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.