Updated: Sep 14, 2020
Growth is a constant process of change; and is neither simple nor linear. I have spent the past three years reflecting on and reimagining the way I see and interact with the world around me. I am embracing the development with an open mind and empty heart. A connection to nature has proven to be an essential element during my journey, guiding me with compassion. In many ways, the lessons I am learning feel familiar – part of wisdom I once held. As a child growing up in “The Natural State” of Arkansas, nature untouched by humans was never far away. I grew up playing outside almost every day, either in a section of woods near my house or on a hiking or camping trip with my brother and father. I approached the natural world with an unwavering curiosity and endless wonder, and engaged in all other facets of my life with the same enthusiasm. I lost this somewhere along the way, and anxiety, low self-esteem, and depression took their hold during my most malleable years. I was lost and confused during my rite of passage into adulthood, lacking support that I feared to ask for, or a relationship to nature as a guiding presence in my life, as it was in my earlier years.
In my later teenage years and into my twenties, I found nature again through rock climbing. The creative and physically challenging pursuit of the lifestyle guided me once again into the wilderness and began to rekindle the fire of my childhood spirit. I slowly blew on the tinder of the fire with a few close friends in my last two years of high school. We drove to Horseshoe Canyon Ranch every available weekend to climb the sandstone and sleep under the stars next to a creek. The spark did not burst into flames until years later. The trips to the ranch served only as an escape, and a mere glimpse into the realizations that were to come. I was able to be my goofy and loving self with my friends, but left that authenticity and truth at the ranch upon departure at the end of each weekend. I returned to life at home and in school, consumed once again with the fear of failure and the fear of what others thought of me. I did not dare cross this fear, and kept to myself. Growth never occurs at a consistent rate, and we even backtrack to relearn lessons once forgotten. The tinder stayed alive for years, until one day it erupted into flames.
My closest friend Doug Lloyd took me on a month-long road trip in his van. We journeyed from trailhead to trailhead, backpacking through the Washington and Oregon wilderness together. I can still see the trails winding through the forest until they revealed mountains and alpine lakes. I can feel the pressure of my backpack’s weight on my shoulders and waist, holding everything necessary for days away from the van. Our necessities included a camera, two lenses, and a tripod to create our art. I can smell the fresh brewed coffee Doug poured me from his French press every morning. I can taste the sunrise apple cinnamon oatmeal and sunset bowl of veggie noodles. I can hear the birds as they sang in the day, and the wolf’s howls as they echoed in the night. We meditated while the wind caressed our faces, cleansed ourselves in the alpine streams, and shared our thoughts while gazing out into the Milky Way.
The trip proved to be unlike any outdoor adventure I had experienced before. Looking back, this is a result of a myriad of reasons. The trip was long, providing the opportunity for a full immersion in nature, I was beginning to study different spiritual traditions and philosophies, I was in the presence of a compassionate and loving friend, and many other characteristics allowed me to be open to healing in those moments. It all made sense, and it seemed to come at the right time. I was finally ready, and accepted the wilderness therapy I so desperately needed. Upon return from the road trip, I changed my life course, and transferred to Naropa University to dedicate myself to studying the healing powers of nature. I will remain a student of the wilderness for my entire life.
Before diving deeper into the paper, I believe it is important to be completely transparent. My social location is fundamental in my process, and describes to you, the reader, my positionality and biases present in my work. I acknowledge my inherent privilege in today’s world. I am a white, able-bodied, cis-gendered male, and was raised in an upper middle class family by two parents and an older brother in Arkansas. I have experienced a wide array of education, including a Christian elementary school, Episcopalian middle school, Catholic high school, traditional college education at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and finally a contemplative and Buddhist oriented education at Naropa University.
I also need to state specific biases and perspectives in relation to this paper. Throughout my life, and especially in the past four years, nature has been easily accessible to me. When living in Boulder, CO, it is easy to leave the city and enter the wilderness. My work in this essay stems directly from these experiences. Throughout the paper I make broad claims about society in which I refer to the Western world, as that is what I have experienced, and what the authors of my research allude to. In combination with the teachings in the Environmental Studies program at Naropa University, I have developed my own philosophy regarding myself, my relationship to nature, humanity’s relationship to nature, the wilderness, and the wilderness as a space for healing. My personal experience plays a significant role in the ideas I will be presenting.
A Note on the Research Process
In the process of researching, I began with many questions. Some of the questions simply informed the context and are briefly touched in the structure of ideas, and some I sought to answer deeply and fully. I asked: What are the effects of the absence of nature in today’s society? What do the resulting effects appear as in our society and culture? How can nature heal the psyche through wilderness therapy? What lessons and guidance does nature hold? How might wilderness therapy change humanity’s relationship to nature?
Wilderness therapy offers the missing lessons and guidance in a rite of passage that will ultimately manifest in the form of personal psychological and spiritual growth, an evolved consciousness around the human-nature relationship, and an overall healthier society in the process.
Key terms: Ecopsychology, Wilderness Therapy, Ecotherapy, Rite of Passage, Ritual, Nature-based psychotherapy, Pyschoecology, Reearthing
My intention is to weave the studies of ecopsychology and wilderness therapy with my own experience. Together, we will take a journey through my studies, as I guide you through my research. My unique contribution lies in my composition and organization of the ideas, their connection and synchronicity in my own life, and a presentation of a wilderness ritual rite of passage.
It is my hope to inspire you, the reader, to reflect on your own path to this point and all that has transpired along the way. Every moment affected how you see the world around you. While reading, I ask you to keep an open mind, as the ideas may challenge your perceptions of nature and humanity's relationship to it. I will work in the realm of the soul, often far beyond quantitative research, which may require you to experience it for yourself before you can decide on your opinion.
I decided to format the paper just as I processed it myself. Throughout my reading during the last months, many quotes inspired me, and I promptly boxed, underlined, and scribbled in the margin beside them. I decided to use these to structure my research. The quotes stand alone, and I provide my informed explanation of them, and connections between them, as the paper progresses. I hope this allows for a smooth and cohesive flow of thoughts.
Chapter One: Ecopsychology Explained
I collected and composed my research from the fields of Ecopsychology, as well as Ecotherapy, or as I and many others like to refer to it, as Wilderness Therapy. Both fields of study have exponentially grown in recent decades, and are even beginning to enter the mainstream. Prior to the offering of my journey through the findings of my research, I need to explain the dominant lens of Ecopsychology through which I looked. With the growth in popularity, the original ideas are being expanded upon and, because of the dominant science-based mindset of our culture, are being studied in new ways as well. I decided to search mainly through the ideas, philosophies, and theories.
Within the study of Ecopsychology lies an all-encompassing perspective, looking at the very relationship between humans and all non-human nature. Larry Robinson, a psychotherapist and ecopsychologist, presented the term’s origins in his description of ecopsychology. “In Greek, oikos or ‘eco’ means ‘home,’ psyche is ‘soul,’ and logos is the ‘word’ or ‘story.’ So a poetic translation might be ‘the story of the home of the soul’ or ‘the story of the soul of home.’” (Robinson, 2009) In the beginning of Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind, Theodore Roszak, the editor of the book’s collection and one of the founding minds in the field, offered a well-articulated definition:
“Unlike other mainstream schools of psychology that limit themselves to the intrapsychic mechanisms or to a narrow social range that may not look beyond the family, ecopsychology proceeds from the assumption that at its deepest level the psyche remains sympathetically bonded to the Earth that mothered us into existence. Ecopsychology suggests that we can read our transactions with the natural environment-that we use or abuse the planet- as projections of unconscious needs and desires, in much the same way we can read dreams and hallucinations to learn about our deep motivations, fears, hatreds. In fact, our wishful, willful imprint upon the natural environment may reveal our collective state of soul more tellingly than the dreams that we take with us out into the world each day and maniacally set about making ‘real’- in steel and concrete, in flesh and blood, out of resources torn from the substance of the planet. Precisely because we have acquired the power to work our will upon the environment, the planet has become like the blank psychiatric screen on which the neurotic unconscious projects its fantasies. Toxic wastes, the depletion of resources, the annihilation of our fellow species; all speak to us, if we would hear, of our deep selves.” - Theodore Roszak
Ecopsychology asks us to look at our relationship to nature clearly, and operates on many core beliefs. Humanity must acknowledge that the Earth is in fact being destroyed, and that humans are the main cause. Ecopsychology points to this relationship directly. We must also acknowledge the ecological view of interconnectedness, and that we humans are a part of the intricate web, with an interdependent relationship to all: the natural world. Robinson reminds us, “Ecopsychology seeks to address the sources of our cultural madness and to reestablish the lost connection with the more-than-human world.” And also “Ecopsychology is soul work, and soul work is something that has no prescriptive methodology. It takes time and requires that we pay attention. (Robinson, 1995)
Chapter Two: The Psyche Separated from Nature
“I am struck by the complexity of the task that faces the infant. This task is riddled with paradox: the child must simultaneously build enough of a membrane around herself to be able to function in her culture and allow that membrane to be permeable enough, receptive enough to sensation, feeling, communion. Our culture’s insistence on independence, mastery, and competition has led to the popularity of a psychology that emphasizes only the first aspect of the child’s task.”
The world a child is born into today is profoundly different than what existed for countless generation before. The mechanistic world, and the culture it has created is completely new. Chellis Glendenning, a clinical psychologist, explained “our experience in mass technological society is indeed ‘outside the range of human experience,’ and by the evidence of psychological distress, ecological destruction, and technological control, this way of life has been. ‘markedly distressing’ to almost everyone.” (Glendinning, 1995) No other human child has been faced with this world, and therefore rites of passage seemingly do not exist to help guide the children. Paul Shepard, a pioneer in the field of ecopsychology and author of Nature and Madness, referred to this as a “serial amputation of the maturing process” and as an “epidemic of the psychopathic mutilation of ontogeny.” (Shepard, 1995)
The technological and mechanistic society produces fragmented thinking, and the child learns to think in this way in order to function in the world. As a result, everything, including the very mind and body of the child, is thought to be separate. Chellis Glendinning offered the examples of “regarding our minds and bodies as disconnected in health and disease, or thinking that radioactive waste buried in the Earth won’t eventually seep into the water table” as “symptoms of the fragmented thinking.” (Glendenning, 1995) In the process of fragmentation, we reduce the world into a mere group of disconnected objects, including ourselves, as Chellis discussed in her work.
“The trauma endured by technological people like ourselves is the systemic and systematic removal of our lives from the natural world: from the tendrils of earthy textures, from the rhythms of the sun and moon, from the spirits of the bears and trees, from the life force itself.” - Chellis Glendenning
Larry Robinson believes the separation removes the soul of the world, and transforms life into the image of a machine. Robinson believes that the treatment of humans, and the world, as objects, is the origin of human misery. (Robinson, 1995) Richard Anderson, a human futures scholar and a sustainability fellow at For the Future, asks us “to consider how much mental and emotional disturbance is in fact the product of living in an alien environment - of stress, anxiety, time pressure, and the relentless pressure to have and to earn, to ‘succeed,’ which are the bedrock realities of life within the industrial machine.” Within the machine, “success” is defined by material wealth. The constant expectation is linear growth. In this paradigm, the natural world simply becomes a resource to be exploited, and furthers the disconnect between humans and the non-human world. Anderson points to this as a “profound disturbance in our collective human psyche.” (Anderson, 2009) Ralph Metzner, a profound theorist of ‘green psychology’, called this an “ecologically disastrous split – the pathological alienation – between human consciousness and the rest of the biosphere.” (Metzner, 1995)
“There is no mystery left, we've been there, we've seen it, we know all about it. … we are mistaken. The know-it-all state of mind is just as a result of being outside the mucus-paper wrapping civilization. Underneath is everything we don't know and are afraid of knowing.” - D. H. Lawrence
The child enters a predetermined world, which does not possess the means to help them develop fully. The world demands conformity. The child grows into an adult with the fragmented thought, dualism, and suppression of emotions at the core of perception. The result is a scattered and imbalanced adult, still resembling the trauma and pain of the oppressed and misunderstood child inside. Today’s society sucks children in, without a rite of passage to help guide them through a healthy developmental process. Their true nature is lost with our disconnection from the natural world. They are told how the world is to be, instead of approaching life as mystery through their senses, thoughts, feelings, and emotions of their primary experience. The world is fed to them through secondary experience, of what can be measured. All that cannot be measured is deemed unimportant and unreal, leaving the wonders of the universe out of their reality.
The split created the dualism that is so prevalent in our society. Steven Foster, cofounder of the School of Lost Borders, deemed the dominant worldview the “big lie.” (Harris, 2009) Dualism paired with fragmented thinking creates a focus on the individual, and leads to the formation of a powerful ego. The ego learns to use the fragmented and overly rational thinking to function in the machine of society. The emotional side of the human experience is completely removed, and pushed deeper and deeper into the unconscious psyche. Sarah A. Conn, an environmentally based therapeutic practitioner and teacher, discussed how emotions tend “to be pathologized or truncated rather than validated, encouraged, and fully felt.” (Conn, 1995)
“Because we experience the self as separate from the earth, we feel either overwhelmed by or removed from what we've learned about environmental deterioration; we become helpless or indifferent in the face of it, and unable to respond except with numbness and denial.”
-Sarah A. Conn
Ralph Metzner introduced the idea of “collective amnesia.” (Metzner, 1995) Humans have created a new world, and have completely forgotten our old way of life. Our ancestors interacted with non-human life in intimate connection, acknowledging their place in the web of interconnectedness with appreciation and humbleness. Because of the “collective amnesia”, our actions have produced a world full of ecological problems and a now uncertain future for all life. Metzner said the amnesia is “really a double forgetting, wherein a culture forgets, and then forgets that it has forgotten how to live in harmony with the planet.” (Metzner, 1995) Now, if the idea of interconnectedness is presented to the isolated ego, it is met with “terror, as though it signified the brink of madness.” The terror is followed by psychological numbing that “prevents us from experiencing not only the depths of our anguish, but the potential we have for real communion with our world,” as expressed by Anita Barrows, a developmental psychologist. (Barrows, 1995)
Humanity shields itself from the pain of the Earth, and therefore from the pain inside each individual. Laura Sewell, a perceptual psychologist, spoke to this issue of psychic numbing in her idea of a “collective myopia.” (Sewall, 1995) The numbing is a process of denial, separating ourselves from the destruction we are causing, essentially removing any pain from our awareness. We shield ourselves with distractions. As a result, our senses are dulled, and our thought, feelings, and emotions buried. Sewell warned us “In the midst of collective denial, we further perpetuate the destruction of the biosphere,” and consequently “our collective myopia thus becomes both cause and effect of the environmental crisis.” (Sewall, 1995)
As we further separate ourselves from nature, we continue to create the human psyche that seeks to feed the destructive cycle. I speak exclusively to the Western psyche. This psyche needs healing - for both the human soul and the Earth. Wilderness Therapy’s goal, of the many, is to cure what Richard Louv referred to as “nature-deficit disorder” in Last Child in the Woods, as he examined the disconnect between children and nature. He described it as “the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses.” (Louv, 2008)
Chapter Three: Wilderness Therapy Meets Ecopsychology
“Much of today’s destructive behavior comes from having projected our own disowned darkness onto wilderness.” -Steven Harper
The time to reconnect with nature is now. We need to rediscover the lost wisdom in our relationship to nature and reclaim our darkness we have projected onto the natural world. In the process, we will uncover our repressed “ecological unconscious,” depicted by Robert Greenway, an ecopsychology pioneer theorist and practitioner. He described this as “a legacy from our eons-long evolutionary path that contrasts sharply with our acculturated view that we can indeed separate from nature.” (Greenway, 1995) Fundamentally, we need nature. Our separation has proven that we not only need nature’s material benefits to survive, but that there exist deeper psychological and spiritual connections to our well-being as well. The larger goal is always a healthy human-nature relationship, and the path of healing in Wilderness Therapy progresses from the individual to the entire natural world.
It is here that Ecopsychology and Wilderness Therapy, or Ecotherapy, form a healing practice and create “a general program for overcoming dualism: those by-now familiar divisions between psyche and nature, soul and world, inner and out, and so on.” (Fisher, 2009) Andy Fisher, a psychotherapist and wilderness guide, reaffirms this in his discussion of Ecopsychology as a “radical praxis.” Fisher describes radical as meaning “‘going to the roots.’” He said “it is about getting below our everyday surface and understanding of things to a deeper perception of reality, one that challenges our normal view on the world by revealing its illusions, deceptions, and mystifications.” (Fisher, 2009) He believes “that distinguishing ecopsychology from its application as ecotherapy is to overly separate our theory and practice. The notion of ‘applying’ some body of knowledge maintains the illusion that we can in the first place know the world independent of our involvement in it. … Ecopsychology in this praxical sense is already ecotherapy, for our knowledge-creation is then emphatically of a piece with our therapeutic practice or world-engagement.” (Fisher, 2009) This belief is always an assumption in Ecopsychology: the healing of humans and the healing of the planet go hand in hand.
Wilderness therapy offers a radical practice and creates the space for this healing. Andy McGeeney, author of With Nature in Mind, an ecotherapy manual, defined wilderness therapy as “the use of wild remote areas to provide a context for individual and group therapy. One of the benefits of working in remote areas in the nature is that the clients are removed from their familiar environment which may have stimulated negative thinking and stress.” (McGeeney, 2016) In McGeeney’s mind, as found after reading his book, nature is more than an “escape.” The wilderness is an important partner on the client’s path to self-realization and profound change. Nature, by itself, is a teacher in this field, and has wisdom to remind humanity of. I, and all in the field, hope that after this experience people return to the modern world with passion to change. If an individual can reconnect with the non-human world, it is hoped that the relationship will inspire the creation of a new future.
“Action is called for, but action motivated by guilt may only compound the problem. We are in disharmony with the world because we are in disharmony with ourselves. Guilt is an indication of this. Guilt is a warning that there is incongruity in our value system, a schism in our sense of self that needs to be investigated.” -Terrance O’Connor, a leading mind in connecting therapy to environmental degradation
Wilderness therapy offers the space for this investigation. In a world dominated by progress, it can seem counterintuitive to regress to a past psyche to learn how to live again. There is a reason humans have survived so long: our ancestors lived in harmony with nature. They may not have invented advanced technology, but the most important intelligence and wisdom may not be measured in the way we see now. The values from generations ago need to be incorporated into our lives today.
“Norman Kiell observes that the ‘pubescent’ is called on to reform while his precognitive self is at the world center, and hence acts to ‘save mankind from his own non-human status’ - that is, from the temporary identity vacuum in the transition from juvenile into adult life.” -Paul Shepherd
I am specifically mentioning children in this paper for this reason - because of the seemingly impossible task left to the next generation. It is my hope that wilderness therapy can transform all ages, and I share that hope with many others, such as Daniel Stern, who proposed the idea of a “core self,” which Anita Barrows depicted as a central cortex around which further development layers onto. (Barrows, 1995) Wilderness Therapy can and needs to reach this center. As a rite of passage, the wilderness possesses the forgotten guidance to fulfill the psychological and spiritual development of anyone willing to heal. Children today have a chance to rediscover the truth, as do adults.
Chapter Four: The Wilderness Effect
“Wilderness is a leaderless teacher; there is no one preaching change to us. The only personal transformations that occur arise from within ourselves.” - Steven Harper, a practicing Wilderness Therapist
A wilderness rite of passage is heavily dependent on both access to nature and the individual’s willingness to be open throughout the experience. As John Scull, a former practicing psychologist and now author in the field, has stated simply, “let nature do the therapy.” (Scull, 2009) With intention and patience, a wilderness therapy experience can be life changing. But due to this reliance on the individual, the experiences vary. I am writing with the idea of wilderness untouched by man in mind. This does not need to be an isolated and remote location, and could simply be a trail through the trees near a park or home within a city. Although, a preferred wilderness therapy experience takes place as far from any other humans or man-made structures as possible, and for an extended period of time. In Robert Greenway’s writing, he mentioned a “psychological wilderness boundary” that one crosses before change begins. I will detail the wilderness effects present in my personal experience and in my research in an effort to provide the knowledge needed to transcend into your ecological self and the realm of healing.
“At Times I feel like I am spread out over the landscape and inside things, and am myself living in every tree, and the splashing of the waves, and the clouds and the animals that come and go, and in the procession of the seasons.” -C.G. Jung
When a person is in a natural setting, they have returned home. In the wilderness space, the perception of ourselves begins to change. Robert Greenway liked to say that the ego opens “to the eco in our ‘ecopsychology.’” (Greenway, 2009) Greenway often mentioned the “open” and “airy” feeling in the mind, and what many of his clients referred to as “the mind of the river.” (Greenway, 1995) The mind of the river results from an uninterrupted stream of mindfulness. Each step on a trail or new direction you look reveals a world full of beauty and mystery. The awareness penetrates your ego, and exposes your connection to all that is around you. The new stream of mindfulness interconnects with you, and the two separate conscious states transform into one. Andy McGeeney referred to this as “break[ing] out of our isolated self.” (McGeeney, 2016) The human-nature relationship arises from the unconscious. You can remember that you are nature. The natural world sustains life in every aspect of it, and that includes you. The new awareness reveals the experience of completeness. Our place on the Earth and in the universe becomes obvious, and our connection to that which is around us is unambiguous.
Metaphorically, our willingness to be in the mud and rain can reflect our willingness to be in our internal mud and rain.” - Steven Harper
There are no walls to contain you, no air conditioning filtering the air and changing the temperature, and no ceiling to shield you from the sun, moon, and stars or block rain or snow. We experience the elements of earth, water, and air, from which we evolved, and share the space with the other life forms of our beautiful planet. The wilderness is not always lit by warm sunshine. The wind can carry in cold air followed by dark clouds and freezing rain. In today’s world, this is the time to go inside. In wilderness therapy, this is a chance for real change to occur. If you are willing to be uncomfortable in your immediate physical environment, this translates to a willingness to enter the uncomfortable spaces of your internal environment.
“Perception, consciousness, and behavior are as radically interdependent as the rest of our biosphere. Thus, perceptual shifts alter consciousness, consciousness alters behavior, and even unconscious leanings alter perception. Given our blatant need for ecologically conscious and consistent behavior, the development of skillful ways of seeing offers a direct path for consciousness intervention and behavioral change.” -Laura Sewell
Our senses reconnect us to the wilderness, and the wilderness reawakens our own forgotten inner nature. Sensitivity opens the door for the opportunity of change, and allows you to rewrite your perception of the world. Laura Sewall named five ways of knowing: learning to attend, perceiving the relations, perceptual flexibility, reperceiving depth, and the imaginal self. (Sewall, 1995) Attention refers to the complete opposite of numbness, and entails a new ecological awareness, allowing for a deep connection to the landscape. With intention and consistency, this can become the only form of awareness. Perceiving the relations involves the progression from a dualistic perception, characterized by objectification and separation, to a focus on the relationships between all things. In relationships, our consciousness can find meaning and metaphors. Perceptual flexibility mainly includes the recognition of patterns at any scale. The cycles of the earth become obvious, and within it, the place of humans too. Reperceiving depth engages a new worldview, and is quite abstract. Sewall explained how depth is usually measured egocentrically, and she asks us to view depth ecocentrically. The final way of knowing concerns the imaginal self. Nature’s beauty is inspiring and can feed our creative souls if we let it. The imagination employs the awareness needed to find the meaning and metaphor within nature, as well as use it to rewrite perceptions of our reality.
Near the end of the road trip that started my journey, I wrote a quick reflection of my thoughts in that moment. I sat underneath a tree at the edge of an alpine lake:
In every moment, I find peace and tranquility. My mind is calm, and my body is relaxed. My anxiety is quiet. My worries of the future and regrets of the past have dissipated. I have felt my heart and soul open to a new positive energy. I have learned to sit still with the trees and flowers, growing my body’s own roots deep into the earth. I have learned to ease my mind, and simply breathe. I have become empty and open. I feel my chest expanding and my senses heightening, susceptible to every vibration around me. I am free to explore and wonder about existence without fear.
Mother Nature has guided me on this spiritual journey with compassion. She has revealed the ultimate truths to me. Everything is interconnected. I am the universe. My consciousness has expanded. The illusionary veils I have been conditioned with were are lifting off of me. I am not separate. I am connected to everything. The cosmos is an intricate web of patterns at play. These realizations inspire kindness. Doug has reflected the same compassion as our Mother Earth in every moment of this journey. I have learned to be tender and vulnerable with my friend. I have revealed my deepest and darkest thoughts and insecurities to him. He has received them with love and without judgment. Namaste, brother.
In retrospect, this journal entry of mine amazes me. At the time, I had not read or heard anything close to the topics of which I chose to study upon my return. The powerful mind I once thought I was cursed with, was able to find all the lessons and guidance I needed by entering the wilderness with an open mind. And now I have come full circle. Much of what I have since learned was inherent to me in that moment.
One day, after the road trip, and at the beginning of my exploration into the psychological and spiritual healing power of nature, inspiration struck. I sat at my desk drawing trees and reminiscing on the adventures with my friend. I suddenly felt the urge to write, picked up my journal, biked to the park, sat underneath my favorite six-trunked tree, and began.
A letter to myself on staying in the present:
Look at the big picture. Every moment is temporary. Clouds form and capture the mind’s attention as they travel past, only to inevitably disappear with the wind or evaporate into the air. The mind’s possibilities are endless. The stars the naked eye can see at night represent an insignificant glimpse into the unimaginably vast universe. Every moment will come and go, and how you spent this time is in your power of limitless choice. The only true reality exists in the present moment. Even if the mind wanders into the future or lingers into the past, the very thought itself still exists in the present. Thoughts of the past can induce regret and misery. Thoughts of the future can provoke anxiety and fear. It is important not live in these worlds created in the mind. These worlds are full of despair and doubt, sucking your life away in meaningless madness while time passes without the mind’s acknowledgement. The internal argument that arises is valid, and yes, thoughts of past joyful events, or excitement for an upcoming moment can bring happiness. It is important for the mind not to live in these worlds either. These worlds are ruled by the ego, as it desperately holds onto the past and attempts to control the future at the same time. Good things may happen to the ego-driven mind, but will go un-lived, as the mind will not be involved in the present, defeating the very purpose of life. The universe will do as it will, and keep moving as it always has. It is therefore absurd for the mind to attempt to change something that has already happened, or attempt to take command of something that has not yet happened. The mind can only take action in the present moment. If the present moment becomes the mind’s greatest priority, this in turn positively affects future moments. The mind’s approach to this reality of the present is of utmost importance. Learning to live in harmony with the universe from moment to moment presents the mind with its greatest challenge. Life’s experiences are full of both pleasurable and painful moments. To achieve harmony, the mind needs to learn to fully experience both ends of this continuum. The mind needs to appreciate and enjoy the “good” moments, while studying and learning from the “bad” moments. At this point, every moment will present the mind with an opportunity to learn and grow and continue on the journey of life.
I offer these journal entries as a personal narrative of my own healing journey. The words manifested both through sharing the moment underneath the old and wise tree and what I had recently contemplated on the road trip. The thoughts first arose underneath a tree on the edge of a lake in Washington and took their final form at the park near my apartment. This is the healing I needed. The wilderness allowed me the space to realize the root of many of my life’s issues: not living in the moment, as the example provided here. Both entries give a glimpse of insight into the healing of my own journey, and hopefully inspire the start or continuation of yours. These are only a handful of the lessons I have learned.
Chapter Five: A Wilderness Rite of Passage
Two years later, and two years deeper into my studies, a class of mine took a field trip involving a nature solo. On the day of the ritual, I carried my journal, and wrote down feelings and thoughts if I felt called to. I returned and composed a piece from my notes as an offering to the teacher of the class, Sherry Ellms.
An indenture in a large boulder awaited me at the summit. I felt the call of my journal and took it out of my backpack. With it, came the recollection of John Davis’s question from “The Medicine Walk”. He asked, “What is my medicine; what do I need in my life in order to be whole, and what do I have to offer to the world for its healing?” (Davis) I repeated the question. “What is my medicine?” “This.” A wave of insight rushed over my body. “What do I need to be whole?” “This. Nature.” This is my medicine! Malidoma Somé said, “Within nature, within the natural world, are all of the materials and tenets needed for healing human beings.” The trees, the rivers, the mountains, the sun, the moon, and the stars make me feel whole. Nature has offered me the space to find healing alone, as well as develop my closest friendships. The patterns, colors, and textures inspire my creativity. I create my art with nature through photography. I move with and sync to the earth, as I climb the stone and backpack through the trees.
I repeated the second question. “What do I have to offer the world for its healing?” “This! Nature!” A path and journey into nature is exactly what I want to offer the world for its healing too! I want to be a channel for those to find the healing power of nature themselves, and a guide along their journey. I want to share my art, and teach others my passion of moving in the mountains. I became incredibly inspired to pursue this purpose. Malidoma Somé explained, “The nourishment does not come after the job, it comes before the job and during the job. The notion that you should do something so that you get paid so that then you can nourish yourself disappears. You are nourished first, and then the work flows out of your fullness.” (Somé, 1999) This life path will nourish my soul. I will be nourished by nature. And I will nourish others by lending a helping hand.”
The day had a dreamy feel to it. John Davis said, “Treat your experience as if it were a dream and begin the process of interpreting it and making it yours. If it were a dream, you would consider each element to have some deeper meaning and value to you. So it is with your walk. Recognize each element as representing an aspect of your psyche, an aspect of yourself which is more or less unconscious.” (Davis) My imagination created a vision of a lost and lonely boy in the woods. He was fearful, until he realized friends surrounded him: the trees, rocks, plants, animals, birds, insects, and more. He was amazed at the beauty, from the grand scale of the mountain views; down to the tiny spider family he found living in the bark of a tree. He danced and played. The sun warmed his soul, and the wind carried him forward. He found his power and his purpose. He is a guide and a helper.
“The ecotherapist must therefore be a ‘psychopomp,’ a guide of souls.” -Larry Robinson
Rites of passage are almost entirely absent in the modern world. In Western society, from what I have witnessed, the events that could even possibly claim to be rites of passage are shallow and surface-level celebrations usually involving age or a structured religious ceremony. We need a return of powerful and transformative rites of passage. The traditional rite of passage model involves many steps. Sara Harris, a practicing therapist and member of the School of Lost Borders, shared that she taught “clients about the universal aspects of rights of passage: severance from your usual world, crossing the threshold into sacred time, releasing your old self and opening to something larger, and returning to your life with the new gifts you have been given.” (Harris, 2009)
I personally discovered the power that even a small amount of intentional self-exploration can have when the traditional rite of passage model is paired with a wilderness space. Steven Harper reminds us “people have always turned to wilderness to become whole again.” (Harper, 1995) Ralph Metzner also reminds us that “seeking guidance or a vision for one's life was a core element of adolescent rites of passage in traditional societies” (Metzner, 2009) I focused on healing and solving deeply imbedded internal problems on the road trip, and received a vision of my future on a nature solo two years later.
Now, I am here to present a rite of passage I have used in my own experience. I wrote this as a letter of instruction to you, the reader. The wilderness rite of passage is completely open to your interpretation.
The journey begins with preparation. Choose where you will go and for how long. Preferably, travel to a wild area as far away from modern civilization as accessible to you. Plan to stay for a full day, from sunrise to sunset. Multiple days, including the experience of the night sky and sleeping in the dark, offers a more profound experience. If possible, stay the night, or two, either camping and exploring a general area, or backpacking through a landscape. Another can accompany the journey. If so, it is important to share your plans with them. They need to either join you and embark on their own journey alongside you, or respectfully provide the space and silence you will need. In my experience, the “success” of a partnered journey completely depends on the other person. As shared in my story, my friend JD proved to be the perfect partner. We honored each other’s experience, and then came together at the end of our days to share and reflect together.
Take time to manifest your intention. Reflect on why you are undertaking this journey. The intention can range from total openness to addressing and reflecting on one specific question or experience, or a search for a vision. Your intention will arise, so give yourself time to contemplate. Whatever it is, allow the intention to become clear and strong. It will support you throughout your journey. To help guide you in the manifestation process, I offer these questions that you can ask yourself: How do I feel in this moment of my life? What do I need to learn? What healing do I need? Where am I going? How will I honor my authentic self? Contemplative practices, such as meditation, help during the creation of the intention, and throughout the entire journey as a time for processing your experience.
Now the journey enters the physical realm, as you depart from your everyday life and enter the wilderness. Do not simply set off on the journey. After arriving, provide yourself with space and time to think. Sit wherever you intuitively feel the boundary between your normal life and the wilderness to exist, whether that is physical or metaphorical.
This is the time to let go. Let go of everything. Let go of expectations. Let go of the past. Let go of your ego-self. Let go of your preconceived perceptions of the world around you. You must let go to move forward.
This is also the time to open up, with gratitude, to whatever the journey will hold. Open yourself to the rhythms and cycles of nature. Open all of your senses to the beauty of the natural world. Open yourself to the flow of your thoughts. Open yourself to the flow of your emotions. Open yourself to curiosity and vulnerability.
Take however long you need in order to enter the wilderness with an open mind and empty heart. Once completed, and if it feels welcome, acknowledge your severance with a spontaneous ceremony, ritual, or offering.
It is time to enter the wilderness. You may walk, find a spot to sit, climb a rock, lay in the dirt, and everything in between. Let the outer and inner landscapes of your awareness guide you. If you find yourself worrying about, regretting, or questioning your decisions, thoughts, or emotions on your path, it might be important to stop and ask yourself why that is. Throughout the day, or multiple days, following your intuition and stream of awareness will become easier.
The natural landscape does not support the artificial concepts and structures of the ego and society. Without a sense of control, there is discomfort. Nature’s space allows for your true nature, unconditioned, unrestricted, free, and alive, to flourish. The space creates true healing when paired with a willingness to be vulnerable. In this new realm, nature mirrors your authentic self. You can see yourself, and your story clearly. You are invited to rewrite your psyche and create a new inner landscape through nature’s guidance.
With your mind open, the guidance of nature shows up in your stream of consciousness in many ways. I will offer a few, and also invite you to welcome any lessons that your unique and creative mind finds. As you surrender to the guidance of nature and unite with the wisdom, you may come to face these ideas: Nature’s processes and patterns exist in the present moment, as does the entire spectrum of my experience. Without our artificial concepts of structure and measurement in the man-made world of society, the universe is revealed to be infinite and eternal. The Earth is my home, and my physical existence here is finite. Life on Earth is mysterious, and can inspire awe and wonder if I consider and contemplate more ways of knowing and connecting. All life is interconnected creating a web of diversity, of which I am an interdependent member.
I wrote all of these in my journal while sitting on a mountaintop. With a mind open to the natural world, the possibility of creative thoughts is endless, just as the universe itself is. I invite you to interact with the wilderness. Open your eyes and follow the lines of distant mountain ranges and the veins of a leaf that lead to the stem. Run your palm along the texture of the rocks and feel the soil between your fingers. Listen to the flow of water and the life of the birds. Smell the bark of the trees and breathe in their fresh air. In these moments, you may manifest thoughts and come to find realizations that challenge the core of your ego and reality. The moments can quickly be followed by confusion and fear. I only ask that you let what needs to be, be. Accept yourself with love and compassion. If you need to cry, cry. If you need to sing, sing. If you become overwhelmed, sit with a tree and focus on your breathing to calm yourself. The tree creates the oxygen entering your lungs, sustaining your life force, and will be there with you.
When you feel the time is right, return to where you began. I suggest allowing at least a full day of open space and time to allow the journey to sink in. Follow this with consistent reflection. You can journal, share with another, or find any other creative way of processing. Simply sitting in meditation is always a powerful way to process. Reflection integrates the lessons and guidance into your life fully. You gain perspective and the meaning of your journey’s vision. As with every other part, the processing takes time. Integration is often the longest step of the journey. Deep healing is created only through patiently and persistently contemplating your understanding of the journey.
The guidance of this ritual was inspired by my personal experience and the guidance of John Davis in The Medicine Walk: An Exploration of Ecopsychology and Rites of Passage and Wilderness Rites Of Passage: Healing, Growth, and Initiation. (Davis)
Steven Harper often stated, “the real work begins when we return” (Harper, 1995) I couldn't agree more. Integration is a large part of the process, and is unique to each and every person. He suggested, “it is in practice and in the embodiment of what we discover that we find integration.” (Harper, 1995) Without integration, wilderness therapy, and the larger goal of ecopsychology cannot manifest. An incomplete wilderness therapy journey lends itself to a contrasting view of its importance and effectiveness. Terrance O’Connor asked: “By helping people adapt to a destructive society, are we doing more harm than good?” (O’Connor, 1995) If the wilderness exists only as an escape, the practice of wilderness therapy only offers relief, and not healing. In this context, wilderness therapy runs the risk of being “yet another example of exploiting wilderness to serve the voracious needs of a culture increasingly attempting to distance itself from nature.” (Greenway, 1995)
A complete wilderness therapy journey includes all aspects of the rite of passage and often other interwoven therapeutic practices involving community. Laura Sewall, and many others in the field, believe “because love alters behavior, honoring sensory and sensual experience may be fundamental to the preservation of the earth.” (Sewall, 1995) In the process of healing, we develop a deep connection to the natural world. We realize our place, and this is followed by gratuity and a passion for compassion. The wilderness therapy experience needs to connect to the larger ecopsychology vision in order to avoid the warning Terrance O’ Connor’s question alludes to; an escape instead of deep healing.
The wilderness therapy rite of passage is a cyclical process, returning you to wherever you began with new lessons and guidance to re-integrate with. The wilderness is a space for reconnection, self-discovery, and healing. The following integration is intimately personal and unique for every person. Wilderness therapy as a rite of passage approaches this on the individual level, with the belief from ecopsychology that the healing of man and the healing of nature go hand in hand. Once the wisdom is unified with our everyday experience, the changes can then radiate outwards into the lives of those around us. On the level of the collective society, the potential for the creation of a healthy human-nature relationship grows exponentially.
The relationship is built upon once-known, but forgotten knowledge. Our recent and abrupt disconnection from nature resulted in an epidemic of environmental destruction brought about through our egos, dualistic thought, and suppression of senses, feelings, and emotions. We push all that is suppressed and left over into our subconscious, only to act them out unconsciously in our dominion of the non-human world. In order to find the wisdom nature holds, we must reconnect to nature through the dissolving of the ego into the eco, the realization of interconnectedness, and the reawakening of all our senses, feelings, and emotions, no matter how intense, dark, and deep they may be.
Upon beginning this paper, I was unsure if I would be able to convey a visualization of wilderness therapy as a rite of passage in the mind of the reader. I am aware that I do not know much of anything. But I do know my own experience. I decided to focus on this, and walk you through my research from the past three months and connect it to my own journey. The entire paper became a paradox for me, as I tried to separate inherently interconnected knowledge into a linear flow. If the knowledge seemed vague or short in moments, it was intentionally done so. I did not want to make any assumptions or lead to any expectations. I simply and transparently presented what I have read and my healing in hopes to convey the importance and power of wilderness therapy.
In the end, it is my hope that my paper inspires you to reflect on how you see the world, and your place in it. I hope that you feel inspired to go into the woods, desert, mountains, or valleys and allow yourself the space to breathe, think, and feel whatever arises. The journey is spiritual. And this is why I did not put it into as many words as I could have. I detailed the personal wilderness therapy journey, but the field does go further. The context expands to include groups in the field involving therapeutic practices interwoven. I did not dive into this yet, but will soon as I am becoming a wilderness therapist after school. I will be continuing this study. For now, I want you to find your own truth, and hope this paper influenced you to. The wilderness provides the space to heal and wisdom needed to do so. See what you can find and learn. Bring it back with you. Integrate it into your life. Share it with others if you feel called to, as I have here. Together, we can realize our true nature, and live in perfect harmony with each other and all life on this Earth.
“The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness.” - John Muir
Suggested Further Reading
The fields of Wilderness Therapy, Ecopsychology, Nature Rites of Passage, Nature as Medicine, and more are vast. I have read deeply into the subjects, and will continue to do so. There were many books which inspired this paper, but that I simply did not have the time and space to include. I am listing them here.
Arvay, C. G. (2018). The Biophilia Effect: A Scientific and Spiritual Exploration of the Healing Bond Between Humans and Nature. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.
Arvay, C. G. (2018). The Healing Code of Nature: Discovering the New Science of Eco-Psychosomatics. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.
Selhub, E. M., & Logan, A. C. (2014). Your Brain on Nature: The Science of Natures Influence on Your Health, Happiness, and Vitality. Toronto: HarperCollins.
And here are a few books that helped shape me during the past two years of studies.
Berry, T. M. (1990). The Dream of the Earth. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.
Coelho, P., & Clarke, A. (2014). The Alchemist. San Francisco: HarperOne.
Sessions, G. (1995). Deep Ecology for the Twenty-First Century. Boston, MA: Shambhala.
Watts, A. (2003). Become What You Are. Boston: Shambhala.
Watts, A. (2017). Out of Your Mind: Tricksters, Interdependence, and the Cosmic Game of Hide-and-Seek. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.
Watts, A. (2011). The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety. New York: Vintage Books.
Anderson, Richard. (2009). Resisting the Juggernaut: The Wild Frontier of Ecopsychology. In L. Buzzell & C. Chalquist, Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind (pp. 55-59). Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint Press.
Barrows, Anita. (1995). The Ecopsychology of Child Development. In T.Roszak, M. Gomes & A. Kanner, Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind (pp. 101-110). Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint Press.
Conn, Sarah. (1995). When the Earth Hurts, Who Responds?. In T.Roszak, M. Gomes & A. Kanner, Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind (pp. 156-171). Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint Press.
Davis, J. (n.d.). The Medicine Walk: An Exploration of Ecopsychology and Rites of Passage. Retrieved from: http://www.schooloflostborders.org/content/medicine-walk-exploration-ecopsychology-and-rites-passage-john-davis
Davis, J. (n.d.). Wilderness Rites Of Passage: Healing, Growth, and Initiation. Retrieved from http://schooloflostborders.org/content/wilderness-rites-passage-healing-growth-and-initiation-john-davis-phd
Fisher, Andy. (2009). Ecopsychology as Radical Praxis. In L. Buzzell & C. Chalquist, Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind (pp. 60-68). Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint Press.
Glendenning, Chellis. (1995). Technology, Trauma, and the Wild. In T.Roszak, M. Gomes & A. Kanner, Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind (pp. 41-54). Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint Press.
Greenway, Robert. (1995). The Wilderness Effect and Ecopsychology. In T.Roszak, M. Gomes & A. Kanner, Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind (pp. 122-135). Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint Press.
Greenway, Robert. (2009). The Wilderness Experience as Therapy: We’ve Been Here Before. In L. Buzzell & C. Chalquist, Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind (pp. 132-139). Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint Press.
Harper, Steven. (1995). The Way of Wilderness. In T.Roszak, M. Gomes & A. Kanner, Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind (pp.183-200). Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint Press.
Harris, Sara. (2009). Beyond the ‘Big Lie’: How One Therapist Began to Wake Up. In L. Buzzell & C. Chalquist, Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind (pp. 84-91). Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint Press.
Louv, R. (2008). Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books.
McGeeney, A. (2016). With Nature in Mind: The Ecotherapy Manual for Mental Health Professionals. London, United Kingdom: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Metzner, Ralph. (1995). The Psychopathology of the Human-Nature Relationship. In T.Roszak, M. Gomes & A. Kanner, Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind (pp. 55-67). Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint Press.
Metzner, Ralph. (2009). Green Psychology, Shamanism, and Therapeutic Rituals. In L. Buzzell & C. Chalquist, Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind (pp. 256-261). Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint Press.
O’Connor, Terrance. (1995). Therapy for a Dying Planet. In T.Roszak, M. Gomes & A. Kanner, Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind (pp. 149-155). Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint Press.
Robinson, Larry. (2009). Psychotherapy As If the World Mattered. In L. Buzzell & C. Chalquist, Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind (pp. 24-29). Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint Press.
Roszak, Theodore. (1995). Where Psyche Meets Gaia. In T.Roszak, M. Gomes & A. Kanner, Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind (pp. 1-17). Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint Press.
Scull, John. (2009). Tailoring Nature Therapy to the Client. In L. Buzzell & C. Chalquist, Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind (pp. 140-148). Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint Press.
Sewall, Laura. (1995). The Skill of Ecological Perception. In T.Roszak, M. Gomes & A. Kanner, Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind (pp. 201-215). Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint Press.
Shepard, Paul. (1995). Nature and Madness. In T.Roszak, M. Gomes & A. Kanner, Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind (pp. 21-40). Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint Press.
Somé, M. P. (1999). The healing wisdom of Africa: Finding Life Purpose Through Nature, Ritual, and Community. London: Thorsons.