Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Transcendence through wilderness experience and meditation in western urban society

To rise from the meditation cushion or emerge from the wilderness, having touched an alternative reality, gained new insight or a profound sense of peace, is to understand the transformation that can result from a transcendent experience. This essay briefly outlines some perspectives on altered states of consciousness, and discusses the role of meditation and wilderness experience in achieving trance and states of ecstasy. Possible outcomes of these experiences are explored, as well as the role that meditation and wilderness experience can play in liminality. The conclusion is drawn that transcendent experiences from wilderness encounters and meditation have an important place in today’s western urban society. They can assist in dealing with the stress of everyday life, facilitate a sense of connection with self and ‘other’, and aid transition through a liminal stage to achieve personal growth and healing.

There are many definitions of an altered state of consciousness. Winkelman (1997, pp. 393-394) argues that across cultures there is a universal biological basis, whereby physiology and consciousness are altered in similar ways by different techniques which induce a state of “parasympathetic dominance” in which “slow wave patterns” dominate the frontal cortex. Ludwig (1966, p. 225) defines an altered state of consciousness as “…a sufficient deviation in subjective experience or psychological functioning…” from the normal waking consciousness of an individual. Hume (2007, p. 10) views a transcendent experience as one that “… becomes a reality…” as opposed to simply an exercise of the imagination. As everyday reality is perceived primarily through the senses, alternative realities can be accessed by working the senses using different techniques, resulting in a “…paradigm shift in perception.” (Hume 2007, p.1) An alternative definition might therefore be an experience of “going beyond” what we know with our physical senses to “know” things in a different realm or in a different way.

In reviewing transcendence achieved through wilderness experience, Heintzman (2009, p. 73) argues that there is a strong correlation between wilderness contact and “spiritual well-being”, despite the relationship between the two being complex and based on many factors. Psychological research supports the link between wilderness contact and healing, including increased relaxation, physical fitness, self-esteem, hardiness, flow, trust and sense of community (Davis 2003, pp. 9-10). Studies also show that transcendental experiences of tranquility and peacefulness may result from wilderness encounters, and may be followed over time by attitudinal and behavioural changes (Heintzman 2009, p. 75). Abram (1997, pp. 192-194) describes a transcendent experience of being in a cave and witnessing spiders spinning webs. He was so entranced by this activity that sounds and other stimuli around him disappeared. Following this experience he was left with a profound knowledge and altered view of the world through the eyes of other creatures and “non-human” entities. Abram (1997, p. 194) describes such an experience as a “…reverberation that temporarily shatters habitual ways of seeing and feeling, leaving one open to a world all alive, awake, and aware.” However, he conceded that is was difficult to maintain this ecstatic experience once he returned to his home in modern, urban America (Abram 1997, pp. 197-199).

Greenway (1995, p. 186) argues that the primary outcome of the transcendent experience of wilderness should be a shift away from “dualism”. He sees dualism at the heart of our Western thinking, which views the world divided into opposites such as good and bad, mind and body, human and non-human, resulting in a sense of disconnection. Greenway (1995, pp. 189-90) believes healing occurs in the wilderness when we recognize the concept of our separation from nature as no longer a reality, but as an “interesting idea” that we engage in to participate in society as we know it. He initially noted participants in his wilderness programs experienced distress when attempting to re-enter their normal lives and were returning to a sense of dislocation. This led Greenway to incorporate meditation into the process, noting that both wilderness experience and meditation are about the “reclamation of awareness” (1995, p. 192). Wilderness experience and meditation may therefore be useful for achieving a sense of awareness, connection and healing which may, with time and practice, carry over into ordinary waking states.

During meditation, Winkelman (1997, pp. 399-400) argues that changes in brain and body function, such as reduced cortical arousal, muscle tension, cardiac function and respiration, result in a shift to parasympathetic dominance. These slow wave states have been found to be optimal brain conditions for learning, memory, attention and self-realisation. They also lead to increased physiological and psychological well-being, including relaxation, reduced tension and anxiety, and improved access to unconscious information via different cognitive processes (Winkelman 1997, p. 405). Hume (2007, p. 13) notes that our sympathetic nervous system, the fight or flight response, can be overloaded for prolonged periods of time in modern society, and that triggering the parasympathetic response reduces the stress produced by this overload. Thus, the physical properties of meditation may be useful for healing both physically and psychologically.

Additional to the physiological benefits of meditation, Austin (1998, p. 12) argues that during meditation, humans can gain insight that “strikes as a fact of experience”. This “awakening” occurs because the human brain undergoes significant changes, and continued practice can lead to ongoing transformation in the brain. The aim of many forms of meditation includes developing deep insight into the nature of mental processes, consciousness, identity and reality (Winkelman 1997, pp. 415-416). Through meditation, it may be possible to progress through a range of “levels of consciousness” from disillusion to increased understanding and an awareness of the true nature of self and reality. In this view, ordinary waking states are seen as suboptimal and distorted, and are identified with the ego and with mindless, unconscious identification with self, thought and behavior. Ultimately by “unlearning” this conditioning, and retraining the attention and perception, it is possible to experience the self as pure awareness. The practitioner may experience new realities, learning to know and see in a new way. As a result, a solution to a previously unsolvable problem or a pathway through a previous impasse may become apparent.

An important application for wilderness experience and meditation may be in assisting members of western society through the transitional or “liminal” phases of life, such as mid-life, marriage, divorce or career change. Turner (2008, p. 327) describes three phases of ritual experience, including separation, liminal and reaggregation. The liminal phase is “ambiguous” as the person has left behind their old self and ways of being, but has not yet reached the new state. Lewis (2008, p. 117) notes that there is little support in western culture for people going through the liminal phase, whereas in indigenous cultures there is context and support provided by family, mentors and rituals. Transitions in western cultures can be times of great disorientation and distress, as the identity is being reformed. Davis (2003, pp. 6-9) utilises a five-stage wilderness rite of passage, including preparation, severance, threshold, return and implementation. He claims that the threshold phase is best undertaken in an environment removed from everyday life, and that nature provides both the “support and challenge” required to test and confirm the transition. A transcendent wilderness or meditation experience may therefore assist people in transition phases of life to emerge with fresh insight and skills necessary for their new identity.

Ludwig (1996, p. 231) states that altered states of consciousness “…satisfy many needs both for man and society”. They may assist to see the world in new ways, experience feelings of connection to self and others, including non-human entities, experience feelings of peace and tranquility, and heal physically and psychologically. Perhaps most importantly, they may assist in transition phases of life, for which there is little context or support in western society. To emerge from the wilderness reborn, to have gone into the place of liminality and grown through, to have gone to the meditation cushion stressed in body and troubled in mind, to rise into a new reality and be changed by the “knowing”, are some of the reasons why trance and ecstatic experience are important in today’s modern urban society.


Abram, D 1997, Spell of the Sensuous: perception and language in a more-than-human world, Vintage Books, New York, pp. 174-201.

Austin, JH 1998, Zen and the Brain: Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge.

Davis, J 2003, ‘Wilderness Rites of Passage: Initiation, Growth, and Healing’, Naropa University and School of Lost Borders, Naropa.

Greenway, R 1995, ‘Healing by the Wilderness Experience’, in D Rothenberg (ed.), Wild Ideas, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, pp. 182-193.

Heintzman, P 2009, ‘Nature-Based Recreation and Spirituality: A Complex Relationship’, Leisure Sciences, vol. 32, no. 1, pp. 72-89.

Hume, L 2007, Portals: Opening Doorways to Other Realities through the Senses, Berg Publishers, Oxford, pp. 1-24.

Lewis, SE 2008, ‘Ayahuasca and Spiritual Crisis: Liminality as Space for Personal Growth’, Anthropology of Consciousness, vol. 19, no.2, pp. 109-133.

Ludwig, AM 1966, ‘Altered States of Consciousness’, Archives of General Psychiatry, vol, 15, no. 3, pp. 225-234.

Turner, V 2008, ‘Liminality and Communitas’, in M Lambek (ed.), A Reader in the Anthropology of Religion, 2nd edn, Blackwell Publishing, Malden MA, pp. 326-339.

Winkelman, M 1997, ‘Altered States of Consciousness and Religious Behaviour’, in S Blazier (ed.), Anthropology of Religion, Greenwood Press, Conneticut, pp. 393-428.

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