Senses, Embodiment, and Relationship

Knowing that you love the earth changes you, activates you to defend and protect and celebrate. But when you feel that the earth loves you in return, that feeling transforms the relationship from a one-way street into a sacred bond. –Robin Wall Kimmerer


Forest Therapy is a relational practice. Reciprocity is central to  real relationship. To be in a relationship is not a one-way street. To be in a real relationship means that we know and are known by another being. This concept explains the fundamental difference between Forest Therapy and classroom-style nature education: to be known by the other is as important as what we know of the other.

To know and be known, we need our bodies. Think about your relationships with other people, perhaps lovers, friends, or family members. It is the embodied, sensory relationship with them that produces the feeling of connection, or even love. Consider the sound of their laughter, the feel of their embrace, the look in their eyes when having a great conversation. Think about how that person might relate back to you through their senses.

Without these direct, sensory experiences, people are just abstract ideas. This doesn’t mean we have to be with our loved ones all the time to be in a real relationship with them, but it does mean that we build reciprocity first with our bodies. Everything that informs actions in relationships begins with sensory-emotional associations made through the body. This process begins at birth and continues to inform one’s own development throughout life.

Things are not different when it comes to the More-Than-Human World. Consider the relationship with plants in a personal garden or a personal pet or a neighborhood tree. Think about how relationships with these beings are also mediated by the senses, and how the senses of other beings allow them to know us. One easy example is the action of petting a cat or dog; the animal feels your touch as you experience the touch of the animal. Have you ever wondered how your dog feels when you pet her? What about a plant in your garden? By orienting the idea of relationships around the embodied, sensory expressions between two beings, a real possibility is opened for reciprocity, for people to know and be known by the More-Than-Human World in ways that might not always fit within the Tamed World Story.

Reciprocity, therefore, is not about transactional exchanges. It is not just in what we do for others, or what they do for us, but about how we know and are known. When people cultivate relationships, they build reciprocity through shared emotional experiences that support the pleasure of being together. These experiences begin with the body and the senses. When these relationships begin to emerge, further emotional reciprocity may come as participants offer their love and dedication to the health and wellbeing of the More-Than-Human World.

Human Development and the Culture of Anesthesia

As young children, people experience the world primarily through their bodies. Notice how babies are not concerned with constructing meaning in the world. They are experiencing the world directly. They are touching, tasting, smelling, listening, seeing, balancing, pushing, pulling, crawling, playing, and experimenting with their bodies all day. This is the fundamental experience of being alive; all of this is also describes the phenomenon of learning.

In many contemporary cultures, people typically allow children to learn in this way for a few years and then, at a certain point, the children are sent to school. In many traditional school environments, learning is constructed as an activity of the mind, not as a sensory exploration of the world. A division is made between the intelligence of the mind and the intelligence of the body with the mind’s intelligence seen as superior.. At this point in development, the body’s innate intelligence is often stunted because it is used in such limited capacity. Most of a child’s time is then spent sitting at a desk, reading books, and using technology. When the sensing body is not used and the dominant cultural message is that all meaningful learning is cognitive, this creates a culture of anesthesia or a habit we might call “bodylessness”.

In a culture of anesthesia, people forget how to feel much of anything at all. When people focus all their attention on their own cognitive process, they tend to become depressed and anxious. This is the body’s way of signaling its own distress, but because we do not feel our bodies, we are largely incapable of recognizing its cues.
As people spend so much time running through the same thoughts over and over (known as ruminating) and worrying, the culture of anesthesia becomes a pathological condition. People are overwhelmed by the world and so they feel they have no choice but to be numb, and then they construct a lifestyle that permits such numbness to be socially acceptable. In response to this, modern medicine often prescribes medications that numb the body even further. Those who do not seek medical help often find a way to self-medicate to numb themselves using drugs or alcohol.

Together, these patterns lead to the current state in many cultures: people have become numb and they have forgotten how to feel. This is not only bad for physical health but also for emotional wellbeing. Because our emotional health is relational and relationship is built upon embodied, sensory experiences, our emotional health and our ability to feel are critically linked. Forest Therapy helps us remember this; Forest Therapy removes the veil of anesthesia and helps us feel alive.


Joseph Campbell wrote, “I don’t think people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive.”  This “experience of being alive” could be understood to mean being in relationship with the world through the senses, in this moment.
The body is always bound to the present moment. People can only hear the sound of a bird chirping in the present moment. It is possible to imagine or remember the sound of a bird chirping, but it would not be this bird and it would not be this chirping. In this way, sensory relationship is bound to the ability to be here, now, undistracted from our senses and our bodies.

We call this embodiment. Embodiment, as used in this manual, refers to a state of soft somatic awareness. While in an embodied state of perception, sensory data that would normally be filtered out are allowed to enter conscious awareness, and the possibility is awakened for sensory-based relationships with the More-Than-Human World. Because people have evolved to process the vast majority of sensory information subconsciously, participants are often astounded at the novelty and sensory strength of sensations like the smell of a leaf or the texture of tree bark. By focusing attention on the senses, they sensations become more powerful.

When participants begin to connect with the immediacy and power of their sensing bodies, they have entered a state of embodiment. The Standard Sequence is designed to support participants in entering an embodied state as this also grounds the experience  of liminality discussed in earlier. During the walk, it is normal that participants enter and exit states of embodiment, taking time to ponder or ruminate on something in their minds. It is not essential for people to remain in an embodied state for the entire  liminal phase and guides must trust in each participant’s ability to navigate in and out of embodiment (see Edges chapter). After all, liminal means they are between. Some time may be spent in embodied present awareness; some time may be spent wandering in thought. All is welcome, and ,shifting in and out of embodiment can further enhance the experience of liminality.

Senses, Associations, and Emotions

The human body is a powerful master of perception. In real time, the body processes enormous quantities of environmental data that inform perception, relationships and attention. All this information comes to the nervous system through sensory neurons. If we define “sensation” as being information the body processes to know the world and a person’s relationship to it, then there are seven mechanisms of processing known as the “senses.” These senses are:

  • Vision
  • Hearing
  • Smell
  • Taste
  • Touch
  • Kinesthesia (tells us where we are in space, what muscles are contracting, and how our body is oriented in space)
  • Interoception (somatic awareness of internal processes including hunger, thirst, arousal, pain, heart rate, and temperature)

Some scholars assert that intuition might be another sense, but others say that intuition is actually a function of using all the other senses to detect subtle cues and patterns. For example, having an intuition that your friend is in a bad mood could come through your visual reading of subtle physical movements your friend is making, that your brain has referenced as indicators of a bad mood. Another example might be the intuition to run when in a dark alleyway. Perhaps this is the body picking up on extremely quiet sounds that could indicate danger and the body sets off its fight or flight response? While intuition is absolutely real, in this manual we will not regard it as its own sense. Forest Therapy guides work with the senses. By working with the senses, and minimizing discursive thought, guides support participants into embodiment and liminality. When participants reach this state, the Forest truly becomes the therapist through what are known as associations.

When people are born, their nervous system begins to create associations between sensory experiences and emotional states. By the time a person begins to form memories, their body has already constructed a vast network of associations to emotionally process incoming events automatically, beneath their consciousness. Christine Caldwell explains this well:

“The brain constantly forms associations so that the memories—emotional, physical and cognitive—can guide our future actions. We can directly experience this associative framework when we daydream. We might start out with a visual memory of our grandma’s front porch, then shift to an olfactory memory of the smell of her cooking collard greens coming through the window screen. Yum! Then we remember that we forgot to buy spinach for dinner, and then it goes to last night’s dinner table where we had a fight with our sister. Yuck! At any one transition, the reverie could go in a different direction—the smell coming through the screen could bring up a memory of a broken window screen at home you keep forgetting to fix. The associations tend to ride on waves of feeling. Associations are another type of body signal, this time from the emotional unconscious. Listening to those wordless signals can give you higher quality information about a problem than trying to think it through.”[9]

In Forest Therapy, guides offer invitations to have sensory experiences without knowing or prescribing what associations might or should arise from those experiences. This is why it is important that invitations allow participants to self-direct their own processes. In thinking of the Forest as the therapist, consider the Forest, communicating through sensory encounters, as the impetus for a participant to form associations. This explains why the Forest in liminality offers each participant something personal.  It is in the relationship between the participants’ sensing body and the Forest that healing can come in such stunning variety and so unique to each person.

Many guides have had an experience where the Forest surprised them. Indeed, it can feel almost magical when the simple sensory act of smelling a leaf can spark a set of associations that bring a very personal insight. This is why it is important that guides work with the senses as the doorways to relationship, and it is through these sensory relationships that the Forest can offer something uniquely healing and transformative.

By tending the space so that participants might feel safe in their bodies, guides help to cultivate positive associations to the sensory experiences of nature. Over time, associations may yield attachments between people and beings of the More-Than-Human World. In some ways, this is the long-term vision of Forest Therapy as a practice. Imagine a world where our relationships to plants, animals, rock, wind, and sky become sources of emotional support. Perhaps there is even some kind of emotional co-regulation that can exist. If we learn to love the earth, what could it feel like to learn how it loves us in return?

Working with the Senses in Forest Therapy

Guides offer invitations that are rooted in developing pathways of sensory connection between participants and the More-Than-Human World. It is outside the Scope of Practice for guides to prescribe or direct any sort of emotional or cognitive experience. Since the Forest is the therapist, the main function of the guide is to gently and continually reorient participants toward their sensory experiences.

As explored above, this does not mean that the experience of participants will only be sensory. Since sensory experiences lead to mental associations, the participant enters a fluid and dynamic process of self-exploration in relationship with the Forest. Each participant, in their own way, will have experiences characterized by a wide spectrum of phenomena that might include memories, self-reflection, emotional states, thoughts, and daydreams. This all comes from the senses and from the sensory relationship that exists between the participant and the Forest.

Very simple and sensory invitations can have incredible impact because of, not despite, their simplicity. The diversity of ways in which the senses can influence our relationship with the physical world is astounding. Beyond this, the world is constantly changing, so the smell of the earth on one day may not be the same smell in the next season.

When participants train their attention on their senses, the senses can become stronger, which can amplify the perception of sensation.  These simple, yet powerful sensations can galvanize strong associations and somatic memories. One guide’s story illuminates this:

“It was an incredibly hot morning at Sugarloaf Ridge, at least 90-degrees by the time we started the walk at 9:00 a.m. We gathered for Pleasures of Presence and during circle, quite a few people said they noticed their skin burning and sweating and that they had to put on sunscreen. It was a rough start. As we finished What’s in Motion, we came down to a creek under the shade of the trees, past a bunch of blackberry bushes heavy with fruit. I offered a pair of simple invitations, one to slowly taste the fruit, and the other to take shoes off and wade into the water, noticing the sensations on the skin. It became, for many of us, a timeless moment, punctuated by laughter as the blackberry juice ran down people’s chins and the occasional splashing of feet and hands in the water. Someone said it was like a moment from their childhood, and the definition of summer.”

A lot of novice guides think they are responsible for producing “big” psychological experiences for their participants. They often are tempted to use language in invitations that goes beyond the seven senses because they think it will compel people to have “big” experiences. What the novice guide doesn't realize is that it is not the size of the experience, but its level of authenticity that makes it meaningful. Sensory experiences take people on a unique personal journey that weaves their inner and outer stories together in a personal way. Guides can’t make something “big” happen. It’s going to happen in its own time, in its own way. The guide is there to witness and welcome it when and if it happens, and to support their partner, the Forest, in this work.

The Imaginal “Sense”

Invitations are intended to offer sensory experiences between participants and the Forest, but sometimes guides employ what could be considered an eighth sense: the imaginal sense. If we can hold the story that the imaginal connects us to some aspect of reality that is unquantifiable and immaterial, we can rightly consider it a sense. Perhaps if the seven body senses are sensing the physical environment, then the imaginal is how people sense the metaphysical environment.

Guides do not need to name the imaginal sense in order for it to arise. Often, powerful sensory experiences yield imaginal experiences for participants. The greatest pitfall for guides, when employing the imaginal, is that it can easily bend towards prescription; for this reason, it should always be grounded, or attached to sensory experiences. Because it is not quite a sense like the other seven, guides should take great care when employing it. For examples and instruction on using the imaginal sense in invitations, see the Language of Invitation chapter. For a deeper exploration of the imaginal as a pathway towards wholeness, see the Encounters with Wholeness chapter.

How is it possible that a being with such sensitive jewels as the eyes, such enchanted musical instruments as the ears, and such fabulous arabesque of nerves as the brain can experience itself anything less than a god?
–Alan Watts