How forests can help us heal, and this healing can’t be rushed (this post is a lot like Shamanism 101)
One of the great joys of living in Scotland is the beauty of our natural forests. Of course, we have very few natural forests left, so it’s doubly important to celebrate those few sacred places.
An acquaintance said of me last weekend that the trick to keeping me happy is simply to take me to a forest once a week, and truer words were never spoken!
To experience nature is to experience spirituality. The Spirits are always around us, whether we’re working in a skyscraper or on the land, but when we go to natural places, and we experience that deep green quiet, we can connect to our spirituality on a different level.
I am incapable of walking through a forest quickly, often to the annoyance of whomever is walking with me. For this reason, I tend to do my forest walks alone.
For me, forests are not meant to be treated like the motorway, a way to get from A to B, unconscious and unaware of what is happening around us, and only focused on our destination. Under such circumstances, any healing efforts that those Spirits cast in our direction need to be very loud indeed, if we are to slow down and notice.
In contrast, forests are meant to be experienced and savored. They offer an opportunity to exhale and engage with the elements around us in a powerful and healing way. They offer an opportunity to be in the presence of the old ones, and maybe, if we’re lucky and they’re feeling generous, learn a thing or two.
Are there tree spirits?
Yes. There are most certainly are tree spirits.
Every living thing has spirit. It’s that light to which we connect. It is in trees, rocks, animals (including humans), plants, rivers and oceans. We are all medicine.
In many indigenous communities, medicine people learn about trees and plant medicine by quietly sitting under or beside a specific tree or plant for hours/days/weeks. And this is simply the introduction. It takes years to build these relationships. We cannot pretend to understand a certain medicine, or begin to use it in our practices, without first having taken the time to get to know it.
And I don’t mean reading a book or taking a course. All of that is important too, and it helps, so I don’t mean to knock it, but I’m referring to the spiritual exchange that happens when we simply slow down, open our hearts and bodies to what that medicine is trying to tell us. This is the very foundation of shamanism and surprisingly, it’s a practice that many modern practitioners skip.
Your very own forest ceremony
But you don’t need to be a practitioner or healer to experience the power of the forest or partake in the healing these plants and medicines offer.
Ceremony can be a simple and quiet affair. We support the forest, it supports us. We hold space for it, it holds space for us. This kind of ceremony belongs to everyone.
If you’re interested in Shamanism, then I’d like to present my three-step program for How To Walk Through a Forest, or more aptly called:
1. Go to the forest
I’d recommend finding a natural forest if you can.
In Scotland and Ireland, these are few and far between, but most council areas will have one somewhere.
If it’s summer, go at dusk when all the families and dog walkers have gone home (in Scotland, it’s light till 11pm in summer, so you can safely go during evening hours and not worry about getting lost in the dark or poked in the eye with a branch). If it’s winter, learn to share your sacred place with families and dog walkers 😉
I can’t tell you how many people, when I ask about local forests, direct me to tree plantations.
While tree plantations can certainly be beautiful in their own right, and I have happily done ceremony in a forest plantation and brought the medicine from that ceremony into my work, they are different. To understand why a tree plantation feels different, I’d recommend reading the book, The Hidden Life of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben.
For now, suffice to say that a natural and bio-diverse forest, complete with fungi, lichen and insects, is a place of great and healthy power you can tap into.
2. Slow the frig down
Or stop altogether.
Sit down. Close your eyes. Exhale.
Think with your heart, feel with your mind (thank you, Joe!)
You will hear the sounds of the forest around you. You may feel a breeze as it brushes your arms, or the small buzz of an insect.
Be present. Smell the earth beneath your feet. Perhaps you hear a stream in the distance, or the craw of a crow who’s watching your ceremony with interest. Notice the scent of the leaves above you and the humus of the forest floor.
Now, stop focusing. Just stop – let it go.These moments of not trying are when we feel the forest spirits.
We hear the trees speaking in our stomachs, and it creates a knowing. We sense their joy or grief. Their energy touches us, and it’s hard to miss.
The ferns or bracken on the forest floor have much to say as well. Be present to these whisperings. If the forest is healthy, you will feel that. If it is sad or anxious, you will feel that too. Sometimes we can feel the grief or fear the forest holds, and there nothing to do but cry. These are powerful bodily experiences to have.
3. Repeat frequently
With time, it will be hard to walk through a forest without feeling these things. Without greeting the trees, and the medicines. Wishing the saplings good luck and making a wide berth around those trees that ask you step back.
This is how we learn to walk with respect. Once we are aware of the incredible diversity of the Spirit world, and we are able to connect to the great web of energy within a healthy forest, it is hard to go back. It is hard to walk through these sacred places unconsciously.
How Trees Help You Heal
It’s possible to create individual relationships with individual trees, rocks or streams.
For example, one of the things Daniel Leonard taught me was how to work with trees for my own personal healing.
Trees are very good at transmuting energy.
Let’s imagine we are carrying pain over a breakup or stress from a toxic workplace. Trees can remove much of that pain and stress from our bodies, and send it back to the Creator.
But first, we need to feel that the land we are on welcomes us. If we feel that, then we need to find a tree that is willing to work with us.
How to Approach a Tree To Work With You
We approach trees as we approach elders. Carefully, quietly, and with reverence. We ask permission to approach. If the tree says ‘move along,’ we respect it and move along. If the tree says, ‘yes’, we enter its energy field with gratitude.
Next, make an offering. I was taught my spirituality in an indigenous North American setting, so I always offer tobacco. But you offer what is appropriate as per your culture, your preference, and your intuition. Fruit. Hair. Whisky. Art… Honestly, I don’t care what you offer – that’s between you and that grandfather/grandmother tree. The only wrong answer here is not to make an offering.
Once the offering is made, ask the tree to help you. Just because the tree lets you approach doesn’t mean it wants or is even capable of helping you. It may say no. Even if you offer it the hope diamond, it may say no, and your #1 job is to respect that. I mean, you really have no choice here; if it’s not going to help, it’s not going to help.
Like people, trees experience trauma, grief, pain, and weakness. They may be happy to be acknowledged, and appreciate the offering, but they’re simply not in a position to help you, and just like a person, we must respect this boundary. The best move here is to wish it well, share some love and kindness, then move on. But, if the tree is happy to work with you, that’s amazing…
Caution: Shamanic Tree Hugging Ahead
Welcome to the part of the post where I unabashedly and proudly proclaim that the stereotype of the tree-hugging shamanic hippie is 457 per cent TRUE.
Hug that tree. You hug that tree like your life depends on it. You hug that tree like it’s your favourite auntie, the one who made you feel smart, special, and safe when you were growing up.
You have permission, so you may release what you need to release into that tree. Cry. Weep. Rail. Thrash.
Don’t. Hold. Back.
You do whatever you have to do, because that tree will take that emotion, that pain and suffering that you have carried for so long, that confusion and angst, that disappointment and betrayal. Even that jealousy and shame that is usually kept secret – even that. The tree will honour you and send this energy up to the Creator or down into the ground water where it will eventually be carried to the sea.
The important thing is that the pain is no longer within you, and finally you will have space to breath, unfurl your leaves and live the life of freedom and beauty that is your birth right.
What healers these trees are. They keep us healthy, grounded and give us our medicines. They help us feed our children and teach us about community. They talk to us, they teach us, they heal us. And what teachers! The trees remind us how to live tall in this world and how to hold space for ourselves and others. In a healthy forest, trees will combine their resources, deep under the ground, to support the remaining stump of a grandparent tree. They grow in family groups, they talk to each other, they protect each other. They hold such wisdom that to merely stand beside one of those massive grandmother or grandfather trees is an honour and an experience.
I know you know what I mean. We have all felt it.
So, the next time you’re walking through a forest, and your companion tells you to hurry up, let that remind you to walk slower. Or better yet, tell your companion to go ahead without you, because you have important things to do, important beings to talk to, and these conversations simply can’t be rushed.