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Helicopter Mechanic, to Forest Therapy Training, to Social Work: One Man’s Journey of Purpose, By Brad Meuhlbacher & Ben Porchuk

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Red Eyed Tree Frog

Ben: When I first met him, I was not only grateful to see that we had another ‘guy’ on a forest therapy training, but I was intrigued to see that he seemed somewhat like a man’s man. “What the hell am I thinking?” I then quickly chided myself. “What stereotypes are still going through my mind? So he’s tall, well built, outwardly confident and he happens to be a helicopter mechanic.” It’s important to note that the idea of a “man’s man” is based on preconceived notions – stereotypes – the vast majority of which don’t capture the complexity and diversity of individual personalities. And, they are hurtful in so many ways. People’s characteristics and traits vary widely regardless of gender. I know this. Like many, my mind occasionally goes to stereotypes that I need to readjust to prevent judgements of one form or another.

After getting to know Brad, I was moved by his warmth, sensitivity, and vulnerability, while feeling like the kindness and playfulness he brought to the training were true gifts, that I rarely experience with other men. This prompted me to check back in with Brad several years later, to scope out how the training impacted him, and where he finds himself today.

In highlighting a ‘guy’ as the first in a series of blogs about individuals after forest therapy training, I had some cause to wonder if this was the right place to start. In an age where I feel more and more called to help advance gender inclusivity across diverse industries, there was a thought that highlighting a man’s journey in fields traditionally underrepresented by male voices might deflect attention from the ongoing efforts to empower women. However, this perception can mask certain realities, and potentially harm future progress for society as a whole. Consider the realm of forest therapy, where male practitioners are a rare sight (ca. 85% women), much like the field of social work (ca. 82% women).

The following narrative, shared by this forest therapy guide who underwent training with GIFT in 2021, sheds light on an underrepresented aspect of gender diversity, emphasizing the significance of encouraging diversity in lesser-explored career domains. I hope you enjoy this snapshot of one man’s journey, from mechanic to social work, with some assistance along the way from forest therapy, and GIFT, as a conduit.

Brad: Whether we’d like to admit it or not, to some extent the work we do defines who we are as adults.  Our sense of self worth can easily get tied up in our perceived level vocational and financial success.  As men this seems to ring even truer, through social interactions it would seem our identities are built on how we earn our income.  Nice to meet you, what do you do for living?  This comes as no surprise in a culture that values economic growth and material wealth over just about anything else, including personal and even planetary health. 

How important then is our sense of purpose and fulfillment?  From my experience it is and has been completely life changing.  I now work as a social service worker, assisting people in community who struggle with severe mental illness. I find tremendous gratification in what I do, particularly in working with other men through their struggles, but this hasn’t always been the case.  In my previous life I spent twenty years as a helicopter mechanic who was quite “successful” by most of today’s measures.  The majority of people I meet today have far more interest in what I used to do than what I do now, but I came to a point in life where I struggled to find any sense of purpose or fulfillment in my work and everything in me screamed for change.  And don’t get me wrong; changing careers in my forties was anything but easy.  There were times when I thought it near impossible and the experience of feeling stuck had serious effects on my own mental health. How could I possibly walk away from financial stability when I wasn’t sure where to start or what I even wanted to do?  For me, the catalyst came in the most surprising of places: an eight-day retreat in the woods training in forest therapy.

The majority of people I meet today have far more interest in what I used to do than what I do now, but I came to a point in life where I struggled to find any sense of purpose or fulfillment in my work and everything in me screamed for change

Brad Muehlbacher

The retreat was nothing short of magical. In brief, we spent the majority of our days removed from distraction and immersed in nature, learning practical skills on how to reliably disconnect from the hustle and reconnect with the natural world. But something else happened that I wasn’t expecting, something aside from the nature connection, and that was the people connection; what it meant to hold space for others.  At the end of each forest therapy segment, or invitation, we were led into council or circle.  A place where each person was given opportunity to share what they were noticing in their body as a result of a forest therapy invitation, and we were taught how to hold presence and practice acceptance while each individual shared.  This was something I’d never experienced before and I believe many men would feel the same.  For the most part, men in our culture are taught to bury our feelings, and we are ill equipped to receive or hold space for others.

Fast forward a year and I found myself enrolled in a First Nation’s school studying social service work.  Each day, the class opened in a ceremony or circle, first led by an Elder, then with each student having the opportunity to check in or share gratitude.  No one was allowed to speak over anyone else and everyone could take as much time as necessary to say what was needed. If the opening circle took an hour, the day’s lesson would wait.  What each individual offered in the circle was held to equal, if not more value than even the syllabus. People felt seen and people felt heard.  I honestly believe I’ve learned more in circles than I have anywhere else in life. Working in mental health has a high burnout rate because holding space for others is exhausting.  It requires we show up in support of others, regardless of what’s going on in our own personal lives.  We need to practice self-care and for me, that means the following: a stable, supportive, loving family and home life, a healthy diet, healthy sleep, regular exercise, regular therapy, a solid meditation practice, connection to nature, connection to others and passion, purpose, and fulfillment in the work I do.

Ben: We greatly thank Brad for his honesty and vulnerability. Please share this blog with anyone you know who might be interested in a career change, or super-charging their lives with an experience-altering training.

Our next training in Costa Rica starts Feb. 25, 2024*.

*Please note, if you trained as a forest therapy guide in another organization, you can attend the first 3 days (focusing on Ecosystem Repair) of any training (including the above-listed training in Costa Rica) and gain certification through GIFT.


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