The Way of Wilderness

by Steven Harper
Author's note: this is the original version of The Way of Wilderness before it was edited and published in Ecopsychology edited by Rozsak This version is a bit longer, touches on a few more subjects, but less polished. If you would like to see the final published version click here: The Way of Wilderness

moss covered old bridge in Big Sur

Foreword to The Way of Wilderness

by Theodore Roszak

Modern psychotherapy is almost universally practiced during a fifty-minute hour in an office, in a building, in a city or suburb. The pattern is all but automatic; opening a "practice" means opening an "office" that must usually be reached by driving a car along a congested freeway through a threatening city. Ecopsychology poses a powerful challenge to such therapeutic business as usual. It reminds us that the original environment in which teachers and healers sought to save people's souls was the natural environment, and the farther from "civilization," the better. Is it possible that certain unconscious assumptions about the world are built into the city? Do those assumptions prevent both therapist and client from finding the most effective kind of healing? Is urban culture itself concealing repressed contents that need to be reclaimed and returned to consciousness for analysis?

Wilderness therapy—or "practice," as Steven Harper prefers to call it, by way of making a vital distinction-is the boldest ecopsychological method so far developed for raising questions like these. It abandons the office, the city, the clock in favor of a setting that more closely corresponds to the natural habitat that has always been used by traditional cultures for healing the troubled soul. As Harper suggests, the authentic experience of wilderness undercuts all our suppositions about the "civilized" and the "primitive" in ways that can deliver a "reality shock." If we approach nature as he proposes, we may find ourselves asking where the "wilderness" really is. Is it perhaps within us, still waiting to be explored?

The Way of Wilderness

by Steven Harper

"...a culture that alienates itself from the very ground of its own being--from wilderness outside (that is to say, wild nature, the wild, self-contained, self-informing ecosystems) and from that other wilderness within--is doomed to a very destructive behavior, ultimately perhaps self-destructive behavior."
~ Gary Snyder

Sweat dripping down my forehead stung my eyes, all I could do was smile. The day had started that night before when my friend had said, " The moon is out, lets walk." We met at three o'clock that morning and began hiking up through the redwood covered canyon to the coast ridge of Big Sur. My young heart was broken, and hurting from the break up of a long term relationship. Even though I had spent a good amount of time working with the pain, I felt shut down and separate from everything in my life. We took a leisurely pace following what ever seemed to arise in the moment. Sometimes I found myself in tears, other times stopping to drink water from the creek or investigate a new plant, sometimes talking , other times in silence. We followed exactly what was before us, and as the day wore on I found myself softening to and accepting whatever emerged inside. My heart and belly felt expansive and gradually I was overcome by the strangest sensation of webs connecting me with all that was around. I could sense literal webs of light extending out of me to each living thing and from them to me. I was sustained by all that surrounded me. The experience slowly dissipated as we climbed to the summit of the ridge where I stood smiling, sweat in my eyes. And although I still had more grieving to do the experience stands out as a clear turning point in my healing process as well as my life.
Wilderness heals. Through the eons we have gone to wilderness to become whole again. We need only to observe the many "primitive" cultures that use intensified wilderness experience as a rite of passage, to see these healing qualities at work. The "civilized" person, however, has approached wilderness from a very different place. Our society is unique to the degree in which we have tried to split ourselves off from nature. We have lost touch with many basic, yet quite mature, ways of knowing nature that were commonplace to our ancestors. But we may also be unique in our potential for accessing far more modes of being and knowing than our ancestors could. These include a wider understanding of scientific and natural phenomena and the shared wisdom of a worldwide array of psychological, cultural, and spiritual practices. When we embrace that which is most wholesome of both "old" and "new," we may find wilderness holds the potential for transformative experiences that were perhaps never possible before.
Since the 1960s there has been a growing interest in using the wilderness as an environment for many of the "new" humanistic and existential therapies. There are numerous programs that use wilderness as a setting for their specific tradition or technique. Though I believe that wilderness is a conducive environment for these therapies, I feel wilderness offers something much greater and more profound than any of these techniques. While these approaches can be useful in helping us to open to wilderness, I am most interested in those transformations offered by wilderness directly.
Wilderness is a way and a tradition in its own right. If we are willing and able to be quiet and open enough to listen, wilderness itself will teach us. Wilderness itself will guide us on these paths of personal transformation. Thus, I see my role in wilderness as that of facilitating a natural learning and healing process. I trust that this process will take place. I seek to find ways to support people in listening to wild nature and in their unfolding towards wholeness.
In the search for a language that most accurately describes what I do I make a basic distinction between "therapy" and "practice." Though I approach wilderness as a psychologist seeking to bring wholeness to the lives of those I lead out, I do not consider what I do as therapy. Nature itself has shown me this crucial difference. Therapy, as it is commonly used, implies illness; it implies there is a beginning and an end to treatment. Above all, it requires a "therapist," someone who is the "expert" in dealing with somebody else's life and who gives analysis, interpretation and advice. Therapy, in this sense, has been co–opted by the mental health industry, which I regard with some suspicion as perhaps having a vested interest in illness, control of when and where therapy starts and stops, and in a hierarchical relationship between therapist and client. On the other hand, practice implies process; there is no beginning or end, but a lifetime of engagement and discovery. When we are truly willing to step into the looking glass of nature and contact wilderness, we uncover a wisdom much larger than our small everyday selves. We find what ecologists are discovering everyday: uninterrupted and undisturbed nature takes care of itself. One of my favorite guidelines for facilitators comes from Esalen Institute's cofounder Richard Price, "Trust process, support process, and get out of the way," and he frequently added "If in doubt, do less." Personal evolution then becomes like nature. Instead of a "struggle" and "trying," our process, uninterrupted and undisturbed becomes an unfolding growth towards wholeness. The very process of having wilderness as a teacher/transformer is itself a teaching. Wilderness is a "leaderless" teacher. There is no one preaching change. The only personal transformations which occur are from within, the place where true and lasting change must occur.
My hope is that ecopsychology will opt for seeing our human-nature split as a movement towards wholeness, a healing process, rather than therapy, recognizing that we are, in a sense, prefigured by nature. Through natural selection, natural variation, mutation, and other evolutionary processes, our body and mind have evolved within the forces of nature. From our form and physiology to our ideas and mythology, nature has played the guiding role. Our whole body-mind through its long course of evolution has had to demonstrate itself and will continue to have to demonstrate itself in action and interaction with nature.
Our relationship with nature is more of being than having. We are nature; we do not have nature. We are of the dynamic unfolding process of nature that we call evolution. As Alan Watts once expressed it: "You yourself are the eternal energy which appears as this universe. You didn't come into this world. You came out of it, like a wave from the ocean. You are not a stranger here."

Experiencing Wilderness

Before I go further I'd like to paint a rough picture of what an actual wilderness experience might look like, some basic "how–to" notes on supporting and getting out of the way so that wilderness becomes our primary teacher.
The variables are many. How long should the work take? How many people should there be in the group? What combination of age and gender mix? How rugged should the work be, how expert should the participants be?
I have led wilderness experiences as brief and simple as a three–hour walking trip with a single inexperienced person to excursions into rugged terrain that last three months and involve several experienced mountaineers. There is a common misconception that the path of wilderness is only for those who have expertise and experience. I have found that experienced hikers and campers can sometimes be jaded and no longer willing to be students of nature while people with less experience out of doors are often times hungrier to learn and therefore more open to allowing possibilities. Whether experienced or not, I enjoy most those who are willing to have "beginners mind", perhaps because that helps me to experience wilderness anew. I prefer a group that is balanced in gender and race and with a wide range of ages; but I have discovered that if the ranges are too great, the group will spend most of its time socializing and working to find common ground rather than experiencing wilderness. In my early years, I worked with many younger people mainly of high school and college age; as the years go by, I find myself dealing with groups of older participants, some as old as 75, with an average age of about 40.
If a wilderness experience is too rugged for the group or an individual they almost without exception retreat to habitual ways of coping and to known ways of dealing with stress, even if these are highly dysfunctional ways of coping. On the other hand if the trip is not rugged enough, groups stay with habitual styles of relating to self, others, and nature. I try to find the creative rugged edge for each group and individual within the group. Some trips I lead demand exceptional physical ability, while others are specifically for a group of physically challenged people. Most programs require only average physical ability, but above average psychological motivation.
The groups I lead now run between ten to sixteen in size, though respect for the selected wilderness ecosystem has a lot to do with determining numbers. Deserts, for example, generally require smaller groups and more low impact camping skills than most temperate forests. Most of my work ranges between one and two weeks, though with high school and college students, five week trips are best. The optimum length of the stay is that which allows people to achieve a certain feeling of belonging where we have come -- that we are not a stranger here. For this to happen, there should be enough time for individuals to undergo the "mid–course blues," a period of boredom and depression in which our romanticized idea of being in nature is worn down. Once the group has gone through this transition, interesting things begin to happen. We find that we no longer feel like outsiders or visitors; we feel at home in wild nature. This feeling has a lot to do with breaking down the emphasis on the stereotypic, Disneyland sense of "beauty." The look of the land often determines that response. Many tourists, for example, confronted by a scene that is "pretty as a picture," react to natural beauty by rushing for their cameras. But sight is only one of our senses. I try to encourage letting the wilderness in through all the senses: touch, hearing, smell, feel. Above all, I try to make the experience whole and honest. It must include what happens and what you feel when night falls, when the weather turns hot or cold or rainy, when the bugs come out, when the cute little rabbit you've been watching screams a death–call as it is whisked away in the talons of an eagle.
Wilderness is not only a carpet of flowers. Wilderness also includes mud, gray rainy days, animal-fouled water, dark, perilous forests, and deathly dangers. Take for an example the literal and metaphoric instance of mud and rain. Our culture constantly avoids mud and rain; vacation ads depict white clean beaches and sunny skies. When it rains, everyone scampers about crouched over as though water will dissolve them like Oz's Wicked Witch of the West. Our willingness to be in the mud and rain can reflect our willingness to be in our internal mud and rain. To be "in" mud and rain is more than just tolerance; it is awareness and sometimes active participation with our own "raininess" or "muddiness." True contact with wilderness requires more than just tolerance of muddy times. Wild nature requires nothing less than attentiveness to all that is if we desire to know its secrets. This is not to advocate looking for mud puddles, or taking vacations in rainy places, although at times that may not be a bad idea. I do advocate a willingness to be with and at times to become our dark, sometimes muddy, sometimes painful wild nature.
We can no longer fool ourselves and pretend to set ourselves outside of nature. To only observe and reflect on life is to set ourselves outside of life. We in effect isolate and split ourselves off from the experience and thus from a whole mode of knowing. Experience is the basis of human knowledge. To learn from wilderness we must be willing to enter the realm of direct experience. Direct experience of nature allows for direct feedback and direct interaction. We learn and transform as nature does--by experience.
Wilderness begins teaching as soon as we plan the adventure. We must decide what to take with us, and what to leave behind. A critical aspect of experiencing wilderness is the willingness to be simple. Simplicity is of the utmost importance when direct contact with nature is desired. Paradoxically, simplicity is not as easy as it sounds. The tools and techniques we choose to take into wilderness can dilute and drastically alter our direct experience with nature. An example of this would be the person who enters the wilderness with no more than a loin cloth. He or she will no doubt experience nature more directly than those who enter with their fully equipped RV. The person with only the loin cloth will at least learn real basic survival in his intimate contact with wilderness, while our friend in the RV has little or no contact, missing nearly all the experiential learning wilderness offers. I am not, of course, advocating loin cloths, but rather a realization that tools, both physical and psychological, can shelter and insulate us from the experience of wilderness. The ideal is to be with wilderness, not just visiting wilderness. So, we begin by questioning each tool we bring. We ask, "Do I need this, and how will it affect my experience?" and then walk the middle path.
A computer programmer I once worked with came to the first night meeting of a seven day trip with a pack full of the latest technical camping gadgets. He looked as though he had step from the pages of an outdoor equipment catalog. After a long talk about simplicity I convinced Dan to leave behind a good number of things. Even though the rest of the group members were carrying simple tarps he hung steadfastly to his new high tech cocoon like tent. As the trip progressed most of our group took to sleeping outside directly under the stars and the expansive night sky. Dan on the other hand put up his tent first thing at each camp and crawled into its protective walls only to emerge when necessary. Finally one full moon night the group gently urged him to try a night "out" exposed to elements. We slept that night in a circle with or heads to the center. Upon awakening the next morning Dan proceeded to share his delight in watching the moon travel the night sky. He continue to tell us about his life at work, surrounded and insulated from human contact by an array of the latest computer equipment. He saw that his life had become void of living things, to the point where he was afraid of almost any living contact. From that morning on not only did he engage with other group members more he took it upon himself to see what in his pack he could do without. On the last night he wanted to go the night without his sleeping bag. He stayed up much of the night feeding the fire and occasionally dosing off lying on the bare ground. Dan woke the group that morning with a howl of childish excitement and a sparkle in his eye. With his contagious excitement he talked the whole group into a early morning dip in the nearby icy cold stream. We walked to the trailhead that day energized and full of aliveness. Even though Dan clearly had the heaviest pack he definitely had the lightest load.


Upon entering wilderness one of the first things that almost everyone experiences is an enlivening of the five basic senses. Suddenly, we are bathed with and sometimes overloaded with new sounds, awesome sights, interesting textures, different smells and tastes. People frequently comment about the surprise and excitement they have in rediscovering their sensory experience. This rediscovery and awakening of our senses, or perhaps better stated, "coming to our senses," is a subtly powerful and underrated experience. People learn how greatly some of our basic modes of perception have been dulled in order to survive in the urban world. Many have been deadened or shut out of consciousness unnecessarily. As long as we remain unaware of the richness of our senses, we have little choice about what we sense, and thus our perception is censored by our deadened senses. I have seen this rebirth of sensory aliveness and keen alertness happen time and again in myself and others. Once this occurs, we can consciously choose, as well as expand, our modes of perception. When these fundamental senses are cultivated with practice and time they can be honed to a fine edge. They can be integrated into our everyday lives.
A "sense" that many people awaken in wilderness is the kinesthetic sense of the body. As we begin using our body in the biological environment it was created for, we rapidly develop coordination. Literally, our internal physical sense (kinesthetic awareness) begins to coordinate with the external physical environment (ecological awareness). It is my strong conviction that as we come to inhabit our bodies, we can better inhabit the land, and conversely, as we inhabit the land we can better inhabit our bodies.
With practice and patience, sensory awareness can be cultivated to a more focused awareness I call "attentiveness." In the wilderness environment we begin to develop a sustained continuum of awareness or mindfulness. This means that awareness is not necessarily focused on a single object, but rather on the stream of awareness itself. A journey through wilderness is in itself an awareness continuum. We are invited to observe with attentiveness what emerges around each bend of the trail, what unfolds before us over each hill. This does not mean that we have forgotten or lost the past (we can remember the trail out) or that we do not creatively drift into the future (we can speculate about the easiest, safest path to follow). We are instead attentively aware of wherever our awareness flows: the past, present, or future. In a sense, the means becomes the end and our journey becomes an unfolding process to which we become attentive.
Once, while visiting Kenya for four months, I had the opportunity to spend two weeks walking through the back country along the west rim of the Rift Valley. Previously, I had traveled in the United States where grizzly bear are a mild threat. This, however, was the first time I had traveled in an environment where I was potentially threatened by numerous animals. We encountered deadly poisonous snakes, avoided hippos near a river, and saw lion prints outside our tents in the morning. These, however, were not the major threat. Cape buffalo are less predictable and will charge when startled. We spent days walking through thick brush clapping loudly, then quietly listening, to let any unsuspecting buffalo know we were approaching. On a few occasions we saw the brush in front of us shake as we heard the thrashing and heavy rumble of hooves. At first, quite naturally, we were all on edge. Eventually the paranoia caused by danger dropped away and was replaced by a relaxed, attentive, keen alertness that seemed to permeate the entire group. While much of this aliveness stayed with me, I had never before or rarely since experienced such a quality and continuity of awareness.
The first step to change is awareness. Once we are aware of what is, we then have the choice of change. Shifts in awareness are many times, though not always, followed by a shift in behavior. Psychologist Fritz Perls felt that "awareness per se -- by and of itself -- can be curative." The cultivation of awareness is probably prerequisite to any real transformation that wilderness offers. We must, at some level, be aware of our experience if we are to gain from that experience. It may be that awareness is both the first and final lesson nature has to offer.

Issues of Gender

Wilderness, precisely because it is inevitably physical, raises deep questions about matters of gender that forms of therapy may easily avoid. Gender considerations are there from the very outset of the expedition. For example, early in a trip I frankly address women's menstrual cycle. I discuss how to deal with used sanitary napkins in an environmentally sound way. I note that the wilderness environment may change a woman's cycle, much to her surprise. I also observe that on extended trips women in the group, like women in tribal societies, may find themselves frequently synchronizing with each other in their periods. I am often amazed at how adults blush or make nervous jokes about this most basic and obvious biological difference between women and men. Typically the tendency is to deal with this topic in a secretive way, whispered among the women or is ignored completely as though it does not exist.
When the topic of gender differences comes up I often remember Mark. During college he had played football. The rigors of medical school and the demands of being a doctor had taken the youthful health he had known. When an older woman in our group caught and then passed Mark on a steep section of the trail he grew quietly angry. Even though I had cautioned everyone to "find their own pace" Mark was used to being "stronger" than women. It was a classic tortoise and the hare story, he charged ahead and then rested while her pace had been slow and steady. Mark ate a big slice of humble pie later that same day when the woman I was co-leading with took some of the weight from his pack. It was especially difficult because he had boasted our first night that he was willing to help any of the weaker hikers in our group, and not so subtly implying it might be the women. Mark went to bed early that night without hardly a word. The next morning as we went around the circle Mark talked about the attitude he carried about himself and the roles of men and women and then two of the women in our group expressed their anger at Mark's behavior our first night. This early incident set a tone and topic of discussion and awareness for the trip, and while no great solutions to the issues facing men and women were discovered, there was by the end a mutual caring for and appreciation of the differences between us.
Differences of physical size and stamina show up immediately and raise issues of gender roles. If the women in the group are smaller and less physically fit than men, or if the men are smaller and less physically fit than the women, this brings up any number of age old questions about the division of labor (e.g. if I carry more weight, will you set up the tent and cook). Frequently wilderness evokes the unacknowledged feminine or masculine side of a woman or man. Then, discussions that compare masculine and feminine values and ways of being arise as well as speculation about whether these are genetic or socially learned. I attempt to set a tone that acknowledges gender differences and at the same time challenges gender bound roles. Because there are differences in women and men, I prefer to work with a woman co-leader to balance any gender biases I might bring to the group.

Across the Threshold

The way of wilderness is transcultural. Shamans, mystics, and saints through the ages have gone into wilderness to find inspiration and vision. Lao Tzu and Buddha went into the forests, Jesus and Mohammed into the desert, Thoreau to Walden Pond. Each came back with their own story of what they found there. I suspect they have gone not only for solitude but because wilderness is liberating; it is a chance to begin again from the "uncarved block." In wild nature questions like, "Who am I?," emerge and demand larger, more profound answers than culture can possibly give. This in turn urges us to seek deeper, more creative answers which transcend all culture. And, there are those rare, usually brief, moments when it seems the universe, as it is, opens up to give an eternal glimpse of itself.
In all of the wilderness trips I lead I see wilderness as being our primary teacher. For this reason I consciously recognize and acknowledge through ritual the transitions or entry and exit into and from wilderness. Over the years I have experimented with many forms borrowed from many traditions and cultures. For example, at the trailhead I have asked group members to make offerings, or kneel and touch the ground, or to bathe in the water (a washing away of the old to be new again), or simply take a moment of silence together. On many trips I ask participants to drop their given names and find a "trail name" that comes from a dream, an aspiration or that better describes who they feel they really are. From that time on I often discourage talk about our professions and the "outside" world. The ritual I most often use is borrowed from Shinto religion. What I like about the Shinto perspective that offers balance to the typical western view is that they recognize rocks, trees, mountains, streams, the things of nature as having life or spirit. We do two big claps and one bow with palms together in front of the face. I like to think of the claps as a simple announcement first to nature that I am here to practice, to be aware, to be alive and then to myself and the group that I am here to practice. The act of bowing is potent and speaks for itself. We do this again at the end of each trip to acknowledge and thank nature, ourselves and our companions. Acknowledging transitions supports our being aware. At first any new ritual can feel contrived or empty of meaning and feeling. I encourage the people I work with to find their own traditions or rituals that have meaning to them and then to find a way to incorporate this practice into their daily life
The moment we step across the threshold and outside our usual cultural environment, our boundaries, blinders, and bonds begin to loosen. It is called "culture shock" among travelers, although it is perhaps better termed "expanding reality shock." It is the shock that reverberates through the whole body-mind system when suddenly we realize reality may be larger, or at least different, than our familiar scope. We are forced to give up old habits of attention and a radical shift in our paradigm is necessary to accommodate this expanding reality.
I have had chance to experience this shift and to observe groups of people make this shift as they enter wilderness. It is a shift that is made, to some degree, every time we enter an internal or external wilderness. Personally, I experience this as a feeling of strangeness: a dizzying nausea may cloud my head and stomach, and sometimes anxiety, fear and restlessness run through my body-mind. Doubts may arise and I might find myself questioning, "Why?"
As we continue our journey more deeply into wilderness we find even fundamental perceptions like time and space are radically challenged. Outside familiar cultural boundaries and within wilderness, there are noticeable and sometimes radical shifts in the perception of time and space. The technologically induced fast pace of life is slowed down to a more natural one. People commonly report a sense of "timelessness" when they are immersed in nature. Time becomes less linear and more cyclic. We experience simple things, such as day/night, the seasons and tides as more of a spiraling cycle than a linear progression. Space, instead of being measured in linear distance, is measured in experienced distance. Our culture–bound perception of these basic categories is so fundamental, that it is difficult to move away from them and to trust our own immediate experience. Yet, when we are able to transcend our culturally defined experience of time and space, a new and different world opens up.

Exploration and Play

As these opening occurs it is in exploration and play that we ride the cutting edge of change. It is the place where each moment is new and alive. While in the wilderness, the desire to explore is kindled in a profound manner. Each day can bring new environments, terrain, flora and fauna. In wilderness we have returned to the natural environment that evolved our curiosity. The regular pressures and pace of our normal lives are removed, so exploration can take on a creative, playful quality. We rediscover play for play's sake, something that is necessary for transformation and for true re-creation. Probably the major use of wilderness today is for recreational and leisure time activities. While much thoughtful work has been done in the area of recreational wilderness use and the benefits that follow, I feel we have lost the true sense of the word "recreation." Recreation is thought by many to be a "getting away from it all." While "getting away from it all" has its benefits, it is my view that play for play's sake is more of a "getting in it all." It is in the all-consuming aspect of play, where play is the means and the end, that we discover the creative aspect of ourselves.
Exploring wilderness, like transformation, is uncertain. It can be frightening, possibly painful, and exciting to step into the unknown, yet the future always brings the unknown with it. If we truly desire change in our lives we must be willing to consciously embrace the unknown. As explorers of unknown terrain, we must learn to walk with uncertainty by our sides. The creative edge then becomes, how do we incorporate the aliveness we feel exploring wilderness into our familiar environment of regular life? The spirit of exploration and play allows each moment and movement, even though intricately familiar, to become the wild, the unknown, new, and fresh.
In wilderness practice, there can be moments of serious emotional stress. I do not seek to elicit strong emotions, but if they emerge I work them. I trust the process of entering the wild, I encourage people to acknowledge and attend to whatever emerges, anger, fear, sadness, joy. The techniques I use are borrowed from many schools of psychology and cultures, although I lean toward Gestalt Practice and Buddhist styles of encouraging awareness. At check–in time, at the end of each day, I use an adapted "talking staff", with a group sitting in a circle to work with sharing thoughts, feelings and emotions. I feel it is important to emphasize that the techniques and exercise I use are secondary. I use them to support the primary goal of increasing awareness or our ability to listen to wild nature with the interest of moving toward wholeness.
I think often of Marcie, a mother of three, in transition as her last child was "leaving the nest," as she had put it. After years of taking care of her family she had come on this trip to do something completely different and for herself. Not long after we had started up the trail I noticed that Marcie was not with us. I told the group to take a rest and walked back down the trail and found her standing on a mildly steep section of the trail. She was shaking uncontrollably, gasping for shallow breaths yet frozen in place. Overwhelmed with fear of falling off the trail, she was what rock climbers call "gripped." While the hillside we stood on was steep, a person would have had to work at falling and it was far from being dangerous. Earlier in my career I would have tried to logically talk Marcie out of her fear (as though fear is logical) or I might have challenged her to be strong and over come it. Instead I supported her state with simply saying, "Your OK, let that happen." She burst into tears and began to shake even more. I encouraged her to allow the fear she was feeling rather than push it away. After some minutes of deep sobbing and attending to her feelings of fear she began to relate to her larger fear of feeling as though she was falling from the trail of the life she had know for so many years. Who was she, if not a mother with children to take care of? Once again, I encouraged her to enter into those feelings. After some time and more tears Marcie began to feel the earth beneath her feet, that indeed she was being supported by the trail. That gravity was holding her to the earth more than it was pulling her off. Slowly she shifted to seeing and feeling what was there rather than what was not or no longer there. Gradually Marcie began hiking up the trail to re-join our well rested group with a feeling of ease and trust in her body.

Natural Mirror

In the process of growth and transformation we must begin to reclaim and own the rejected, outcast parts of ourselves. Fritz Perls once said, "One of the most important responsibilities -- this is a very important transition -- is to take responsibility for our projections, re-identify with these projections, and become what we project." Let me put that as strongly as I can: the essence of wilderness practice is to be wilderness. The very idea that wilderness exists as something separate lets us know how much we have disowned of our internal as well as our external wildness. We must eventually integrate the wildness we have projected upon the land if we are to regain wholeness. Experience has shown me that in wilderness, because of our close experiential contact with nature, we gradually begin to reclaim whatever it is we have projected onto the natural world.
Primary cultures have long held traditions of becoming the "things" outside of themselves. In their rituals, celebrations, and rites of passage they become the "other": the animals, the plants, the rocks. They use dance, visualization, masks, costumes, and the like to help them fully embody the "other." Some primary peoples were so fully immersed in wilderness that apparently "wilderness" did not exist as a separate entity. An Okanagan Indian I met at a workshop once told me that in her language, there was no word for "wilderness." She thought one of the roots of our alienation lay in the very fact that we believed there was such a split in reality between the human world and wilderness. Thus, to step out of our limited definition of self and become these wild and natural things and to experience them is to give life to them and to those parts of ourselves. Paradoxically, in our sameness we are very different. And it is not until we have become these differences that we can truly contact, appreciate, and allow them. Our ability to allow and accept nature directly, as it is, reflects our ability to accept and allow ourselves to be who we are.
A specific projection that wilderness reflects back is the shadow. "Shadow" is used here not only in the Jungian sense of the word, but to include any "darkness" that is projected as well as what may be called the avoided figure.
Wilderness, through the history of civilized humans and possibly before, has been the object of projection for many a dark shadow. These include the primeval shadow that lurks in the darkness, the home of witches and unconquerable monsters, and the birth place of perilous, unknown dangers. As Rene Dubos notes, "The word wilderness occurs approximately three hundred times in the Bible, and all its meanings are derogatory." Deeply seeded in the psyche is the image of evil darkness in wilderness. While a healthy respect and caution regarding the "dark" wilderness may have helped to keep our ancestors alive, today we have become slaves to this fear of darkness to such a degree that we literally and metaphorically flinch at the sight of our own shadow. We run from darkness, seeking light.
It seems obvious that much of today's destructive behavior toward wilderness and toward shadows in general comes from having projected our disowned darkness on wilderness. As every psychotherapist since Freud has noted, it requires a vast amount of energy to repress and/or project the shadow. To go into wilderness is to face the shadow of wild nature at its roots, literally close to its origination. When we identify with our wilderness shadow, consume it, and assimilate it, we thereby re-own this vital and powerful energy.
Jan came from a business executive's life of living in large cities to a wilderness trip I was leading that entailed three days and nights out alone. While Jan had little experience in "outer" wilderness she had lots of experience in "inner" exploration and was quite skilled at working with herself. On the eve of the third and final night just before dark a king snake slithered through her lone camp. She had always been afraid of snakes and was not sure what to do as this was the only snake she had encountered outside of a zoo. As night moved in around her she found herself looking over her shoulder wondering if the snake might come back to get her. For the first time in her peaceful solitude anxiety and fear joined her. At first she tried to calm herself and think of other things. Jan quickly realized she was trying to push away the idea and feeling of the snake and possibly some part of herself. "I decided I must become the snake" as Jan told the story. "I fashioned a snake mask from bark and grass. I began, self consciously at first, moving and making sounds as a snake. I spent what felt like hours laying on the ground undulating and hissing. I shifted from thought to raw feeling and felt alive, sensuous, and on fire, all at once. I spoke as the snake to Jan. I told her she had deadened herself from her passion, from her ability to move with strength and sensuality." Jan returned to our group on the morning of the forth day sleepy yet full of vitality. As she recounted the story of her experience, to the amazement of the group, she performed another snake dance for everyone to witness. When she finished she jokingly promised to do a repeat performance on the table at her next board meeting. To this day the image brings a smile to my face.
Once the process of reclaiming our projected wilderness has been learned, we become less frightened to reclaim other shadows, our other disowned selves. I am convinced that wilderness provides a better environment for facing and re-owning our particular cultural shadows than any other environment available today.

The Wild in Wilderness

I would like to look more closely at our wild side. The instinctual self, which has its roots deep in the history of evolution, is our culture's shadow. It was perhaps necessary to leave much of our instinctual self behind as we grew older and evolved further. Yet we did not need to "throw out the baby with the bath water." It is not necessary to deaden ourselves in giving up our instinctual self. It is crucial that we reclaim our wildness because this is where vitality lives. Jung wrote of the need for elements of instinctive animal nature in the whole and healthy person. Hall and Nordby in their Primer of Jungian Psychology best summarize this:
The person who suppresses the animal side of his nature may become civilized, but he does so at the expense of decreasing the motive power for spontaneity, creativity, strong emotions, and deep insights. He cuts himself off from the wisdom of his instinctual nature, a wisdom that may be more profound than any learning or culture can provide.

It is no new idea that the instinctual self must be reclaimed and integrated. However, there is a vast difference between analyzing the instinctual self and experiencing it. Many psychologists, Jungians included, have been unwilling to step across this chasm into the realms of experiential becoming.
The very nature of wilderness calls forth the instinctive animal self. Using one's instinctual sense more, living closer to the basic survival needs of food and shelter, sitting gazing into the coals of a fire late at night: all these experiences allow the repressed instinctual self to emerge. As this "wild" uncultured self emerges in its many shapes and forms, we have the opportunity, through the wildness of wilderness, to investigate playfully and explore its realms. We can begin to discover where civilization and wildness intermesh and integrate. We see the truth in what Rene Dubos once said:
We do not live in the wilderness but we need it for our biological and psychological welfare. The experience of the quality of wildness in the wilderness helps us to recapture some of our own wildness and authenticity. Experiencing wildness in nature contributes to our self discovery and to the expression of our dormant potentialities.

Integrating our wildness or instinctual self is a dance of balance. In the "darkness" of wilderness, the necessity of preserving uncultivated, uncivilized, wild nature in ourselves and on the planet comes to light. Re-owning the "hair on our knuckles" and finding the balance between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is of utmost importance as we move toward greater wholeness. The poet Robert Bly speaks of our "wildman." He says, "Getting in touch with the wildman is in no way a step back: it means religious life for man in the broadest sense of the word."
In an environment close to the one in which we evolved we can recollect a time when we stalked others and were ourselves stalked and hunted. We can, like Jan did when she became the snake, at least in part, relive and regain the knowledge of our stages of evolution: as simple organisms in the primordial sea, as fish, as reptiles, as amphibians, as first mammals, as primates, as ancient humans. As we re-experience our forgotten primordial self we have the opportunity to catch experiential glimpses of the origin of the primordial images, the archetypes. We learn that we have within our grasp an incredible amount of inner resources and the capability of reclaiming a primordial wisdom.

Wholeness and Holiness

The awareness of ourselves, our environment and the relationship between them, or simply the awareness of our expanded Self, is the experience of wholeness. We must even re-own our incompleteness if we are to become whole again. The experience of wholeness, however brief, is perhaps the most healing experience available to us. The word "whole" comes from the same origin as the word "holy." When we experience wholeness we experience holiness in the broadest spiritual sense of the word. They are one and the same.
On a two-month canoe trip across the Northwest Territories of Canada, I was blessed with such an experience. Near the end of a long day of paddling the sun was low in the sky and my mind had long ceased its normal chatter. I had the sensation of becoming my paddling and all that was around me. Stroke after stroke I was called to merge with my experience until "I" was no more. Only perception existed, a perception that was more complete, more whole than any I know in a usual state of consciousness.
Wilderness is the natural expression of an uninterrupted, unaltered, holistic environment. To live in and experience a holistic environment is synonymous with living in and experiencing holiness. It can become a spiritual experience in which all is sacred. William Blake described this holistic spiritual experience when he said, "To see a world in a grain of sand/And heaven in a wildflower.

Bringing It Back Home

A potent wilderness journey can be lost in a few moment or days, brushed off saying "I've got to go back to the real world now". The experience is suddenly discounted as though the wild natural world is not real. Wilderness becomes even more objectified, a thrilling adventure vacation that is retained in photos that find their way to a shoe box in a closet and nothing more. For those who work with wilderness, whether as therapy or as practice, the greatest challenge is bringing it all back home. How can we find this same sense of sacredness in everyday life? The real work of a wilderness experience begins when we return. Like any powerful personal transformation, the awesome and many times overwhelming experience of wilderness can be difficult to incorporate successfully into our daily life. We emerge from wilderness changed. At some core level we feel deeply touched. Still, in the peacefulness we so often feel, there is also confusion or profound sadness. For we have seen dynamic balance. We have felt the meaning of wholeness and holiness. We have experienced parts of ourselves and parts of the universe that have been long forgotten. Upon emergence from wilderness we are confronted with the inconsistencies with which we live and notice more than ever before how drastically out of balance we live. Many return to a great sense of loss or pain in how we have divided our lives. This schism is felt deeply and can make living our "regular" life very difficult. We can feel as though we have fallen from grace.
Frequently people make changes in lifestyle that more accurately reflect what they feel to be in balance. Some are encouraged to environmental activism in the political sense many are inspired toward actively engaging with the whole environment they live in (relationship to self, others and the world). Whenever possible I like to have a series of follow-up meetings in which group members come together to support each other, and tell their stories of joy and despair, of struggle and success in incorporating wild nature into who we are and how we live.
We must be willing to bring back from wilderness more than ideas and philosophies. Again, we can look to the example of the natural world to see that plants and animals must practice their lifestyle. It would do little good for a plant or animal only to know theories about the niches it fills or where on the food chain it is. It is the lifelong practice, the active living and being what it knows, that keeps it alive. It is in practice and embodiment of what we discover that we humans find integration. The example of nature is that life is to be lived, to be experienced. Otherwise, if we are not able to incorporate what we have learned in a real and practical way, why go in the first place? Can we afford another faddish thrill of excitement? Poet and farmer Wendell Berry feels it is not enough to ask, "What can I do with what I know? without at the same time asking, How can I be responsible for what I know?"
We must individually and collectively come to both of these answers and realize we can make responsible choices. For too long we have only asked, What can we do with what we know? This limited questioning has us up against the proverbial wall--politically, economically and ecologically. The world situation is demanding we become responsible for what we know. It seems we must begin individually to come to these answers if we are collectively to come to any real and practical solutions. Following the example I see in nature, as we each come to transformation in our own way we will also come to action in an equally individual and unique way. I suspect that useful answers and action will come at the personal, local, small scale level and there will be few if any large scale responses that promote healing.
As we begin to practice what we have learned, we see that nature is everywhere and that we really may not need to go to physical wilderness to experience wild nature. There are a multitude of paths and techniques, both ancient and new. There are as many ways to re-enter as there are people. I recommend almost any practice, that includes the body, that encourages awareness, that can be done out-of-doors occasionally. Among those I recommend are some movement arts (Aikido, Tai Chi, dance, yoga), many meditation styles (Vipassana, Zen), some psychological practices, and many practices that come to us from traditional cultures (ceremony, chanting, drumming).
Over the years I have found myself, more often than not, recommending gardening to workshop participants that seek ways of staying connected outside of the wilderness environment. When practiced in a sustainable way, gardening and farming are activities in which people and wild nature intermesh and begin to co-evolve. Human contact with nature in the form of gardening can give us some deep insights into how we can physically, mentally and spiritually find creative balance between wild nature and human nature. Gardening at its best is a mutual nurturing that involves our body and when done well our spirit. It gets us involved with and responsible for one of the most basic cycles of energy that directly sustains our life. Best of all we get our hands dirty and our bodies sweaty. It is a giving to the earth as well as a receiving from the earth. It can be the physical embodiment of symbiosis and co-evolution, the "ground" in which we practice what we've learned in wilderness. Ultimately, of course, our whole life is our practice
When we are touched deeply we give deeply and a thousand ways to express gratitude spring forth. True giving arises naturally and without effort, not from a feeling of guilt or an environmentally correct "should," but instead a moving toward balance and wholeness. When we care for and nurture the earth in this way we can begin to re-inhabit the land on which we live. As we learn to give to and nurture ourselves we unfold the ability to freely give to and nurture our earth. Equally and conversely so, we can only re-inhabit ourselves when we've begun to re-inhabit the earth. We are part of a circular, spiraling dance in which every part feeds the others and the whole.
Like the tightrope walker who is never fixed, always in movement, yet stable, we must find our stability in the balance of constant adaptive movements. As we look to nature we see that organisms that are stable are those which are able to adapt to the changing environment and still maintain enough consistency to benefit from their form. In other words, we seek a balance between too much change and too little change. Individually and collectively, we also need to balance between rational and non–rational modes of knowing, between "technological" and "natural" modes of human life support, and apparent simplicity and complexity. As we dance towards this elusive balance and wholeness, sometimes gracefully most times not, I find myself with hope, touched by the beauty of life. I feel we can achieve a true symbiosis between humans and nature.
At the end of The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin stated, "From so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved." Perhaps through direct experience of nature we will continue this "most beautiful and most wonderful" evolution consciously, as nature aware of itself.

copyright Steven Harper

If you are interested in the book edited by Ted Roszak and published by Sierra Club Books click here: Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind