Tag Archives: ikigai

The Forest Awakens – or starting my journey to become a forest therapy guide

Earlier in September, two weeks before the autumn equinox, I started my 6 month long training to become a certified guide of the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides (ANFT). I traveled to this beautiful rustic lodge at the Grand Lake, Colorado, in the Rockie Mountains where 24 other souls and I would participate in a 8 day long intensive training.

Now we got all a mentor and do a 6 month long on-line practicum. In the next six months I will share some learning experiences and reflections.

Some days later, I found a perfect T-shirt to wear as Forest therapy Padawan

The forest is the therapist.

The guide opens the door. This is one of the first things we learn. We create and sustain safe, meaningful space for participants to explore their relationships with nature, the land and the community. Guides are no teachers or therapists. We do not prescribe or give answers. We do not learn to “fix” people. As a guide we do not judge and say what is wrong or right for someone else. Because we do not know what is best for others. We give space in nature to people to explore, discover, reflect and “fix” things in their own life – if needed. It is about empowerment. A guide is the kind of leader I want to be. I have guided workshops before and created spaces for mostly other young people in Asia and Europe in the past 7 years to learn about different topics , but I feel in the Forest more in my elements, because as a forest therapy guide you work together with the forest. The forest is the partner of the guide and the guide is the partner of the forest.

I have to admit that I am still anxious about being in the forest, for different reasons, but I believe also that my partnership will deepen as a spiral in the next months, years and even decades and that I will trust the forest more and more. I already see I am seeing the “dangers” of the “wild” differently compared with 3-4 weeks ago. The fire is lit. It is up to me to keep it feeding wood.

Forest time

During the 8 day training we experienced also guided forest baths. I have done forest bathing in Japan (eg. Forest Therapy Taking Root and Meeting Japan’s curse spirits during a Forest Bath) but the approach of ANFT focuses much more on ecopsychology. Every time I lost track of time, and the whole training felt like I was 8 days somewhere “between”. The trainers called it tuning into forest time. At the first day of the training I was checking my to-do-lists and social media, but from the moment we started I lost my interest in my to-do-lists and Facebook. I became very present -from the first moment.

We started with a forest bath guided by our lead trainer who is an indigenous woman and powerful story teller from Canada. And I was directly enchanted. I knew I was at the right place. She started the forest bath with acknowledging the ancestors and sharing a bit about the local history so we made sense of the place. This acknowledgement is not present in a Japanese guided forest bath. As I am into environmental justice, local knowledge and environmental history this beginning touched me. Before, people asked me why I did not study the way of the guide in Japan, and I could not give a strong answer, but since that moment I can.

May the Forest be with you

During that first forest bath we got invited to listen to a tree. I was the youngest trainee, and maybe because of that, or maybe because now many young people like Greta Thunberg and Autumn Peltier are standing up (Ecofeminism in 2019) that I decided to sit next to a young tree. And in my head I heard: “good you acknowledge that young beings also have stories to share.

I noticed also how many dead trees were surrounding us. The pine beetle is changing the landscape of the Rockies. I noticed then the drawings these beetles made in the trunk. I recognized a bird.

Often the forest confronted me in almost mystical experiences with some of my inner demons. Or maybe, as I was in forest time and did not occupy my mind with to-do-lists and Facebook likes, I had the time to confront myself. I saw a lot of beard moss, and I know it is a bio-indicator for clean air. I saw it in Norway, and now here, but I did not notice it in Belgium. Of course. My country deals with air pollution.

If I am selfish, I will move to a clean and safe country as Norway, buy a house in the forest and learn to live with the seasons. It calls me a lot, and how longer I stayed in the Rockies how less anxious I became to meet wildlife like bears and coyotes. In contrary, I was almost hoping to spot one and felt a sadness that Belgians do not learn together with other beings as the habitants of Grand Lake.

However I feel I should help making Belgium more “mossbeardy” and rewild it. What I also like about ANFT’s approach is that they do not talk about hazards but about being aware of other beings. A guide tells beforehand how to live and interact with other beings if we would meet them. When the main trainer talked about what to do when we would encounter a black bear, I felt how my thoughts about the forest transformed. It was alchemy! Many people are afraid for the forest, and I realized I also had anxieties and edges, but I started to see the forest as the Force in Star Wars. We are all interconnected, and we can learn so much by opening our senses to the forest or the force around us. We can become more connected with ourselves and the nature around us so we know what to do when – and stay safe.

Call from the Past

Stories can be found in the forest. And stories can be our medicine. At some point I was sitting in a circle with some trainers and other trainees. I heard a sound next to me, and first I was annoyed that someone had not switched off their phone. It was as someone got called. But then I realized the sound came from the dead tree next to me. It was covered with beard moss.

I heard the familiar sound of the wind playing with the dead tree, but this was an eerie sound that I never heard before and made me very nervous. The others noticed how my energy shifted and let me sit somewhere else. I kept an eye on the tree, and felt it could fall, although it was locked in another tree that it was almost impossible that it would hit someone. But some grief overwhelmed me. When I was alone, I cried. Sometimes we need ruptured so new light can enter our hearts, a dear Mexican friend told me after my heart broke again some months ago. And again I felt the healing of a rupture as my tears penetrated my skin. The noise was like a call to the past.

I had to think about my grandfather who died in a forest accident almost 14 years ago. He was the man in my childhood with who I have to thank my closeness to nature. He was my guide in the forest, and when I was ready to learn how to be a guide, the trees took him from me. I knew I was traveling woodwide to learn the lost knowledge from my grandfather and our ancestors. But if he had not died I had not traveled woodwide and collected so many seeds. It is like in the fairytales that Clarissa Pinkola Estes collected in her book “Women Who Run With the Wolves”. The journey of the hero, or the growth of a girl into a woman, starts when the (too) good mother or grandparent dies or leaves. This is how I accepted his death. And when I heard that calling sound of the dead tree, I had to think again about the loss, and also about other beautiful men that left my life.

Medicine wheel

During a breakfast, the main trainer told that indigenous people who traveled over sea navigated with the help of the polar star, but even if it was cloudy they could orient as they could feel where the polar star was. As if a rope connected then with the stars and the land. It reminded me to a cartoon my Mexican friend shared once and I saved, because I also could feel the ropes pulling me back to north/west Europe.

And during the second forest bath, there was twice invitation to follow the direction that felt right. I followed my guts. There were indeed some directions that made me feel bad. And when I was sitting somewhere I realized I might always be drawn to the saw direction. I already knew. I took my compass and saw my intuition was right. I am drawn to the NE, to my home. Later, a trainee let me take a tarot card and I took again the card if the medicine wheel of the compass. A very appropriate card for a woodwide wanderer as me. I know it is time to find back my way to home. I collected most seeds I need for the next phase in my womanhood. It is just waiting if I settle in Belgium or in the Nordic countries, or find a way to combine it.

My first medicine walk

At the last day we had to wander around alone in the nature for a couple of hours. Some days ago I would not have done it. I did not want to go walk alone, but this time I trusted the Forest and my connection with it.

At the end of the six months we have to do a more intense to reflect about the “medicine” we can give to the world and ourselves. I realized again how story telling – and forest therapy guiding – are mine. I could not resist to stop and write down. I wrote mostly in English, but also in Dutch. I am dreaming in two languages, or something between. These words came from my heart:

And the tree pointed me back to look to the north east

There is a path

You will meet your spirit animal

Golden spiderwebs

And I could see the path

There was an awareness there

Over roots

So many references to the wood wide web and weave my stories in it

Different shades of green

A humming bird – is it ?

Many butterflies and moths colored in sunshine

A mouse runs in hurry

Sit on boomstronk

Older Tree invites me to come closer

I miss to be hugged

Beard moss – I miss the touch of his beard

He is the one

He was always the one

A hole

Snake hole

Is it?

There are so many places to go in the soil

Grashalmen in zonneschijn op een rots deden me stoppen

Hier is het

Dennenbomen

Dode dennenbomen

Aspen

I like to be in a cold place

Troebel beeld, boom leek te groeien

I am somewhere between.

En there was again the hummingbird

One meter from me. And I knew.

Aspen and golden threads

How is it that I did not feel the rags?

And I notice the directions they are climbing too

The east, the northern east

Moving stone in the water

Chipmunks

Lying on the rock

I look up and feel safe

Aspen and sunlight

Let go the expectation of the humming bird coming for a third time

He will come, but be late

A shift

Do not stay too long

Something Is coming from the west

A shriek that made me go

Walk fast

And I am on the trail I know

But is it the same trail?

I do not recognize

Suddenly I see new things

Like blue berries

But they aren’t

It reminds me to him

Potatoes

I go closer – but they are mushrooms

Tempting to eat, pluck….

but I should not

Not now, not here

Blueberries, potatoes and beards

It reminds me all to him in the north east

Why did I never see them before?

While I have been so much?

Abundance of rose hips

Pride because I see it

And I keep walking

Cross new spaces

It looks so new and strange

As if I am somewhere else

And I pauze

Moss beds

And pines

The sunlight

Go deeper

But no path

Only a small inham, stop and write

It is ok to write

It is who you are

A new path of grass

Beautiful green

The last sit spot in the shades of two pine trees covered in beard moss

Beard moss spinrag sunlight

The bees smelling the pine

The river

Peace

And I hear the tree

Zoemen

brommen

again

drumcirkel

Is it the same tree of the last days?

Come back soon

It is the same tree.

So far.

It is the heart of the tree

A kiss

Darkness and holes at the pine left from me.

Spiderwebs and the underworld.

My book cover

My business.

Storytelling and forest therapy

My medicine.

On my way to the circle

I paused at the tree

Put my Head on it, on the moss

Felt the beard

I know

And I return

The Hummingbird

I thought for 7 years that the wolf was my spirit animal, although I never did a test and went to a liminal space to confirm it. I had expected a bigger spirit animal. It is not always the case that you see your spirit animal during a medicine walk, I think, but when I started I felt it would come. I just had expected something … bigger. However … when I read about the hummingbird it made sense. I have to read more about the hummingbird, but I will find time in the next 6 months to study it and write a blog about my connection with this animal.

After the 8 day training, I joined other young spirits to the Grand lake. My stay in this place was over, but I knew….

This is just the beginning …

Okinawa: from its longevity secrets to mischievous tree trolls

Some weeks ago I visited Okinawa, the subtropical island of Japan which is famous to count the most centenarians per capita in whole the world.

Why do people get so old? – the diet

I noticed indeed that the citizens seem to be more relaxed and really enjoy the good life (and all the American influenced food and drinks unfortunately too). I enjoyed myself with getting massages, walking and wandering around and joining Japanese ladies from my guest house to dive into Okinawa’s soba and beer. These Japanese bonvivants introduced me to the expression shiawase butori, which means happily plump

At some point we were not that far from Ogimi, which is famous for the high amount of 100 year old people in the world. According to some experts it is because of a certain diet… which is not the food that you find in many restaurants in current Okinawa. That Blue Seal ice-cream will not make you 100 year old. I think that the American occupation since the Second World War until some decades ago broke some healthy lifestyle aspects of Okinawa. However, I found also sometimes places where they serve the healthy traditional Okinawa food:

okinawa1

Why do people get so old? – ikigai

I think it is more than just the right diet. It is a combination of their lifestyle, in combination with the weather, the fact that medical world progressed,

the fact that Japan’s economy progressed, maybe because there are so many turtles in Okinawa, the symbol for longevity and wealth…

and  the fact that they keep working because they found/know their ikigai. 

okinawa2

If you want to know more, some people wrote books or internet blogs about it,
probably also in your mother tongue too. I will illustrate what ikigai can mean.

 

This old man’s calling and ikigai

One morning, my friendl and I experienced a outrigger sailing cano adventure, organized by Tom, in the turquoise blue waters of Okinawa, a subtropical island of Japan. After a typhoon damaged the boat, Tom decided it was time to repair and fix his cano after 7 years for six months. When I found him through AirBnb experience, I read he would offer experiences from May onwards. It was end of April when my friend and I were in Okinawa. You do not get things if you keep silent, so I wrote him and that motivated him to get the last things done. We had to wait for the weather, if there was enough wind etc, but it all worked out for us. Just before the trip, he thanked us for motivating him to finish this earlier. 

 
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One thing about outrigger sailing canoes: these boats do not have a rudder, so you need a pedal to steer the boat. 
 
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He made the cano himself and it took him 18 months (he did not work full time) and used a manual for outrigger canoes. His cano is also bigger. He used cedar wood, which is a very present tree in Japan. He used the Polynesian placemats that his father gave him once as a present … because for what else to use them? 
 
While the sea breeze played with our hair and I felt the sun tickling my face, he explained my friend and me how he and his wife got in Okinawa. After living for 28 years in Yokohama region, his wife and he felt it was time to move to a space where they wanted to live until the end. It has to be close at the ocean and it has to be warm. They thought about many options like the Philippines and Indonesia but could not figure it out in the next months. They needed a place where they also could start a business and learning a language to do business takes too much time. 
 
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During a church mass, while they were singing, he thought to move to Chiba close to Tokyo which has an ocean but was cold. 
Suddenly a voice told him to consider Okinawa. He never has been there but this voice felt very powerful. After the mass he told his wife about this mystical experience and she also said a voice has told her to also move to Okinawa. They checked out the place and knew this God chosen place was gonna be their new home. They live and work here happily (but not happily plump) for already 8-9 years. 

Why do people get so old? – Moai

I had already read about the moai, or strong relationships between them, as I joined a small PhD team research about social acceptance of internal immigrants in the rural mountainous villages in the north of Nagoya. In Okinawa, they say it is stronger. It was maybe not surprising that my friend and I got promptly invited by this bunch of men, who were mostly employees of Orion, the local beer factory, to join their food festivity (to celebrate the start of Golden Week, we assume). They seemed fun and it was outside, so …  why not?

But what are moais?

Moais came to existence in more difficult times, when farmers helped each other by exchanging information  about the best cultivation practicies or also to help each other when the harvest failed. The members of a moai gave monthly a fixed membership fee to a shared pot, which sponsored the meetings and the meals. To have a feeling to belong somewhere and support each other gives some security and contributes to stay longer young.

Last, but not least, Okinawa has tree trolls!

My inner child always comes alive when I find nice folk stories, myths and fables about trolls and fairies.
 
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They live in banyan trees, also called the tree of happiness, or the tree that walks, because the aerial root grows into a trunk and gradually moves itself from 

its original position over a long period of time. These trees were planted for windbreaks (there are big typhoons here) and residential use. But yes some people burn incense and pray under the tree, because they believe in the tree spirits.

Listening to these stories, it reminds you that cherishing your the inner child also keeps you long forever:

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This is what I found on-line about the tree trolls of Okinawa:

Mischievous by nature, kijimuna are known to play tricks on humans; one of the most common involves laying on the chest of human during sleep, making them immobile and unable to breathe (kanashibari; sleep demons associated with sleep paralysis are common among Japanese yōkai). Kijimuna, much like other yōkai, are often associated with mysterious fires and have been seen covered in ghostly flames running along beaches or riverbanks. If one were to wake up and discover a paper lantern missing, it’s quite possible a kijimuna hijacked it in the middle of the night and ran off. Kijimuna hate octopus above all else. So keeping an octopus around is the best way to ward off any potential attacks or hijinks from a bored kijimuna on the prowl. 

 

Despite such devious tricks, kijimuna are generally good at heart and also known to befriend humans. Such friendships, however, are relatively short-lived due to the puckish and jealous nature of kijimuna. Known to be excellent fishermen, if a kijimuna really likes a human they’ll give fishing tips and perhaps even offer the bodies of the fish they’ve caught—after eating out the fish’s eyeballs, of course. Yet, if a human doesn’t offer gratitude and gifts in exchange for a kijimuna’s kindness, the kijimuna will soon lash out, behaving in a childish manner and bring the friendship to an abrupt end. 

 

Like many of the numerous yōkai in Japanese folklore, kijimuna are an essential part of the Okinawan lifestyle. Tales of kijimuna have been passed on from generation to generation for centuries. Nearly every Okinawan young and old can happily rattle off a kijimuna folktale from memory. Images of kijimuna can be found all over the island (check, I have a whole bunch of photos of them now) and have even invaded popular culture in the form of anime and manga characters. So they next time you come across a hyperactive, orange-haired fairy with with an oversized head and hands, you’ll know it’s a kijimuna.

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Postcard which I purchased in the museum about Bokunen Naka, a famous woodblock print artist from this region. 

I have a feeling I might return to Okinawa, or for sure to the other southern islands of Japan ;). I am very intrigued by  Yakushima, the mystical island that inspired Ghibli Stidio makers for princess Mononoke, counts many thousand year old trees and had good hikes.