use the imaginal. Looking at these examples, three things that should be evident are:
Not all invitations need to begin with the phrase, “I invite you to...” If the concept of “invitation” is explained well in the Walk Introduction, participants should be fully aware that everything is invitational and nothing is prescribed. If the phrase, ”I invite you to…” is continually repeated, its value diminishes. Rather, begin each invitation by saying, “Our next invitation is” and say the name of the invitation. For example, “Our next invitation is called ‘Cloud Gazing.’ Find somewhere to lay down and watch the clouds. I wonder what you’ll see? I’ll call you back with coyote call in about 15 minutes.”
Generally, we do not advise that guides adapt invitations to suit specific groups. This is one of the indicators that guides are not trusting the Forest and not allowing the Forest to act as the therapist. If guides are truly giving simple, open, and sensory invitations, there should not be much of a reason to adapt invitations, unless the group has some sort of sensory challenge, such as blindness or deafness.
The primary reason to adapt invitations is so that they will work well in partnership with the land, specific to the time and place that the walk is occurring. For instance, if it is very cold, a guide might choose to adapt a sit spot to a wander, in order to keep participants moving. Or if it begins to rain, a guide might choose to adapt a touch invitation meant for stones to a touch invitation with raindrops.
There are a few notable exceptions when it is advisable to consider adapting invitations to suit specific populations. The first is for elderly people, who can have difficulty sitting and then getting back up. For this group, a guide might work to adapt invitations to suit the physical capabilities of the group they are working with. The second is for very young children. Young children are naturals at Forest Therapy and so don’t need a lot of structure to enter liminality. Instead, a guide might simply adapt some invitations into free-flowing methods of play that engage the senses. The third is for groups with a range of special needs. Often, people with special needs do not do well with very open-ended instructions and so a guide might choose to provide a little more direction in the invitations that will still bring the group toward sensory experiences, but in a more directive way.
Some words found in this manual to describe Forest Therapy pedagogy are not good words to include in invitations. Some examples include:
These are professional terms guides use when talking with other guides. These terms help guides understand the invisible process of constructing and holding the container of liminal space and time. This process should not be something that participants should be told about nor should they be consciously thinking about them during a walk. Furthermore, these terms, when not fully understood within the context of this manual, may seem confusing and alienating to participants.
It’s harder than it looks, until it isn’t, and that day will come. A lot of guides struggle with their language when offering invitations. It is okay to fumble while learning. One of the best ways to refine the skills of language is to review invitations and rewrite them over and over again, cutting them down to what is most essential. Recording spontaneous invitations is also helpful. The most important thing to remember is that invitations are not about producing any predetermined emotional, psychological, or cognitive effect upon participants. John Heider, in his book The Tao of Leadership (which is highly recommended reading for guides), writes beautifully on this idea:
“Run the group delicately, as if you were cooking small fish. As much as possible, allow the group process to emerge naturally. Resist any temptation to instigate issues or elicit emotions which have not appeared on their own. If you stir things up, you will release forces before their time and under unwarranted pressure. They may be emotions that belong to other people or other places. They may be unspecific or chaotic energies which, in response to your pressure, strike out and hit any available target. These forces are real and exist within the group. But do not push, allow them to come out when ready. When hidden issues and emotions emerge naturally, they resolve themselves naturally. They are not harmful. In fact, they are no different than any other thought or feeling. All energies naturally arise, take form, grow strong, come to a new resolution, and finally pass away.” 
“See if you can approach your own practice with a healthy combination of mindfulness, playfulness, precision, and curiosity.” –Cyndi Lee