Shinrin-Yoku Walks is thrilled to share this awesome interview with Nicole Daspit, who is soon leading this special event organized by the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy ~

The Awakening of Eros in Forest Therapy: An Inquiry Workshop with Nicole Daspit
Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, Occidental California
February 17, 2017

Tell us about Eros. How did you first experience Eros in Forest Therapy?

I use the term Eros in the sense of the embodied life force, contrary to Plato’s version where it is an idealized love, not connected to the physical. I am also using it in a broader sense than strictly physical desire, to encompass all the ways in which we experience aliveness. I have always been drawn to natural environments but when Amos Clifford (founder of ANFT) first invited me on a Forest Therapy walk, I was immediately struck by how I was being invited to be in nature, less as a spectator or a lovely backdrop to my separate life experience and more as a part of the living landscape and to be in relationship. I remember walking on a path at my local park and Amos said something very simple about just noticing what I was drawn to. I saw this beautiful live oak tree that I had never really noticed before which I experienced as waving to me. I went closer and closer feeling so drawn in and delighted with how its spring green leaves were so soft and unlike the spiky leaves that they have for most of the year. He suggested that I could interact more with the tree and so I touched the leaves, inhaled the fragrance of the light green leaves, caressed the bark and became completely immersed in this beautiful oak. I emerged from the tree with tears streaming down my face. It wasn’t “just” a tree anymore. “It” became a “she” who was a sentient being, responding to me and I to her and I was deeply touched. It was then that I noticed how embodied I felt, how soft my breathing was and how effortlessly and unselfconsciously I was able to come into that state. Talk therapy and meditation seemed like a struggle in comparison. For several days after that, I continued to feel enlivened and I became intrigued by how engaging in those simple invitations and being witnessed could have the effect of reawakening my gratitude in being alive.

How does the suppression of Eros happen? What conditions contribute to it?

This is a big question because it asks us to look at our culture from many different angles and wonder if our societal structures and moral frameworks support the thriving of human beings. Babies are very open and sensual creatures who take pleasure in discovery of the world around them, interacting in a very open ended way with anything and everything. They touch, smell, taste and move with an intrinsic motivation to learn about and interact with the world. Once they are on their feet, they wow us with their seemingly unending supply of energy as they run around and continue to explore and ask questions about everything under the sun. These same exuberant children are the same kids who will be reluctantly jogging around the track in middle school with a sullen expression. So what happens? My sense is that many factors contribute to this loss of contact with eros.

School is a big one because once you get many children together in a room with one teacher, suddenly you have to have a lot of behavior controls and daily agendas which are meant to stimulate learning and maintain group coherence but result in a loss of autonomy, bodily freedom and subject them to force. We start school younger and younger and have expectations that children sit still and other demands that are not really congruent with what we know about child development. Children’s survival depends on them mirroring what adults do and following the rules, so they will suppress their feelings and impulses in order to get along but it has a cost. By third grade, homework has entered their reality, so even after school they are expected to engage in cognitive experiences over bodily or sensorial, and that simply increases as they get older.

Other big factors can be the family system which may or may not be thriving. So many families are suffering from stress, overwork and constant distraction from phones and computers. Parental self-care is not very high, even in higher socio-economic classes. Many families today do not have access to natural environments for their kids to play in and even if they do, neighborhood play is becoming a thing of the past especially for kids 8 and up. At a time when older kids could have fun exploring the neighborhood or the local creek, many kids now stay indoors with video games and movies instead. Parents tend to encourage sports as the chief outlet for meeting kids’ physical needs, including contact. These games have a lot of value for many because they can encourage teamwork and resilience, but at the same time for many kids they feel like closed, controlled systems with winning and competition being the primary values expressed. The body contact from sports is typically aggressive rather than pleasurable although some sports like running and swimming may offer some pleasant sensory contact.

In general, our culture today tends to value cognitive learning, competitive games and virtual experiences over open ended play or direct contact with nature. Children are likely to absorb these values even if they are not the values held by their families or even their schools. By the time they are in high school there can be increased social isolation, deficit of touch, confusing mixed messages about sexuality and body dysmorphia which can lead kids to not trust their bodies or feel that their bodies have betrayed them. If you add in, for instance some kinds of religious instruction which may impart that their bodies are inherently bad and in need of correction or on the other hand a big dose of media and television messages about what kinds of bodies are “ok” or desirable, you can virtually ensure that young people will suffer from a mind-body split over time. All of these factors together add up to a society where young people can end up feeling disconnected from their life energy and basic sensory pleasure.

Children have an instinctive empathy with of the elements of nature. They embody Eros. How does forest therapy bring us back to that place?

I used to run kids’ camps and noticed how children love finding a bug and placing it on a leaf to eat or an earthworm and returning it to the soil. Or if they discover an injured bird, show a lot of empathy and take a great interest in figuring out how to help. Children also love making little homes in nature, hiding in tall grasses, tree stumps nests, building stick houses and so on as if they know that they belong in these natural environments intuitively before they are conditioned to think of nature as dirty or perhaps even dangerous. Forest therapy can help us return to that childlike place of discovery and wonder through the various invitations that may be offered on a walk. Some are quiet and contemplative while others are more playful or creative. The most common thing I hear from people after a walk is “I felt like a kid again!” They also may remark, “Wow, you gave me permission to dawdle, I used to get in trouble for that!” As adults, some common ways to be in nature are: exercising, learning from a naturalist, engaging in an adventure activity or taking a tour. Even when taking a casual walk, we may not stop to linger over some small detail that catches our eye and out of habit we tend to walk in a straight line between two points instead of zig zagging or meandering like a child might. In forest therapy, we offer a space where they can reawaken the kinds of joyful or deeply connected feelings they may have had as children or maybe they are having them for the very first time. Curiosity and wonder are such powerful antidotes to the banality and cynicism which permeate all levels of modern society. All it often takes to return to a place of childlike vitality is the space, permission, a willingness to turn off the phone, and often, a guide, to help us remember how to slow down and offer quiet encouragement.

What do you feel when grounding your body on the earth? What changes happen to you?

Thanks for asking – it has always been such a private thing for me, but is has been so central to my wellbeing for years, that is kind of silly to keep it a secret! My favorite way to spend time in nature is often to simply lie on the ground. I have been doing it since I was a child and didn’t always realize how I was benefiting, though I knew I liked it and would instinctively seek it out. It is a little different every time, but mostly what happens is that initially I get a little sleepy, even if I was not aware of being tired. Then I can feel different parts of my body settling into the earth and I will drop into a dreamy kind of delta state. And then this wonderful kind of homeostasis thing happens where if I had been feeling wired and buzzy, I begin to unwind and feel a new, slower rhythm in my body. If I had been feeling depleted, I experience a kind of burgeoning energy, a filling up of some kind and renewal. Sometimes it is both. Then, after a while, it’s almost like a bell rings and I am no longer in the dream state and I feel really wonderful and ready to get up and face the rest of the day. I have heard people who talk about earthing and offer products to help you ground explain this phenomenon in terms of Schumann waves (earth’s extremely low frequency electromagnetic waves). But, just from an experiential level, I feel like it is a personalized tune up, exquisitely sensitive to my body’s needs at a particular time. It is an experience that has made me wonder about the living intelligence of the earth and my body as an extension of that. It also makes me feel a tenderness and gratitude for the earth because no matter where I go, she is always there for me. I am always wanting to reciprocate that love and special care that has been offered to me.

During your experience training Forest Therapy Guides in New Zealand for ANFT, what did you learn about the impact of language and culture on our perceptions of nature? How did you understand the Maori sense of Eros?

I love this question and it is interesting that a major motion picture called Arrival, has brought up a similar question with its discussion of the SapirWhorf hypothesis: that language shapes your worldview and perceptions. In the film, it is suggested that a language could open doors of perception and even change your experience of time from linear to non-linear. Apparently most linguists today would agree that language influences worldview without saying that it is entirely deterministic or could ever offer such a dramatic change. But I am not so sure! I have felt very impacted by hearing different languages especially in combination with being in nature in those lands. When I hear Swedish, I can practically see the trolls and fairies climbing out from behind rocks in the forest because it’s all in there – the rich mythology is embedded in the language. Even the sing-song sound of it is transporting to me. In New Zealand, I loved any chance I could get to hear the Maori language because I felt transported in a whole different way from hearing it. When a Maori elder sang a song during our first day of training and used a whale tooth flute, I felt I was taking in not just a song and a melody and a way of seeing the world, but actually experiencing the sea and feeling the connection to it. From my extremely limited experience with learning certain Maori phrases from patient New Zealanders, I got the sense that the language is multidimensional and that meaning is layered in a way that reflects the animacy and interconnectedness of the natural world. You cannot therefore translate any one word into a single English definition. And context is everything. As far as the Maori understanding of eros, I am not knowledgeable enough on the topic, but there is a word “mauri” that means something like life force which applies to all things animate and inanimate; mountain, people, plants, rivers. etc. and it implies the interconnectedness of all life on earth. I am sure there are many other colorful Maori words that bring to life aspects of physical desire, love and aliveness, but regrettably, I do not know them yet! If I am lucky, I will get the chance to hear more of the language in the future.

The western view of separating matter from spirit falls apart in the sensuous experience of nature. Plants and trees are sentient, rocks and lands carry energies, animals are intelligent and so on. How does forest therapy relate us to the Eros of a place?

Yes, when we have embodied experiences of nature, a kind of non-dual awareness begins to arise where you can no longer separate matter from spirit, death from life, human from earth or mind from body. Forest therapy is some ways could be seen as help for modern people who have been disconnected over time from the indigenous languages of their own lineages and therefore from the sense of belonging or being a part of the land. Colonialism, immigration, famine and wars have disconnected many of our families from our roots and traditional ways of knowing. Without our old languages, songs and stories to guide us, we are in the position of having to find our way back to the land with no road map. With forest therapy, we can offer an opportunity for people to begin to forge their own relationships with the land where they live now – to begin to experience themselves as part of the landscape, not separate from it. This is a new awareness for many people today, although one as old as our earliest ancestors. Understanding that our wellbeing is intimately related to the wellbeing of our forests, wetlands, grasslands and rivers is critical for our survival, and always has been, yet our economic system, among others, is in denial of this fact. So, beginning to see ourselves as part of the web is the kind of shift in perspective that may be critical to our continued residence on this planet and all the 20,000 plus other species that we share this planet with.

In our busy lives, we need time every day when our parasympathetic nervous system is dominant so that our bodies and minds can “reset” themselves, which is what forest therapy does for us. How does this impact our sense of Eros?

Right and this growing understanding of the nervous system is luckily coming at a time when many, many people are suffering from sympathetic dominance and hopefully able to assimilate this information for their own wellbeing. It has become normalized, in the hyper-fast paced world we live in, to be in a constant state of fight, flight or freeze. We are not only uncomfortable, hostile or shut down, but we are also incapable of being relational with anyone else. We feel less empathy for others, have tunnel vision and generally lose our responsiveness. Intimacy is impossible when we are in fight or flight. Eros is relational and playful, like a river flowing over rocks, a child’s game of peekaboo or a partner dance – we move in response to someone, whether it be a person or a tree or a dog. But we have to calm our systems down enough to be able to be responsive. When bio-intelligent life forms interact, there can be sparks, waves, an alive stillness, or a resonance that can be felt. We are not lifeless machines, although sometimes it seems we want to be so that we can function better in our mechanical and digital society. In many ways I don’t think we have truly claimed our bio-beingness with the love, awe and gratitude it deserves. We are capable of many different forms of communication and have different senses that come “online” so to speak when our parasympathetic nervous system is able to be dominant. In many ways, eros is under threat as we seek to be more and more connected to our machines and digital time rather than enjoy or understand the complex, sensitive apparatus of our own human forms and the necessity of bio time in order to nurture them. Forest therapy is one intervention that can provide this restorative time and give us the space to fine tune our many elegant senses which science is really only beginning to describe.

Forest Therapy is proven to strengthen and heal us. Beyond that, what other directions does this practice offer to people?

Besides the healing benefits you read about in the studies, I think there is much more that the practice of forest therapy can offer. For instance, people often speak of feeling reconnected with things they love that they have somehow forgotten about whether it was a horse they grew up with, walking barefoot on the grass or certain flowers and plants that were dear to their hearts. For others, it may be the energy to complete an important project, artistic inspiration or creative writing. Based on other reflections people have shared, the relationship with nature offers deep wisdom and solace in times of intensity or suffering and a greater ability to face losses. It is impossible to predict what may emerge for someone after they have contacted their own life force and enlarged their perspective of self and nature. Maybe someone might feel called to engage in political activism or more conscientious land stewardship. For me, among other gifts, it has helped increase somatic awareness and provided simpler access points for calming my system since meditation had mixed results for me. I also know those who say nature time helps them meditate “better”so you never know what all the benefits may be for an individual. I suspect the list of possibilities could be as varied and diverse as the people who try it.

What are 3 of your favorite nature places?

Hard to pick just three! Well, one is my backyard because those are the trees and plants I feel closest to and I can go sit under a tree or lie down on the ground in relative privacy. Then I’d have to say Ragle Ranch, my local city park where I guide, because I go there many times a week and feel quite attached to the oak woodlands there. After that it is a toss-up between Armstrong Redwood State Preserve, Sugarloaf Ridge State Park or the beach out at Bodega Bay. Some magical places I’ve had the privilege of visiting are the forests in Varmland in the west of Sweden, the Waitakere ranges near Auckland, NZ and the midwestern deciduous woodlands where I grew up.

Do you have an animal spirit? If so, would you mind sharing with us?

Well, again, I credit Amos Clifford with guiding me to make this connection. I used to have a fear of mountain lions when I hiked in certain areas around here and I was telling Amos about it. I can’t remember exactly what he said, but he asked me to describe the qualities of mountain lions aside from the fear. I said something like, “They are amazing – beautiful, wild and fierce. The look in their eyes that can never be tamed just pierces me to the core! They protect their young. And yet they can utterly relax and rest.” He said, “hmmm…” and there was a long silence letting those words hang in the air. Those of you who know him will know exactly what I am talking about! There may have been a bit more wondering aloud about those qualities, but it was the “hmmmm” and the silence that helped me connect the dots about how I always would pick the mountain lion card every time someone had one of those medicine wheel decks, I have cats at home, big cats came to me in dreams during pregnancy and I even had the imaginal sense when lying down outside with my eyes shut that a mountain lion was lying right next to me. Later I joined a journey circle and mountain lion was the first to show up, so it became clear that I had an ally in mountain lion, whether I was afraid or not! I have learned a lot more about them and their habits too so I am not as troubled by fears of seeing a mountain lion when hiking anymore, though I stay alert. I think if I saw one now I would be more grateful than anything else.

Thank you, Nicole, for this elegant and enlightening interview. May the forest always be with you.

Please enjoy these images from Nicole’s guide training with ANFT in New Zealand ~

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Nicole Daspit is a Certified Nature and Forest Therapy Guide. She has been part of the ANFT team for several of trainings, including in New Zealand. Nicole is also Reiki practitioner who lives in Sebastopol, California, where she frequently guides Forest Therapy Walks at Ragle Ranch Regional Park. She is the creator of Inner Discovery for Kids, a children’s program encouraging nature time, creative expression, free play, sensory awareness, understanding feelings and inner connection. She is also the author of a book for parents supporting children with sensory processing challenges called A Way Out: Meltdown Prevention Tool for Kids with Sensory Overload. Her other passions include herbal medicine, songwriting and spending time with family, preferably in nature!