An insightful deep dive exploration with global forest bathing advocate Ben Page into the philosophy and evolution of forest therapy. Ben discusses how at this time of big ecological challenges many voices and practitioners all over the world are contributing to a reshaping of our human perspective on and relationship with nature; and what it can be like to love the earth no matter what.
Some of the topics in this episode:
Ben Page is a global forest therapy advocate and the author of Healing Trees: A Pocket Guide to Forest Bathing. (June 29, 2021)
Ben 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.
(Book reference: Lost Knowledge of the Imagination by Gary Lachman)
Hosted by: Pamela Wirth and Kat Novotna
Episode 12 Transcript
June 24, 2021
Ben Page Interview
Kat: Hello, dear listeners. Welcome to this next episode of the One in Nature Podcast. My name is Kat Novotna and together with my cohost Pamela Wirth, we are inviting you for an inspiring conversation with Ben Page. A dear colleague of mine and a former director of training of the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy.
And Ben is talking with Pamela, they are having a beautiful conversation about the difference between forest medicine; forest therapy; forest bathing; shinrin yoku and all the multiple layers of that.
And I'm really looking forward to it because I really honor and acknowledge Ben's skills expressing the heart-based, but also mind supported relation to nature. So we invite you to listen to this conversation, listen to Ben's words, and just notice how they land in your body and and how they can inspire you for yourself or your dear ones.
Pamela: Hi, everyone. In this interview, that's following. I have the great pleasure to talk with my very dear colleague Ben page. Ben is a global advocate for forest therapy. And [00:00:14] this title is very appropriate because Ben has guided literally hundreds of walks in many different places around the world and he's trained guides all over the world as well. He is the founder of Shinrin Yoko, LA and of integral forest bathing. And he's also served as the director of training for the association of nature and forest therapy.
Ben also is a co-founder of the open school, Southern California's only free democratic school. And his latest project is the soon to be released book, "Healing Trees: A Pocket Guide to Forest Bathing".
Pamela: [00:00:59] Hi Ben.
Ben: [00:01:00] Hi!
Pamela: [00:01:02] Thank you so much for joining us today. I'm very excited about this conversation with you.
Ben: Thank you. I'm honored to be here.
Pamela: I wanted to start us off - I know there is a question that a lot of people are curious about, which is, is there really a difference between these terms, forest therapy, forest bathing, shinrin yoku? Does it make a difference? What's up with that?
Ben: [00:01:30] Right? So there's many ways of answering this question. I like to start by kind of saying first, there's kind of this really wide umbrella of forest medicine, which you could say really encompasses a whole bunch of different modalities that include psychological models or eco psychological models or medical therapeutic practices, all these different things, kind of coming under one heading of forest medicine.
And some of the differences between shinrin yoku, forest therapy, forest bathing, are cultural, and some of them are also kind of pop cultural, like as the term forest bathing kind of leaked into the world in the last five years. A lot of people have started doing things that there hasn't been a, like a international standardized method and calling it forest baiting.
So there's a lot of different ways that this idea has been interpreted. I like, I'm not an expert in Japanese culture or necessarily an expert even in their forest medicine practices, but we've sent some colleagues over to Japan to experience shinrin yoku. And what they reported was that the process is like at the beginning, you get your blood pressure and your salivary amylase tested.
So there's a medical testing component to it. And then you go for a series of activities that can include breathing and yoga in the forest and sitting in the onset and making soba noodles and having a really healthy lunch. And it's basically like a deep rest and relaxation practice since the 1980s.
Part of the effort to bring forest therapy, shinrin yoku, forest bathing into their society was actually addressing two cultural problems. The first was a health problem and people living in the city were having health impacts from urbanization and they needed to go out into the woods basically to revitalize their immune system.
But then the other piece was that as people moved to the city, the economic viability of rural communities kind of went away because all the workers were leaving. So building these forest therapy roads was a way to economically revitalize the rural prefectures in Japan. So then you can consider that shinrin yoku, it's kind of a really simple and beautiful practice of immersing yourself in nature that draws from a bunch of different influences and modalities.
Although most all of them in the Japanese context are obviously specifically culturally Japanese. So then forest therapy, the Japanese actually have a bunch of different ways of doing this and I've met different people that do it differently. Now, ANFT, I think the, the one big piece that kind of separates the way we define forest therapy is the outcomes that we're really thinking about in our philosophy.
We tend to think that the mental and the physiological health benefits of immersing yourself in nature, don't require a lot of facilitation. You basically just have to go outside like nature is the healer in that way. So what a forest therapy guide does is really more relational or emotional work with the aim of connecting people in an emotional sense to the forest so that they cultivate a deep relationship with it.
So in this way, I think that one of the ultimate outcomes we're really looking for is not necessarily tied strictly to human health, but an emotional reciprocity and a deep relationship between people and nature, or as we say, the more than human world and how that relationship can actually begin to transform the way people live their lives, both in terms of, you know, their own social, human reality, but also with the planet and with the species that they share their homework.
Pamela: [00:05:29] That is really beautiful. Can you say a little bit more about the term reciprocity in the context of nature connection and forest therapy?
Ben: Sure. [00:05:40] Well, I guess so reciprocity is kind of defined as a relationship where there's equal give and take. So traditionally in the mythology of our culture, nature is a resource to be taken.
And there's very little attention placed on what is given back. And of course this is a very modern industrial Western kind of approach. And I'm not saying that this is how it's been forever. This is just one of the dominant stories that we live in, in our culture today. So part of the effort in cultivating a sense of reciprocity is first to have to help people understand that nature is not an object.
Because as long as they're stuck in the story, that nature is an object. You can't have a reciprocal relationship with an object. You need to be in a relationship with something that has the same fundamental dignity of being that you have. And I think that's part of the, like the cultural problem facing us ecologically and economically is that as long as we think of nature as a, as an object or a resource, we can't understand how to be in proper relationship with it.
And I feel like there's lots of people all around the world that are saying this, this fundamental thing that it's about rethinking our psychology or about our relationship with the more than human world. And then I think part of it is also the way we think about reciprocity tends to be very material.
So a lot of times when we think about doing something for the earth, it includes picking up trash or planting trees or something like that. And I am all for that. Like that is wonderful. And that's an absolutely fundamental act of reciprocity. Then, I don't think we should overlook senses of emotional reciprocity where in a forest therapy walk, you'll see people have this really deep, emotional experience.
And maybe what that brings is tears or praise or grief or happiness and joy. And that these things are shared within the context of a relationship. So we're basically cultivating a space where people are normalizing the idea that nature connection means you have an emotional connection to the land.
And that that emotional connection is like the currency of relationship. Like when we are alive, when we're not numb from living in like an incredibly oppressive culture. When we come into our relationships, I think it awakens all these emotional reactions that the way I think of them as they are kind of gifts for the earth, like, especially praise and grief.
Like these things are such an integral way of reforming our, our ideas and our worldview about how the world operates. That it's like, this is the evidence of a relationship happening. And it's like that with, you know, you think about human relationships. It's like, If you've been in a long-term relationship with someone, you've probably had grief and you've had praise and you've had joy and you've had these things.
[00:08:47] And the sharing of that experience is the gift. Like it's not material, it's not just that you're with someone for a long time and you buy them a car or you buy them a house or you buy them something it's like, there are material gifts, but then the real gift is the shared emotional experience. That's where the reciprocity lives.
Pamela: [00:10:10] Thank you for that. It's I mean, I can see it's really a fundamental shift in how we live in the world and how we exist on our planet and with our planet. And I think what, what segues into that, the sense of imagination versus the imaginal sense and what role that plays in really developing this relationship with nature.
Ben: [00:10:38] Right. So I read this book recently, the Lost Knowledge of Imagination by Gary Lachman. And it's a wonderful book. And in it, he makes some points that really struck me as being really applicable to the practice of forest therapy. One is that humans in our evolution have created dual senses of interacting with our conscious reality.
The first is what we could call a kind of scientific approach. That's very useful when we're talking about quantifiable phenomenon. So if you want to build a house or you want to design a car, you need to have this kind of logical, rational, scientific approach to figure out how you're going to do that.
And then there's this other way that humans perceive reality when they're interfacing with things that are unquantifiable or kind of not possible to make them logical. So something like love for instance, is something that we kind of need a sense of imagination to understand, because it speaks in this language of metaphor and archetype and symbols and these things can't be atomized, you know, you, you can't pick apart love. And my, you know, my opinion is it's not meant to be picked apart in that way. It's not meant to be. You can't apply a, a hypothesis statement and say, if you do X, Y, and Z, you create love. It's just not how it works. So Lachman says that since the enlightenment period, we've been having a cultural shift where things that are not provable have been thought of as being imaginary, And that's where he introduces this really useful distinction, but there's a difference between the imaginary and the imaginal.
So the imaginary is when we consciously create fantasies and we are in control of that imagination. And also when we make up a story about there being mythological creatures in the forest or something, now we're in control of that, that fantasy. We're creating an imaginary world. And then the imaginal is when something happens that is coming through the process of imagination, but you're not controlling it at all.
So in forest therapy, things will happen. Like someone will experience hearing a voice that they will say comes from, say a rock or a tree or the sky or the river. And it feels to them that they heard something that was not coming from them. They weren't. They weren't saying, oh, I hope the trees says this to me.
And then it says it, you know, it's like they receive something from the world that did not originate within them, but came through the process of the imaginal and Lachman likes to highlight that this is not limited to mysticism or esotericism. There's also thinkers like Pascal and Isaac Newton and Einstein that all said that creativity and the imagination is an incredibly powerful way of perceiving aspects of this reality that we can't hold in our hands.
Like we need to embrace this dual, these dual ways of perceiving. It's not to say that science isn't good. And it's not to say imagination isn't real. It's just that these things collectively create a much richer, psychological experience and contributes to a sense of wellbeing and wholeness because we're, we're connecting to reality in the way that we're meant to. I think it's interesting that Lachman talks a lot about how the erosion of the imagination has also lead to a society where people feel very meaningless because if everything is hyper logical, then there's very little space for things like love or freedom or creativity,.
If everything just has to be as efficient as possible we lose some of the musicality or some of the artistry of our consciousness. Forest therapy, I think really does awaken that in people. And I think that's like a gateway into the imaginal. Like when we slowed down enough that we stopped thinking about stuff and we're really present and we're really connected, then the imaginal just organically awakens.
Because we don't send people out to have imaginal experiences and yet they do it just kind of naturally as a byproduct of a deep, sensitive body myth. And I could probably talk about this forever, but
Pamela: I just want to ... deep sense of embodiment… Can you say more about that? What, does that, what does that mean?
Ben: Yeah. So one of the metaphors I use to describe this as I think it's like nature speaks a language. That we can understand. And it's like music, it speaks everyone's native language. It's not speaking in such a way that anyone is excluded, but we can't learn to understand the language through a cognitive process.
So we can't figure it out by thinking about it because when I train people, I like to tell them, you know, okay. The body is always right here in the present moment. You can't taste the strawberry in the past. You can't taste it in the future. You can't hear the sound of the bird call in the future and you can't hear it in the past.
And it's interesting actually trying to do this, like trying to construct a memory of a sensory experience and trying to project into the future of what it could feel like later. They are very lacking in comparison to the actual experience, which is so rich and so present. And so the body is like this gateway to the present moment.
And the mind is usually abstracting us from the moment and projecting us into the future or into the past. This is very common, right? What am I going to do tomorrow? What do I have to do later? What's for dinner? What? You know, all these questions constantly pull us out of the moment. So embodiment is just getting like a shifted awareness from our cognitive process into our somatic process, into the process of experiencing this moment through our body. And when you combine that with the action of slowing people way down, this deep state of embodiment can settle in where all of a sudden people are hyper present.
And sometimes that can make people feel kind of strange because we're so rarely in that space. And when we're in that space, things can happen through this imaginal sense that I think are really powerful. And they're really, they really inform people's relationship to beings like trees and animals and sky and wind and rock ,water.
Like they all find a way that makes sense to them. It's like how you can take, you can take someone to an art museum in any country. As long as they can see the art, it will make them feel something. And that's kind of like getting people into the forest when you're really present with what is there it's going to seek to you somehow.
You know, we use that phrase when we like a piece of art, we say, oh, it really speaks to me. And it's like, well, what is it saying to you? In ancient Greek culture, all the Oracles were blind because you had to hear the voices of the mythological world.
You couldn't see it, seeing was for only what was tangible and real, but it was the sense of listening that evoked this connection to other worlds or the world as it is, but that we can't see, and we can't touch. So, yeah, I think when we experience things, speaking to us like that, it's kind of that same thing.
Pamela: [00:18:24] We're just connecting really deeply. Yeah, It certainly is my experience as a guide on, on many walks that, you know, people will go out on their solo experiences for 10 to 20 minutes and then come back and report back something really profound that has happened. And yeah. That they didn't think about that was not the goal of, of, you know, getting a profound insight.
Ben: [00:18:49] Right. Well, that's like the magical thing. And I think it's one of the reasons why I like to tell people, having a trained certified guide is really important. If this is the kind of the work you're looking to be doing. As the guide is trained in order to facilitate the experience without coercing people into having a specific experience that they've designed for them.
So we say the forest is the therapist. The guide opens the door and it's, it's a real art and a skill that all guides have to cultivate in order to really create open spaces for people to have authentic experiences and not to get people to go out and do something that they've engineered for them to experience, because then the forest really isn't the therapist.
And that's the fascinating thing about this. This kind of musical quality to the forest is. You don't need to teach someone how to listen to music. You know, it doesn't matter if they understand the language that is being sung in the song, you can say to them, just listen to this and let it be that. And instead of saying, listen to this and notice this and notice that and notice this thing instead of pointing it all out and deconstructing it, it's basically just saying, just listen.
That's where the connection is. That's where the power is.
Pamela: [00:20:06] Yeah, beautiful. Ben. I'm just so curious because I know you're always out there developing and learning and, and on your own creative edge, what is your own developmental edge as a forest therapy guide right now?
Ben: [00:20:22] Well, right now I've been thinking a lot about what unconditional love means in an ecological sense.
I've noticed that a lot of people. Say that they love the earth. And I've noticed that there's also this thing about ... people love the earth a lot more when it's lush and biodiverse and is kind of teeming with life. And that there's kind of a little bit of a bias about if the life goes away, is the land still lovable?
And I think this in some way really speaks to the conversation about climate change, global warming. Because there's a lot of, we need to save the earth. Whereas I'm kind of wondering myself, whether what we really need is to love the earth and to love it unconditionally. I think about, you know, using a comparison with a human relationship, it's kind of like, if you are in love with someone and you committed to loving them, and then they get cancer, do you stop loving them because they're sick?
And so there's kind of this same question for me, the earth, where like, I feel like I've made a really kind of unconditional relationship with the earth where I'm, I know I'm not powerful enough to shape all the circumstances of the world, but I know I'm capable of controlling that, that I can make that choice to be in an unconditional relationship, whether the earth is hot or cold or covered in ice or biodiverse and teaming with life. And this feeling really connected to whatever happens without a sense of judgment about what is right or what is wrong, what's good or what's bad. And I find that for me, as I relax into this idea, which was at first very edgy, I feel like it has changed the quality of my relationship with the land.
In a way that promotes a sense of love over a sense of fear, because I think having any conditional relationship is also going to have a lot of fear in it, because if there are conditions on the love, you're always going to fear that the conditions won't be met and then the love will be gone. And that's the worst thing possible.
So we remove the conditions, then maybe we can promote a sense of love that is. More deeply rooted in like what is going to be, is going to be, and I'm always going to love this place.
So I kind of wonder whether maybe when you do a lot of forest bathing, maybe you kind of get there a little more, but I think there are many paths to relationship with the world and that's just kind of where I'm at right now.
Pamela: [00:23:16] Thank you for sharing that. And in closing, I want to ask you one practical thing that you can share with the listeners that people can do?
Ben: [00:23:29] just slow down and be here.
Pamela: [00:23:33] I can certainly do that today, Yeah, very good for me.
Ben: [00:23:38] I think I could too, probably. It's funny how, even when you think about this stuff all the time, it's not easy to do.
Pamela: [00:23:46] Thank you so much, Ben,
Ben: [00:23:47] Of course.
Pamela: [00:23:48] Yeah. Thank you for, for sharing and for all you have these pearls of wisdom and experience. And for now I'm going to say goodbye.
Ben: [00:23:59] All right. Thank you so much for having me.
Pamela: [00:24:02] Thank you. Bye-bye.
If you would like to find out more about Ben page's work and also check out his brand new book, 'Healing Trees: A Pocket Guide to Forest Bathing', you can find all that at www.integralforestbathing.com.
We hope you have enjoyed this interview and found inspiration in it for yourself or just for any daily activities. The relation to nature is not only when we go to the forest, but in our daily lives as well.
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