It’s a winter evening – cold, dark and raining – and we’re camped out on a piece of private land in rural Wiltshire. A tarpaulin stretched between trees offers us some shelter. My client reaches to rearrange the sticks in our firepit; I sit cross-legged nearby. We both gaze into the flames. We haven’t spoken for the past half hour. He seems relaxed in the waves of warmth, watching the interplay of flames and sparks and listening to the crackle. An owl hoots in the distance. I check how he is. ‘At peace,’ he says. For him, this is a much-needed counterpoint to his pressured work day. This evening, we can release ourselves from any pressure or expectation; we can allow ourselves to be ourselves, as we are just now, together, guests among all that live around us here.
‘Wild therapy’ (also known as outdoor therapy, or nature-based therapy), as I practise it, does not always look like this. I have seen this client for 25 outdoor sessions now and each has had a different flavour, according to his mood and the environmental conditions. In evenings with longer daylight, we explore the countryside, searching for the ‘spot’ that fits his mood – perched on an open hilltop, by a flowing stream or among protecting trees. Sometimes he feels agitated and needs to keep moving. Sometimes he seems preoccupied and reflective; at other times, he’s keen to explore and engage with his surroundings.
I have been in conventional private practice, working indoors, for nearly three years and I am branching out to include an outdoor aspect to my work. I have worked this way with several clients now and I am noticing certain patterns. This article is my attempt to bring my experience and understanding together towards developing an integrated, coherent approach: ‘What, why and how is wild (outdoor) therapy?’
Follow the client
I am 44 and come from a pressured, controlled and randomly structured background. I hold within me a rebellious streak – an ever-keen eye towards finding my own way of doing things. I was drawn to the counselling profession by a deep desire to realise reliable relationship and belonging. I also have long experience of life outdoors, having once, at a time of great emotional need, lived nomadically, with bicycle and hammock, among the trees. I have also worked outdoors for many years as a tree surgeon and am a keen bushcrafter. I have always been drawn to the potential for combining the two: to realising the potential of outdoor therapy.
Outdoor therapy is not new. Some offer it quietly as a part of their approach; others have published books about their work – Martin Jordan1 and Nick Totton2 among them. All have their own, unique style.
From my humanistic, integrative approach, I am fascinated by what happens if I mainly follow the client. Of course, I take care to provide a structure that will keep us as safe and comfortable as possible: I have checked with my indemnity insurer as to any safeguards I need to make; I assess the risks, ensure confidentiality and keep the boundaries that are also important to indoor work. With these in place, to what extent can I trust my client to find their ‘spot’ and trust myself to follow where they lead me, physically as well as emotionally?
This is a big question. Indoors, we create the setting; we set the ‘rules’. The power differential is felt by the client, however much we work to equalise it. Outdoors, within the boundary of the available land, the client is free to choose the setting that feels right for them. Sometimes this is a conscious decision; sometimes they let their ‘body do the walking’, often surprising themselves when they find their ‘right spot’. They choose their seat; I check out where they would like me to be before sitting where they want me to sit or where feels appropriate. Each of my clients has told me they find this helpful to their felt sense of mutual respect and safety.
A strength of this approach is that it can make it easier to appreciate how and where each client is. Based on the principle that the client’s inner and the outer worlds largely mirror one another, we can notice how they find their ‘spot’, or their difficulty in finding it. We can notice the qualities of the spot itself, as well as the relationship the client has with the elements around it. For example, does she or he need a view over an open vista or to stay hidden and sheltered among trees? And how does my client allow me into their way of being? Where do I sit in relation to them? We are like figures in our own, dynamic sandbox.
Here is another example, with a female client. We are walking along a wooded path. A fallen tree blocks most of the path. We approach it and my client, unsure, halts – a dilemma: to cross or not to cross? It represents for her a barrier, both physical and emotional. Does she want to cross? What insecurities and excitements are invoked? Is it safe on the other side? And how will we cross: over, under or around? Do I lead or follow? She decides, and we go under. She leads, I follow. On the other side, we take stock: it feels OK, the fear was worse than the doing. Next session, she tells me a long-held secret.
Another major dynamic here is the openness of the space – the absence of walls. A legitimate concern is whether this openness could be too exposing: does the absence of walls imply an absence of containment? I will return to this below. For now, I will say that I’ve noticed that clients who are attracted to this way of working seem to find the opposite. Every client so far has been in indoor therapy before. Each one has remarked on this openness as a strength: that this free space actually feels safer. For them, the walls are oppressive, the closeness and expectancy of the therapist too intense. They value outdoor therapy for its openness, its flow and unpressured freedom. They remark on feeling held by being among life, where death happens and life goes on. It feels spiritual; it feels connected.
And it’s this connection that comprises the last strength I’ll talk about here. Outdoors, we are immersed in and in relationship with the world around us. Perhaps a critique that could be levelled at ‘indoor’ therapies is that they tend to be focused on the world of people. I find myself in accord with Totton2 when he advocates broadening our horizons to include the ‘other than Human’ in our experience of the world. He suggests that to be open to all around us is to allow a perspective that facilitates a greater sense of engagement, connection and belonging. I’ll add that being outside, among animals, allows us to experience more deeply that shared animal perspective. Allowing our more visceral selves to be at one with our surroundings adds to this connection. Perhaps the awareness of our existential insignificance – a tiny speck within a much larger presence – as well as our specialness is a grounding experience, and maybe even a holding and containing one?
Containment seems to me to be the main issue I’ve identified so far. The above is just anecdotal evidence – perhaps just a subjective wish on my part, based on my own unprocessed material. How can I be sure that, when clients trust themselves to allow their raw vulnerability outdoors, I offer holding and containing? It’s a fair point and one I regularly wonder about.
The fact is, I don’t really know for sure. I do have my concerns: I currently have an indoor client who displays strong characteristics of someone who might be diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. Would outdoor work be appropriate for them, given all I’ve said above? Probably not. With them, I can strongly see the value of a closer, more structured and holding experience. With all my clients, I always hold initial sessions indoors, in a safe and controlled setting, before suggesting we try outdoor work. And safe is an important word here: do we feel safe enough with one another to work outdoors in an environment that is less controlled and potentially more exposing?
In this not knowing, I look towards the limited research available in this field of therapy. In a preliminary online survey of client perspectives and reactions to outdoor therapy, it seems that ‘the most helpful aspects of outdoor therapy are being outdoors, having time to reflect, and group processes’.3
Another survey, from the therapist perspective,4 shows that there are many aspects, potentially both helpful and hindering, to working outdoors. They seem to largely reflect my findings, so I won’t go into them here, but I will note that the degree of uncertainty I describe above seems common. From this paper, I also note that Jordan and Marshall5 ‘argue that therapists themselves need to be able to tolerate the uncertainty in order to negotiate the outdoor spaces with their clients’, and go on to ‘recommend that a fluid and dynamic approach to contracting and boundaries represents an integral part of therapeutic practice in the outdoors’. These research findings and my own experiences give me confidence to embrace this uncertainty and trust the overall feeling I have that being in an open and unpressured space is working for my clients and me.
Trust the client
Overall, I think I am increasingly learning the value of trusting my client. With clients who express an interest in working outdoors, I outline the boundaries of the work, the risk and the potential. I’m noticing those drawn to this way of working already have an outlook and a readiness to include our wider surroundings in their way of being. This freer approach, for me, gives a new depth to what autonomy means. What happens if I trust my client to lead the ‘when, where and how’ and trust myself largely to follow (safety precautions allowing), in an environment outside the one in which I have (largely) been trained to work? I’ve been amazed by the results so far.
To date, my clients primarily come with issues around relationships: most notably, controlling and abusive relationships. They feel huge pressure at work and at home. They report that the indoor therapies they’ve experienced so far have also felt pressured. Outdoors, they feel and relish the freedom. My male client tells me this freedom and unpressured way of being together was instrumental in helping him gather his energies towards leaving his controlling partner. While there is complicated grief present, there is also a blossoming; the physical exploring we’ve done mirrors an internal exploration. Instead of having to close down, he’s feeling his potential again and a growing self-confidence to move towards it.
My own self-confidence as outdoor therapist is also growing, as my clients and I explore how outdoor therapy can help them. And with this growing confidence comes a growing trust in my client and how to be with my client. Outside, I generally feel more spontaneous, more creative, more in touch with us, both in relationship to each other and within the wider world. I take my experience, learning and ethics from inside to the outside. I hope that the reverse can also be true: that I can bring back indoors my increasing spontaneity, creativity and wider perspective for the benefit of both the client and me.
This outdoor work feels very familiar yet also very new. The therapeutic context is certainly different and yet the connection and ethics share a similar focus and importance with the indoor work. Something is working, which encourages me. While sometimes it feels uncertain and, perhaps, ethically on the ‘edge’ – potentially more exposing and unstructured – it also feels alive, dynamic and connecting, within and without. It feels wild.
And, perhaps, it’s necessary. We can move towards healing past wounds caused by unempathic relationship, by allowing and experiencing a more empathic relationship in therapy. So too, perhaps, by allowing ourselves to move towards an empathic relationship with the life around us – a life that holds and sustains us – we can move towards healing the nature-human split. For, of course, this split harms the life around us and, ultimately, harms us too.
Nick Tarrant works as a humanistic, integrative counsellor with adults, both indoors and outdoors in rural Wiltshire. He is also a keen bushcrafter. He is particularly interested in the ‘wild’, within, between and around us. www.nicktarrant.uk
1. Jordan M. Nature and Therapy: understanding counselling and psychotherapy in outdoor settings. Hove: Routledge; 2014.
2. Totton N. Wild therapy: undomesticating inner and outer worlds. Ross-on-Wye: PCCS Books; 2011.
3. Revell S, Duncan E, Cooper M. Helpful aspects of outdoor therapy experiences: an online preliminary investigation. Counselling and Psychotherapy Research 2013; 14(4): 281–287.
4. Revell S, McLeod J. Experiences of therapists who integrate walk and talk into their professional practice. Counselling and Psychotherapy Research 2015; 16(1): 35–43.
5. Jordan M, Marshall H. Taking counselling and therapy outside: destruction or enrichment of the therapeutic frame? European Journal of Psychotherapy and Counselling. 2010; 12(4): 345–349.