A Nature Therapy Case Study: Using Metaphors in Nature

An experienced entrepreneur, coach, and outdoorswoman based in the Netherlands and Alaska, Manuela van Prooijen graduated from the Natural Wellness Academy as an Advanced Nature Spirit Walks (Nature Therapy) Guide. This is an excerpt from her final project for her certificate, where she led a client on a Nature Spirit Walk and helped them use nature to gain insights into their life. You can visit her website at http://www.naturespiritwalks.nl.

Background and Setting

“Rivier de Waal (1)” by Anne Kregting (Flickr). Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Through my business, I know many clients looking for ways to improve their professional and personal life. I mentioned this program and instantly had five volunteers ready to participate. I chose to start with Stella, a self-employed Virtual Assistant from Rotterdam (name and location changed to protect the privacy of the client).

For our Walk, I select a beachy area near the Waal, a river near the city of Nijmegen. The Waal is the main branch of the Rhine flowing approximately 50 miles through the Netherlands. It is the major waterway connecting the port of Rotterdam to Germany. On the Waal, you have fantastic sandy beaches where you can enjoy the beautiful view over the river, while dipping your feet in the refreshing water (which we did, of course) and wave at the freight boats passing by.

Exercise 1: Finding the Right Metaphors in Nature

As we begin, Stella explains that she feels stuck in her business as a Virtual Assistant. She started a year ago and seems to be going nowhere—not enough new clients, not enough differentiation, and on top of it all: she is just tired.

At a beach on the Waal, I ask her: “Is there in this area something that symbolizes your current situation at your professional life?”

“Waal” by Emily Allen (@empracht, Flickr). Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Without hesitation, she says: “Yes, that messy shrub there. I feel just like that shrub looks—with its dead branches, dark, not healthy—that is how I feel when I think of me in my business.”

Together we walk towards the shrub. Stella describes what it symbolizes for her. She is visibly uncomfortable. We walk away from the shrub. Stella rushes ahead. Now again on the beach, Stella (reluctantly!) takes a picture of the shrub.

I then ask her: “Suppose you wake up tomorrow and everything is all good. What does your world look like then? Can you find anything in this area that symbolizes that world?”

Stella looks around. “Yes, that tree up there! That tree is beautiful, strong and stands there confident.”

We walk together from the shrub to the tree. The path between the shrub and the tree is full of obstacles (rocks, tree stumps, tree roots). Stella has no problem passing those obstacles and does that without complaining. She is determined and focused on getting to the tree.

Once we get to the tree, Stella is very pleased with her metaphor. She is in awe about the tree and its surroundings. She gives the tree a big hug! Stella now proudly takes a photo of her tree and the path she’d taken to get to the tree. In the landscape on the Waal, Stella has created a powerful, tangible, living metaphor that gave her a great insight.

Exercise 2: Nature Painting

During our small break (I brought a blanket, some light snacks and juice), we talk about the people Stella admires professionally. She names one person in her field that she kind of looks up to.

“Heart of sand” by Damian Gadal (Flickr). Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

We then start off by walking in total silence. I tell Stella to use all her senses and to look for objects in nature that remind her of that inspiring person.

After 10 minutes, we sit together, and I instruct Stella to make a “nature painting” using objects she gathered and by drawing in the sand.

The core theme of the “nature painting” is Joy and Fun, which are the main elements that she respects this person highly for. Then it hits her: Stella suddenly realizes that those elements have vanished from the core of her business: Joy and Fun.

Stella is so busy getting new clients, networking, promoting herself that she forgets to implement these elements to run her business “from the heart” and not just “the mind/brain.”

We agree that fun and joy can be an integrated element of her business and should not be looked at as something “you do aside.”

After the Walk

On the 40-minute drive back to Utrecht, we had time to reflect on the Walk. Stella felt energized and motivated to work on her insights and get out in nature more frequently. She is an example of someone who works hard and rarely gets to spend any time outside the city. Only during vacations does she visit places in nature, or sometimes she goes to the beach. She said our Walk felt like a mini-vacation for her mind.

My Role

I found that the whole process seemed natural, and we experienced a good flow. Even though I initially took the lead by explaining about the area’s geology and the plants that grow in the river dunes, I was able to let Stella do her exercises without interfering. Watching her enjoy herself and crunch her mind on some issues was very fulfilling for me. I realized you really do not need much to come to great insights. Using metaphors in nature is so powerful and yet so easily available.

© Manuela van Prooijen

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