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Today, the term “Forest Bathing” is something of an umbrella term that covers a diversity of techniques much as the term “Yoga” does. Globally, “Forest Therapy” is still finding its clear definition and the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy (ANFT) is an active part of this conversation. While there is some degree of overlap in Forest Therapy/ForestBathing methodologies worldwide, it is becoming clear that ANFT’s brand of Forest Therapy is distinctly different.


What is ANFT Forest Therapy and How is it Distinct From Other Schools of Thought?

In their most basic form, all Forest Bathing/Forest Therapy practices work with the human body’s  connection to natural environments,to help restore health. Since humans have evolved in natural environments for thousands of years, it is not surprising that our bodies require such environments for health and wellbeing.

In recent generations, however, humans have rapidly shifted toward urban and digital environments that do not provide our bodies with the biological stimuli required for health.  In its most simple form, Forest Therapy is a way to re-introduce people to the Forest and other natural environments. As people become estranged from nature, Forest Therapy becomes an increasingly important way to get people outside, so their bodies can access essential stimuli like sunlight, fresh air, and beneficial organic compounds released by plants. [3]  

And yet, ANFT Forest Therapy is much more than just a walk in the woods. While most of the physiological and mental health benefits come from the simple exposure to the natural environment, a guided ANFT ForestTherapy walk also works to mend the damaged relationships humans have with themselves, with the concept of time, with their communities, and with the More-Than-Human World. This is where a skilled guide, trained to work in partnership with the land, can open the door to a deeper and more meaningful experience.

One major way ANFT Forest Therapy distinguishes itself is that it is a pathway to health and wellbeing for both people and the More-Than-Human World.  Many other organizations choose to focus on how humans can benefit from interactions with nature and overlook how the wellbeing of both, people and the Forest, can be enhanced by the power of healthy and authentic relationship.

When organizations define Forest Therapy as being about human health, they limit its relevance to the biomedical world that asks, “How can we mobilize nature as a wellness resource?’ While the ANFT model acknowledges and honors the importance of human health outcomes through nature immersion, we see the full potential of Forest Therapy as an answer to the question, ‘How do we create a more sustainable world?’ We say that sustainability comes only through right relationship, through a transformation of how people relate to themselves, others and the world around them.

We believe the most significant barriers to relationship and sustainability are emotional challenges that include isolation, disconnection and apathy. ANFT Forest Therapy is a methodology for addressing these challenges in a safe, somatic and invitational process.  ANFT Forest Therapy is heart-centered work.

ANFT Forest Therapy works to create a space where people begin to heal their hearts through a process of remembering parts of themselves. We call this a journey towards wholeness. Through this journey, we create space for people to remember the intelligence of their bodies, the potential of their imaginations, and their relatedness to the More-Than-Human World. By remembering or restoring these parts of themselves, heart-centered work arises for participants without any coercion by the guide. The authenticity of these experiences is critical; it is fundamental that each participant develops their own unique relationships and it is impossible to compel people into real and authentic emotional healing.

When doing this heart-centered work, two central feelings are evoked: gratitude and grief. Gratitude is incredibly powerful, as it brings us into a sense of deep appreciation for ourselves, our relationships and the world around us. In a world that promotes the idea that we are always lacking something, most people tend to overlook the essentials that the world offers: clean air, the company of trees and animals, having a body that can sense the world and a heart that can witness its power and beauty, our relationships. Gratitude reorients us towards the potential beauty in all things and helps to galvanize a sense of love and reciprocity in the world.

Greif is also a powerful emotion. In many cultures, grief rituals have all but vanished, and many people have learned to swallow our grief. When this happens, relationships become strained under the weight and pressure of this internalized suffering. At this time in history, many people are experiencing a sense of ecological trauma as they are impacted by the devastating effects of climate change. Such trauma can further estrange people from relationships to the land. In order for there to be reconciliation, grief must be given space to be expressed and honored.

For ANFT, Forest Therapy is not a dogma. We do not pretend to have all the answers to the world’s problems. We do feel, however, that when people repair their relationships, they are treating the underlying emotional problems that contribute to larger, structural problems for both humans and the More-Than-Human World. ANFT Forest Therapy creates space for everyone to take their own journey, on their own terms, towards this kind of heart-centered work.

As real relationships are rooted in reciprocity, healing these relationships has a tremendous ripple effect in the world. When people begin to see their own self as intertwined with the world and all beings, they begin to shift their behaviors in order to cultivate sustainability in all their relationships. It can and will look different for different people, but we believe that good things happen when people remember and tend to their relationships. That is the highest potential of Forest Therapy and it underlines the importance of our core motto: The Forest is the Therapist. The guide opens the doors.  

When thinking of relational development in Forest Therapy, we recognize four important relationships: relationship with ourselves, with time, with our communities and with the More-Than-Human World.


Relationship with Ourselves

When we slow down, with nothing preoccupying our minds, we encounter ourselves in a different way than we are used to. In our daily lives,we so rarely have the time to do this. We are usually too busy, rushing from one thing to the next, to ask a very simple question, “Who am I today?” When we ask this question, surrounded by the Forest and the beings within it, we begin to see our deeper selves reflected back to us, as if the Forest becomes a psychological mirror. It is a way of seeing who we are, without the labels that society places upon us. While we are on a Forest Therapy walk, we put aside the identifying social markers we carry with us in the Tamed World. In the Forest,we are given permission to embody our authenticity in ways that we may rarely experience otherwise.

The Forest illuminates how we share the same principles of life that honor all beings. One of the most common revelations participants experience comes from time spent with trees. They say something like, “I’m noticing that not a single tree is perfect. They all have scars, they all have been damaged in some way, and they are all resilient.  And they are all beautiful, each in their own unique way.” This type of observation often leads people toward an acknowledgment that they too are imperfect, impermanent, and in a constant state of change, and that their own beauty is bound to these characteristics.This is one finite example, but there are infinite ways that people may begin to see themselves reflected in the Forest as images of their wholeness.

Additionally, the journey toward this sense of self may also be galvanized by a childlike sense of freedom in liminality that participants often experience during Forest Therapy walks. Because there are minimal constraints upon the process of being during a walk, participants have the opportunity to allow their bodies to lead them. We call this bodyfulness, a term created by Christine Caldwell, a leader in the field of body-centered psychotherapy.

In a state of bodyfulness, our identity becomes detached from our thoughts about ourselves and becomes connected to our bodies and our physical relationships with place and beings in the present moment. When self-judgment and critical analysis is replaced by curious sensory attention,people begin to simply be themselves naturally. And who we are, when we are in such a state, can be surprising because, in our daily lives, we have almost no space for such expression to emerge. By experiencing the intelligence and autonomy of our own bodies, we learn to relate to ourselves more holistically; we remember how to be ourselves in more grounded and authentic ways. More often than not, people are wearing masks or playing roles that are expected of them. On a Forest Therapy walk, we take off the masks and let the wind touch our faces.


Relationship with Time

In our daily lives, we are rarely really here in this moment. We may be physically present, but our attention is generally somewhere else, either anticipating what is coming next or reminiscing about what has already passed. But when we are not here, we are missing the full sensation of being alive. One of the principal guiding maxims of this work comes from a Joseph Campbell quote. He wrote,

“I don’t think people are seeking the meaning of life as much as they are seeking the experience of being alive.”  

When we become aware of our embodied state and have nowhere to be but this moment, it is then that we may feel fully alive. Think about how we cannot hear something in the past or in the future. We can only hear it in the moment. We can remember a sound we heard or anticipate a sound that might come in the future, but these things are not real. They are constructed by the mind and abstracted from our direct relationship with the present moment. The same goes for all the senses. Our senses are the direct gateways to this present moment.  

In Forest Therapy, by minimizing cognitive thinking and emphasizing embodied sensations, guides help people find themselves here and now, and through such an act, come more fully alive. For many people, this can be the most meaningful experience of all. A mentee, in her initiation as a trainer said, “We bring people to their senses,” which is a great double entendre. “We bring people to their senses,” means both that we bring them to their physical senses, but also that through this act, we bring people to the experience of life itself in a way that “makes more sense”

Many people practice mindful meditation for this purpose, to put aside the cycle of thought and rumination that obstructs them from presence. But for many people, the thought of achieving mindfulness becomes an impediment to actually achieving it. In Forest Therapy, guides work within a framework of bodyfulness, which allows people to achieve many of the same results as mindfulness within a more fluid and dynamic relational process.When people orient themselves toward bodyfulness, they often forget about trying to be present, and it simply happens.


Relationship with Community

One of the elements of Forest Therapy that can be the biggest surprise for participants is that it works to mend relationships between human beings. Most people tend to pigeonhole Forest Therapy into“nature connection” work without fully realizing that humans are nature and so nature relation encompasses human relation.  

This relationship-mending primarily comes into the work through the practice of Circle;a method for listening to each other without judgment or competition. In Circle, we hold a deep intention to simply listen to each other without responding. This creates an open space for people to express whatever they wish, and allows others to begin to learn how powerful the simple act of witnessing can be.  

Learning how to listen to each other is a revolutionary action. While most participants do not fully realize its significance in the moment, when we begin to listen without responding, we are reflexively beginning to practice non-judgment. When there is no option but to simply listen to what another person is experiencing, we are practicing empathy.

This is particularly potent in the practice of Circle because the facilitator is also engaged in the process. The facilitator is not teaching anything, but is instead creating an open space. As guides and participants become more adept at the practice of Circle, they may even begin to listen to the voice of the Circle itself, or what might be called the intersection of all stories. Through this act of listening to the center of the Circle,people may begin to see how our humanity is based upon shared emotional experience. We all draw from a very human palette of emotional experience including joy, grief, sadness, curiosity, excitement, contentment, despair,playfulness, and many more. These stories are what draw us closer to one another through the lived experience of empathy.  


Relationship with the More-Than-Human World

Paraphrasing Baba Dioum, Jacques Cousteau once said, “People will only protect what they love.” But what is love when we apply the concept to beings beyond humans? What does it truly mean to love a tree or a bird or a mountain or a river?

When training guides, we often ask them to think of a person they love. And then ask them to engage in a thought experiment: “Imagine that I give you a book with the complete history of this person but you have never seen them, never touched them, never heard their voice, you’ve had no sensory contact whatsoever. Could you love this person?”

Most people tend to agree that no, they could not fall in love with someone with whom they have had no sensory experience, even if they intellectually knew everything about them. But this points to a fundamental problem in how we are raised to think about our relationships to the More-Than-HumanWorld. In our education, we are made to relate to these beings conceptually,through books and research, but most teachers never take kids outside into theForest and allow them to explore it with their senses. And so, most relationships people have with other beings tend to be intellectual, and not one of genuine love and knowing in a relational way.  

When we “know” something intellectually, we do so by holding it apart from ourselves. We look at it with a sense of separation and objectification. When we do this, we obstruct the process of relationship by preferring reason over feeling.

This is a cultural bias that has been germinating since the17th century, when Rene Descartes wrote “I think, therefore I am”. We tend to believe that the human ability to think makes us separate from nature. We think there is a divide between “nature” and “civilization.” We objectify living things as “natural resources” (and sometimes we do this to humans as well when we describe people as “human resources”). We do not see that each tree, each deer, each mountain is its own unique being. We think of them as categories, as if all trees of a species are the same.

This is the most dangerous aspect of logical/rational thinking that rejects the intelligence of the heart: such thinking deprives living beings of their uniqueness, of their dignity as individuals. We tend to be horrified when people do this to each other. Such an act is often a prerequisite of war and genocide, when people are reduced to a category and not seen as unique individuals. And so why does it not equally horrify us when we do this to every other living thing on the planet?

Forest Therapy begins to mend this fractured worldview by inviting people to engage with beings through their senses, not their intellects. Whereas the mind tends to focus on what it can know through abstraction, the body focuses on what it can know through direct sensory contact. And when people explore the world in this way, they begin to notice that no two beings are the same. Forest Therapy demonstrates a story about this world that we have been conditioned to overlook—that this world is alive. It is not an object to be studied.

Species survive by tending relationships with other species.Nothing in nature survives by itself. Of course, we are like this as well. We must also learn to love the More-Than-Human World, not appreciate it for its aesthetic beauty or its economic utility, but to love it as we love our family,to love it for no other reason than that we genuinely desire its happiness and recognize that its happiness is component to our own.  

 

And forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair. 
~ Kahlil Gibran


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