I offered the following as part of a workshop through The BTS Center called "Spiritual Direction for a Climate-Changed World" on June 23, 2022. A video of the event is available here.
I am in the Kaskaskia, Sangamon, Vermillion, Wabash, and Embarass watersheds, the settler colonized land of the Illinois, Peankashaw, Wea, Miami, Mascoutin, Odawa, Sauk, Mesquaki, Kickapoo, Ojibwe, Chickasaw and Potawatomi people now known as Urbana, Illinois.
As spiritual directors, as spiritual directees, we work with a lot of stories. Stories about who we are as individuals, as family members, as community. Stories about our society and our places within society.
Few, if any, of these stories are neutral.
When we are aware and when we are not, human stories of white supremacy, patriarchy, anti-semitism, capitalism, transphobia, xenophobia – human stories to create fear and practice oppression – are at work on us, in us, and through us.
In spiritual direction, we are allowed to witness how those stories function within an individual how they intertwine with personal story and how they are met by sacred story. The stories about the sacred and the relationship between humanity and divinity, collectively and individually. Those can be the formalized stories of scripture and tradition as well as those of personal revelation and encounter.
The practice of forest therapy is, much like spiritual direction, an opportunity to encounter and counter the stories we carry, be they baggage that needs to be released or the bug-out bag that will help us survive.
Forest therapy, as I have been trained to practice through the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides, is inspired by the Japanese practice of forest bathing.
In the 1980s, Japanese work culture began the shift to stationary, screen- and keyboard-based environments. Along with that shift came illness: increased stress, high blood pressure, postural aches and pains. Japanese physicians began to study the health benefits of taking work-sick people out into forests. Through testing of saliva, blood-pressure, and self-assessments, their research demonstrated a direct healing correlation between humans and woods.
Since then studies worldwide have shown the health benefits of being outside: Being outside in natural spaces improves mental health including symptoms of depression, boosts immune function, reduces the stress hormone cortisol, which ties into a myriad of disease processes, and tends to the parasympathetic nervous system allowing for rest and renewal. It even improves our capacity for paying attention, for focus and concentration. Japan now has several forests explicitly designed, designated and preserved for treatment through forest bathing.
But the natural world is not just a resource for our benefit.
That is one of the stories my forest therapy practice disrupts and a climate-changed world needs:
The natural world is not merely ours for consumption. It is us. We are it.
Even in the most heavily populated and paved spaces, we are still in wilderness because we are ourselves wild.
Through the ANFT model of forest therapy, the forest is the therapist and the guide merely opens the doors to the process of re-wilding our souls, hearts, minds, and bodies. Forest therapy creates a space to experience a sensory relationship between the human and the more-than-human world.
The ANFT standard sequence begins with a body meditation of arrival followed by a walk at snail’s pace to notice what is in motion. Getting participants to slow down and be present grounds the rest of the experience.
For the next two hours or so, the guide offers a series of invitations that are simple, open, sensory, and infinite. Participants may respond to the invitations as they are so moved, including ignoring them. In this way, forest therapy is trauma-informed: The participants and their body-selves determine what will happen.
ANFT forest therapy also has no prescribed outcomes.
What happens between the participant and the forest or prairie or woodland or arboretum or botanical garden or one tree in a Home Depot parking lot is theirs to find out, not the guide’s to force or enforce.
Between invitations, the group comes back together to share what they are noticing. At the conclusion of the time together, in a final circle, the guide offers a beverage and snacks with a closing prompt for reflection. We always offer a drink to the land we are on, too.
I imagine you can already see the connection between such a practice and living on a planet with a climate that humanity has irrevocably changed.
The scale of the harm we have done can be catalogued by data and incidents of fire and flood.
We can tell the stories scientific and catastrophic pretty easily, and quite grievously.
What forest therapy facilitates, in line with spiritual direction, is the story intimate, the story entangled, the story individual.
We can know what climate change is doing to monarch butterflies but what about that one monarch butterfly that you got to spend time experiencing with eyes and shared air?
Just as prayer and meditation and praise awaken us to our relationship with the divine howsoever we define and experience it, forest therapy awakens us to the relationship we personally have with who that grass and that larva and that brook and that rock personally are.
Some people speak in tongues, some people can learn to hear in tree.
That immediacy of relationship, my personal bonding with my naturalness in the natural world, offers respite from the stress hormones, the high blood pressure, and the hard work of living in and knowing I live on a planet whose ecosystems are so altering that life as I am living right now will not be sustainable.
It also gives me partners.
The magnitude of climate change is met by the myriad of lives right in my own back yard. Right here in a pot on my desk.
The story of climate change is not only ours to tell. We will not be the only authors of the story to come. Every day, just as the holy is, so too are soil, algae, bacteria, and worms. All around us are beings moving, responding, living, and dying. They are not mute objects that we act upon but actors responding in their own right.
Trees have begun to migrate north, for example.
Spiritual directors have heeded a call to be students of story. To read the story, the scripture, of our lives and accompany others as we interpret the sacred story of their own.
I invite you to go outside and with heart soul skin that a new chapter, a needed chapter, might be added to our collective story.
A chapter that meets climate change and white supremacy, patriarchy, anti-semitism, capitalism, transphobia, and xenophobia a re-wilded tale of resistance, repair, and reparation.
I invite you to become an intentional element in the story of your immediate climate.
Intimacy with what we ruin can offer inspiration for a new co-creation.