Thursday, June 2, 2011

Into the Wild. Wilderness Experiences: Returning to the fundamentals of nature

Into the Wild
Wilderness Experiences: Returning to the fundamentals of nature
Sophia Andes
Nature is an essential and inherent property intrinsic to the continuation of humanity.  Positive wilderness experiences eventuate in a realisation of these elementary origins.  Nature is the fundamental element from which humanity is created, continuously evolving from and finally returned to in death.  Western societies are increasingly removing themselves from natural elements and are instead encompassed by mechanical contraptions, high-rise infrastructure and machines that purge toxic fumes into the air.  This overtly manufactured era has developed a distinct divide between humanity and the natural realm.  The enlightened perceptions generated by wilderness experiences are considered an essential progression towards restoring environmental value and self connection to nature.   This essay is an analysis of the effects pertaining to wilderness experiences for generating human health, wellbeing and transformation of both self and our values towards the environment.  This essay explores the connection to natural religious values and discusses how wilderness experiences inspire spiritual properties.  Finally this essay aims to address why Western society has disconnected itself from nature and will argue that wilderness experiences inspire the return of humanity’s intrinsic desire to reconnect with the divine forces of nature.

Positive wilderness experiences directly correlate with the environmentally conscious ethics, values and spirituality of nature religions.  A wilderness experience is defined as an encounter where an individual is immersed in natural surroundings and typically experiences enlightened feelings of peace, realisations of fundamental personal values and a deepened understanding one’s spiritual connection with the Earth (Powch 1994: 11).  It is to be noted that wilderness experiences are not necessarily religious experiences, yet can eventuate in, produce and inspire spiritual awakening and promote environmental awareness.  Wilderness experiences correlate with the values and beliefs of nature religions and the foundational elements of indigenous cultures and tribal spirituality.  Natural religious values are described as an inherent continuity between “the natural and the divine, earth and heaven” (Fern 2002: 106) and encourage a “holistic relationship among all created beings” in nature (Chamberlain 2008: 5).  Wilderness experiences typically occur in remote wilderness areas and promote holistic relationships between humans and the natural environment.  The relatively new term “wilderness is a Western concept” and evolved due to increased urban development that greatly minimised “large areas of uninhabited land containing native plant and animal communities relatively unaltered or unaffected by human society” (McDonald, Pointing, & Wearing 2009: 371).  The destructive mentality of the West directly contrasts how traditional indigenous cultures fundamentally exist in accordance with the wilderness, responding and adapting to the change of season, and seeking never to harm the land they live upon.  Out of respect and awe, indigenous cultures worship the land that sustains them and their idea of personhood “extends beyond human beings to include God, ancestors, other spirits and animals, plants, rocks, clouds, and more” (Cox 2007: 59).  Generally, the West’s notion of personhood and importance of all living organisms become aligned to the values of tribal cultures in the event of enlightened wilderness experiences.  Wilderness experiences generally transform our westernised notions of the Earth towards the positive connections that nature religions and indigenous spiritualities portray.   

Western cultures have developed a dualistic mentality towards nature as opposed to the holistically inclusive relationship that wilderness experiences inspire.  In contrast to the respective attitudes, ethics and values that nature religions have towards the environment, the general western mentality is to treat nature as a commodity to be sold for the highest price.   This dualistic mentality transforms nature from an intrinsic and crucial element into an unconnected, disrespected and insignificant constituent of human life (McCormack, Nairn, & Panelli 2003: 12).  The wilderness experience is regarded as a means to reconnecting this dualistic division.  Greenway indicates that the modern trend of reliance upon and improvisation of machinery makes it “relatively easy to assign natural systems to an inferior status, something to objectify, study, master, conquer, exploit – or destroy” (2005: 186).  Respect for the environment has been replaced by a dominate will to control and manipulate nature into a subordinate element from which we destroy via littering, excessive manufacturing, mass-production of food and animal products and numerous others modes of negligent destruction.  It is via this destructive attitude towards nature that humanity becomes disconnected from their wellbeing and separated from their core values to protect rather than to destroy.  Greenway argues that in order to reconnect entirely with nature, the thought process of hierarchy and dualism must be altered.  “If the wilderness experience is to transform, one must enter it openly and fully psychologically; one must be able to loosen the dualistic processing of the culture and find communion with – as opposed to projection onto - the realm of natural processes” (1995: 187-188).  Reconnection and regeneration of self requires a reunion with the holistic community encompassed by nature.  Wilderness experiences are traditionally viewed to counteract our destructive notions and return the incentive for humans to treat the Earth with renewed respect. 

Chamberlain (2008: 4-6) outlines that people’s understanding of nature as an important aspect of their lives is reinforced when people realise that they have become disconnected from nature.  Wilderness experiences inspire a reconnection to nature and encourage a transformation from the destructive hierarchical attitude of the West into an awakened awareness of the natural equilibrium.  Wilderness experiences possess the ability to transform perceptions of environmental values into a fundamental importance within our lives.  The notion of an enlightened environmental awareness is connected to a transition from prioritised self valuation over the environment into the environment becoming the contention of a collective “moral dimension” (Millais 2006: 1).  The importance of retaining a holistic relationship with the environment is realised due to the diminishing health of the environment that sustains our world.  Wilderness experiences enlighten the West to admit that due to destructive human tendencies, wilderness and nature are a rapidly diminishing factor within our daily lives.  Greenway supports this notion and states that “to advocate the wilderness experience as an essential ground of healing is to advocate an experience of decreasing availability” (1995: 183).  The wish to reintegrate the self into natural environments produces the realisation that contemporary westernised values of utilising the environment for financial gain are not supportive to our founding needs as children of nature. 
Humans are a part of nature.  When we connect deeply with our body and with nature we experience a sense of genuine wholeness which moves us towards greater integration emotionally and spiritually and leads us naturally to act in certain ways towards others and the environment we live in. (Greenwood 2005: 39)
The realisation that nature provides beneficial and essential qualities to humanity emphasises the notion that nature is of fundamental importance to our lives.  “From this perspective, Western civilisation is not corroding but is coming full circle.  It is returning to retrieve something it discarded along the way” (Burton 2002: 7).  The West discarded the fundamental human value of nature, being that the spirituality and continuation of life pertaining to nature is currently confined to be realised through wilderness experiences.  Thus the realisation of humanity’s mistaken self removal from the holistic relationship with nature is the beginning to understanding why the reconnection to nature instigated by wilderness experiences is a return to the natural and divine path. 

Nature and religion are fundamentally connected in creation stories of human origin and thus constitutes reason for spirituality to be of transcendent importance within all forms of wilderness experiences and in life.  A wilderness experience is not necessarily the result of particularly appealing biophysical attributes yet is instead the “positive interpersonal interactions” (Anderson & Fredrickson 1999: 35) that people discover in nature.   The phenomenon of connecting spiritually with nature’s properties inspires the concept that nature is more than a mere element pertaining to spiritual experience: Instead nature is an all-encompassing spiritual manifestation of life.  Wilderness experiences inspire the “regeneration and revitalisation of ancient earth-based ways of knowing [...] and nature as a spiritual source” (Albanese 1991: 27).  In association with the astounding realisation of the existent natural beauty of undeveloped natural scenery, “wilderness settings provide a mix of aesthetic pleasure and renewal that can lead to a triggering of peak experiences that provides the basis for individual spiritual expression” (McDonald, Pointing & Wearing 2009: 370).  The concept of “peak experiences” was devised by Abraham Maslow who argues the following;
“Peak-experience conveys the parameters of existence.  The self is affirmed absolutely and freely; the world is perceived as ideal potential and in harmony with itself and with the individual; the products of the human spirit – science, art, culture, religion – are integrated into the total framework of nature and the wider experience of life as a whole” (Breslauer 1976: 54).
The notion of spiritual expression realised in peak experiences includes concepts of self-realisation, empowerment, enlightenment and connection to self valuation (Rymarz & Souza 2007).  Knowing that peak experiences are triggered by wilderness experiences supports the confirmation that self value and spiritual expression are encompassed in nature. 

The eventuated forms of improved human health, wellbeing, transformation of self and spiritual expression are argued to pertain solely to wilderness experiences.  In support of this, research conducted by Anderson & Fredrickson in 1999 analysing people’s experiences in the wilderness of the Grand Canyon resulted in the following conclusion that spirituality when encountered via wilderness experiences is defined and separated to other forms of spirituality.  It needs to be considered that there are dynamic relationships that eventuate from solely from wilderness experiences. 
“There are measurable benefits that can occur from this experience, such as an improvement in personal development, therapeutic/healing, physical health, spiritual well-being, and self-sufficiency. Wilderness can facilitate meaningful changes in one's psychological well-being, benefiting the user through an improvement in their psychological condition [...] also creating notions of connection with nature that humans aspire to” (Duncan 1998).
The spiritual experiences of the participants reconstructed their views of the wilderness in ways that led to their belief of nature as a powerful, transformative, healing and sacred element of life.  The spiritual sense was described by participants as “beyond words, or more accurately, that words simply could not adequately capture what it was when they were fully experiencing their own spirituality” (Anderson & Fredrickson 1999: 34).  The notion of an indescribable positive spirituality of the wilderness experience affirms that “nature provides the best of both support and challenge to test the participant and to confirm his or her transition” (Davis 2003).  Furthermore, the notion that nature inspires these transitions presents the argument of nature being the sole environment in which these particular forms of spiritual expression can be realised.  Anderson and Fredrickson’s research indicated that their research “seems to indicate that there is a certain ineffability and intangibility that marks or delineates those experiences that are more ‘spiritual’ in nature, as opposed to those that are more ordinary” (1999: 34).  Nature is the element from which human are created and without nature humanity would cease to exist.

In conclusion, it is from natural resources that humanity has evolved from, survives on and adapts to and therefore what human life must always return to.  The wilderness experience is a modem for achieving a reconnection with nature.  The wilderness has traditionally been a setting in which transitions could be engaged, explored, and deepened.  The emerging shift in cultural values regarding nature emphasises that Western society is rediscovering the value of the environment within their daily lives.  This coexistent relationship of nature and humanity is a portrayal of the ideals and perspectives that the wilderness experience introduces to the adversely different thought processes of contemporary Western society.  The progression towards protecting the environment is encouraged by our realised spiritual connection to the Earth.  Therefore, wilderness experiences are not only encouraging processes that are beneficial to human wellbeing, yet are also inspiring the West to protect the wellbeing and life of the environment. 

Works Cited
Albanese, C 1991, Nature religion in America: From the Algonkian Indians to the New Age, Chicago University Press, Chicago.
Anderson, DH & Fredrickson, LM 1999, ‘A Qualitative Exploration of the Wilderness Experience as a source of Spiritual Inspiration’, Journal of Environmental Psychology, vol. 19, no. 1, pp. 21-39, viewed 31 May 2011, <>.
Breslauer, SD 1976, ‘Abraham Maslow’s Category of Peak-Experience and the Theological Critique of Religion’,  Review of Religious Research, vol. 18, no. 1, pp. 53-61, viewed 1 June 2011, <>
Burton, L 2002, Worship and Wilderness: Culture, Religion and Law in Management of Public Lands and Resources, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison.
Chamberlain, GL 2008, Troubled Waters.  Religion, Ethics, and the Global Water Crisis, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc, Lanham, Maryland.
Cox, JL 2007, From Primitive to Indigenous: The Academic Study of Indigenous Religions, Ashgate Press, Aldershot, England.
Davis, J 2003, Wilderness Rites of Passage: Healing, Growth, and Initiation, Naropa University and The School of Lost Borders, viewed 31 May 2011, <>.
Fern, RL 2002, Nature, God and Humanity.  Envisioning an Ethics of Nature, University of Cambridge Press, Cambridge, UK.
Greenway, R 1995, ‘Healing by the Wilderness Experience’, in D Rothenberg (ed.), Wild Ideas, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, pp.182-193.
Greenwood, S 2005, The Nature of Magic.  An Anthropology of Consciousness, Berg Publishers, New York.
McCormack, J, Nairn, K & Panelli, R 2003, ‘Destabilising Dualism: Young People’s Experiences of Rural and Urban Environments’, Childhood, vol. 10, no. 1, pp. 9-42, viewed 31 May 2011, <>.
McDonald, MG, Pointing, J & Wearing, S 2009, 'The Nature of Peak Experience in Wilderness', The Humanistic Psychologist, vol. 37, no. 4, pp. 370-385, viewed 31 May 2011, <>.
Millais, C 2006, ‘Global Warming’, The Religion Report, 6 December, p.1, viewed 31 May 2011, <>.
Powch, IG 1994, ‘Wilderness Therapy.  What makes it empowering for women?’, Women and Therapy, vol. 15, no. 3, pp. 11-27, viewed 22 May 2011, <>.
Rymarz, R & Souza, M.D 2007, ‘The role of cultural and spiritual expressions in affirming a sense of self, place, and purpose among young, urban, Indigenous Australians’, The International Journal of Children’s Spirituality, vol. 12, no. 3, pp. 277-288, viewed 2 June 2011, <>.

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