Way of the Guide

“The path to restoration extends from our heart to the heart of sentient beings, and that path will be different for every person.” -Paul Hawken

What is a Forest Therapy Guide?

To be a guide is more than a job. It is a calling. It’s quite different than other callings that lead people to become, for example, a teacher or therapist or pastor. Fully realized, the vocation of guiding can be called a “Way” or wisdom tradition. Like many other Ways, it offers a path for growing into a life in which we can fully embody our own unique wholeness in relationship to the world. The Way of the Guide is an archetypal vocation that serves the purpose of connecting people with the More-Than-Human World, and thus with their deeper selves.  

The training pathway offered by the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs includes developing and understanding a core set of guiding principles and skills. Our curriculum begins with this definition:

A guide works in partnership with the More-Than-Human World to accompany and support others on the journeys through which they encounter and embody the whole of who they are.  

We emphasize that we are guides, not therapists. We say, “The Forest is the therapist, and the guide opens the doors.” The therapy occurs in the relationship between participant and Forest. This is not a one-way exchange. As the Forest heals the person, the person comes to be in relationship with the Forest and, rooted in that relationship, is likely to become a caretaker of forests and the environment in general. This may also be described more simply as a process of remembering how to love. Perhaps more mystically, our story is that the Forest enjoys, is encouraged by, and responds to the love it receives. At its deepest level, people and forests begin understanding their intimate connection to and sense of interbeing with each other.

Relationship, love, and healing arise together. The mutuality of this wholeness illustrates another important understanding: our wholeness is relational. Our wholeness is not our own isolated project. It is in our relationships with other entities, be it person, community, place, bioregion, animal, ancestor, and so on. Thus, guiding is an art of cultivating relationships. The relationships that are tended on a Forest Therapy walk, be it relationship to self, others, the More-Than-Human World, or the beyond, become the sources of healing.

In this way, Forest Therapy addresses  a fundamental problem of modern life: alienation. As people move to cities and become more connected though digital means, somehow we are feeling increasingly lonely and isolated from the world. The Association believes this phenomenon stems from a disconnection from the world, both the More-Than-Human and the human, from the present moment and even from ourselves and our bodies. Forest Therapy addresses this problem by cultivating connection and relatedness. This process could even be called the restoration of the human soul. By estranging ourselves from the rest of nature, we also lose a part of our wholeness. Forest Therapy is about remembering ourselves and our wholeness. This wholeness is discussed at greater length in the next chapter, but the focus of this chapter is not about what participants encounter. This chapter is about how guides support participants in having such encounters. This is about what we say and do as much as it is about how we perceive and relate. This is the Way of the Guide.

The Challenge of Embodying the Guide Archetype: What a Guide Does

Most modern cultures lack the context for the archetype of Guide. Mainstream culture tends to hold to models of leadership that place  the leader as the expert who is responsible for directing and facilitating change. In most modern cultures, leaders are people who have a vision for the world they think is best for everyone, and they will use many tools to realize that vision, including establishing rules. .Guides have no agenda apart from tending a space where relationship may blossom. Guides are not responsible for creating experiences for people.They are not responsible for what people may receive from the Forest. Guides are not in control of people’s processes. Fundamentally, the guide bears witness to the world without coercing any outcomes and trusts that the Forest, the participants and the process will create whatever is needed.

To truly embody this is extremely challenging. To let go of the idea that we are supposed to make something happen is deeply contrary to how we have been taught to lead in the world. Guides understand and embody the idea that they are not leaders who create change; they are facilitators who tend spaces where others can create their own change.
Trusting that the relationship between the individual and the Forest operates at a level of wisdom far beyond our understanding is hard for many new guides. It is also a challenge because guides tend to like the idea that we are the ones who make the “magic” happen! Generally here is nothing wrong with wanting to be seen this way, but it is not what we seek as Guides. . To be a guide is to know that nothing truly meaningful can be coerced or manipulated; it must naturally unfold. Robert Romanyshyn speaks of this as a true act of hospitality:

“Hospitality is an attitude of patient waiting, an attitude which knows, as the poet Eliot says, how to wait without hope, because it knows that hope would be hope for the wrong thing, because it knows that this hope would empty the moment of its hidden presence. But while hospitality waits without hope, without care or concern or anxious worry, it does wait with love. ” [5]

Guides don’t carry hopes or expectations to their work, because  guides are not meant to know what is going to happen. When guides cater to their own hopes or expectation, they deny participants the integrity of their own personal journey. Guides wait with patient hospitality and then learn to love whatever it is that emerges from the experience.  

Our guiding supports participants in their own self-directed processes. The Standard Sequence is designed so self-direction can emerge. When we offer people 20 minutes to do something as vague as exploring textures they are likely to adapt the invitation through self-direction. This can  include napping, singing, stretching, dancing, taking a picture, drawing, journaling, zoning out, meditating, praying, laughing, talking to a friend, and so many more.

These kinds of experiences are not bad, nor do they break the container of liminality. The feeling of absolute freedom in the presence of nonjudgmental witnessing is, in fact, what holds the container together. Nothing breaks the container more quickly than the guide’s evaluation and judgment of a participant. Sometimes guides have an expectation that the walk will be very contemplative or that participants should engage the invitation exactly as the guide offered it, but such judgments are inconsistent with the Way of the Guide. No matter what happens, the guide is there to offer hospitality, to validate, to support each participant , and bear witness. Here’s a story from one guide:

“On one of my first walks, I offered What’s In Motion and noticed that there were two women who almost instantly began chatting with each other. After a few moments of observing them, I wondered whether they were actually “doing” the invitation and so I gently suggested they might try experiencing it in silence. One woman turned to me and said, “This is my friend who I have not seen in a long time. I’m noticing my heart as we move.” This was an important moment when I realized that things are not always as they seem and that freedom to do or not do was a big part of this practice.”

The Way of the Guide is a radically different way of relating to the concept of power in relationship. This is not something that is learned overnight. This is not something that is learned through an intellectual understanding. This is something that is rooted in the body and in our ability to relax our very real urges to protect, to fix and to manipulate people in what we think is their best interest. When guides fully respect participants’ autonomy to experience the world, even in ways that might make the guides uncomfortable or anxious, it is a powerful gift. It is not easy and it takes a lot of practice to become skilled at it.

If guides take this calling to heart, they may notice that it affects their relationships with family and friends. They may notice they are less demanding and more accepting of others. They may begin to suspend judgments more readily and offer hospitality more reflexively. They may notice they are in less of a rush to get things done and more open to let things be and to savor the moments of relationships. It is a beautiful thing, when we learn to let go of control, but it is scary at first.

How A Guide Works

From the perspective of the participant, the work of a guide appears simple. This is because so much of the skill is in knowing how to do just enough. From the outside, there are a few core functions of guiding: giving invitations, facilitating Sharing Circles, serving Tea, keeping track of time. But beneath that, the real work of the guide is to embody hospitality, non-judgment, and trust. People don’t see that when they are on the walk, but the guide always knows that this is where the depth of the challenge lives.

The guide archetype is so alien to our culture that oftentimes people mistake the guide for the fool. The idea of inviting people to wander about and smell flowers may make novice guides anxious that they may appear foolish because of the simplicity of the invitation. When a guide does this, we fall into the cultural habit of underestimating the power of sensory experiences and the hidden beauty of simplicity. Simple, sensory experiences, within a container of liminality, act as a doorway for each participant to become self-directed in cultivating their own relationship with the world.

As guides, we can’t instruct people to be self-directed. Such an instruction, to most people, would be incredibly disorienting; they simply don’t know what it means or how to do it. It is much like instructing someone to sleep; no matter how much we think about it, it will only happen when the thinking ceases. Guides support participants in arriving at self-direction without participants ever consciously realizing it by returning them to their senses, which will allow the body to remember its own self direction.

Blaise Pascale once said, “The heart has its reasons which reason cannot know.” Forest Therapy takes a heart-centered approach to relationships and healing. And this approach may sometimes appear foolish because of the Tamed World story that the heart is just an organ that pumps blood.

It may help to notice how the modern definition of the word ‘pathetic’ relates to inadequacy or inferiority, while an older definition relates it to the passionate stirring of emotions such as tenderness, pity, love, sympathy and sorrow. We have been trained to ignore the wisdom of the heart, a wisdom that proclaims that our relationships are more important than our intellectual knowledge. Being foolish may seem pathetic only because we have been tamed to believe that emotions are inferior to thoughts. In response to this Tamed notion, it may help guides to explore the archetype of the Fool, in order to do such heart centered work. “The saboteur, clown or fool, does not impose the pathetic heart on anyone, so much as he or she stages occasions for its appearance. The heart’s way of knowing and being require that saboteur, clown, fool, be a witness who, in service to the heart, undoes the mind and then walks away. He or she lingers just long enough on these occasions only to be a witness. He or she lingers close to things and stays there just long enough to invite and to allow the heart to be impregnated by the passions of the silent invisibles and become their voice. The witness to the pathetic heart does only this, nothing more. He or she proves nothing, offers no reasonable system, and is even content to be regarded as useless.” [6]

One of the most fundamental ways a guide works is by not judging the experience that participants are having. So long as participants are not putting themselves or others in danger, a guide should never evaluate, intervene, or suggest alternatives for how a participant is engaging the process of any invitation.  

  • First, guides should admit to themselves that they have no idea what is really going on. When guides engage in judgment, they are merely speculating.  
  • Second, when guides engage in judgment, they are not trusting the relationship between the participant and the Forest.  
  • Third, and most importantly, when guides engage in judgment and the participant becomes aware of it, they will trigger a defensive state in which they will be incapable of learning and forming relationship. This defeats the entire purpose of Forest Therapy, so it is best to let go of judgment before beginning this work.

A guide is humble. A guide embodies a deep acceptance of the world and of people. A guide honors all stories without judgment. A guide works in partnership with the Forest. A guide has no agenda to change people or the world. A guide trusts that the Forest knows what is needed. A guide listens without fixing. A guide awakens the senses. A guide holds space for relationships to flourish. A guide plays. A guide honors simplicity.

A guide liberates and is liberated by co-investigating the world. A guide knows nothing. A guide forces nothing. A guide opens the doors.  

The meaning of life is to be alive. It’s so plain and so obvious and so simple. And yet everybody rushes around in a great panic as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond themselves. –Alan Watts