Have you ever heard the expression, “Stop and smell the roses?” Do you know that sensation when the fragrance hits your nostrils and suddenly everything else in the world fades away? Now approaching my middle age, I can say I have stopped, and how sweet the roses smell. At this time last year, I began writing answers to questions on an application to enter into a guide training program with the Association for Nature and Forest Therapy (ANFT).
“What are your personal and professional goals? Tell a story about a tree that you have known that has been significant to you in some way. What practices or strategies do you use for self-development and to maintain mental, emotional, and spiritual wellness?” These questions I carried for a few months as I clarified my vision.
The goal was to become a certified guide in an emerging practice known as forest bathing. The people of Japan call it Shinrin yoku—to bathe in the atmosphere of the forest. As defined by the ANFT, “Forest Therapy is a pathway to personal health and well-being, as well as one towards pro-environmental and pro-social change at a societal level. In urbanized and digitized environments, Forest Therapy is very simply a method for re-introducing people to the forest and other natural environments. As people become estranged from nature, Forest Therapy becomes an increasingly important way to just get people outside, so that their bodies can access essential stimuli like sunlight, fresh air, and organic compounds released by plants, such as terpenes and phytoncides.”
So what does a forest bathing session look like? I like to call it a “mini retreat.” First you sign up, a guide greets you at the chosen location, and then the group embarks on a gentle walk, usually no longer than one quarter mile in length. Over the course of two to three hours, a guide offers “invitations” which are simple, open-ended prompts to connect with nature through one of the senses. After laying out some ground rules for the sharing circle, a guide creates the container in which participants can feel at ease to share what they are noticing. Participants are reminded that silence is also a valid form of sharing. There are always communal snacks and a tea ceremony at the end.
Invitations offered by guides are non-prescriptive, meaning there are no desired outcomes. This distinguishes the archetype of the guide from the archetype of the healer. A common guide mantra is “the forest is the therapist, the guide opens the doors.” Human relationship to the earth has evolved over time. In an increasingly modernized world the disconnect grows. In the early 1980s, Japan established and formalized this practice as a response to a national health crisis. Much resulting scientific research has shown that humans are nature. Aside from the overwhelming body of anecdotal evidence that nature is good for humans, ANFT is more confident than ever when we say that “spending time with trees and bathing in the atmosphere of a natural place like a forest has shown numerous health benefi ts, such as reduced blood pressure, increased immunity, and stress reduction.”
The day I was accepted into the training program was the day I re-encountered a place that I walked by every day to and from my home. Behind me the sun was setting across an open expanse. Naked oak scaffolds high above were turning a fiery red. I noticed a large tree lying horizontally on the ground. Standing on the earth where the tree would have stood when it was upright, I peered into its hollow trunk. I imagined being drawn through some kind of time portal. This is the place I would come to call “sit spot.” Slowly over time, I began to notice the many off erings of this place. Patterns of winds, growth waves of vines, pleasantries of the passing seasons, this little patch of woods became a place to set aside my worldly worries and to just be. It became a place of growth and development, a place where I entered into tender relationship with myself and with all the beings around me. Before long, I would set out on an eight-day training in the mountains of western Maryland.
At training, I met so many amazing people. I had perhaps the best opportunity to come to know them during our sharing circles. Several times throughout the forest bathing walks, the group reconvened to hold space for each one to share. This helped to further develop my own capacity for noticing. It is said that circle supports cultural repair by teaching people how to listen to each other. This process supports the medicine journey by creating space for each participant to narrate their experience and for it to be witnessed by the group. As its participants are encouraged to speak and listen from their hearts, the center of the circle is the seat of the group’s wisdom where members value all stories equally.
Being guided was a new experience for me. Induced by the guide’s prompts, I was now paying attention to my senses and coming into the present moment. I had been guided through meditation before, but usually this took place indoors. There was a rigid form to it as if being read an excerpt from a meditation book. This instead was an embodiment exercise guided by principles of form and formlessness. An improvised invitation to experience breathing within and without the body came just as a light breeze filtered through the whispering trees. From that point onwards, I moved through a dream-like state. I listened to my heart, and the body followed where it wanted to go.
After the initial in-person training, the practicum continued back at home for six months. I paired up with a mentor, participated in peer conference calls, and was given assignments with names like “draw your web of interbeing,” “go on a medicine walk,” and “share your harvest project.” The pedagogy under which the entire program was designed allowed me to be my authentic self.
Guides work in partnership with the place where they guide walks. There is a deep respect for the land, as reciprocity is a recurring theme throughout any walk. Guides recognize the story of indigenous peoples who tend and have tended the land. The tea ceremony is a wonderful way to bring any forest bathing session to completion. The plant chosen for tea comes from the land and is greeted, asked permission, and carefully prepared by the guide. Each participant, the guide, and the land receive the gift of tea. Participants are given a final opportunity to share.
I now place more value in breaking from the botanizing on my forest walks. Today, I often come out of my head and drop into my body. I’ve learned that I don’t have to achieve something, I just have to be. I’ll take off my shoes, feel the earth rising up to support me with each step, embrace the warmth of the sun on my face, and stop to smell the roses.
John Theodore Martello was a UpS Goldenseal Sanctuary Intern in 2011. He is a Certified Guide for the Association for Nature and Forest Therapy.