“Forest Bathing is not only about connecting to the nature that is beyond us, it is also about recognising that we are fully enmeshed in and as nature” ~ Ben Page.
This month we have a guest post by Ben Page, author of the recently published book ‘Healing Trees – A Pocket Guide to Forest Bathing‘. In this post Ben offers mindful insights to connect with the nature within. Also included are 3 meditative invitations based on the elements of nature. These ideas serve as useful pointers to navigate the complexity of our inner world through simple walks wearing the shoes of our imagination.
Ben’s Journey into Forest Bathing
There are many stories I can tell about the beginning of this journey. Somehow, they are all interrelated. But today I’d like to tell you about the time when I was invited to train as a forest therapy guide.
I had just finished a 24 hour solo fast in the Inyo mountains as part of a program I was doing with the School of Lost Borders. It was a beautiful experience, laying beneath an ocean of stars that yielded to a brilliant sunrise and a slow wander among ancient bristlecone pines. Thinking back on it now, it almost feels like a dream.
When the group returned across the threshold, we descended the mountain to break the fast and it was there that a man tapped me on the should and said, “I want to show you something.” He invited me to close my eyes, took me by the shoulders, and lead me about 20 steps before inviting me to open my eyes again.
When I did, my nose was about a centimeter from a large tree that stood not far from where I had been sitting. I had been aware it was there, of course, but in that moment, I saw the tree in a new way. I remember the details of the bark being somehow arresting, like when you spot a rainbow and you just have to stop and watch and everything else in life seems to melt away. It was so simple and yet it was anything but simple. It was a paradox. How could I have missed something so sublime, only 20 steps away?
Next thing I know, this man who tapped me on the shoulder, Amos Clifford, asked me to take this training he’s offering. It sounds strange and I’ve never heard of what he called ‘Forest Therapy’ but there was something about the moment of opening my eyes and seeing that tree that lingered in me, called to me, spoke to me in a language that was familiar but I couldn’t remember. Perhaps the tree woke me up?
Our Inner Nature
Lately I’ve been quite captivated by the nature that is my body. As I deepen into witnessing it, I become aware that this body is not my own but is truly an ecosystem that houses many elements and beings. Furthermore, it is a porous ecosystem. Matter comes in, matter transforms and matter comes out; this is quite literally happening all the time. What is happening below the surface of my skin is a dynamic ecology that exists whether I am aware of it or not. It does not require me to know that it is there, nor does it care what I think of it. It’s fascinating to dig down into this strange relationship with myself, understanding that I am not simply me, this ‘Ben Page’ character, but I am also fully identified as Earth itself.
When I speak to people about this, we invariably arrive at this question of defining what we refer to as ‘inner nature.’ Most people hear these words and think that their inner nature has something to do with their character, with their psychological experience of being. They think that their inner nature has something to do with who they are. But in my experience, the inner nature has absolutely nothing to do with who I am, and everything to do with what I am. I wrote the following passage for the course I am currently teaching:
‘The inner nature that lives within us is difficult (if not impossible) to describe. It is something that can only be felt, something that can only be understood in the moment that it is animated within our hearts. It is a part of us that does not need to prove anything, nor does it need to compete for love. It is a part of us that is always at home in the world, that always belongs and cannot be separated. It is a part of us that is not properly “ours” but exists as a vast interconnecting energy that moves through all things. Perhaps we do not have individual, unique, personal “inner natures,” but instead experience the inner nature as an expression of our belongingness in and to the world. It is specifically because our inner nature cannot be possessed or contained individually that it can exist completely outside the ego.
One way of understanding our inner nature is that it is our sense of aliveness. It is something as humble and ordinary as breathing or gazing at the stars or holding a child in your arms. It is not abstractly meaningful in such a way that it could impress someone who was interested only in becoming heroic. Our aliveness is new in every moment and it defines our interconnectedness with the world. It blurs the lines between what we think of as “ourselves” and what we think of as “the world.” It is the art of simply being.
We embody this aliveness whenever we experience reality beyond the story of the ego, beyond the desire to make such a feeling “about us”. Such aliveness represents our most unapologetic, spontaneous, and ordinary selves and it is what we might call our ecological identity. Unlike our egoic identity, it is not built of ideas, but of the instantaneous, emergent experience of being alive. It is this part of ourselves that participates in the moment, the part of us that is enmeshed in relationships beyond our stories about them. It is the part of us that loves with such force that we forget who we are. Whenever we experience such aliveness immediately and directly, it is through our inner nature, not through our egos.
Among the beings of nature, the clouds, the waterfalls, the stones, animals and fungi, there is no need to become special. Everything knows that it has its place, with no compulsion to be anything more than what it is. In nature, there is no striving. Everything relaxes into simply being ordinary. In nature, all beings belong by the grace of their interconnectedness and not because they have done something heroic to earn it. In this aesthetic experience, we are called to remember that we can be like this as well.’
I wonder about this a lot. What does it mean to be nature, to be ecological? I find that my ego, the character of Ben-Page, really wants being ecological to be a story about it. But the more I sit in nature, just simply being, the more I am convinced that being nature isn’t a story about me. The inner nature is not mine; it is everything. So being ecological is not a process of self-discovery, it’s a process of letting go of the need to define myself only in human terms. Instead of seeing my nature as being about my individuality, I am learning to see my ecological identity as something intersubjective, a sense of selfhood that is informed by an infinite web of relationships. And it’s scary at first, because one worries that having this kind of experience might destroy the ego or that one could fall down the rabbit hole and never come back. There’s a sense of fear that makes us want to cling to ourselves more tightly than before. Yet, if we employ a gentle approach, we can always come back. The point is not to destroy the story of who we are, there is no destination that we strive to reach which would confer the inner nature upon us.
This destination is reached before a single step is ever taken. All we must do is remember how to relax into being a part of the places we find ourselves in. It’s happening all the time, this unfolding ecological experience; we are just too preoccupied with what it means or how it relates to our ego stories to see it spontaneously emerge. The inner nature is an aesthetic experience; what it looks like here, what it sounds like, what it tastes like, what it feels like, what it smells like and what it evokes in us. That’s the thing about living art. It’s not about grasping it; it is about experiencing it in full immediacy and then letting go just as quickly because there’s always something new in every single moment. Perhaps that is the expression of aliveness that is only possible through the inner nature?
Nature Embodiment Invitations
These invitations are crafted to invite you into a world without separation. Allow them to move through your body without effort; relaxation is the key.
Exploring ourselves as sky
As you stand, notice what it feels like to breathe. Notice the sensations in each moment as you inhale and exhale. Perhaps hold your hands against your rib cage or your stomach; what does this relationship between body, breath and air feel like? I wonder where this air has been before it has met you here in this moment? I wonder what beings this air has been a part of before it was a part of you? I wonder where you begin and the world ends? As you sit, notice what it feels like to breathe.
Loving ourselves as water
As you sit, notice what it feels like to have a heart. Perhaps placing your hands upon your chest, simply noticing that an ocean is always running through you. With each beat of your heart, the waves recede and advance upon every shore. Where has this water been before it was in your body? What other forms has it taken along its journey? Perhaps clouds, or glaciers or tidepools at the edge of the sea? As you sit, notice what it is like to have a beating heart.
Moving ourselves as earth
As you wander, notice what it feels like to be in your body. Notice that you are made up of interconnected bones and muscles and tendons. With every step, notice what it feels like to be in motion, how every movement ripples through the body. As you move, perhaps also notice that every moment you make is connected to the movement of the world around you; nothing moves in isolation and you are a always a participant in the dance of the world. As you wander, notice what it feels like to be in your body.
Ben Page Bio:
Ben Page is a Forest Therapy Guide, global advocate for the practice and the author of Healing Trees: A Pocket Guide to Forest Bathing. He is the founder of Shinrin Yoku LA and Integral Forest Bathing and has been guiding Forest Therapy walks since 2015. During his tenure as a trainer and mentor of guides, Ben has trained hundreds of guides around the world. From 2017-2020, he also served as the Director of Training for the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs, specializing in curriculum and pedagogical design. Since his practice began, Ben has been featured in such publications as Women’s Health, USA TODAY, Good Morning America, The Washington Post, and WebMD. Ben is also a co-founder of The Open School, Southern California’s only free democratic school. He holds a B.A. in religious studies from Carleton College and an M.A. in human development and social change from Pacific Oaks College.
A note about the book:
This book is intended as an easy approach to forest bathing, a concept that is now making its way into health and wellness practices. Part spiritual guide and part practitioner’s handbook, this accessible, practical, positivity-rich book is designed to be taken on every walk to encourage mindfulness, contentedness, and presence in the moment.
For information on Ben’s work, including books, courses and audio meditations, check out his website. Get a free gift when you sign up for the mailing list! https://www.integralforestbathing.com