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The Way of Circle and the Art of Witnessing

Introduction

In Forest Therapy, guides use Sharing Circles for three important reasons.

First, Circles help support human connection by teaching people how to listen to each other. While guides do not say this, the act of listening without responding is a powerful way of practicing empathy. Most people have never engaged in this way of communicating with others, but when it is done in a gentle way, it can have surprising and beautiful results.  

The second important reason we include circles is because they support the journey toward wholeness by creating a space for each participant to narrate their journey and for it to be witnessed by the group. When participants experiences liminality, it can seem  like a dream or a trance. Speaking it aloud and having it uncritically accepted by the group helps it truly become real. Listening to these stories validates and normalizes what might otherwise be considered extraordinary events -- and perhaps also events that we may feel embarrassed about because they don’t fit inside the Tamed World Story.  

The third reason Sharing Circles are important is because they allow the guide to demonstrate their inclusion in the group. This is consistent with the Way of the Guide; the guide is not a leader but a co-explorer in the space. Whereas a teacher would hold themselves apart from the group, the guide humbly leans in and speaks with authenticity of their own experience. If the guide models vulnerability and speaks from the heart, it offers an unspoken permission for others to do so as well.

Sharing Circles are inspired by and adapted from a practice called the Way of Council. [16]  Council is a rich and deep practice with a long and culturally diverse lineage, and it takes many years of practice to become adept at its facilitation. The intentions of Council are the same as the intentions of Circle. The Association does not train Forest Therapy guides in the practice of Council. for two reasons. The first is that iIt would take too long and the depth of Council is not necessary for the purposes of a Forest Therapy walk. The second reason pertains to questions of cultural appropriation. If you are not a trained Council facilitator or a member of a community who practices Council, it may feel inauthentic to even use the terms “Council” or “talking piece.” For this reason, the Association does not teach the terminology of Council as an element of Forest Therapy technique and pedagogy. We say “Circle” instead of “council” and “sharing piece” instead of “talking piece.” This said, the intentions of Council are the same as the intentions of Circle.  

Circle Intentions and Elements

Circle has four intentions. Guides do not explicitly state these intentions to a group they are guiding. However, they should learn to embody them, which then communicates them to the group by way of example. It is very important that guides participate fully in the process of Circle for this reason. The four intentions are:

Speak from the Heart.
Say what must be said. Be brave in vulnerability. Let it emerge as it wants to be expressed, whether in words, silence, song or dance.  

Listen from the Heart. Listen without judgment. Listen with a profound and open curiosity about someone else’s experience. Give all stories equal value.  

Speak Leanly. Say just enough. Don’t feel like everything needs to be explained. The point isn’t to be the most profound or weave the most epic story.

Speak Spontaneously. When we plan what to say before we receive  the sharing piece, it inhibits listening. And more importantly, when we speak our stories spontaneously and without reserve, something magical can happen. We can surprise ourselves by the depth of what emerges.  

Facilitating a Sharing Circle in Forest Therapy requires only a few elements:  

A Circle. Gather the group into a circle. It does not have to be a perfect geometric circle, but it is good to aim for a shape where everyone can generally see each other and no one is  in the middle or on the outside of the Circle.  

Sometimes guides choose to organize sharing in pairs or small groups of three people instead of a full group Circle. This can be used as a time management strategy as it often can be done more quickly than a full group Circle. It also may be a strategy to employ when the guide senses that an invitation may have prompted strong emotions in participants. A small group can feel more intimate and supportive than sharing in a big group.  

A sharing piece. The Association encourages guides to use sharing pieces they gather from the Forest and not to use special pieces from home. This supports participants in feeling that a Sharing Circle is not some sort of ceremony, which it is not, and sets them at ease while sharing.
A prompt. A prompt asks the group a question that they can respond to. In Forest Therapy, there are only two prompts we use:

“What are you noticing in this moment?” (Or more simply, “What are you noticing?”) is used in every Sharing Circle except for during the facilitation of Tea Ceremony. This prompt continually invites participants back into their embodied experience of the present moment.

“What would you like to share to make this experience feel complete?” is used in the Sharing Circle during Tea Ceremony. This prompt invites participants to harvest whatever they received on their walk and to carry it across the threshold of incorporation. Sometimes there are participants who don’t share at all during the walk and then when this final prompt is given at tea ceremony, they say a lot.

Guides should not tailor the prompt to the invitation because it presumes that every participant will engage the invitation as it is given. For example, if a guide invites people to gather textures and one person decides instead to lay down under a tree, how will that person be able to respond to the prompt, “Share about the textures you discovered?” When the invitation is tailored to the prompt, it reduces the sense of safety, freedom and inclusion within the group . Even when all participants engage the invitation as it was given, tailoring the prompt communicates to the group that, in the future, the guide may use similarly customized prompts. Realizing this, participants may feel as if they cannot be self-directed without feeling foolish when it comes time for Circle. The simplicity and openness of the prompt, “What are you noticing?” is its greatest power. It offers permission to do or not to do.

Omnipartiality

In facilitating Circle, guides do not come as experts, but as an equal participant in the Circle. Our stories are not more important or wiser than the stories of our participants. Facilitating Circle relies on a deep trust in the process and the practice of “ominpartiality.” This means that guides hold all stories with equal value. Guides do not prefer some stories over others, and guides do not judge stories. This is a challenging task for guides because they often have an unconscious preference for “deep” experiences.  

When facilitating Circle, have faith that depth takes many forms.  Often, on a walk there will be a participant who quickly passes the sharing piece each time without saying anything. Then, during the final Circle, the participant speaks and reveals an incredible and moving experience. This often surprises a new guide, who judged that the participant must not be having a deep experience. The guide judged the participant’s silence as indicating one thing, while the truth was the complete opposite.  

The same situation often arises when participants share in such a way that the guide judges to be shallow. If one participant shares something like, “I really love the feeling of the bark on the tree I found,” and another shares something like, “I found a tree that reminded me of my father, who passed away many years ago, and it made me feel connected to him,” the guide might be tempted to assign more value to the second story without realizing the full context of the first. Perhaps the first person had been in prison for many years and had not touched a tree for a long time. Perhaps the first participant experienced a transcendent moment while touching the bark and had no words to describe it or perhaps they connected to the pleasure of their senses in a way they hadn’t in a long time. When guides are bearing witness, they are not evaluating or judging the experience of others, thinking they know the full truth of another’s reality. Guides should strive to offer hospitality to all stories equally.  

Omnipartiality also extends to setting aside personal biases about the world and about people. Guides should equally affirm all experiences as meaningful, without any need to analyze or compare them. Consider this guide’s experience:

“On one walk, after sit spot, three participants came back and we sat in Circle. The first participant spoke of seeing faeries emerge from the trees and dance all around her. The second participant spoke of the awe and wonder she felt for “the Lord God who had created this world.” The third participant spoke of how relaxing it was to do nothing at all for 20 minutes. As a guide, I must hold all these stories with equal honor, without needing to agree or disagree, without needing to elevate my truth above that of others. Who am I to say whose experience had the greatest depth? Does it even matter?”

Omnipartiality is not truly a function of the guide, but a function of the Circle itself. In many Circle traditions, the center of the Circle is thought of as the seat of the group’s wisdom. It is the center of the Circle that values all things equally. For this reason, when we guide, we should not assume that we, as guides, generate this omnipartiality, but rather trust that the Circle that generates it. Guides mirror the omnipartiality of the Circle by  listening without evaluating or judging.  

As guides, we are also full participants in Circle. Guides should not hold back from showing authentic emotions while in Circle, whether laughing, crying, or any other emotional response. We should, however, be aware of our own reactions to stories we hear, and not assign greater value to one story over the others. This creates a competitive space for sharing and can make participants reluctant to share authentically. For this reason, guides should not make a big show if someone shares something that the guide thinks is particularly profound or even entertaining.

To understand why omnipartiality is important, perhaps try this thought experiment:

Imagine yourself as a high school student in your first class of the year. You feel anxious, you don’t know a lot of people in the room and you have never met the teacher before. The teacher asks the class to take turns introducing themselves and telling what they did over the summer.The first person  talks about her family vacation to the castles of France. The teacher exclaims, “Wow! That is so incredible!” The next person  shares about a death in the family and the teacher responds, “That is terrible. Talk to me after class and I can give you some resources for your grief.” The third person reports that he played a lot of video games and the teacher says nothing at all  and gently shakes his head. The fourth person talks about her summer job and the teacher responds, “That is an excellent use of time. You’re so clever and responsible.” Then it is your turn to speak.

Can you imagine  how the unevenness in the teacher’s response would cultivate an awkward social environment? The teacher’s responses reflect his own judgment about the value of each story, and by responding to each story the teacher places his opinion as the most important one in the room. In Circle, there is no teacher. The facilitator is part of the Circle, not the center of it. Omnipartiality communicates this by modeling the intentions of Circle to the participants.

For this reason, it is important that guides be aware of their own biases when listening to stories in Circle. Guides may signal their bias through responding like the teacher in the thought experiment above and also with physical indicators like nodding their head.  Guides need not behave like rigid robots while listening, but should  notice when they might be judging stories and how such judgment may be communicated verbally or physically.

Witnessing and Healing in Circle

Circle is a powerful methodology for healing because it opens space for authentic expression and minimizes the possibility thatothers will intervene and try to “fix people” when challenging emotions surface. This is one of the most important ways thatCircle supports a deep sense of cultural repair: by offering a space for grief, anger, despair, and other emotions that are often swept under the rug in modern culture. It is important that we recognize that grief is not a disease. Grief is a natural and normal response to loss, which everyone endures in some way, shape or form.

As most people have lost their connection to nature, it is to be expected that some grief will arise in Forest Therapy. Properly held, this grief is truly a part of their journey toward wholeness. On this topic, Joanna Macy notes, “Our culture conditions us to view pain as dysfunctional…To permit ourselves to entertain anguish for the world is not only painful, but also frightening; it appears to threaten our capacity to cope with daily life. We are afraid that if we were to let ourselves fully experience these feelings, we might fall apart, lose control, or be mired in them permanently.”   [17]

As guides, we are committed to bearing witness to these emotions and not, in any way, attempting to resolve them. This is because it is not the guide’s role to resolve participants emotions. By holding space for participants to experience and reflect on these emotions, guides support the Forest to be the therapist. To attempt to resolve participants’ emotions turns the guide into the therapist.

If the encounter with the Forest leads to grief or sadness, it is because that is the journey towards wholeness that the participant is meant to have.  If we minimize the importance of grief-based experiences or work to avoid them, we can run the risk of spiritual bypassing [18], which is the phenomenon in which spiritual ideas allow people to sidestep around unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.

If the guide witnesses grief, turns to the person experiencing it and says, “Look at how the leaves decay and become compost. Let your grief be like this as well. Let go, and allow it to become fertile ground for new things to emerge,” this is a good example of what spiritual bypassing could look like in Forest Therapy. Instead of trying to manipulate the emotional experience of the participant to make what seems negative into what seems positive, the guide should welcome the authentic emotional experience with hospitality and bear witness to it, like all things that may arise. Even though it may feel uncomfortable to be around someone who is feeling such a deep state of grief, it is in service to their journey toward wholeness to not interfere in it.

Holding space in this way can be a challenging thing to do. One of the reasons people tend to want to “fix” the suffering of others is because our brains are equipped with what are known as “mirror neurons,” which replicate the physical and emotional experiences of others inside own bodies. These mirror neurons are what create the sensations attributed to empathy, that we can actually feel the pain and suffering of others. So when we witness another person suffering, it is partially a selfish reaction to want to resolve their suffering because to do so will also stop the pain we experience on their behalf.

The difference between the person who is suffering and the person who is witnessing it empathically is that the former must suffer in order to resolve the pain. “Fixing” it does not actually make the suffering go away, it only pushes it deeper into the body. To allow for resolution and for such suffering to leave the body, these negative emotions must be given space to emerge. When their emergence is witnessed in community, it creates a social support that encourages the sufferer to face that pain and allow it to move through and beyond his body. Thich Nhat Hanh (2010) describes suffering, and suffering together, as an exercise in liberation. He writes, "You suffer in order to find a way out.”   [19]

Circle as a Brave Space

Some practices aim to create what they call a safe space, but no space can ever be completely safe. Participants in a Circle are always navigating the invitation to be brave by speaking from the heart. Many people experience an edge around being vulnerable, especially with strangers. This is understandable, and for this reason, no one is expected to speak, unless they wish to. The participant is, at all times, in control of their own participation and this extends to the extent of their vulnerability.

It is exceedingly rare that anyone becomes offended in Circle because someone said something about them directly. Sometimes, however, people may find that another participant says something that causes them to feel uncomfortable. An example might be if someone shares a story about a parent dying and there is another participant in the group whose parent is ill. This is often known as “triggering.” Because the guide cannot control what people say, guides should not promise a safe space to participants.Instead, cultivate an awareness that it is a space where participants can be brave enough to say what is in their hearts, and also brave enough to listen without feeling triggered, angry and defensive. Both practices have value, and if a participant needs to step away from the Circle, that is OK too. Guides trust that participants will self-regulate, and this highlights the importance of underlining how Circle is an invitation as well.

As Circle is a brave space, it is often not presented as a place  of confidentiality. As the guide cannot promise confidentiality to the group, it is best to not frame the experience of Circle in this way. This lack of confidentiality actually supports the construction of a brave space. To know that one’s spoken truth is not confined to the Circle can give it greater power.

The wound is the place where the light enters you. –Rumi


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