Zen and the Art of Forest Therapy
While in Sydney, I had the opportunity to spend a whole day with Mayu Kataoka, a talented photographer and Certified Forest Therapy Guide with the Japan Forest Therapy Society and INFTA (International Nature and Forest Therapy Alliance). She picked me up on an early Sunday morning and we headed into the Blue Mountains west of Sydney to visit Mountain Spring, one of Thich Nhat Hanh's newest Plum Village monasteries. Every Sunday the nuns and monks host Mindfulness Day which is open to the public and includes a mindfulness walk, lunch, dhamma talk, and meditation. We had lots of time to get to know each other on the drive as well as throughout our peaceful day at the monastery.
Mayu's love of nature began as a child. Unlike me where I experienced an awakening during my forest therapy immersive training, she has always embodied nature connection which is what drew her to nature photography. And discovering forest therapy as a career opportunity further deepened her passion and purpose. Trained both in Japan and Australia, she brings a unique perspective to the practice that merges Shintoism, traditional shinrin yoku and Westernized forest therapy. In Japan, forest therapy is very different. It's more like a naturalist walk where the guide is talking, and pointing out interesting plants and facts. Participants share as they go along quietly walking, talking, and asking questions. In Mayu's view, "We are human beings after all. We like to share and comment--did you see that? It's fun. You feel more energized and have a happy feeling when the experience is shared."
As a forest therapy guide, I'm part of the Forest Guide Circle, a global community of guides who support each other. Our last two meet-ups have been focused on the topic of shinrin yoku. There has been much debate about how the Japanese idea of Shinrin Yoku inspired forest therapy. Here under the protective share of a sacred deodar tree, Mayu beautifully describes what shinrin yoku means to her having grown up in Japan.
What is shinrin yoku?
One of the core practices of Thich Nhat Hanh is mindfulness walking. I first experienced it when I was at Plum Village in France with a group of 300 people. Similar to a forest therapy walk where we slow down in the moment, we walked together in silence like a river quietly flowing through the forest.
At Mountain Spring, Mayu and I joined the smaller group of about 25 people matching our breath to each step while taking in the nature around us. Like a true forest therapy guide, Mayu would often veer away to touch and smell the trees and plants along our path. At one point, she shared a sprig of tea tree, a plant I had never smelled before.
Midway, the whole group stopped and in silence, looked at the pond, and listened to the sounds of birds, insects, and breathed in the scents around us. This was very similar to a sit-spot experience in forest therapy.
Before lunch Mayu and I sat in the shade and shared our favourite forest therapy invitations. Mayu demonstrated a new one for me that she calls "Sound mapping".
Invitation: How to make a sound map
Mayu often invites creativity in her walks with y-shaped sticks that participants can use to collect found items to make unique works of natural art.
I have always admired the deep meanings of Japanese words and Mayu weaves "Wabi Sabi" into her nature practice. Wabi Sabi is a Japanese expression referring to an Aesthetic concept of perceiving beauty in imperfection. "Wabi" means "The beauty of the simple and rustic things", and "Sabi" means "the deterioration by passing time". The concept of Wabi Sabi was developed by Sen no Rikyu (千利休), a founder of the Japanese Tea Ceremony. His practice was to focus on rustic simplicity rather than showing off expensive tea bowls.
In nature, "Wabi Sabi" is everywhere and Mayu gave the example of a leaf stuck to the bottom of your shoe and thinking about the journey the leaf has been on to arrive there. Mayu also integrates the wabi sabi concept in her tea ceremony with rice crackers and green tea served in wooden cups. She includes scrolls with individual messages for each participant to ponder and share.
She often ends her forest therapy experiences with a poem. The Paradox of Time is one of her favourites.
I am grateful to have had the opportunity to connect with Mayu, someone who exudes love and care of all beings, human and more than human world. It was a beautiful day of mindfulness, nature connection, and a new friendship.
You can find Mayu at the Lane Cove National Park, Sydney Botanical Gardens, and in the Blue Mountains.
For more information and to organize an event, visit www.forestminds.com
Follow Mayu on Instagram @forestminds_mayukataoka