Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
27 Oct

Spiritual Encounters in Nature

Some weeks ago many of you responded to the meaningful experience Gerry relayed in his success story about a transformational day in the forest. Filed with a spontaneous energy and euphoria, he connected with a vitality he hadn’t felt in years. Gerry’s experience resonated with people because so many of us have had similar encounters in the wild. We still reserve a sacred vocabulary for nature with evocations of forest cathedrals and quiet reverence. The concept of the vision quest lingers in our culture. Figures in the major modern religions all faced times of temptation and transformation in the wild. Even in our modern times, being in the wild suggests encountering the raw and elemental.

We bring many motivations to our time in nature, and we return to our civilized lives with many benefits. We go to de-stress. To clear our heads. To break out of a funk. To grieve. To heal. To seek release from living in our heads or being overwhelmed by the routine of life. I’ve retreated to nature during some of the hardest times of my life – when I’ve been at major crossroads, when I’ve had to make painful decisions, when I’ve lost people I’ve cared about. Sometimes a day’s hike could offer clarity or restoration. Other times, I’ve stayed for a number of days not knowing when exactly I’d resurface.

Nature, of course, is neutral. We don’t find empathy there, but we do, I think, encounter an implicit acceptance. Whatever we bring – whether it be confusion, grief, illness, or hope – it fits there in the larger, continuing game of life. In the human (particularly modern) cultural realm, we attach all kinds of message, meanings, motivations to circumstances. We feel slighted. We feel lost. We feel stuck. Being in nature gives a unique context for examining whatever we’re experiencing. We gain distance. What does this individual event or phase in my life mean in the larger picture of millions of people or years of life on this earth? We can give ourselves over to the natural framework of life and see our circumstances against the larger continuity of life and death, plenty and hardship. It may not change the circumstances we struggle with, but it can restore breathing space again.

In the face of majesty, we stand in awe and bask in something more powerful and timeless than our individual lives. It’s not simply the grandiose backdrops of mountain summits or ocean expanses, however, that offer a sense of sanctuary. Sometimes the smallest, most modest natural environs restore us through their simple beauty and intimacy. Maybe it’s a field or a tree that we return to continually. Wait long enough, be still long enough, and amazing things can happen anywhere, I suppose.

Over the course of a day’s hike or in a sudden wonderstruck moment, many of us have felt the edges of our selves dissolve into the wild that surrounds us. We become without intention truly, unconsciously “of” our environments. Shedding the insular, constraining cages of our everyday hyperrationality – the mental chatter, the rigid expectations, and inevitable tension and failures that accompany them – identities and desires evaporate into the senses. For a time, we become raw awareness. The heightening of the senses alone can feel like a kind of animalistic thrill.

For our ancestors, the natural world was mystically animated in ways we moderns have a hard time grasping. Today we’re guided more by scientific interpretations of nature and the prevailing metaphysical and monotheistic religions that seat spiritual figures in the otherworldly. For our hunter gatherer and early “ancient” ancestors, the natural world then was the seat and center of spiritual force. The earth was their cosmological stage for the game of life, whose essential figures were of various animal species and whose plot lines were always in the present, spontaneous making. Everything from animal encounters to a season’s weather were part of a mystical dance between people and the forces of creation. Spiritual life was life itself, and vice versa. In the words of the ancient Greek philosopher Thales, “Everything is full of gods.”

Of course, this enchantment came hand in hand with superstition and all of its limitations. Although today we have the knowledge of generations’ worth of scientific insight, we still crave that sense of connection and, as Jung and others have called it, “original knowing.” We’re naturally inclined to seek “spiritual” or (in less metaphysical terms) transcendent experience in the wild. These encounters fill some essential hunger in our deeper psychic layers.

From an evolutionary point of view, some researchers suggest that there’s adaptive benefit to these spiritually defined encounters. Researchers connected the “timelessness,” “spacelessness,” heightened sensory awareness, and subsequent diminished physical sensation subjects reported in one study with better “adaptive fitness” for decision making in survival situations. Likewise, they related the deep sense of unity with social bonding capacity.

Researchers have long noted the primacy of natural settings for transformational states. Many of us undoubtedly experience our deepest sense of “flow” in nature – either through simple presence in the wild or through challenging or even risk-driven endeavors. (It’s hard, for example, not to be humbled when feeling out the toeholds of a steep rock face.)

Yet, there are those moments of ecstasy as well. In his book Religion, Values, and Peak-Experiences, A. H. Maslow wrote how nature was a common catalyst for “peak experiences,” instances of deep joy and transcendental connectedness.

In this sense, spiritual experiences in nature aren’t so much about witnessing something of the natural world itself but rediscovering something in ourselves – perhaps the “wilderness within,” as Paul Shepard calls it. Our encounters are rare moments of deep spiritual consonance – a comforting, vital harmony within our most fundamental natures. Humans, after all, have both the gift and the hardship of living between two worlds – that of the wild that nurtured them and that of the cultures they create. More and more, the two realms grow further apart. These spiritual experiences perhaps embody a homecoming of sorts and offer balm for a deep homesickness we don’t realize we have.

Thanks for reading today, everyone. I’d love to hear your feedback – your own anecdotes and insights into transcendental experiences in the wild. Have a great end to the week.

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. It’s comforting to know other people out there feel this too :)

    sarah wrote on October 28th, 2011
  2. I consider a good long hike amongst ginormous trees to be my reset button, whether it’s my state of mind, diet, or whole life that’s gotten out of whack. Kind of like a meditation, but moving. Unfortunately, I only get a chance once every few weeks these days, so I appreciate it all the more. Occasionally, I get to the beach, which is always amazing to me, so powerful.

    julie wrote on October 28th, 2011
  3. I remember feeling closest to nature when I was a child – knowing and not knowing that I was carried by nature’s comfort in a way that the adults in my life were not…it made me feel rooted to the earth. Growing up in the world I did however, connecting with nature in that way was frowned upon because that’s not the way the world had evolved – it wasn’t ‘natural’. In retrospect though, the naive child of years past knew innately how to connect to nature in a way that some of us strive to do today…I think getting back in touch with the innocence of our childhood will help create a gateway to the spiritual experience we long for in nature as adults.

    Katie wrote on October 28th, 2011
  4. I’m grateful that I grew up in the countryside – it just made me the person I am I suppose. Growing up somewhere you wake up to the sound of the cockerel cry, walk in Crisp, frosty air to collect water from the well, grow everything you eat really affects – positively – the shaping of your character and the way you look at things. Though I live in the big city now – and I think I wouldn’t change that – I go back to nature for inspiration, peace, and a sense of oneness.

    Milla wrote on October 28th, 2011
  5. When people ask me what if any religion I belong to I reply “The Church of the White Birch”

    Peter wrote on October 28th, 2011
  6. True, Nature is my church, my cathedral. Even religion itself can be seen as man’s interpretation of God. Where in nature, we are surrounded by our creator’s work in its most perfect form. The trees, and animals, water and rocks are just existing as they are supposed to. They are guded by natural rhythms that we have cut ourselves off from. Those nuances go so deeply. Simply getting more sun and regulating our circadium rhythm is simply scratching the surface. For me, science and God are not seperate. The more we learn, the more we realize how beautifully orchestrated this universe really is. And yes, all my life, when I have gone in search of something within myself, I have found it by seeking out Nature. I always went there for “breathing space” in the most trying times of my life.Just as famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright once said: “I believe in God, only I spell it NATURE.”

    Rebecca wrote on October 28th, 2011
  7. I am a Christian. I believe that God created everything, including nature. Being in the outdoors is like being close to God. That’s why it’s so incredibly breath-taking.

    Meagan wrote on October 28th, 2011
  8. Some time ago I had a log cabin rental business – renting out rustic little log cabins

    So many of my customers returned from their cabin retreats changed in some deep or profound way. I’ve never known anyone have much of a life changing experience from a typical commercial beach holiday.

    Whether it is reconnecting with nature, simply having thinking space, reconnecting with your partner or simply reconnecting with yourself, whatever you need, nature offers it up for us.

    In the words of John Muir “I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in”

    Debs wrote on October 29th, 2011
  9. Things like this keep me reading. Thank you Mark.

    raney wrote on October 29th, 2011
  10. Great post, Mark.

    You might like this:

    “You see, this big tree that we go around and put milk on, we’re praying here. That’s not God, but this is where our mothers and their mothers and their mothers all came and prayed. And that’s why we’re all here.” — Maasai women explaining to Eugene Hillman, a Catholic priest, about the sacredness of oreteti trees, whose tangled webs of descending vines and rising roots symbolize God’s intimate connection with the world. From Dorothy Hodgson’s “The Church of Women: Gendered Encounters Between Maasai and Missionaries.”

    Regarding, “Everything is full of gods.” I searched “everywhere present and filling all things” on Google and most of what came up is Christian. Also, search “panentheism,” and you will find a fine line between it and pantheism. I know the Maasai are not hunter-gatherers but from what I have read their spiritual beliefs are probably also best described as panentheist.

    I don’t think that panentheism makes God more distant than pantheism does. If anything, though, the distinction of individual beings with permanent underlying principles does allow for a system of individual rights. In Western Europe and America, I think we’ve really failed to strike the balance on this one. We’ve done a good job promoting individual rights but really lost the ball on… well, everything you’re writing about here.


    Chris Masterjohn wrote on November 3rd, 2011
  11. Hi Mark,
    Living in the Conrete jungles ,when i am driving in a hurry for a photo shoot,when i am greeted with a traffic jam, inspite of me leaving my home very early.When i cannot get a parking place,when i cannot get organic food supply easily,my BP shoots up,inspite of practising Yoga.
    Well people say that our Brain must have a frequency of 7.83htz,for further understanding in detail plz read this.
    Eg, when we drive,metal stress accompanies us,residing in unecofriendly and EMF also conributes sizeably,negative eating..which is Food and behaviour is the main culprit on top of all this,last but not the least is the Greed in us.
    Their is enough for a Man’s need in this world but not for his Greed.
    Food for thought.

    Deepak G Pawar wrote on August 7th, 2013

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